In the seventeen years from 1994 to 2011, I did almost no gaming. (If memory serves, I DM’d three sessions of D&D and played in one.) However, I did plenty of writing – mostly for AD&D 2e, Call of Cthulhu and Skyrealms of Jorune. I filled several ring binders with maps and notes for campaigns I knew I was unlikely ever to run. Why? Well, just because I find the whole world-building aspect of being a GM fun, relaxing and therapeutic.
One of the ideas I had during that time was a Vikings-versus-Cthulhu weird sword-and-sorcery campaign (a bit like Beedo’s Black City only nowhere near as cool or imaginative), for which I planned to use a simple mashup of rules from Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu*. (The working title was “Storm of Cthulhu”. Obviously.) However, that idea never really got off the blocks. I thought about it again when the BRP Big Gold Book came out, but I had too many irons in the fire at that time. Now Magic World has got me thinking again about campaigns I’d like to run.
Magic World is a strange beast in some ways. It’s not a BRP supplement, it’s a standalone game, but it’s been cobbled together, Frankenstein-style, from earlier Chaosium publications – primarily Elric! and its supplements The Bronze Grimoire and Sailing on the Seas of Fate. (The editor is Ben “Zomben” Monroe, but the book is credited and dedicated to the late Lynn Willis, who was responsible for Elric! and so much more.) All the Moorcockisms have been scrubbed off, leaving a fairly generic fantasy iteration of the venerable BRP system. A default setting, “The Southern Reaches”, is provided, with 18 pages of background info and a fold-out map. It has a kind of “Celtic Tolkien” flavour, but it doesn’t really grab me.
In terms of complexity, Magic World – like Elric!/Stormbringer - sits pleasingly in the middle ground: more detailed than Call of Cthulhu but less crunchy than RuneQuest. If you’ve ever played a BRP-based game, you know the drill: STR, CON, SIZ, INT, POW, DEX, APP, Hit Points, Magic Points, pick an occupation (Bandit, Beggar, Mercenary, Merchant, Sailor, Sorcerer, etc.) and assign points to skills. You need POW 16+ to cast spells, of which about ninety are described. (Many more are planned for a supplement, Advanced Sorcery.) Hit locations are out; random armour protection and major wounds are in. Allegiance rules (the BRP equivalent of alignment) are an option. Seventy monsters are included – mostly the usual fantasy suspects, but with a few entertaining interlopers from folklore and literature: the fachan, jabberwock, stoorworm, etc. There’s also a 20-page chapter on seafaring, which mercifully concentrates on the hazards of waterborne travel (storms, monsters, sea-sickness, getting lost, availability of food and water, etc.) rather than overly wargame-y rules for naval combat. What’s not to like about a game that has a full-page (and eminently customisable) “Sailing Fumble Table”, which – if you’re unlucky – might direct you to roll on the nearby “Ship Disaster Table”?
I could easily see this set of rules being used in conjunction with Call of Cthulhu for a “Storm of Cthulhu” campaign. Not that I intend to write such a thing any more, because Beedo’s already done it (better) in D&D-speak and hopefully the Black City will see print one day. Alternatively, I think Magic World plus Call of Cthulhu would make a decent platform for sword-and-sorcery gaming in a prehistoric, Robert E. Howard or (especially) Clark Ashton Smith-style setting. A percentile equivalent of Crypts & Things or Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, if you will.
Which brings me to Mu.
Aye, I know it’s probably bad form to suggest using the winning post from the recent Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day blogfest with a different system entirely. But I’ve spoken before about the modularity and, hence, adaptability of BRP, and I can think of no easier or better way to conjure up some crazy-awesome sword-and-sanity roleplaying than using a solid fantasy engine like Magic World and souping it up with bits bolted on from the boss of all Lovecraftian SAN-shatterers, Call of Cthulhu. Hell, you’ve got your Ghatanothoa stats right there.
Speaking of adaptability, I recently acquired a copy of Empire of the Petal Throne (the Different Worlds “pink book” edition from 1987) courtesy of one of my players – thanks, Stuart! – and it occurs to me that, with a little bit of effort, one could run a game set in Tékumel using Magic World and it ought to work quite nicely.
I might have more to say about the mechanics and presentation of Magic World in future posts. For now, the game has inspired me to think about ways I might want to use it. Most likely few, if any, of these ideas will ever progress beyond the stage of “what if?” But just thinking about this stuff is fun. And I genuinely hope that someone picks up the Magic World Mu campaign concept (“Mu-gic World”, anyone?) and runs with it. Let me know if you do.
*This was before the publication of Cthulhu Dark Ages, which I still don’t own in any case.
So, I got a print copy of Chaosium’s new BRP book, Magic World, in the post yesterday. It’s a fairly chunky tome, 260-odd pages in length, much like last year’s Mythic Iceland. Speaking of which…
Is it just me, or is the tattooed giant on the cover of Magic World in exactly the same fighting pose as the King of Bears on Mythic Iceland? What’s that all about? Coincidence? Surrounded and beset by three adventurers, the huge brute roars in defiance, raises its left paw/fist and takes a furious swipe with its right. The right paw/fist connects with and destroys a shield/something else (I can’t make out what the giant has smashed). The giant’s topknot even mirrors the bear’s horn somewhat. How odd.
More thoughts on Magic World when I’ve read and digested it properly.
At the age of six or seven, I was (as all small boys – and indeed everyone else – ought to be) obsessed with dinosaurs. I remember being allowed to stay up past my bedtime because there was a film on the telly I wanted to watch called One Million Years B.C. Even at that age, I knew that dinosaurs had died out approximately 64 million years before that, but I must have seen an advert or something because I knew there were dinosaurs in the film. There was also, famously, a fur bikini-clad Raquel Welch, but that held no great interest for the young me. The frisky, tail-thrashing allosaurus, however, enthralled and amazed me. Later I learned that the man who breathed life into that dinosaur was stop-motion supremo Ray Harryhausen, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92.
Long before I read Tolkien or Lovecraft, Eddison or Moorcock, I learned to love legends and myths, monsters and magic, through Harryhausen films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. When my friends and I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, these wonderful films influenced our games much more than the classic pulp fantasy literature listed by Gary Gygax in Appendix N. We hadn’t ever read most of that stuff. Hell, I still haven’t read some of it. My favourite TSR module is still Cook and Moldvay’s X1: The Isle of Dread, which is about as close as you can get to a Ray Harryhausen movie in RPG adventure form.
R.J. Thompson of the blog Gamers & Grognards suggested a blogfest today in honour of Ray’s life and achievements. A splendid idea! There’s only half an hour left of “today” where I live, so I’ll stop blethering now. Here’s what I’ve come up with in the short time I’ve had to think about this. Next time you’re running a wilderness hexcrawl and the dice call for a random encounter, maybe you should set aside your usual charts and get your Dynamation on. Roll 1d30 on the Harryhausen-style table below.
|1 Baboon – actually a polymorphed prince|
|2d12 Cavemen – and cave women with fur bikinis and great hair|
|1 Clockwork owl|
|1 Clockwork owl bear|
|1 Cyclops – with a horn on his head and satyr-like legs|
|1 Djinni – looks and acts like a child|
|1 Dragon – wingless, no breath weapon|
|1d20 Eohippus – a dog-sized prehistoric horse|
|1d6 Giant bees|
|1 Giant bronze golem|
|1d3 Giant crabs|
|1 Giant gorilla – 12 feet tall, answers to “Joe”|
|1d6 Giant scorpions|
|1 Giant turtle|
|1d6 Ghuls – bug-eyed demons wielding swords and axes, not paralysing undead|
|1d3 Gorgons – not the bull-thing, but snake-bodied medusae|
|1 Hydra – snake-bodied, none of that quadrupedal malarkey|
|1 Kraken – a monstrous aquatic titan|
|1 Living statue of “Kali” – like a Type V demon with legs|
|1 Minaton – a golem resembling a minotaur made of bronze|
|1d6 Phorusrhacos – prehistoric terror bird, “sword beak” or “axe beak”|
|1 Roc – two-headed|
|1 “Troglodyte” – like a hill giant with a horn on his head, wielding a huge polearm|
|1 Tyrannosaurus rex|
|1 Wizard / Wise man – 25% chance of resembling one of the first four Doctors|
I own the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules and, thanks to the recent Frog God Kickstarter project, the Erol Otus-covered Complete Rules too. But today I’d like to talk about their Little Billy Goat brother, the Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules.
Three things I love about WhiteBox:
1. The cover
It’s hard to compete with Otus but if anyone can… well, Peter Mullen is that man. His cover for the Core Rules is a thing to inspire awe, but the WhiteBox cover, with a pair of snaggle-toothed hill giants (one of whom is wearing what appears to be a whole bearskin as a hat) about to drop a rock on the trio of adventurers tracking them to their lair, just knocks my socks off. The crisp colour scheme… the wintry landscape (it’s WhiteBox, remember) with that fantastic, snow-laden tree… the spindly, hooded figures, vaguely reminiscent of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow… the tension, the dramatic irony, the humour. It’s bloody marvellous.
2. The format
I have the hardback edition. I think it’s what Americans call “digest” size – i.e., like A5 (my favourite format) but a tad taller. It weighs in at 122 pages, ten more than the OD&D “Little Brown Books”. It’s eminently portable, which is a boon for someone like me. I commute to work by bus, about 40 minutes each way. That’s 400 minutes per week – over six and a half hours! – and it’s prime reading time. I’m never going to carry Gygax’s DMG with me on the bus, nor even Swords & Wizardry Core, but the wee WhiteBox book fits right in a (large) pocket, and is easy to take out and browse on the move*. I’ve even taken it camping.
3. The content
WhiteBox strips S&W right down to its essential components, producing an approximation (though not an exact replica) of OD&D sans supplements. The layout is clear and unfussy. The rules are presented as guidelines and the reader is positively encouraged to modify them and create house rules as required. It’s playable as-is (I ran a game last weekend) but, for me, its greatest utility is as a chassis or armature on which to build your own rule set, tailored to the needs of your campaign. That’s what I’m doing with my ongoing project, Alien Orifice. It’s a job made even easier by the text file of WhiteBox available free from the Mythmere Games site, here. (You can also download WhiteBox in PDF, and find a link to the hardback edition available to buy from Lulu.) In summary, S&W WhiteBox requires – and inspires – the reader/player/referee to get creative.
Anyway, here’s the adventure I ran last weekend. A couple of weeks ago, over at Tenkar’s Tavern, Erik asked what kind of adventures his readers liked: “one-sheets”, full-blown adventures, or something in-between. Most of those who replied said, “We want mini-adventures!” That got me thinking. Some time ago I made a map of a dungeon level in five minutes flat. Then I made two more likewise. For Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day I decided to stock the resulting “15-minute dungeon” using an assortment of random tables and generators. This daft wee adventure is the result. Remember it’s written for Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, which uses d6 for monsters’ hit dice, so if you’re using a post-Supplement I: Greyhawk rule set, add 1 hit point per die or reroll using d8.
Now go and check out all the other fine bloggers participating in Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day. The blogroll is here.
*The same goes for the likes of Weird Adventures and Dyson’s Delves, and it goes double for A5 books like Vornheim and Bandits & Battlecruisers. My hat is off to all of them.
Blogging has been far from my thoughts recently for various real-world reasons. Nevertheless, two events in the OSR have inspired me to climb back in the saddle. One is the miraculous recovery and revival by Greg o’ Gorgonmilk of the missing-in-action Petty Gods project. I’ll have more to say about that soon.
The other is Erik Tenkar’s stewardship of the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day planned for the 17th of April. Over 100 bloggers have already signed up to deliver some S&W goodies on the day. Hats off to them, and to Erik of course. I haven’t decided exactly what I’ll be doing, but – as it happens – this afternoon I ran my first game using the S&W WhiteBox rules as written. (Well, almost as written; I only had two players, so we used individual initiative as per my usual D&D house style. And, as always, we used random hats.) It was fun. There were a few deaths, mainly of the save-versus-poison-or-die variety. I really enjoyed the simplicity and openness of the system. Hell, “system” almost seems too heavy and pretentious a word for such a freewheelin’ little set of rules. Anyway, I think whatever I post in ten days’ time will be WhiteBox in flavour.
This, as I’m sure most readers will know, is the cover painting by Jennell Jaquays for the AD&D 2e adventure Dragon Mountain. I bought the boxed set in 1997, but have never played the thing. Does anyone out there have any opinions or – better still – war stories regarding Dragon Mountain?
Also, this is post number 100.
With Alien Orifice, I’m using Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox as the base ruleset and cleaving as closely as possible to (LBB-only) OD&D assumptions. So prime requisites are in, as are XP modifiers based on them. However, where Alien Orifice differs markedly from the LBBs is in ditching the cleric class and replacing it with a thief-like class, the robber. A fighter’s prime attribute is Strength, a wizard’s is Intelligence, and a robber’s is Dexterity.
Where does that leave Wisdom? In the LBBs, it serves no practical purpose unless you’re playing a cleric. In WhiteBox, it has a minor effect on XP for all classes (5% bonus if Wisdom is 15 or higher). Is that enough to justify its continued existence? Frankly, it seems otiose.
I suppose I could import the “magic-based saving throw modifier” from AD&D and B/X. But given that wizards (the Intelligence specialists, remember) are the only ones slinging spells, it seems to me that Intelligence is a more appropriate stat for that. Or even Charisma, if defined as force of personality. Plus, wizards already get +2 on saving throws versus spells, as per Swords & Wizardry. I’m reluctant to give a lucky wise wizard a +3 bonus at first level. In fact, I’m reluctant to bring in any AD&D-isms at all, if I can help it.
OD&D doesn’t define Wisdom at all, except to note that it’s the prime requisite for clerics. The WhiteBox definition includes the words “insight” and “perception”, so maybe a high Wisdom score should grant a bonus of +1 on things like rolls to find secret doors, spot traps, and hear noises? But, if so, what about low Wisdom? I can hardly impose a -1 penalty on a poor PC who only has a 1 in 6 chance anyway. Also, robbers get improved perception chances and I don’t want to tread on their toes, nor (as with wizards) do I want to create a situation where a PC’s bonuses stack up too high.
But if I dispose of Wisdom altogether, what then? Am I still playing Dungeons & Dragons? And does that matter? (I feel like it does, though I’m unable to articulate exactly why that should be.)
So, I have a question for anyone who’s run a game without clerics, especially if it’s with OD&D or WhiteBox. What do you do with Wisdom?
Jeff Rients posed twenty useful player-centric questions a DM should think about in the early stages of campaign planning. Here are my current answers (they may change, and probably will) to Jeff’s questions, as they relate to my long-gestating Alien Orifice science fantasy megadungeon setting. Hob’s Hub, by the way, is the nearest equivalent of the Keep on the Borderlands to be found on the planet Inanna. Only much less lawful.
What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?
No deal. No clerics.
Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
Try any of the adventurers’ outfitters at Hob’s Hub.
Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
Seriously? Try “Knotty” Tom Tonks the armourer at Hob’s Hub. And a word of advice: don’t turn your back on your new friend.
Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
Probably Tortagrue the Blue-Black. He maintains a well-guarded villa in the southern mountains, and has a private space yawl. But it’s rumoured that some of the renegade robots on the planet have learned to cast spells. Who knows how powerful they’ve become?
Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
Greatest warrior is pushing it, but the biggest brawler is most likely Abelard du Toit, commonly known as “Bad Ab”. He once punched a man’s head off. For jostling him and spilling his ale.
Who is the richest person in the land?
It’s a toss-up between Hob Mitchum, the founder and de facto mayor of Hob’s Hub, and the aforementioned Tortagrue.
Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Pick a wizard and meet his asking price.
Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
Some of those don’t apply on Inanna. For the others, you’ll need to find a decent doctor (good luck with that!) or a powerful wizard and persuade him to help.
Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
Among the adventurers based at Hob’s Hub, you’ll find experts in a surprisingly wide range of fields. Ask around.
Where can I hire mercenaries?
Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
Not out here in the Fringe Worlds, no. Back in the Terran Empire, wizards are persecuted. That might be why you left.
Which way to the nearest tavern?
Well, in Hob’s Hub (where else?) I hear the Star Bar and the Architect’s Arms are both quite good.
What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
Outlaw robot bikers, especially the gang called Metal Hurlant.
Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
No. Just some vicious feuds between rival adventuring parties.
How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
Not really, no. But anything’s possible in the underworld.
Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
Who knows? If they exist, they’re secret.
What is there to eat around here?
Plenty, if your constitution is up to it.
Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
There are rumours of a place in the underworld so well defended by traps and puzzles that no one’s ever penetrated it. They call it “The Vault”. There must be something pretty sweet inside.
Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
There are monsters and treasure galore in the underworld. Seek and ye shall find.
That puts you at notch 1.
The robber class for Alien Orifice, with a rather lengthy digression concerning a novel yet demonstrably Gygaxian way to handle climbing checks for thief types
So, I’m still tinkering under the bonnet of Alien Orifice. Since my recent acquisition of the OD&D booklets, I am once again thinking of AO in terms of the “original game” – i.e., the LBBs informed by Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox. One thing I especially like about Swords & Wizardry is the single saving throw mechanic. I’m quite content with one fairly arbitrary target number rather than five, or three, or whatever. Hold that thought; I’ll come back to it in a minute.
Anyway, I’ve been working on the character classes for AO, which are (right now) Fighter, Robber and Wizard.
Fighters are fighters. Wizards are magic-users. I’m not getting into the reason for the change of name. Suffice it to say I’m not using level titles either.
Robbers are thieves … sort of. In fact, maybe robbers are closer conceptually to LotFP specialists or Stars Without Number experts. They are most likely to style themselves “troubleshooters” or “technical consultants”; I envisage them as dedicated tomb-robbers, not conmen or pickpockets or common brigands. They replace the cleric class, which has no good reason to exist in the AO campaign setting.* Unlike LotFP and SWN, Alien Orifice doesn’t utilise a skill system as such. Some of the mechanical aspects of the robber class were inspired by reading Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone’s musings on thieves in OD&D, but the fetishisation of the 3/7/11 pattern of progression is all mine.
Prime requisite: Dexterity.
Advancement, hit dice, saving throw(s), attack rolls: As cleric.
Armour permitted: Light armour; no shield.
Weapons permitted: Any except two-handed melee weapons.
Mechanical Aptitude: Assuming he or she has appropriate tools, any character can attempt to pick locks or deactivate small mechanical traps. The default chance of success is 1 in 6. A robber’s chance, however, is 2 in 6, rising to 3 in 6 at 3rd level, 4 in 6 at 7th level, and 5 in 6 at 11th level.
Perception: The standard chance for a character to hear distant or muffled sounds, or to locate a secret door, concealed trap, or the like, is 1 in 6. A robber’s chance is 2 in 6, improving at higher levels (as above). Moreover, the robber’s alert senses mean that he or she is only surprised 1/6 of the time.
Surprise: Robbers are light on their feet. A robber alone, or in a party consisting solely of robbers, gains an increased chance to surprise opponents, starting at 3rd level (3 in 6), and improving as the robber gains levels (4 in 6 at 7th, 5 in 6 at 11th).
Decryption: Starting at 3rd level, a robber gains the ability to decipher inscriptions and written documents. He or she can also cast magic spells from scrolls, although there is a risk of failure or worse. [I'm still finalising these rules. They will more than likely draw on my own musings here.]
Saving Throws: Robbers get a +2 bonus to saving throws involving quick reflexes (e.g., some traps, breath weapons, spells affecting a limited area of effect).
Finally – are you still holding that thought about the single saving throw? – we come to climbing.
Climbing: Robbers can climb sheer surfaces without the use of ropes or other equipment. To succeed, a robber must make a saving throw using percentile dice.
Aye, percentile dice. Try as I might, I can’t make a satisfactory climbing rule using d6. Not even Philotomy managed that, so he settled on d20. But I was looking at Supplement I: Greyhawk (wherein the thief class “officially” entered the game) for inspiration, and was struck by the wording therein. Here’s what Gary wrote on page 5:
The ability of a thief to climb is also a function of his level. There is a basic chance of 13% that a 1st level thief will slip and fall in climbing. With each higher level attained by the thief this chance is reduced by 1%, so that a 10th level thief has but a 4% chance of slipping.
That’s right. Unlike in later editions, nowhere in Greyhawk do we get a chart showing the chances for thieves of different levels to succeed at climbing. Instead, what we’re presented with is the chance for a thief to fail, which decreases at a rate of 1% per level. Taking Gary’s words at face value, when your 1st-level thief tries to scale that sheer wall, you roll d% and if you roll 13 or lower, you slip and fall. Conversely, if you roll 14 or higher on your percentile dice, you make it safely up the wall.
Let’s look again at the single saving throw mechanic in Swords & Wizardry. A thief (not in WhiteBox, of course, but in the Core Rules) has a saving throw target number of 15 at 1st level. So does a cleric, and – as I mentioned before – the AO robber steps into the space vacated by the cleric, between the relatively tough fighter and the relatively puny wizard. And how does the saving throw progression work? Why, the target number decreases by one per level! So, under the new climbing rule I outlined above, a 1st-level robber needs to roll 15 or higher on d% to succeed. A roll of 14 or lower is a failure. Likewise, a 10th-level robber needs to roll 6 or higher. The chance of failure is 5%.
As you can see, in practice this is remarkably similar to the system spelled out in Greyhawk. In fact the numbers are 1% out. But, given that Gary Gygax himself altered the thief’s climbing chances in AD&D, I’m not going to fret over a single percentile here or there.
I’m pleased with this idea. It’s simple. It doesn’t require anything extra to be recorded on the character sheet. And I can point to Supplement I for Gygaxian support … sort of. Has it been done before? Probably. There are as many interpretations of thieving abilities as there are old-school bloggers, it seems. Anyway, as ever, comments and criticisms are welcome.
*The spell list for wizards includes cure light wounds and a few other common “cleric” spells.