Desert island dungeons (1)
Last week, Brendan asked, “If you could only keep ten of your printed RPG books, which would you pick?” I gave my list in the comments, but thought I’d expand and explain my choices. Here are the first five. With the exception of the first two, which reign supreme, they are in no particular order of precedence.
2. Cook/Marsh D&D Expert Rules
Look at the picture. They’re handily numbered “1” and “2” already. Good old TSR. They knew. They just knew.
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in early 1983 with the Moldvay Basic Set and, shortly thereafter, Cook/Marsh Expert. Nine months later, we “graduated” to AD&D 1e, but the OSR has made me realise that B/X is my natural habitat. Clearer and slightly more “logical” than OD&D or Holmes, without the weight and clutter of AD&D, it’s a really elegant game – one in which houseruling is easy and yet probably not necessary. Moreover, the books benefit from those seminal Erol Otus covers and interior art by Otus, Bill Willingham, Jeff Dee, etc. That artwork, and sentimental considerations, are the reasons why I would choose B/X over Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, fine though those games are.
Who needs rules for characters higher than 14th level? Not me. My preferred play mode is low to medium-level (say, 1st to 6th) and if I suddenly decided I wanted to run an old module – well, the toughest ones I own are D3 and Q1, which are designed for levels 10-14, so that’s fine. With B/X to hand, I can create and run pretty much any fantasy campaign I want.
Although I’ve just described AD&D as weighty and cluttered, Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide gives weighty and cluttered a good name. A great name, in fact. These 240 pages are stuffed to the gunwales with Gygaxian goodness. The word “encyclopaedic” comes to mind. You won’t use all of it. Hell, you won’t use even a fraction of it. But if you want a chart to determine the effects of alcohol and narcotics on a character, and then another one for the morning after, you’ll find them in the DMG (pp. 82-3). Poison types? Reputed magical properties of precious stones? Burning times for different kinds of ship? Damage suffered by your werewolf PC when he transforms while wearing banded mail? It’s all here. Plus encounter tables, hundreds of magic items, and the all-important Appendix N. That appendix is headed “Inspirational and Educational Reading” and that’s precisely what the DMG is. It remains one of a vanishingly small number of RPG books I would (and do) read for pure enjoyment.
So far, so orthodox and uncontroversial. My next selection might raise some eyebrows. It’s fair to say that AD&D 2e gets little love in OSR circles. I understand some of the criticism (is “scorn” too strong a word?) but, from my perspective, David Cook got a lot right. That’s fuel for another blog post, I think. Right now, let me just say that one of the best things to come out of the 2e era was the series of “historical reference” campaign sourcebooks, of which Vikings (authored by Cook) was the first. These handsome green and gold books challenged the pseudo-High Medieval consensus regarding the assumed setting for Dungeons & Dragons – a topic that’s still being discussed. I like the way they encourage the DM to think “outside the box” and tailor the game’s classes, magic, monsters, treasure, etc., to the specific campaign. For example, Vikings includes, in addition to chapters on the historical and cultural background, rules for playing berserkers and runecasters, dialling down the power level for wizards, non-coin-based treasure, magical items derived directly from the Icelandic sagas, a very good section recasting dwarves, elves and trolls in their “authentic” Norse guises (all dwarves and elves, and 50% of trolls, are skilled magicians), and – perhaps best of all – a simple and flavourful rune magic system. (I have RuneQuest Vikings and the recent Mythic Iceland supplement for Basic Roleplaying, but I think Cook’s rune magic is still unmatched for playability, and I’ve ported it – with minimal tweaking – to my Ruins of Ebidoria D&D setting.)
I’m a viking enthusiast and erstwhile Old Norse scholar and, while there are a few things in the book that make me go “Eh?” (like the unheralded inclusion of Finnish monsters among the Scandinavian ones), Vikings stays pretty faithful to its archaeological, historical and literary sources. In doing so, it provides pretty much everything I want from a “historical fantasy” game setting. Oh, and if you’re a 2e hater, almost all of it could be used with OD&D, B/X, AD&D 1e, or [insert the name of your favourite retro-clone here].
Like the Vikings book above – but even more so – Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa demonstrates the flexibility and robustness of the Dungeons & Dragons template. There are no clerics or magic-users (let alone thieves, rangers, halflings, etc.) in McKinney’s milieu. Vancian spellcasting is out too, and Barkeresque sorcerous rituals are in. Kobolds, carrion crawlers, and (gasp!) dragons are nowhere to be seen. As everyone knows by now, “What we end up with are dinosaur-riding sorcerous cavemen exploring ancient ruins and pursuing the Greys for their nifty rocket launchers while being pursued in turn by Nyarlathotep and some undead mummies.” Even the dice have gone insane. This book, inspired and inspirational, rips right through any lingering complacent assumptions about “what D&D is like” and rends them asunder, leaving a trail of vanilla gore in its wake. And yet the beating heart of this pulpy Lovecraftian/Smithian gonzo science fantasy setting is still recognisably, unmistakably D&D.
There are other books out there that challenge the established norms of D&D and present creative new angles and approaches – Matt Stater’s Pars Fortuna and Trey Causey’s Weird Adventures spring to mind immediately – but I have to choose Carcosa here because the terms of Brendan’s question specify physical codices and the LotFP edition of this book is, as I’ve said before, a surpassingly lovely artefact.
Next: Call of Cthulhu (obviously) and four more!