A to Z: H is for Hook Horror

H is our letter for the day and today I will talk about “The Hook Horror” from the 1981 Fiend Folio. Fiend Folio is one of those books that I didn’t like when it came out because all of the critters in it seemed so weird and useless and lacking in logic… and then I grew up and stopped taking it all so seriously… or something like that. The hook horror lives in caves, is 9 feet tall, moves at 90 feet per turn, has an AC of 3 (which is pretty good) and has 2 attacks per turn that inflict 1-8 damage each. Weighing in at 5 hit dice, it is a little tougher than ogres (4+1 hit dice) and a little weaker than giants (8+ hit dice or more, unless you are talking about those pathetic Verbeeg). It bothers me that the hook horror is not described as being able to peck or bite with that massive beak (in the picture, his beak is bigger than his hooks). I’m thinking that would be something I would change with a house rule. The hook horror is nearly blind but has excellent hearing (therefore turning invisible won’t help you — HAH— but your magic user might find a use for that audible glamer spell). They communicate by clicking their exoskeletons. This makes them sound like they are insects, but in the drawing they look like a double-hand-amputee in an evil chicken suit. I actually like the drawing so I wouldn’t change that… even the lumpy sweater-vest and panties that the hook horror is wearing. Guard the rear! Your henchman has just been trepanned by a hook horror!

A to Z: G is for Gamma World

This fascinating article from Outside Magazine by Henry Shukman describes a trip to the Chernobyl “exclusion zone” in The Ukraine more than twenty years after the reactor exploded.

Shukman describes how the area around Chernobyl has returned to a state of near wilderness. Elk, wolves, wild boar, lynx and other animals not seen outside of zoos in this part of Europe have returned and are prospering. The towns within the exclusion zone were abandoned right after the reactor failed and nature has been taking it all back; wood rots, iron rusts, ice and roots crumble away the asphalt and concrete.
But the exclusion zone might also be the world’s biggest unguided experiment in genome mutations. Researchers have discovered many species of plants and animals that are changing in unexpected ways. Some birch trees within the zone resemble tree-like giant feathers rather than the common birch tree. Bird populations exhibit unusually high rates of albinism. Animals inside the exclusion zone have higher levels of cancer than animals outside the zone.

Meanwhile, the ‘containment’ structure that was built over Chernobyl #4 (the reactor that caught fire) has begun to fail and the expected replacement structure is overdue. Engineers claim the containment structure was never adequate to begin with. In Japan, problems continue to plague the earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear plants.

I’m not sure whether to be fascinated or scared to death.

A to Z: F is for Flightless Birds

The image at left is of an ‘axe beak’ from the Monster Manual (1e) rather than an image of ‘flightless birds.’ Flightless birds don’t have a picture and I always liked the axe beak picture. The axe beak can’t fly (neither can the penguin), so I suppose it qualifies as a ‘flightless bird.’ He also looks kind of pissed off.

‘Flightless Birds’ is one of those Monster Manual entries that always makes me want to say, “Hah…hah…what the fuck?” when I read it. According to Saint Gygax, they are ‘typified by the ostrich, emu and rhea.‘ It also says that they have between 1 and 3 hit dice and can inflict 1-4 or 2-8 damage! Gygax clarifies that the ostrich types have 3 hit dice and do 2-8 damage. So, in D&D, an ostrich is more likely to kill you than an average homicidal man with a hatchet who will have only 1-6 hitpoints, attack as a 0 level creature and inflict only 1-6 damage each time he whacks you with his hatchet. What the fuck? I met someone once who worked at the zoo and she said the ostriches were kind of mean and cranky, but I never heard of them killing people. On the other hand, having a 1st level party getting TPK’d by a flock of “the other-other white meat” while taking a shortcut across a pasture is kind of funny.

Inspired by pictures like this(below), I’ve always wanted to create ostrich cavalry for Aldeboran:

A to Z: E is for Experience Points

Perhaps this should be under ‘X’ for ‘XP.’ Too late. When playing a game like D&D, the ‘transactional’ nature of some of the actions within the game soon become obvious. Your character performs an action (like killing a hobgoblin). You are awarded with some experience points. Once your XP reach a certain point, you “level up” and suddenly get better at doing the things your character does. I used to be really ‘down’ on the D&D XP system (even before I played video games, like Baldur’s Gate, where XP is awarded every time you do something rather than at the end of a session like we usually do it in ‘pencil and paper’ games… or when you get back to town (the really old school system)). XP obtained for treasure used to really stick in my craw. These days it really doesn’t bother me; in fact I kind of like it. I think part of me has come to peace with the idea that D&D is, at it’s core, a video game from before video games existed and XP is just a part of that. So XP is part of your reward for playing (since it is one of the indicators of progress). Some of the games I have been involved in include XP simply being awarded periodically, or at the DM’s fiat… or players all level up every X number of sessions. I’m surprised to admit to myself that I don’t find that as much fun as ‘the pinball game’ method where you can see the numbers building up and when you reach X, suddenly you get a little reward. Admittedly, default XP rules in D&D are a pretty bald mechanic, but they have become so ingrained in the game system that I miss the XP rules when they are gone. In my mind, one of the advantages of the XP rules as written is that players have a certain amount of control over their own character’s advancement. “A goblin is worth X number of points. You need Y number of points to get to level 2. Defeat Z number of goblins and when X*Z is equal to or greater than Y, you level up.

A to Z: D is for Demons

Today, D is for Demons. One of the delights of monsters like demons (and devils) is that they can seemingly be so diverse in appearance without raising any eyebrows (if they have eyebrows). Check out the third figure from the left in the picture at right: he has a bird face growing out of his ass! How does that work for him? I don’t know. But it would make sneaking up behind him somewhat difficult. A few years ago I was thinking about the demons and devils I might use for Aldeboran and I considered making them all unique. Perhaps forms, features and special abilities could be randomly generated. I didn’t pursue it any further, but that idea is still on the work bench.

A to Z: C is for Cylons

This will probably interfere with my credibility in some people’s eyes, but I am one of those misbegotten assholes who actually prefers the newer Battlestar Galactica to the original series. I know that this is treason. The original aired the same year I started playing D&D (1978) and featured monsters, ray guns and all kinds of other stuff — I just don’t remember it very well, and what I do remember involves a dorky little kid and a robot dog. The original cylons were cool, though. Even when they photographed them through the magic ‘star filter.’ Photos taken through star filters always look cheesey and kind of porn-y… I suppose if robots give you wood, that is a good thing… but speaking of robots giving one wood, have you seen the Svedka Vodka commercials with the dancers and sexy robot? They just freak me out and make me never want to drink Svedka.

C is for cylons. In Aldeboran, I want to have cylons. Why they are there and what they are doing I don’t know yet. But there will be cylons. Some of them will be clanky ones that look like a dude in a suit (see at right) with a red eye that goes back and forth like he is watching a ping pong match. The one in this picture even has a sword! I don’t remember if they had swords or not in the original series. Others will look just like people. Fuck! Maybe they will think they are people and get freaked out when they find out they are cylons! I also want to have a ‘war of the worlds’ bit, but I don’t know if that will be related. Maybe I will wait to talk about ‘War of the Worlds’ when we reach W.

A to Z: B is for Bandits!

Today’s letter is ‘B.’ B is for ‘Bandit.’ I’m not talking about the dog who accompanied Johnny Quest… nor am I referencing the CB handle of Burt Reynold’s character in “Smokey and the Bandit,” but unlawful types who lurk in the wild places of the world and rob others.

In OD&D, Bandits were listed under “B” as they should have been. Later, in the AD&D Monster Manual, they were moved from “B” to “M” (M as in “men.” This did not mean that bandits are exclusively male… but “men” is fantasy speak for “hu-mens” as opposed to dwarfs, elfs, gnomes, etc.). But Bandits will always be a “B” monster to me.

Looking at their entry, I see they are common, encountered in groups of 20-200 in number and have 1-6 hitpoints each. They are encountered in their lair “20%.” Does that mean if I am wandering through the forest and find a bandit lair that they will only be in it 20% of the time? Or does that mean that only 20% of the bandits will be at home at any given time? Or, does it mean that if I am the DM and I randomly roll for monsters and come up with ‘bandit’ as my result, it is 20% possible that the bandits encountered will be in their lair? I don’t know. All three sound plausible but I am leaning towards answer #3. Movement rate and armor class and damage are all listed as ‘see below.’ In the entry we read that they will be armed variously with swords, daggers, spears, different kinds of armor, bows and arrows, etc., and some will be mounted on horses. They are listed as having 1-6 hitpoints each but leader types (who might be magic users, clerics, fighting men, etc.,) will have more hitpoints. Brigands (which also start with a B) will be just like bandits but chaotic evil instead of neutral.

The other day I watched the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (one of my favorite books). There are a lot of desperate characters in that book, some of whom (especially the ones who have gone cannibal) definitely seem like evil ‘brigands.’ Then again, in the movie Krull, Liam Neeson plays a likeable ‘bandit’ who is more Robin Hood than cannibal, so I suppose that the ‘bandit’ can be a variable quantity.

In medieval times (if I remember correctly), someone who had gone “bandit” was an outlaw. I suppose some of them were “bad” people (what with the murder and whatnot). All of them were criminals since at that time (like most times), lighting off of your own and trying to live without paying taxes or oweing fealty was considered a ‘criminal’ act. And it strikes me that in all of my days of play I have almost never encountered ‘nice’ bandits… so maybe I need to keep that idea for the future.

A to Z: A is for Assumptions

The latest bandwagon has started to roll and I just managed to scramble aboard! The (unfortunately named*) ‘Tossing it out’ blog announced “The A to Z” challenge in which bloggers try to do one post per day in April for each letter of the alphabet. Never to be one to refuse to ride someone else’s coat tails to fame and glory, I’m scrambling aboard at the last minue before that wagon rolls. (I just signed up — I am blog # 1062 to join).

So this is day 1 and our letter is for today is ‘A.’ I thought about doing ‘Arduin’ but I don’t own (and can’t afford) the Arduin books so everything I know about it would be second hand. And Grubb Street already handled A is for Arduin. I was also thinking about ‘Albinos’ and ‘Apes’ (or albino apes) but didn’t get very far with that. Then I decided to do “assumptions,” as in, “what are the basic assumptions when you and your group sit down to play?” More accurately, this might be called ‘melieu’ or ‘campaign flavor’ or even ‘rules.’ And I don’t think that there is any ‘right’ answer to what you assumptions should be — I just want to mull it over.

I would start with ‘default D&D’ as my first shared assumption of what players are getting into when they sit down to play a fantasy game. And if you are reading this blog, you probably know what your own conception of ‘default assumption D&D’ is. Open the rulebook and read the rules. If it says that player characters can be humans, dwarves, elves, etc., and can perform as fighters, magic users, thieves, etc., then that is a big part of the ‘assumption’ of default D&D.

The advantages of ‘default D&D’ are probably obvious. New players can come into the game, and, if they are even passing familiar with the edition you are using, they can take part and interact with the environment without having to ask a lot of questions. And I like ‘default’ D&D even though a lot of my fellow players seem to think that it is ‘boring’ or ‘predictable.’ Part of what I like is that the ‘imagination’ part of the game can be manifest in what you do with those stock elements. In addition, if players know a good deal about the world in terms of the ‘default’ assumptions, they are empowered to make more decisions and act upon the world. And, as a player, I sometimes find 100% reliance upon the DM for all information to be frustrating, especially when I end up feeling that my actions are being directed or forced by the DM when I start asking questions that cause the DM to start erecting narritive fences and railroad tracks. If the assumptions are simple and agreed upon from the start (even things as simple as the AD&D default where dwarves can’t be wizards, etc.), it doesn’t mean that exceptions to the rules can’t occur; it just means that such exceptions are accepted as exceptions.

Settings, games and rules which violate default D&D are harder to quantify. I am an enthusiastic reader of The Metal Earth (Aos’ blog of his house-ruled campaign), Planet Algol (another pulpy ‘sword and planet’ inspired blog) and others. To the usual mix of dragons, warriors and wizards, these ‘homebrews’ toss in new rules for everything and may let players create mutants, robots, ninjas and pirates as player characters. All of the ‘base assumptions’ of default D&D are up to debate or subject to revision and these campaigns seem to enjoy genre mixing and customization. “Assumption violating” campaigns seem very exciting to me; the act of creation seems like it could be almost as much fun (or more fun) as playing. And my own ‘Aldeboran’ (which feels like a somewhat stillborn creation that I occassionally dig out of the closet, revive and tinker with only to later shove it back intot he closet again) feels like it is closer in spirit to the ‘assumption violating’ campaign than the ‘default’ campaign. Although, since I don’t run any games in that world, the point is somewhat moot. Arduin, mentioned earlier on Grubstreet, is perhaps one of the precedents in publishing of the ‘assumption violating’ campaign.

Many campaigns seem to ‘blur the line’ between the two. I’ve never managed (either through laziness or stupidity) to run a 100% “by the book” game — a fact which used to make me feel somewhat inadequate whenever I would read one of Gary Gygax’s more strident editorials on the subject of house rules or ‘Dungeons and Beavers” (as he derisively called the campaigns of DMs who deviated from the rules as written for a time). And the idea of running any game by the book bores me. But at the same time, I think it helps player’s personal investment if they feel that some baseline assumptions within the campaign are shared and immutable. To create an extreme example, it would be very frustration to play in a game where everything that effected the actions of the characters was constantly in flux at the whim of the DM and the players didn’t know from session to session whether or not water would continue to be wet, fire would continue to be hot and ice would still be cold, etc. One of the fun things (at least for me) about a role playing game is that the world described by the referee and inhabited by the players has reference back to our world… so, imaginatively, we can wrap our heads around it and share information. Thus, although there are plenty of things we never encounter in the real world (dragons, unicorns, leprechauns, etc.), we still understand the basic physics of the world and the relationship between creatures and situations we might meet. So, although I’ve never actually BEEN in the fantasy world, I would understand that ships would sail on water, milk might come from cows (or other mammals), etc. I wouldn’t need to have it explained to me that gold might be worth more than iron since I already KNEW that before I ever played D&D. There is plenty of ‘real world’ knowledge that I can use while navigating the fantasy world and that means I can envision it more easily when we are trying to share the experience of navigating the fantasy world as a group.

I see advantages in both and am still sitting on the fence as to where I would go if I were to run a game again. Since I don’t forsee that happening, I suppose I can afford to continue sitting on the fence.

* I am relatively certain that “tossing it out” is NOT a masturbation reference, but, given the eccentric nature of people in general, one can never be 100% sure.