Baedeker’s Guide to The Northlands: Oom Ambar and Thule

One of the Lords of Oom

Thule (also spelled Thool) lies just a short boat-ride across the Dunsany Sea (followed by a long hike across Ghent) although even the seasoned traveller would be better served by another destination. The Thulian aristocracy consider outsiders (and the common class of Thule itself) as the inhabitants of The Vales consider cattle: suitable for use as needed or as they see fit.

In order to understand Thule, one must understand the Thulian caste system. At the top, reside the ‘Lords of Oom.’ The Lords are seldom (if ever) seen by outsiders; most common Thulians have probably never seen one either. Their bodies are small and weak, but their heads and brains are enormous (and the Lords are reputed to have tremendous mysterious powers, including the ability to command unquestioning obedience from their followers). Whether or not the Lords of Oom are (or once were) human is unknown.

Underneath the Lords are the Priests of Oom. Every child born in Thule is examined shortly after birth by the Priests and tested; those who fulfill certain qualifications are taken from their biological parents and turned over to either the priest caste or the warrior caste, depending upon the nature of their perceived talents. If the child is selected for the priest caste (a very rare event), they will be placed in a special academy where only a small number will actually survive to graduate. These Priests of Oom emerge as hairless, androgynous beings.  They apparently communicate with The Lords of Oom through the power of thought along and it is rumored that what the priests see and know is instantly seen and known by their masters. The priests can be recognized by their white robes, hairless heads and rods of office.

The warrior caste includes both common soldiers and other functionaries (such as the merchants who purchase goods not available in Oom and slaves). The warrior caste is noted for their fanaticism; any member of this caste lacking the appropriate zeal for his or her duties can count on joining the chained wretches being dragged to Oom Ambar for sacrifice or worse.

At the bottom of the caste system reside the common Thulians. Practitioners of skilled trades are considered slightly more valuable than common laborers, but these wretches apparently live and die at the pleasure of their masters.  The average common Thulian is a wretched creature; most probably illiterate, and, if a female, constantly preganant.  Their lives are short, brutal and unpleasant. Visitors to Thule will find no diverting local festivals, interesting cuisine, enjoyable folk music or dance traditions or other examples of local culture since the common Thulian who shows any interest in any subject other than labor is clapped into irons and dragged off by the warrior caste.

A description of the inhabitants of Thule would not be complete unless one also mentioned the moorlocks. These human-like creatures reside under the capital city of Thule and also, perhaps, in the tunnels under the mountains. Where they come from or what their purpose might be is unknown. The moorlocks are bestial, shaggy hominids capable of tool use who apparently love the taste of human flesh. The priests and warriors may or may not have any influence over them, but since the moorlocks fear sunlight, they hunt at night, making nocturnal strolls in the capital of Thule a very bad idea.

The capital of Thule is Oom Ambar, a city seldom visited by common Thulians or outsiders (and most visitors apparently tend to be of the unwilling sort; tales tell of great slave caravans dragging hordes of unfortunates into the tunnels that lead to the city proper).  Oom Ambar itself is in a small valley ringed by mountains.  Most gain entrance through the well guarded tunnels under the mountains (although crossing the mountains themselves on foot is probably not entirely impossible, this writer has yet to hear of anyone having successfully done so). The city is reportedly neither interesting nor picturesque.  In the center is the great ziggurat on which the Lords of Oom perform their mysterious rites. The slave caravans entering the city normally take their miserable wares direct to this ziggurat where those unfortunates are never seen again. Tunnels under the ziggurat are the probable final destination, but whether these slaves labor, are sacrificed or put to some other fate is unknown. The ziggurat is surrounded by barracks for the guards and structures used by the warrior caste.  Surrounding that are the slums and workshops of the lower castes. Most of the structures are unadorned and utilitarian in nature.  There are no museums or interesting bazaars; goods are distributed by members of the warrior caste as directed by the priest caste.

(Illustration of ‘The Super Brain’ courtesy of Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blog; one of the best sources of scans of old comics on the web that I have been lucky enough to find)

Hordes of Hoards

The other day, Joe the Lawyer went off on Dwimmermount in particular (and probably mega-dungeoneering in general) in a humorous and scathing fashion. One of the targets of his ire was the pile of ‘exactly 2,000 copper pieces’ found in a rats nest. How did these rats come to possess such an exact number of coins? Not 1999 coppers, not 2001 coppers but exactly 2,000 coppers? What are the odds?

Back in the day, when megadungeons were not yet considered something ‘nostalgic,’ most treasure hordes were generated randomly.  Sometimes the book would tell you that each bandit might have 1-8 silver pieces (so if you slaughtered or robbed 5 bandits, you could expect to gather 5-40 silver for your trouble). But in many cases, you were given a treasure type that may or may not have involved , for example, a 50% chance of 1,000-10,000 copper, a 25% chance of 1,000-8,000 silver, a 10% chance of 1,000 to 4,000 gold and a 25% chance of 3 miscellaneous magic items + 1 scroll. Of course, rolling up the treasure the way Gygax (or Dr. Eric J. Holmes) told you to meant you ended up with huge numbers, usually multiples of 100 or 1000, of the same type of coin. Obviously unrealistic. AFAIK, in medieval and ancient times there were no places where a ‘single standard currency’ was in use (assuming what I have read on the subject is true).  Roman and Greek coins continued to be used by all nations long after the Romans and Greeks had fallen from power. Merchants used scales to count coins; since they were handling so many different denominations, you didn’t want to convert cistercii and drachmas and silver marks and god knows what else into a single value, you would have just thrown a bunch of silver coins on the scale and made a judgement as to how much was ‘enough’ by the weight. So, if ancient times are our model, a pile of 764 copper pieces, 357 silver pieces and 35 gold pieces (plus the odd pair of elven boots or whatnot) is still unrealistic because it assumes that all the coins of a given metal are all the same value (as well as the same size and weight).

Where can our pursuit of greater realism in treasure hordes end? I see several options. Option 1 is to make hoards more complicated, with coins of different nations, weights, etc., and then extrapolating some ‘central universal value’ from that. Option 2 is to stick with the copper pieces, silver pieces, gold pieces, etc., and avoid big, fat, round & exact numbers (the players don’t find a heap of 2,000 copper pieces, perhaps they find a mix of different coppers, silver and gold that add up to somewhere around 2,000 copper pieces in value) or option 3: “You find 2,000 copper coins.” Call me crazy, but when I look at the options, number 3 doesn’t seem to bad anymore.

In addition, in all the games I have been involved in, I don’t remember players taking the time to say they counted the coins. We have made jokes about how we could glance at a chest and see that there were 4,000 gold coins in it even though I have no idea how many pennies are in the change jar on my dresser that I walk past at least twice a day, but that was always just a part of the fun.  If one needs to rationalize, maybe the “2,000 cps” is just a simplified value for the hoard to make book keeping easier.

If I remember right, back in the day, no self-respecting dungeoneer bothered to pick up copper coins anyway. The weight-to-value ratio meant picking up used orc spears and goblin daggers was usually more profitable than picking up copper coins.  By the time we had a level or two under our belts, we weren’t bothering with silver coins any more either.  We left the silver and copper for the linkboys and henchmen to squabble over and went straight for the magic items first, the gems and jewelry next, the platinum third and the gold last.  The rest of the coins were worth less than the iron rations the adventurer would have to throw away in order to fit them in his backpack.

Excuse me, sir, but can you fix my glaive guisarme?

Ok, so in the real world I need to fix shit (or hire someone to fix shit) all of the time… or replace shit that has worn out. Pipes leak, shoes wear out, food rots or gets eaten — even this sack of blood and meat I call my body needs the occasional repair. In D&D world, stuff never really seems to break.  You can buy that sword at 1st level, and, assuming you don’t hit a rust monster or a black pudding with it, still be using when you are 10th level without ever even having sharpened the damn thing. Of course, by the time they are 10th level, most player will have a pile of magic swords to choose from (unless their DM is a real skin flint), but you get my drift.

I remember in 1st edition AD&D, Gygax suggested you charge player characters x amount per month per level for upkeep (I don’t remember what he called it) and I guess that was supposed to represent hair cuts, getting your boots resoled, the occasional clean shirt or new pair of socks, armor and weapon repairs, etc. I don’t remember ever enforcing that rule (or having it imposed on my character when I was a player), but the Gygaxians will claim that ‘Saint Gary already covered that.’ And I’m not sure that having players deduct 3 silver pieces from their inventory every time they need to get a haircut or their bowstring replaced is going to feel like the ‘stuff of high adventure,’ but since D&D first caught my fancy because it was ‘less abstract’ than other games I had played up until that point, the occasional lack of abstraction within the game can sometimes be jarring or amusing. Greyhawk city is probably chock full of shoe repair shops, but the rules don’t have any accommodation for forcing the players or NPCs to go get their shoes repaired… so how do all of those shoe repair shops stay in business?

Two of my favorite video games, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, have some accommodation for repairs.  In both these video games, armor and weapons wear out as you use them… every time an enemy hits you, the degree to which your armor protects you drops a little bit.  Every time you use a weapon, it wears a little bit and gets a little less effective. In Oblivion, you can purchase ‘repair hammers’ and use them to repair your weapons or armor (how much they repair it depends on your character’s repair skill, but, bizarrely, these little blacksmith hammers disappear as you use them). As an alternative, you can take your equipment to a blacksmith and they will repair it for a price. In Fallout 3, there are merchants who can repair things for you for a price, or, if you have 2 items of the same type (like 2 laser pistols), you can use 1 item to repair the other, leaving you will 1 item in better shape.  The item you used to repair with disappears (and the game makes a little ‘repair’ sound which sometimes sounds like someone tearing off a length of duct tape — which always makes me chuckle). In both games, how high your repair skill is governs how well you can repair. After a while, in both games, I find the ‘repair’ concept gets a little tedious, although I do wonder how my Fallout 3 character takes 4 worn out shotguns and with the click of a mouse creates 1 really good shotgun with no parts left over. Since it’s a computer game, though, you don’t have to track the current condition of your armor and weapons; the computer does it for you.  If you had to keep track of that using paper and pencil, it would require too much effort.

And ‘too much effort’ probably describes why I won’t have rules for wear and tear and repair in Aldeboran (although I guess since the combat “fumble” tables I use have a chance for your weapon to break, so there is a chance a player might need to seek out a repair person from time to time). Things needing repair seems pretty mundane — certainly not what I imagine when I say “adventure.”

Aldeboran Houserules

Every once in a while I collect together some of my ‘house rules’ for Aldeboran and toss them into a word document. Some of them are tested; many of them are only semi-tested but they are all 100% good ideas that will improve your life immeasurably — for example, the perks and flaws table and the ‘Random Possessions of Small Worth” tables that were once published in either Fight On! or Knockspell (I can’t remember but I think it was Fight On!)… or my as of yet unpublished (and probably unpublishable) Zodiac rules… (still a work in progress) and custom monsters and all sorts of other shit.
When the document is ‘big’ enough, I’ll release it to the public and make a bajillion dollars so I can move to my farm out in the middle of nowhere and stock up on bullets, barbed wire, blackmarket claymore mines and canned goods.

Here are some examples:

Initiative (standard rules): At the start of each round, one dice is rolled for the players and one dice is rolled for the referee’s creatures. Ties are re-rolled. Whichever side gets the higher score goes first. The players can resolve their actions in whatever order seems appropriate (perhaps starting with the character who has the highest dexterity, then the second highest, etc.). The referee resolves the monster attacks in whatever order seems appropriate. After everyone has had a chance to perform an action, the round ends and a new round is begun.

Initiative (variant rules):At the start of each round, every player rolls a dice and the DM rolls a dice for the monsters (or rolls 1 dice for each group of monsters).Actions are resolved in order, starting with those who got 1 going first, then those who rolled 2, 3, 4, etc.
Actions are assumed to resolve themselves more-or-less simultaneously on the roll of a tie, thus if both Bruno the Fighter and a goblin roll the same on initiative, it is possible for them to stab each other to death in the same round! WHICH dice is used depends upon the relative dexterity/speed of the creature.Player characters of average dexterity (between 15 and 6) or monsters with a movement rate of 9” or 12” use a d6.Player characters with above average dexterity (15+) and monsters with higher movement rates use a d4.Player characters with lower dexterity (6 or lower) and slower monsters use a d10.

Alignments consist of only good, evil or neutral. “Good” and “Evil” are diametrically opposed. Neutral characters (aka “selfish”) seek simply to survive and prosper on their own. Alignment is fluid. You can change alignments in the course of the game due to your actions.

Each new player character gets a score ranging from -5 to +5. Evil characters start at -5, good characters start at +5 and neutrals start at 0. The DM keeps track of this and only informs the players of in game effects (i.e.: for the cleric, maybe the DM will give a 10% chance of failure when spells are cast or undead are turned for every point that a character deviates from his alignment — thus the cleric of a good god who has slid to ‘neutral’ on the scale would have a 50% chance of failure when trying to cast a spell). At the end of each game session, the DM can make an alignment judgment and adjust the score accordingly. If a character does bad things, subtract 1 or 2 or 3 (never going past -5). If a character does good things, add 1 or 2 or 3 depending on the severity/intensity of the crime/good deed. If they more or less maintained status quo, do not adjust. If the score switches from -5 or +5 to 0, they have become neutral, if it goes from 0 to -5 or +5, they have gone from neutral to evil or good, etc.