Posts Tagged ‘Eric


Spellbooks Without Spells: A Vancian Variant

In a recent post, Tavis discusses Vancian magic, both in terms of Jack Vance’s original work and its translation into the familiar Vancian spellcasting found in D&D. I’ve done some tinkering with the magic system in my Red Box campaign. I hope that you, gentle reader, find something useful in this implementation that you can take away for your own game.


I: A Magic-User’s Own Idiom

In this setting, magic is idiosyncratic. One’s spells must take into account all the elements of one’s magical nature: one’s true name, the astrological signs ascendant at one’s birth, the peculiar alchemical affinities of one’s own blood, the entities that one’s magical lineage has pacted with, etc. Thus, no two magic-users employ the same version of a given spell.

To use computer programming as a metaphor, view each spell as a program and each magic-user as an operating system. Unlike the real world, no two of these operating systems are identical! Whenever one magic-user wishes to learn a spell from another, he must revise the spell so that it works on his “operating system”—his personal magical idiom. Still, it’s easier than researching a new spell from scratch.

II: Initiations and Pacts

This magic-user is performing an initiatory rite to add a new spell to his repertoire.

The power for spells comes from extra-planar sources: gods, demons, elementals, fairies, timeless arcane intelligences, etc. It is not enough to know the words and gestures of a spell. One must also perform an initiation into the mysteries of the spell, forging a pact with an extra-planar entity to power the incantation.

Such initiations are complex rites. The magic-user must draw intricate diagrams with pastes made from crushed gems, burn exotic woods and incense, don ritual garments sewn with gold and silver thread, and so forth. Whereas most of the time involved in performing spell research goes to devising the spell itself, procuring the components for the initiatory rite takes up most of the money. (When one acquires a “free” spell upon leveling up, this may be justified by one’s mentor or another friendly magic-user supplying the components needed to perform the initiation.)

Sometimes these rites are unsuccessful. They might not be devised properly or executed correctly. Hence the possibility of failure—even catastrophic failure—in spell research.

III: The Spells Themselves

Unlike the magics used by Rhialto the Marvellous, Iucounu the Laughing Magician and their fellow thaumaturges in Vance’s work, these spells have no volition; one does not struggle with them lest they wriggle out of one’s mind and into the world. But they are not simply “memorized,” either.

A spell is a matrix of magical forces that exists within the magic-user’s mind. In a sense, it is a single-use magic item, and it obeys similar principles in play. An enterprising magic-user might even find ways to strip away an opponent’s prepared spells, although it will take something more impressive than a mere dispel magic to do so.

For a good example, look at how spells are “hung” by Merlin of Chaos in Roger Zelazny’s second Amber quintet. “Then I spoke the spell, slowly and clearly, leaving out the four key words I had chosen to omit. … The spell hung before me like a crippled butterfly of sound and color, trapped within the synesthetic web of my personal vision of the Logrus, to come again when I summoned it, to be released when I spoke the four omitted words.”

IV: Spell Scrolls

A magical scroll is not simply a bit of writing. It is essentially identical to a prepared spell, except that instead of keeping the spell matrix inside her own mind, the magic-user binds the matrix to a roll of parchment. Now, instead of reciting the trigger words from memory, the magic-user reads them off the scroll—or gives the scroll to another magic-user, who can do the same.

V: Spell Valences

One does not simply cram spells into one’s head willy-nilly. They must be fitted together into lattices. As magic-users grow more powerful, they can accommodate increasingly larger configurations of spells.

Much like electron shells in an atom, each lattice contains a fixed number of spells of each level. Thus, a conjurer may encompass no more than two first-level spells and a second-level spell; the first-level spells may not be replaced by a second-level spell nor vice versa. Scholarly magic-users may refer to the nodes of the lattice as “valences,” a term shamelessly stolen from Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre.

These spell valences are of a fixed order of power and complexity. Thus, there are no “third-and-a-half level” spells.

VI: Spellbooks

A page from a wizard's compendium.

Magic-users don’t generally have “spellbooks” in the sense we think of in D&D, with each page filled in with the specifics of a given spell. Instead, they have compendiums of magic: occult encyclopedias full of information, diagrams and formulae regarding alchemy, astrology, necromancy, theurgy, and all of the other recognized schools of sorcery. When preparing a spell, one pores through one’s compendium for the specific elements of the spell—the appropriate diagrams and formulae—and impresses the magical matrix of the spell upon one’s mind.

Some magic-users do take the time (one day per spell level) to transcribe the exact formulae involved in their spells, thus creating a “spellbook” much like the typical AD&D spellbook. Such spellbooks are often used by magic-users when traveling or adventuring, or to loan out when trading spells. Not every wizard the party defeats will have one, however, and if a PC magic-user steals or borrows one from an NPC, he must still research the spell to translate it into his own magical idiom and perform the necessary initiation.

A spellbook that only contains a few spells is much smaller than a full occult compendium, as it contains only a few specific formulae. Beyond a certain point, however, a spellbook becomes larger than a compendium, as a given occult chart or diagram may be repeated a dozen times for use in a dozen different spells. Thus, magic-users with large repertoires may not wish to rely on spellbooks!

One may attempt to prepare a spell from memory if one has neither compendium nor spellbook at hand. This is very dangerous! If one constructs the spell matrix with even one incorrect glyph or syllable, the spell will go awry. If one is lucky, it will simply fizzle when cast; worse, it may come out warped, backfire on the caster, or even provide an opening for an extra-planar entity to enter the world.


Alignment and Misalignment

Alignment tableD&D’s alignment system has been causing problems for DMs since its inception. This is, in part, because no one can seem to agree on how it works.

If you’re playing by the book, arguments and confusion over alignment is an issue because even at low levels, one’s alignment has measurable impact on game play. There are alignment languages, the effects of the protection from evil spell, and—perhaps most importantly—the significance of alignment when dealing with intelligent magic swords. So unless you want your session to devolve into an argument over whether a PC can wield that +3 sword without taking 1d6 damage per round, it’s important to get these things straightened out before play begins.

Are alignments descriptive or prescriptive? If a player writes “Chaotic” on his character sheet, is that an acknowledgement of the character’s leanings or a statement of intent that will drive the character’s actions? The Moldvay Basic rules suggest both; one’s alignment is a “way of life,” but it merely provides “guidelines for characters to live by.” If the DM thinks a character isn’t being played in accordance with her alignment, he may either suggest that the player change the alignment or impose a “punishment or penalty,” but he cannot actually declare that the character’s alignment has changed.

Whether it’s prescriptive, descriptive or both, alignment can lead to problems:

1) “I’m just playing my alignment.” Many players mark their characters as Chaotic, Evil or Neutral as an excuse for antisocial behavior. Then they murder your PC, steal all of your gold or simply abandon you to die at the bottom of a pit. On the flip side, players who denote their characters as Lawful or Good may then go on to play the Morality Police and shut down the rest of the party’s efforts at muddling through the morally gray areas of the adventuring world. This behavior is justified—after a fashion—by a prescriptive reading of alignment. Sadly, even good-natured players can succumb to this error; choosing an alignment that seems interesting, they follow its prescriptions only to find that this spoils the fun of other people at the table.

2) “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood.” Conversely, some players perceive their PCs’ alignments very differently from the DM and/or their fellow players. Typically this involves a Neutral (OD&D / BD&D) or Chaotic Neutral (AD&D) character consistently demonstrating selfish, deceitful and cruel behavior. More dramatically, I still remember how the first session of one failed D&D game I ran several years ago devolved into a twenty-minute argument with the player of a paladin over whether it was appropriate Lawful Good behavior for her character to use poison or torture.

StormbringerCommon solutions to these problems involve either removing all mechanical support for the alignment rules, so that they’re simply descriptors that the rest of the group can ignore, or by cutting alignment out of the game altogether. But this isn’t wholly in the spirit of our exploration of old school play—and more to the point, it doesn’t help us play around with Moorcockean tropes involving sentient magical artifacts swaying our characters towards Chaos, Law or Neutrality!

My current take on alignment in the Glantri Red Box game is that most people are Neutral; they’re concerned with their own personal interest and that of their loved ones, and are not prone to grand gestures of altruism or treachery. On the whole, they prefer Law to Chaos because an orderly society benefits them more than it stifles them. The Lawful and Chaotic alignments are generally the province of ideologues, priests, madmen and the champions of supernatural forces.

When the alignment of a PC actually has an impact on play—such as through the acquisition of an intelligent magic sword—I’ll use the alignment on the character’s sheet as an indicator of the player’s intent, but if the written alignment is a serious mismatch for how the character has been played, I’m ready to declare that the written alignment is, in fact, incorrect. This is a tricky approach! I believe that it requires the DM to give the player every benefit of the doubt. To do otherwise would be terribly unfair; there’s an enormous amount of subjectivity here, and it can be arrogant and offensive to elevate one’s own opinions about a character over the opinions of that character’s creator.

(And when it comes to magic swords, I’m perfectly happy to allow a sudden alignment change to match the sword if the wielder is willing to swear allegiance to Law or Chaos. And that’s where those punishments and penalties come in…)


How I Rebuilt My Sewer Temple to the Chaos Frog

Procedurally generated content is a great way to prep for a game session in a hurry. Early D&D is rife with procedural rules; the earliest rulesets contained wandering monster tables for generating opponents and treasure tables to determine what phat loots those monsters have. The 1e DMG goes even farther by presenting a set of tables for generating a random dungeon map!

Computers, of course, are great for speedily generating random content. Community-oriented players have put up all sorts of free web applications for DMs. One such is “donjon”, a program that generates dungeon levels to your specifications in the blink of an eye. Not only can you set the parameters for how the place should be laid out, you can populate the place with monsters and treasures as well.

Computer-generated procedural content is not without flaws, of course. One is its lack of flexibility. If you’re sketching a dungeon map by making random rolls on a table, you’re free to diverge from the table results and interject your own ideas while drawing the map. A computer-generated map is not so flexible. Nonetheless, you can make changes—if you have the right software.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (original)It was the day before the session and one of the players had decided to bite on a plot hook involving a group of Chaos worshippers congregating in the sewers of Glantri City. After a desultory attempt at sketching a map for a section of the city’s sewers, I decided to try an online map generator. After several minutes of fiddling with donjon and learning its settings, I came up with the map on the left. Since I wanted a short dungeon (as per David Bowman’s “One Page Dungeon”), I’d made a map with only a handful of rooms, but they were encircled by lots of winding tunnels to give that “lost in the sewers” vibe. (Click for a better view.)

But I was unsatisfied with the map as it was. It was too flat, too static. It also needed connections to the rest of the sewer system. So I started up Adobe Photoshop and started tweaking.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (modified)First, I filled in the sewer tunnels with gray to represent sewage. Several rooms and corridors remained white to indicate that they were above-water cellars, and I added stairway segments where they connected with the sewers proper. With only a few more water squares, I joined up some otherwise unconnected tunnels and provided links at the borders to the rest of the sewer network. The dark gray gridmarks in the sewer system’s dead ends indicate street access points via drainage gratings. Lastly, I added a couple of new rooms, including a large “sump” room (#7 on the modified map on the right) designed for a dynamic fight scene against Chaos-tainted frog monsters, with a walkway around the edge of the water and a treasure on the stump of a big broken support pillar in the center.

The whole mapping project took less than two hours from start to finish. Another one would go faster now that I’ve gotten a feel for how to go about it. I think, though, that my next map will be completely procedurally generated, as I’m looking forward to being stuck with a premade map and having to find a way to use it as-is. Limitations and restrictions are important for any creative endeavor!


If You Build It, They Will Come

After running my players through slightly modified versions of three pre-written dungeons (the Blue Box Basic introductory scenario, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands and B1: In Search of the Unknown), I finally wrote up a single page dungeon scenario—a total dungeon crawl with nary a visible trace of Gygaxian naturalism—and ran four of my players through it. They got halfway through the dungeon in their last session and are excited at the prospect of tackling it again!

A few lessons I’ve taken away from the experience of creating and running a small dungeon level:

1) Writing your own boxed text is no substitute for remembering it. I built the first room in the dungeon around a magical trap, then added enough other details—a magic mouth, doors that lock themselves, and monsters emerging from doors masked by illusions—that I forgot to deploy the trap! I wound up relocating the trap to another room, so the idea wasn’t wasted, but there wouldn’t have been any problems if I’d written my notes in a less florid manner, or simply re-read them more thoroughly before starting play.

2) It’s great to devise unusual phenomena in your dungeon, but you need to think through their effects during the design process. Last session’s dungeon included a maze with invisible walls (credit goes to Infocom’s Sorcerer) which also hid objects behind them. Thus, while you could see the outer (non-invisible) walls of the room, you couldn’t see the monsters stalking around inside the maze. But I didn’t consider that this would also affect the PCs, so that as soon as the party turned a corner, the people at one end of the marching order would be invisible to their fellows!

3) When designing tricks and traps, there’s no sure way to predict a party’s level of caution. The same players can shift from paranoia to recklessness and back again at seemingly random intervals. As a referee, sometimes you just have to roll with the party’s actions and see what happens.

All of these lessons apply to pre-generated dungeons as well, particularly the first. But it’s worth noting that designing the dungeon yourself may not, in and of itself, provide additional insight into the place, nor does designing it with your players in mind assure you that they’ll react like you expect them to.


Deeper Themes

A recent Grognardia post about Tolkien and Howard proposes that “as the years have worn on, [RPGs have] become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes.” Commenters on the post discuss whether RPGs need or benefit from deeper themes, and a different guy called James suggests:

Players & DM’s will create their own thematic elements. Hopefully, there will be some synergy here, but, an amusing exercise might be to ask your players, after a year or so of play, how they would describe the deeper elements within the campaign.

I’ll bite! I think the amusingness is supposed to come from the match or lack thereof between what the DM sees as the themes and what the players do, so let’s have our DMs wait to weigh in on the themes until the players have had a chance. Here, though, are what I’d identify as the themes of Eric’s Glantri campaign:

– Mortality. Arguably this is not unique to Glantri, but is the theme of any old-school campaign that starts at first level. Nevertheless, our experience of play is shaped largely by the extreme transience of the adventurers involved.

– Belief. This relates to mortality in the usual way religions do; also in that it creates the need to regularly introduce new cleric PCs, which makes “what is the nature of your faith” an oft-asked question, and that the cult of the Boss is all about meeting an untimely end. The existence of that cult has also provoked interactions with other Glantrian religions, further exploring this theme.

– Family history. This is the one that seems to most emerge from Eric’s side of the screen rather than ours. As a player, though, I’ve been intrigued and impressed by the way that doors in the Caves of Chaos are marked with crests of different branches of the D’Amberville family, for example. So far this theme hasn’t been used much by players, although the arrival of Francois’s brother as a PC may change that.

Do y’all agree or disagree with these, and what do you think are the themes of the White Sandbox or James’ With Great Power game?

(We might need to have the ‘what is a theme’ conversation too.)


Metagaming and the PC Glow

One of my biggest peeves in role-playing games is the phenomenon we refer to as the “PC Glow,” in which the player characters can look at a crowd and pick out fellow PCs at a glance. It’s as though the word “PC” were written on their foreheads in big glowing letters.

Yes, it’s useful to be able to get the PCs together quickly and efficiently, especially in action-oriented games like D&D when the players are eager to skip past the introductory bits to get to the meat of play. But any game that falls under the RPG rubric demands a certain amount of integrity in its fiction, however flimsy that fiction may be, and abuse of the PC glow can violate that fiction most egregiously.

In an example from my Glantri game, several players had replaced their deceased PCs with members of a small mercenary band that they’d taken on as hirelings. One of those hirelings-turned-PCs, Francois, made himself the de facto leader of the party, which he renamed the “Company of Crossed Swords.” Seeing their longtime comrades doing well for themselves as members of the party, the remaining NPC members of the mercenary band approached Francois:

Henri [NPC]: Francois, now that things are working out so well with the new mercenary company, Guy and I were thinking that perhaps we could become full members and get shares instead of our usual fee.

Francois [PC]: Ah, no, I do not think so. I do not think you have earned this thing.

Henri: But… I don’t understand. We’ve fought at your side as long as Isaac and Emory [two other PCs], and they’re full members now.

Francois: Ah, yes, but you see, they have demonstrated vision and initiative! Perhaps, after a few more months as hirelings, you will also demonstrate vision and initiative. Until then, we will pay you the usual fee, eh?

Henri: You’re an ass, Francois.

[The NPCs leave; two new PCs arrive.]

Francois: Gentlemen! You look like fine examples of adventurers. How would you like to be full members of the Company of Crossed Swords?

In retrospect, the problem began with my decision to have the NPCs demonstrate a specific ambition that lay outside of our group’s social contract. We have a house rule whereby PCs gain additional experience points by “squandering” gold on things of no material value, so any treasure going to an NPC is a loss of potential experience points. It’s no wonder that Francois’ player found the notion distasteful!

Thus far, the best solutions I’ve found for PC glow abuse—or for any sort of metagaming, for that matter—are as follows:

1. Foresight. Don’t use rules that encourage metagaming, or if you do, try and avoid laying the groundwork for a conflict between the fiction and the players’ cupidity.

2. Communication: When a PC does something that makes little sense in the shared imaginary space of the game, don’t just block it or let it slide by; step outside of the game for a moment to talk directly to the player about why they’re doing it and whether they (or you) could take some other action that makes more sense in the context of play.

3. Justification: If a PC acts uncharacteristically, work out a worthwhile justification for that action with the player. In the example of Francois, we could invent a prior incident that caused Francois to distrust Henri and Guy, or to feel some personal animus toward them. Such additions to the fiction take a potential problem and use it to make the game more interesting!

Of course, old-school D&D being what it is, Francois died later that session, before I could even consider working in elements of his relationship to his NPC comrades. But the peeve—and the potential solutions to it—remains on the table, waiting to be tested again in play.


legend of the Boss

Here’s how I remember it:

In January 2009 Tavis joined Eric’s on-going Moldvay Basic D&D campaign and rolled up a Cleric.

TAVIS: I think my character rejects the Church of the Builder and the Cult of the Trickster.

ERIC: Oh really?  Perhaps he worships the God of Magic?

TAVIS:  . . . No, he is convinced of his own incipient divinity, and has founded a cult in accordance with that belief.

OTHER PLAYERS: Neat!  You know first-level Clerics can’t cast spells under these rules, right?

TAVIS: Really?

OTHER PLAYERS: So you’re a god who can’t work miracles and [peer at Tavis’s sheet] you have 8 Charisma.

TAVIS: I never said I was good at it.

And so the Boss descended to Earth and walked among mortal men!

Five minutes later, on the road to the dungeon, our party encountered an aristocrat and his retinue who were leaving the dungeon.  We could infer from prior adventures that these were the rightful owners of the ruins we’d been merrily plundering, and I for one tried to keep my head down and avoid provoking them.  (I was a first-level Magic-User with 3 Constitution and 1 hit-point, named Immortus.)

ERIC: James, your character Immortus keeps a wide distance from the approaching party, clearly not wanting to antagonize these people.  A nursemaid traveling with the aristocrat’s group tries to silence a wailing infant wrapped in ornate blankets.  What do the rest of you do?

OTHER PLAYERS: Block their path!  Shake them down for money!  Mock the size of his wand!

JAMES: [moves mini several squares further away when no one is looking]

The aristocrat-wizard waxed increasingly wroth.  There was a shouting match between the aristocrat and our outspoken Dwarven companion Pog concerning the ownership of a certain magical sword.

ERIC: The aristocrat angrily demands the sword, a family heirloom.

POG’S PLAYER: Never!  It is, um, my family heirloom too!

TAVIS: [playing the Boss]  Where’s the nursemaid and the baby on the map?

ERIC: Here. . . . Pog, the aristocrat draws and points a wand at you.

TAVIS: The Boss rushes up, knocks the nursemaid to the ground, and seizes the baby!  The Boss holds the child aloft with a threatening glare at the aristocrat!

ERIC: The aristocrat whirls around, and points his magic wand at the Boss.

JAMES: [from a prudent distance] Sleep, centered on the baby!

I put the baby, the nursemaid, and the Boss to sleep–but the aristocrat Magic-User was immune due to being high level.  He picked up the baby with one hand, and with the other zapped the Boss with a wand of petrification.

ERIC: The aristocrat turns to face you, Immortus.  “Are you the ally of this fool?”

JAMES: Um, he just sort of tagged along with us when we left town.  We’ll be going now, it was nice meeting you.  Immortus withdraws.

[In the chaos, everyone escapes–including, though I’m not sure how, Pog and the magic sword.]

The Boss survived our campaign for about 10 minutes of play time.  His only deed was an insanely ill-advised act of  sociopathy ending in a Save-or-Die effect.  He was the perfect Dungeons & Dragons character.

Having just witnessed a koan in the form of D&D, we immediately understood that the Boss truly was divine, and erected a shrine to him on the spot.  Propagating this cult has become the central storyline of Eric’s campaign, much to his occasional chagrin.  I’m not sure what else he had planned, but that’s what we’re interested in.  (Or were.  I’ve missed a lot of sessions.)

We also created a new alignment system based on the Boss:

  • Bossful – you take insane risks just to stir shit up
  • Immortic – you plot and connive a way to accomplish your goals without any risk
  • Neutral – you are an opportunistic schemer

(Most of our adventurers are Neutral, because as Hamish the Dim observed, “The Boss isn’t someone you can just imitate.  You’ve got to work your way up to it.”)

The Legend of the Boss is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about earlier: there’s a richness of play that simply comes from being there.  We talk about the Boss pretty much every session, and if you missed out on that, it’s like a bunch of guys swapping an in-joke you’ll never really appreciate.  And it’s exactly these sorts of unexpected antics that make sandbox campaign play so richly rewarding.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2020
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