Saturday, July 22, 2017

Basic D&D at 40

The 1977 Origins Game Fair was in Staten Island, New York, on July 22-24 of that year. It was the event where TSR debuted the D&D Basic Set, edited by J. Eric Holmes. It's at the nexus of D&D history, where OD&D, AD&D, and Classic D&D all touch on one document.

Holmes's Basic Set was closely based on OD&D, with only very selected material imported from Greyhawk. The book captures the brevity of OD&D while hinting at the broader expanses that would be found in AD&D. And it would be the template for expansion in Moldvay's 1981 Basic set that forms half of B/X D&D.

If you really want to grasp Dr. Holmes's D&D, you need to read the 55 (!) part series on the Zenopus Archives blog: Holmes Manuscript. It's particularly important to read the parts on melee combat if you want to understand how the blow-by-blow combat mechanics work. The short version is that Holmes's D&D was never supposed to make daggers into the ultimate weapon, or two-handed weapons useless. It was based on Chainmail and characters had two attacks in a round.

The internal history of the boxed set is fascinating. If you read the long list of changes that happened across three editions of the Basic book with three printings each, you'll see the book tightening and standardizing things closer to the AD&D Monster Manual, and getting rid of a lot of the marks that OD&D had left on the rules.

As time went on TSR would not only change the Basic booklet but would alter the included module. The initial print runs had the Monster & Treasure Assortment and Dungeon Geomorphs - only 8 pages each - that Ernie Gygax had cranked out at the Dungeon Hobby Shop. In late 1978, it changed to a copy of B1 In Search of the Unknown. A year later, at the end of 1979, the module changed again - to B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

The original approach was very much intended for OD&D referees and provided only the tools to put together a fully stocked dungeon. The dungeons featured the mazy, twisty labyrinths with "paper-thin walls" that we see in Gary Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk, and the monsters and treasures are the main ingredients. (I would love to see an analogue that included traps and weirdness.) The next step was B1 In Search of the Unknown, a unique module that leaves the monsters and treasure separate from the map key, as an exercise for the referee. Finally in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, Gygax decided to simply break down and show the referee how to run the game.

This process of revision reflected a growing attitude of professional presentation that came to predominate in TSR. The first printing of Holmes D&D is very much a child of the TSR that put out the Little Brown Books, a growing cottage publisher that was lucky to have had help from this nice doctor in California to put the rules in more or less coherent order. The last printing is thoroughly professionalized and has all the wooliness tamed from it, and leads logically to the 1981 Moldvay boxed set. (So logically, in fact, that late copies of Holmes remained in circulation until after the Mentzer boxed sets were already out.)

Holmes is a set that anyone can take out and recognize classic D&D from. OD&D is more raw and DIY, AD&D more detailed, and B/X more polished. But you can always take out Holmes, and the map I prefer for B1 In Search of the Unknown, ReQuasqueton, and play some solid D&D with all the core ingredients.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Paying for Safe Passage; or, Banditry and Barons.

A recent AskHistorians question about bandits got an answer that is simply overflowing with game-worthy material. The whole thread is fascinating reading, as is an older thread on the same subject.

First: there is a positive correlation between bandits and wolves. There are all kinds of rich ways to integrate this into a fantasy world. Bandits could have some lupine qualities (keen eyesight, sense of smell) or they could be marked visually as wolflike in their appearance. Some bandits might make a totem of wolves or the bandit deity might have some connotations. There is also the possibility of wolves kept as "pets" - or the ultimate twist, that the bandit king is actually himself a werewolf. It's a rich mythic resonance that you can take advantage of when you want to make this gang stand out from the last bunch.

Second: there's a very fine line between noble lords, soldiers, and bandits. In a lot of fantasy there's an assumption that the law is going to protect everyone, but here we find quite the opposite. We saw back in the OD&D setting series that Lords sometimes challenge PCs to combat, so it shouldn't be surprising that sometimes the feudal lord is going to kidnap you for ransom. Tolls and stand-ups for "safe passage" are, of course, a convenient way to relieve PCs of excess loot.

Of course, this doesn't always have to be the Lord himself. Primogeniture means that there are going to be sons who don't necessarily have anything good to do, and they could always get up to trouble. You could even have a robber baron (in the classic sense) hiring a less scrupulous group of PCs as "toll takers" to waylay a caravan - sort of the polar opposite of the stereotypical "You're guarding a caravan" opener for scenarios. It'd also be a hoot for a group of Lawful PCs to capture a group of bandits and deliver them to the local Lord only to find that they are his men working under his protection.

If the PCs are in a stereotypical "borderland" environment, doing some kind of hexcrawl, it's not out of the question to put soldiers on the wandering monster table. These could be essentially bandits, or simply a camp of soldiers who want to turn a buck and charge the PCs for safe passage.

Third: there is the idea of pilgrimage. This is interesting for a whole host of reasons. Pilgrims were the stereotypical travellers of the medieval world. They were typically travelling to some site in Europe associated with a saint or a miracle, or in the extreme case (most common when the Crusades were going well) travelling all the way to the Holy Land.

Shrines and churches with particular holy sites have a ton of potential. A shrine can fall under siege by monsters, or be despoiled by a powerful evil cleric, or just be a location where you have to guard pilgrims. If the PCs happen upon a clerical stronghold, the high priest might send them on a pilgrimage in return for some spell cast or favor done. It's a flavorful way to get people to go from point A to point B. And the motley crew that might be found on such a pilgrimage is the kind of thing Chaucer might tell you about.

Fourth: this is the kind of thing that goes great on rumor tables and guides. "Avoid the bridge over the Sterling River south of the Red Hills, the local lord will rob you blind." Of course, turnabout is fair play, and the same Lord might spread rumors that the northern bridge is inhabited by trolls, driving the PCs south into his territory.

Fifth: the last thing that is fun here is that, this being the Middle Ages, robberies were not always in hard cash. In a lean year bandits or predatory Lords may be more interested in food and wine than in taking hard currency that can't buy chicken scratch. Magic items, of course, are prime targets for a nobleman to demand of a passing hero. And kidnapped characters, of course, can always be press-ganged into doing some adventurous task.

In terms of tone, the idea of bandit Lords and soldiers is an undercurrent beneath a lot of the great medieval literature. It was prettified under the guise of chivalric combat for Arthurian tales but the basic idea is not much different. But if you're ever hexcrawling in the OD&D setting, give robber barons a thought.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Thief in the Dying Earth

The description of Matthew Hughes's latest short story collection, 9 Tales of Raffalon, is simply: "A Thief in the Dying Earth." Hughes is a fantasy writer who has been working in the space of the "Dying Earth" subgenre, typified by authors such as Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. While Hughes's prose will not stand up to the stiff test of those authors, Raffalon is a creation that should bring a smile to the face of any Vance fan. He is a thief in the vein of Cugel the Clever, continually finding himself (usually with good cause) in the crosshairs of strange wizards and mortal enemies while being rakish and clever about it.

I first found Raffalon by browsing for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I pick up periodically because I enjoy short stories and enjoy the fact that there's still a magazine publishing fantasy stories. I found "The Prisoner of Pandarius" and immediately felt at home with Hughes's world.

The worldbuilding in Hughes is solid. He has created a very peculiar universe, full of interesting and arcane guilds with various restrictions and symbols, and characters who've learned to live right at their edges. The period Raffalon spends in "The Vindicator" working the offices of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors is, particularly, a fun way to set up that story. If you want to have thieves' guilds or similar institutions in your game, this is a must-read.

Another area where Hughes shines through is in his description of magic effects. Magic is strange, and visceral, and really quite wondrous. The effect in "Wearaway and Flambeau" is a particularly fun one, as is the experience when Raffalon actually casts a bit of a spell in "Stones and Glass." It's described in a way that really takes the reader through the process and helps you realize why all the spellcasters in Hughes's stories tend to be arrogant and bizarre sorts.

This collection is an assortment of picaresque tales, and while there are recurring figures they don't form much by way of a grand narrative. Raffalon started at the end, in "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" written for the anthology Rogues, and he is pretty much an iconic thief from the earliest of his tales. (Hughes's new character, Baldemar, has more of an arc to his stories.) Raffalon is a bit more likable than Cugel the Clever, who is openly his inspiration, which is to his credit, though he's not as sharp-witted.

Among "Vancian" authors, Hughes does not mimic the decadent prose of The Dying Earth. His writing works fairly well for the stories but isn't just enjoyable on its pure merits. A short sample from "Wearaway and Flambeau":
A thief's credo is to avoid capture and punishment by any means necessary. But Raffalon had added a corollary to that code: when all is lost, at least go out with a bold face. He now set his features into as intrepid an arrangement as he could manage, and turned his gaze upward. He found himself staring, as expected yet hoped against, into the uncompromising visage of Hurdevant the Stringent.
That's about the level of writing you'll get; I find it fine, and it reads quickly, but I wouldn't want to disappoint someone looking for a Vance or, say, a Michael Shea in this anthology.

I enjoy these stories because they are what is advertised on the tin: short stories about a thief in the Dying Earth. It's just nice that after all these years of plumbing brick-length fantasy novels and finding them shallow, somebody is out there still embracing good old picaresque fantasy in the short story form.

9 Tales of Raffalon is available from Amazon or directly from Matt Hughes. It's recommended to anyone interested in dying earth fantasy, thieves and thieves' guilds, or just having some fresh short stories to pick your way through.