Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

On D&D Skills.

PolyhedralsThere’s an interesting post by Zak Smith on the skill list for 5th Edition D&D, the reasoning behind the skills, and how OSR games handle similar situations. Zak was a consultant on the 5e project, but even then there’s one skill he hates.

He raises some interesting points about skill checks versus attribute checks, noting that some skills only really exist because of game maths and could have been handled by attribute checks if the mechanics had been different. Expanding on that, Deceit and Persuade are different skills because a thief’s charisma is very different from a cleric’s. And finally, Perception is far more elegant than the mishmash of thief skills and racial abilities of AD&D.

DnD5e skill’s are a great example of a concise list that covers all the things needed for the genre the game is supposed to emulate, while avoiding the skill bloat that sank games like 4th edition GURPS, for me at least.

The whole thing is a useful read for anyone trying to build a coherent skill list for any game system.

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Farewell, Jack Chick

Jack Chick, author of the awful but compelling badly-drawn fundamentalist tracts railing at Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Gays, Freemasons, Rock and Roll, Dungeons and Dragons, or anybody who didn’t share the specific doctrines of his particular Protestant sect has died, aged 92.

Many of his tracts were little more than crude hate-speech with no redeeming qualities, and while they deserved mockery, weren’t very funny to his targets.

One exception was his anti-Dungeons and Dragons: “Dark Dungeons”, which ended up being unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny. Anyone who has ever played D&D will recognise how ridiculous it is. Though his vision of an all-girl D&D group was way too ahead of it’s time, pre-dating Contessa or I Hit It With My Axe by a generation.

dark-dungeons

There is even a Lovecraftian parody of Chick Tract out there. It’s disturbing how close the style and tone is to Chick’s own tracts. But then, some of H. P. Lovecraft’s dark cults were Presbyterian sects that had gone off the rails, so maybe it fits after all?

who-will-be-eaten-first

I learned of Jack Chick’s death on Twitter while listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. This may or may not be evidence that God has a sense of humour. If Jack Chick does make to Heaven (who am I to put limits on God’s mercy?), he may well be in for a surprise with some of the people he meets there.

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The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

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Fantasy Elves and their True Nature

Zak Smith has written an interesting blog post on elves in fantasy gaming and literature. Elves in fiction draw from two conflicting archetypes. There are the elves of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, noble and wise, and if they ever seem otherworldly or callous it’s because they take a long term view of things that shorter-lived races cannot fully understand. Then there are the elves of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld, callous and cruel because that is their very nature, seeing lesser races as mere playthings. Both, of course, draw from northern European folklore in which things are far more complicated and morally ambiguous.

In the gaming world, D&D squares this dichotomy by having two distinct subspecies of elf, the “good” elves modelled on Tolkien, and the Drow, who represent the bad guys.

Zak Smith comes up with an alternative take. In his cosmology, elves believe that everything, from trees to food animals to tools and buildings has a soul and an inner life, and that’s reflected in the elven attitude towards everything, including “lesser” races.

Metaphysical faith–like all ideas requiring morality and power to work in concert–implies both profound contradiction and a willingness to ignore it. Your average elf will totally stick his or her foot in a shoe while totally believing the shoe has thoughts and desires the same way most of us have decided we simply couldn’t function if we continuously contemplated the totality of the plight of the chicken we eat or the homeless human we walk past on our way to get it.

The usual fantasy trope is that the evil elves are a distortion–that elfness is natural and noble, and that some drop of venom must have found its way into the formula to create the cruel ones. But in actuality the elf is already poisoned: it isn’t faerie. The elf is organized, technologized, militarized, civilized, and it draws psychological comfort from imaginary lines between its consciousness and that of things that don’t move on their own.

His conclusion is that “evil” elves as exemplified by D&Ds’s Drow, rather than representing noble elves who have fallen, represent the elves in their natural state. Noble Tolkien-style elves are those who have managed to rise above their own nature. It’s an interesting twist on the D&D default.

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Unearthed Elf – Into the Catacomb Abyss

unearthed-elf-into-the-catacomb-abyssYou are in a 20′ by 20′ room.

You see a metal band. They are singing about finding a vial of holy water in an ancient, cobweb-laden mausoleum.

What do you do?

Visigoth had one song called “The Dungeon Master”. Scottish power-metal heroes Gloryhammer released a concept album about an evil wizard and his army of undead unicorns. Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn made a solo album with a narrative that included an end-of-level monster. But with song titles like “Vial of Holy Water Found in an Ancient, Cobweb-Laden Mausoleum”, “Lighting the Mummy on Fire” and “Lair of the Beholder” has anyone released an album which sounds like an entire dungeon set to music?

Unearthed Elf is actually a solo project from Keith D of progressive doom metallers Arctic Sleep, largely written while he was incapacitated with a knee injury. As well as all the vocals and guitars, he plays all instruments, including the drums. As a concept album about the aforementioned Elf, the imagery in the lyrics and song titles would be little more than a gimmick if the music wasn’t up to scratch, but this is also a record with plenty to say musically.

It kicks off with the monstrous old-school metal riff of the title track, the densely layered, almost symphonic “Never See The Sun Again” and the atmospheric progressive-tinged “Eternal Night”, and those first three numbers set the tone for the record. What we have is a skilful mix of the textures of melodic death metal and old-school classic metal, with a dash of modern progressive rock adding sonic variety. The record eschews death-growls in favour of clean vocals throughout, with a couple of moments of Gregorian chant thrown in for good measure. There’s more than a hint of Mikael Akerfeldt about Keith D’s vocals, and the resulting sound has echoes of Opeth, Paradise Lost and Amorphis. It’s got a huge sound with multiple layers of guitars and vocals, and it manages to sound epic without being overblown.

Far more that just the soundtrack to a dungeon crawl, “Into the Catacomb Abyss” is an ambitious and impressive metal album. The album is released on October 31st, Halloween night.

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Politics by AD&D Alignment

This is a rewrite of an old post from a couple of years ago that got accidentally deleted from the archives. The Internet Wayback Machine does not seem to have saved a copy, so this is a reconstruction of sorts.

Does the AD&D alignment system help explain present-day politics rather better than “Left” and “Right”?

For those of you not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, the Alignment chart is a three-by-three grid giving nine possible values, which serve as a shorthand for a character’s moral and philosophical values. One axis is Law vs. Chaos, more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion series. The other is Good vs. Evil, which ought to be self-explanatory.

Both old-fashioned social conservatism and old-fashioned socialism are probably Lawful Neutral. Both like to think of themselves as Lawful Good, so the two are opponents when the truth is that both have a lot in common. Both believe that social order and the solidarity of the community trumps the freedom of the individual, and take a paternalistic attitude towards those considered weaker than themselves.

Liberals are more Neutral Good in theory tending towards True Neutral in practice, believing that the greatest benefit for the greatest number comes from finding the right balance between individual freedom and collective welfare.

Libertarians are Chaotic Neutral. They believe individual freedom is everything, and the consequence of that are somebody else’s problem. The fundamental split in the Tory party is between the Chaotic Neutral libertarians and the Lawful Neutral social conservatives.

When it comes to Evil, I would have hesitated to use that word for any mainstream political ideology, at least in the west. Lawful Evil or any other flavour of Evil ought to belong to things like the Nazis or Islamic State. But then I look at the rise and rise of Donald Trump and wonder…

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You can’t have an entire party of Bards

Ester Segarra

Sometimes you see a band’s publicity photo, and your first reaction is “You can’t have an entire Dungeons and Dragons party made up of Bards. Although it has been pointed out that the guy with the staff might be a Druid.

The band is Wytch Hazel, their album (which is extremely good) is out in April, and there will be a review on this site shortly.

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Emirikol the Chaotic

Emirikol the Chaotic This iconic image by the late Dave Trampier from the first edition A&D Players Handbook epitomises Dungeons and Dragons for me.

Here’s a figure on horseback firing Magic Mssile spells while a conviently heavily-armed warrior rushes out of a tavern to confront him.

It’s just like a scene from a western. Except it’s in medieval European dress.

Which, when you actually stop and think about the tropes, is what Dungeons and Dragons is all about.

 

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So who played Dungeons and Dragons?

Interesting post on Crooked Timber about writers and D&D

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond of with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’.

I have wondered the same about musicians. There was an interview with the late great Ronnie James Dio when the interviewer noted the imagery of so much of his kyrics; “Holy Diver” could easily have been inspired by “A Paladin in Hell”. But Dio, like Kazuo Ishiguro, was a generation too old, and had never played the game.

The imagery from so much of world of power-metal suggests that the scene must be filled with past and present D&D players. The only surprise is that we have yet to see a song about gelatinous cubes. I am told that the infamous church-burning black metaller and convicted murderer Varg Vikernes has designed his own RPG, though gamers might not want to publicise that fact.

But what of the grassroots prog scene covered by this blog? Aside from Rob Ramsay of Tinyfish, who not only played D&D but still does, who else has played either D&D or another tabletop roleplaying game?  There are one or two names that come to mind immediately…

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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