Dungeoning & Dragoning and My New Rules, No Clerics Allowed

So I have, uh, three tabletop RPGs in development right now. One's a little corporate sabotage game, inspired by Severance, Brazil, Paranoia… One of my mini horror games with poor long-term survivability, but neat premise, should be fun.

Second is my sword & planet RPG, still needs a lot of work for space & time & dimension mechanics; it works great for fantasy swordfighting but that's not the whole point. I considered using variant Traveller/Cepheus Engine for this, but the tone is not "grizzled vets play Elite", so I'm off in my own direction here.

Third is yet another in a long series of D&D house rules that become their own OGL game, and that's what I'm on about today. In replacement for my overly-variant and overly-3.x-mechanics Stone Halls & Serpent Men, or handwritten Olde House Rules. Name to be decided later.

I've been reading a lot of the very oldest games & magazines, and really getting in the space of "what does this game need instead of what Gary published?"

  • New rules, basically OGL, spells & monsters are mostly stock from Swords & Wizardry White Box SRD, but some have partial to total rewrites. A handful of entirely new monsters, or takes on mythical/literary monsters. All new encounter table! I'm only using d20, d6 dice, and things you can do with those.
  • Stats change Wisdom to Willpower (WIL). Stat bonuses are B/X-ish, -3 to +3, which works with a d20-based mechanic. Saves & skill rolls are all based on stats.
  • HP start a little higher, Classed types get their CON score as base, but only d6 +/- 1 HD per Level. Somewhat like Arduin Grimoire. With limited healing, you need a bit more buffer between alive/dead. If you hit 0, you make death saves at penalty and probably die soon, but it's possible to be knocked out & captured like John Carter et al. do in every book.
  • Species are Human, Dwarf, Wood Elf, Beastfolk. As previously noted in The Thing About Orcs, I don't do kill-on-sight intelligent beings. You can have wars against hostile tribes, but the Badger Beastfolk who runs the bakery is not at war with you. High Elves are, as usual for me, The Big Bad (as well as Serpent Men, because I'm a Kull fanboy). No "dark elves", "half-demon goth chick", "dragon scalyfucker", "hobbit", etc. species. As I noted in Orcs, Humans-only doesn't work well without cultural markers that are harder to explain.
  • Classes are Fighter, Thief, Magician, and Spellsword (mediocre warriors with mediocre magic). No multi-class, no Clerics. Not doing anything fancy with career paths. Other than a few more experience options, and "Orgies, Inc" style pay-for-EP, it's a normal experience system! Who knew I could do that?! Should be interesting at least for this game.
  • Magic has a number of hard limits, which will make you invest in traditional fantasy accoutrements like flying mounts and magic potions instead of being superheroes with pointy hats. It is Vancian, in the sense that I've actually read Jack Vance so it works like that. Minimized spell/item creation rules, but there is some support for stuck-in-a-tower research campaigns.
  • Adventuring rules are simplified quite a bit, down to what I actually do in play; the more complex mechanics in SHSM rarely got used, the simple stuff does.
  • I may just pull the Inspirational Media (aka "Appendix N") chapter from SHSM and post it as a page. That media list is what I mean by "pulp fantasy".
  • Currently it's about 32 pages, not too densely packed, might be a bit more if I include more setting detail; certainly not above 48 pages, which seems a fine oldest-school size. Not bothering with art except the cover? I don't think so. Literature doesn't need interior art, use your imagination.

No Clerics Allowed

The lack of Clerics is contentious, but Delta's DND and Binder Full of Notes share my arguments.

I don't see heroic Clerics in any of the pulp swords & sorcery I like. There's Priest-Magicians in Moorcock's Elric stories or Thieves World, and they're the baddies. New campaign world is more like Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, where at best the few priests seen are charlatans, at worst cultists. The only historical place they come from is Archbishop Turpin from La Chanson de Roland; even Le Morte d'Arthur has only knights who praise their god, not magic Clerics. The only fantasy Cleric I can think of that I like is Duncan from Deryni Rising, and he's a secretly-apostate priest who uses black magic to save his people from Christian Human genocide!

They don't appear in Chainmail (Heroes & Wizards), or Dave Arneson's games (Adventures in Fantasy has skill-based fighters, who develop faerry[sic] magic skills later). The only reason they were ever in the game was Gary had an annoying vampire PC, and rather than do anything OOC (unaware that Rousseau had published The Social Contract in 1762), he made a grudge class for someone else.

Getting rid of Clerics makes Undead terrifying, and I love the Undead but don't love turning the undead. You don't have a living body shield who can just turn Undead all day; a Magician's Protection, Area spell lasts a few turns and only delays your murder or waiting for sunrise. Healing becomes slow (high-Level Magicians can cast 1 healing spell per day) or expensive (potions and scrolls), which encourages you to creatively avoid combat, not wade in and heal later, unless you have superior power. No raise dead, resurrection, or restoration (tho "level drain" has a different meaning in my game).

The super weird part of Clerics in D&D is they're based very heavily on Medieval Catholic priests; they carry crosses (not "holy symbols") in OD&D, they use "blessed holy water", their miracles are all based on Jesus stories, their hierarchy is based on the Medieval Catholic Church (with some weird level titles). But then they do nothing related to the Church! Because they're just Van Helsing minus the science.

The thing that stands out to me most is they have no interaction with Faerie or other gods. Historically and in myth, The Church ordered Christians to mass murder any Pagans who wouldn't convert, and fought endlessly to genocide/unexist the Little People, the Fair Folk, the People Under the Hill, Trolls, whatever you call them; their worship barely survived at all in Iceland, Finland, Norway, they're just "fairy tales" now. The worlds of Law (Christianity) & Chaos (Faerie) are openly at war in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions. Clerics should be all carrying iron staves and fighting against the Fey. They do in Ars Magica. But it's never come up in D&D?

Blackmoor/Eldritch Wizardry/AD&D added Druids (historically, more Sage political leaders than lightning-throwing Poison Ivy/Captain Planet superheroes), who should literally be at bloody war all the time with Christian Clerics, but everyone's copacetic, it's an ecumenical matter. Church and Holly Grove are next door in the tiny village of Hommlett. They have Clay Golems, explicitly based on the Golem of Prague, made by Clerics instead of Jewish Rabbis (again, Sages, not magic Clerics except in some Torah stories). What. I do use Golems, I love "programmed clay/flesh/iron machine goes crazy" stories; but the religious issue is impossible to resolve.

If I cared one whit for religious ceremony and all that, well, you can still have religions without Clerics, as seen in our world. They can be non-Classed, Thieves (most appropriately), or Fighters, or even Magicians if you don't mind the cognitive dissonance. But the only old-timey-religions that have ever been in my games are demon-summoning cultists Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!, or fascist Templar priests, who are more political than religious.

So, the gameplay is better without Clerics. The world is much better (more like the pulp S&S I want) without Clerics. Even in a historical setting (which I very much do not do), Clerics shouldn't have superpowers.

Why Not 5E?

Because I don't need 1000 pages of corporate rules to tell me how to move down a corridor, check for traps, fight or flight. I really hate the superheroic power level. It's nearly impossible to disentangle the healing rules from it.

Fantasy Inspirations of My Youth

This is a good "why are you like this" challenge:

If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12,
these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to
provide the inspiration for my game. […] What were your earliest
childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world
look like back then?
DIY and Dragons

I think these are roughly in order of age of discovery, publication date's often very different. I was… the word schools liked was "precocious", which just means I was years and years ahead of the curriculum designed for morons and they had no idea how to educate me, any more than an ape could educate a mere Human. The Tarzan problem. So I read and watched whatever I liked, and grew up weird. Giving me D&D and then Gamma World was just giving a junkie an endless needle.

  • Godzilla (1954): This is what dragons are like. Any kind of giant, dinosaur, or kaiju is a catastrophe you run from, not a "monster" you fight from horseback, those are just wyverns. I saw basically every monster movie and some sentai on KSTW-11, which only had budget for old movies and reruns.

  • Star Wars (1977), Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster (1978), Empire Strikes Back (1980): High-tech but just fantasy activity; as I learned later, Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with spaceships, many scenes are shot-for-shot remakes.

    I'm trying to think what I learned from this, and I think it's that every alignment can be cool. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia are Chaos, and they're cool, tho if Leia wins she'll establish a tyrannical monarchy again which is no good. Han Solo is Neutral, and he's cooler than cool, and shoots first. Darth Vader is Order, choking out all dissension, and he's THE COOLEST. Luke and Grand Moff Tarkin suck, but you can't have everyone be cool or nobody is.

    Figure out your antagonists' motives, take their affectations and crank them up to 11, and you have an EPIC hero or villain. Pity they never made any more Star Wars movies, I might've liked to see Revenge of the Jedi. I will take no email or comments to the contrary.

  • Bullfinch's Mythology: While now it's "oh that old thing", Bullfinch did a fantastic job of covering Greek/Roman (more Greek, but with Roman names; Roman syncretism mapped names to their gods but their practices were different), Norse, and Arthurian mythos, including a lot of the poetry and literature that referenced them in the 2000 years since. Academic mythology books are too concerned with period beliefs and not how those ideas are used in later works, so they're less gameable. The art in Bullfinch's is also fantastic.

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes, Pellucidar: You know why everyone in fantasy worlds speaks Common? Because the Barsoomians have a common language by way of telepathy; Carter's telepathy's a little stronger than usual, so he can project it, but they all have it. The ruined cities, falling civilization, a hero trying to bring back glories, toppling false religions, it had it all. Tarzan's ruined cities and ancient civilizations hidden in the jungle were awesome, literally set much of my campaign style. Pellucidar was so weird and dream-like, I barely understood it, but a plausible way for dinosaurs, Humans, and evil Mahars to coexist was amazing, too. It's not a coincidence Eric J. Holmes, editor of Dungeons & Dragons Basic set, wrote a Pellucidar novel.

  • National Geographic: I had access to a big stack of old NatGeo from '40s to '70s. In particular, I devoured anything about Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece, Mayans, & Aztecs. NatGeo of the time was astoundingly West-oriented and racist; I would've loved to know more about China, Japan, Korea, & India, but they were barely touched on. Africa was only ever presented as wilderness or savages, zero mention of modern cities. I have an eternal love of giant detailed maps from this time.

  • ElfQuest (1978): Very pretty, cutesy comics about cuddly little Wood Elves and their Wolf pets… Ha ha no, I lie, they're vicious, backstabbing, eternally horny/drunk little bastards, the Trolls (more like Dwarfs) are venal scumbags, Preservers (Fairies) are insane pests, High Elves are supernatural psychopath villains, and Humans are the dumbest, meanest animals on 2 legs. Here's how to throw all your dumb Tolkien racist shit out and have murderous Keebler Elves.

  • Michael Moorcock: The silver Elric books and bronze Count Brass books, I grabbed as soon as each new one came out, devoured them. Elric's world is full of weird mystical secrets you can grab hold of, bargain with, steal, and use. Horrible monsters and demons are summoned up by fool wizards for lust or revenge, and spread Chaos in the world. Hooray, Chaos! We see in the decayed post-apocalypse of Count Brass that Order is just as poisonous, and can't be recovered from. I didn't encounter Moorcock's weirder stuff like Jerry Cornelius until much later, presumably the local hillbilly bookstores didn't order them.

  • Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950): Literally my model of the megadungeon. The structure seems to go on forever, up and down, buried into the Earth. Strange structures poke out everywhere, mapping beyond the known halls is impossible. The inhabitants are mad. There's little/no magic or monsters in the books, but they feel like there's magic & monsters everywhere. Don't read past the 2nd book, I didn't as a yout' and much later I didn't like Titus Alone.

  • Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising (1970): Low fantasy proto-England with swordfights, witchcraft & ritual magic, treachery. The ongoing fetishization of monarchy and religion, and an "actual miracle", finally soured me on the series, but the early books made it clear these are Human (or Deryni) fabrications. The consistent, low-powered but useful "magic" (or psionics, or mutant powers) are a good way to model magic in games. The Deryni are High Elves who don't suck.

  • Gamma World (1978): The game that defined how I see role-playing games. Harsh, brutal, shockingly beautiful at times, erratic, full of impossible, anachronistic references. It's fun, it's not reality. Unspeakably deadly in most places, but two medieval dipshits having at each other with swords will take half an hour to whittle their HP down to nothing, and then the survivor will take months to heal; so you learn to cheat, to use poisons, artifacts, traps, tame monsters as pets, risk getting more mutations, so you can survive.

  • Robert Asprin & Lynn Abbey, Thieves World (1978): Absolutely should never have been given to an impressionable young Mark. Cruelty, treachery, black magic, and of course thievery in a corrupt hellhole end-of-the-Empire city called Sanctuary. Pretty much all my fantasy cities are a bit of Sanctuary.

    A very similar influence I encountered later was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser. But I didn't read those until late '80s.

  • Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): The most formative thing possible. Every frame of even the opening title is inspirational. Jack Kirby designed this, and it shows. A mix of Gamma World, magic, Burroughs-type ruins, superhuman heroes.

    "In the year 1994, from outer space comes a runaway planet,
    hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic
    destruction! Man's civilization is cast in ruins! 2000 years
    later, Earth is reborn, a strange new world rises from the
    old, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery! But one
    man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions
    Ookla the Mok, and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his
    courage, and his fabulous Sun Sword against the forces of evil!"

  • Clash of the Titans (1981): Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece. The monsters are amazing, the gods are meddling jerks but not the center of attention, more amazing monsters, the dumb-ass hero and chick yada yada another amazing monster! The myths I'd read so much about were filmed. Pity that Perseus & Andromeda are so much more wooden than the monsters. The gods do indeed play games with the lives of mortals.

  • Heavy Metal (1981): I'd seen maybe one issue of the magazine at this time, it was definitely not sold to minors. But somehow I got into the movie, and when it came out on tape I got it and rewatched endlessly. The Lock-Nar itself is irrelevant, the framing story is silly. But "Den of Neverwhere", "Taarna", and to some extent "Captain Stern" and "So Beautiful So Dangerous" ("wanna do some nyborg?") are all peak young Mark. "Harry Canyon" (ha) is great but I don't really do urban SF. I've never found any real use for "B-17".

  • Neil Hancock, Greyfax Grimwald (1982): What looks like a cute talking-animals and Dwarf book becomes something much deeper, as it turns into a sort of Buddhist Journey to the West-ish fantasy adventure. Collides fairy-world with real-world and actually made me think about what these worlds are. Not as gonzo as everything else here, probably the only thing with any philosophical merit.

  • Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982): Surreal, dream-like, horrifying imagery, a true Mythic Underworld dungeon, a crazy Warlock, a nigh-invincible Dragon. And then there's the game system, which was a perfect little marvel of design, Skill, Stamina, Luck, 2d6, that's all you need (for fighter/rogues in a dungeon crawl), one of the biggest influences on how I make my own games.

  • The Day After (1983): … 14 years later, there's a scene in The Fifth Element where Leeloo types "WAR" into the encyclopedia, and just breaks down screaming & crying on seeing what Humans do to each other. That was me.

    "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL?!" I asked, and keep asking, and they had no answers. And this is, like, an unreasonably optimistic scenario of nuclear war, because anyone gets to live long enough to wrap their dead family in plastic bags and worry about cancer, or looters eating fallout-poisoned food. So, growing up I had zero expectation that I'd live to see 2000, let alone another score of years after. Maybe we didn't, and this is a final dream.

If I'd known about Ralph Baksi's Wizards, it would fit right in, but I didn't see that until mid-to-late '80s.

I was already reading H. Beam Piper's books by '82, but I definitely didn't read Space Viking or Empire until late '80s, which are the ones that fit my ethos.

Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (discovered thru X2 Castle Amber) were late '80s for sure. I know precisely that I read "At the Mountains of Madness" in 1986.

Raaka'tu, Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, and more computer games certainly influenced how I do videogames, but they didn't teach me much world-building.

The D&D and GW games I ran early on were very formulaic retreads of B1 In Search of the Unknown, B4 Lost City, or GW1 Legion of Gold modules. Later I learned to make more creative worlds, but they're still much the same framework & generated world madness.

I've probably never run a game which wasn't: A) Post-apocalypse, often centuries, millennia later; or B) Just pre-apocalypse, and there's nothing you can do about it but your actions are probably futile. Vast military horrors lurking on the edge of your vision.

I've rarely run anything with legitimate authorities above town headman who aren't dead, completely corrupted, or too distant to care. Instead the adventurers, usually venal thieves and bastards, are the only force strong enough to fight the worse guy "villains". I suppose some Call of Cthulhu, but I usually outfit the group for an expedition into weird lands, or they're trapped in some Old One or Fungi from Yuggoth laboratory or whatever. I had a "king" and court in a Dungeons & Zombies game, but the entire power structure was like 20 knights including our new recruit PCs, and the necromancers and alien gods raising millions of ravenous dead, and the chittering spidery goblins in the dark, had other ideas.

Usually my games start out looking like medieval, ancient, stone age, or sorta spacey fantasy, and you rapidly learn the world was once very different from that. You get into other lands, or old bases full of artifacts from the time before. You go into space, sometimes, and find the colony worlds have their own problems. But you still keep looting tombs/bases and building power, because you live in the world you've been left, not the peaceful one you want.

What I'm Watching: The Big Bad

This has been 6 groups trying to do a D&D 5E "tournament adventure", and then scored for mission success.

The Dungeon Master is Paul Siegel of Paul's Game Blog and the adversary is played by Dan Collins of Delta's D&D and OED Games.

Good Stuff:

  • The Adversary. Having a co-DM play the "Big Bad" is an interesting setup I've seen done a few times in real games, it leaves the Referee free to run the game fairly instead of also running every monster in the world, though of course the adversary's game time is usually limited. And Dan does a great job of chewing scenery (and slimy larvae from his lovin' cup). He doesn't have a lot of troops to control, and I think he's much too passive and defensive with them, but given what he has, he does about as well as you can hope for.

  • The Players. Many of the players put some real character into their pregens, and made good role-playing and tactical choices. They seem like fun groups to game with.

  • Scoring. The rankings are about equal to how much I enjoyed each group's attempt. The Luke Gygax group came in second, I think? And they were my favorite, but otherwise, sure. The last group was so dull, unprepared, and incompetent, and their low score was well-deserved. There's an upcoming episode explaining the scoring, which I'm curious to see.

  • Videoconferencing & Editing. Surprisingly few technical difficulties, mostly switched to the players when they were talking, miniatures when they're being moved. You'd think in 2020 that wouldn't be an issue, but so many of these things are nothing but technical failure.

Bad Stuff:

  • D&D 5E. Not a fan. Just a bloated, thousands-of-pages, over-complicated mess of a game. Somewhere under all that shit, there must be a pony, so many people keep digging. You can see it clearest in this show, when old-school players are confronted with the giant pile of abilities and modifiers they get from all over the place, the spells have weird conditional effects and you're constantly reminding each other of which ones apply. The two-hour game time here would be 15-30 minutes in an old-school system.

    This is especially weird because both these guys are old-school D&D bloggers, Dan's OED rules are pretty good, entirely reasonable interpretations of OD&D. Paul runs a weird hybrid of B/X, D20, and Warhammer FRP for his Ten Dead Rats game; I don't know why he's not just using Zweihänder or some edition of WHFRP, they're much better than his hybrid, but it works. But all of those are much simpler than 5E, and more engaging with the players. They don't have a laundry list of powers to activate, players instead must role-play actions the Referee agrees are reasonable. That's a better test than "oh I picked the Druid so I can turn into an alligator here!"

  • Miniatures. For a visual show, a giant model set and miniatures being moved around is useful, sure. The cavern and altar tower look great. But it's a single room that must've cost hundreds of dollars, and painting minis takes forever, and it limits you in what you can bring out to what figures you have. In any realistic budget, you'd maybe have a styrofoam riser "and this is the stone tower!" Which is why I prefer "theatre of the mind", where you just describe the scenario, everyone closes their eyes and pretends. Or for tactical situations like this, a "battle mat" of butcher paper with drawn lines and chits or cardboard standees to represent the combatants.

    Matt Finch did a series of his Swords & Wizardry rules Swords of Jordoba campaign, and they were fantastic game sessions—how old-school D&D is/should be actually played—frequently interrupted by setting up little mazes of miniatures and a tiny POV webcam. He also did a 5E Heroes of Jordoba campaign which went ludicrously off the rails, about evenly split because Zach's a very unserious player, because 5E's a terrible game, and because the end was running that stupid dinosaur swamp adventure.

  • Easy Mode Dungeon. The entire scenario, played out six times, is a single room, with about 10 opponents, 8 of whom are just identical cultists that Dan calls "Primus", "Secondus", etc. The final party managed to nearly TPK themselves in the river, but otherwise every group has skipped across the river, run up the stairs or side of the tower, killed the boss, game over. Nobody failed, which means it was balanced far too easy; admittedly it's hard to kill 5E player characters. There's no exploration, it's just a toy set on camera.

    The old tournament modules like Gary Gygax's S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Lawrence Schick's S2 White Plume Mountain, the A series (various authors) collected as A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, Frank Mentzer's R1-4 tournaments collected as I12 Egg of the Phoenix, and Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia, are all tough, long, complex dungeon crawls. There's fights, including hard boss fights at the end, but they're more about mapping, puzzles, traps, role-playing, often interacting with the NPCs, making use of found magic.

    White Plume Mountain is maybe the best/fairest tournament of those, and has only two major rooms with the artifacts, each on par complexity wise with the Big Bad's cave, but there's 27 rooms total, and clearing & looting several of them greatly increases your chance of succeeding at the artifact rooms.

    Now, at conventions we did tournament modules in 3-6 hours, or sometimes there'd be two blocks of 3-4 hours. That's a lot more than the 2 hours which is stretching Youtube audience tolerance. But there's some balance in between 1 room and 100 rooms where a short tourney's not just a single fight scene.

If they have another season, I may wait until the end and only watch the high-scoring team, or at least put the rest on 2x playback speed.

★★★½☆

Wizards Address the Orc Problem

Nice to see this directly addressed. Obviously I still prefer my solution which was just to replace Orcs with a more sympathetic species, but WotC is a business with tight margins so they'll just do the minimum necessary to not be running a minstrel show.

I've never really used "Drow" except in the GDQ modules (Giants went great, never got a party to finish Drow, let alone Queen of the Demonweb Pits), I preferred the Sidhe from Celtic myth making all "Elves" pretty, alien, and sociopathic (interesting point, there's a subworld of Queen, "Caer Sidi", which inspired me to get into Elves-as-Sidhe!), and later the Gazetteer Shadow Elves created underground Elves with a grudge, but they're not Drow. Having the black-skinned, white-haired Elves be "evil" and relentlessly, cartoonishly cruel torturers, poisoners, perverts, and backstabbers wasn't one of TSR's better takes. And then R.A. Salvatore, the third-worst writer in the world (I've read two of his books, part-way, and they're so bad it's impossible to finish them), made his Mary Sue character Drizzle-doo-wah-Diddy who's the One Good Drow, which became TSR canon. I'd flush the entire archetype, I don't think it's fixable.

The Vistani thing is also pretty hard to fix. They're stereotype "Gypsies". You can pull elements out to make carny folk, maybe, but if you have a tribe of thieves and soothsayers in a caravan it's obvious what you're doing. There's also Romani-based caricatures in Greyhawk, and who knows where else, it was a very popular trope with the '80s-'90s TSR writers, because "a Gypsy tells you your fortune" is a super easy plot hook, if you're unaware/unconcerned about your racism.

Changing ability score modifiers is weird. Now, there's no modifiers in Original D&D, everyone has the same 3d6 scores down the line, and fairly simple species special abilities and some harsh class limits. AD&D 1st Ed added the racist & sexist race vs stat & class tables, and each following edition dug in further. Hm, looking at my AD&D PDF (bought back when Paizo had the rights), I could swear in the original print back in '79 there was a Human column up front there, that's been redacted, where Human females got 3/17 Strength and probably Constitution & Charisma (being used more for leadership in AD&D, and women leaders were Not A Thing to those guys). Was this changed in a later printing? And the Half-Orcs got seriously shafted here.

Note this is the AD&D 1st ed text on Half-Orcs. "Orcs are fecund", "player characters which are of the half-orc race are within the superior 10%". What the fuck, Gary?

I don't really have any use for D&D 5th Ed, it's a cartoony game with 10-100x as many rules as it needs, and they've dug themselves into this hole by pushing out old content which was noted as being problematic 20 years ago, but at least WotC's a little self-aware of the things they're publishing now.

The Thing About Orcs

So, there's this piece on Orcs and racism:

And they have a long blog post about Tolkien's racist origins of Orcs & "Eastern Men":

"The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
—J.R.R.Tolkien, Letter #210

Which I agree is pretty horrible, I greatly dislike Tolkien the man, and his post-Hobbit work. The post is kind of a waste of time to read beyond that, I eyerolled 180° at the quoting-white-men-about-racism tone, and denial of other people of colors' different experiences (Jason Momoa in particular). Maybe that's just how James talks, all the goddamned time. Someone should set up a medical research fund. Anyway, I'm only in this to read about the Orcs, shit that happens on Earth is not my problem.

My old solution to the Orc problem was to make Orcs tolerated and playable if they lived in civilization, but so culturally different in their nomadic tribes, that you still had something like the classic Human/Orc war trope. That can be problematic when compared to how the US, etc. treated Native Americans and other indigenous populations, but it cut down on the genocides/"we kill all the Orc babies"; players treated Orcs like a hostile tribe of Humans, warred against them until they stopped being annoying, and made peace.

But then why not just use Humans? That's James Raggi's solution, which technically works, but it's not interesting unless you throw an enormous book of "What do the Saxons believe and why are they so awful?" at the players which you don't want to write, and which they won't read. In history it was pretty easy to tell what culture someone was by their artifacts, dress, and speech; but none of those are easily visible in Theatre of the Mind role-playing.

So in everything I've run or written in the last few years, I solved the problem by replacing Orcs with Beastfolk, humanoids with bestial features chosen off a table of local mammals. They behave almost exactly like my previous use of Orcs, and yet because they're not all green-skinned pig-men, and might even be cute & fuzzy, especially the young ones, suddenly reaction is completely different. It either arouses or annoys furries, neither of which is my intention, but that's a small price to pay for how radically it changes the conversation.

I don't usually want "half-breeds", because that directly leads to racial theory bullshit, but in a magical world full of Owlbears it's certainly possible for species to be crossed, and Edgy McEdgertons always want to be a half-breed Goblin/Dark Elf with a tragic backstory or some such, so unless you want to waste half an hour arguing before the game, just say yes and move on.

Old-School D&D

  • How To Get Started Playing Old-School D&D For Free: Fantastic list of resources. Though systems wise, I'd suggest either:
  • My own Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Extremely variant but still recognizably D&D. Definitely not for novice Referees, but I've used it with novice players and they were fine because they don't know better (and the Profession system is more forgiving to novices who might "make mistakes"). When I get Delvers in Darkness done we'll see if that's more novice-friendly.
  • Swords & Wizardry Complete: Updated version of OD&D + Supplements I-III + some early Strategic Review & Dragon Magazine articles. About as close to a "final" OD&D as you can get.
  • White Box FMAG: Just the OD&D white box, very well cleaned up into a standalone game.
  • Blueholme Journeymanne Rules: Slightly variant take on the Holmes Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set. In theory this should be my favorite game ever, because Holmes is what I imprinted on first. In practice, it's almost too accurate, there are some elements like multiple saving throw categories that I find annoying in actual OD&D, and the Blueholme doesn't give you much guidance on acceptable races. Also there's no setting or module as found in the actual Holmes book.

Project Status

Made a lot of progress on Perilar Dark Weaver map generation. Hopefully this week I'll get ruins finished.

Spent a little too much time on the new Mystic Dungeon, the TTMS-76 virtual retro-console started on tilde.town but is now replacing the BBS. It now has scoreboards for the games! I still need to finish Heist, which turned out to be bigger than I first thought. In a bit I'll get yet another damned login system done, and from there a forum. I wonder if anyone else would be interested in making games for it? I've got a trivially easy framework, so if you know any Javascript at all it's fun to work with. All BSD licensed.

Updated StupidComments.css to block some more inline "affiliate" blocks and Youtube spam segments.

I started making a console Pomodoro timer, and it works, but needs persistence and a teeny bit of task management before I can release it. Very soon.

RPG-wise, I wrote a bit more of my "survival D&D" game Delvers in Darkness (aka Dungeon Hell), which is looking to come in well under 16 pages for a full Holmes-type dungeon game; maybe 32 if I write more on the setting, which since I complain about that in everyone else's games, I should. Haven't looked at my light game in a bit, and don't know when I'll get back to that.

Wendy's RPG

What. Wendy's made a free tabletop RPG about fast food kingdoms.

Very weird. It's D&D5E-like (but not explicitly; it isn't OGL, it doesn't use any WotC trademarks, but it rips 5E off completely), very rules-light. I don't like all the 4d4 rolls (some Wendy's marketing thing is "4 for 4", so this pun is all over), otherwise it's unexceptional.

I do like this variation on critical:

FEAST MODE
If you roll a 20 on an attack or skill roll, you go into FEAST MODE. You do the maximum amount of attack damage, plus an additional roll of the normal attack dice. You also get advantage on your next roll, making going into FEAST MODE again even more likely. Going into FEAST MODE can completely change the tide of a confrontation.
Likewise, rolling a 20 on any skills check will result in your character’s best possible outcome in their current situation. After all, you went into FEAST MODE.

The equipment list is ridiculous, with Ukuleles, Tiaras, healing by eating Chicken Nuggets, fishing poles. Armor's silly (Apron, Red Polo Black Visor, etc.) but an interesting idea: Some adds to Defense, some to Arcana (magic stat) or Grace (dexterity). Weapons range from Spoon (1d4) to Cast-iron Skillet (3d6). I kinda want to steal a bunch of these stupid ideas.

The book gives you buffs/debuffs based on the food the player eats, obviously encouraging Wendy's food and not anyone else's. What a bunch of jackasses.

The classes are Order of the Chicken (magic-user/thief depending on subclass, 5 subclasses), Order of the Beef (fighter, 4 subclasses), Order of the Sides (spoony bards, 5 subclasses). The powers are jokes but overpowered if you did play them out, and it goes up to level 5; there's no experience, the adventure just says "everyone levels up" after each boss fight. No choices anywhere, just roll stats, pick class, go.

PCs can't actually die, just pass out from hunger and then wake up when the team camps. I guess you could TPK a group, and that'd be a sweet merciful release to death.

So then there's the adventure, which is a pretty standard 5E railroad with five chapters and a couple side-quest areas; zero difference between this and any "adventure path" or recent WotC adventure book, except the branding is different. Some puzzles aimed at small children or drunk frat boys, some very silly monsters. Queen Wendy ("of the Clapback" which either means something very different than I think, or is rather rude) commands heroes who brave the french fry forest to yadda yadda light a bacon beacon, yadda yadda go murder an ice clown in his funhouse and castle. Dave is dead which by my understanding of the rules can't happen, so I suspect Wendy froze him into a statue to seize the throne. Really no sillier than that Chult book.

The art, maps, and layout are very professional (aside from the maps being so linear even Disney couldn't run them as rides), it really makes it clear how commercial-friendly Wizards of the Coast & Paizo are, as if He-Man was selling junk food instead of toys.

★★☆☆☆

Back in the latter days of TSR, Inc, there was a module WG7 Castle Greyhawk, with 13 short comedic adventures by different writers around the themes of Gary's mega-dungeon (some humorless people really take offense to this module; I think it's a funny homage and several levels are great). Level 8: Of Kings & Colonels, by John Nephew (who wrote for TSR, Ars Magica, and Over the Edge) covers a similar gag, with a cavern wilderness fought over by Colonel Sandpaper and King Burger. But he wasn't being paid by KFC to say how great their chicken parts in a bucket are.

Blueholme Referee Repository

Just a collection of the charts from Blueholme, plus a new chart listing all the monsters with Size, AC, HD, Movement, Damage, Align, Treasure, Page; that's super helpful for a game with some weird monsters.

The front and back covers don't show up in Preview or Skim on Mac, only in Adobe's reader (ugh), but the clean art version does on page 3, and the interior seems to render fine. There's some scaling & half-toning artifacts in a few pieces, some of which are rendered differently but also wrong in Adobe. I think the editor needs to ship printable and screen versions.

There may be too much whitespace and large fonts. Holmes was Futura 10 or 11pt, mostly tightly-packed paragraphs; maybe that's too small for quick reference sheets, but this goes too far the other way. The art's great, though. Like the main book, it has the tone of the original Holmes boxed set, but modern artists.

You could make a home-made Referee screen out of these pages, but you'd have to do some editing: Pages 16-17 are the combat charts, but Turn Undead is buried with the classes on page 7, and page 11 has the movement & getting lost charts.

★★★½☆: It's a buncha charts.

Coincidentally, I'd been thinking about and writing some notes for using Blueholme in a Discord or Skype chat game, so this comes at a good time.