Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Dragon #14

After more than a month, I've returned to the blog.  Most of the reasons that I haven't been posting are family related, but to be honest it also has to do with how frankly tedious this issue of The Dragon is.  There's a lot of non-D&D content in this one, and a lot of terrible fiction; both of these are things that made getting through this magazine a chore.  I made it, though.  I doubt there's much of interest to say about The Dragon #14, but at least I made it.

Editorial by Tim Kask: The editorial this month is a bit of boasting about how much the magazine has grown and improved over the last year-and-change.  For the most part, I have to agree: the art has improved, there are some legitimately good (or significant, at least) pulp fantasy authors contributing, and the whole thing looks more professional.  I'm not sure I agree that the quality of the articles has improved, though.  A while ago the mag had Gary Gygax churning out stuff that went on to become integral parts of the game.  This month has two of the worst examples of prose I've ever encountered, and very little D&D content.  I know which of those I prefer.

Name That Monster Contest: These are the results for a competition that was introduced in The Dragon #8.  An illustration was provided by Erol Otus (you can see it below), and the entrants had to provide game stats and a background based on that image.  The top three entries are printed in this article, and I plan to use all three in my campaign.  I don't see the similar physical descriptions as a problem; nobody has a problem using both orcs and hobgoblins, do they?

The first entry is known as The Creature Some Call Jarnkung.  It was created by a wizard about 250 years ago, because he wanted guards for his keep that could make intelligent conversation.  It turned out he made them too well, though, and they cast his down and destroyed his keep.  The monsters then disappeared into the wilderness, and it is only recently that they have begun making attacks on outposts and farms.  The wizard is still out there, trying to destroy his creations, but he is seldom seen.

The Jarnkung has 5 Hit Dice, ESP, 20% magic resistance, a high intelligence, and can only be hit by magic weapons.  Some older ones are rumoured to possess psionic powers, but little else is known of them.  It's a solid mid-level monster, though I can't say that it has any stand-out features or abilities.

The first runner-up is the Cursed Crimson Crawler.  Where to begin with this?  When a monster entry begins by pulling in stuff from Milton's Paradise Lost, I can only sigh and wonder how on Earth I'm ever going to mesh this with the D&D cosmology.  Anyway, it all begins with a demon named Shambar, who was once the swiftest runner in Heaven.  Shambar joined Satan's rebellion, and was cast into Hell along with all of the other rebels.  So far so good; Heaven and Hell already exist as D&D planes, and fitting Satan in there is no big deal.  I'm even happy to have the Judeo-Christian God sitting in Heaven.  I've already got Odin and Zeus, so it's no big deal.

From there we get into Adam and Eve, and the story of how the demons of Hell were cursed to live as snakes for a time after they applauded Satan for his role in getting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.  For most demons this transformation was temporary, but Shambar was super-angry about being deprived of his running ability, and he raged at the Almighty.  When the other demons regained their natural forms, Shambar's lower half remained in the form of a snake, and he became a being of pure hatred.  It's not clear where the Cursed Crimson Crawler came from, but it's likely they were spawned from Shambar, or otherwise created by him or his followers.  Fitting Adam and Eve into the history of my version of Oerth will be a tricky one, but perhaps not impossible.  I'm not sure what the origins of humans are in Greyhawk; if they remain hazy, I can have them as creations of God.  It's probably never going to come up in-game, so it's all good.  The possibility that I might have to make stats for God amuses me as well.

In terms of stats, the Crawler isn't all that tough.  It has two attacks a round, each doing 1-6 damage, and it has 3½ Hit Dice.  (Yes, you roll 3d8 and 1d4 for this thing's hit points.  I don't know why, but it's typical of the haphazard way that AD&D design was applied.)  They can throw heavy rocks (dealing 1-12 damage), and their tail often flails about in combat and hits targets other than its principle opponent.  Their most potent ability is that the knob at the end of their tail stores their pent-up hatred, and when the Crawler is killed that hatred bursts forth and causes everyone in a 30' radius to fight each other.  It's a great, novel ability that could create some fun times at the game table, and makes this monster much more memorable than the Jarnkung.

The Ulik is the third-place winner, a race that dwells underground in mountain and desert regions.  Little is known of their origins, but it's believed that they angered some god who cursed them into their current form.  They can hypnotise surprised enemies with their pupil-less eyes, and when pressed they use their tails as a mace.  They don't like to do so, though, because after 10-40 blows it will fall off, and won't regenerate for at least six weeks.  (Not to mention that it gains no advantage from doing so over normal weapons.)  It's another solid but uninspired monster, much like the Jarnkung.  It's a shame that nothing super-gonzo made the cut.  (It also makes me wonder how bad the other hundred entries were, because the winners are pretty average.)

Space Marines: Designer's Comments, Corrections and Addendum by A. Mark Ratner: In which the designer of the game Space Marines goes on an on and on about the game's origins, and makes some clarifications and additions to the rules.  It's a five-page article about a game I've never seen or played, and these older issues of The Dragon have a way of making five pages seem like fifty.

Nomad Gods by James M. Ward: This is a short review of the game Nomad Gods, designed by Greg Stafford.  Not much to see here.

Something a Little Different: Cosmic Encounter by Tony Watson: This is another review, this time of the game Cosmic Encounter, which sounds like a sort of sci-fi Risk/RPG combo.

Robots as Players in Metamorphosis Alpha by James M. Ward: Jim Ward keeps up his prolific reputation with another Metamorphosis Alpha article, this time giving rules for players who want to have a robot PC.  It's comprehensive stuff: there are rules here for different modes of propulsion, the sophistication of the robot's brain, various types of shielding and in-built devices, sensory equipment, weapons, malfunctions, and damage to the robot's structure.  It's all treated in bare-bones fashion, but there's a lot packed into two pages.  I've got the Starship Warden pencilled in as a possible adventure locale for the campaign, so I'll keep this article filed away.

Excerpt From an Interview With a Rust Monster by Michael McRery: There are times when I'm reading these magazines, and I wonder if the material is as terrible as it seems, or if I'm just too removed from the culture to "get it".  I was born in 1978, so the remnants of 70s culture were still around within my living memory, but there are articles that almost seem like they came from an alien culture with vastly different standards as to what constitutes meaningful art.  I must admit that this story begins promisingly, with the concept of an NPC who was polymorphed into a rust monster, but then it devolves into the story of some bumbling adventurers who fight some small giants then get killed by a hobgoblin king in the denouement.  I gather that it's intended to be funny, but as mentioned above, I don't get it.  Or perhaps it's just that gaming stories are almost universally terrible.  I'm willing to stretch and work this story into the background of my campaign; Richard the Boor, Fred, Me, Sauri Itasha, and Ari will be immortalised as adventurers who died in their first dungeon foray.

From the Sorcerer's Scroll: D&D Relationships, the Parts and the Whole by Gary Gygax: After the rest of the articles, it's something of a relief to read some Gygax.  Here he lays out the plan behind the D&D Basic Set, the Monster Manual, and how they relate to each other.  He states that he's currently working on the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide, and expects that they'll be ready by summer of 1978.  (He was right about the PHB, but way off for the DMG, which came out in 1979.)  Gary says that he believes that OD&D will "always be in demand", implying that TSR intends to keep it in print; as I understand it, this version of the game was dead by 1979.  Finally, he says that Rob Kuntz and Jim Ward (him again!) are working on an update to Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods & Heroes, intended for release in late 1978 or 1979.  (Wrong again, Gary!  This one came out in 1980).

Monty Haul and His Friends at Play by James M. Ward: Jim Ward tells a story about thinly veiled caricatures of the TSR staff getting together for a gaming session.  Much like the story above, the humour hasn't aged well, and I suspect it was pretty in-jokey to begin with.  The punch-line also relies on the reader to have a knowledge of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books, which at the time were over thirty years old.  (I suppose the books were probably reprinted in the 1960s, but it's still no certainty that readers would be familiar with them.)  This is a curiosity for historical reasons moreso than anything else, as the term "Monty Haul" becomes synonymous with DMs who give away too much treasure; I guess this article is where it started to seep into the culture.

The Cthulhu Mythos Revisited by Gerald Guinn: This is a letter in which the author voices his indignation about the Lovecraft article from The Dragon #12.  I'm always amused by nerds debating minutiae, especially when they're obviously upset.  I'm not really sure whether this guy is right or not, but he loses points by using non-Lovecraft authors to back up his points.  August Derleth, Clark Ashton-Smith and Robert E. Howard may be great writers, but I feel as though you should stick to Lovecraft when you start questioning the authenticity of a Cthulhu article.

The Total Person in Metamorphosis Alpha by James M. Ward: Bloody hell, again?  Is Jim Ward like twelve years old?  Where does he find the time to write all this stuff?  Anyway, this article provides a series of random articles for fleshing out the background and skills of MA characters.  It cover the environment the character grew up in, what they spent the most time doing as a kid, their primary talents, some gear they might start with, and some stuff about mutants at the end.  As usual for a Ward article, it packs a lot into a small space.  It's another one for me to tuck away into my Metamorphosis Alpha file.

Comics: Wormy steals poker money from some trolls, and in Finieous Fingers Fred issues a challenge to the denizens of the castle he's trying to storm, and gets more than he bargained for.

Lycanthropy: The Progress of the Disease by Gregory Rihn: This article covers what to do when a PC becomes a were-creature, and it has a lot of interesting ideas about lycanthropy, and making it manageable at the table.

The first thing it does is posit that lycanthropy disrupts the ability to cast spells (clerical and magical) and use psionics.  I get this from a game-balance perspective, but as a DM I don't really like it.  I'd rather keep the option open for spellcasting werewolves, you know?  If I go with this, I'll include ways that characters can get around the limitation.

The nature of the initial transformations are discussed, and it's said here that they are usually involuntary, and come at times of stress.  The animal persona is dominant to begin with, until the victim gradually becomes subdued.  I like the 10% chance for the victim to go completely feral, and run off into the wilderness to live as a beast.  It fits the mythology well.

The difficulty of turning back to human form is dealt with, and it's especially hard for inexperienced lycanthropes.  A polymorph spell will do it, and an illusionist can hypnotise the creature to effect the change.  There's a slim chance that a sleeping lycanthrope will change back.  A cure disease spell will revert the victim, and remove the lycanthropy completely, as will cure lycanthropy (this spell was introduced in The Dragon #3, as part of the Healer class).

There's a bit about behaviour, with lycanthropes gradually becoming more wild, and preferring the company of their own kind.  This extends to physical characteristics as well, with the standard extra hair and fangs and such.  The children of lycanthropes are said to inherit the condition, which is another touch that I like.  The children of Chaotic lycanthropes can be taught to change from a young age, while the Lawfuls (werebears) can only change at the onset of puberty.

We learn that lycanthropy can't be transmitted sexually (good to know).  Lycanthropes are sterile in regards to animals of their own type, so PCs can't go having kids with the local bears or wolves.

Were-creatures have the natural advantages and disadvantages of their animal type when transformed.  The example given is that they can't see colour.  This extends to common-sense stuff like not being able to speak (although they can communicate with their own animal type), or hold weapons.  Potions are said not to work on them, due to their different physiology.  I might ignore this: magic trumps science in D&D, and the rule of cool trumps all.  This is followed by a lovely bit about rats not having a vomit reflex, and thus wererats being more susceptible to ingested poisons.  Lycanthropes must shed restrictive clothes and armour when changing, and items don't "disappear" or merge into them.

Then we get into the tracking of XP, and a system in which the character's experience as a werecreature is treated separately from their character class.  It's treated as though Lycanthrope is a class in itself, and the more experience the character gets the easier it is for him to change back and forth, and the more control he has.  It's a workable system, and I feel like a similar system could have solved a lot of 3rd edition's problems with monsters as PCs (Level Adjustment, I'm looking at you).

The article mentions some other were-types that aren't in the game yet: were-eagles, were-sharks, were-hyenas, were-apes and were-snakes.  The possibility of skin-changing seals and swans is brought up, and various types of werecats were mentioned earlier in the article (leopards, panthers, pumas).  There is even talk of a were-dinosaur, which is pretty much just Sauron from X-Men.

The article ends with two ideas.  The first is to give lycanthropes regeneration like a vampire, instead of complete immunity to normal weapons.  This works for me, as it fits very well with the mythology.  The second is the possibility that a lycanthrope that is killed will return as an undead, most probably a vampire.  I'm not so sure about this one, but I'm willing to throw in a 5% chance for this.

NEXT: My next post will deal with the Outdoor Geomorphs, and then it's on to the Player's Handbook.  I'm looking forward to it.


martinho said...

Cosmic Encounter is kind of a huge thing and doesn't really have much in the way of RPG elements. I had more to say about it but I just got a comment eaten and I don't have the patience right now to write the same thing again.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

That's the sort of thing that happens when I'm trying to rush through these things, and focus on the D&D material. Stuff like Cosmic Encounter, which a quick Google search would have told me was pretty significant, gets short shrift. Alas, on this blog D&D is always going to get the lion's share of attention.

Anonymous said...

The Cthulhu article is pretty funny. But let’s take it seriously and grade him.

The 1971-91 nerd war between Derlethian and Lovecraftian factions is only loosely relevant, because Kuntz and Guinn are both clearly Derlethian. If you’re going to come up with stats, specific powers, relationships, and all the other things you need for a D&D treatment, you pretty much have to go with Derleth.

However, Guinn seems to be a fundamentalist, who takes the Derlethian canon as sacred, while Kuntz seems to have written things up based on his vague memories of Derleth’s work. Nowadays, with concordances and wikis and the like, it’s pretty easy to check on the details, and it looks like Guinn is absolutely right on the few things I bothered to look up. Although I doubt Kuntz cared that much, I have to give Guinn the win here.

Meanwhile, you can’t deduct points for referring to other authors. Besides the fact that the dispute is based entirely on Derleth rather than Lovecraft, everyone in both factions takes the entire original Lovecraft circle (including Ashton Smith and Howard, and Derleth before 1937) as canon along with Lovecraft.

So, final grades: 75 (C+) for Kuntz, needs more effort; 95 (A-) for Guinn, points off for all caps and repeated multiple exclamation points; 100 (A+) for Tim Kask, for giving us such a great example of 70s nerd rage to look back on all these decades later.

By the way, if this Gerald Guinn is the same one I'm thinking of, he was a songwriter (of everything from country-rock to metal) who'd licensed Cthulhu elements from Derleth's estate for the lyrics to a concept album he never finished. So, I’m thinking he was deep in his research for the album when Dragon #12 came out. Also, D&D may be the reason he never finished it. Or maybe he’s just taking a hiatus to read through the Monster Manual. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that, as of 1978, Space Marines still came with detailed rules for conversion to and from OD&D, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Chainmail, which were approved by TSR. So, you could throw your characters into the middle of a Space Marines battle. And it seems like you're going by a kind of "everything permissible is mandatory" rule for your setting?

IIRC, there was very little actual fluff for Space Marines beyond the names, stats, and brief descriptions of the sides until the Space Opera RPG and Space Marines v2 came out (at which point all the TSR connections were dropped), but if you're just doing a brief interlude, that shouldn't matter much.

One idea: While the players are exploring the Warden, a group of Rauwoof (fantasy doggie people In Space) and CSA (Civil War South humans In Space) board it at the same time. The players are recruited by the CIA to do a special mission against the Rauwoof, but then encouraged to switch sides and fight with the Rauwoof against the CSA in a Space Marines skirmish. The Rauwoof could even be the PCs' way to get back to Oerth.