Thursday, April 16, 2020

Recaps & Roundups Part 59: White Dwarf #1

Cover dated June/July 1977, the first issue of White Dwarf is a follow-up to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's fanzine Owl & Weasel.  I'm casting a fairly broad net in this chronological march through D&D history, but I'm trying to include products that are in some way official.  White Dwarf sneaks in for two reasons: the first is that Games Workshop were the official distributors for TSR products in Europe; and the second is that quite a lot of the monsters first introduced here will be added to D&D canon by way of the Fiend Folio.  I'll probably cover White Dwarf up until it stops doing D&D articles, somewhere around issue #100.

In terms of articles irrelevant to D&D, the first issue has reviews of SPI's Sorcerer and Avalon Hill's Starship Troopers, and Steve Jackson talks up the boardgame The Warlord.

"Metamorphosis Alpha" by Ian Livingstone: This is an introduction to the game of the same name, which came out in July 1976 but is described here as being the latest TSR game.  (No doubt it didn't make it to the UK until later.)  It goes into some depth about the background of MA, which I really need to cover on here at some point.  In short, it's about a colonisation ship that passed through a radiation cloud that wildly mutated the crew, whose ancestors - having long-forgotten the original purpose of the ship - must now fight for survival.

The article brings up three sci-fi novels that Ian puts forth as possible inspiration for the game: Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlen; Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss; and Captive Universe by Harry Harrison.  From those he develops some ideas that can be added to Metamorphosis Alpha.  I won't get into the plot details of those books, which aren't really relevant here, but I'll briefly go over the possible additions to the game.

  • From Orphans of the Sky comes the idea that different decks of the Starship Warden may have differing levels of gravity.  There's even a chart that tracks how far a character is from there home deck, and what effect that might have on them in combat.
  • Also from Orphans of the Sky come the ideas of using class structure, an agricultural barter economy, different forms of law and order, and the use of strange religions and superstitions. This is standard sci-fi stuff of the sort that would have been seen on Star Trek, but I like that Ian puts forth the idea of a cult that worships football team Manchester City.  Sport fan to religious cult fanatic is not a huge stretch.
  • From Non-Stop, Ian introduces a race of intelligent rats that inhabit the ventilation shafts of various areas of the starship, complete with stats.  Those stats are pretty bare bones, but then again I'm not sure how numbers-heavy Metamorphosis Alpha was.  
  • Also from Non-Stop comes the Ponic, a multi-purpose plant that has edible sap, medicinal leaves, and can be used as construction material.
  • Non-Stop also includes diseases which, if survived, would cause physiological mutation in the survivors.  I'm not sure if this is necessary in MA, it seems like the people on board are plenty mutated already.
  • From Captive Universe, Ian puts forth the ideas of whole decks ruled by tyrannical priests, mechanical gods in the form of grotesque robots, and security systems that will kill those who tamper with vital equipment.

All of these seem like they could slot into Metamorphosis Alpha without too much trouble.  I'll add this article to my list of things to remember should my campaign ever cross over into the Starship Warden.

"The Monstermark System" by Don Turnbull: Previously introduced in Owl & Weasel, this is Turnbull's mathematical calculation of the relative deadliness of D&D's various monsters.  It's the precursor to the Challenge Rating system from D&D's 3rd edition, and I guess that predecessor to this would have been the dungeon level tables from D&D Vol. 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures and Supplement I: Greyhawk.

I must admit I got a bit lost as far as the math goes, but I'll give this one a brief outline.  Turnbull uses the system to come up with 3 ratings: the "D" factor, for a monster's defense; the "A" factor for a monster's aggressiveness; and "M" for the monster's over all "monstermark".  "D" is worked out by calculating the average number of melee rounds that it takes a 1st-level fighter to kill the monster with a sword. "A" is calculated by the average number of hits a monster would hand out to a character of AC2 during the number of rounds denoted by "D". The Monstermark is often the same as A, but it brings in multipliers based on certain special abilities a monster might have.

A whole bunch of different monster groups are given as examples, and the results are both interesting and odd.  Skeletons are the lowest rated, even below kobolds, with a Monstermark of 0.9.  The highest rated by far is the Intellect Devourer, with a Monstermark of 1,215.  This doesn't seem quite right, but I'll be the first to admit that I've never been able to wrap my head around the psionic rules, so there could be factors going on here that I'm not aware of.  The next monsters down are the Umber Hulk on 520, the Vampire on 440, and the Ent on 420, which seem more correct.  Turnbull hasn't calculated a lot of the higher-end stuff like Dragons and Demons yet, and I'm interested to see where they come in.

Overall I think Turnbull has a great idea here, and it's definitely the sort of thought that helps to improve the game.  I'm not sure if he's going about it the right way; as he admits himself, a lot of his math regarding the special abilities is based on guesswork.  Dan over at Delta's D&D Hotspot has interrogated the system a lot more rigorously than I  ever could, and come up with his own way of ranking monsters by deadliness if you want to check that out.

"Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings: This article about D&D tournament play is pretty much just a play report about a dungeon called "The Fabled Garden of Merlin".  I was all set to start taking down details for this dungeon until I realised that I'd already covered it in my post on The Dungeoneer #2. Not much else to see here.

"No Way Out?" by David Wells: Wells presents a trio of puzzles, with answers up the back.  To be honest, I'm too dumb to understand the answers even after having read the solutions, so I won't explain them here.  They aren't really applicable to D&D anyway.

"D&D Campaigns, Part 1: Philosophy" by Lewis Pulsipher: This one looks like it's going to be a three-part series.  In this part, Pulsipher puts forward what he believes are the four predominant styles of D&D players: those who want to play the game as a game (sub-divided into those who prefer players-vs-monsters and those who prefer players-vs-puzzles) and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel (subdivided into those who want to be told a story by the referee, and those who like a silly, unbelievable game).  I'm on board with this to a point, but I'm not sure what Pulsipher is getting at with that last category.  He spends a lot of time decrying games where the players are at the mercy of random elements like the deck of many things, but I'd consider that type of thing antithetical to the story-telling crowd, and much more welcomed by the game-as-game crowd.  The rest of the article harps on the necessity of self-consistency, which I'd agree is something to strive for in D&D, both in the rules and the game world.  Pulsipher does come across a bit like the "fun police" though.

"Treasure Chest: Helm of Vision" by Steven Littlechild: This gold-plated helm is fitted with diamonds in the eye-slits that function as gems of seeing, grant the wearer infravision, and in direct sunlight can cast confusion and reduce the combat effectiveness of opponents.  When worn by a Lawful character, that character will always see creatures in their true forms (regardless of polymorph, invisibility, etc.), will always see through illusions, and can see through disguises most of the time.  Neutral characters wearing the helm get weaker versions of those abilities, and can also see evil intentions written on people's faces.  Chaotic characters wearing it can never see illusions, will never see through a disguise, and will see weaker monsters as stronger ones (and vice versa).

"What's Wrong With D&D.... and what I'm doing about it!" by Andrew D. Holt: The author here indicates what he believes are the three major problems with D&D: the lack of realism in the combat system; the magic system; and what he calls "the party effect".

I can sympathise with the author's lament that none of the combat system in D&D at this time are clearly and unambiguously explained: OD&D was many things, but clear and unambiguous weren't among them. He goes on to outline a system he's developed that involves the player's using cards to attack and defend, but beyond that no details are given.  It's one thing to decry D&D for its lack of realism, but Holt hasn't provided anything concrete as an alternative.

As for magic, he might be the earliest author I've seen to definitively link the D&D magic system with Jack Vance's Dying Earth books.  He says that the system results in low-level magic-users being left with little to do, and many of the non-combat spells never getting used, and I think these are valid complaints. His solution involves using a series of chants that the players must use correctly, things like "Not Libra of Taurus Over Cancer With Mars, Geronimo", which is an intriguing method.  Without more details on how often these spells can be used, though, it's hard to judge its effect on game balance.  I like the flavour of it, if not the actual chants themselves.

As for the "party effect", this is the boredom caused by parties of adventurers when one or two players takes over and everyone else is left with nothing to do. It's not entirely clear, but I think the author is suggesting that the DM, instead of running large groups, run multiple smaller groups and have the idle players control the monsters until it is their turn.  This can work, I guess, but I don't think the problem is as universal as the author thinks it is.  Some players function well in large groups, some don't, and a DM just has to figure out what works best.

"The Pervert" by Ian Waugh: This is a new class that's introduced with a disclaimer by the editor, and is mostly just gags about sexual deviants. High armor class when wearing black leather, a joke about going blind, class level titles such as "flasher" and "streaker".  The suggested artifect of "elven dirty mac" did raise a smile, I must admit.

"Poison" by Alan Youde: This presents an alternate method of using poison in D&D.  Instead of the standard "save or die" method, this article presents a chart that cross references a character's Constitution with the monster's Hit Dice.  The poisoned character keeps rolling saving throws every round, and if they fail they take the damage shown on the chart.  Once they make their save, they stop taking damage.  I think this is a pretty good system, actually, but the numbers on the chart are a bit ridiculous, and really undersell the deadliness of poison.  A character with an 11 Constitution can't be harmed by a monster with less than 4 Hit Dice; a character with an 18 Con is immune to poison from anything below 11 Hit Dice.  These are pretty absurd results.  I like the general idea though.

So that's the first issue of White Dwarf, which is very much a D&D-focused magazine at this time. The articles are very early-days stuff, hobbyists hashing out the basics of the game, although the analysis seems much more rigorous here than in the US.  There's not a lot here that I can use in the Ultimate Sandbox, although I'll keep the Metamorphosis Alpha ideas in mind, and the helm of vision should get thrown in as a unique item somewhere.

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