Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Recaps & Roundups: White Dwarf #3

Cover by Alan Hunter

White Dwarf #3 is cover-dated October/November 1977.  Whether that's an accurate guide to when it was released is a mystery to me, but without anything else to go on I'm covering it with other products from October.

"Solo Dungeon Mapping" by Roger Moores: This article gives a method for creating a map for solo D&D, which involves having a bunch of premade smaller maps and rolling dice randomly to determine where you end up when you transition from one map to another.  It looks workable, although I don't think it's all that well explained.  Perhaps it would be more efficient in play than rolling on random tables, but there's a lot of prep work involved before you can start.

"Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings: Last issue, Hemmings gave the tournament setup: the surviving descendants of the Underhill family have been summoned to compete for the treasure in the dungeons beneath the mansion of their deceased uncle.  This time around Hemmings details the first dungeon level of what is called Pandora's Maze. It's an almost entirely linear affair, with puzzles that very much rely on the player's knowledge of mythology and pop culture.

Take, for example, the following verse:

"Treading on across the floor,
Remember well the leading knave,
Of a band, two score, no more,
Strike the rock with a stave!"

The answer to this is to strike the floor with a staff while shouting "Open Sesame".  The lines about the "leading knave" and "a band, two score" refer to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which is the clue to the correct password, but what happens if your players don't know that story, or don't get the reference?  Getting this right is necessary to open a door in the first room of the dungeon, so the entire adventure hinges on it.  I could very easily see a party getting stuck at this first hurdle.

Another room has riddles that make reference to Sesame Street, Jesus, and the Wizard of Oz; there's no regard for verisimilitude here.  It's very much a dungeon to challenge the player rather than the character, but it does assume a cultural knowledge that may only be appropriate to a certain time and place.  There are references to things I have absolutely no idea about, such as a riddle requiring knowledge of the Condor cigar brand, or the poem "Come Into the Garden Maude" by Lord Tennyson.  (I had to Google these.)  Leaving aside the question of what these references are doing in a D&D world, you just can't expect players to know this stuff.  (Although maybe I'm wrong, and every kid in 1970s Britain would have all of this as common knowledge.  Regardless, it would be almost impossible to run as-written today.)

The reward at the heart of the dungeon level is a machine that can produce any magic item, at the price of having to fight a monster of commensurate power, and being transported to a lower dungeon level.  Talk about your potential game-breakers!  It would only take a few turns of that dial before a party would become strong enough to defeat just about any monster in the books, unless the DM decided to resort to gods and the like.  And being taken to a lower dungeon level would be meaningless when you could just turn the dial to some item with teleportation powers and use it to escape.

"News": There are rumblings about the D&D Basic Set (which I've already covered in this series), as well as the upcoming Monster Manual.  Of the other news, the publication of Traveller is probably the most significant to gaming.  In terms of the wider world, we get our first mention of Star Wars, and that's about as significant as it gets.

"The Monstermark System" by Don Turnbull: Turnbull's meticulous dissection of the relative deadliness of monsters continues.  The first two articles were used to rank the monsters, and this article puts that ranking to a practical use.

The first thing Turnbull does is provide a new table for determining the level of monster encountered by dungeon level.  In OD&D monsters were split into six levels of difficulty, whereas this system splits them into twelve.  I can't really comment on the effectiveness of what Turnbull's done, but it would be interesting to see which results in better play: Turnbull's rigorous yet flawed mathematical system, or Gygax's instincts based on years of play.  It's probably all subjective in the end.

Following that Turnbull goes on to talk about experience rewards, and providing a way to use the Monstermark System to calculate them. He's very much a proponent of the idea that XP should be relative; a 4th level PC fighting a level 1 monster should earn less XP than a 2nd level PC doing the same, at least according to him.  I'm ambivalent to the idea.  Sometimes I think it sounds great, but then I wonder what the point of it is when the amount of XP needed to level goes up significantly each time.  I guess it incentivizes the players to seek out genuine danger rather than playing it safe; I might be talking myself into liking the idea.

The third use Turnbull comes up with for his system is to determine the numbers in a group of wandering monsters.  He uses a ratio of the average hit points of the party over the Monstermark Rating.  Doing so, he calculates that a group of 7 Bugbears would slaughter a party of 10 PCs between 1st and 5th level.  This sounds patently wrong to me, and Turnbull acknowledges that his system doesn't factor in spells, magic items, and other special abilities of the PCs.  As I said above it's a flawed system, but I'm not sure I disagree with his findings that 3 Bugbears would be a reasonable random encounter.  I generally think wandering monsters should be a nuisance rather than a party killer, something that drains resources rather than threatening their existence (unless they're already weakened).  I also disagree with scaling encounter difficulty based on party strength; I can just about see doing it based on party size, with the idea that a larger party would make more noise and attract more monsters, but level and hit points are a much more intangible thing in the game world.  I get the desire to tailor the game to your players, but I prefer the game world to be more static than that; the players should be learning and reacting to the world, not the other way around.

"Open Box": Don Turnbull gives some fair but ultimately positive reviews to various Judges Guild products (the Ready Ref Sheets, Judges Shield, TAC Cards, Tegel Manor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, Thunderhold, Character Chronicle Cards and First Fantasy Campaign).  Mike Westhead reviews Citadel, a two-player game where one player controls heroes searching a dungeon for a talisman, and the other lays monsters and traps in their path.  Fred Hemmings reviews Fourth Dimension, which sounds kind of like a chess game where the players control warriors, rangers, guardians and Time Lords.  Martin Easterbrook reviews Battle of the Five Armies from TSR, the unlicensed wargame depicting the climactic battle from The Hobbit that drew the ire of the Tolkien Estate.  This is a game I've never seen, and am not likely to, but it seems to have most of the good and bad points of TSR products of the day: good production values, but poor rules clarity.

"D&D Campaigns: Part 1 - Philosophy (cont.)" by Lewis Pulsipher: This article kicks off with a quote that exactly sums up my approach to running a game: "the referee should not make up anything important after an adventure has begun".  Basically, the ref should have as much worked out beforehand as possible, and changes to the rules and the dungeon shouldn't be made during play.  Of course, adding unestablished details as required will always be necessary, but if my notes say something before I start playing, that's how I roll it.

Pulsipher goes on to give all sorts of good advice, touching on such topics as the logical determination of monster actions, morale, and maintaining a good relationship between the players and the DM.  He lays out the desirable attributes of a campaign as follows: "simplicity, rapidity of play whenever this doesn't reduce skill, participation by all the players, a sense of control by the players of their own fate, and believability".  It's a pretty hard list to argue with.  When Pulsipher refers to "skill", he's talking about whether the decisions of the players can affect their survival.  He has a long section on how much time to allow players to make decisions, and whether they should be able to change their mind after stating an action.  Pulsipher errs on the side of giving the players plenty of time, and letting them change their minds, and I agree with him.  His argument is that the players shouldn't be expected to display the rapid-fire decision-making of their characters, and that imposing strict time limits just leads to more player death.  Again, I find that it's all good advice (though I am inclined to hurry players along when their hesitation is holding up the game to a frustrating degree).

He has a section on the use of detection spells, which he says are vital to good play and vital to increasing the survivability of players.  I've honestly never had players that made extensive use of them, but then again I've never played the kind of exploration-centric dungeon-crawl that was prevalent at the time.

The article finishes with a section on alignment, and identifies Moorcock as the source of the OD&D alignment system.  His own system has a number of actions that are restricted by alignment, including which other alignments characters are allowed to attack. He finishes with a bit about the five-point system introduced by Gary Gygax in recent issues of The Dragon, and rather presciently declares that the introduction of such a system would require a complete overhaul of the game.

"Colouring Conan's Thews" by Eddie Jones: This is an introductory article about painting miniatures that gets into specifics about what paints and brushes to use.  I've never had the patience to get good at painting figures, so this isn't of much interest. Besides, most of the brands mentioned are probably defunct by now, and the prices are certainly no longer accurate.

"The Assassin" by John Rothwell: This article gives rules for using the Assassin class introduced in Supplement II: Blackmoor as a player character.  To be honest, a lot of this is just reproduced from Blackmoor, where the class was already intended for use as a PC, so I'm not sure what the purpose is here beyond adding some guidelines about using armour as part of a disguise, and the needless restriction that assassins can't be female.

"The Loremaster of Avallon: Part III" by Andy Holt: Holt continues with his own house rules, this time getting into combat.  I say house rules, but really it's an entirely new system that uses cards, with the attacker laying out cards to attack and the defender using their own cards to parry.  There are more details to come next issue, so it's impossible to evaluate at present (and pretty difficult to do so anyway, without actually seeing it in practice).  Regardless, I'm always leery of RPG combat systems that don't use dice.

"New Magic Rooms" by Ian Waugh: Waugh details two special rooms.  The first, a "cloning room", splits any neutral character in two, with one lawful clone and one chaotic clone. Both will fight to the death.  (I'm assuming he nicked this from the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within".) The second, a "clumsy room", reduces the Dexterity of any character inside by 75%.  It also contains a purse containing gold that makes the bearer similarly clumsy for as long as they carry it.

"Letters": Jennell Jaquays writes to praise the Monstermark System, and express her annoyance that her adventure "Merlin's Garden" was referenced in the "Competitive D&D" article without appropriate credit.  Lewis Pulsipher suggests some rules changes to the Lankhmar wargame.  Nigel Galletty provides Monstermark ratings for the Balrog, which he says Don Turnbull missed (not entirely accurate, as he covered the Type VI Demon).  And Patrick Martin complains that there aren't any miniatures portraying characters with backpacks, poles, lanterns, and other adventuring gear.

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