Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Astrologer's Tower


An introductory role-playing game ought to have an introductory adventure.  For Wizards' Realm, that adventure is called 'The Astrologer's Tower' which – including the floor plan – exceeds five pages by a couple of paragraphs.

Creating an introductory adventure can be a difficult prospect when you consider that, in effect, you are attempting to teach a first-time game master how to run an adventure.  Yes, it should also serve an an introduction for the players and demonstrate application of the rules, but educating a GM is most important.  Examples in the rulebook should show how to apply rules and – nowadays, thanks to computer games and other media – most people have a basic notion as to what players do.  GM advice and an example 'script' of a GM interacting with players is fine (if not necessary), but all of that is theory while the introductory adventure is actual practice.  The success or failure of how the adventure plays out affects the participants' liking of not just the game, but RPGs in general.  So, yes, it's quite important.

Ideally, the introductory adventure helps the game master create an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.  It is not necessary to hold the GM's hand (e.g., “Read the text in the grey box to the players...”) nor is it necessary to explore the subtleties and finesse of being a GM.  It's all a matter of achieving a balance.  Give the players enough information to get their interest, but don't subject them to an infodump.  Introduce an appropriate objective, but don't let the players think they're being railroaded.

So, the characters of the authors and playtesters of Wizards' Realm are all buddies and they call themselves 'The Company of the Keep.'  Stats are provided for some of these characters and some have a presence in Mousehole.  In the introductory adventure, the editor's character – Lady Felicity, 7th degree physician and fencer – has been abducted by the foul Wizardess Margali.  Most of 'the company' are conveniently indisposed; the one remaining member has a broken arm and recruits the player characters to rescue the damsel.  Besides the damsel-in-distress trope, the “You all meet at an inn” trope is also deployed.  In an introductory adventure, I think it's fine to use tropes blatantly.  Tropes are something recognizable to which participants can relate.  Tropes offer a comfort zone – a foundation upon which participants can role play.

Anyway – assuming the characters survive and the players have a continuing interest – the adventure provides the party with a monetary reward, the goodwill of powerful non-player characters who can act as allies/mentors/contacts, and their own base of operations in the form of the eponymous astrologer's tower.  These results, at least, seem well-suited to encourage further gaming.  However, the execution of the adventure is less than ideal.

The player characters are present when the proprietress – a member of 'the company' – receives “a note and a map” informing her of Felicity's abduction.  None of the inn's other patrons “are eager to be off to the 'haunted tower',” which leaves the player characters as the last hope.  The NPC says:
You look like a hardy lot...and I have need of your aid.  If you will take this map and can bring Lady Felicity back, I will see that you are handsomely rewarded.
There's that map again.  If the characters get a map, the players will want to see it.  Unfortunately, no map is provided.  So maybe what the map looks like isn't important; maybe it's just something that allows the characters to find the tower.  We'll see.  The NPC continues:
Be warned!...Margali is a potent foe, and she surely has henchmen waiting on the high road.  If she's prepared for Sir Tarl, she's more than ready for you.  Best you take the swamp paths to avoid the road entirely.
The adventure can be divided into three phases:  the introduction, “swamp encounters,” and the tower.  In case you couldn't tell, the party is expected to reach the tower by traversing the swamp.  After all, the high road “leads to certain doom!”  Now, if the henchmen were expecting Sir Tarl and/or his well known compatriots, why would they accost anyone else?  Are they supposed to prevent all traffic on the high road?  That's not the worst part.  It turns out that the tower is located on the coast – a fact that the players could clearly notice if they were allowed to see a map showing the tower's location.  The quickest means of getting to the tower is by boat and boats are available for hire in Mousehole.  So, characters are supposed to travel through the swamp only to find that the tower is on the coast – a fact they should have known by virtue of the map.

Also, without a map, there's no way for the game master to determine the amount of time it takes to reach the tower; the adventure only notes that the journey takes more than a day.  For every four hours, a roll is made on the encounter table.  Some encounters can only take place once; the only way there can be no encounter is if a 'once only' result is rolled a second (or later time).  Most of the encounters involve fighting something, like spiders or hobbit bayou bandits.  There's a quagmire that the party can avoid if they are “checking for such dangers.”  However, such caution cannot allow them to avoid the snake pit.  One of the encounters involves a poor man's Baba Yaga.

The adventure notes that “Margali's goons” have cleared out the tower.  Regardless, there are a few traps and obstacles, two of which make no sense if Margali's goblins are expected to report to her.  Here's the thing – Margali waits in a room on the highest level and that level has an observation deck.  If Margali has the wherewithal to station henchmen on the high road, why wouldn't she have a couple of goblins as lookouts?

The climax of the adventure occurs when Margali summons “doublegangers” to fight the party.  Each character confronts an exact duplicate of him or herself while Margali gets away.  Of course, Margali was expecting Sir Tarl and company and they would have fought their duplicates.  At least this is a plausible way for the party to survive a trap intended for characters much more powerful than they.

Although 'The Astrologer's Tower' has the potential of being a good introductory adventure, there are logical flaws with which a first-time game master should not have to cope.  Background information about the tower is provided to the game master, but there's nothing that instructs a beginning GM on how to convey any of this information to the party.  Ideally, the adventure should have accommodated alternate strategies or at least provided reasons for the party to prefer the swamp route.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Monsters (& Critters) in Wizards' Realm

As might be expected, Wizards' Realm offers a variety of opponents for player characters.  Rather than a fixed set of statistics for each type of entity, the rule book lists what dice should be rolled to determine Attributes.  For instance, a skeleton has the following Attributes:  Strength – 1d20, Intelligence – 1d20, Constitution – 1d6, Dexterity – 1d20, Agility – 3d10, Charisma – 1d6, Appearance – 1d10, and Luck – 1d10.  The description for 'skeletons' is as follows:
SKELETONS make up the sword-fodder contingent of many a Spellcaster's traps, being easily Animated and cheap to maintain.  For all that, they are deadly foes, as one has to completely break up such opponents.  Even a Skeleton whose limbs are broken will attempt to make a biting attack.  Completely break up!
If your humble host may be allowed to digress for a moment, he would care to comment upon skeletons in combat.  Wizards' Realm combat does not use hit locations, so the notion of a skeleton “whose limbs are broken” is something that occurs only at the Game Master's discretion.  However, it does make sense that a skeleton's effectiveness would be compromised as its appendages are destroyed.  Characters and monsters in Wizards' Realm have an 'Attack Number' based upon Strength, Dexterity, and Agility.  If damage to a skeleton was applied to Attack Number rather than Survival Points, it would reflect a diminished capability of the skeleton to attack; it's not like a skeleton feels pain or could be rendered unconscious.  Just a thought.

Tolkien's influence is evident among the monster listings; 'Great Spiders' are even referred to as Attercoppes.  At least the authors try to use some imagination when naming their knock-offs; Balrogs are Balefiends and Ents are Florana (singular - Florin).  Other literary influences include the Grendl:
The GRENDL is the flesh rending fiend haunting swamp, bog and mire.  The so-called Bayou Bogey (no relation to a true bogey) is driven by one urge: hunger.  To satisfy itself the Grendl will even invade nearby lodgings for prey – and is savage with its victims.  Its most frequent weaponry are its fangs, claws and constricting hug, though in melee the beast has been known to use an arm or leg (of a victim) as a club.  Primarily nocturnal.
Wizards' Realm also presents a system for random monster creation.  Let's make a monster, shall we?

First, we roll d% to determine the monster's size in feet:  83.  Next, we roll another d% to determine 'general type':  34 = mammal.  (“For underwater adventures,” page 48 tells us, “assume Fish or Amphibian, and do not use this table.”)  To find out “means of locomotion,” we roll another d% and subtract the result from what we rolled for the monster's size; less than 75 means “walk/crawl, etc.” while 75 or greater means “fly.”  With a roll of 31, our creature is hoofing it.  Next, we roll on the 'weaponry table' once for every ten feet of size (or fraction thereof).  If the same 'weapon' is rolled more than once, damage from the weapon is multiplied accordingly.  With our nine rolls we get:  Teeth (x2), horns/spines (x2), poison/spray, trample/crush/constrict (x3), and claws.  Although the rules do not offer explanations for 'horns' or 'claws,' we are treated to the following information:
Teeth are a piercing weapon in the monster's mouth; jaws shut like a vise and hold, or make repeat attack.
Trample is usually the technique of large monsters or herds of creatures.
Poison can be in the fangs or claws, spines or even the skin of the monster.  Suggested types are:
Incapacitator, which causes the victim to lose 1d10 of Survival Points per combat turn until rendered unconscious/comatose, and lasts until cured.
Convulser, which causes immediate convulsions and reduces victim by 1d20 Survival Points per turn unless or until cured.
Nauseator, which causes victim to make save on Constitution or become sick and unable to fight for 1d20 turns, unless cured.
Corrosive is usually either contact (skin) or breath/spray weapon.  Does 1d20 damage, and it will blind if a hit is in the face.
'Trample' is appropriate given the size of our monster; with x3, damage is 15.  Spines are good to discourage attacks to the flank; with x2, damage is 24.  Teeth at x2 cause 20 points of damage; claws cause 8.  I like the idea of a nauseating breath weapon.

For every twenty feet of size (or fraction thereof), we are entitled to a roll on the defense table.  Our five results are:  1d10 Armor Rating (x3) and Runner (x2).  'Runner' means, “if getting the worst of the deal, will run away.”  I'm not sure what two 'Runner' results indicate, so I reroll one of them and obtain another 1d10 Armor Rating.  This gives our monster an Armor Rating of 16.

The rules inform us that a “quickie Attack Number may be developed by using size of the creature plus 1d20, plus the weapon damage of the various monster weapons...”  So, since I rolled a 'one' on the d20, our monster's Attack Number is 151 (i.e., 83 + 1 + 15 + 24 + 20 + 8).  As a comparison, a Balefiend without a weapon has – at most – an Attack Number of 140.  Of course, any given Balefiend “exudes an aura of fear,” which would prevent our skittish monster from attacking it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Book that Appendix N Forgot

On this date, twenty-five years ago, Barbara Ninde Byfield passed away.  She was an author and an illustrator.  More to the point of this post, she wrote and illustrated The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical, since re-published as The Book of the Weird.  The complete subtitle reads:
Being a most Desirable Lexicon of The Fantastical, Wherein Kings and Dragons, Trolls and Vampires, to say nothing of Elves and Gnomes, Queens, Knaves and Werewolves, are made Manifest, and many, many further Revelations of The Mystical Order of Things are brought to light.
The back of my copy describes the book as “a treasure chest of hidden knowledge for those who fancy venturing into the twilight worlds of the Heroic, the Occult, and the Romantic.”  It is, in effect, an encyclopedia of fantasy and fairy tale tropes.  Doubtless, it is the book to which Zeb Cook refers in his foreword to The Dungeon Alphabet.  Cook says, “...I cannot remember the title or artist...It fueled my imagination with possibilities and led me to incorporate that fantastic whimsy into my own games – to want to create worlds with those touches of detail, irony and just out-and-out wonder.”

As an example of Byfield's whimsy, here is a portion of the entry on Hermits:
          ANCHORITES show a preference for thorns, drought, and meditation.  Certain that the next world will be without the above afflictions, they relish their present discomforts, which may include beds of thistles.
As examples of Byfield's illustrative prowess, see her 'Castle' diagram below and her 'Landscapes' diagram at the close of this post.

When I say, “The Book that Appendix N Forgot,” I am referring to the Dungeon Masters Guide Appendix N; Byfield's book is given due credit in the RuneQuest Appendix N.  This is curious in that the influence of The Glass Harmonica is more apparent in AD&D than in RuneQuest.  Some other blog does a capable job of demonstrating the artistic similarities between Byfield's work and 1e AD&D, so I will not duplicate the effort.  However, I will speculate that, in the absence of Byfield's entry on Trollops, Trulls, Bawds, Doxies, and Strumpets, the DMG 'harlot table' would be much less colorful or might not exist at all.  Also, I must wonder if “Rods, Staves, & Wands” would have been so grouped by Gygax in AD&D if not for Byfield's categorization of Wands, Staffs, and Rods.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Life and Times of Corvus Andromeda

Art by Rick Magyar; Corvus Andromeda (L), Bruce Lee (R)

Once again, we at Thoul's Paradise celebrate the birthday of Tom Moldvay (not to be confused with Robert Moldvay, the man responsible for the 1977 Canadian 'Red Box').  In this installment, we see hints of a common Moldvay universe that permeates different games from different publishers.

With the release of Moldvay's Revolt on Antares by TSR in 1981, we are introduced to 'Galactic Hero' Corvus Andromeda.  Essentially, the ten 'Galactic Heroes' are mercenaries in the game and we learn that Corvus is an “Intergalactic assassin.”  When game personalities engage in individual combat, all – except Corvus – are considered equal to one another.  Corvus' sole special ability is that he has an edge in such combat.

Corvus by Jeff Dee
Careful study of the Corvus Andromeda counter art leads us to believe it is Corvus that Jeff Dee depicts on the Revolt on Antares cover.

Four years later, Moldvay's The Future King is published by Spellbinders.  The Future King is an odd product; it is an adventure module with its own game system.  It deserves an in depth analysis at another time.  For purposes of the current post, all we need to know is that players in The Future King control specific historical persons such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Bruce Lee.  This publication provides the picture at the top of the post.  Corvus Andromeda serves as a random encounter in The Future King.  Actually he is the suggested encounter if a random encounter occurs at a specific part of the adventure.  At no other point in the adventure is there an opportunity to encounter Corvus.

Page 5 of The Future King affords us the following description:
Corvus Andromeda is a futuristic hero.  He was once a captain in the Terran Starguards but he had to leave the service after killing a superior officer in a duel.  Since then he has been a soldier of fortune, a smuggler, and even an assassin.  Still, he has never lost his sense of honor.  Corvus always dresses in silver and black, the colors of the Terran Starguard.
We also learn that his standard equipment includes a force field, a vibrodagger, and a blaster.

To gain a better understanding of the Terran Starguards, we must look to Moldvay's Lords of Creation, published by Avalon Hill in 1983.  Whereas Lords of Creation provides no details about Corvus specifically, we do gain insight about the environment that shaped him.  The Starguards are part of the 'Imperial Terra' space opera setting.  Page 33 of the Book of Foes states:
A Starguard is one of the elite guards for Imperial Terra in the future.  Starguards have Laser – 3, Photon Sword – 3, and the power of Mind Block.
Corvus' 'Future King' incarnation has no ability resembling Lords of Creation Mind Block, so maybe that power is conferred by equipment to which Corvus no longer has access.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Esoterica of Wizards' Realm

Margali the Masked Sorceress
As mentioned previously, the Wizards' Realm rule book contains a significant amount of marginalia in the form of “Realm Elvish” (i.e., English with a different alphabet).  There are two sets of 'Elvish' symbols, runic and script.  There is only one use of the runic form; on the blade of a sword depicted on page 4 is the phrase, “Fear not, I shall be good to your widow.”  Otherwise, the marginalia provides some insight into the authors' campaign and I provide a translation below.  Numbers in brackets refer to pages.

Long ago, when the world-that-is was young:  The bright star lord Fingol wooed and won the faint, fair maid star Finglas.  By that joining was the light called Istys first brought into the world and all life that is drew breath.  To the one whose hand
has shaped the stars be thanks, so be it.  The one who called forth the stars gave form and substance to all life both in the middle gardens and the
realm above and below.  Though the dark and light were separated and the powers that opposed the will of the one were fettered Outside:  Yet do evil powers haunt the midgards.  Evil spirits may be bound but such is
the doom of men that they choose to loose those powers in their own hearts.  For this reason are the speaking folk of the midgards called the Free People.  Those of old who were seduced or mislead by the darkness are called the
forgotten kindred.  Of old the lands which are the Middle
Kingdoms were one under the High King at Pandragae.  Peace was long lived and prosperous until the coming of the Terrible Lords.  In the lust for power which spurred them on, these evil lords brought about
the downfall of more than the high seat at Pandragae.  The fence about the Outside was breached and horror was unleashed.  Ages have passed, though the servants of Istys have gained a measure of victory, the dark powers still live.
Among the Terrible Lords was one called Silva.  In later days his chiefest foe has been one Tarl Eaglemoor, last descendant of the house which once served as the hereditary champions of the High King.  With the power of the sword he bears, the knight
has twice fought and bested Silva, once costing Silva his arm – and the better part of his reason.  More dangerous and more unpredictable than ever, Silva One-Arm now is vanished – whether dead or banished Outside none can say.
Other wizards are abroad throughout the lands of the Middle Kingdoms though they are few in number in these later days.  Indeed, it is the goal of the Wizards' Council to seek out and tutor those upon whom the power rests, that
they may be set in the path of good.  One such wizard is the sombre Darkmoon who, though a servant of the good, is a grim one.  Late did discover his power under the tutelage of Dwarkenath Goldbeard
his mentor – and he was first a fighter before he became a mage.  Now Darkmoon coaches a young human mystic in the ancient art,
Nollander, who rides with the Company of the Keep.
Up beyond Ruberto in the region of the Palewood, the spirit of Larissa, a wizardess long thought departed,remains to protect
the land she cherished.  Whether she is in fact dead or alive, living in some strange enchantment, none may say.
Darkmoon's motto = “Humans are no damn good.”
– New house rules for the Inn of the Three Fates; this is a high class place – act respectable.  No more than three to a bed.  Furniture is costly.  Enjoy your drink – then carry out your own dead.
Don't sit on the cat's chair – he's the wizard's familiar.  Under no circumstances annoy the waitress.  Cash only – no credit.
The festival of Istys occurs on Midwinter's Day.  On that day, Fingol and Finglas merge for a full day of light.
The Eaglemoor motto = “It is not better to be a dead
lion than a live jackal, 'tis better to be a live lion.”
When last seen, Pandro the Hobbit had gone off adventuring again.  Just could not put up with  earning an honest living managing an Infinity Store.
He rode off with Mongo the Berserk – and peculiar.  Mongo's favorite saying = “Mongo like to kill llizard.” [sic]  Mongo eats soup with his fingers.
Nice guy,
Kaffal is by his own standards a Trenfher.  Kaffal's favorite saying = “If they are unbelievers, then what is the problem?”  However, by the belief Kaffal brings
with him from the far south – even the Company of the Keep are, “It makes a few problems.”
When in Mousehole, the best way to find magical aids is to look up Feanol Lightstar of the Infinity Store.  The best way to start trouble in Mousehole is [to] walk into the
Inn of the Three Fates and ask where they keep the girls; a guy could get killed.
Margali the Masked Sorceress, mistress of evil, weaves her webs of intrigue throughout the Middle Kingdoms and few there are who would directly oppose her.  Beware, you who chance to challenge her.
Beware the servants who bear the sigil of the Lady's Tower.
Lydwine in the north country is the holding of Selwyn, Thegn of Lydwine, Felicity's father.
Auld Keep is the ancestral home of Liafail Airgidbann, called Darkmoon.
There are more magics and weaponry in the Infinity Store.
If you have so much money, what do you need with the magic?
Staenbul is the wickedest city in two continents, trust me.
When in Mousehole, don't annoy the elf – any elf.
Blackhammer sleeps with a nightlight – dragons have no eyelid.
Rumor has it that Nollander's hat is a hand-me-down from Darkmoon.
No Moth*, there is no food in that box either.
Have fun.  Lots of luck.
Never order “brownie surprise” at the Three Fates...the brownies are crazy waiters.
If you have any questions, drop us a line – but don't tell them Silva sent you.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, here we go again.
Honest, Robin has never said, “What do we do now, Uncle Tarn?”
Ocdabrae is a nice place to visit when they have a tournament going on – but don't drink the water.
If Moth is standing on your foot, let him.
Unicorns are sometimes seen in the woods above Ruberto – they are seldom approached though.  Remember, only one who is pure of heart may do so.  I suppose that let's out Planer then.
Actually, Tiberius is quite good with a 'bolt of the blue' – ask Blackhammer, if they can even dig him out of the rocks.
The errata sheet:
And some malign influence (Anyone we know?) made a mess of the c/k usage in our marginalia.  (Thanks a lot, Margali!)
*  I'm guessing that Moth is someone's pet dragon.