Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Frog, Giant, and Toad, Giant are Friends

 Or possibly, "Friends, Giant". But they're certainly not friends with you.

I noticed something while looking at the table of contents for the 1st edition Monster Manual the other day. Of the 233 main entries, 31 of them are either giants or "something, giant" (not to mention Ettins and Titans, for that matter). Why would that be, I wonder?

Giants appear in the myths and legends of many, many cultures. One common explanation for that is that they are a manifestation of childhood fears, when everything was bigger than we were. Although I suppose that's possible, I would hope that one of our cultures would have managed to come up with an arrangement where children felt basically safe in the world, or at least in the home. Another explanation, and one that rings a little truer to me, is that giant things are a staple of fantasy because fantasy is literally about being larger than life; like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, with its eight-legged animals and colors that couldn't be found on Earth, fantasy just has to be bigger, stronger, faster, more. And that led me to think about what the process of fantasy does, and the ways it does it.

Fantasy does a lot of things, to be sure, but there are probably a few recurring principles at work. Monsters, in particular, seem a fertile source for speculation: how many truly different ways are there to make a monster? Some sprang to mind, and since monsters are inherently things to be feared (or at least, things to approach cautiously), I began postulating what fear each type of monster might represent. For example:

Chimerism: the basic process where something bad is made worse, usually by combining it with attributes from something else bad. The chimera itself, the manticore, and the eponymous dragon are all examples of this. The chimera is a serpent, a lion, and a goat. (Which, as a manifestation of the god Pan, would reasonably scare ancient Greeks if he was in a bad mood. Read Euripides' Bacchae if you don't think so.) The dragon, a giant serpent and a bat. And I could imagine the dialogue that went on with the first storyteller to employ the manticore: "It's like a lion." "Big deal, my cousin Demosthenes shot and killed a lion with his bow." "Oh yeah? Well this lion flies, and has the brains of a man, and it shoots back."

As a subset, there is the man-beast hybrid: the Minotaur, the Sphinx, the Centaur and the Lamia all represent something with the physical power of an animal and the cunning of a human. Although if you looked at it biologically, the Minotaur is really just as weak as a man and as dumb as a bull. But nonetheless, the process is the same.

Giantism, and its twin, Dwarfism: not the medical kind, but as I mentioned before, these are the basic manifestations of fantasy as being somehow more than real. In the case of Dwarfism, even smaller than normal represents some kind of schism with the World as We Know It.

Abstractions, personified: e.g., the Undead, embodying Death. Not only do they remind us of our common inevitable end, they personalize it by portraying the dead as resentful of those of us who haven't joined them yet, as if we were all Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls, and Death has it out for us personally. Other abstractions might be the Elements (Elementals), Bad Luck (any Invisible enemy, or anything that can cast a curse), or Social Taboos (Demons and Devils).

I'm sure there are more, and I haven't figured out where some things (like Medusa) belong in this or any taxonomy. But the benefit of thinking about monsters like this is, when you as a DM need to come up with a monster that your players can't simply look up in the rules, this process of conjuring up abominations might come in handy.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Still In the Labyrinth

I mentioned  that I was going to play a game of The Fantasy Trip last week, and I did so. I ended up changing my character's name to Xoltoth, because it sounded more Swords 'n' Sorcery-like than Nicodemus. The campaign is set in the world of Cidri, but that's almost like saying it's set in the world of make-believe, because the official description of Cidri states that it's a world big enough to hold any and all campaigns in it.

Although none of us likes railroaded adventures, we allowed ourselves to be drawn into the initial scenario--trapped in a mountain cave by a landslide--for the sake of kicking things off. We did some exploration, and I feel bad that I didn't press harder to climb down one ravine before the party just decided to explore another path: there was a cache of healing potions at the bottom, which we could have used when fighting the dessicated corpses deeper down in the caves.

After that fight (where my character spent most of his time running away due to some really lousy rolls), we discovered a throne room, and, to make a short story shorter, discovered that this place had been the palace of one of the nations that had been wiped out years ago. The undead were there to guard their king's final resting place, a goal that our inadvertent presence messed up.

After all that, we're still trapped in the cave complex.

Some things about TFT that I learned from this game:
  1. The difference between a 10 DEX and an 11 is notable; you need to roll under your DEX on 3d6 to cast a spell successfully, and it seems like every roll was an 11. 
  2. Consequently, I'm going to buy a point of DEX as soon as I garner enough XP. (That's how characters grow stronger in TFT.)
  3. 1-3 points of armor really adds up against a barrage of 1- and 2d6 attacks. Sometimes, our intuitive assessment of numbers is way off, as I didn't think any of the armored characters got a bargain for their gold, but I was wrong.
When we find our way out, I'll let y'all know what happens.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Greater Burden

I've been a fan of the house-ruled abstract encumbrance system that Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses since I first read about it on Telecanter's blog. The one thing that didn't sit right with me was what to do with stronger characters, who quite reasonably wouldn't feel the burden as much as their weaker comrades-in-arms.

A simple solution is to subtract two slots worth of encumbering items per point of strength over 12. That way, a character with 18 STR could go from say, 19 slots (3 Encumbrance, or "Heavily Encumbered") to 7 slots (1 Encumbrance, or "Unencumbered"). Items would still be recorded, of course. Tying it to every point of STR makes a 13 or a 14 really worth something, as it might just be the difference between Heavy and Light Encumbrance.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Returning to The Labyrinth

I'm going to start playing a campaign for The Fantasy Trip this weekend. For those of you who might not know, TFT is sort of a proto-GURPS: character creation is point-buy, with a base value of 8 for each of three stats: Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. Then, the player may add a total of 8 points to one or more of these. The basic resolution is to roll under a target number on 3 or more d6, the target being determined by skills and circumstance. The game only uses d6es.

Steve Jackson, of the eponymous game company fame, created TFT in the late '70s, while working for Howard Thompson at the now-defunct  Metagaming Concepts. TFT proper comprised three books (almost booklets, really): Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In The Labyrinth. Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard were beefed-up versions of the microgames Melee and Wizard, which were short, tactical combat games; In The Labyrinth took these two and added more in-depth character generation (namely, one of the first comprehensive skill lists in RPGs) and campaign creation rules. One point of interest I found when first reading the books back in 1980 was that Charisma, rather than being an attribute, was a skill you could purchase, either at creation time or later with experience points.

Thompson was dissatisfied with TFT because it was supposedly "too complicated". For this and other reasons known only to him, he dismantled Metagaming in 1983, leaving TFT and other Metagaming intellectual property in a state of legal limbo. One wonders what he would make of GURPS, to say nothing of later editions of D&D. Myself, I find TFT to be very easy to understand and play. Like GURPS, most of the complexity is in character creation; unlike GURPS, that still doesn't mean it takes any longer than twenty minutes to a half hour to create a new PC. Although some might say, since it's a point-buy system with a notch more complexity than D&D, that it's on the cusp between classic and modern RPGs, but I think that the simple resolution system and the logical way the rules interconnect put it firmly in the Old School.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to statting up the wizard, Nicodemus, on Saturday.