Showing posts with label Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Show all posts

Monday, August 31, 2020

Geekerati Reviews: For Coin & Blood 2nd Edition by Gallant Knight Games


In 2018, Gallant Knight Games published a role playing game entitled For Coin & Blood. The game was designed with the intent of capturing the freeform mechanical feel of first generation fantasy roleplaying games and the narrative tone of Grim Dark fantasy novels and shows. It was a game inspired by Original D&D and the writings of Kate Elliot, Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Monette, Glen Cook, Anna Smith Spark, Scott Lynch, and others.

The first edition of For Coin & Blood was well received by critics and gamers and remains a "Gold" seller on DriveThruRPG, the internet's largest digital rpg store. As successful as the game is, it was an early design by Alan Bahr and there was room for expansion and improvement. Bahr's done a lot of game design between 2018 and 2020 and he thought it was time for a second edition that reflected the lessons he's learned over the years and he wanted to release that edition in a printed edition as beautiful as he thought the updated rules deserved.

So he did what any independent designer does in these situations and launched a Kickstarter. In fact, that Kickstarter launched today (August 31, 2020) and will be running for the next 10 days (until September 9th). You'll have to act fast if you want to get one of the premium books from the Kickstarter, though I'm certain the game will be sold via DriveThruRPG afterwards. One thing to note here as you read this review. If you want to get a printed copy after reading this, make sure to back the Kickstarter. As good as the printing quality of DriveThruRPG's books are, and they are good, they are nothing compared to the print shop printing Gallant Knight puts together on their full print run products.

Now that the background is taken care of, how is For Coin & Blood as a game?

The TL;DR is that it reflects every ounce of design knowledge Alan Bahr has learned over the past few years and is an excellent and evocative design. One that I immediately backed on Kickstarter after reading my review copy.

Now for the longer review. What's Good, what's Bad, and...what's Awesome about this game.

The Good

The first thing that jumps out about the game is its setting. Grim Dark is a great theme that has an abundance of fiction game masters and players can look to for guidance on how to play. Some of the best fiction in Fantasy is in the Grim Dark genre. My own personal favorites include Glen Cook's The Black Company series, the Thieves' World anthologies, David Gemmell's Waylander tales, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos tales, Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, Simon R. Green's Hawk and Fisher stories, Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, and a long list that includes Michael Moorcock, Brent Weeks, Karl Edward Wagner, and so many more.   

As great as the setting is, Grimdark roleplaying sessions can wander down the path to excess. Thankfully, Alan Bahr provides a little advice on how to be more Joe Abercrombie and less Edgelord von Torturestein. Adding to the advice on running the game (there should be more), For Coin and Blood 2nd Edition provides a nicely detailed setting. It also includes two tales of tone setting fiction by Steve Diamond and Mari Murdock

Mechanically, the game uses a modified version of the d20 based role playing game we all know and love including some of the most recent innovations like Advantage and Disadvantage. In doing so, it has mechanics that appeal to both fans of newer heroic roleplaying and older more tactical and freeform gaming.

For example the skill tests used in For Coin and Blood echoes the assumed mechanics of Moldvay/Cook (aka B/X edition) of Dungeons & Dragons.  Hidden in the depths of that games mechanics was a foundational skill system where 1d6 being rolled against a difficulty. You can see it in the break down doors/bend bars, find secret doors, and locate traps rules of Basic/Expert D&D. In For Coin and Blood the basic skill roll tends to default to a need to roll 4+ on a six sided die. This is true for all of the narrow class skills that are specifically listed in the character classes. There is one exception. The thief  has a broad skill bonus that adds to a broad set of thief related tasks. There is no specific breakdown of thief skills, nor is there a default given in the thief class section. The lack of specific skills is fine, as we'll see in the discussion of "professions" below.

In addition to the skill system echoing B/X D&D,  Alan Bahr adapts the "die tree" from The Black Hack for use on skill tests and a couple of other game mechanics as well. The die tree, or step die mechanic, is a very neat mechanic that has its roots in Earthdawn and Alternity. Instead of giving a player a +1/-1 or +2/-2 modifier that is added to a roll, a die step mechanic has the player roll the next higher/lower die. A +1 die step would mean a player who normally rolls a d6 for an outcome would roll a d8 or d4 depending on whether they received a bonus or penalty.

The game's attribute modifiers are similar to those of OD&D instead of more modern versions. In For Coin & Blood only scores 15 and higher give a mechanical benefit and only those below 6 give a penalty. What this means is that the game is more Archetype focused and less stat focused. Statistical bonuses are "cooked in" to the things players are expected to have and thus exceptional bonuses are exception and players don't need to roll high statistics to be "on curve" for play. I love that the game focuses more on Archetypes than statistics, tot that this will stop me from a very long boring discussion below in the "The Bad" section when it comes to statistics and character creation.

Like many games, For Coin and Blood uses a combination of armor class (defense) and armor as damage reduction. In this case armor doesn't contribute to "defense", the number required to hit the character, at all and only provides damage reduction. This is similar to the system used by Wizards of the Coasts Star Wars Saga Edition role playing game. In this case, Alan Bahr added armor attrition and shield rules inspired by The Black Hack as well.


The Bad

There's not a lot to critique from a non-mechanical perspective, if I was to add something to the text I would add a good deal more advice on how to run the setting to keep it "Grim Dark" and not "Murder Hobos on Parade." This is the genre of Michael Moorcock, Steven Brust, the Thieves' World crew, Brent Weeks, Andy Remic, David Gemmell, Glen Cook, Karl Edward Wagner, and Cameron Johnston. While some of these authors incorporate certain types of disturbing violence into their fiction, they usually don't wallow in it. For Coin & Blood does have a strong disclaimer at the beginning that provides context, but I'd like to see more DM advice in this regard. As someone who has played in "evil" campaigns before, I've found they are more rewarding when they deal with moral complexity rather than focus on being gorefests. There are those gamers who want to play F.A.T.A.L. and this is not the game for them. This is not an edgelord game and those who want that style of play should look elsewhere. Still, it could use more advice on how to handle sensitive situations or provide a bibliography to existing resources.

I love 99.99% of the mechanical decisions in this game, but there is one mechanic I really don't like and that is the system of attribute determination during character generation. Alan Bahr has a favorite character generation system for OSR style games. He's used it in a number of his other "Venerable Knight Games"  publication. The system does allow for some flexibility, but depending on how you use it results in very focused characters and never really seem to accomplish exactly what Alan is hoping to do.

It starts straight forward enough with characters having six core attribute rated from 3-18: Might, Learning, Insight, Fortitude, Agility, and Charisma. Before we continue, I thought I'd let you know that I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about this, so you might want to skip down to the "Awesome" section below. There is a lot that's awesome, but for some reason the stat generation system rubs me the wrong way. What's even more ironic is that because of the Archetype and not Attribute approach of the game, the generation system really doesn't have much effect on gameplay.

Having said all of the above, here is the basic stat generation system.


Essentially, you roll 5 dice and then you order them as you wish following the above algorithm picking the highest die for your "most important stat" and the lowest die for your "dump stat." You'll note that Alan writes, "this will give you one particularly good statistic, one weak statistic, and four that range between average and good." Well...this is not exactly true and depends on how you arrange the stats.

The following analysis is based on a bit of Rmarkdown code I wrote for demonstration purposes that you can find here. If you don't have R-Studio and only want to look at ALL the output, you can find it on this webpage. But I will also be nice and show you some real examples below. 

In essence, you have a few choices as a player. You can choose to be the Specialist who has one fantastic stat and five stats that are for all intents and purposes average. You do this by rolling 5 dice, sorting them in order and using the above algorithm to generation your stats. For the sake of argument, let's say you roll the following array (I've already sorted them from high to low).

So you've got a 6, 5, 4, 3, 3. This is actually a pretty good roll. If we assumed these were added to the average on 2 dice of 7, we'd have a 13, 12, 11, 10, 10. In For Coin & Blood, none of those would be exceptional. But that's not the system. We start with 12, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10 and follow the algorithm above. Doing that, going from high to low in order, we get the following array.

One very high number, a bunch of straight up average numbers, and one low number but not low enough for a penalty (penalties start at 6 and lower).

What if we mix it up a little and still put the highest value on our prime stat, then second lowest, then middle, then second highest, and finally lowest on our dump stat? That sounds interesting right? This is what we get.

The numbers look more interesting, but there is still no real impact on play except that we are still specialized in our max stat. Remember, there are no penalties for 8s and no bonuses for 12s.

Let's mix things up a little bit more and go a little counter-intuitive by not putting our highest stat in our prime stat. This time we'll put the middle stat in the first spot, the second lowest in the second slot, the highest in the middle, the second highest next, and the worst last. This gets us the following:

In a regular d20 game, this might be the most interesting to play. This is close to the "Generalist" array from various versions of D&D. The only thing is that in For Coin & Blood, all of these stats except the 16 are still "average" and provide no bonus. Adding salt to the wound we could have a mechanically better, but aesthetically less appealing, array with a max 18 instead.

I know that I praised the game for relying on Archetypes rather than Attributes for what really matters in the game. I still believe that, but that's why I find this system odd. The algorithm is clunky for new gamers. You add dice and subtract prior dice as you go and as your reward you either get a specialist with one good stat or you end up with something very close to what you would get from just rolling 3d6 and being able to put them in any order you want. It just strikes me as inelagant in a game that is otherwise very elegant.

My second complaint is relatively minor. There is no base number given for various thief related tasks in thief section. The rules section states that the default for most actions is 4+ and that the narrator should modify this for effect. The game provides a very useful chart to do this, but it would be nice to have mention in thief class.

The weapon rules are AWESOME (see below), but the weapon degrading rules look like they need modification to update the mechanic from a "weapon die" system to a "class die" system. Given that one can easily assume that Sellswords and Knights are knowledgeable on how to care for their weapons than Magi etc., this is only a one sentence change to remain consistent.

Not a lot of complaints, just one overly long one.

City Raid Illustration by Ger Curti
Illustration by Ger Curti

The Awesome

First and foremost, I love so much about this game that I had to stop listing the "Awesome" rated stuff before this review became a "just copy the rules" review. 

One of the things that For Coin & Blood revives is the old money earned = XP earned mechanic from old versions of D&D. What I'm about to write may seem counter-intuitive, but this XP system actually reduces the "Murder Hobo" nature of adventuring. Monsters in older versions of D&D are rated in XP for "defeating" (usually being killed) and in how much treasure they have. In new versions, you pretty much just have the "defeated" XP value. What having the money = XP mechanic does is it immediately gets people to ask, "can I get the treasure without fighting?" Why? Because monsters usually have more in gold than their defeat XP value. When you add the old rules for "Encounter Relations" from B/X, Charisma becomes the "get rich and not kill ever" stat and ends the cycle of "Breach, Sleep, Clear!" that D&D can become. Sadly, Alan doesn't incorporate the Encounter Reaction chart, but given how much time is spent on sections itemizing how much characters get paid for certain activities, the money = XP system really ups the "let's find other solutions than killing" aspect of the game.

For Coin & Blood has a new statistic called Infamy that reflects how well known the character is. This statistic affects the jobs characters can get and which organizations they can join. Characters can gain and lose reputation in a way that echoes the old Marvel Super Heroes game. Infamy also affects how much players get paid for missions, gives them an XP bonus at high levels, and by affecting payment it also affects XP directly. It also provides a lure for those who want to oppose the players. The higher your Infamy, the more people know who you are and the more foes you have. Great idea!

Alan borrows a great idea from Shadow of the Demon Lord with the inclusion of Professions. What's a profession? It's what your character actually does for a living and is separate from class and can be anything you want it to be. It could be related to your class, a thief could be a "cat burglar" for example, but it need not be related. Maybe your Thief is a Bodyguard or Wandering Young Noble. You get to choose freely and fit it to whatever backstory you want. Profession does have some mechanical benefit. It aids characters in making skill tests. Any skill tests associated with your profession more likely to succeed because you get a one step die improvement on the skill roll. Very nice. Allows for flexibility and player agency.

Alan decided to incorporate one of my favorite gaming mechanics by including class based weapon damage. Instead of having weapons do a fixed amount of damage, swords doing 1d8 for example, weapon damage is based on class. Classes that are martial in nature do more damage than those unfamiliar with them. This is a nice way of letting Mages use swords without altering balance. They still roll d4 for damage, but they get to look cool doing it.

The game has so many cool classes and each has interesting mechanics. I particularly liked the Diabolist and their Pacts. The system of pacts was very evocative and flexible and fit within the Grimdark theme exceptionally well. I also absolutely loved the inclusion of the Executioner class...can we say Gene Wolfe inspired?

The game has one of the best fantasy incorporations of firearms from a mechanical perspective. Keeps the fearful lethality of the weapon (via crits and another nod to Marvel Super Heroes) and does this without amplifying the damage dice rolled.

The system for how magic weapons and magic armor come into existence is really evocative and narrative. When players roll a critical hit, or survive one in the case of armor, they may devote XP to the item. When they've devoted enough XP, the weapon gains properties. It's a very nice "low magic" mechanic and I adore it.

I could go on and on, but I'll just list three more things I thought were very good design elements The rules for Legacy experience for when characters die and the player transitions to a new character, the concept of Grim effort which literally ties lifeforce to success, and the Organization rules really round out the product.


My overall opinion is that this is a fantastic role playing game that I'd love to see get play time with my group. There are areas for more development, so I'd love to see some expansions, but this thing packs a lot of punch.

What are you waiting for? Go back the Kickstarter.

Oh, and this is VERY different from the 1st edition. That edition is good, but 2nd edition adds so much.

Friday, August 07, 2020

New Hellboy RPG Coming Your Way

In May of 2018 Mantic Games launched their Hellboy Miniature Board Game on Kickstarter to great success. The game uses simple mechanics and has some wonderful looking miniatures. So wonderful that I was very tempted to start up Hellboy RPG campaign just to put the minis to use. The dilemma I faced was what rules set to use to play a Hellboy game. I own the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game by Steve Jackson Games, but I've never really been satisfied with GURPS as an engine for cinematic play.

As much as I love Steve Jackson Games, and as many GURPS products as I own, it's always been hard to find a group willing to learn the extremely granular rules set. Yes, it is possible to set aside 80% of the rules and play a GURPS-Lite game with an easy to understand system, but I usually have a player who wants to fully leverage the capabilities of the system. They would like the other players to do the same and that requires taking the time to learn and take advantage of all the interactions etc., which is usually more than I can ask of most of my gaming group. It's one of those cases where the GURPS enthusiast in our group is over enthusiastic to play around with everything and thus we end up playing other games. GURPS being GURPS, and Steve Jackson Games being Steve Jackson Games, the sourcebooks are so detailed that they are useful for any system. So...that still left me with the dilemma of what system to run.

My top contenders were DC Heroes, Marvel SAGA, Tiny Supers, Modern AGE, and Gamma World (the 4e based one), but I think that's about to change.

Mantic Games announced this week, just post #GenConOnline, that they would be releasing a new Hellboy role playing game based on the D&D 5th Edition rules set

I'm always skeptical when a dominant rules set starts getting applied to any and all settings. The d20 explosion saw an overabundance of badly designed games that attempted to squeeze "round" genres in the the "square" that was 3rd edition D&D. That doesn't mean that every attempt to create a d20 game was a failure. In fact, some very creative designers at Green Ronin (Steve Kenson and crew) were able to adapt the super hero genre to a d20 system inspired mechanic quite elegantly. They did so by not adapting the source material to the d20 rules, rather by adapting the d20 rules to the milieu. Wizards of the Coast did something similar when they adapted Star Wars to d20. The Wizards of the Coast Star Wars rules changed the core rules to fit the setting. I would argue that they didn't quite go far enough, but the end result was still a very workable game.

This leaves me wondering which approach Mantic is taking. Are they trying to fit the round Hellboy setting into the square 5e rules set or are they attempting to modify the 5e rules set until it is round? Doing this allows ease of learning for players familiar with 5e, while still maintaining what makes the setting worth playing at all.

We won't be able to see the full Quickstart rules to get a clear answer to this question until the Kickstarter launches later this month, but a look at one of the pre-generated character sheets gives us a clue. Let's have a look at Mona.

From a quick glance at the character sheet, we can already see some ways in which the design team has created mechanics designed to make the core 5e foundation fit the setting rather than the other way around. I see references to "Wound Levels" and "Origin Features" that either create new mechanics or leverage existing mechanics to create new effects. That all looks promising, but I do see one element that makes me worry about the design. Take a look at the weapon damage of the B.R.P.D. Sidearm. It looks like it does 2d10 damage. That's A LOT of damage for a pistol in 5e and is enough to kill your average 2nd level character in one shot under standard 5e rules.

"But guns are lethal," you say? Well, so are swords, axes, arrows, and maces. Have you ever seen what a mace does to a ballistics gel dummy? It's not nice. The fact is that damage mechanics are set to the level of "heroism" you want a game to feel. Games have to balance slow and ponderous combat that lasts too many combat rounds with the ability of player characters to endure enough damage to feel heroic. Given that there is a "Wound" mechanic what does that mean? How does that work? How is the damage system different and will it feel "fun" for players?

These are important design considerations. Players like to feel heroic. There's a reason the most popular game systems, both wargame based and freeform, are as popular as they are and it tends to be because they facilitate heroic play. Gone are the days when most players are satisfied with fragility. I love my B/X D&D, but my players find it stressful and don't get as much enjoyment out of the system as I would like.

What does this have to do with Hellboy? I'm going to posit that most people who want to play in the Hellboy setting want to be as "Epic" as Hellboy and his team and not be the RPG equivalent of fragile red shirts. Even as a lot of agents die in the comic books. But remember, a lot of Rebels die in Star Wars and most people don't want to be the ship crew who get mowed down by Darth Vader.

Does the current game emulate this? I don't know, but the weapon damage has me worried.

That doesn't mean I'm not excited. I am. I own the old Steve Jackson rpg. I own the Hellboy Board Game, which is a lot of fun, and I'll be backing the new game when it comes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rethinking Dungeons & Dragons: An Alternate "Original D&D" Combat System

As you might have noticed, I've been on a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons history and prehistory kick of late. My past two posts have discussed articles from the old British Miniature Soldier Society's Bulletin and the Society of Ancients Slingshot Magazine and how those relate to the early development of D&D. I'll be returning to that series of pre-D&D influences in the British gaming scene soon, but I recently read a very interesting conversation over on the OD&D discussion boards regarding the combat system for David Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign.

As most of you know, Dungeons & Dragons is over 40 years old and though the game has changed a lot over the decades one thing has remained the same. In every edition since the Little Brown Books first introduced the "Alternate Combat System" the basic mechanic of the game has been for players to roll a Twenty-sided die to determine success or failure when attacking in combat. That term "Alternate Combat System" has always intrigued me. While the original Little Brown Books recommend using Chainmail as the combat system for D&D play, it isn't evident that this was the system that either Arneson or Gygax were actually using in their pre-publication D&D games. Writers like Jason Vey, Jason Cone, and Daniel Boggs (as Alderron) have all examined how to run D&D using the Chainmail system. Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay Core Rulebook and Daniel Boggs' Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering have gone even further an attempted to create and play games that are similar in style to the game David Arneson may have played in the pre-publication days of D&D.

The recent conversation on the OD&D discussion boards was started by Daniel Boggs who was inquiring what David Arneson's post-Chainmail game sessions might look like. According to Boggs' post, Arneson's crew may have played using rules adapted from an Ironclads rule set Arneson had designed for American Civil War ship to ship combat. I initially confused Arneson's Ironclad rules with Tom Wham's Ironclad rules and some large sum of cash spent at Noble Knight Games later, I discovered that these were not the rule Boggs was referencing.

The discussion board conversation inspired me to play around with a "pre-D&D-esque" combat rules set of my own based on a system of rolling 2d6-2 for the combat rolls. If you read the Boggs' led conversation, you'll see that 1-10 rolls (or 0-10 rolls) might have been used by Arneson's team. My goal here is to open a conversation and get feedback before playtesting. I'm in the process of adapting the Chainmail rules outright, but this would be another alternative system.

The original Chainmail man-to-man combat system, as Boggs/Vey and others have pointed out Chainmail has at least 3 combat subsystems, uses a comparison of a person's weapon and an opponent's armor to determine the to hit roll. For example (looking at the table below), a person with a dagger would need to roll a 12 on 2d6 to hit a person wearing Plate Armor and Shield. Any blow struck kills the target, or deals 1d6 damage in D&D's adaptation of the rules.
This is a very workable system that has a lot of granularity and is one that I'm looking forward to playing with my regular game group, but it is also one that is more "fiddly" and combat table based than many modern gamers are used to in their games. If you look at the table above, you'll see that Chainmail used an ascending Armor Class much like the modern game. This was reversed in original D&D and Armor Class was rescaled so that lower Armor Classes were better and Plate Armor and Shield was given an AC of 2, while No Armor was given an AC of 10.

Under a d20 system, I have come to prefer ascending ACs as being more intuitive for players, but in the system I'm about to propose I'm going to recommend keeping the reversed ACs of the Original Little Brown Books.

What is my alternative system? It's fairly simple and is essentially what was discussed in the OD&D boards. I want to experiment with rolling 2d6-2 where the characters hit if they roll less than the AC of the defender. You can see a breakdown of the probability of success below. I've selected "less than" rather than "equal to or less than" because I want to have some potential for automatic failure.

You'll notice that this system makes it very difficult to hit opponents with a good armor class. A player would only have an 8.33% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 2 (Plate Mail) and only a 2.78% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 1 (Plate Mail and Shield). This won't be too big a deal if GMs ensure that such armors are expensive and doesn't give too many creatures an Armor Class that low. Such a strong defense should be limited to Dragons and the like.

Now that I've established the base to-hit numbers, I've got two D&D related questions to answer.
  1. How does level advancement affect to hit rolls for both monsters and character?
  2. How much damage is done on a hit?
Keeping the basic classes of the first three Little Brown Books (Fighting Men, Clerics, and Magic Users), I think that these classes improve in their ability to bypass armor as they increase in levels by having the ability to modify the Armor Class they are rolling against. In essence, higher level characters are more able to see and exploit the weaknesses in armor and thus can treat Armor Classes as a higher Armor Class as they gain levels. I would propose an advancement that looks like the one below. Fighting Men begin play with a slightly better chance to hit opponents than other classes and start with a bonus where other classes have to wait and have a lower total bonus at higher levels. Keep in mind that the Armor Class Adjustment is added to the Opponent's Armor Class and not to the die roll. Thus a 13th Level Fighting Man would attack Plate Mail and Shield (AC 1) as if it was Leather and Shield (AC 6) and would hit that 58% of the time. This may seem pretty radical, but keep in mind this is a very high level Fighting Man and that it is only a single hit.
The second question is what to do about damage. In Chainmail a single hit equals death, but "Heroes" and "Superheroes" are able to take multiple hits before dying. This is reflected in the Little Brown Books in two ways. The first is the "Hit Points" with which gamers are well familiar. The second is by counting characters as multiple "Men" as they progress. A high level Fighting Man might eventually fight with the ability of "8 Men" at the "Superhero" rank. Essentially, the ability to fight as multiple people is reflected in the Hit Points of the characters as they have a number of d6 Hit Dice that are essentially equal to the number of "Men" the character can fight as. Given that all weapons in the Little Brown Books do 1d6 damage, each successful attack does enough damage to kill a level 1 character (1 Hit Die of 1d6 vs. 1 attack of 1d6 damage), it doesn't really matter whether you want each attack to do 1 "Man" of Damage or 1d6 of damage. It's only when you add the rules for Magic, and this is D&D after all, that it becomes evident that the damage should be 1d6 per hit.

But how many "attacks" does a character get? Looking at the Fighting Capability, you can see the references to a number of "Men" for each class. That's what I would use to determine the number of attacks. Yes, this means that I'd have a high level fighter making 8 attacks against opponents. You might think that this affects game balance, except when you compare it to the damage that high level Magic Users are capable of dishing out I think it's more than warranted.

These are some preliminary thoughts on a Alternative to the "Alternative Combat System" that captures a bit of the miniature inspired play while being a bit more freeform than a strict adherence to Chainmail.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hither Came Conan to Role Playing Games Part 1 (OD&D)

Fantasy Background Retrieved from WallpaperPlay and Cartoony Conan Image by Todd Pickens
The fiction of Robert E. Howard (who was born on this day in 1906), and the stories of Conan in particular, were among the stories that inspired the creation of the earliest editions Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The game has developed along lines that moved it away from its early Sword & Sorcery roots through various phases and back again as the game has become its own genre of Fantasy fiction.

The early Greyhawk campaign was very much a fusion of Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Poul Anderson. Blackmoor added more Vance a more than a dash of Burroughs and Science Fantasy. D&D's "The Known World" spiced things up by adding direct references to Clark Ashton Smith to the mix. While the official worlds reflected the entirety of Fantasy fiction, the game as played was very Tolkienesque. The inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits (later called Halflings), inspired a many gaming groups to have campaigns that mirrored the exploration of Moria. With the purchase of The Forgotten Realms and the development and publication of The Dragonlance modules, TSR began producing settings that were more Tolkienesque in execution.

But D&D never left its Sword & Sorcery roots entirely. The publication of the Dark Sun setting, a mashup of Howard, Vance, and Burroughs is one of the best demonstrations of this argument, though the wildly imaginative Planescape, the space hamster infused Spelljammer, and the dark Fairy Tale inspired Birthright settings are also of note. D&D as Fantasy is a genre that is wilder and more patchwork than those who want to argue that D&D is "Tolkien based" fantasy adventure.

Tolkien's influence is undeniable, but his world isn't filled with Dragonborn, Changelings, Living Constructs built for war who are now sentient beings, and races specifically bred to host Entities from the Realm of Dreams. Those are all races common in modern D&D sessions. The game was designed with Sword and Sorcery sensibilities, where Humans were meant to be the most common species played, but it has become something more. It is its own thing, and yet in that gonzo amalgamation of a vast array of Fantasy fiction, the game has in some ways retained a closer connection to its early Sword and Sorcery roots than to being an "Elf Game." The Sword & Sorcery fiction that inspired D&D was freeform. It was in many ways genre-free, in the sense that anything was possible. Before there was an Appendix N (the list of inspirational fiction in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide), there was this introduction to the "Little Brown Books":

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find
that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite
you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really
A quick look through that list sees fiction that includes airships that fly by the power of the 8th Ray to propel themselves through the sky at high speeds, adventures where people are transported to the fantastic world of Spencer's Faerie Queene by thinking of mathematical equations, dark and polluted urban settings where the smog is as much a character as the protagonists, and tales where men of strong arms and strong wills flee in terror when they encounter frog headed demons. What you won't find in any of these stories are Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits.

Though Appendix N has been used by many as the main argument for the primacy of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I would argue that one need look no further than the official game material produced by TSR. They included statistics for Conan and Elric in the Original Dungeons & Dragons Supplment IV (Gods, Demigods, & Heroes) and published a game based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Of these influences, Robert E Howard's creation has served as the inspiration for or been directly adapted by more game companies than any other. TSR adapted Conan for OD&D and AD&D and created a role playing game devoted to the character. Steve Jackson Games produced GURPS Conan. Mongoose Publishing produced a Conan series of books for 3rd Edition D&D. Modiphius is currently publishing a Conan game using their in house 2d20 game system. Beyond these licensed adaptations (though the OD&D adaptation was likely not licensed), games like Barbarians of Lemuria, Sorcerer (with its Sword & Sorcerer supplement), Carrion Lands, and Shadow of the Demon Lord all owe debts to this man of great mirth and great melancholy. Sword & Sorcery is THE major influence of fantasy role playing games and Conan IS the apotheosis of Sword & Sorcery.

So how well have role playing games inspired by Conan's adventures emulated him, both stylistically and mechanically? That is the central question of this series of blog posts and the answer is "depends." This blog post will focus on the version of Conan presented in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, & Heroes and later entries will examine formal and non-formal adaptations. The Wizards of the Coast reprint of the book lacks his entry, but I've transferred the information from that entry onto a character sheet below.

Mechanics from TSR's Gods, Demigods, & Heroes. Illustration by Gil Kane.
This brief entry tells us a few things about the design of Dungeons & Dragons and how good, or not good, they were at emulating a specific character from fiction. Keep in mind that the statistics were produced after the publication of the Greyhawk supplement and thus reflect the full adoption of the "alternate combat system" as the official D&D combat system and the formal publication of the Thief class. The Thief class was created by Gary Switzer of Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA and was incorporated into the D&D game via a rules addition and eventual publication in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first thing that we see is that Conan is classified as a Fighter with Thief abilities, the descriptions in the actual supplement are "Fighter Ability: 15th Level" and "This Fighter of the 15th level also has the abilities of a 9th level Thief." In the "post-Greyhawk" supplement rules, the designers had to break the rules as written to emulate what they thought Conan should look like mechanically. In OD&D only demihumans like Elves and Dwarves are expressly described as being capable of having multiple classes.

In some ways, this is an argument against the development of a Thief class at all and an argument for some way of arbitrating things like hiding or climbing walls other than dialog and DM fiat. The Thief class was designed to emulate characters like The Grey Mouser, but the Fighting Man class from the D&D rulebooks could do equally well with only a few additions to the basic rules set. I'm not opposed to having a Thief class, and thing the class has evolved in interesting ways over the years, but I do think that the game would have been perfectly fine had it stayed with Fighters, Magic Users, and Clerics as the only actual classes. Given that the Mouser and Fafhrd were both fantastic swordsmen, but also "thieves," having a Thief class that doesn't fight particularly well seems an odd way to go. This is especially true given how bad Thieves are at thieving. Don't even get me started on what effect it has on realism that thieves have the ability to climb walls, hide in shadows, and move silently when no one else does. 

Had there been no Thief class in the Greyhawk supplement, Conan would likely have been described only as a Fighter. As it is, the authors demonstrated that the emulation of fictional heroes required modifying the rules as written, even for a character as simple to emulate as Conan.

For all the talk of violating the rules as written, you might think that I think the authors have done something terrible. Quite the contrary. I think that by demonstrating that even a character as basic in archetype as Conan requires house ruling, the authors of Gods, Demigods, & Heroes are telling DMs to open up their game play and to not be restricted by the rules as written. As Timothy Kask writes in the introduction to the book, "As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" OD&D rules were meant to facilitate play and not restrict it. The arguments for "RAW" play don't get heavily promoted by TSR until the publication of AD&D, and even then are for the purpose of tournament play and not house play.  

Gods, Demigods, & Heroes is an odd and wonderful book. One the one hand it seeks to show DMs how they can modify the rules to create the types of games that best fit their gaming group. On the other hand, it was written as a "last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters." It was meant to show players that even the "most powerful" weren't of ridiculously high levels and that campaigns could be fun at lower level play. And yet, it became for many a menagerie of monsters to be slain by player characters; having the opposite effect it intended.

All of that aside, in a book filled with mythologies the authors only included two that were not "real world" pantheons. They chose to give statistics for the worlds of Conan and of Elric, two sides of the same coin. Two of the best characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In doing so, the demonstrated how central Conan and Sword & Sorcery are to the creation of D&D.

Conan would appear in TSR products again a decade later with statistics in two different game systems, but that's a discussion for the next blog post.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

It's Time for Shadow of the Krampus -- A Holiday Themed Shadow of the Demon Lord Adventure

Tow years ago I posted this little adventure for those of you who want to add a little of the Season into your gaming.

I am a big fan of running seasonal adventures for my regular gaming group. Though my group hasn't played as regularly this year as they have in the past, I was inspired by Robert J. Schwalb's dark fantasy roleplaying game Shadow of the Demon Lord to write an adventure for this season. For the past few years, I've written and reshared adventures featuring Cthulhu Claus (based on my wife Jody Lindke's illustrations for an old Kickstarter) or the V'sori (evil aliens in the Necessary Evil setting for Savage Worlds), but this year I decided to feature Krampus -- that most devilish of Santa's helpers. While Krampus might be a bit played out for some, having gained mainstream notoriety, I'm still a big fan of the character and I have the pleasure of knowing an artist who has been participating in Krampuslaufen long before it was trendy to do so and Bill Rude's Krampus costume is amazing as is the fact that he can get even small children to pose with his horrifying costume.

Bill Rude is a talented artist and you can look at a variety of his projects over at his 7 Hells: The Retro Art of Bill Rude website.

Illustration Copyright Jody Lindke 2016
In this mini-adventure, the PCs are passing through the town of Nesbitt-Hill during one of their other adventures. You can use the map below to represent the portion of the foothills of the Iron Peaks immediately south of the Zauberspitz with Nesbitt-Hill being the northern-most community on the map and Tower number 3 representing the once great Beacon Fortress.

Shadow of the Krampus is a Novice (though not a "just now Novice") adventure for Shadow of the Demon Lord with a post-Christmas theme. 

The town of Nesbitt-Hill is a vital stop for wanderers and miners who brave the dangers of the Iron Peaks in search of adventure or riches. For years the town has been a peaceful refuge, seemingly immune from the spread of the Demon Lord's Shadow. For even as the Shadow has spread, the town of Nesbitt-Hill remains a spark of light an happiness in an otherwise dark and desperate world.

But that changed last night. Historically, the Winter Solstice has been a time of celebration when the townsfolk of Nesbitt-Hill memorialize the the Solstice King and his champion Krampus. For it is this duo who has protected the town since the Battle of Zauberspitz where the Solstice King and Krampus defeated a horde of the Demon Lord's servants, or at least that is what the stories say. The stories also say that Krampus steals children who misbehave and returns them at the Spring Equinox after the darkness has been purged from the children's souls. If it is true that Krampus takes children and eventually brings them back, why is it that Krampus has taken no children for twenty years? Why does Mistress Oetzel swear she saw Krampus take adults this Winter Solstice? And why were these adults among the most generous citizens of Nesbitt-Hill? Has Krampus returned, but as a servant of the Demon Lord? Or is something else afoot?


With the exception of the map depicting the area of the Iron Peaks I refer to as the Gronwald, an area that lies in the shadow of the Zauberspitz, all of the maps were drawn by Dyson Logos and were taken from his Commercial Maps webpage. According to the page, Dyson has released these images under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If I have used any images that are not covered by this license, I will be happy to remove them.

The cover image of "Shadow of the Krampus?" was illustrated by Bill Rude, who was kind enough to give me permission to use it. Please visit his website and consider purchasing some of his art.

The other image is the "survival map" from Robert J Schwalb's playing aids page for Shadow of the Demon Lord. I am using it with the intention of it being fair use, but if Mr. Schwalb deems my use inappropriate I will be happy to remove it. This adventure requires the use of the Shadow of the Demon Lord rule book since all monster statistics, with the exception of Krampus, are located within the pages of that "vile" tome. Krampus was designed using rules from the Of Monstrous Mien supplement. It is highly recommended that you also own Hunger in the Void and Terrible Beauty to add details around the edges of this adventure.

The cartoon illustrations in the module are the work of my talented wife Jody Lindke. I included "rpg humor" cartoons because they remind me of the cartoons in the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Geekerati Monday Geekosphere Snapshot 12/16

It's time for another snapshot of the Geekosphere! Today's post features products and posts of things I thought might be of interest to my fellow geeks.

Cat Themed Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer.

First and foremost are these cute as a kitten Cat Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer. Ever since I backed the first set of Symbaroum products, and received their mouse pad material dice tray, I've been a big fan of having dice trays at the table. They minimize the number of times you are on your knees looking under the table for a die that went wild. These trays are cute and look extremely durable. I know I'll be checking them out!

The AD&D Fiend Folio was a collection of strange monsters pulled from the pages of White Dwarf magazine's "Fiend Factory" column edited by Don Turnbull. Like many other gaming legends, Turnbull's contributions are sometimes overlooked. His coordination of postal Diplomacy games helped to build gaming communities and presaged modern internet based gaming. The "Fiend Factory" column contained a wild array of monsters. Some were classic monsters by different names, others like the Githyanki would go on to become classic D&D monsters and influence later fantasy fiction. While many of the monsters have been incorporated into the Monster Manual, and other monster books, this new volume of creatures contains many who have been left behind. As an added incentive to buy it, the proceeds for this product go to Extra Life who uses donations to fund Children's Hospitals.

From Deadline: " Legion M has acquired Brian Staveley’s bestselling fantasy epic The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and brought Weta Workshop aboard to begin the visual concept work for a one-hour fantasy drama series that will share the title of the bookshelf trilogy’s first entry: The Emperor’s Blades. "

"But one thing I can predict about this ninth Star Wars episode is that it won’t make everyone happy. That’s fine, mind you, but the Star Wars franchise finds itself in an odd position of being a singular pop culture juggernaut where everyone has their own ideas of what Star Wars should be. The Rise of Skywalker can’t possibly be all things to all fans."

"...the company went all-out on the toys, including an app-controlled Porsche."

We chatted briefly with Keith Baker about the new game during our last Geekerati Radio Episode, but more details are emerging.

Friday, July 12, 2019

D&D Rangers Through the Ages (Part 2): Arduin's Forrester (sic) and the Gaming Scene

In yesterday's post, I the first in a series of posts about the Ranger as a character class in the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. This discussion was inspired by a tweet by Cam Banks where he shared his concept of what the Ranger is in his mind. His preferred Rangers are "guerrilla fighters, adept at striking targets quickly and with expertise, operating as scouts and archers and guides" and his argument suggests that the 5th edition D&D Ranger has somewhat deviated from this central concept. In the first post in the series, I wrote about how I thought that the Ranger class has become one of the most "meta" classes over time because it now includes among its informative archetypes a character who is in turn based on the earlier editions of the rules.

I know, that's confusing. Let's just say that the class has become self referential. I don't want to retread too much ground from the past article as I move forward, but I do want to provide a little bit of ground work on the origins of the class. As mentioned yesterday, some key examples of the class are Aragorn, Legolas, Tarzan, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Drizzt Do'Urden (the new "iconic" Ranger who has displaced Aragorn in the D&D imagination). There are some others who weren't mentioned, some who were mentioned by T.S. Luikart and Cam in tweets responding to yesterday's post (thanks for reading). In the tweet-versation, Luikart adds Dar the Beastmaster and John Carter to the mix.

Dar is obviously a Ranger, though he comes after the 1975 creation of the Ranger class, and John Carter is an interesting choice. I wouldn't necessarily have classified him as a Ranger, but after listening to Fiddleback's GM Word of the Week, I think he's a good fit. This isn't because Fiddleback argues that John Carter is a Ranger, rather because he conveys the military and civilian history of the real world Ranger in a way that makes it a perfect fit for Captain Carter of Virginia. I'd like to add a couple more Rangers, who also happen to have Animal Companions, to the mix. The Lone Ranger and Silver are very much in the line of the class as envisioned by Cam, especially in the radio portrayal of the Ranger character. The Phantom, aka The Ghost Who Walks, with his companions Devil and Hero is also a perfect Ranger. Given that Gygax and crew designed Boot Hill, wrote up stats for the Lone Ranger in Strategic Review vol. 2. no. 2, and may have played using the Curtis et al. Western Skirmish rules before that, I think that Gary's local group might have also had The Lone Ranger in mind for a couple of classes, the Ranger and the Paladin, but that's only speculation. Whatever the case, they all fit and you can probably think of several others that fit as well. In fact, go ahead and post your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Now onto the good stuff.

Around the same time as the publication of the Ranger in The Strategic Review, David Hargrave included information about a "Ranger" class in The Arduin Grimoire. In the first Arduin volume, the class has experience point requirements listed and is included on one of the charts for "special abilities" (more on that shortly). Hargrave's Arduin books are a part of the "California RPG Scene" that included the Greg Stafford group that published All the World's Monsters (which Hargrave contributed to and volume 2 of which contains the "Perrin Conventions" that would influence how D&D is played), the Alarums and Excursions creators, and The Complete Warlock RPG group. The California RPG scene was responsible for the creation of the Thief Class, Runequest, Champions, Supergame, and a host of other exciting rpg innovations.

(If you check out the Supergame link, the scan of the 1st edition of the game is from my own personal collection...and that one's not an affiliate link.)

It is really remarkable how much output this community put out in the 1970s and I'm eternally grateful for the fact that UC Riverside, where I'm earning my Ph.D., has copies of many of the fanzines this community was producing at the time.

I'm pretty sure that Hargrave had read the 1975 Strategic Review article referenced in the last post by the time he published his Grimoire, but I don't think he had read it before he began designing his own version of the Ranger for his home game. I say this for one specific reason. He renames his Ranger, "The Forrester" (sic), when it is published in vol. 3 of the Grimoire. This suggests to me that he had been playing with a Ranger equivalent before reading the rules and then continued using it afterwards because his Ranger was different from the one published in Strategic Review. Interestingly, if you've listened to the GM Word of the Day podcast linked above, one might argue that the Strategic Review Ranger represents the "military" version of the class, while Hargrave's represents the "civilian" version.

So what does Hargrave's Ranger look like? Well, there are two parts of his emulation of the archetype.

First, he includes Rangers in a group of characters with a "more or less secret nature." This grouping was listed in a collection of tables that included special abilities new characters start with, abilities that helped to make individual characters more distinct from one another. If you read through the Original D&D rulebook Men & Magic, you'll quickly see that the only thing that differentiates one Fighting Man from another in OD&D are the character's statistics, hit points, and equipment selected by the player. Most of the individualization of the character comes from how the player describes the character and given that all weapons did the same amount of damage prior to the Greyhawk Supplement, things could be pretty static. Do address this, Hargrave created a series of special ability charts and the Ranger is on the chart with other "Secret"-ive classes like, Thieves, Monks, Ninja, Highwaymen, Corsairs, Assassins, Traders, Slavers, etc. As you can see by that list, Hargrave had a lot of optional classes.

Among the possible special abilities a new Ranger could have were the following (not a complete list because good God Hargrave was a lover of random charts for good and ill): Natural Locksmith (pick locks at a Thief of two levels higher than your won), +3 attacks versus all attacks by oozes and slimes, +2 with rapiers and foils (he had rapiers early), 50% better night vision, bump of direction, Master Herbalist, Natural Linguist, etc.

There are some entries, not listed, that make one shake one's head in disbelief that he thought they were appropriate, but there are over 30 options which meant that characters in Hargrave's game had a little something to set them apart from other characters of the same class. Modern characters have feat selections, archetypes, backgrounds, different skill choices, but back in OD&D that wasn't the case, so this was pretty innovative. You can see by the grouping of Rangers with "Secret" characters, Hargrave is strongly in the "their guerilla warriors" camp.

The second way Hargrave emulated Rangers was by creating his own class called The Forrester (sic). He describes the class this way:

This type of character is akin to the Elves and the Outlaws in their abilities. They are solitary and nomadic by nature but do join expeditions as wilderness guides )though they seldom venture into dungeons). Forresters (sic) only have a 05% chance of getting lost in known areas, and a 20% chance in unknown ones.
They are used as border patrols and scouts/spys (sic) by military types and are occassionally (sic) hired to tend the Royal Game Preserves...
Clearly has similar inspirations as the official class, though the additional information regarding game preserves adds a nice detail about the real world Rangers and how they might have inspired the class too.

Hargrave's Forrester (sic) doesn't have all the abilities of the official one, in fact it isn't readily clear what the combat capabilities and hit points of the class are. Those do become clear later, but they are unique to Arduin's system. The main abilities of the Forrester (sic) are progressive bonuses with "non-mechanical" bows, sensing enemies, good hearing, weather sense, the ability to speak with plants and animals, the ability to heal like a first level Druid (at 15th level), and eventually a bonus with "any weapon." The class eventually ends up with a +2 (total) bonus to non-mechanical bows and whether the bonus to "any weapon" means a bonus to any weapon the character is using at a given moment or whether the player can pick a single weapon with which to have the bonus isn't clear. The lack of clarity is something common in Arduin. Where OD&D had a lot of gaps in the rules, Arduin has lots of uncertainty for how things work.

As you can see though, Hargrave's Ranger equivalent is a guerrilla fighter and spy, but one with a focus on bow use. Clearly there's more Robin Hood in Hargrave's Ranger than in the OD&D one. There are no bonuses against "Giant type" creatures. The spell casting is much weaker than the OD&D class, though also more in line with Aragorn's stated capabilities in Fellowship.

It's an interesting take that highlights the creative energies of the California scene, while also demonstrating the amateur nature of the hobby at the time. I don't mean amateur here as a pejorative. Merely that a more professional publication would assume that more clarity is needed in the rules. For the amateur, who is part of an active community constantly in conversation with one another via cons and zines, things can be a little looser. They are also looser because the hobby itself was more amateur at the time. Things weren't rigorously playtested. People were too busy playing FOR THE FIRST TIME and exploring possibilities to playtest. The hobby was growing at a logarithmic pace and you can see that in Hargrave's Arduin books. They may be gonzo and vague, but there is a lot of creative energy here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

D&D Rangers Through the Ages (Part 1): The First D&D Ranger

About a month ago, Cam Banks began a discussion on Twitter regarding his thoughts on the Ranger class and how he didn't think that the Ranger class in 5th Edition D&D captured his concept of what the class should be. Cam and I are acquaintances, and one of my favorite game designers having designed some fantastic material for the Dragonlance setting, a Marvel role playing game, and the highly underappreciated Smallville role playing game (a game I mentioned during Dungeons and Dilemmas segment of this week's episode of Geekerati), so I thought it might be interesting to present his concept and discuss the evolution of the Ranger class over the editions. This isn't going to be a Jon Peterson-esque history filled with insider information. Rather, it's going to be a simple look at each edition's version of the Ranger class with some insights from a long-time player.

I think the discussion will be interesting for new gamers who may not be familiar with some of how the Ranger evolved over time and for older gamers who take certain things about the class for granted.

Cam's basic argument is two fold, an assertion that the Ranger is a part of an archetypical tradition and that the current version has abandoned a lot of this tradition because of the popularity of one character within the tradition.

His initial statement is about what he sees as the quintessential tradition that inspired the class.

For Cam, the prototypical Ranger is a part of a tradition that includes characters from the Lord of the Rings, the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Greek/Roman Mythology, and Fairy Tales. It's a nice list and you can see a coherent archetype within it of the lone warrior fighting from the shadows to defend the weak. In the case of Aragorn, this was done during his days as a "Ranger" prior to his appearance in the Lord of the Rings when he and others wandered the lands keeping the roads and distant communities safe from various threats. Legolas accompanied Aragorn on many of these adventures. Fans of the Tarzan books can find numerous examples of him engaging in guerilla fighting against threats that included Soviet Communists in Tarzan the Invincible. And we are all familiar with the various tales of Jack the Giant Slayer who climbs the beanstalk and battles...GIANTS...something that will be seen as a big influence in a moment, but first let's look at the second part of his argument.
In the second part, Cam focuses on how the character of Drizzt Do'Urden has influenced the Ranger class in more recent editions of D&D. Cam's earlier mention of Aragorn's lack of animal companion is another example of Do'Urden's influence. Cam is arguing here that he believes an iconic character from D&D fiction, has influenced how designers implemented the class in future editions. I think Cam is on to something here. Robert Salvatore's character of Drizzt has an animal companion and he fights with dual scimitars. Prior to his introduction in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, most Rangers were using weapons that were more effective against "Large" creatures and none had animal companions. So it seems at first glance that Salvatore's iconic Ranger is now "the" iconic Ranger.

&D. If you want a great example of how Drizzt was a quintessential 1st Edition Ranger in the Icewind Dale trilogy, I recommend you check out the scene where Drizzt and Wulfgar are fighting giants. Drizzt goes completely berserk. Why? Is there some deep back story where giants killed his family? C'mon, Drizzt would be celebrating if giants killed his family. No. Rangers got bonuses to damage against giants and giant kin in 1st edition. You can also see Drizzt follow the "dual class" rules of 1st/2nd edition when he formally becomes a Ranger and leaves his past as a Fighter behind. He literally becomes worse at fighting until he "gains enough levels" to surpass his former level as a fighter. Never mind that dual class rules were supposedly only usable by humans, Drizzt follows them in the Dark Elf Trilogy. I'm actually grateful that Salvatore hews so close to the rules, even as he takes liberties, because it helps readers who become players transition more easily. They don't encounter any moments of disappointment as they try to adapt the character to the rules. The character was written with the rules in mind.

Sorry for the brief digression there, but I think it was an important side conversation. Cam's point isn't that Salvatore adheres to the rules, rather that the rules have come to reflect Salvatore's vision. Now Rangers are viewed as having animal companions and dual wielding BECAUSE that's what Drizzt does. The class has transitioned from an archetype based on many characters, an archetype that then influenced Salvatore's writing of the character Drizzt, to a class influenced by a particular expression unique to D&D. This has actually happened with a lot of D&D. The rules were originally created to emulate the stories Gygax and Arneson read as kids, many of which are referenced in the famous Appendix N. Now D&D rules are more geared at emulating the stories told in D&D novels, which are their own brand of fantasy fiction. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as D&D novels cover a wide variety of milieu, but it can be constraining if there is too much Forgotten Realms and not enough Eberron, Dragonlance, Mystara, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, and Appendix N in the mix. Is D&D a roleplaying game of the fantasy genre, or is it a roleplaying game of the D&D fantasy genre? That's a question for another time, but one worth considering.


Okay, so I've argued that Salvatore's initial Ranger was influenced by the older Ranger class and that subsequent Ranger classes are based on Salvatore's Ranger as it developed through stories, but where's the evidence? After all, Nazir was pretty badass in the Robin of Sherwood series. Maybe Drizzt didn't shape things to come. The only way to know is to see the development of the class, which is the entire reason for this series of posts in the first place. So let's take a look at the initial Ranger class.

The Ranger first appeared in The Strategic Review vol. 1 no. 2 newsletter published by TSR in 1975. Wizards of the Coast hasn't reprinted all the early newsletters yet, so unless you own the Dragon Magazine Archive like me, you're stuck with less legal means of finding the information.
The Ranger was created by Joe Fischer, who was a player in Gary Gygax's D&D game group and was initially designed as a "sub-class" of Fighting Men. Remember in Original D&D, there were Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. Thieves were created by California gamer Gary Switzer, the late owner of the excellent Aero Games (which is still open).  The formal introduction of Thieves to D&D came in the Greyhawk Supplement, which also introduced the concept of "sub-class" with the / Paladin the first sub class of Fighting Men.

Fischer introduces the Ranger in the following way:
Rangers are a sub-class of Fighting Men, similar in many ways to the new sub-class Paladins, for they must always remain Lawful or lose all the benefits they gained (except, of course, experience as a fighter).

Note that Fischer's Ranger is a specifically heroic class, with a required alignment of "Lawful," and that the character loses abilities if it acts out of alignment. While the alignment rules of modern D&D are flexible guidelines, the rules in earlier editions of D&D were very inspired by Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, and Henry Kuttner. In this fictional tradition, the forces of law and chaos have physical manifestations and are real things not just ethical constructs. One might argue that Tolkien's Ring Cycle fits with Morgoth and Sauron representing Chaos, but that would be an interpretation. Moorcock, Anderson, and Kuttner expressly state that Chaos is a living and tangible thing. D&D's early rules reflected a similar mythopoetic setting.

So other than being champions of "Law," what kinds of people where Rangers?

Like Fighting Men they had Strength as their "Prime Requisite," but they also required Intelligence and Wisdom scores of at least 12 and a Constitution of at least 15. These are pretty strict requirements as one only has a 9.26% of rolling a 15 or higher on a given statistic (assuming 3d6 in order as was the old school way). Players would want a high Strength, so the requirements mean that only about 1% of rolled up characters would qualify. This was one of the ways that older D&D balanced classes for play. The abilities of a class might be "unbalanced" or OP compared to other classes, but the rarity of rolling them up was designed as a counterpoint. Of course, Rangers are really cool, so the fact that I just "happened" to roll a 15, 16, 16, and 18 is totally believable. What's key here is that in earlier editions, you don't choose to be a Ranger so much as being a Ranger is something that chooses you.

Players of D&D know that each class has a certain number of hit points they gain each level. This was one of the ways that the early ranger was set apart from other Fighting Men. Most Fighting Men started with one hit dice (either 1d6 or 1d8 depending on which version of the combat rules you were using), the Ranger started with two. Right away, they are tougher but that doesn't tell us anything about their origin. The "level names" however do. Early editions of D&D had descriptive names for each level of character, that way a player could say "I'm a Ranger Scout" instead of "I'm a 3rd Level Ranger." I actually like the old system. It lessens the sense of "gaming" and increases the narrative element of play. The first few levels of Ranger are: Runner, STRIDER, Scout, Guide, Pathfinder...

Did you see the STRIDER? So yeah, it's totally Aragorn. Cam's on the money here. Additionally, as the character hits "name level," they are able to cast spells. Is case, starting at 8th level a Ranger gets access to one 1st Level Cleric spell. At 9th Level, they are able to cast 1st Level Magic-User spells. Eventually being able to cast spells of up to the 3rd Level in each class at 13th Level.
For the record, at 13th Level a Ranger knows Three 1st Level, Two 2nd Level, and 1 Third Level spell from each of the Cleric and Magic User Spell Lists. That's pretty OP, but they require A LOT of experience to get there.

In order to "pay" for these benefits, as if the restrictions on scores weren't enough (they weren't because "rollling"), Rangers had several restrictions. All of which fit within Cam's description of his prototypical Ranger. Here's an incomplete list:

  • They may own only that which they can cary with them, and excess treasure or goods must be donated to a charitable cause.
Let's just say that if you're using encumbrance rules, which players weren't but DMs were, this is a pretty big restriction.

  • They may not hire any men-at-arms or other servants or aides of any kind whatsoever.
A strict DM would have this apply to the whole party. Let's just say that a lot of player groups had expendable henchmen and that Rangers couldn't have them.

  • Only two of the class may operate together.
Legolas and Aragorn are okay. Ranger Squad Six isn't. Not that you could have honestly rolled those stats in the first place

So much for the restrictions, all of which fit the loner type Cam describes though I'm wondering where Tarzan put all his spells. Clearly Tarzan's spells are things like Comprehend Languages...yep, that's it. Rangers also had additional bonuses, beyond the additional hit points and spell casting

They didn't receive Prime Requisite experience bonuses, instead they gained "4 experience points for every 3 earned" at low levels. Holy cow! That's a 33% experience bonus! Unheard of. Why bother listing the high experience requirements, when they get a 33% bonus? Thankfully, they lose this at the same time they gain spells.

They also had the ability to track creatures outdoors and in dungeons and were dificult to surprise.

Here's the big one, one that partially explains why Drizzt goes berserk in the Icewind Dale trilogy.

  • All Rangers gain a special advantage when fighting against monster of the Giant Class (Kobolds -- Giants). For each level they have gained they add +1 to their damage die against these creatures, so a 1st Level Ranger adds +1, a 2nd Level +2, and so on.
Good Grief! Sorry Mr. Kobold. You may only be 3 feet tall and have 1 to 3 hit points, but our Runner gets +2 damage against you for being a "Giant" and he REALLY hates Giants.

They can't acquire henchmen, but at 9th level they gain "Followers" that can include Werebears, Stone Giants, and Gold Dragons. How's that for an animal companion? The Werebear I get. Beorn in The Hobbit is a Werebear and Bard is clearly a Ranger, but the Gold Dragon?

What you see here is a class that is influenced by the fiction of Tolkien (Aragorn has some small access to magic) and Tarzan (he has a large group of loyal henchmen and we'll say that a Jad-bal-ja the lion is kind of like a Werebear), and Jack. Did you see how much they hate Giants? That's totally Jack. There's no guarantee of an animal companion, but it's a possibility. It's also one determined at random and not chosen.

The class very much fits within the scope of Cam's description, but you can still see hints of the modern Ranger. It also makes interesting reading for the Drizzt series, though his character is based on the AD&D Ranger and you'll have to wait for the next post to see how the class changes. Notice that there are no armor restrictions, no dual wielding, just hatred of Giants which eventually became "favored enemy."