Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tracing Magic Swords

Zenopus comments have inspired me to post another old thread I wrote in relation to his asking about being able to date certain parts of the FFC.
Magic Swords is one of the trickier entries in the FFC, being not well organized and hard to follow, and not something most gamers are ever likely to have bothered with. 

There are actually two magic sword creation methods in the FFC "Magic Swords & Matrix" section, both quite different. The first is a list of ability categories, followed by the actual swords Arneson created using that list and wrote on index cards for the first or second year of his campaign using his Blackmoor rules of course.
The second, written "in the third year" under the heading of "Matrix" is a different and quite complex system.
On the face of it, given Arneson’s dating comments, the first of these methods should predate Gygax D&D, while the second could be either pre or post the publication of D&D, but should be within the Gygax era in any case.  Looking closer we see that the first magic swords list does indeed contain a lot of “weird” non D&Disms: +6 Appearance, Double Values, +9 combat increase, Magic Ability II, and so forth.  Many of them terms that are familiar from other early snippets.
 The second sword creation section from “the third year” is much more in line with D&D – but not quite.  In fact it turns out to be something Arneson must have developed in 1973 and submitted to Gygax during the writing/playtesting process.

How do I know this? -by clues left in the FFC text and by comparing it with the magical sword creation section in OD&D Monsters and Treasure pages 27-30.
Among the quirks found in the Arneson rules is a section describing the creation of Holy swords complete with “curate” not cleric spells.  The instructions further tell us “If the roll indicates no spel (I.e. such as a 5 on a level 4 curate….”  Not only is it weird that cleric spells are consistently referred to as curate spells, but in OD&D there are in fact 6 level 5 Cleric spells, so rolling a 5 would result in the sword having Speak with Plants.  No problem.
The only way these statements make sense in the otherwise fairly standard D&D approach of the sword matrix section is if they date to a time before OD&D's publication when clerics were referred to as curates and there were less than 5 level 4 cleric spells.  Interestingly, the D&D draft mss.(edit: Dalluhn mss) I’ve mentioned before, has clerics, just like OD&D, but it also only has 4 level 4 cleric spells….  Clearly the FFC swords text was prepared at a time during the writing process before those last two cleric spells were added to the level 4 list.

Yet, we can see these "Matrix" rules were written after there already existed at least a draft of the D&D rules because young Arneson references them several times, most explicitly in this statement. "Roll appropriate number of die on Spell Table in Magic Section of rules: Note that lower spells cannot be used for higher levels of magic but can be exchanged on a two for one basis for the next lower level of magic."
It follows that the FFC “Swords Matrix” section was written for Gary Gygax to add to one of his playtest drafts of D&D and not written after D&D was published.  We know Gygax got this sword section because the magic Swords section of M&T (p27-30) is, in fact, the same piece, steamlined and simplified and arguably quite improved by Gary, but clearly using much of Arneson's text and ideas while recasting some in his own fashion.  For example merging Arneson's several different type magic bonusues into two categories: ordinary and extroadinary powers.

Comparing the two texts side by side clearly shows the relationship between the two.  One example:

Arneson wrote:
"Should a player pick up a Sword that has Origins other than that of the player, that player cannot use that Sword. Also, if the player should pick up the Sword, then that player will suffer damage at the following rates: Law-Chaos- 2 die; Neutral-Law- 1 die; Neutral-Chaos- 1die; Chaos-Law - 2 die.

Minions that are directed to take up the Sword whose origins are different than that of the directing part and are not acting as free agents (i.e. they are under the player's power), will suffer damage at half the normal rates. In special cases (see Special Table), players may not suffer damage. may be forced to change sides, may be freed from any spells they are under, may lose or gain powers."

Rewritten by Gygax on pg M&T pg. 27 as:

"If a character picks up a sword which is not of the same alignment as he, damage will be taken as follows:

Law - Chaos: 2 Dice (2-12 points)
Neutrality-Law/Chaos: 1 Die (1-6 Points)

If a non-player character is directed to take up a sword the damage will be only one-half that stated above, for the party is not acting as a free agent. Additionally, the sword might cause the one who took it up to be freed from a spell, change alignment, or otherwise gain powers which would remove them from the service of their former master."

One cool thing about this is we get a direct look at Gygax's editing process. 


Interestingly this magic sword creation system survived - virtually unchanged and yet almost completely ignored in actual gaming - all the way through AD&D and the Rules Cyclopedia.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Class or Career?

Most of the discussions involving Classes in D&D revolve around arguments of legitimacy;  Should there be a Thief Class or a Witch class or an Amazon.  Proponents and detratctors argue on.
Many bring up the word “Archetypes”.  The Amazon is an archetype of fantasy and sci-fi etc., they will argue, and therefore it should be a class. 
The belief seems to be that there are a dozen or so archetypes out there that are suitable classes.  Defining those then gives the best choices for the game.  The debate then revolves around what is and is not the best examples of archetypes to use in play.  This is the path taken with the OD&D supplements, both the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns and later with AD&D; not to mention countless other games. 

It's natural that gamers would likewise follow this trend, but the realization that many fail to make is that attempting  to restrict and define the classes on the basis of literary archetypes is an arbitrary and impossible task.  Evil stepmother, handsome prince, and wise old man are literary archytpes and could concievably be "classes".  There's hundreds, but that's typically not the sort of thing that gets made into a class. 
Lets be blunt; what is really being defined as classes are professions.  It doesn’t matter if these professions are attempts at copying literary “archetypes” or not.  Class write-ups – from at least the thief onward - are descriptions of particular, specific kinds of careers.
When character classes are professions, then there really is no logical cut off point.  Any kind of career path is potential grounds for a character class, provided you can find some way to get them out on an adventure.
Adventurer, Conqueror, King is possibly the first D&D game to acknowledge this up front, and, following in the footsteps of an inspired, but ultimately inadequate Dragon magazine article, has developed a much improved method of generating endless, custom character classes in a logical and game consistent fashion.
I’m not disparaging this approach.  It’s legitimate and fun, but it does open the door to endless rule generation, splat book creation and character type proliferation.  From a Game Masters perspective its a potentially a lot more to keep track of.
Proponents of classless skill based systems have a legitimate argument that its cleaner and simpler to do away with classes altogether.  I'm not disparaging that approach either.  Skill only systems are perfectly playable too, but they too are not without complexity issues.
However, there is another, different way to look at classes.  Not as archetypes or professions or anything of the sort, but rather as simply a broad classification. 
A rare few grognards  have pointed out that the original three classes – Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric – represent the three possible classifications adventuring people can fall into in a fantasy trope.  That is mudane only, magic only, and part magic/ part mundane.  In fact, the cleric magic/mundane mix, itself isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s useful if your world has – as is assumed in D&D – a different kind of divine magic.
Viewed this way, a class is a very basic and broad classification, not a profession.  Indeed, the original names of “Fighting Man” and “Magic User” and “Cleric” couldn’t possibly be more generic.  Using a class as classification approach de-emphasizes the meaning of “the classes”, which quickly became almost caste-like in D&D and keeps things much more manageable, familiar, and simple.  Characters could still be customized in all sorts of ways but the basic rules and class structure still apply without any question or confusion.     For me, that’s a big reason to like a two or three “class” only system.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Infamous Characters, and the history of levels in D&D

Levels are at the heart of D&D, from experience to combat to hit points - not to mention how much the term is used for other things, such as dungeon level and magic level.   Knowing when character levels came to be in the form familiar to us from the 1974 rules would go a long way to really understanding the development of the game.
We know Gary Gygax used the familiar numbered levels in his write-ups of the game from the winter of 1972/73 onward.  What's been unclear is if he invented them or inherited them from Dave Arneson.
We know that Dave invented the concept of levels and experience points, but the question has always been whether Dave’s levels were ever more than “Flunky. Hero, Superhero”, or if he also subdivided into 1-3rd level flunky, 4-7 level hero, etc.
There’s no doubt that Gary gave the names to each level (i.e. thaumaturgiest), but did he also come up with the numbers?
In Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign there is the section titled  "Blackmoor's More Infamous Characters: Giving a breakdown on the sheets handed out to the players..."  Further Down it says "Krey turned traitor and joined Soukup... during the first year."  This is followed by a list of the "good guys" and their Hit Dice which includes Krey and thus we know this list is from a very early period of gaming, before Krey turned traitor, but also apparently after Svenson's character had been promoted to superhero - perhaps the first quarter of 1972.
This list is followed by write-ups of "bad guy" infamous characters.  It is not at all clear if these write-ups are also supposed to be from the first year handouts or from later years or a mix of each.
There is a brief "table of contents" introducing the write-ups that is particularly interesting in that it  leaves out four entries: The Blue Rider, Svenny, Mello and the Bishop. These four are all the "good guys" and appear in the text sandwiched between the last and next to last entries mentioned in the brief “table of contents.”
Okay, so what?
We know that the Blue Rider, for example, contains information from adventures that took place in 1973, a time when the D&D playtest rules were being used, and not surprisingly, there’s no weird or UnD&D like terminology in any of these four write-ups.  So that would seem to indicate that all the write-ups date to 1973 or later, unless the four good guy write-ups were additions to an earlier handout.

Now if the four heroes are additions, and the brief table of contents was really the original list of an earlier handout, then it opens the possibility that the earlier handout also dates to the first year (1971/2).  Another clue suggesting the four hero's are added to an earlier "bad guy" handout, is that the afformentioned Captain Krey is not on the list.  If the bad guy handout was made before his character turned traitor, it's sure he wouldn't be on it.  In any case, the bad guy write-ups are worth investigating to see if they indicate pre Gygax information. 
So, looking deeper we find these clues:
Intro:
“level fourteen Lord”
Egg of Coot:
“Level II intelligence”
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Ran of Ah Foo
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Ran is dual class
            Class: Warrior (not fighter) “skill” Level 10
            Class: Magic (not Magic-user) 10th Level
Dragon types being bred by Ran include Red and Gold dragons at “Max Level”.  D&D dragons are not graded by level.
Rans assistant is “Level 7 Warrior and Magic”
Description includes many wargaming notes, including a modifier for “morale condition” perhaps ala Don’t Give up the Ship.  There is no such thing as “morale condition” in D&D.
Gin of Salik
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Marfeltd the Barbarian, Duke of the Peaks, Final Notes
Nothing pertaining to D&D.  Many more Wargaming references.
These “bad guy” write-ups listed in the “table of contents” show very clearly they were prepared before Gygaxian D&D introduced the concepts of Vancian Magic, named levels, and terms like “fighting-men” and "Magic-user", at a time when monsters were still graded by “level” rather than “Hit Dice”, at a time when Level II intelligence meant something and wargaming was very much a factor in the minds of the players.  They must therefore date to 1972 at the latest, and are pre-D&D, just like the good guy listing from 1971 that precedes it.  Indeed, it may very well have been part of the same handout.  Note that no mention is made of Clerics either, making an earlier, 1971 date even more likely.
We see then that Dave developed two “skill” classes, that of Warrior and Magic and divided each into at least 14 levels.  We know that heroes and superheroes were still meaningful terms, and we see “Lord” used here also.  So it follows that Dave had divided Flunky, Hero, Superhero, Lord into the familiar levels 1-3, 4-7, 8-10, 11-14 or something like that, very early on, and in any case, long before he introduced Gary Gygax to the game.