Friday, 27 July 2012

Image Problems

Not a Good Start
Ye olde Monster Manual of A.D. 1977 contains a lot more illustrations than the original brown books of OD&D and so in many cases created the visual basis for many of D&D's monsters. Even where OD&D had illustrations, the MM often represented the monsters completely differently (eg, elves and bugbears).

It doesn't take too much reading of entries in the manual to realize that Gygax and the artists were not working closely together and the result is that some monsters' illustrations don't match their descriptions at all well. Because of the power of the image compared to the written word, the illustrations became the standard for players and later artists even when there was a major disjunction between the designer's intent and the artist's renderings.

These days I try to ignore the pictures in the MM and describe monsters without reference to them. I've found that this tends to create a much more "creepy" atmosphere at the table. Partly this is because I feel freer to embellish individual monsters with visual quirks and partly it allows the players' imaginations to go in directions that neither I nor the monsters' designers expected. Often, this is much more frightening than the "standard" version of the monster.

Another problem with the illustrations is that they are all black and white whereas many of the descriptions are surprisingly colourful when read over. For example, bugbears have "light yellow to yellow brown" skin and can have brick red hair. Goblins are similar.

Indeed, reading the humanoid descriptions brings out the similarities between the whole family of unseelie beings, from kobolds to goblins to hobgoblins to bugbears and gnolls, ogres, and even to the hill giants. The whole class becomes more obviously connected, I think, than they do from the images alone and the ranger's list of foes is therefore more easily understood.

The orc is a bit of an oddball in this collection. Obviously the name is a direct lift from Tolkien rather than the fairytales that inspired the rest of the list but both the image and description seem to take pains to not resemble the original, leading to the classic D&D schism of "snouts or not-snouts". I've grown to dislike the whole idea of having orcs in the game so I've moved into the "don't care anymore" camp on this one. If I have orcs, they are Tolkien orcs, but mostly I don't have them at all.

Then there's the kobolds. Where DCS got the idea for the scaly lizard men is a bit of a puzzle. Here's the description in full:

"The hide of kobolds runs from very dark rusty brown to a rusty black. They have no hair. Their eyes are reddish and their small horns are tan to white. The favour red or orange garb." Strangely, however, they are mentioned as being oviparous earlier in the text  and perhaps that's what sparked the idea of reptilian creatures.

From Tom McKearm's Seminal
Elves, Dwarves, Cost Accountants
and other Mythical Creatures
In my CSIO campaign, kobolds are as depicted by DCS and others but in other games I describe them as basically evil gnomes with stubby horns, which I think is much more like what Gygax was thinking of based on the original Germanic myths and folklore (see left - or maybe not).

The Top Ten
Here's my list of the least inspiring illustrations in MM (not necessarily the worst technically).
  1. The Owlbear. It's a fairly weird idea but a bear-like thing with a giant owl's huge eyes should be a fairly unnerving encounter. The illustration is more Bruce Forsyth than Lovecraft, however (you can tell it's a wig).
  2. Kobolds. What we have here is a different monster.
  3. Orcs. It's a pig with a spear. Just go away.
  4. Brain Mole. "Zoom in" lines don't make a mole look any more exciting. It just looks like it might be a star-prize in the world's least enticing game-show. The name "Brain mole" sounds unpleasant and a bit Hammer Horror/70's Dr Who but the illustration just undercuts all that at a stroke.
  5. Ropers. Read the text. Sound's pretty horrible. Now look at the picture. Looks like angry plasticine.
  6. Goblin. This is a classic "the artist is thinking Tolkien; the writer is thinking George MacDonald". Totally un-atmospheric depiction of an ugly soldier.
  7. Water Elemental. There are plenty of monsters with no illustration and this should have been one of them.
  8. "Welcome to Hades!"
  9. Larva. They're dead angry, they are. We have some harmless-looking pinheads. The lack of scale is a major problem. You can fix them up somewhat by giving them all Bruce Campbell's face.
  10. Ent. Sorry, Treant. Substantially smaller than the listed "small" ent, the one in the picture looks like a comic "special branch" pantomime-tree with extra-knobbly knees.
  11. Nixie. Apparently he's friendly. Look - he's waving. I'd admit that it's hard to get across the more alien aspects of the textual description in a B&W line drawing but that's a reason to not have an illustration, not to have this. In this case the technical aspects of the drawing are a problem too.
  12. Make room for the hobgoblin. Gygax accidentally swapped the names of goblins and hobgoblins (hobgoblins are smaller - that's what "hob" means [edit: no it isn't; see reply to first comment]) but that's not a major issue compared with them being shown as samurai for no obvious reason. Once again, the picture serves to muddy the connection with the rest of the goblinoid/humanoid/giant class clan.
The Sequel
Monster Manual II of course has several problem monsters. The artwork was apparently done very quickly due to the on-going miss-management of TSR at the time so it's perhaps a bit harsh to complain but no list of uninspiring depictions could be complete without a special mention of the Modrons.

Clearly inspired by E.A.Abbot's classic "Flatland", the Modrons more or less duplicate that books' hierarchy in 3D with the same general underlying idea that more sides=more important. It's weird and strange and great fun. And totally undermined by the stiffest and most mundane drawings imaginable.

The Modrons point up the essential problem with all monster art - a totally alien concept of intelligent shapes is something that people can actually hold in their minds and deal with as an imaginary thing but once it's put on paper as a visual it falls apart. The same goes to a greater or lesser degree with all monsters. The fact of being monsters carries with it an element of being outlandish, freakish, or just plain odd. Those characteristics don't easily sit on a page no matter how good the artist is.

Perhaps a bit too weird
Even when an artist captures something unsettling which evokes that feeling of being beyond the pale that any really good D&D adventure has, repetition dulls the effect. Bosch's "knife ears" might make a striking encounter but if the DM places it regularly then eventually the power of the illustration is lost - it becomes a cliché, and much more quickly than it does when it lives only in the mind of the players, in my opinion. And the same goes for miniatures, of course.

I've mentioned before that I'm not a fan of making every monster a one-shot; there's certainly room for fantasy races as well as singular monsters and freaks, but using the same illustrations as reference time and time again is a killer for any sense of fantasy. When those illustrations are simply bad then using them is much worse than using nothing.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

City State Encounter: Snowy and Charlie

Snowy and Charlie have roved the environs of my Judges' Guild map 1 for many years. Unlike Greyhawk, I run humanoid alignment as mutable in the Wilderness. The main reason for this is that I long ago linked the CSIO timeline up with the Gamma World one and so the monsters, demi-humans, and humanoids of the world are the descendants of those mutants who fought it out for survival in the aftermath of The Apocalypse's failed attempt to destroy the world, some 15363 years before.

As such, there is no supernatural origin to the races; orcs and so forth are not created by the powers of evil and so their alignment tendencies are just tendencies, albeit very strong ones. This allows for the odd freak gnoll or kobold who are neutral. Such strangeness in alignment is often associated with strangeness of character or other distinctive traits (perhaps mutations).

So it is with Snowy the albino gnoll and his sidekick Charlie the kobold master thief.

They appear on my wilderness encounter tables for the area around the Twilight/Rorystone Road where they make something of a living as anti-bandits but mostly they live as adventurers, exploring the old tunnels and forgotten strongholds of 150 centuries of warring wizards, high-priests and would-be demigods which riddle the area around the old planetary defence base now known as The City State of the Invincible Overlord.

Both NPCS despise bullying; Snowy because he comes from a race of bullies and Charlie because he comes from a race of bullies who are often bullied themselves. As such they enjoy disrupting any of the bandit gangs that occasionally set up in the long valley between Thunderhold and the City and may intercede against such a group if, for example, a weak PC party are struggling with such an encounter.

Otherwise, they are most likely to turn up near an adventuring locale looking for loot of their own.

They're not aggressive as such but life has taught them what to expect from humans and demi-humans who have never met a non-evil kobold or gnoll. They will be very cautious indeed in an encounter and are liable to flee (if not camped) or attack (if camped) at the slightest provocation.

Should a party manage to open parleying with them they will act as intelligent neutral high-level NPCs would, not even showing the especial racial dislikes that their races normally would. If they joined a party (which has never happened) they will expect double shares unless they feel that they are dealing with equals but even then they will require first choice of non-monetary treasure found when things are divided up.

Gnoll, S: 18/77, I: 13, W: 10, Cn: 17, D: 9; Ch: 14 (6 to gnolls), hp: 61 (d8 HD)

AC: 0 (chain/5 +3, cloak of protection +2), Fighter 9, Bastard sword ("Beast") +3 always used two-handed.

Attacks: 3/2 at CL of 14 (Ftr 9 with +5 to-hit for strength and magic) and damage of 2-8/1-12 +6.

Long composite bow, non magical but made for his strength.

Carries a couple of hand axes for throwing; these are non-magical too.

Sword, as above, cloak as above, plus:

Ring of Movement - allows first strike in any round even when the wearer has only a single attack or even slowed. Roll initiative as normal and either use the value shown or one higher than the opponent's score if that is better.

Sandals of the Gladiator. Appear to be normal high-strapped sandals but when worn prevent all overbearing attacks from opponents less than titans while allowing the wearer to turn and pivot so as to never be forced to present their back to an attack so long as they are aware of the attacker's proximity. Likewise, these negate surprise from any attack by someone who's presence is known even if their intent is not.

Holographic Chessboard. Aside from Charlie, this is the last thing Snowy will abandon in an emergency. Snowy plays Charlie regularly and he has a few long-standing wizard opponents who he holds his own with due to the amount of practise he gets. The board is a type of advanced super-strong plastic with computing circuitry embedded into it. The power-source is unknown to the pair.

Coffee Grinder. Like the chessboard, this came from an ancient bunker the pair found many years ago. the coffee in it is limited in quantity (a window allows the level to be seen) but is ever-fresh. They have been rationing it out for many years now and there's not much left. Anyone with a new supply will have a strong bargaining chip with the pair.

Various potions as the DM sees fit, but at least one of extra-healing.

Kobold, S: 14, I:16, W: 8, Cn: 13, D: 19, Ch: 8, hp: 41 (d4 HD)

AC: 0 (Bracers AC4, +4 Dex), Thief 13, Shortsword +2 & Dagger +2

Attacks: 1 double attack per round for 1-6/1-8 & 1-4/1-3 +2 at CL 9 (Thief +2 for magic).

PP: 135%; OL: 107%; F/R: 100%; MS: 116%; HS: 102%; HN: 50%; CW: 84.3%*; RL: 65%

Charlie has a sling and 2d8-2 +1-sling bullets when encountered.

Charlie carries a set of three throwing knives (1-3/1-2 at CL 7).

*Rings of spider climb and feather fall.

His dagger is a duralloy hunting knife made for some member of a hunting society of the late 23nd century and is even tougher than it is sharp - save at +4 and is unaffected by cold down to absolute zero. This is Charlie's prized possession and he will do almost anything to recover it if lost.

Bracers as above.

Charlie likes potions and tends to collect them even to the point of not using them when he probably should (although he's smart enough to not take this to extremes). When travelling (which is often) he'll normally select a couple of healing potions and he keeps a potion of speed for emergency use in case they are ambushed and outnumbered by serious opposition.

He can also be a bit of a sucker for a scroll.

The pair are obviously modelled on Fafhred and the Grey Mouser and their natural characters are similar, but tempered with a lifetime of prejudice based on their appearance. This has tended to blunt their natural good humour when dealing with strangers and even led to various crimes being hung around their necks when they had nothing to do with them.

The two have caches hidden in various places within 60 miles of the City totalling in the region of 170,000gp in hordes of 2d20x1000gp and will pay ransoms for each other's lives (if prisoners are well-treated, they may even not hunt you down and kill you years later when you least expect it!).

+2 Bottle Cap
Charlie wears little in the way of actual armour but Snowy's chainmail is festooned by inactive artefacts of their exploring - long-dead ray-guns of various sorts, lightsabre/vibro-blade hilts, and hundreds of bottle caps, mostly from old Pepsi bottles with the cursive script, which he particularly likes. ("Pepsi" is high-elven for "sweet" in my CSIO campaign and much of the high-elven speech and writing is in fact English filtered through  25 generations of long-lived elves).

Stealth is not something Snowy does and in fact his armour reduces his chance of surprising opponents by 1.

Snowy and Charlie can be encountered randomly (and in fact that's the only way I've ever introduced them to a party) but they could form the core of a scenario - perhaps one has been captured and the other wants help finding/rescuing him, but more likely are scenarios where the pair are blamed for something and a posse is put together to track them down. Evil or neutral characters may be hired by orcs as the pair often raid their territory; the gnolls hate Snowy with an irrational passion because he is different and from time to time make an effort to end his career although they wouldn't mourn Charlie either.

Good characters will find many who want a gnoll and a kobold eliminated for reasons which may or may not be valid. As basically normal adventurers, Snowy and Charlie do regularly engage in things which are illegal and which legitimately anger people, so it's not the case that any accusation is invalid, however. The pair are neutral more or less by necessity. Genetic fate has dealt them gifts far beyond their kin, but the price has been a lifetime of hostility from all sides which leaves them little room for anything more sophisticated than "look after #1".

These stats are all pre-Unearthed Arcana. If you're using that then Snowy should be double specialized in his sword and Charlie should get some minor thieving bonuses for not wearing armour. You may want to fiddle with some other aspects in any case, of course.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Book Review: The Knot-Shop Man

Well, "books review" really as the Knot Shop Man by David Whiteland is a set of four books sold as a set and delivered bound in a length of rope with an interesting knot. The four books are titled after the four classical elements and have themes which loosely reflect their respective elements.

About the Author
David Whiteland is a UK-based writer with a long-standing web-presence at where he hosts his fiendishly clever on-line puzzle/story Planetarium, the archives of "the UK's first web-comic", The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things and a separate site for his Way of the Exploding Pen/Fudebakudo martial arts work, which seems to dance on the line between serious and spoof. I'm no martial artists so I can't quite say for sure.

What you won't find so easily is the one other publication by Whiteland which I own: The Book of Pages, a wonderful Zen parable set in the near future and illustrated on every page with Whiteland's own rather jaunty images. Something of a little gem, The Book of Pages was apparently the subject of a contractual dispute which led to it being removed from distribution. Still, eBay might turn up something.

Whiteland had some AD&D scenarios published back in the day in White Dwarf and Fantasy Chronicles (an short-lived UK gaming mag), the most well known of which was probably "The Beholder Contracts" in Fantasy Chronicles #3 which I hope to get put online as a PDF sometime before the heat death of the universe, or at least slightly thereafter. It is from this scenario (and not the monster of the same name, which has nothing to do with the scenario) that Whiteland took the name for his main website. As a result there is a slight D&D tinge in the Knot-Shop Man with its thieves guild and shape-shifting dragons, although I might be accused of parochialism if I say that it's a distinctly British take on D&D in the way that early White Dwarf could be when at its best.

Because of the unfortunate experience with Book of Pages, Whiteland decided to try self-publishing first with the book of Fudebakudo and then with Knot-Shop Man.

Air, Earth, Fire, and Water
The protagonists of each book are children and probably the books would work well as bedtime stories but they have a background and structure rooted in Whiteland's interest in Zen as well as D&D and this gives the overall set a slightly more profound feel when one closes the last cover.

One unusual aspect of the set is that there is no internal order between the volumes and they can be read in any order although there are subtle hints here and there which connect them together. The style is reminiscent of "original" fairy stories, the sort where evil queens might end up forced to dance themselves to death by wearing red-hot iron shoes and curious little girls over their heads might not be rescued by a passing lumberjack. Or, might not want rescued from their fate at all.

The primary connection between the books is the titular Knot-Shop Man who runs what is recognizable as the classic "magic shop" from so many stories and gameworlds - it occupies a fairly unremarkable plot in the towns it appears in and nobody seems very clear as to when it appeared or who the proprietor might be or who he may be paying rent to. Also in the tradition of such shops, and particularly (I think) Mr Ben's costume shop, the ostensible purpose of the shop - to sell rope and perhaps help with knots - seems to occupy very little of the shopkeeper's mind and what he is actually selling is rather more abstract.

It's pretty clear from early on that the Knot-Shop Man is in fact a dragon, one of a pair. At the beginning of history the dragon and his mate were separated at a conceptual level beyond any mere physical distance and the four stories form part of the male dragon's on-going efforts to find ways to bind them together again at least for brief periods. To do this he needs to tie a complex knot which is in the form of a journey through a strange underworld place - Arxnodorum - where he himself can not go, and this is where the children come into the picture.

Each child is in need of something and of course the Knot-Shop Man is likewise in need of something. In each case, what the child wants can be obtained, or fixed, by manipulating the knots which bind the universe together and which, as one of the original tiers of those knots, the shopkeeper is able to tie.

Not everyone in the world of the books is unaware of who the Knot Shop Man is and some of them, like the gnomes who run the Underneath, are mostly friendly, while some of them are hostile. The friendly sorts tend to see the dragon's use of the children as fair bargains for understandable reasons while the hostile sorts play up the one-sidedness of the risks, as the journey each child has to undertake as their payment for the dragon's help is apparently a long way from being a safe one.

Each such journey takes the child through the allegorical city's many paths which wind over and under each other, passing through or near many "encounter areas" wherein live people and beings malign as well as benevolent. It's perhaps this aspect of the set which reminds me most of something that one would meet in a game of AD&D.

The unusual internal structure of the set is strangely reminiscent of a loose knot and perhaps too loose a knot at that, in some ways. There is no feel of the overall story building to a climax as the books progress and that slightly robs it of some of the power I think it might have had. Instead Whiteland weaves an air of timelessness; the books can be read in any order but who's to say that the events do not overlap?

The central concept of knots is never far below the surface and several of the stories and sub-stories (for there are several secondary tales which illuminate or set up the main stories) deal with magic based upon what happens when, for example, people loosen the knots that tie heat to fire or lightness to air, or wetness to water. It is an intriguing approach which at least might inspire some new D&D spells for one's game or perhaps a whole new magic system for a campaign.

The books are slightly illustrated. There are some pictures of knots at the front of each book, a map of each child's intended route through Arxnodorum and each dust jacket has an illustration relating to one of the sub-stories on the inside front fly. I personally would have liked these to have been more prominent somehow as I really like the style.

Overall, the word I would use is "unique", possibly followed by "special" and that goes for the the external structure too. The Knot-Shop Man's four hardback books have beautifully made embossed bindings coloured to reflect their element and are printed on high quality paper in Don Knuth's Computer Modern typeface which is as fine face for body text as you can hope for (as a fan of Knuth's work I may be biased on this point). The fact that the books are literally bound together with 3/16" rope makes them a bit of a problem to stick on the shelf but certainly makes them a catch the eye. The knot is a bit tricky to retie, but there are instructions provided.

Price Problems
There's no getting away from the fact that we're talking about four hardback books in a very limited (200 copies only) print run and although they are only about 160 pages each it still adds up, specifically to £50. There's not much I can say about this other than they're worth it, particularly if you live in the UK and are only looking at paying £7.50 postage (or nothing if you can arrange hand delivery). Europe isn't too bad but further away really hurts at £21. And people in countries like Canada simply can't have them!

As a self-published effort the Knot-Shop Man illustrates both the value of going it alone - it would be hard to have such tight control over specifications even if you could find a publisher - and the problems - distribution and perhaps print run would almost certainly be more economical.

But if you've got some money to flash about and you're looking for some fresh ideas and a collection of  stories that bind together to make something much more intricate than the parts would suggest, why not go along to Beholder and see if there's some Knot-Shop Man sets left?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Event-Driven Wilderness Encounters

In computer programming there are two main ways to handle time in a simulation: clock-based where time ticks and the simulation checks to see if any object decides to do something, and event-based where the simulation asks the objects when the next action will occur and the clock is immediately jumped ahead to that point, skipping all the uninteresting moments in between.

The DMG's wilderness encounter table on page 47 is a clock-driven system and it's a pain in the neck. With a 1 in 20 chance of an encounter in "populated" swamp (I think this means Essex), for example, there's a lot of rolling for no action. Even the wilderness rates of 1 in 10 aren't exactly great fun.

So, I re-wrote the tables to be event-driven. On these tables you're rolling to see how long passes before something is encountered rather than rolling to see if something is encountered now. The units on the tables are the periods used in the DMG - so if it's noon on the 5th now and the table says the next encounter is in 1 day and three periods then the next encounter is at midnight on the 6th.

This greatly speeds up handling wilderness travel but it does have a slight price to pay. Using the tables, day and night encounters occur with equal chances. On the other hand, the predictable nature of the DMG checks is gone, so it's swings and roundabouts.

Here's the link to the pdf. The tables are titled based on the original DMG tables, you don't roll 6 times per day on the 6 times per day chart, you just use it where you would have rolled six times per day in the old system.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Magic Item: The Jerusalem Swords

The Original. No-prize if you
know who.
The Jerusalem swords appear to be very high-quality swords with expensive hilts and etched blades of glowing metal, throwing, at the wielder's will, light equal to a continual light spell, so that darkness spells are completely negated within 20' of the sword.

Probably only 7 of these exist, of various types but excepting that there are no short Jerusalem swords (roll as normal if placing randomly but count short swords as bastard swords instead).

The blade itself is of +4 enchantment and possessed of a great and terrible power: those which it slays are slain forever and their souls or spirits destroyed. This power applies even against beings of the outer planes who are fought away from their home planes.

The swords are all aligned to Lawful Good and gripping the hilt of any of them does damage equal to 1d6 per step away from this alignment (so neutral characters suffer 2d6, chaotic or neutral good 1d6 and chaotic evil 2d6). This damage is repeated for every blow struck by such a user against a being of Lawful Good alignment.

If using the "bleeding out rule", any character not killed outright (by damage which takes them to 0 or -3 hp as the DM rules) is not subject to the swords' special power, although if used to administer a coup de grace the power does operate, of course.

The power operates even if all but the final hit point of damage was caused in other ways than the sword, and the power does not operate if the final blow is from another source even if all previous hit points were lost as a result of the sword.

If combined with the rules for "unusual swords" on p166 of the DMG, then the power counts as an double extraordinary power with regard to Ego (ie, 4pts) and all ego damage is in addition to that listed above.

Each sword has a proper name, which is what is etched into the blade in the language of LG devas.

The power of the swords is such that it may only be overruled by a wish from a greater deity, not "merely" such as are found in rings and so forth. How this interacts with very high level casters is up to the DM, but the objective is that such swords are greatly feared by devils and demons, even those with access to wishes.

Xp value: 3,500; gp value: 14,000gp

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Chainmail Burqa

This is Red Sonja:

Originally designed by the great Barry Windsor Smith as a red-headed female warrior with a chainmail top and bare legs. So far, so what? Well, in 1973, Esteban Maroto re-designed her costume to this:

and an icon was born. This was in 1973, the year Gygax quit his full-time job to concentrate on finding a way to publish "Dungeons and Dragons", which would appear the following year in almost no good bookshops near anyone, but it would grow.

In the years since, D&D and Sonja's "chainmail bikini" have lived interwoven lives, and this relationship is still very much alive today. In fact, due to the changing demographics of gaming and the rise of the Internet the back-and-forth over this issue is probably more alive today than it has been for a long time.

[edit: people coming from, see end note.]

Boys' Games with Boys' Rules
The early days of gaming, after D&D broke out of the US collage scene and landed on Britain's civilised shores, is one run through with embarrassing "boys only" tropes. The most cringe-worthy of all was probably the report (I think in White Dwarf) of a campaign the writer had encountered where the strength of women was inversely proportional to their charisma so that the good looking ones "would be easier to rape" according to the DM.

I'd like to say that this was an extreme example. But it wasn't particularly. The mix of in-your-head escapism, testosterone, and fantasy art by the likes of Boris, Frazetta, and Archilleos (who sold his first nude in 1973 - maybe they were putting something in the water) allowed adolescent male minds to wander far from the fair fields of chivalric and courtly love.

(Not) A hotbed
of gamer dating
The result was a hobby which was openly female-hostile for the most part, and only made the moreso by the often begging tone of all-male player groups' small-ads in Games & Puzzles and White Dwarf looking for female players. Although I never had too many problems with running games for the opposite sex (although it wasn't a regular thing back then), I know that any rational woman dropping in on a local RPG group was going to run a mile.

Throughout this period, the best known females in the genre were Bêlit and Red Sonja, and possibly still are today, even although the hobby has more sub-genres Sonja, in particular, is known by reputation pretty well across the board and the phrase "Chainmail Bikini" will evoke a long response from Google, including several suppliers should you want one for yourself.

I believe that the chainmail bikini "trope" (as da kidz say) is most strongly associated with D&D than any other fantasy game, and I think this is largely a result of the parallel development of Sonja in one boy-dominated interest (comics) at the very same time that those same boys were discovering role-playing through D&D. RuneQuest, for example, did not pick up quite the same image of sweaty teen boys in dark rooms that D&D had, although some pointed remarks were made about the cover image's slowly decreasing armour.

(effects of climate change)
But, in the UK at least, this was was mainly a spiralling co-dependency between early D&D, fantasy skin art, pulp fantasy comics and the very overt objectification of women, and many who looked in at that combination remember it today and are talking about it on the Internet.

New Games, New Rules
That was how things stood in the early 80's as the fantasy role-playing craze burnt itself out, as all crazes do. Following the collapse of TSR and the removal of FRPG rulebooks from mainstream shops (not even just bookshops!), a lot of the steam went out of the sexism. In fact, a fair bit had already gone as the original players finally got laid and even married, while younger players were less exposed to these more primal aspects of gaming due to the fear (in America; it hardly had any impact here) of the Moral Majority and the Satanic Game Scare™ which caused a distinct turning down of any sexual implications of either adventures or artwork*.

"Like 'headlights'?"
"Dude, he means boobs huhhuh"
Whether this is why, in the following years, more and more women entered the gaming community is not clear to me. It seems more likely that the rise of the computer game, which could be played in private without the need for Beavis and Butthead staring at your headlights when you so much as breathed, had more to do with it. Young girls could grow up with a gaming mentality for the first time without having to live through the trauma of being asked out after each major combat by someone who hadn't showered in the current geological epoch.

[I think there's an interesting parallel here between what it would have been like to be a girl in gaming in 1978 and what it can be like to be a girl in online gaming in 2012. The "easy to rape" type has not gone away, it's just discovered that it can actually interact with real women from the safety of a room many miles away.]

Whatever the cause, there are more women in role-playing now than there ever has been, at least as a percentage and probably as an absolute number too. Being a sexist tool in a face-to-face game is not a viable option any more for males who may be in the minority at the table.

Be Reasonable, This is Fantasy (?)
But this brave new world has some baggage from the old. And one major item in the bagging area is what is an allowable/acceptable depiction of the fantasy woman?

So tired are some people of the chainmail bikini that they have started blogs and tumblrs to push a new image of fantasy heroines, most well known of which is probably Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour (although they spell "armour" wrong). This, in turn has spawned "Women Fighters in Unreasonable Armour".

Now, I like both sites but I have a bit of a problem with the thinking behind the former, and many of the blogs that also push the idea that this:

is "shit", while this:

is a more acceptable depiction of a female fighter and, presumably, not shit.

I actually prefer the second painting but I don't agree that it's any more reasonable than the first one. The first illo is clearly a homage to 300 and the men behind those women are probably wearing less than they are - even if they're dressed historically accurately, let alone based on the movie. The second image is, to me, just as much a male fantasy as the first - the girl is far too slight to really be a fighter, she's very pretty and lacking in battle scars, and she has access to some excellent hair products for a mediaeval fighter. The reasonableness is illusionary. My favourite example of this is this Elmore paining:
Great armour, great depiction of a mace, great looking woman; no chance of doing any serious damage with skinny arms like those.

Meanwhile, here's a picture of some real-world warriors (and their kids, by the look of it) in full battle-dress:

As part of our primary school's mission to traumatise the under 10s, we were shown footage of similar tribesmen actually fighting for real and I vividly remember one sticking his spear through the leg of an enemy tribesman. These guys were not kidding around and were not play-acting. Yet they, like the vast majority of warriors in human history, wore little or no armour. For them, Red Sonja is over-dressed (albeit they might think a shield a worthwhile investment, and some paint).

So, it's simply not true to think that any fighter of either sex who is depicted basically naked but for a loin-cloth/bikini is being "unreasonable" or that anyone in plate is automatically "reasonable". So, let's leave "reasonableness" as a justification out of the discussion. This is fantasy and reasonableness is a long way down the list of requirements. Which winds us up the long and winding path to the main point:

Chainmail Bras Don't Burn, They Just Rust.
FRPGs are no longer the preserve of spotty boys; we have spotty girls too, and lots of them. And when our spotty apprentices look at this already classic painting of Conan and Bêlit by Brom, they should all be able to feel inspired to some epic adventure, to tread the jewelled thrones of the world beneath their sandalled feet, whether as a man or a woman of any subjective level of attractiveness.

D&D allows this sort of play, in fact the existence of so many protective devices rather encourages it as does the fighter class's high hit points and the encumbrance rules. (And for that matter, it also almost completely ignores the difference in physical strength between real men and women; there's no mechanical reason not to play an adventuring fighting-woman.)

Telling players that such images of women are embarrassing is no longer a case of telling Sweaty Bill and his group of Unwashables to put it away and get a real girlfriend, it's now perforce also telling girls that they're not allowed to have the same power-trip fantasies that we men had when we were growing up.

Here's some scantly-clad women:

This group of fans is saluting Frank Thorne, probably the best known of the classic Marvel artists for Sonja. Third from right is Wendy Pini, creator and co-writer of ElfQuest. I used to know Wendy and I can assure anyone who asks that this is not an image of a bunch of weak-willed or desperate girls brow-beaten into indulging someone else's sexual fantasy (that just happens to be a bonus for Frank).

For these women, the attraction of Sonja was that she was an independent woman making her way in a tough fantasy world without the help of a man. In fact, she was chaste and refused to become any man's lover. She, like the comic-book Conan she was a counterpart to, could survive and thrive in bloody combat without heavy armour. What she did wear was more by way of symbolising the impossibility of of accessing what was underneath; a "forget it" sign to all those hormonal man-boys who wanted to get their grubby paws on the goodies.

So, let's just get over the whole "cheesecake/reasonable armour" thing. If men are free to be this:

then women should be free to be this:

Otherwise the chainmail bikini is just replaced by a chainmail burqa. And, sister, that ain't progress.

[Edit: People are coming here from an escapistmagazine forum post but I can't post there without joining Facebook, so here's my reply:

The problem with the last image of Sonja is not that her arse is towards the viewer. The problem is that there is basically no way to depict her which is not going to be seen as "sexual". From the front she has lots of cleavage; from behind she has lots of ass. The question is - so what? I think those that are complaining about this are saying that there is a "good" way to depict women - and only women - and that we should only accept images where they are "decent". Heroic fantasy deals with physically idealized people; if anyone finds them sexually attractive, well that just means they're normal. Sonja there is a million times better role model for girls than any Disney Princess or Barbie Doll.]

*My theory is that because God never has sex with anyone in the Bible but slaughters men, women, and children at the slightest whim Christians have been left with the strange idea that killing people is, at worst, just rather rude, while having sex with them is simply against Gods Plan®™ and therefore totally EVIL.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Nitroglycerin Monsters

And he looked just like a
harmless wabbit.
Some monsters make good traps for players stuck in a rut of hack and slash. I think of these as the "Nitro Monsters": generally safe if handled with care and devastating if knocked about.

Giants are a good example. Although many evil giants are, well, evil they have a background (in fairytales) which suggests that they don't have to be mindlessly aggressive all the time. Three frost giants extracting tolls on a mountain pass may well know that if they cause too much trouble then something will be done about them. A party who is prepared to simply pay the toll can pass unhindered while one that wants to make a fight of it will face needless risk to life and limb.

Good-aligned dragons are another example, as are neutral monsters like gynosphinxes and even elementals, but for experienced players one-off weirdo monsters that the players have not encountered before or have any reason to have preconceived notions about are best. Classed NPC characters are probably the most effective as traps as they inherently have no specific danger level associated with them, but they are perhaps too well disguised to really play the part. Ideally, a party who gets their arses kicked by such an encounter should know it's their own fault without being told (so Bugs Bunny is perhaps a bit too evil too).

As mentioned previously, AD&D is a game wherein resources are the key to success and while a pit trap or such here and there can certainly cause attrition of those resources they are rather passive. But the Nitro Monster is both a trap for the incautious and a roleplaying opportunity in one. There's even the chance that careful dealing will result in the addition of some extra muscle to the party at least for a short time, so they potentially can add a lot more to a play session than the generic types of traps and tricks.

"Kill some adventurers?
I've got a budget speech to prepare!"
The other thing that's good about Nitro Monsters is that they can be used at any level. If you have a vampire running a small country somewhere then PCs can pass through that country, perhaps even dealing with the vampire, even at 1st level. The vampire's ruling a country, not mugging passersby, and has other things to think about than simply slaughtering any stranger.

This allows even low level parties to interact with some of the "big hitters" of the fantasy world instead of always dealing with goblins and the occasional orc; and lets the DM set up hooks for future adventures when the characters are high level enough to think about the vampire and the frost giants they've met over the years.

And if the first level party decides to attack the Nitro Monster, it's their own fault if it goes "Boom".