Saturday, 31 March 2012

Stop Acting Dead*

Warning: content-free opinion piece on Teh Industry and Its Woes follows. 

* Acting dead: a Bruce Sterling coinage that means "...being irrationally averse to spending money where it matters, in a misguided attempt to “save” money to the point that the behavior paralyzes you." (source)

Doing a little window-shopping on ebay, amazon, etc. recently, I noticed the prices that old D&D books can potentially command in the second-hand market:

£60 for a "buy it now" BECMI Rules Cyclopedia,
£70 for a Champions of Mystara boxed set,
£99.99 for a used copy of X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield,
£104 for a copy of T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil!

Call me an old skinflint - but even with the value of money being what is it today - those are crazy prices for decades-old second-hand books.

And then it occurred to me - once again, and with renewed force - that the company which currently owns the rights to the D&D brand name and to nigh-on 40 years of archive material, are being fools to themselves by not supplying the market demand embodied in these numbers.

The plain fact is that a lot of the people interested in 'the old stuff' are simply not going to buy the shiny new One Game to Rule Them All currently being developed. Chances are that said shiny new toy won't offer the kind of gamer who like out-of-distro games anything that they want or need. These long-standing participants in D&D-as-hobby want support for the games they play; not another New Coke experience. The occasional fake scarcity sop to the alienated base fools no-one.

It's a dazzlingly simple equation:
  • There are people out there who have money - real money - to spend on their gaming. Some of these people will provably put $1,000 dollars or more behind a project they believe in.
  • WOTC own a great swathe of out-of-print IP of proven value.
  • Technologies to put this out-of-print product into the hand of paying customers at little up-front cost to the company actually exist.

Yes, I know that that the HASBRO/WOTC coprophage corporate department consider the internet beyond their walled garden to be the source of all evil. And that they look on pdfs as naught but a license to steal. But the market has shown (again and again and yet again) that people will pay real hard-earned cash to have physical access to Not Brand X approximations of the buried treasures gathering dust in WOTC's hoard. Heck, D&D4E's biggest competitor product was a retro-clone.

This is the second decade of the 21st century and - thanks to the internet, and a lot of very clever technologies being developed by some very clever people - the genie of abundance is out of the bottle. Torrents, print-on-demand, ebook readers, tablet computers, and honest-to-goodness freaking replicators are things that exist in the real world. Last spiteful thrashings of broadcast monoculture dinosaurs notwithstanding, ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever) is practically within our grasp as a culture.

A sane corporate strategy would acknowledge that we are no longer living in the 1950s and would exploit the potential of these new technologies to give the punters what they want. To do otherwise is to set yourself up as a future case study, rather than a viable business.

A company could potentially make a lot of money supplying pent-up demand for their archival material, rather than insisting that their (stubborn, willful, famously unappeasable) hobbyist market consume the latest de haut en bas brainwave from the bunker. This applies to the movie industry, the music industry, the games industry: any business where the main product is brain fodder rather than physical products.

Making money off Classic D&D is - or should be - a trivial problem in 2012:
  • WOTC already owns the content (art, text and trade dress).
  • Half-decent layout monkeys are cheaper - and work quicker -  than game designers.
  • Print-on-demand obviates the problem of unsold stock.
  • Even in a world of free, people will happily pay for stuff they want.

WOTC is in the 'selling D&D' business. All that old out-of-print stuff in their archives - OD&D, B/X, BECMI, AD&D: it's all D&D! Is there no-one in the Renton silo who can work out that the necessary "2. ???" that leads to "3. Profit!" is something different from the tactic they already tried - with dubious success - in 2008 and 2010?

Tl;DR: WOTC needs to stop acting dead and start acting like a 21st century company. Fr Dave makes a similar case in more measured, less grandly sweeping terms.

Edit (2nd April 2012): So Wizards only went and hired odd-but-lovable Zak S (Vornheim, DNDWPS, you may have heard of him) as some sort of consultant/alpha-tester/ambassador to the hobbyist diaspora. This could be awesome if they don't screw it up.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Howling Emptiness of the 5/6/8-mile Hex

(yes, the titular reference to Rob Conley's mapping bugbear is intentional)

This is just a half-formed thought inspired by noisms and steamtunnel's recent posts on just how big and potentially full of adventure even a single 5/6/8-mile hex is.

Hex map icons, by their nature, only indicate the single most salient feature to be found in that particular 21/31/55 square miles of landscape. Sure, you can drill down to a more granular level with the help of nested hex map templates (such as Welsh Piper's fine 1/5/25-milers), but creating a whole new map for a smaller-scale area is a whole extra chore for the already-busy GM. I don't know about you, but I want to minimize my level of extra work thanks.

Could we perhaps add a simple 'emergent exploring' rule that allows the party to uncover more stuff (up to the limits of the GM's taste/patience) the longer they stay in a hex?
  • Castles, cities and the like should all be in plain sight unless intentionally hidden away (like Gondolin or Derinkuyu). Heck, roads point you directly to most of them.
  • Infamous lairs, ruins and dungeons should, of course, retain their "Here be dragons" hex map icons and easy-to-find status. The yokels can point out exactly in which direction the castle we don't go near lies.
  • More obscure lairs, lost ruins, buried tombs and especially treasure map loot should require a bit of active hunting out by adventuring parties.
I was thinking either some form of skill check per day of exploring a hex (something for that otherwise worthless Halfling to be doing with his time?) ~or~ an standard Xin6 chance per day of uncovering a particular feature. In either case the base chance can be modified up or down for degree of obscurity, concealment, speculative vs. purposeful searching, etc.

Perhaps integrate this into the Wandering Monster encounter rolls that are already part-and-parcel of wilderness exploration in Classic D&D? Just tack the 'discovery' chance onto the existing roll so that it goes from being
d6 1-2: encounter, 3-6: no encounter
to something like
d6: 1-2 encounter, 3-4 fruitless wandering, 5-6 Eureka!
with the Eureka! result representing discovery of a previously known (to the party) but locationally undetermined feature.
"I told you the Tomb of Screaming Death was out here. Pay up."
"Alright, but I want a discount for the sheer length of time you dragged us around this filthy swamp."
Thoughts? Suggestions? Accusations of reinventing the wheel?
Is there already such a rule hidden away in the TARDIS of a game that is OD&D?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A-Z April, also Buffbear

And that's all I have to say about that.


No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: non-standard (Sexay)
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 3 (scalemail + amazing dexterity)
Hit Dice: 3+1 HD of undiluted studdlyness
Attacks: 1 sword for 1d8+1*
Save: F3
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: VI

  • Radiates a constant fascinate effect (as the spell, see LLAEC or OSRIC) which affects both men and women. 
  • Able to use a specific, limited form of the ESP spell at will. This works on all women and female creatures**, but is useful only for determining what they desire most. 
  • Never surprised (he is VERY open-minded)

Buffbear always speaks of himself in the third person. It is part of his mystique.

*  By inclination Buffbear is a lover, not a fighter. He will always attempt to *ahem* negotiate first.
** Normally asexual creatures have a 50% chance of counting as female for the purposes of Buffbear's ESP. A gelatinous cube with a bow on top definitely counts as female.
What a guy.
Buffbear discovered by Jeff Rients. Statted up at the request of Jason Kielbasa.

CAUTION: Don't make the mistake of googling the word "Buffbear" in search of a larger version of this image. My eyes!!! [link thankfully SFW]

Pic source: both c/o the internet. No specific source known.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Djangos Gurnery

An uncannily accurate representation of my work process.

Further to a question posted in the comments by Kelvin Green ("Kelvin, a name derived from the old English word for 'shameless instigator and causer of trouble'."):
If you rewrote Mythus so that it said what it needed to say and nothing more -- and putting aside any attempt to make it fun and playable -- to how many pages, would you say, could a ruthless editor reduce it?

I initially thought the answer was 16 pages. It turns out that -- at least for Mythus Prime -- the answer is actually one single solitary page (plus about 1/4 page of setting material).

For those few who might be interested I hereby present the world's first super-condensed (and, AFAIK, only) Mythus retro-clone:

A one-page fantasy RPG
(inspired by Dangerous Journeys Mythus 
by Gary Gygax and Dave Newton)

And, for further delectation of the loyal, Mythus-loving readership:

A one-page supplement of
GM pointers and setting material 
for Django's Gurnery

Thoughts? Opinions? Demands that I rein in my tendencies to grandiloquent verbosity at the expense of rules clarity?

Note: Last modified 28th March

Thalggu Demands More Flattering Portraiture!

Inspired by Mr Zak S[mith/-abbath] esquire's assertion that the artwork is a substantial element in the "cool monster or not?" decision-making process.

(Can't find the exact quotation. It was either in his alphabetical MM thing, or in one of his FF-reimagined posts.)

WI: the Brain Collector had had *this* (or something similarly monochrome and atmospheric) as its artwork from the get go? Would it get more fan-love? Or would it still flounder in obscurity?

Joesky Tax to follow...  

Pic source: Moebius, via Monster Brains.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Lets Read... Mythus pt 6

Today we look at the third section of the chapter on Creating Advanced Mythus HPs, the pithily entitled:

Step 3: Standard HP Descriptions and K/S Area Bundles
(Or, in non-gobbledygook, 'careers and skills'.)

This section alone is 26 pages, of which 20-ish are text and boxouts, and 6-and-change are art. I'll go over the content first and save the art criticism for later if that's alright. I’ll also try keep the editorial ranting to a decent minimum, instead concentrating on winnowing out sense - and possible worth - from the big blocks of words in front of me.

pp70-71 are preamble matter. Extensive and densely formatted preamble matter; the textual equivalent of a stale bagel. There are two main thrusts to this section:
  1. characters choose their vocation (one of 35, plus 5 optional nonhuman races) irrevocably but can diversify away from it by buying new skills, and 
  2. magic-using careers (of which there are 12) are all Partial Heka users, except for the lucky 20% of high-stat Wizards and Priests who make the cut as Full Heka users.

Inevitably - this being Mythus - it takes a *lot* of parsing to tease these essentially simple facts out of the hot, roiling quagmire of text. The focus of discussion alternates by paragraph, swapping back-and-forth between the general subject of HP K/S Areas (trans. "PC skills") and the far more specific subject of HP Heka potential. Just another instance of the GDW editorial department half-arseing the job.

There's also a d% skill benchmarking table, which I have reproduced for viewing delectation below:

The spread ends with an especially egregious piece of handholding: a whole paragraph that explains the oh-so-clever layout of the skill lists. And I quote:

Yes, I can see that. I have eyes. They work thank you.

So this is a good start. Two pages of wordswordswords that could have been reduced to a few lines by someone with a rigorous sense of what needs to go where. Looks like we'll be playing the Mythus side game good and hard again this week. :)

On a parenthetical note before we dive into the vocation skill lists, I want to talk a little about one of the two points I mentioned above. For the sake of illustrating my point I’ll do it Socratic style. 'Q' is my query to the text, 'A' is the answer it returns.
Q: Hey, Mythus.
A: Yeah?
Q: Where do you learn what a Full Heka user is, and why it's better than being a Partial one?
A: Refer to the Mythus Magick book, of course.
(funnily enough Mythus Prime referred us to Advanced Mythus for an answer to that question, but ok.)
Q: How do you determine which new-minted HPs get to be Full Heka users?
A: See ditto.
Q: Hey, Mythus.
A: Yeah?
Q: Isn't telling me this stuff kind of /your/ job; being that you're an RPG rulebook and all?
A: [dense block of repetitive filibustering gabshite]
Thanks to the magic of the intarwubz, I was eventually able to refer to the long-out-of-print Mythus Magick book. And what did I find in the relevant HEKA USERS section? Why, nothing less than /a complete lack of useful information on determining Full vs. Partial Heka status/. Really. Nothing. After constantly referring to this Partial-vs-Full Heka distinction as if it were a big thing the writers seem to have forgotten to explain it fully and clearly.

Seriously, f*** you Mythus! I’m just some random internet guy and I can write rules more clearly. Watch this:
Determining Degree of Heka Power
General Heka skill user, or Mage/Priest with <101 in your casting TRAIT? = Partial Heka. Sucks to be you.
Mage with a Mental TRAIT/Priest with a Spiritual TRAIT total of 101 or more? Roll d10:
1-2 - you crackle with Full Heka mojo when you walk.
3-10 - you only have small-in-the-pants Partial Heka power.
Add a maximum of one paragraph of setting/context fluff and references to other sections of the rules, then move onto the next subject. That is how you write a one-shot rule. Here endeth the lesson.

Weekly rant on the deficiencies of RPG writing standards over. Back to the matter in hand: Advanced Mythus skill lists.

After another two-page art spread (of which more below) p74 gives us an explanation of the footnotes used in the vocations tables: dollar sign ($), asterisk (*), and bullet point (•). Now, your humble author ain't a technical manual writer, or any sort of layout wonk, but even I can see that using an asterisk ~and~ a bullet point in a tight-packed typeface like the one in the Mythus book is a sub-optimal decision in terms of clarity. Given that we've already seen double asterisks (**) and crosses (†) being used to footnote tables /in this very chapter/ there’s simply no excuse.

With that done we get the first of our Vocations, ordered per the big long table on page 63. You may remember that we looked at that last week. 35 vocations. Thirty-bleedin'-five!

The Vocation descriptions and their skill lists follow a standard format. The main text gives us a potted description of the career. Some of these - like apothecary, soldier/mercenary, pirate etc - are pretty self-explanatory and largely a waste of text. Others - such as the various Dweomercraeft (wizarding) Vocations - have short blurbs about various (in)famous organisations on Aerth. This is a nice 'describe the setting through game material' touch, and I wish it had been exploited a little harder.

We're also given a handful of keywords describing the defining interests and motivations of each vocation. This is a bit 'Intelligent Martian', but might help the hopelessly confused who lack dictionaries and/or history books.

A substantial boxout gives the game material for each Vocation. Advanced Mythus vocations have an average of 20 skills, with 250 or so skill points split between them. This is a marked increase from the 200 points divided between 10 skills of Mythus Prime. Working out Advanced Mythus K/S Area scores is also rather fiddlier working things out in Mythus Prime. Case in point:
Mythus Prime: 20 + 1/2 TRAIT,
Advanced Mythus: 20 + (SMPow+SSPow)x0.5•

The required calculations generally come with footnotes indicating added complexity (expanded upon in some nebulous, never-defined elsewherespace, of course).

Example skill list boxout, one of 35 or so.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of orphaning (separation of table from related text) in this section. Some Vocation descriptions end up two or three pages away from their skill lists, which is less than ideal. But then, given that some K/S Area boxouts take up entire pages it may be simply a necessary evil.

>>> Warning: lots of text follows. Skip ahead if you're DILLIGAF about vocation/skill lists.

Alchemy Vocations (Mental)
Alchemy: You are Paracelsus in a world where magic works. You are pretty high-born (have to be to afford all that weird hiccupy glassware) and have lots of science skills.
Apothecary: You are Cadfael. Not as addled by mercury fumes as the alchemists, still pretty proto-scientific.

Arms Vocations (Physical)
Cavalier: You are a highborn knight in shining armour type. Cultured Palate is surprisingly prominent a part of your skill set.
Engineer: You are a military engineer, and the only one who does any bloody work in this army. Military Engineering and Fortification/Siegeworks are separate skills to you. I have no idea why.
Soldier/Mercenary: You and your hundreds of surly friends kill people for money. Apparently claiming it’s for another reason altogether makes this more respectable. You Gamble better than you know your job.

Dweomercraeft Vocations (Mental)
We get another two paragraph rehash about how important Heka is on Aerth, and some semi-informative text about requirements for Full Heka user status that really belongs as an actual rule either back on pp70-71, or in the magic chapter. *tsk*

Black School (Abyssal Institute, Ebondark College): Gee, I wonder what hat these guys wear. Puppykicking and Maniacal Laughter are missing from their skill list for some reason.
Elemental School (Imprimist Hall, Quintessential Academy): You are a classic 4+1 element wizard with an 'inquiring mind' bent. Skill list reads like a prospectus for one of the flakier Californian universities.
Grey School (Penumbrate Palaestra, Shadowy Forum): You are a morally ambiguous Shadow Magic dudes. Part way between Elemental and Black. Shadowy Forum obviously lost the 'Who gets the dull name?' mage war.
Green School (Transcendent Conservatoire): You practise religiose nature magic, flute solos and basket-weaving. The Green School deny being druids, but have Herbalism, Ecology/Nature Science, Spellsongs and Poetry on their skill list, the dirty hippies.
White School (Orgonebright Institute, Splendent University): You are a white hat wizard who stand for "Reason, order, altruism, and sacrifice for the betterment of all..." Skill list is all kinds of generic wizard.

*meh* Ars Magica and WFRP did schools of magic better.

Mysticism Vocations (Spiritual)
Mystic types are four flavours of augur. They can gain additional Heka powers after character creation, which sounds cool. "Note that this power will translate to the corresponding Psychogenic K/S Area in a Vril-Active milieu (see other games in the Dangerous Journeys line for details)." ... Oh. It appears I spoke too soon.

Astrologer: You are interested in everything. Not just the mysteries hidden in the stars: everything! No, really. It says so. Heka skills out the wazoo.

Truly beyond parody.

Diviner: You are interested in stuff, but less obsessively than those weird astrologers. Skill list is pretty much interchangeable with theirs.
Fortune Teller: You are Gypsy Rose Lee in a magic-active world. You still get no respect.
Soothsayer: You are a spirit-talking prophetic type with a rich inner life.

Outlaw Vocations (various Traits)
Assassin: You lurk in the shadows (and are expected to enjoy it) and kill people for money. Which is bad. Nice people only kill for country, or clan, or cult... Your best skill: Toxicology, you pharmacist you.
Bandit: You steal from people at sword point and are ghastly common by default. No dandy highwaymen here. Broad, generic-as-all-hell skill list.
Mountebank: You cheat people out of their goods, which apparently earns respect among the Stockholm Syndrome-afflicted people of Aerth. You scam and gamble good.
Pirate: #Yarr harr fiddle-di-dee# Skills are as Bandit +boats, -horses.
Thief: You steal stuff by being sneaky. It’s a living. Three of your top five skills are about deception.

PriestCraeft(sic) Vocations (Spiritual)
Priest vocation has the chance to be Full Heka special snowflake, everyone else is Partial Heka second-class citizens.

Healer: You are Florence Nightingale. Sadly it’s boring 'angel with the lamp' Flo, not 'medical store locked? Pass me that fire axe...' Flo. You skill list is all medical, all the time.
Priest: You have obligations to a higher power. In game terms this means you've taken a Vow of Fidelity and get the chance to be a Full Heka user, which may or may not be worth the hassle of the GM trying to pull adversarial 'force the paladin to fall' crap on you. Your skills = theology syllabus.
Theurgist: You are Faust, beating up Supernatural beings for their Heka using your vast knowledge of pantheonic family trees.
Wise(wo)man: You are a magical holistic medic who thinks all evil is caused by demons (aka The Accursed). You'd be really annoying if you weren't right - magic world remember? You have good Handicrafts and Agriculture skills.

Primitive Vocations (various Traits)
"Ya ain't from round here, are ya boy?"
Hunter: You eat meat. Animals are made of meat. You have put two-and-two together and made a living of it. Your skill list is Ray Mears + Green Arrow.
Medicine Man: You grumble curses and wave bones at things: horrible stuff happen to them. You can also use the word 'mojo' unironically. Broad skill list.
Seer: You are a rustic version of the soothsayer who communicates with gods and ancestors. Your skill list - like you - is mistaken for soothsayer in bad light.
Shaman: You are a black hat version of the medicine man who weedles the Netherrealms for power. Priest skills + animal training.
Warrior: You are Proud Warrior Race Guy incarnate. You fight better than the Soldier vocation and probably have a wicked cool hat. Qur'plah!
Witch Doctor: You protect the tribe from demons, monsters, bad spirits and the like. Townies think you weird. Hope you have a high tolerance for Ting tang walla-walla bing bang gags. Lotsa Heka skills.

This section ends with two paragraphs on literacy for primitives and settled populations in a fantasy milieu. Surely the place for this would have been in the earlier SEC and Literacy section?

Scholar Vocations (Mental)
Philosopher: You are an action philosopher who "...suits action to thought and word. Think of a Nietzsche doing thus!" Kelltic Ovates of Aerth claim to be philosophers, but they can't even spell Celtic right. Your skill list includes Sport, Travel, Journalism and three Foreign Languages, which is all kinds of WTF?
Poet/Musician: You go into the dungeon and sing at things. How's that working for ya? Even the class description emphasises the virtue of expanding skills away from the vocation's list. You have all sorts of non-practical skills.
Sage: You are a walking encyclopaedia and go well with onions. You have crazy breadth of 'know stuff with your brain' skills.

Voyager Vocations (various Traits)
Explorer: You travel to distant lands and claim you found them. This is news to the existing inhabitants. You can do Darwin/Marco Polo stuff with your skills.
Merchant: You are a grubby little capitalist who buys low, sells high, and gets robbed by proper adventurers. Your Deception overtops your Business Admin, Investment and Survival skills, which may or may not be Gary's little dig at TSR.
Seafarer: You are a respectable midshipman or such, according to the book. Hah! who are they kidding? You're a scurvy-raddled salt who lives for rum, sodomy and the lash. You have boaty skills and sewing prowess.

Non-Human Vocations (various Traits)
All non-human vocations gain access to an innate Heka power, usually ‘Psychogenic’ (which I think is Mythus-ese for psionic. *gluk gluk*). This power is determined by the GM from some never-published Djangos Gurnery book, which may prove slightly problematic.

Aflar (Spiritual): You are a snooty and aloof Norse elf. Likes: decorum, courage, nature, the hunt and superiority. You have hunter/skaldy skills.
Alfen (Mental): Contrary to expectations, you are short, fat and rustic, and would be called a Hobbit outright if it weren't for the eagle-eyed law-ninjas of the Tolkien estate. Likes: practicality, solidity, comfort, crops and tradition. Your top ten skills are all tedious domesticity/lifestyle crap.
Dwarf (Physical): You are Urist McBeard of the Clan McBeard. Strike the earth! Likes: caverns, gold, precision, work, caution and suspicion. Take a wild guess what your top skills are.
Elf (Spiritual): You are decidedly noble-but-enigmatic Sidhe in flavour, and wouldn't look out of place in Celtic tales or Arthuriana. Likes: culture, nature, revelry and beauty. Bows, Music, Poetry and Astrology top your living cliche skill list.
Gnome (Mental): You are from Zurich. EGG is not even being slightly subtle about this. Check out the vocation description:

Likes: profit margin, credit, risk, hazard and reward. Top two skills? Business Admin and Economics/Finance/Investing. (Is true, no make up)

And that brings an end to our merry rampage through the Advanced Mythus Vocations and their skill sets. After the casserole of hot nonsense on pages 70-71 the descriptions themselves aren’t too offensive - only a paragraph or two apiece. All that pads this section out is the *sheer number* of possible life choices on offer, many of which differ in ways that only a beancounter would actually care about. I think it’s actually the first time I’ve actually seen splat sprawl* in a core book.

* Gamer jargon: an excess of variety in character or setting options, variously trivial or game-breaking. Results from the demands of a publication treadmill. If you’ve played WoD or GURPS -- or any D&D after B/X -- you’ll know what I mean here.

Advanced Mythus is a world away from the 'Fighting Man, Wizard, Cleric' archetypal purity of OD&D without quite embracing the 'open plan' character generation of GURPS, Runequest or Savage Worlds. Worst of both worlds; merits of neither.

Overall utility of this section to players of Classic D&D? A big fat '0' I'm afraid. Still, at least the infamous Mythus text bloat hasn't been as cataclysmic as in preceding sections. The jargon has been rich and plentiful enough to keep my buzz going, but Dr Cactus will not be demanding that those responsible report for exemplary correction. Not today.

This post was brought to you letters 'D' and 'T', and by the number 40%-proof. Remember kids: trinkin' iss gud fur you!


The Art of the Section

As promised, a quick rundown of the art to be found in the Vocations section of Chapter 10 of the Mythus rulebook.

Three full page/spread pieces, four b+w partial page pics. All the artwork is competently executed, at least to my untrained eye; but there there's nothing on a par with Blanche, Miller, Nicholson (read that as Otus, Sutherland, DAT if you speak Merkun).

pp72-73 - two page FC spread by Midgette & Meyer. It seems to be a sort of daily life in Mythustown scene, presumably representing the diversity of vocations in this section. Its omission would be zero loss.

p76-77 - double page Midgette & Meyer battle scene. An Egyptian-looking army complete with lightning throwing chariot-mounted wizard, fight it out with bearded Shemite(?) warriors. Clever use of negative space, silhouettes and smoke clouds as framing element. Kinda cool, but would be more suited to the Combat or Magic chapters.

P80 is a quirky Midgette & Meyer pic of a flying wizard with a terrified warrior clinging desperately on as his loot pours out of a tear in his satchel. Good compositionf and nicely picaresque subject matter.

B+W partial page pics
P71 - an unintentionally amusing Daniel Gelon pic of a classic dungeon situation: a confused goblin-type staring at an Elf wizard framed in a doorway. Why is the goblin confused? Well, I know I’d be a bit nonplussed if a guy broke into my home and started throwing Goth-dancing shapes while his hands were on fire.


p85 - A desert ruin. David Miller, I think. The signiture is rather squiggly and ambiguous.
p87 - A rather Mongolian-looking centaur introduces us to the Primitive Vocations section. Uncredited.
p90 - A broken-nosed Egyptian soldier posing down before Egyptian scenery. Because we all need more Khemri beefcake in our lives. Miller again?

Only noticed this recently - the page header pics for Basic and Advanced Mythus are different. Cute, but not useful in play.


Next Time: we look at Advanced Mythus chargen section 4: Knowledge/Skill Areas; What They Are and Aren't, and section 5: More HP Data (Attractiveness, Joss, Birth Rank, Quirks, Knacks, Peculiarities and Counter-Quirks, Handedness and Race). There are lots of tables ahead, and they may have useful stealables. We can but live in hope...

Pic Source: Dangerous Journeys Mythus rulebook, Jolly Jack

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Thalggu Needs Brains!

The Neh-Thalggu doesn't get enough love. An alien intelligence that warps in from other realms to steal the brains of powerful wizards like some bizarro truffle hound. 'Alien wizard ninja seeks delicious brains for fun, companionship'. What's not to like?
Look at him. He is avid for your skull meats. 
That is one pro-active, go-getting Slug Eat Your Face of brain acquisition.

The Brain Collector has been presented in a number of different ways over the years. It's variously been a kind of brain-fixated Mi-Go (in X2 Castle Amber and the AC9 Creature Catalogue), an enigmatic but non-hostile alien scholar (in Bruce Heard's Voyage of the Princess Ark series), or a massively powerful Mind Flayer-equivalent (3E's Epic Level Jokebook/SRD). We don't talk about its cameo appearance in the ill-conceived, ill-fated AD&D Mystara setting: that whole situation was just desperate wholesale corpse-robbing by late period TSR.

Of course, being 'only' a BECMI monster, the Neh-Thalggu gets no official D&D respect. That's only to be expected though; it doesn't have name recognition or marketability even on a par with second stringers like the Slaadi, the Githyanki, the Aboleth, or the Flumph. There's no Illithiad or Sea Devils creature culture book for the Brain Collector; no Neh-Thalggu of the Underdark sourcebook expounding on the nuances of their sophisticated cerebro-connoisseur culture. AFAIR they didn't even rate a mention in 3E's dedicated tentacles-and-alien-insanity sourcebook Lords of Madness.

Gaming popular culture is similarly left unaccountably cold by the NT. It even seems to have fallen between the cracks for those parts of the blogosphere that otherwise love their theramin-soundtracked science fantasy and/or Klarkash Ton-infused weird. No blog posts. No WTF D&D? citations. Not even a single passing mention in noisms' epic 2,000+ page Let's Read the Monstrous Manual compilation. Poll a hundred gamers and I'd put money that not one would have named the Neh-Thalggu as a top ten fave beastie.

Why is this? Is the whole 'We come to take your brain Mr Wizard' thing too adversarial for power-fantasizing bathrobe fetishists? Is the Brain Collector somehow UWP* 'bad form' in the same way disjunction is, but the Rust Monster unaccountably isn't? Or is it just that the Neh-Thalggu intrudes on the Mind Flayer and Aboleth conceptual niches?

* unconscious wizard privilege?

I think part of the problem is presentational. The write-up in the CC is a bit *meh* and the art is distinctly unflattering. Bizarre-looking: yes; arresting, inspirational and thought-provoking: no.

Neh-Thalggu LOEV photobombing

As written the BECMI Brain Collector is a No.# App: 1 ronery-ronery closet troll which pretty much acts as a wizard of d6 levels with fighter HD and a bite attack. The threat it presents depends largely on the luck the GM has with its 0-12 randomly determined spells. It's a definite test of GMing ingenuity to compose a meaningful 'eat the wizard's brain' threat with - for example - knock, infravision, floating disc, ventriloquism and locate object.

This being the case you could argue that the Neh-Thalggu is a classic old school monster; one where imagination and improvisational skill in using it trump listed abilities. But it still seems a little - well - naff for an intelligent 10HD otherworldly brain epicure.

Moving on to the Epic Level Jokebook (hereafter referred to as the ELH), this book claims that the BECMI write-up 10HD Neh-Thalggu are mere juveniles out on a first brain-looting spree, and that the full-grown Brain Collector is a 32+HD godbeast. Thanks to the ability sprawl endemic to post-Classic D&D the 3E ELH Neh-Thalggu reads like its several monsters rolled into one:
  • save-or-suck poison,
  • plane-spanning bite,
  • debilitating tentacles strikes,
  • Mind flayer-style brain extraction,
  • extradimensional nature (which enhances defences),
  • PC-equivalent spellcasting ability,
  • immunity to critical hits thanks to weird organ placement,
  • ability to teleport and/or flee to other planes.

Yeah, there is a LOT of power duplication there. That could easily be a power list for two or three different hit-and-run terrors, brain-seeking or otherwise.

However, if divested of power duplication and general Epic Level Jokebook cruft (+20 Insight bonus to AC? Hahahahahaha, no. As Mitchell and Webb would put it: "That's numberwank!"), the SRD Neh-Thalggu still offers interesting optional abilities for the creature in a Classic D&D game. Put the above powers into a d8 table and roll a couple to instantly individualise a Neh-Thalguu. That'll keep even players who've heard of the beasty on their toes, and will be a marked improvement on its current solitary one-trick-pony 'spells, then bite' tactics.

If you don't fancy rolling for additional abilities simply give the BECMI Neh-Thalggu some way of paralysing/stunlocking opposition, such as the similarly brain-eating Illithid already enjoys. Just give it carrion crawler tentacles* (or the use of a wand of paralysis**, or a cult of net-armed minions, or whatever) and an agenda: instant scheming alien kidnapper.

* Additional idea: Carrion crawlers = Neh-Thalggu larvae.
** This will likely be by GM fiat. By the book BECMI Neh-Thalggu are dirt poor, with only TT ‘C’ (average value 750gp and only a 10% chance of magic) to their unpronounceable tentacle-waggling names. By stark contrast the ELH Neh-Thalggu are the single richest monster in the book: triple normal treasure.

And the SRD Brain Collector has more to offer aside from its (absurdly broad) power list. Take a look at the text of the Neh-Thalguu SRD write-up:
A creature whose brain has been harvested by a brain collector cannot be raised, reincarnated, or resurrected while the brain is in the creature, because the collector preserves and draws upon the soul and basic personality of the creature for as long as it retains the brain. Neh-thalggus’ own language is a silent sign language 'spoken' with their writhing head-tentacles. They can also communicate telepathically with any creature that has a language within 100 feet.
-- d20 SRD
So as well as more powers than you'll ever need to make an interesting stalker/killer monster, the SRD Neh-Thalggu also has AS STANDARD:
  • Genius-level intelligence
  • Natural telepathy
  • Soul/personality preservation
  • Resurrection lock
A genius alien with tongues + magic jar on demand. That's a campaign archvillain power list in and of itself! All that's required is a GM call on precisely how much of a captured personality (memories? emotions? values? attachments?) the Neh-Thalggu can access. Slap that on the BECMI Brain Collector, and enjoy.

So here's to the Neh-Thalggu: always outnumbered, never outgunned.

Edit: found a Neh-Thalggu mini. It's a fantastic-looking kitbash of GW Tyrannid parts created by a guy screen-named Kep as part of his sculpt all the ELH monsters from scratch project. Behold the googly-eyed toothy magnificence HERE.

Pic Source: BECMI D&D AC9 Creature Catalogue, AD&D 2E Mystara sourcebook(?)

Monday, 19 March 2012

Lets Read... Mythus pt 5

Today we will be pushing henchmen through the door of the Advanced Mythus rules and listening for grinding, whirring and screaming noises. Also drinking heavily to numb the pain.

The Advanced Mythus section of the Mythus book is separated from the Mythus Primes section by another b+w Aulisio illustration, this one a two-page spread. We’re shown a bunch of warriors in Chinese armour resting in the shade of pillars or pagodas. Vaguely evocative, but not as compelling as the preceding Aulisio pics.

Chapter 10: Creating Advanced Mythus HPs

The opening paragraph of this chapter refers us to the following "How To" boxout:

Six step character creation. Seems simple enough, no more complex than the Mythus Prime chargen system to which we’ve already been exposed. But look! Lots of delicious new jargon. Something called Class Levels even get a mention, but this doesn't mean what you might expect from class-levelled game systems, like... nope, it escapes me.

[An aside: the Steps of HP Creation boxout was found lurking in the bottom-right hand corner of the page, in the spine, rather than at the bottom-left which would have made more sense in terms of both layout and context.  The problem of orphaned boxouts and peripatetic tables is an ongoing one in the Advanced Mythus chargen section, it obviously being beyond the wit of man to keep tables on the same damn page as their associated text.]

Having established last week that Chapter 10 is a big, fat whale omelette of a thing (60 pages!), we’ll be taking it nice and gently, covering only steps 1 and 2 of chargen this week. Remember folks: wading through haut gygaxian verbal porridge is an endurance discipline, not a sprint. The race goes not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to he who taketh the time to let his liver recover between bouts of masochistic drunken bogsnorkelling.

Step 1, Part 1: Socio-Economic Class
Boom! Front and centre, and straight out of the box, your characters place is determined by his place in the social order. That old fraud Karl Marx would approve.

Socio-Economic Class in Advanced Mythus will look (ahem) more than a little familiar to anyone who's read page 82 of AD&D Unearthed Arcana. However, unlike the not-directly-related piece of cruft which was class in UA, SEC in Advanced Mythus is a pretty big deal as it determines which Vocations (character classes) your imaginary gonk is eligible for. Not that the text is anything like that tersely informative on the matter. Dear Lord, no.

The ten paragraphs of introductory material(!) we get on the matter veer hither and yon like a small, excitable child. Here it’s explained that determining social class first assists in choice of vocation (unlike /some/ unrealistic fantasy games on the market); there’s a plug for the never-published Unhallowed horror setting for Dangerous Journeys (which remained vapourware thanks to selfless TSR law troll action killing off both Djangos Gurning and GDW); this paragraph intimates the existence of such things as nonhuman races and Primitive Vocations (oddly-accented yokels from the fringes of particular culture areas); and that one over there explains that Aerth is a historical kitchen sink setting in all but name.

The reading level in this blizzard of information is worlds away from the hand-holding tones of Mentzer Basic D&D, and not in a good way. Look, I understand that role-players are expected to be intelligent and capable of following nuance, but there’s no excuse for dense, undifferentiated verbiage in a game book. Yes, yes. I get that Advanced Mythus is the Blessed and Ever-Righteous Gary in full flow, and that anyone who sees that name on the cover knows what they’re in for; but Mythus is not the AD&D DMG (the 1979 one, not any of the later pretenders to the throne). The One True DMG is dense because it reads like a technical manual. Advanced Mythus is dense because the editing department lacked the courage to take say "That’s shite!" and take a red pen to The Word of The Master.

"Igor! Ze tazerdrones!"

By way of illustrative contrast, take a quick look at the writing style of someone like Frank Trollman. For all that you might not agree with his opinions the man writes clearly and well. Short sentences with simple subclauses; unambiguous wording; clear, memorable headings; minimal jargon. That is how you write a book that people need to flip through in a hurry.

After all this textwallery, the real meat-and-spuds of the whole infodump is a simple d% chart on p 59. Said chart produces results weighted heavily towards the middle of the social scale. A Mythus HP is only 20% likely to be a Sancho Panza peasant, 50% likely to be bourgeois, and 30% likely to be some degree of chinless toff. So Advanced Mythus HPs are disproportionately likely to come from the middle and upper classes, which goes against all that poor-but-fortunate third son source material from which fantasy draws.

The bulk of pages 59-60 are taken up by further details on socio-economic breakdown, vocation and literacy rates by percentage of population. SEC 9 aristocrats make up around 0.1% of the population; peasants of SECs 1-3 comprise anything from 70-87% of the population. The remainder of pages 60-61 are more sociology, being all about Literacy and Class Relations. Literacy increases by class, as you might expect, although we’re explicitly told that some nobles employ "...servitors to manage reading and writing for them..." The Class Relations sub-section is a ~1,000 words rehash of the old Cleese, Barker and Corbett skit on class. This whole section can be thought of as something like an excerpt from one of the Magical Medieval Society books, but with all the game-useful material carefully filleted out. Its probably interesting in a Fernand Braudel way, but of limited utility for a game of *fantasy adventure*.

Half of page 61 is another (orphaned) table which finally describes SEC in terms of actual social station and vocation. It is *heavily* footnoted. I can’t see any logical reason why this table and the one from page 59 weren’t just combined. It would be a nice, easy one-stop-shop for this whole section.

P62: YMBS*, with a column of essay on SEC Class Mobility (TL;DR: no one likes a johnny-jump-up), and then a section on SEC Outside the "Culture Area". The latter is three paragraphs containing one useful sentence, this last being inevitably orphaned on another page. Long story short: exotic foreigners = SEC -1, primitive foreigners = SEC -2, barbaric foreigners = SEC -3. S'alright, but not a patch on the 'local bigotry' rules of GURPS Goblins. Can it adequately model, for example, the sheer absurd parochialism of a society where people hang a monkey in costume because they think it’s a French spy? I fear not.

(* "yet more bloody sociology")

All this guff finally gets us to part 1.2 of the chargen rules on page 63:

Part 1.2 SEC in Relation to Vocational Choice
Or, as my simple monkey brain prefers to think of it: "Hulk Pick Class Now!" More textwall, including the following gem of jargonic opacity:

plus a page-long table which finally gives us some actual, semi-useful information about the 35 Mythus Vocations. Behold the magnificence:

I know, right? How have you coped with a mere 4 (or 7, or 12) classes all these years? What’s that you say? By using your "I-ma-gi-nay-shun". How peculiar. Where might one obtain this 'depiction of horse repelling' you speak of?

So, Advanced Mythus (published 1992) offers more classes than AD&D (pub. 1977-79), but not as many careers as WFRP (published 1986). I also notice a disappointing lack of ratcatchers, mudlarks and graverobbers, which - as any fule kno - are necessary elements of True Scientific Fantasy. The table is the first time we see substantive mention of the five types of optional non-human, which includes three flavours of Elf. There’s really no mistaking who wrote this, is there? I fear we should brace for An Essay On the Taxonomic Characteristics of Faerie Types (And Their Preferred Pole-Arms) before too long.

Note to the confused: Level Range on the table above has *nothing* to do with any other fantasy game with which you may be familiar. It is instead the SEC that can pick that Vocation. HP SEC at Start is what your character's Social Class then ends up as. So your initial (rolled) social class determines what vocations you can pick, and your vocation then determines your standing in society. Clear now? Ok.

Let us press on. Trudging, trudging, the slow weary walk of men with nothing left but the will to simply soldier on.

Step 2: Heroic Persona Statistics

The section on putting numbers on your imaginary gonk starts on page 64 with a page-long breakdown of TRAITS, CATEGORIES and ATTRIBUTES. (Sgt Major-style screamytext as original)

The three TRAITS will be familiar anyone who has followed us here from Mythus Prime. These TRAITS are then broken into two Categories apiece (Mnemonic and Reasoning for Mental, Muscular and Neural for Physical, and Metaphysical and Psychic for Spiritual). Each and every Category has three Attributes: Capacity, Power and Speed. Capacity is the most important of the three, as it defines the upper limit for the other two Attributes within a Category. The other two also do stuff.

All told this gives your Advanced Mythus HP a grand total of (3+6+18 =) 27 ability scores. This is all totally reasonable, and clearly not at all the result of a lack of actual playtesting with actual human beings. I mean, how could you even play a MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN(tm) with anything less than 27 ability scores? Such a thing boggles the mind! The whole exercise would be little more than a group of friends sitting around playing at a chaotic, unstructured form of Magic Tea Party. Entirely unsustainable, I'm sure you'd agree. Such a game could never last 40 years and go through ten or more editions...

(That low crump you just heard? That would be the sound of sarcasm exploding from the stresses of overclocking.)

We’re also shown how to jargonize each of these 27 scores in that special Mythus way, which gives us such immortal lines as: "...high SMSpd helps you to be punctual and meet deadlines..."

(See what I mean? Where do you even start to parody that?! It's like a flawless fractal of self-satirisation.)

Page 65 is a full-page colour illustration by Paul Daly of a knight being fitted for armour by smiths. It is workmanlike in execution, and the ‘forging and girding’ imagery is appropriate for a character generation chapter, but the piece still seems more suited to a /Life in Medieval Times/ illustrated history book than a hard-charging fantasy RPG. YMMV.

Page 66 is entitled What The Numbers Mean. It attempts to put all the soon-to-be-generated scores we met earlier into context.  We're told that human range is 1-20, with 1-5 being crippled in that Attribute, 20 super-exceptional, and 10-11 average. Pretty much ultra-orthodox RPG, nothing here that would cause a RQ or D&D veteran to either flip the table or move from their existing game. The reader is cautioned - in italics no less! - of the absolute human maximums of 30 for Physical Attributes and 40 for Mental/Spiritual Attributes.

We’re informed that an HP’s total score in a given TRAIT sets a hard cap upon all K/S area (trans. skills) that use Attributes dependent upon that TRAIT. So, if you’ve a total Physique score of 75, no Physique skill can be higher than 75%. It’s a nice little wrinkle, but I’m not sure how often it would come up in play. And then halfway down the page we find this piece of textual Slaadjacking:

I’ve read that a half-a-dozen times and am still suffering from a bad case of "WTF? Where did that come from?" It's like finding a landmine in your breakfast cereal or something.

Page 67 finally (mirabula dicta! Hosannas and hallelujahs! and vuvuzelas for all!) tells us how to generate ability scores for Advanced Mythus HPs. You can generate them one of two ways:
  • Point Distribution: one score per Category (50, 45, 45, 40, 40, 35), splitting the points as you see fit between its Attributes, or
  • Roll for it: 2d6+8 no less than 18 times, assigning these scores to the HP's 18 Attributes. Capacity, Power and Speed are summed to give the Category Score, and the two Categories are summed to give the TRAIT. Got that? Good.
Rolling produces slightly higher scores on average, and players are expected to play the dice as they fall. As Grand Wizard Gaxyg wisely informs us: "nothing ventured, nothing gained". Each method comes complete with a brief worked example for those poor souls already too infoburned to do simple sums.

Note that by the maths no Advanced Mythus character is ever less than average at anything. We saw this special snowflake-ism before in the Mythus Prime Appearance rules, and I fear we'll be seeing it again.

Aerth needs heroes! 
(but only pretty people need apply)

As well as finally giving us numbers Page 67 also reintroduces Wound Level (WL), one of the derived characteristics introduced in Mythus Prime. And this time it brings its dodgy dope-smoking mates Critical Level (CL), Effect Levels (EL), and Recovery Level (RL) with it:
  • Wound Level is an HPs ‘dazed’ threshold (75% of your Physique TRAIT) - if an HP takes this they are seriously wounded
  • Critical Level an HPs ‘drop unconscious’ threshold (90% of Physique TRAIT)
  • Recovery Level is an HPs ‘no longer injured’ threshold (10% of Physique) - if you’ve regained 90% of your Physique then you don’t feel injured any more. It is also suggested that Recovery Level can do double duty as an HPs negative damage before death threshold.

Your HP has two separate Effect Levels -- one for Mental TRAIT and one for Spiritual (80% for each) -- which are his resistance to mental or spiritual damage. I have no idea how these numbers are used in play. All I know is that they exist... and that the room is ever so slightly spinning.

Page 68-69 is a double page colour spread by Darrell Midgette and Lee Meyer of some generic adventurer types being loomed at by rocks with blue eye spots. More Midgette & Meyer illos pop up throughout the chargen section, sometimes one page, sometimes two-page spreads. All that I can decently say about them is that such art would be offered gentle critique and encouragement on Deviantart.

And this brings us to page 70: Standard HP Descriptions and K/S Area Bundles, which is a whole other swimming pool of porridge I elect to save for another day.

Wow. Was that ever a grindy slog just to determine class, career and stats. Twelve pages of eye-glazing, attention-repelling wordage, and a couple of useful tables. Things I might actually steal for my game? Sadly, there's nothing I haven't already nicked from other places that do it better.

So far Advanced Mythus is making me all kinds of sad. WFRP, Traveller and Cyberpunk 2013 had already done far superior jobs of chargen as mini-game. This has been chargen as aucturial exercise. A definite 2/10, must try harder.

Advanced Mythus: my face when...

Next time: more Advanced Mythus chargen

Pic Source: Dangerous Journeys Mythus rulebook, Collected Curios

Monday, 12 March 2012

Lets Read... Mythus pt 4

Welcome once again to Let's Read Mythus, in which our hapless hero hurts his brain (and liver) by mudlarking for hidden gems in EGG's infamous descent-into-self-parody-as-performance-art piece: Dangerous Journey: Mythus. And you thought Hackmaster was the pinnacle of playable gaming satire.

Today we're going to look at the last few section of Mythus Prime, the training wheels version of Dangerous Journeys:Mythus. We will be covering Upgrading to the Advanced Mythus Rules, the GM's Section, and the sample adventure.

Chapter 7: Upgrading to the Advanced Rules

Foreshadows all the ways in which you'll make your character more complex for when you graduate to using the full fat MAdvanced ythus rules.

TL;DR: two pages of non-useful text which could just be replaced with: "Turn to page 56."

Long-form Bitching and Whining:
And I quote: 
A good way to start your campaign on the advanced track is to first add on the rules for Difficulty Ratings (DRs) and Joss Factors (JFs).
Please ignore the *gluk, gluk, gluk* noises. That's just me topping up my buzz in 'hail fellow, well met!' celebration of all this exciting new jargon.

Difficulty Rating I grok ...I think. But Joss Factor. Wassat den Dave, the amount of patchouli-scented waifey action girlness inherent in your character? No? It's a secret is it? Oh great. And now I can't unsee Advanced Mythus characters as weird Sailor Moon/Voltron abominations whose ongoing adventures in groovy hippy-space are sound-tracked by Monster Magnet.

The rest of this section is the 8 steps of upgrading to Advanced Mythus characters, and some unilluminating waffle on other game mechanics.

Complexificatifying Your Heroic Personadudeamabob

Yes, 'rewarding'...

1 Determine TRAITS, Catagories and Attributes. 
TRAITS each have two Categories, each of which breaks down into three attributes. Here's the boxout showing how one TRAIT shakes out into many different numbers in Advanced Mythus:

If I'm reading that right, /one/ stat just exploded to /nine/. What in the name of the Future Buddha?! I'm going to need a new liver, and probably some new swear words, by the end of this.
2 Roll for Joss. 
There's that fat foot-fetishist again. But of mechanics and use in play? Nadda! not even a page reference.
3 Calculate Damage Levels (DLs) and Effect Levels (ELs). 
These are things. They are part of the game. We know no more. Their unseen rules hover over us like an implicit threat.
4 Convert K/S areas. 
Apparently Advanced Mythus characters have three additional automatic skills: Etiquette/Social Graces, Native Tongue and Trade Phoenician (the common language of Aerth). We're referred off to page 70 for details.
5 Determine K/S sub-areas.
I assume this is Mythus-ese for skill specialisations. Referred to Chapter 10 and the master skill list on pp99-100.
6 Calculate Personal Heka. 
Apparently there's a more complex advanced method in Chapter 13. (A type of bankruptcy, IIRC my American law correctly.)
7 Establish General Persona Information. 
And I quote: "...all we can say is turn to Chapter 10, and have at it!" There we will find Quirks and rules on Handedness. My heart swells with joy.
8 Adjust Financial Resources.
Apparently you don't have enough stuff. You need to refer to Chapter 10 to add more detail to your Possessions Categories and Special Connections. (I'm sure the latter is a euphemism for something... But no, it just means NPC contacts/associates.)

"Refer to Chapter 10. Refer to Chapter 10."

It's like listening to the ravings of a lawyer's parrot. I'm just grateful there's no 'Take a drink for every time you're referred to a rule that hasn't been explained yet' option in the Mythus drinking game: I'd be getting my stomach pumped already.

And no, I won't be using the information given in this chapter to generate an Advanced Mythus character, simply because there's not enough information here to 'upgrade' said elter ego. All we have to work from is a bunch of page references and noises off.

Pro-tip for wannabe writers of game (or other) documentation: habitually referring to things you don't even define until later in the book is *lazy, bad and wrong*. It shows you can't organize things sensibly, and also makes the reader want to kick you right in the sack. Just bear that in mind, m'kay?

And... back to the matter in hand.

Advanced Combat
A paragraph telling you to - and this is no word of a lie here - "...go and study Chapter 12 carefully." And did I just see the words 'speed factors' used there? This bodes.

Complete Heka
Refers you to Chapter 13, and to the Mythus Magick book. A load of "moarcomplexities! MOAR!!1!" guff which introduces the idea that there are such things as Full and Partial Heka Practitioners. No useful explanation of what these are (naturlich!). There's also a semi-interesting paragraph on Vows of Faith and Pacts with Evil, which introduces the idea of characters dedicating themselves to supernatural entities in return for power. That sounds very swords-and-sorcery: "Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!" and so forth.

The Gamemasters Section

Pretty sweet Janet Aulisio pic of some cerement-wrapped, pointy-hatted cultist-types standing amid mist-shrouded monolithic columns.

IMO *this* should have been the cover art for Mythus, rather than the generico Elmore effort. I mean, that's sword-and-sorcery villain portraiture gold right there. Lord Azzur of Blacksand approves this look.

'Nuff gushing, on with the winnowing.

Chapter 8: Running the Mythus Prime Rules
One paragraph pep talk for the GM, followed by a one paragraph puff piece telling us how great Epic of Aerth is as a setting book which offers "...adventure, intrigue, role-playing, exploration and action...integrating fantastic elements into a working and believable world". This is a lie. Epic of Aerth is a dry, boring factbook which represents the nadir of Bronze Age of Gaming 'systematise the fantastic' fetishism. That bloody book should be a case study in "how not to do it, unless you actually want to bore everyone's ass off" setting design.

(Sorry, that was a bit off-topic. My Epic of Aerth critique in the style of Dr Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham can wait until another time.)

Targeting a Campaign Locale
Seven paragraphs of verbiage (1+1/4 pages!) tell us that an entire world is too vast in scope to be a useful starting area, and that you should drill down to a local area in one nation on one continent.
"In fact, here's our recommendation: Locate your campaign's base in a large village ... somewhere  nearby will be an entrance into the mysterious labyrinths of Subterranean Aerth." 
A village near a labyrinth, you say. What unprecedented "...quantum leap in roleplaying..." (source: DJ:Mythus back cover blurb) is this? The innovation! It burns!

Beginning Your Campaign
Half a page to say 'set up some situations, have the repercussions of what the players do lead to new situations.' (eckles) "Well gorsh, dat's very cleva. I never fort of dat." (/eckles)

Setting the Value of the Base Unit Coin
The return of the BUC. Remember that guy? Three paragraphs repeating the idea that one BUC = $1 in purchasing power and explaining that on Aerth the BUC is a bronze coin weighing an ounce. So, yeah, another naked steal by Mythus Prime from the BRP-system (see, for example, the money system used in the Stormbringer RPG).

Then we get a table of relative metal values, complete with a footnoted insight into the composition of my old enemy:

Yeah, pretty much.

Here is the table, reproduced for your viewing delectation:

Along with it are some potted descriptions of the fantasy metals of Aerth: Adamantine (super metal), Hekalite (magic metal), and Oricalcum (triple value Atlantean gold). Rejoice, oh my brethren. We now know what percentage of Adamantine you should alloy with iron... Oh, but not what it bloody does. I'll let Deadwood's Mr Wu express my feelings on this. [link NSFW for swearing]

One thing to be said of the metal values given in the table above is that they're a marked departure from the coinage system used in that obscure little fantasy game which made EGG's name. Not sure about those base metal costs though. I don't see why people would travel from Phoenicia to Cornwall for tin at 1/20th of a BUC per coinweight in order to make bronze that reduces the value-per-weight of their copper by 80%. And I'm betting the values are based on 1992 market prices. Call that last a hunch based on...

Some Cost Examples
A column to tell us to base game costs off RL costs (meal = meal, sword = gun, nag = beater car, courser = sports car, destrier = Grand Tourer, labour = as RL equivalent) and to double and redouble prices for superior and excellent quality items. No explanation of why you'd want to pay more than the baseline cost though.

Awarding Accomplishment Points
One column. Average of 4-6 not-at-all-XP per session. A couple each for Success, Length & Difficulty of adventure, and for Roleplaying. All very 90s RPG in its assumption that experience for killing-and-stealing is wrongbad. We're cautioned that the Advanced Mythus experience system is different (and doubtless more complex).

Creating and Using Other Personas
Breakdown of types of Other Personas. You may recall from part 1 that 'OP' is Mythus-ese for 'NPC' - any character controlled by the GM. We're told to refer to Chapter 15 for more detail. Which surprises me greatly.

Subtypes of Other Persona (OP) include:
  • Evil Personas (EP) - the opposition
  • Friendly Personas (FP) - help during adventures
  • Mundane Personas (MP) - scene fillers and bit part players
  • Monstrous Personages (MPGs) - vampires and the like
  • Heroic Personages (HPGs) - patron and mentors
(*gluk gluk*)

Oh wow. Are the words 'mook', 'villain', 'extra', 'monster' and 'patron' unknown in Mythusworld? Instead of simple, evocative, plain-English words with a bit of traction and cultural resonance we get a shotgun blast of acronyms. This makes me a sad - and drunker - panda.

Pages 41-44 inclusive are rules for creating OPs. I use the word 'rules' advisedly. Perhaps 'guidelines', or possibly even 'vague suggestions', is more fitting. These can be boiled down to "give them what they need as appropriate to the context of the game". Really? People paid actual money for a book that contained that advice?!

Page 43 has a boxout with five sample magickal(sic) devices; mechanically simple fantasy standbys like armbands of strength, magic bolt wand, sword of speed, etc. Page 44 has 15 sample powers for inhuman beings. These are likewise straight from fantasy Central Casting (poison, regeneration, flight, fear, etc).

Using Mythus Prime Rules in Advanced Mythus Scenarios
Two pages to say 'ignore the complex numbers, use only the basic scores'. I'll give Dave Newton credit for the almost unimprovable line "Once again, there is a lot of ignoring to be done here...", which could be the tagline for this whole misbegotten exercise in ludic archaeology. Page 45 is rounded out by a boxout with a couple of sample statblocks.

These are refreshing in their brevity, although the writers still feel the need to tell you what a 'zombie' and a 'gypsy' are. Thanks for that; I had absolutely no cultural referent for these things.

New theory: Mythus was seriously aimed at the hitherto untapped 'intelligent Martian' gamer market. It was intended for people visiting from another world who had never even heard of roleplaying, or fantasy fiction, or of using their initiative and imagination.

Chapter 9: High Time at the Winged Pig
The introductory adventure for Mythus Prime. The Heroic Personaeonaeonaeas go to a bar in a half-detailed village to seek work as mercenaries escorting valuable cargo cross country.

No. Really. "You all meet in a tavern..." In 1992.

We get:
  • Map of a generic village.
  • Plan of the bar.
  • Rules for 5 pub game 'mini-games' to introduce characters to using their skills before...
  • the inevitable brawl breaks out (a non-fatal PvP=0 introduction to the combat rules).

And that's it. The 'adventure' - such as it is - ends there. No fantasy elements: no monsters, no mystery, no real peril. Nine pages that should have been a 2-page (at most) introduction to an *actual* fantasy adventure.

Having read that my egg-sucking football hooligan heritage urges me to throw things and chant "What A Load-a Bollocks!" (can't find a link to the actual chant so here's two Cockney geezers instead, the sentiment's the same). I've seen better from single page Critical Threat drop-ins in late-period Dungeon magazine. There's simply no comparison between A Gaming Night Wasted at the Flying Pig and, for example, any One Page Dungeon you care to mention. This displeases and disappoints me greatly.

And that's the Mythus Prime rules: 46 pages of blahblah and a 9 page non-adventure. The whole wordy slog relieved by occasional oases of mild interest, and some passable, if generic, fantasy art.

Just by way of unmerciful comparison, here's what a fan-compiled One Volume OD&D managed to pack into 46 pages:

Basically that's the whole of the players' side of the game! Actual substantiative rules too - no "refer to another section/book" fob-offs - for chargen, money, gear, living costs, henchmen, spells, adventuring procedures, wilderness movement, experience. Oh, and an example of play too. And the One Volume OD&D book isn't half as densely formatted as Mythus: there's a *lot* of artwork and whitespace in there, easily 50% of the page area.

What's my point here? Probably something simple like: brevity is a virtue, especially if half your rules are in another section of the book entirely.

Next time: We set tentative, trembling foot across the threshold of the Tomb of Polysyllabic Acronym-Spattered Horror known as the /Advanced Mythus/ rules. Who knows, we might even find a full-fledged game system in there.


Chapter 10: Creating Advanced Mythus HPs - pp57-117 inclusive?! Oh. I wonder if I can borrow Edison's vodka brain irrigation machine...

Pic Source: Mythus rulebook, One Volume OD&D, teh interwubz, Phillip M. Jackson's Collected Curios

Monday, 5 March 2012

Lets Read... Mythus pt3

This week's harrowing of the horror covers Heka, Combat, Character Advancement and Play Advice. Also nad-seeking tazer drones and the truth about what happens if you crossbreed Freddy Mercury and Lemmy.

Chapter 3: Heka
Heka is to Aerth as electricity is to Earth: ubiquitous and utile. Apparently the houses of the wealthy are lit by it, food is preserved by it, and buildings are built with its assistance. This *could* be all kinds of awesome, but there's always a risk that this magic-as-utility take will turn out TEH LAM0RZ. Kitschy efforts like the BECMI Book of Wondrous Inventions [link mildly NSFW for swearing], TSR's Amazing Engine Magitech setting and *shudder* Eberron (Keith Baker's love letter to JRPGs) outnumber brain-stretching tour de forces like Riskail: that's just a fact of life.

Magic use distribution is very Runequesty: everyone gets access to some, specialists get access to more. There's no "You are a fighter, so your magic is the power of hitting things" role protection in Mythus. If you invest in the skills, you can dabble in magic.

There are supposedly three sources of Heka:
  • Preternatural - derived from mundane animals, vegetables and minerals. Quartz crystal is cited as both a common source of Heka, and as a battery for same, which is taking the Heka = electricity thing a little far IMO.
  • Supernatural - Found on other planes. 10 times as powerful as Preternatural Heka.
  • Entital - exploited by gods, demons and the most ambitious of wizards. 100 times as powerful as Preturnatural.
So, the spookier and more woo-tastic a thing is, the more Heka it generates. Fair enough.

Heka Values
How much Heka do you get? That's worked out differently for each Vocation (class), generally as 2x total STEEP (points) in your Heroic Persona's (PC's) magic-relevant K/S areas (skills). Thankfully you'll only have to work this out when you create your character. Oh, and again when you increase any of your magic-related skills.

Got that? Good.

Castings Available
Mythus Prime characters can only use Archetypical Castings. No creating spells on the fly like in Mage; you do what Ars Magica would call 'rotes' and D&D would call 'spells'. Oh, and you can only cast spells in which you have a relevant K/S area. Logical, I suppose.

Sample spells? They're all the way off in Chapter 13 (or fork out more $$$ for the Mythus Magick book).

Note: I flipped ahead to look at the spells on offer and they are ... less than inspiring ... in their evocation of a richly imaginative world of wonder and mysticism. In fact they are so tedious I now desire command of a flight of semi-autonomous bollock-tazing quadrotor drones: only thus can my displeasure be sufficiently expressed.

  1. Select casting, note time, effect and duration
  2. Expend Base Amount of Heka required to cast
  3. Refer to Casting Difficulty table for modifier to STEEP based on the Casting Grade (trans. "spell level") of what you're doing. This can be anything from Easy (x3) for a Grade I spell, up to Extremely Difficult (x1/10) for a Grade VI+.
  4. Roll under modified STEEP on d% to cast. Autofail on a 99-00. Note: If the Grade of the Casting is greater than the Heroic Persona's maximum possible treat casting as Extremely Difficult (you can fill your own D&D-isms in here)
  5. If successful, calculate effect.
  6. Reduce effect to take opposing magick into account.
  7. Subtract total Heka used in casting from HP's Heka amount.
So nice and simple then.

Heka Recovery
Similar to D&D, but with some Runequest-ish touches. Full recovery with a night's rest, 1/2 if rest is disturbed. 10 Heka/hour recovered for meditation/esoteric study.

Castings take time to activate depending on their power and complexity. Anything from one Combat Turn for Charms, 5CT for cantrips, 1 Battle Turn for spells, 5BT for forumulae and 1 or more Action Turns for Rituals. All very logical, if a bit reductionist.

Page 23: A boxout with three worked examples of spell casting. This clarifies things nicely for the easily confused and small of brain.

Then we're onto the subject of Heka reservoirs, which are kind of cool. You can use gems, pentacles or pyramids to store Heka for later use. Charging a reservoir costs Heka = its value in BUCs + the Heka being stored. So, say you've got an ornamental stone worth 100BUCS, you can dump 110 Heka into it, and draw on 10 of that at a later date. Gems are one use only (they crumble when drawn upon), pentacles and pyramids can be re-used. Pyramids even generate their own Heka over time. There are rules for overcharging your Heka reservoir, which is likely to make the thing explode in your face for non-trivial damage.

There's nothing to say you can't swap reservoirs with other characters, which sounds like it could mitigate healbot chores somewhat. "You want healed? Got a reservoir charged? I ain't wasting Heka on you. Might need it to chill a side of beef later..."

Chapter 4: Combat
One short paragraph of introduction, and then we're straight into the skull-breaking. Nice and quick, no blahblah. I call Dave Newton.

Mythus Prime combat is profoundly RPG Orthodox in structure. The writers might play fast and lose with jargonics, but combat sequence is Holy Writ And Not To Be Tampered With.

Long Version:

1) Check for surprise, Party vs. GM d% roll, lower roll wins. All members of the side winning surprise get to act first.

2) Individual initiative (on d10, lowest to highest). This is kinda cool, coz the GM doesn't even have to count down initiatives, just call out "1, 2, 3, 4" and have people go when their number comes up. Initiative is also one on the few mechanics not given a distinctive Dangerous Journeys-ism.

3) Attack: roll under Combat skill on d%. Less than 1/10th of skill = max damage. No option to do wacky Hong Kong Action Theatre/RISUS stuff by using non-combat skills in a fight. Pity that. Mythus Prime is avowedly abstract in placing combatants and the text actually say that "Details of weapon range, attacker's reach, changing positions, etc. are left in the gamemaster's capable hands." Whether this is nicely old school in its abstraction, or too bloody lazy by half, is likely a matter of taste.

4) Damage is #d6 (determined by weapon type) minus armour. You take damage directly to your Physique (which is /startlingly/ familiar to someone who's just spent three months immersed in verious iterations of GCX). If damage exceeds Wound Level (75% of your Physique TRAIT) the HP is dazed (half all skills, +2 init penalty for rest of fight). This takes effect immediately. Once damage taken exceeds Physique TRAIT the HP is dead. And I here quote: "That's right. No whining or complaining - once that happens, your Heroic Persona is dead. Time to create a new HP!" Nice to see good ole spike-sitting old school puritan rigour in effect.

5) Once everyone's had their turn roll initiative for next round.

TL;DR: hitting = Runequest, hurting = Greg Stafford's K.A.Pendragon.

I find it mildly interesting that stabbing someone with a sword in Mythus Prime is mechanically less complicated (5 steps) than inflicting bad juju on them (7 steps). This is a direct inversion of D&D's fire-and-forget magic.

Six types of armour (Leather/Padded, Reinforced Leather, Metal & Leather, Chain Mail, Plate+Chain, Plate), each of which can be either full- or half protection (1/2 protection, 1/2 price). Full Leather protects for 6 points, Full Plate for 16.
Nice little rule: the more metal there is in your armour the greater the bonus damage you take from electrical attacks. Don't know how that got in there, but I like it.
Armour prices are 750 BUC for full leather, up to 30,000 for Full Plate. Shields have prices, but are described as nothing more than window dressing. *sigh* So that's everyone who can talk their GM into it using two-weapon style then.

1 attack/round, 2/round with punches, 1-per-2 with crossbow.
Body - Punch does 1d3, kick or headbutt does 1d6.
Melee - spear does 3d6, longsword does 4d6 damage, greatsword does 6d6.

Reach is GM fiat, and the suggested melee reach ranges seem ... generous.

The people of Mythus-world obviously have severe problems with scuffing on their knuckles thanks to their weirdly ape-like arms.

Missile - thrown go Physique in feet, bows and slings 100-200 yds. No range modifiers, so have fun sniping foolios with pinpoint precision from a furlong off. Damage is 2-4d6.

No prices for weapons in Mythus Prime. Those are over the hills and far away on pp236-239.

Heka in Combat
One page. Pretty simple spell point system, but probably far too fiddly and beancounterish for regular use by humans.

3 example defensive uses of magic:
  • Heka Shield - spend base cost to erect, then expend Heka to negate damage 1-for-1,
  • Anti-Heka Barrier - spend a base cost to erect the shield and budget per round to negate others' Heka use,
  • Magic healing (Oh look. Refer to elsewhere. WhrrrwhrrrwhrrrBZZZT!)

3 example offensive uses:
Heka can either attack Physique, Mental or Spirit stats, which is fun.
  • Heka darts - spring from the casters finger and strike unerringly. Hmmm, now where have I heard that before?
  • Illuminate Enemy - magic IR painter: expend Heka, enemy becomes massively obvious and easy to hit.
  • Charm, Fear, etc. - Spend activation cost + enemy's TRAIT to inflict. I'd not tell the caster what the TRAIT was and require them to bid for it blind auction fashion.

Healing Wounds
Heal 1 Physique/day, 2/day with bed rest. Remember that Physique is 20-60 for starting characters. Convalescing? Bring a good book.
First Aid heals 1d6+1. Which is uncannily similar to the old D&D standbys of potion of healing and/or CWL.
Herbalism heals 2-12/day. Them's good herbs!
Heka can be used to heal, and you can boost the amount by expending extra.

The chapter ends with an "Example of Combat" boxout takes up most of page 28 and is liberally scattered with Mythus jargon. I think something strange is happening to my brain; I can just about follow what's being said.

So, five pages of rule for combat so abstract it makes B/X blush. Speaks for itself I think.

Chapter 5: Improving Skills and Abilities
A page to tell you that Accomplishment Points (APs) are awarded by the GM. 5 is average, 10 exceptional. These can be expended to improve skills (1 AP per +1%) and TRAITS (3 AP per +1%). New skills are bought for 5 AP at 5%. Increasing TRAITS after character generation doesn't improve skills that depend on them. That took 2/3rds of a page.

There is pretty cool Daniel Gelon pic of a gnarly Lemmy-looking manticore with Freddy Mercury teeth lunging at some scimitar-armed dude on a flying carpet, so the page isn't completely wasted.

Proper manticore that! Not like the overgrown Mexican Hairless that the 3E MM tried to fob us off with.

Chapter 6: Playing Your HP
A page and a bit of actually useful advice on how to be a good player. It bluntly says that "Knowing your HP, knowing the game, and knowing as much as possible about the real world and fantasy add up to being a good player."

There's a paragraph on being a courteous gamer and gentle admonissions encouraging respect for both the enjoyment of others, and for the effort the GM has put into the game. There are suggestions that communication between players and GM is the key to mutual satisfaction. There's even a short (4 point) numbered list of things even the greenest of neophyte players can do to enhance the game:

1 Learn from your fellow players.
2 Help your fellow players to be better.
3 Assist the GM to be the best.
4 Be considerate of all others in the group.

This breath of fresh air and common sense is followed by a three page Example of Play. It is an example of play. You have probably read one. This means that you do not need to read another. And that's all I have to say about that.

Next time: Upgrading to the Advanced Mythus Rules and The GM's section of Mythus Prime.

Pic Source: Mythus rulebook.
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