Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Defending psionics.

AD&D psionics. Everybody either hates the hell of them or never used them (or, paradoxically, both). But not me. I think AD&D's is a very solid, very usable psionics system and I'm here today to tell you why.

Could it be that I was a counsel for the defense at Nuremberg in a former life?

Anyway, psionics in Dungeons & Dragons certainly pre-date their most well-known appearance in the first appendix of 1978's AD&D Player's Handbook. I, however, do not. Therefore, I'll be focusing on AD&D in this post. That being said, if somebody out there has additional relevant insight into how these systems differed in TSR publications that predate the PHB, that's fine with me. Comments sections are there for a reason, after all.

Let's jump right into it, shall we?

1. Psionics "don't work."

I hear this one a lot. The psionics rules were somehow either incomprehensibly convoluted or completely illogical and simply didn't function if you attempted to run them as written.

Wrong. AD&D psionics are actually quite simple. Everything from calculating a character's chance to be psionic, to determining a psionic character's overall strength, to allocating psionic powers is as straightforward as any other aspect of character creation.

The effects of the various powers are as clearly explained as those of magic spells. No more so, but certainly no less.

Psionic combat is a simple matter of cross-referencing two values on a chart and applying the indicated results, the same as regular physical combat.

2. Psionics are "unbalanced."

This misunderstanding is a lot more understandable. The psionic character gets all these special powers for nothing, right?

So you might believe until I point you to a little thing called the psionic encounters section of Appendix C of the Dungeon Master's Guide. It turns out that each time a psionic power is used within one turn of a wandering monster check, that wandering monster has the potential to be a psionic one.

And psionic monsters? As per the Monster Manual, they're really, really damn nasty. And prone to target psionic PCs. As written, it's only a matter of time (the chance is a full 25% upon a positive wandering monster check) before some brain-eating nasty rolls up and pulls a Scanners on your psionic wunderkind PC, and quite possibly the rest of his party, too, considering that psionic encounters are rolled on a chart that includes arch-devils and demon princes and doesn't discriminate by PC or dungeon level.

Not so unbalanced now, it is? In fact, the check that the DMG encounters appendix places on psionic PCs is such an outright gruesome death lottery that I don't think I'd opt to run a psionic PC in AD&D even if I could.

3. Psionics "don't fit in a fantasy game."


Seriously, this one has to piss me off the most. Go back and actually read the fiction that inspired D&D. Many of you reading this already have, but it bears emphasizing how the artificial and stifling separation of fantastic fiction into rigid genres is a Crappy Thing, as are its effects on RPG gaming (as exemplified in this sad stab at a criticism).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Grimoires: "Real" magic and what it can teach us.

I've been on a huge grimoire kick lately. Real grimoires, that is, like the Clavicula Salomonis (Key of Solomon) and others. Not originals, of course, but the many commonly available translated editions sold by booksellers and free online (see links throughout this post). Most of these (in)famous tomes first started circulating in the late medieval/early rennaissance period, despite their claims of ancient providence, and offer a fantastic insight into what constituted "real" wizardry in the Western world during the time periods that most fantasy RPG games are based on.

There's some wild and crazy stuff to be found here. The Grimorium Verum will tell you how to invoke the demons Mersilde, who "has the power to transport anyone in an instant, anywhere" and Frimost, who "has power over women and girls, and will help you obtain their use." Plus spells for curing rabies, turning invisible (good luck getting your hands on the human skull), obtaining gold and silver, and more.

The Goetia portion of the Lemegeton even specifies the proper time to summon and bind each demon by rank ("The chife [chief] kings may be bound from 9 to 12 of ye Clock at noone & from 3 [5] till sunset. Marquizes may be bound from 3 of ye Clock in ye after Noon till nine at night and from 9 at nt [night] till sunrising. Dukes may be bound from sunrising till Noonday in clear weather.").

Studying these works and other similar ones has given me quite a few pointers that I can see influencing future fantasy gaming sessions:

1. Magic can be ruthlessly low-down and practical. Perhaps the strongest recurring themes among the spells and rituals in these books are the garnering of sex, temporal power, and cold, hard cash.

2. Magic should really evocative. "Cure Light Wounds" is one thing, but using Key as an example, we can see offhand some most excellent chapter headings:

"Of the Blood of the Bat, Pigeon, And Other Animals."

"How Operations of Mockery, Invisibility, And Deceit Should Be Prepared."

"How To Make the Magic Carpet Proper For Interrogating the Intelligences, So As To Obtain An Answer Regarding Whatsoever Matter One May Wish To Learn."

And then there the spells themselves. Here's an incantation from the section entitled "Regarding Experiments To Be Made Regarding Hatred And Discord":

"Where are ye, SOMNIATOR, VSOR, DILAPIDATOR, TENTATOR, DIVORATOR, CONCISOR, SEDUCTOR, ye who sow discord, where are you? Ye who infuse hatred and propagate enmities,

I conjure you by him who hath created you for this ministry, to fulfill this work, in order that whenever N. shall eat of like things, or shall touch them, in whatsoever manner, never shall he go in peace."

Sure, it's almost certainly a bunch of superstitious hokum, but is it ever cool-sounding!

3. Magic can be really complicated. Some versions of D&D, particularly AD&D, already have certain spells with lengthy casting times, but these books really emphasize how much work being a wizard can be, with rituals that involve specially consecrated knives, swords, robes, parchment, water, seals, amulets, pentacles, etc. Sometimes all of the above and more for a single working! And that's even before you get past the generic stuff to things like exact astrological specifications and the need for a hare slain on the 25th of June or what have you.

4. Finally, they all have awesome magic seals that you'd be crazy to not want to rip off for your games if possible. For example:

So if you have the time, I definitely recommend you check these suckers out. Besides, if you don't, I might just have to whip out my virgin parchment, blessed stone and bat blood so I can call on Frutimiere to make you strip nude and "dance increasingly until death...with grimaces and contortions which will cause more pity than desire." And none of us want that. I hope.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This thing is godlike!

This thing being the Dizzy Dragon Games Adventure Generator.

Best random dungeon generator I've ever seen. If they can also program it to use AD&D encounter and treasure tables, I'll probably marry it.