Wednesday 28 February 2018

Pig-faced orcs!

I've long marvelled at Spooktalker's superb conversions of old Grenadier orcs - "the pig-faced orcs that never were", as he puts it. The skill in the sculpting and painting is daunting. Yesterday, though, I saw Mike Monaco's conversions, which added an additional dash of inspiration

As I had one of the same plastic miniatures kicking around, I thought I'd have a bash at some conversions last night. An hour or so of fiddling with green stuff, and these four snouted villains materialised. I hope to get at least some of them painted tonight.

Although I think that Tolkien's orcs are far more interesting than anything that RPGs have produced, I've always had a soft spot for D&D's pig-faced orcs, which may owe their appearance more to Disney's Sleeping Beauty than Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Pig-faced orcs offer a few advantages in D&D games. First, they're suitably distinct from goblins and hobgoblins. Tolkien's orcs, of course, are goblins (and some of them are hobgoblins too). So humanoids that are visually distinct from the goblin-hobgoblin-bugbear types add variety.

Also, pig-men just work well as a monster type. Pigs are dangerous, undiscriminating in their appetites and uncannily close to humans in various ways.

Finally, having pig-faced orcs as just one type of orc creates an interesting diversity and the potential for orcish tribes with local peculiarities. We might boil down the function of orcs in RPGs to Dragon Warriors' "archetypal hench-things of evil". But I think we can tease out a strand within that: orcs are "archetypal hench-things of evil" that are created by evil. Whether by the corruption of "rationale incarnates" or the elevation of beasts or the animation of stone (just some of Tolkien's theories of orc origin), orcs serve as both the instruments of evil and its products. They're the result of tampering with the natural order of things, whether that's done by Morgoth or Sauron or Saruman or Moreau. So pig-faced orcs can function as the creations of one particular sorcerer - whereas those of another might resemble apes or dogs or whatever.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Gnolls and ghouls

I love Lord Dunsany's fantasy stories - not least because some of them make excellent bedtime stories for children. I've read mine The Hoard of the Gibbelins, How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles and The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him several times. They love them (all three are essentially the same story), and they reckon The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth is "epic" too (it is!). A year ago, in Florence, I managed to send them to sleep after an ice-cream-fuelled day by means of a soporific reading of Idle Days of the Yann  - one of the best of Dunsany's tales, but not so appealing to the young imagination, I fear.

I'm fairly confident that How Nuth ... played a significant part in the establishment of D&D's thief class, presenting as it does the burglar as respectable professional. It probably influenced The Hobbit too, for the same reason; Tolkien knew and liked Dunsany's work. 

But the most direct contribution Dunsany made to D&D was the gnoll. Gygax denied the influence later, but it's plain as can be, barring a typo, in the original brown books:

GNOLLS: A cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany did not really make it all that clear) with +2 morale. Otherwise they are similar to Hobgoblins, although the Gnoll king and his bodyguard of from 1–4 will fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power.

The hyena-like form that appeared later owed nothing to Dunsany, of course. But when Gygax and Arneson were stocking their first bestiary with a range of synonyms for goblin, to which they ascribed escalating power,  they turned to the gnole/gnoll as one of the more powerful. So, in OD&D, we have kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins and gnolls - none of which are described in much detail, and all of which, barring gnoll, essentially mean 'goblin'.

Dunsany's gnoles were certainly dangerous - formidable, even. And the Sydney Sime illustration that accompanied the publication of the story - and inspired it too, for the illustrations of The Book of Wonder came first - shows the gnoles as shadowy, goblin-like creatures:

(You can see more of Sime's stuff here.)

It's easy to see how these hunched and powerful-looking monsters fit into the taxonomy of ever-more formidable goblins, creatures that were eventually distinguished by giving them animal-like characteristics (dogs for kobolds, pigs for orcs, apes or mandrills for hobgoblins, hyenas for gnolls).

Since the Monster Manual, D&D gnolls no longer appear as part of a goblin hierarchy. To me, they intrude rather into the territory of the ghoul. Lovecraft's ghouls have dog-like snouts (hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs, but they look more like dogs):

"But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness."

And of course, in the popular imagination, ghouls and hyenas are both, above all, eaters of the dead.

In Arabic folklore - at least as it has filtered through to the West - ghouls are demons that haunt cemeteries and eat corpses:

"There I hid myself under the shadow of the wall, and crouched down cautiously; and hardly was I concealed, when I saw my wife approaching in company with a ghoul--one of those demons which, as your Highness is aware, wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat. If no live being goes their way, they then betake themselves to the cemeteries, and feed upon the dead bodies."
(The Story of Sidi-Noumain, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, ed. Andrew Lang)

 Sometimes, they assume the shape of a hyena. And in any case, they're bestial and monstrous in appearance.

In running D&D, I like to prune and rationalise the monster list somewhat. Most GMs do, I suspect.I used gnolls in a recent Dungeon World scenario that I ran for both my kids and a visiting relative and for a group of old friends. In both games, the gnolls manifested as nocturnal haunters of ruins and tombs - all high-pitched snickering, bone-gnawing and glowing eyes in the darkness. Those are exactly the characteristics I'd want from ghouls. And I think the hyena-like heads help to differentiate ghouls from walking corpses of various sorts, making them stranger, eerier yet more resonant. Oddly enough, the Monster Manual connects gnolls and ghouls through Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of Gnolls, who "also receives homage from the King of Ghouls".

 So, in the megadungeon I'm currently planning as a setting for both skirmish wargames and RPGs, gnolls will simply  be ghouls. 

Monday 12 February 2018

Get behind the mule!

In a recent post, I went on at some length about shields. Armour and shields, I think, should be an important part of a risk/reward trade-off in RPGs with a traditional sword-and-sorcery or medieval setting. Both should be highly effective in fights, but both are cumbersome and often inconvenient. And this should force a welcome burden of decision-making onto players.

Cliff notes
Encumbrance rules, in my experience, rarely work well - simply because both players and GM tend to forget about them in the course of a game. They also tend to get lost in the scrawl of a character sheet. A better system, I think, is for obstacles and situations to act as 'encumbrance challenges'. So, when mapping out a narrow passage or a cliff face or whatever, I'm now inclined to note penalties for characters carrying heavy or awkward objects - polearms, shields, crossbows, longbows and the like - or wearing heavy armour.

These modifiers are cumulative, of course. So, in Whitehack (the version of D&D I'm most familiar with and like best), I'd make a note like this for a steep cliff face in a cavern:

DEX check; double negative roll for non-Deft PCs; held weapons -2, long weapons -1, shields - 2, armour - AC [Whitehack AC rises from 1 to 6 for armour], bow -1, crossbow -1, longbow -2, pack -1, heavy pack -2. A sword at the waist would be -1 too, though this would be avoided by a PC who thought to sling it on his back (as no one would carry a sword in normal circumstances, film-makers of the world take note!).

So, a thief (one of the Deft in Whitehack terms) might face the cliff carrying a spear (-3) and with a short bow (-1), shield  (-2) and heavy pack on his back (-2). If he has DEX 15, he's going to need a 7 or under to succeed - and 5 or under if he's wearing leather armour (AC 2). A player, presented with those odds, is going to leave stuff at the foot of the cliff. And a fighter who faces rolling 2d20 and taking the worst is going to be stripping off his armour pretty damn quick. Add a pursuing horde of troglodytes, and those PCs are going to be scaling the cliff with just a dagger and their most portable treasures.

This is an area in which I really like 'naked mechanics' - ones for which the players are fully aware of the modifiers. Knowing the modifiers forces them into realistic decisions - or taking genuinely heroic risks.

Mule variations
Another way to deal with encumbrance in a manageable way is to mandate the use of horses or pack animals for transporting heavy stuff any distance. No one marches day after day wearing plate armour. And treasure - chests, sacks of coin, significant loot of any sort - demands beasts of burden. The default assumption should be that when a party that contains warriors of 'aristocratic' type (heavy armour, multiple weapons, big shields, etc.), horses or mules are involved. Yes, a Roman soldier could march with all his gear and a heavy pack. And, yes, so can a modern soldier. But a 15th-century man-at-arms wouldn't be waltzing through rough country with his plate armour on and carrying all his worldly belongings with him too. That's what horses (and pages and squires and their horses) were for.

This has implications for encounters: no, you weren't wearing your full plate when the ambush struck (unless you were riding); it was on the mule, of course. It also makes attacks by wild beasts more interesting, because so much more is at stake. If a sabre-tooth tiger uses the opportunity of the goblin ambush to maul your mules, you'll be reduced to just what you can carry. And in the wilds, that may not be a lot. Overburdened parties are more likely to attract further predators ...

What's that smell?
Bill the pony from The Lord of the Rings is a fictional example here. And the dwarves in The Hobbit suffer from having various ponies (with gear) eaten, first by orcs and then by Smaug. Managing and maintaining pack animals should be a big part of an outdoor adventure - and also an important factor in an underground one - if, that is, they will go below ground in the first place.

Mules might enter a goblin den, but might bridle at entering a gnoll lair. Unnatural carnivores, animalistic humanoids and common-or-garden predators can all serve as frustrations for well-equipped PCs, given a reliance on pack animals to stay well equipped.

And how would pack animals react to the presence of undead - or of sorcery? Tonight, I started reading Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising with my kids. The book - which loomed large in my childhood - has a brilliant opening in which animals start reacting fearfully to the hero as his birthday approaches - because magical power is awakening within him. Getting a pony to walk through an elf-haunted forest might be quite a task ...

Arms and the man
All of this is a means of facilitating of the GM's main functions - forcing the players to make difficult choices. A frontal attack on an orc village? Suit up in your finest plate and grasp your poleaxe! Crawling into the kobold tunnels? Maybe that gambeson will be the best compromise - and best take a dagger instead of the poleaxe.

The effectiveness of full plate armour is often underplayed by RPGs - Whitehack included - as it should render a warrior almost invulnerable. The fact that late-medieval men-at-arms abandoned shields and favoured two-handed weapons like the poleaxe demonstrates this pretty plainly: shields were only abandoned when they weren't needed. So for a fighter, giving up full plate should be a real wrench. But it just isn't designed for potholing ...

Saturday 10 February 2018

Dragons on the doorstep

A half-term walk in the Northumberland countryside today took us along the Devil's Water, past the Duke's House and down Gallows Bank.

I might have hesitated to use those names in such proximity to each other in a game, as they're so determinedly (and marvellously) Dragon Warriors in tone. But there they are.

And the woods were thick with goblins ...

Hack and slash - some thoughts on RPG combat systems

My first RPG was the second edition of Runequest, which I got when I was still at primary school - for my ninth birthday, I think. Runequest has a terrific combat system - so much so that other games often seemed a little flat in comparison. But Runequest combat is possibly too good - too detailed and too deadly - for an entirely satisfactory RPG experience. My abiding recollection of all those early games is that PCs were short-lived - and often short of a limb or two if they did survive.

Now, that sort of combat isn't necessarily a bad thing. The obvious implication is that PCs should seek to avoid combat where at all possible, because they never know when that puny trollkin will get lucky with a sling stone. Monster stats for the game tend to reinforce that; as virtually all creatures are playable as PCs, Runequest's standard villains don't have the default relative weakness that common-or-garden humanoid monsters do in D&D. The average broo is tougher and more dangerous than the average starting human PC, by dint of higher STR, CON and SIZ, natural armour and natural weapons (horns). So PCs have to be wary, at least until they're expert with their weapons and tooled up with magical items. Our characters never, ever survived that long.

Detailed combat of the Runequest sort also needs a lot of data. With its hit locations, variety of weapon proficiencies and damage modifiers, let alone the widespread access to magic, the average Runequest monster stats look little different from a character sheet. Preparing monsters used to take a lot of time, so there was a lot of reliance on the stat blocks in the Fangs supplement and other pregenerated stuff.

Things like Stormbringer and (I dimly recall) Call of Cthulhu simplified things by removing hit locations. That's a reasonable compromise, but you lose some of the grit and detail, which is half the point. All in all, I think Runequest is a great system for games that feature NPCs rather than monsters - the kind of game in which a single fight might be the climax of a session, or its centrepiece. Maybe something like The Unforgiven, or Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant: stories in which violence erupts only occasionally, but is swift and bloody when it does.

That sort of game sounds pretty good to me, but requires an alignment of approach of players and GM. And a lot of prep - just in case. And sometimes (and especially with kids involved), raiding monsters and stealing their stuff is precisely what's wanted.

That's where the D&D style - a pool of hit points that can be quite large, armour class and a feeling of relative safety for our heroes until their hit points run low - works much better. The game becomes a lot less about the odds (Will that trollkin get lucky? Probably not ...) and a lot more about resource management. And that's fun. In recent games I've run for kids and for adults, the strategies that arise when hit points run low have been exciting for the players and involving for the GM. If you're raiding a hobgoblin settlement to get as much plunder as you can, the ticking clock imposed by dwindling hit points and limited healing opportunities creates a nice bit of in-game tension. The Runequest equivalent - a raid on a trollkin gang as in The Rainbow Mounds - might be more dramatic, but in a sudden, messy and abrupt way.

So, while Runequest is far superior as a simulation of combat, the D&D approach can often make for a better game.

At the same time, most D&D systems could do better at simulating game combat without sacrificing the balance of the game. The most obvious example, I think, is the shield.

In medieval or ancient combat, a shield was a huge advantage. That's why most soldiers carried them. D&D doesn't reflect this very well: in BECMI, a shield gives a fighter a -1 adjustment to AC: half that of wearing leather armour. But in a fight, a man with a sword and shield is much better equipped than a man with a sword and leather armour. I don't many experts on medieval combat would disagree, and, historically, it's clear that equipping troops with shields generally took precedence over equipping them with armour. A man with a shield has a good chance of blocking a blow that would otherwise injure him; a man in leather armour (or, more plausibly in the real world, a padded jack or gambeson, has a chance that the blow will hurt him less. And if someone shoots a longbow arrow at you, a shield between you and it is going to be much more helpful than a few inches of thick cloth.

So, having shields as a small AC adjustment is underselling them significantly. It's also, I think, missing a trick for gaming. Shields should be a huge help for a fighter. But they're also big, bulky and awkward to carry around - especially when spelunking. That suggests a couple of things: bucklers would be a likely compromise (presumably less effective overall and especially against missiles, and possibly requiring more training to be used effectively - more like parrying with a weapon than instinctively blocking); and "proper" shields should often be involved in trade-offs - abandoned to allow more treasure to be carried, or to facilitate a quicker escape - albeit a riskier one, if combat ensues. There's a nice risk/reward dynamic in that, which I like, and it enhances the resource-management aspect of the game.

How could shields be done well in a D20 system? I suspect they ought to be separated from AC entirely - perhaps by giving a saving throw to be rolled simultaneously with the attack. And the chance to save should be high - maybe 50% or more. A fumble could lead to the shield breaking, perhaps - broken straps or split, or whatever. And a larger-than-human opponent might both reduce the save and increase the chance of damage. Bonuses for weapons that might disable a shield - pila or angons, perhaps - could be worked in too.

All this should have some interesting implications in a game. Fighters who are forced to abandon their shields because of potholing or cliff-climbing will feel exposed and are likely to seek replacements from slain foes. A kobold shield might work as a buckler for a human - and an orc shield should do just fine. So ordinary shields become treasure.

But what about heraldry? In a factional dungeon, you have to be a bit careful about which livery you're sporting. You might be able to persuade the hobgoblins of the Broken Fang that you're only carrying a shield made by the orcs of the White Eye because you've just killed some of them - but good luck with that. And if you walk back into the town you've just rescued from the ravages of the White Eye tribe? Well, we all remember Theseus, Aegeus and those black sails, right?

Thursday 8 February 2018

Number Appearing ...

A detail of D&D monster descriptions that's long intrigued me is "number appearing". In OD&D, goblins and kobolds are found in groups of 40 to 400. It's 30 to 300 for orcs and 20 to 200 for hobgoblins and gnolls.

Those are big numbers. OK, there's a note suggesting that the referee "increase or decrease according to party numbers" and that the figures are "primarily for outdoor encounters". Still - increase?

By BECMI, we're down to 2d8 goblins - or 6d10 in their lair - and 2d4 (or 1d6 x 10) orcs. But AD&D retains the big numbers.

I wonder if these figures were often or ever used in the Gygax/Arneson games. Perhaps they were: they would link nicely with Chainmail and the wargame side of things. I can see rows of Airfix Romans with the Red Eye painted on their shields. Or perhaps these numbers were just stuck in to add a sort of anthropological verisimilitude.

But whatever their origins, the numbers do suggest a game that's less about the succession of skirmishes suggested by the BECMI numbers and more about avoidance. If there really are 300 orcs in the mines, you don't want to meet any of them - and certainly not if they have horns to blow or drums to beat.

Doom! Doom!

Of course, Tolkien's Moria is in many ways the prototypical "dungeon". But while the Fellowship fight plenty of orcs and encounter trolls and the balrog too, that wasn't the idea. They wanted to get through without attracting the attention of any lurking goblins - or worse. And they pay a heavy price for failing to do so.

I thought about all this when playing a new skirmish game, Sellswords & Spellslingers, from Ganesha Games with my kids and some friends. It's a cooperative game, so the players - each of whom controls a small number of PCs - are pitted against monsters controlled by a deck of cards. As character progression and loot are important, the author suggests it can work as a sort of RPG-lite. And it does: the wandering monsters and random events add a fair bit of surprise, and the "accomplish aims vs loot the corpses" dynamic creates a lot of tension.

What I liked most about it, though, was the way that the game tends to flood the table with monsters. We went through at least 50 orcs both times we played the first scenario in the book, and only a few PCs survived each time; the dead, admittedly, were victims of their own avarice as much as of the orcs.

That opening scenario has an explicit escape theme, and I think that's a natural fit for full-blown RPGs: yes, there are 200 gnolls in here. And no, they won't be waiting in rooms in isolated groups of two or three. So you'd better move fast and leave few traces, because you don't want them on your trail. Oh - and do something to muffle your scent!

Wednesday 7 February 2018

"Most orcs are shaped like humans ..."

I've been meaning to start this blog for a good year or two now. The chief topics will be books, monsters and fantasy games, but other whimsy will doubtless intrude. I have a very long and somewhat pretentious post on orcs to go up when I finish it, but in the meantime, here's a thought.

Today, I bought the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, incited to do so by the marvellous Monsters and Manuals blog. I've always been a bit of an outsider to D&D. My first RPG was Runequest. I played a fair bit of AD&D with friends and borrowed and read through many of the books (especially the Monster Manual). But I always found D&D faintly baffling - THAC0 this and hit dice that. The Basic version looked somewhat friendlier, although I only looked through it a few times at a friend's house.

Anyway, the description of orcs in the Cyclopedia is faintly familiar from back then:

"An orc is an ugly humanlike creature, and looks like a combination of animal and man. Most orcs are shaped like humans, but many have bestial facial features and teeth."

But wait! What's that? Most orcs are shaped like humans? What about those that aren't? Might there be tribes of quadrupedal orcs? Or some with tails or wings?

Or are most within a given band man-like, but accompanied by a few that hop or slither or crawl?

Now, as a child, I'd have found this heresy of the foulest sort. Back then, orcs were goblins and goblins were orcs - as in Tolkien. I approved of Runequest's non-Gloranthan take on orcs, as in Griffin Island: small, strong and hardy humanoids with ape-like arms and a preference for darkness. I disliked the profligacy with which D&D splashed its humanoids around: bugbears, goblins, kobolds, orcs, norkers, svarts and the rest.

But literature isn't gaming. Glorantha is one of the few gaming settings that is genuinely coherent in a literary way; Tekumel is another. They're quite hard to do well, though. But a pulpy, Mos Eisley-ish setting in which there are plenty of species competing for the same ecological niches? That's dead easy to do - and lots of fun.

And orcs that hop or slither or crawl might well be part of it.