Inspirational Art: Mithras

This week’s Inspirational Art is a departure. It doesn’t a cover a single artist but a single subject. It is also historical more than fantastic.

Mithras was the subject of a mystery cult common in the Roman Legions during the Imperial period. Also know as “Mysteries of the Persians” it first appears in Rome in the first century AD. While the figure of Mithras carries a Persian name it is open to debate if this religion was imported from Persia or created in Rome out of bits and pieces of Persia and other lore.

The image above is called the tauroctony and was the central image of Mithratic sites. The image depicted is the ritual slaying of a bull although the meaning is open to debate (you’ll see this phrase a lot in studying the Mithratic Mysteries). The interior of his cloak is lined with the cosmos and it is commonly believed that the symbolism is astrological. The image below is of the other common Mithratic iconography, the banquet. It portrays Mithras feasting with the Sun on the hide of the slaughtered bull.

Mithraism, along with the other mystery cults, offers a grand pattern for Dungeon Masters to add a unique religious element to their game. One reason we know so little of the religion is the nature of mystery cults. They have multiple levels of initiation with secrets taught at each level, not unlike some modern groups like the Masons. With Mithraism we even have the names of the levels: Corax (raven), Nymphus (bridegroom), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (sun-courier), and Pater (father).

Imagine a variant cleric class with spell lists and powers keyed to what little we know of Mithras (or some other mystery religion) using the initiation stage names as level titles and powers that evoke the name.

Miss Manners Wouldn’t Play D&D

Some rules I have encountered in my travels:

  • Refrain from making negative comments during play concerning the contracts made.
  • Always pay attention to the play and stop your mind from wandering.
  • Making a questionable claim or concession is inadvisable.
  • Don’t prolong the play unnecessarily.
  • To vary the normal tempo of bidding or play in order to distract opponents is not recommended.
  • Do not leave the table needlessly before the round is called.

While a few of you might be able to guess what these are for I suspect most of my readers won’t. They are taken from Bridge: Rules of Etiquette by David Braybrooke.

You are probably asking one of two questions and possibly both. The first is “why am I bringing up contract bridge in an RPG blog?” The second is “why am I bringing up rules of etiquette in an RPG blog?” The answers are “because bridge is commonly seen as a game for adults” and “because RPGs aren’t” respectively. Last week I discussed how TSR’s marketing choices moved D&D into being primarily perceived as a kids game. Today I’d like to discuss what I consider the single biggest obstacle to changing that perception; role-playing gamers as a whole have horrific manners.

Before you contend I’m alone in my thinking or that I’m merely subscribing to gamer stereotypes let’s look at the evidence. While I had considered this before the topic was rammed home by two postings in the RPG community. The first, and more acerbic of the two, was by Alexis at The Tao of D&D and was titled DM As An Asshole (a how-to guide). The RPG Rules of Etiquette he laid out were very strict and drew on his experience as a chess player, specifically tournament play. However, strict as they are he correctly points out that they are common for many activities such as yoga, theater (performing or attending), and even playing in some musical ensembles. About two months after a similar post was made at entitled Critque my table rules by D. Archon.

As for gamer stereotypes, I am indulging them. If we want to move RPGs back to an adult hobby from a kid’s hobby which for any niche hobby is vital to its long term survival, we need to confront these stereotypes on two levels. The first is most people have them. The unwashed, mouth breathing, obsessed with his 70th level Paladin/Mage/Dungeon Master and the S&M elf chick that character is having sex with is the broader view of the hobby. Alexis is right. That is exactly what your coworkers are thinking when you walk away after talking about what you did this weekend. They may not think it of you specifically, but even then they wonder why you put up with people like that and what’s wrong with you. To claim the same respect hex and chit wargaming had in the 1970s, an acceptable adult hobby even if not for everyone, we need to correct this image.

Before you start writing Alltel or the guys who write whatever sitcom dumped on gamers this week we need to clean up our own house. The fact is the matter is Alexis only went part of the way when he said, “D&D has consistently been, in my experience, the second worst offender when it comes to poor manners, poor habits and unbelievably infantile self-proclaiming posturing. The worst, of course, is any bar with a television where you’re trying to get solemnly drunk.” The reality is too many of us not only accept this but celebrate it. When you consider the most popular gaming comic out there, Knights of the Dinner Table, this is driven home. I love the Knights and identify too much with the comic. That is part of the problem. Three different tables are regularly featured and at best one of them has a majority of functional adults at the table, Patty’s Perps. To even bring them to that status of majority functional adults we have to include an ex-con as functional. That an ex-con trying to go straight is more functional that all but one of the lead group’s players (the only functional adult in the Knights is Sarah) says something. Before anyone says, “but it is just a comic”, they should come up with a reason for it being routinely funny and very popular that doesn’t involve it reflecting the hobby as a whole.

If you need a more real world example let’s return to D. Archon’s table rules at Despite being milder than Alexis’s rant there were multiple objections to rules I would consider fairly common sense. Some examples that people thought were “bring your own stuff” and “be on time or call”. When you’re 14 these are common issues that you put up with. When you are 25 or 35 or 45 or beyond and trying to squeeze gaming in along with a full time job, grad school, spouse, kids, maintaining your house, and so on the behavior being explicitly prohibited should not even come up. Even more disturbing, for me, was how much of myself I saw in both lists and how, with one exception (being on time, which is an ongoing personal struggle), they are mostly gaming specific.

The fact is we don’t act like chess, bridge, or hex and chit gamers. We don’t model their public and tournament play in our public and tournament play nor do we model their casual play in our casual play. We have more in common behaviorally with science fiction fandom. Even adults who love fantastic literature and media often avoid fandom. For the same reason, a large number of adults who love the literature and media that inspire us and love to create stories avoid our hobby. Not only do they avoid it but actively consider it in a negative light.

Yet that occurs in a world where one of the most influential figures on TV, Stephen Colbert, an NBA player, Tim Duncan, and some popular actors, Robin Williams, Mike Myers, and Vin Diesel, are all one of us. As I wrote last week this could be the real golden age of the hobby. It is older than it’s been in two decades in terms of players, fantastic media is on the upswing, some prominent people are players, and we are returning to our DIY roots as DIY is on the upswing again. Let we are still considered a childish hobby. If we want to begin to reverse that trend and take advantage of all the possibilities to carve out a place as a stable, adult, niche hobby that will be around for our old age and our grandchildren the first step is to act like adults. Hell, in this day and age that might be another groundbreaking creation of the hobby.

2d6 Expldding on Doubles

What are the odds of scoring any value three through 20 on 2d6 if they explode on doubles? This, is of course, the same as saying “what are the odds on a T&T Saving Roll?” Because I’d like to convert the thief’s skills to T&T style talents I needed to come up with values for levels one through 20. I’d have to look up the math to do an exact probability calculation so I wrote a Perl script to do 1,000,000,000 simulations instead. The results for those who are interested:

Roll Odds Odds <= Odds =>
3 8.0% 8% 100%
4 8.0% 16% 92%
5 16% 32% 84%
6 16% 48% 68%
7 17% 65% 52%
8 9.0% 74% 35%
9 9.7% 83.3% 26%
10 1.3% 84.6% 15.4%
11 2.0% 86.6% 13.4%
12 1.4% 88% 12%
13 2.1% 90.1% 9.9%
14 1.4% 91.5% 8.5%
15 1.9% 93.4% 6.6%
16 1.2% 94.6% 5.4%
17 1.3% 95.9% 4.1%
18 0.1% 96.9% 3.1%
19 0.1% 97% 3%

Twenty was under a tenth of a percent even rounded so I excluded it.

3^3 2009: RPG addition

Among my non-RPG blog reading is Hoehn’s Musings. Among his better ideas is his 3^3 word of mouth end of year idea. Check his blog for the full deal, but the basics, modified for the roleplaying game scene, are:

  • Post (preferably in the comment section below or on your own blog) your top 3 favorite things that have helped your RPG experience this year. Your suggestions can be anything. They don’t even have to be things that came out this year; you just have to have fallen in love with them in the last 12 months.
  • For each of your recommendations, you have to sell us on each thing in 3 sentences or less. No paragraphs — just a few sentences. Bonus points if you make it actionable by including a link, which will make it easier for everyone to actually see what you’re talking about.
  • After that, you should ask 3 more people to add to the list. Or you can blog about it and pingback to here.

Rules / Guidelines:

  • No more than 3 things. Think hard about all the stuff you’ve fallen in love with this year and really narrow it down to the best of the best.
  • Be specific. Don’t say things like “Pulp fantasy stories” instead say “I got into Lin Carter’s Jandar stories and have ported the setting over to be my new S&W world”.
  • Give us a link. Where can we find / buy the product you’re recommending? Where can I listen to that song by your favorite band? Can I test out the software you love? Make it easy on us and LINK IT UP!
  • Avoid mainstream recommendations. The OSR already knows that Grognardia is THE OSR blog and Death Frost Doom is the most atmospheric adventure of the decade.
  • NO SELF-PROMOTION OR PROMOTING SERVICES YOU’RE AFFILIATED WITH. If you try to make your recommendations about you, your friend, or your company in any way (“I recommend my blog – I really got into it this year LOL!!1″), you will have officially killed the spirit of this list. I will delete your comment if I get a self-promo vibe from it.

Okay, so what are my 3^3 things that made RPGs better for me this year:

  • A Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons and Dragons: The only RPG blog I’d willing pay a subscription to is Taichara’s collection of incredibly creative and original magic and monsters (and a few other things). If you absolutely, positively have no idea for a new thing to add to Friday night’s game you can find it with enough flavor to create a plot too.
  • Andre Norton’s Witch World: I originally read the first novel in the series in the seventh grade, which puts it back in 1979-1980. I even own the GURPS world book. But it wasn’t until I grabbed the first six books for a dollar a piece this year and read them that they really took hold. The campaign world I’m working on for next semester (being in a college town, games are semester driven) is a mutant child of it and the assumed setting of AD&D.

Inspirational Art: Natalia Pierandrei

This week we return to Deviant Art to find a source of inspiration. A first, however, for the Inspirational Art series is actual RPG art.

Natalia Pierandrei says At the End of the World is “Concept art I’m doing for a RPG set in Victorian Age.” Certainly it’s enough to make me want to check out the project, but then again I have a weakness for Steampunk/Neo-Victorian/Neo-Edwardian settings, especially the kind often seen in anime that unselfconsciously mix magic and multiple technical levels. It’s probably the airship thing.

While she is at Deviant Art I’d suggest following up with Natalia at her own website, A Forgotten Night Tale. She notes she is available for freelance and specifically mentions RPGs. My friends in the OSR who find her work compelling might contact her for that next big thing you’re working on.

Not a Golden But a Gilded Age

Although it overlaps ages in James Maliszewski excellent D&D chronology the period from 1981 to 1985 is generally considered the golden age of D&D and of RPGs in general. People generally say the early 1980s but I’m putting in specific dates for a reason. They represent the beginning and the end of the worst thing to happen to our hobby. The opening year is the release year of the Moldvay Basic set which is generally seen as the classic version of Basic D&D. The closing year is the year 60 Minutes ran its now famous expose about the game. They also serve as rough bookends for D&D as a fad. The damage of that era is due to how TSR choose to mass market D&D. Unlike many OSR members I do not think that appealing to a mass or broad market in and of itself is destructive to the hobby. The sin against the broader hobby TSR committed was marketing to kids

The Moldavy boxed set reads “The Original Adult Fantasy Roleplaying Game For 3 or More Adults Ages 10 and up”. Contrast that cover information with the earlier Holmes boxed set’s test that read “The Original Adult Fantasy Roleplaying Game for 3 or more players”. The original boxed set had no age information on it.

For those who weren’t around in the era you need to understand a few things about games in that time frame. Games for adults, especially in the mass market, were generally party games. Hobby games were mostly hex and chit wargames sold in hobby shops and for some peculiar reason I’ve never learned Avalon Hill games were commonly found in Hallmark stores. Board games were mostly kid or family oriented games. Major game publishers indicated the target market for their games with lines like “suitable for ages 10-14”. In choosing ages 10 and up for their marketing TSR was making a conscious choice to market D&D to tweens. By 1983 and the Mentzer set TSR had dropped any pretense of marketing to adults by removing the word itself from their mass market oriented age range. The Mentzer Basic read “Ideal for 3 or more beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up”. Star Frontiers, Marvel Superheroes, and other TSR games would bear the same age range in that period.

This had a series of perverse effects. First, adults who even three years earlier might have been open to the game were lead to perceive it as a “kids” game. Second, by marketing to the fickle children’s market TSR was choosing a ton of revenue today in exchange for sacrificing a steady income stream in the long term. The worst damage, though, was to both the kinds of kids who were playing and the nature of the groups they played in.

I’ve written before about the value to teenage players of being accepted into an adult peer group as an adult. Testimony from people who started playing as a teenager in the era of 1975-1985 is quite interesting. Those who stayed in the hobby tend to have been their group’s kid while. Those who were in peer group games seem to have left during and after high school. A handful are now coming back in their late 30s and early 40s. I have no hard statistics to prove it, but I suspect most of the former stayed and most of the later left to never come back. Peer group players were taught the same thing adults were taught by the box ages, this is something for kids not adults.

That is the true damage TSR committed and it is both deep and far ranging. Listen to this story from NPR’s All Things Considered about the release of third edition. The story talks about designers trying to appeal to a new adult fan base. Anyone with a clue about the hobby knows most third edition books were sold to adults who had been playing for decades. This association of D&D with kids is a huge part of the negative geek image the hobby has. To the average adult choosing to be involved in a kids game puts you in the same category as comic book guy from the Simpsons. For example. just two years later the same show would run this story for the thirtieth anniversary. As you listen to the tone in parts of that story you are paying the interest on all that money TSR made. The surprise that adults still pay a kid’s game is palpable.

The sad thing is that TSR could have chosen another path to a broader audience. In that version of the past D&D never becomes the fad it was but remains an adult hobby. The mass marketing moved into Hallmark stories along the lines Avalon Hill games or into mass market bookstores aimed at adults. In that world TSR probably still exists and Avalon Hill probably does too. That marketing, after all, marked the hobby as whole and just roleplaying as a kid’s hobby. We’d still be different but in the way chess players and amateur painters are today and wargamers were in the 1970s. Do not underestimate the changes to our hobby, internally and externally, that acceptance as an adult hobby would have.

So, I don’t consider the mass market era a golden age. It was a gilded age that hurt the hobby for two decades. The silver lining is some of the players who played as a teen and left at adulthood are coming back. The indie movement of a few years ago, the OSR, and even WotC’s targeting of people in their 20s with both of their editions of D&D all are doing today what TSR could have done then. The hobby survived long enough for use to get a do-over. Having seen the error of appealing specifically to children we can now appeal to adults, even those 10 and above.

Are Horror RPGs Possible?

So, today I finally watched the original version of The Wickerman having had it from Netflix since before Thanksgiving. While watching it I was reminded of a time when horror meant something other than gore porn which alone was worth the time. It also brought back memories of very frightening thriller horror from that time period focusing on witches and satanism as well as pagan.

Like many gamers it made me want to get out some horror rules (specifically the first edition of Palladium’s Beyond the Supernatural) and plot out a campaign. But I was stopped fast.

Can you really create a horror RPG campaign that will be fulfilling for both players and the game master? It is certainly possible to create a mood of horror as Death Frost Doom shows. Consider this, however, in horror there are generally few if any survivors and most horror films, especially of the more thriller type, leave a suggestion if not an outright demonstration that the leads have failed in ending the horror.

As a result we have to create action horror games. Sure, we have horrific events and a variety of supernatural and normal horrific events. That said, from the earliest horror games such as Stalking the Night Fantastic, Chill, and the afore mentioned Beyond the Supernatural you were a very competent individual who stood a chance of defeating the horror for good while surviving. Even the game that began horror as a genre, Call of Cthulhu was more August Derleth than H. P. Lovecraft for this reason. The other path, mostly as a result of White Wolf’s Vampire and its success although also see in Stellar Games’s Nightlife is you playing the monster.

In the end the best we can do is something like Call of Cthulhu which intersects with horror in a more TV than movie space (I don’t feel qualified to comment on horror literature having limited exposure). CoC investigators, with their regular success and survivability are more akin to Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files (especially the pre-mythology conception of the show) as well as Derleth’s The Trail of Cthulhu.

In that way, I think the development of those games has hurt RPG horror. While a horror campaign is probably not possible the proliferation of a “horror light” mentality and horror mechanics to enforce the mood has dampened the ability to bring horror as a style for certain adventures. It has encouraged us to think of horror as sanity points and monsters who eat them (instead of hit points). Horror should be a feeling of doom and that, even if you get out alive, you somehow didn’t win.

Buried Treasures: Big Rubble, The Deadly City

The BIG RUBBLE is the perfect hunting ground for both prospective and veteran adventurers. From the relative safety of the frontier town of New Pavis, exploration parties may venture forth into the Rubble to once again tap the treasures and magics buried in its ruins. They will be aided and hindered by the guards and bureaucrats of the occupying Lunar empire.

Recently there was considerable discussion in the OSR about the ability to publish a mega-dungeon. Some, such as James Maliszewski over at Grognarda, didn’t think it could be done. Other disagreed including Michael Curtis over at The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope who published his Stonehell soon after. One constant in all the discussion, however, was the conclusion the attempts at publishing one of the classic mega-dungeons like Blackmoor or Greyhawk had all failed. While that might be true at least one early structure that should qualify as a mega-dungeon did see the light of day. In fact, it had two published boxed sets cover it and the associated city which still garner high prices on eBay and were reprinted as one massive book in the 1990s. That mega-dungeon is the Big Rubble, the ruins of the city of Old Pavis in Glorantha.

For those who are wondering why you have never heard of Pavis or The Big Rubble along side the Slaver, Giants, and Drow modules the answer is simplicity and fate. Pavis: Gateway to Adventure and Big Rubble: The Deadly City were published not by TSR but by Chaosium. They are not for D&D but for Runequest. I find it ironic that the game that in its day was considered the anti-D&D published the most successful mega-dungeon of the period. Both boxed sets were among a series of supplements, mostly boxed sets but some booklets, that represented the golden age of Runequest and, in my mind, of Glorantha as a game setting. Anyone interested in early campaign styles that started to add loose plotting to great sandbox settings should look at most of these sets.

What is the Big Rubble? It is a the ruins of two cities the later of which was about sacked about 400 years earlier. The first city was founded about 900 years before the supplement begins by a culture of evil magicians to capture magical cradles carrying giant babies to the sea to join in the battles of Glorantha’s mythological age. It only lasted twenty or so years before being destroyed by a giant and his allies who included a minor god. They built the towering walls (80 feet plus in height) of Old Pavis to use as a fortification. About thirty years later a man named Pavis, whose city was sacked by the same minor god’s followers, lead a giant, faceless statue and some nomads to take the fortifications. After the battle the statue was used to build the interior buildings. Pavis himself would later become the city’s patron deity but the city would be sacked by trolls around 400 years after its founding.

A game master opening the Big Rubble boxed set could look forward to “thousands of acres of ruin and destruction now remain, full of robbers, outcasts, and inhuman monsters.” To get an idea of the scale consider the image to the left superimposing both the old (larger) and new (smaller) city on modern London (the original source has one imposed on Manhattan as well). The white area outlines medieval London contrast. No attempt was made to detail all of this area. Instead a 48 page “Rubble Guide” details some highlights of the area. Nine scenarios detail such a maze-like canal built for seemingly no purpose to a troll town hiding a magical artifact and everything in between. Plenty of notes are provided to help the game master build his own sections of the city. Finally, some forms used by officials in the new city to control exit from the rubble to the new city are included.

So, you can publish what amounts to a mega-dungeon. You can especially publish an adventurous, mostly above ground, one rooted in unique mythology. You can even create one of our hobby’s forgotten masterpieces in the process.

Review: First Edition Feats/1E Heroic Abilities

In the rush of new products some older products that are clearly OSR material but “predate” the movement have gotten lost in the shuffle. Today we’ll look at two of the from the same publisher and author: First Edition Feats and 1E Heroic Abilitiesby Malcolm Shepard at Mob United Media. Both supplements are PDFs available at for $2.99 and $1.50 respectively.

First Edition Feats is an eleven page PDF two of which are taken up by a full color cover and the OGL. The contents are just what you would expect. It adds a feat system, except it calls its feats combat proficiencies, to 1st Edition AD&D and OSRIC. It should be easily adaptable to other versions of D&D with no or little work. The biggest issue for D&D as opposed to AD&D is it is based on the weapons proficiency system. Adopting it to the BECMI/RC weapons mastery system would be easy and either of those could be grafted onto the rest of the family.

The rules on combat proficiencies take about two pages of rules including design notes. It allows a character to substitute one of the combat proficiencies for a weapon proficiency. Each combat proficiency can be taken twice for two levels of effect. The rules require a character to take at least one weapon proficiency and prohibit the doubling of a combat proficiency at level one. The system recommends that monsters of at least low intelligence have access to the system at up to one combat proficiency per 2HD and requiring at least average intelligence to take a double proficiency. I can imagine an orge or orc shaman with a couple of these spicing up a combat.

The rest of material describes twenty-one combat proficiencies. Each has a name, one sentence description, prerequisite, class, single proficiency benefit, and double proficiency benefit. The prerequisites are generally ability score values or weapon proficiencies although there is one alignment prerequisite. Most of the abilities provide a small bonus under certain circumstances. For example, the Two Handed Weapon proficiency adds +1 to damage when using a two handed weapon. Shield Bash allows you to sacrifice you shield’s AC bonus and use your shield as an off hand weapon. The only magic-user allowed proficiency allows magic-users to use a single type of magical weapon where the weapon type is not normally allowed but unable to use the magical abilities unless they take the double proficiency.

The proficiencies occasionally have two additional entries. Special gives notes outside of the above. For example the special section on the Archery proficiency notes you can use more than one slot on the double bonus, which is bow type specific, to use it with another bow type. The second section is called Normal. This to me is what makes this a true old school product. A common complaint against feats and skills in the OSR is they are limiting. If your character lacks feat X then they can’t try to do that. While a valid complaint I think this is only half the story. As I’ve written before old school characters are made out of what they’re good at doing. By supplying a normal rule for proficiencies which don’t have rules already in place this supplement emphasizes the fact they are about what you’re good at doing and not “permission” to do something.

While I have some quibbles, such as not opening up the special staff abilities to magic-users, in general I think this was worth the cost. I bought it for a proposed 2nd edition game and would probably use it with everything from that to Labrynth Lord. It is low impact in terms of time added to character creation and game play. It helps provide mechanical differentiation to the one class in older versions of D&D that really needs it, fighters. In fact, if you’re in an older game with a dozen different fighter types you might be able to prune it some if you’d like. Finally, it provides a good outline to Dungeon Masters and players wanting to add their own unique abilities. If the publisher were to revisit it the one thing I’d like to see is a single page summary chart of the combat proficiencies.

I’m not as enthused about 1E Heroic Abilities. It is a mere six pages, again two used by the full color cover and OGL, and provides three related expansions to ability scores. First, for each class it defines certain abilities as having secondary ability scores. These are decimal scores identical to and generated in the same manner as exceptional strength. Roll percentiles for three ability scores for your class and list them in the traditional format: XX/yy. Once per day per level a character may roll percentiles against a given scores secondary ability and success allows you to treat it as the next highest value. You cannot use this to raise hit points or gain bonus spells.

The second usage is when the character has a base 18 in their prime requisite. For those characters it provides tables for 18/xx bonuses for the three ability scores which are prime requisites and don’t 18/xx bonuses in the core rules. Dexterity adds to thief skills. Intelligence add languages and increases the chance to know spells and save versus illusions. Wisdom provides spells, additional magical attack saves, and magic resistance.

The final usage is to increase ability scores. At each level a character gets three dices pools of 3d10, 2d10, and 1d10 to add to there secondary ability scores. One must be assigned to each of the abilities for the class. If the total exceeds 100 you subtract 100 from the secondary abilities and increase the primary score by one.

This system isn’t that different from those common in ‘zines back in the day or even that in Hackmaster 4th edition. It’s not as unique or compelling as First Edition Feats. I wouldn’t recommend it as a separate purchase although if the two products were folded together and the price set at about four dollars I would recommend the combined product.