The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Thursday, January 16, 1986
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
First level calculations in Pocket Gods—Saturday, January 16th, 2016

I’ve just added a new feature to the Pocket Gods mobile app. It does a quick calculation for all the “good numbers” that first-level characters need: reactions, movement, carry, etc.

And as a caveat, I have tested it on various desktop browsers, but for mobile devices only on my own iPad and iPhone. Because it’s just an HTML5 app (HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS), you should be able to use it on any computer with a browser, whether your computer is a desktop workstation, a tablet, or a phone. In each case, the app will work even if you don’t have Internet. Just save it when you do have Internet and it will be available later. It should also automatically update when new features are added or old bugs fixed.

I resisted an automated calculator for a long time, partly because I worry that having a calculator will encourage more pointlessly complex calculations on my part, but mostly because I think it’s a good idea for players to know what goes into their scores. I’ve tried to keep character generation relatively simple; it’s more complex than OD&D and BX, and depending on how you look at it less complex than AD&D with its calculations scattered throughout the books.

I have several times seriously considered just going back to the AD&D method of pushing these calculations into gameplay. Except for verve, mojo, and movement (and one reaction depending on how you look at it), all of these calculations have a counterpart in AD&D. Part of my design goal for Gods & Monsters was to avoid spreading those calculations through both time and space.

For example, saving rolls were modified by abilities; we just did the calculation at the time the saving roll was made, usually involving a table lookup since the modifiers were different depending on the ability. The saving roll targets themselves were on another table in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Technically they were supposed to be secret, but in practice what this meant was that after a couple of sessions our DM told us to write down our saving rolls so that play could go faster.

Encumbrance was always used and always ignored at the same time: at some point, the DM would marvel at all the stuff we were carrying and tell us it was time we started tracking encumbrance. That’s a big reason for why the encumbrance system in Gods & Monsters is so simple, just the number of items the character is able to carry. Because it was very simple in AD&D up until it was very complex.

A legendary ancient manor—Saturday, January 2nd, 2016
Knole House Stone Court

I think I’ve seen this before… in Evil Dead.

One of the legends of early D&D adventures is the Judges Guild module Tegel Manor. It’s a sprawling “haunted house” with over 167 rooms spread out over a thirteen acre area. It looks for all the world like a slapdash construction put together by different people over several generations.

I adventured in it back in the day, but I have never run it, and I’m not sure how I could. It’s almost as impossible as my own Isle of Mordol. We had more room to spread out back then, and an ability to focus on seemingly endless tasks that my adult self envies.

I am reminded of that massive haunted house when I read about Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent, England. The January/February 2016 issue of Archaeology Magazine has a feature article on Knole House, and describes it as “one of the five largest houses in England”. The house itself “occupies four acres, surrounded by 26 acres of gardens and fields, and another thousand that make up a medieval deer park.”

While Tegel Manor dwarfs Knole House in acreage devoted to the building, Knole House wins hands-down on number of rooms. We don’t even know how many rooms are in Knole House. “The best estimate is around 420… Each owner kept adding to it to increase their status, but they could never keep on top of using them all.”

Building began in 1445 near Bronze age burial grounds (there are mounds that may be burials in the deer park). The first owner was beheaded before he could finish building it. The son sold it to an Archbishop who finished construction—as much as you can say construction ever finished for Knole House.

There are rooms designed specifically for the King, designed during or after the Gunpowder Plot. The rooms are covered with anti-magic symbols to protect the Royal Court while staying, an astonishing thing when you think about it—during or after a massive technological bomb-based plot they remained worried about witchcraft. The magazine says that the 1605–1606 period1 was “a time of suspicion and even hysteria.”

Say yes or use the magic 8-ball—Saturday, December 19th, 2015
If you are a god

The RPGPundit, in his own matchless manner as “the new and improved defender of RPGs” has taken on the utility of say yes or roll the dice. It’s something that has mostly gone unquestioned, even on (he would of course say especially on) the Forge. I used to hang out on the Forge a lot when it existed, and had many great conversations there.

Gods & Monsters uses a lot of of what I learned there, which is mainly that rules must mean something; if a rule doesn’t mean anything, get rid of that rule. You might think that this rule goes without saying, but having cut my teeth on AD&D in the hybrid form that consisted of some AD&D books, some Blue books, and some BX books, rules that didn’t mean anything or were never used are a basic part of my education.

Go through the amazingly cool AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, and most of those rules were not used by the writers, let alone by the customers.

From the Forge, I learned about hooks, but used them solely to help the game master end arguments about whether or not your character will do that. You said your character will do that, it’s right there on your character sheet. It is meant to divert play away from pointless, fun-sucking tedium.

It was there that I also learned about building your character in play, but the sole reason for building your character in play is to avoid skills that wouldn’t make sense in the pre-existing world.

But while “say yes or roll the dice” sounded very cool the first time I read it, you will not find it in the Gods & Monsters rulebook or in the Adventure Guide’s Handbook. The reason is that while it does sound cool at first glance, it has no practical use in the kind of games I enjoy playing in and running.

I enjoy games in which there is a world that can be interacted with, and through that interaction discovered.

That’s very different from the mindset of “say yes”, in which there is no such world: the world isn’t so much to be discovered as it is gamed. I enjoy the hell out of Donjon, but I wouldn’t want to play it long-term. And it knows this; Donjon is presented as an inherently silly game, much like Creeks & Crawdads but with a little more heft.1

Sailing the high seas—Saturday, November 14th, 2015
Galleon over earth horizon

See my earlier article, Silver sail and gold, above a dappled sea, for non-numerical details on the politics and excitement of driftwood ships in the space above Highland.

The summary is that ships ride the gravity flow with driftwood. They catch the solar wind with sailcloth.

Building a driftwood ship

The first step in building a driftwood ship is acquiring the driftwood. Driftwood blocks the gravitational attraction of large bodies, thus making it possible to not fall back to a planet in a spectacular crash. Driftwood grows in rocky, cold environments with thin atmospheres. It grows best on Mars, but can also be grown on high mountaintops on Earth or similar planets.

Driftwood should be cured before use. Uncured driftwood reduces maneuverability by 5. Each year of curing reduces that penalty by 1, up to a maximum of five years curing on-planet. Driftwood can be cured more quickly or more efficiently in space. Driftwood cured in space reduces the maneuverability penalty by 1.5 per year, to a maximum of 7—that is, ships made from driftwood cured for five years in space will have +2 maneuverability.

Space is big. It is very easy to lose track of curing stacks when curing in space.

After curing, the wood should be coated with a varnish of wood resin to preserve the cure. The best resin is driftwood resin. This provides a +1 to maneuverability. Other wood resins do not affect maneuverability, and non-wood mineral oils reduce maneuverability by 1, while tar oils reduce maneuverability by 2.

Without varnish, the wood may become infected and eaten away by insects or other creatures.

Adjustments to ship cost and maneuverability:

Technique Maneuverability Cost Movement
Planet Curing +1/year +10%/year
Space curing +1.5/year +15%/year
Driftwood resin +1 +25% +1
Mineral oils –1 –5%
Tar oils –2 –10% –1

Weaving sailcloth sails

Unlike driftwood, which grows best on Mars but can grow in other places, the sailmoth only produces thread on Mars, and only in the Martian highlands.

Appendix N Survey—Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
The Face in the Frost

One of the amazing works in Appendix N.

I read a lot of fantasy/science fiction before I started playing D&D. While I didn’t read much of, or even most of, the famous Appendix N, I had read enough related works to have a good idea of where BX and AD&D were coming from. I think one of the important takeaways from that oeuvre is how open everyone was to mixes. We had no problem mixing Herbert with Poul with Norton in our games, and neither did they in their stories.

That’s one of the conclusions that Jeffro comes to in Appendix N Survey Complete. Also apparent is that the sheer range of available works was unlimited by time. Jeffro writes that “It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977” but in fact we read things from before 1910. I’d be willing to bet the percentage of campaigns including the equivalents of Morlocks and Eloi was well into the whole numbers, and it is hard not to see the influence of the Island of Dr. Moreau in all the strange creature mixes in home-brew campaigns, or even in the canonical Monster Manuals. It’s also hard not to see the influence of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo in many early adventures.

Now, Dumas was perhaps out of the ordinary, because in many ways he was a precursor to modern adventure stories. The Antechamber of M de Treville is an amazing setup, and lays seeds for just about the entire series, all the way through The Man in the Iron Mask .

But even besides still-famous genre-ish writers such as H. G. Wells, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle, pre-twentieth century works were regularly mined and regularly read. I would expect many of us had read Frankenstein, Ivanhoe, and The Picture of Dorian Gray without thinking we were reading ancient history. They were part of the canon because they were great books. Flatland showed up in several short-story collections, and we were familiar with, though these were sometimes a bit hard to find, H. Rider Haggard and William Morris, among others.

The Bible itself figured into our reading, too, as can be discerned from some of the spells that Clerics had access to.

Currency and economic policy in the middle ages—Saturday, August 29th, 2015
Edict on Maximum Prices

Emperor Diocletian’s 301 AD edict setting maximum prices.

We live within an abundant and ubiquitous market. From specialist boutiques to supermarkets to sprawling shopping centers, we can easily travel to acquire our hearts desire, or, Acme-like, send a note into the ether and have it delivered to us—sometimes in twenty-four hours. We no longer even need to carry money or the one-to-one representations of it: a credit card will give us the ransom of kings. But if we do want money there is an ATM at the corner 7-Eleven that will dispense what we need. There is no need to go to the banker, the banker is always with us and always ready to say yes. There is no need to negotiate how much of our wheat we must trade for however much butter we need. We sell our time for paper and then trade that paper credit at known prices for what we need and want.

If we don’t like the price on our heart’s desire, someone else makes a different model at a different price. In the best parts of our world, all economic transactions are beneficial to both sides, because both sides are free to take it or leave it, and thus only take it when the trade is at a price they are willing to pay or accept.

This was not always the case, and even today you can travel to places where you are forced to sell or to purchase at prices not of your own choosing1, or where the value of money changes with the corrupt political wind.

Price controls

There are two basic rules of economics:

  • People will trade what they are willing to trade.
  • If there is a profit to be made, someone will find that profit.

These basic rules mean that:

  • Any barriers—natural or artificial—to desired trades increase the profit of those willing to surmount those barriers.

These are laws of nature, just like the laws of gravity. Laws and social pressures can get in their way, but it’s likely to hurt: in reduced quality, increased prices, or hidden costs. They apply to goods, services, and currencies. People will pay the price they are willing to pay, and accept the price they are willing to accept.

House of Gold, House of Passages—Saturday, August 22nd, 2015
Muse in the Domus Aurea

Inscribe a riddle on the base of this muse and you’re good to go. (Howard Hudson, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Imagine this: a palace with a triple portico a mile long, stretching between two hills, and the inside covered in jewels, gold, and mother-of-pearl, whose “courtyard was so large that a 120-foot stall colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there. It had…

dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens…

It sounds like a grand palace from a fantasy novel, something requiring a ton of CGI when the time arrives to film it, but it was a real place in 68 AD. It was the Roman emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House. The Domus Aurea was the second version of his opulent palace. The first, the Domus Transitoria, House of Passages, was destroyed by fire.

There were walls sheathed in polychrome marble, vaults and ceilings covered in vibrant frescoes by the artist Fabullus, and in precious stones, ivory, and gold, and gardens full of masterpieces of sculpture from Greece and Asia Minor.

The space that the palace and its yards used was cleared by the infamous Roman fire of 64 AD; one of the reasons Nero was suspected of causing the fire is that he used the space cleared by the fire to build his extraordinary palace.

That alone is enough to make this golden palace, profiled in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine worthy of inspiration for a fantasy adventure.

But it turns out to be even more amazing. Nero was horribly disliked. After he died in 68 AD, and the wars for succession settled down, his successors “attempted to obliterate not only the emperor’s memory, but also all traces of the Domus Aurea, and to return to public use, land he had seized for his private projects.”

The 120-foot-tall statue of himself, which was patterned after the Colossus at Rhodes, gave one of the new projects a name: the Colosseum was built atop his artificial lake; the statue itself gained a crown and the new emperor, Vespasian, rededicated it as the Roman sun good Sol.

After some looting, the palace’s vaulted spaces were filled with earth, and massive public baths were built atop the now-underground palace.

The Biblical and other engravings of Gustave Doré—Saturday, July 25th, 2015

I haven’t used Gustave Doré as much as, say, Caspar David Friedrich or John William Waterhouse, but when I use him, I really use him. Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law appears twice in Divine Lore as well as in The Road, where the tablets of the law are one of the nine tablets of Enki.

I also used Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the main rulebook.

Part of the problem is that, as woodcuts, go, his are not as evocative (to me, anyway) as William Miller’s. This may be simply because the reproductions available online aren’t as high quality as the reproductions of Miller that are available. Take a look at the best version of his work on The Raven, and there’s some really good stuff there—at fairly low resolutions. I’d love to use his Angels departing with Lenore into the sky, but the quality of the image just isn’t there.

Browsing through his works for “most gaming/fantasy-like art”, Bohemund alone mounts the rampart of Antioch is something I might use eventually, and Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise has potential, with its sword-wielding angel at the edge of the wood pointing the way to an angry Adam and tearful Eve.

But for sheer Monster Manual weirdness and teenage sexuality, I had to go with Les Oceanides Les Naides de la mer which, besides its subject matter, is in color. Imagine your player character meeting those nymphs in the middle of a long sea voyage!

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