- The First Language—Saturday, February 11th, 2017
There is a very interesting article in the latest Biblical Archaeology Review about the evolution of the Hebrew language and its treatment as a holy language. On its most general level, How Hebrew Became a Holy Language by Jan Joosten is a nice summary of how languages evolve, which can be very useful if your adventurers delve into ancient ruins with ancient inscriptions, or, Tarzan-like, meet up with ancient lost civilizations.
Subtle changes in the meaning of words and subtle changes in the use of grammatical constructions altered [Hebrew’s] nature… A phenomenon that illustrates this evolution can be found when words with a general meaning came to be used exclusively to designate specific religious items or concepts. For example, take the Hebrew word torah. In most of the Biblical books, torah simply means “teaching,” or “direction.” In the late books of the Bible, however, torah takes on a different meaning. It now refers to the book in which Jewish law is written down.
This is an obvious way of laying down red herrings or wild goose chases for the player characters to follow. Interestingly, a similar process happened to the word “bible”. The term (as biblia) originally meant any collection of scrolls and later books; the term biblia sacra meant “holy books” and was brought into French as just “Bible” from whence it was brought to English. But nowadays, “bible” can also mean any authoritative work. That might be an interesting evolution for any sacred object in your game. A non-player character tradesman might well describe an extremely-well-made tool as the excalibur of their profession.
Hebrew also, of course, borrowed words during their many tribulations:
The Book of Ezekiel contains dozens of loanwords from Babylonian; Exilic and post-Exilic books of the Bible evidence a high proportion of Aramaic loanwords. The latest Biblical books attest around 20 words borrowed from Persian.
One of the ways that words get borrowed is through similarity, changing the meaning of existing words in the language (Hebrew, in this case) due to a similarity with words of nearby cultures:
- Nothing will be restrained from them, which they imagine to do—Saturday, December 24th, 2016
A while back, Erik Bader wrote on Google+:
I finally dug out my beat up old 1st ed PHB for a decades-later reread and I was surprised to realize most of the rules to actually play the game aren’t in there! You can’t really roll up a character (the instructions it says are in the DMG) and you can’t hit a monster (again, in the DMG).
Now, the DMG didn't come out for what… a year or more later, correct? What the heck did players in 1978 do with this book in the meantime?
As I recall, the only piece of information really necessary from the DMG for creating characters was how to roll stats, and I expect players in 1978 just continued to roll stats however they rolled them before, probably without evening noticing it was missing. I know I had trouble separating “what we did” with “what the rules were” back then whenever playing in a new game group.
I came a little after 1978, but had a limited budget. So our group used Holmes (our DM, who introduced us to the game, already had it) and the PHB1, and never noticed anything odd with that. At the time, we were overcome by a spirit of discovery and creation. It was all about “what can we do next”, not “what's holding us back.” We barely if at all noticed anything holding us back.
It wasn’t just us in our little gaming subculture that people felt that way; it was in many ways a spirit of the times. Many of my friends were out in their garages forcing their cars to do things the manufacturers never intended them to do. In Ham Radio and CB Radio no rig was complete without some customization to take it up to 11.
And, closer to home, it was very much a programmer’s perspective, and of course many of us were also amateur programmers at the time, on a TRS-80 Model I, Apple ][, Atari 400, Commodore 64, TI99/4 or so on. Those computers really couldn’t do much, but that’s not the way we looked at them. We were always on the lookout for what more can we do? It’s absolutely amazing the kind of video game clones we got on those old computers. The TRS-80 Model I was black and white, with 128x48 “pixels”—that’s like playing a game on a four-tenths-inch by one-tench-inch square of my current mobile phone—and yet we managed to have fun playing Pac-Man clones, Armored Patrol clones, Space Invaders, and much more.
The text adventure craze came about because it provided great game play beyond the limits of the actual hardware of the time. If the computer’s graphics didn’t match what our brains expected, we would harness our brains to create what graphics we wanted.
Which is, of course, a lot like tabletop roleplaying.
- North Texas RPG Con 2016—Saturday, November 26th, 2016
Last June, I attended the North Texas RPG Con. This was my first gaming convention since Forge Midwest a couple of years ago. Like Forge Midwest, this is a gaming convention where all you do is game—and, of course, chat with people about gaming in between gaming.
I signed up ahead of time for five games, although I ended up having to cancel the first one due to my mis-entering the dates in my calendar. I ended up playing Villains and Vigilantes, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, and BX.
The Villains and Vigilantes game was under the new, third-edition rules, run by Jeff Dee. The rules seemed very similar to the old rules, except that the attack vs. defense table has been removed and replaced with a simpler d20 roll against a standard target number. And, while it didn’t affect us at the table, there is some sort of a point-based character-creation system.
The pre-gens were pure seventies superhero team, a bunch of mostly-unrelated heroes banding together to have a grand time. Running away with the MVP award, if we’d had one, would be The Schnozz, a Jimmy Durante type with a floppy hat and a big nose with precognitive smell.
“The future,” he said, “smells strange.”
Many of the old V&V standbys showed up, from CHESS to Intercrime, the latter not surprising since this appears to be the adventure Intercrime: Hostile Takeover.
- Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill—Saturday, August 27th, 2016
House on Haunted Hill, with Vincent Price, certainly looks like it was inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. No psychologists, but still, a group of talented and varied people invited to an old house along with the current owner who thinks it is a bad idea. The characters are accompanied by the owner, but, as in Hill House, are invited by a third party who is paying them to be there. In this case by Vincent Price’s millionaire, who promises them $10,000 each if they stay the night. As in Hill House, the doors are locked when the servants leave. And there’s the impressionable young woman lost in the maze of a house that seems to want to swallow her up. There are more similarities, but there are also important differences which would be spoilers.
And of course the title consists of the same three basic words.
Yet they appear to be completely unrelated. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House novel was published in 1959. The House on Haunted Hill movie was released on February 17, 1959. William Castle is known for the speed of his productions, but it seems very likely that the movie was written first. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to find full release dates, other than year, for novels, but to write the entire novel and have it go through the full publication process and still come out in 1959 makes it unlikely that Jackson was influenced by William Castle and Robb White’s script. The script does not appear to have been based on any previous work that Jackson could have been inspired by.
It still, however, seems extremely unlikely to me that these stories are not related in some way. The stories and title have too many similarities. While they are in no way copies of each other, if one was not inspired by the other, there must have been some other inspiration to both of them.
Provenance aside, House on Haunted Hill is very good. Vincent Price is in top form, and his conversations with his wife are in the old-school Hollywood tradition of sharp banter. It’s as much or more a mystery as it is a haunted house story, though I can’t say any more without spoiling some of it. It is definitely worth seeing.
- The hauntings continue—Saturday, August 13th, 2016
The Haunting, with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, is a pretty good retelling of The Haunting of Hill House, with permission. It’s a decent, though heavily flawed, psychological thriller until the over-the-top CGI at the end.
The high point of the film is the decent—and I mean that sincerely—acting by all involved. The film’s greatest lack is that Liam Neeson is woefully underused. His character, despite being the lynchpin of the plot, doesn’t actually do much. It looks as though there was supposed to be tension about whether he was causing all or some of the hauntings but if so it was negated by perspectiveless scenes in which we see that the haunting is real. This also removes the other tension, which was the possibility that Eleanor is going crazy and hallucinating everything. If it’s happening when she isn’t present, then she’s not.
A lot of the tension was squandered by keeping things from the viewer that the characters knew (or thought they knew). We have no idea, for example, that Liam Neeson’s character might have invited Eleanor specifically until we find out that he didn’t.
We are never told why he has chosen the house or how he gained access to it. In the book, one of the heirs to the house accompanies them; his character is dropped from this version, but there’s a sort of completely wasted twist that plays on it.
For the new movie, they exchanged the old paranormal research subplot for fear research, but that makes these people nothing special. In the book, the psychic potential of the subjects awakens the house; in this version the house, presumably, is always awake. Except that it isn’t: as in any good horror movie, the house wakes up slowly, perhaps fed by blood. Or perhaps not, because by the end of the movie it seems that the house has been awake all along, and able to affect happenings far, far away.
- Vampires of York—Saturday, July 30th, 2016
Forget the werewolves of London. According to the July/August 2016 Archaeology a graveyard in Driffield Terrace in York contains Roman Empire-era men with their heads chopped off, the skulls buried “nearby”.
Some archaeologists are calling them gladiators, but according to University of St. Andrews archaeologist Jon Coulson,
…the idea that they had been gladiators [is] “wishful thinking.” Beheading wasn’t common for gladiators—or criminals, for that matter. Coulson says, “I see no connection between decapitation and gladiatorial displays.”
Archaeologists may be confused, but we know what decapitation means: some form of undead that can only be killed by removal of the head and separation of body parts.
I found a lot of other articles about the site, most of which posit either gladiatorial or military explanations for the skeletons. All of them mention the decapitation angle and then completely ignore it. Almost as if they know the truth but are conspiring not to panic the public… only the Guardian offers support for the gladiatorial theory, but that support is frightening:
Other theories about the grave have included a pagan rite involving decapitation, or a pogrom against a minority group such as Christians, but evidence for either is lacking. Gladiators were brought into the debate in earnest three years ago, when the discovery of burials of arena combatants at Ephesus in Turkey revealed a similar combination of hammer blows to the skull and decapitation as at York.
Ephesus is old Anatolia. That’s where young Vlad Dracul gained his power. Let’s hope the archaeologists aren’t storing the heads and the bodies in the same location…
- How I handle adventure logs—Saturday, July 16th, 2016
Having recently read the old TSR Adventure Logs AD&D accessory for tracking game sessions, I’ve been thinking about what I do to remember old adventures and keep up-to-date on what’s about to happen.
I keep it pretty simple. I type it up in a word processor—in my case, Nisus Writer Pro. It’s important to use a tool that makes it easy not only to write1, or to search, but also to organize. For me, this means a word processor that supports the-document-is-the-outline. Microsoft Word does this, too, but I find that Nisus is easier to navigate and faster to write with.
The outline ends up looking like:
- Adventure 1
- Session 1
- Session 2
- Adventure 2
- Adventure 1
- Illustrious Castle
- Illustrious Castle April 17, 2004
- Illustrious Castle April 24, 2004
- Valley of the Blue Sun
- Valley of the Blue Sun December 18, 2004
- Valley of the Blue Sun December 24, 2004
- Illustrious Castle
- Road to Weaving April 23, 2005
- Weaving May 7, 2005
- Dowanthal Peak
- Dowanthal Peak June 18, 2005
Having the outline makes it very easy to drill down to a particular session according to when we held it. I’m not sure, but if I were to do it again I might instead use the in-game date instead of the session date. As it is, I have the in-game year at the top level, and then the real session date for each entry.
On the other hand, in-game dates don’t always change per session, so perhaps I’d leave it be.
Each entry basically has three parts: what I expected to need to remember, which I wrote before the session, and then what happened during the session, which I wrote up the day after. Finally, from what happened I made a list of experience-laden events.
- The Dungeon Master’s Adventure Log—Saturday, July 2nd, 2016
I had a fairly spotty source for gaming materials back in 1980–1981. My aunt and uncle in another town over had a variety store, and my cousins stocked one corner with TSR products. I’m not sure how much money they made on it, because they were probably their primary customers, and I and my brother got the family discount. That’s where I first picked up AD&D material, the Players Handbook, which added a third ruleset to our hybrid game, adding to the Holmes Blue Book that our DM had and the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert boxes that I got for Christmas.
I don’t recall ever seeing the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log back in the day. I must have heard about it, as I attempted to recreate the basic idea for some of the games we played—mainly Men & Supermen. The Adventure Log is very much focused on dungeon adventures, with its emphasis on light sources and marching order in corridors. Each set of facing pages has space for listing characters on the left, and monsters/adventure information on the right. Pre-computer, this sort of thing would be very useful for recording what has happened to the characters in the past, as well as providing a summary of the last adventure for the DM to plan the next adventure.
Some of the other useful features are illustrations of common armor types as well as some of the less common weapons, that is, the weapons that players might not be able to easily envision. This means lots of pole arms for the most part. Back in the day, I used to wonder at TSR’s obsession with pole arms—so many illustrations were these weapons we never used. But in retrospect, everyone knew what a sword looked like, and few of us knew what a glaive-guisarme looked like. It made sense to overload the illustrations with more obscure weapons.
Another useful feature for those of us starting games from scratch would have been the example of use. It contained what looked like—and probably were—real characters from real games.
The Adventure Log also has lots of tables that may be useful during play, such as chances of encounters per terrain, chances of becoming lost, movement rates for various forms of movement, and so forth. The examples of calculating surprise emphasize just how ad-hoc and annoying the surprise rules were in AD&D.