Saturday, August 28, 2010

[Review] AA6 The Chasm of the Damned

The Chasm of the Damned

Author: James C. Boney
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 13 pages of adventure, 1 page of OSRIC advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6106
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 6-10, the Chasm of the Damned consists of eight relatively short dungeons, each accessed from the titular location, some of which are interlinked. As with previous offerings in the series, the physical product has a glossy cover stock and is clearly printed on durable paper with black and white interior maps, but with a spine that appears to be susceptible to wear. The cover art is by Bradley McDevitt and appeals to the traditional aesthetic associated with the game, as well as being reflective of the subject matter. Both the front and back illustrations depict atmospheric scenes from the module that are easily recognisable. There are six interior pieces by John Bingham, including a particularly evocative depiction of a new monster that features in the adventure, and as with the cover illustrations almost all self evidently refer specifically to the content of the module. With regard to the writing, James Boney is typically economical and clear, rarely dwelling overlong on a description, and preferring to provide only enough to spur the imagination of the reader, which is of course in keeping with the methodology of traditional swords & sorcery adventure module design.

What has earned the chasm its ominous appellation is that it is a well known but randomly located plane shifting occurrence, appearing regularly every thirty-seven years for four and a half days. Rumours abound that great fortunes are hidden in the caverns it harbours, which is a natural draw for adventurers of all sorts, but commensurate dangers await and few are said to escape unscathed. The module presents two possible ways in which to get the player characters involved. In the primary scenario, it is common knowledge that the chasm is due to appear again and they are competing with several non-player character groups to locate and raid the caverns before the allotted time is up. As the alternative scenario, it is suggested that the player characters are employed by an enterprising cleric or magician who has determined the location the chasm will appear at in advance, and are engaged to prepare an expedition in secret. Of course, if they are incautious there is an ever increasing chance that a local guild of thieves or assassins will get wind of what they are up to and lay an ambush for the treasure laden party upon their return. A collection of rumours of varying degrees of veracity are provided for the party to glean about the chasm in advance.

There is a map of the chasm provided; it is about a mile in length and divided into three levels, each of which has access points to two or more of the eight dungeons. Several additional access points are provided in order to alert the game master to the possibility of expanding the chasm. The caverns entered from the first level are fairly straightforward, offering some relatively standard monster encounters, a few strange objects to interact with, the opportunity to rescue and recruit some non-player character associates, and the possibility of negotiating for a place to rest. From the second level, the caverns accessed are stranger and feature three new monster types denoted bogwings, madsome gargoyles, and faceless ones. One area is home to a powerful middle eastern inspired character known as the Gray Sultan, who has quite a lot of potential for a thoughtful game master. There are also some more familiar monsters that may be encountered or avoided as fortune dictates. Should the player characters reach the final level of the chasm, which is somewhat inaccessible, they will have the opportunity to explore the last set of caverns and uncover the mystery of the chasm, perhaps earning themselves a powerful enemy or patron in the process.

Technicalities and Errors

Besides the occasional editing error, such as "shortsword+1" (p. 6), and the somewhat vexing, but hardly unusual and in any case consistently applied, tendency to use compound words such as "chainmail" and "shortbow" there is little to complain about. The use of hyphens for minuses (e.g. p. 10) is worth commenting on, since a true minus does appear (p. 14) and I would like to see that practice extended to all instances. Oddities like "2-4 +2 turns" (p. 3) occasionally crop up, and mixed use of terms like "footman’s mace" (p. 6), "mace", and "war hammer" (p. 14) are maybe questionable in the context, since it seems inconsistent to specify the former, but not indicate whether a shield is intended to be small or large (p. 14). Hardly an issue for any game master more than passingly familiar with the system, but worth mentioning all the same if simply overlooked. The large efreeti bottle (p. 10) is also of interest, since it is not bolded, leaving the reader to wonder at its significance, but perhaps that is the intent. On the whole, the module is an improvement stylistically on its predecessors, suffering from fewer inconsistencies and hopefully future instalments will continue to ensure there are very few nits to pick.


Chasm of the Damned is a good example of James Boney’s work. It has a strong and innovative adventure hook, is engagingly written, and features plenty of interesting encounters. As with his previous modules, there is a tendency towards the eclectic, with a number of seemingly randomly selected monsters appearing as the result of what amount to traps, and no fear of including creatures capable of  draining life energy levels. The author shows excellent understanding of the system, and knows where to provide mechanisms for adjudicating otherwise undefined actions, as well as knowledge of how elements of the adventure are likely to interact with typical and experienced players. His modules feel like they are very much in the tradition of their predecessors without being simple retreads of the past, and have a definite identity of their own. That said, this adventure was less tightly themed than his previous two, and ran the risk of amounting to a number of dislocated set piece encounters. A more fully integrated theme and, as always, more content would have improved the whole, but it is nonetheless a very good module.

Friday, August 20, 2010

[Article] Henchmen & Hirelings

Whilst a player in a swords & sorcery adventure game typically generates and plays the role of only one character at a time in the context of a single campaign, he is also well advised to recruit hirelings and henchmen into his service when possible. These individuals provide the character with additional resources, look to his interests when he is unable, and may eventually serve as replacement player-characters in the event of his retirement, incapacitation, disappearance, or death. Clearly, then, it can be desirable for a player to enlist both hirelings and henchmen, but there is also a downside. Such characters are a drain on resources, requiring payment, upkeep, and a part of the treasure seized, not to mention being apportioned a share of the experience points gained. This last aspect is often particularly contentious amongst players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, since the Dungeon Master’s Guide implies that hirelings count for the division of experience, yet gain no advantage from it, whilst henchmen gain only half the benefit, and that amounts to "wasted" experience points (DMG, p. 85). Of course, the root of the idea is that player-characters are awarded experience in proportion to the difficulty of gaining them.

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game (1974), there is only a brief mention in Men & Magic (p. 11) of the difference between ordinary hirelings and "hirelings of unusual nature", but the idea that charisma limits the number of the latter, whilst the former can be employed in unrestricted numbers, is present. Even a player character with a charisma of one is entitled to enlist a single henchman, whilst an eighteen allows for up to twelve. The text notes that  players "will, in all probability, seek to hire Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and/or Clerics in order to strengthen their roles in the campaign", and also that "charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service." Further elucidation is provided on the following pages (pp. 12-13), where it is explained that monsters with the same basic alignment as the player-character may be "lured into service", but otherwise they may be charmed or subdued. In this context, it is also made clear that men count as monsters and that high-level characters can be enlisted in a similar way. Furthermore, subdued monsters can be sold, presumably even men if there is a market for them. A loyalty check is made for groups or individuals so enlisted, which affects all subsequent morale rolls.

Unsurprisingly, these somewhat brief guidelines were expanded for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) and a formal distinction drawn between hirelings and henchmen. The former group was subdivided into "standard" and "expert" types, the idea being that experts were more suitable for employment after the construction of a stronghold. That these included the various mercenaries available seems to contrast with the idea put forth in the original game that a player-character might wish to hire such a band to "participate in and share the profits from some adventure" (M&M, p. 12). Nonetheless, some provision was made for recruiting men-at-arms to participate in the danger of exploring a dungeon, though in restricted numbers, and the random non-player-character adventuring parties generated using the Dungeon Master’s Guide are noted as containing such hirelings only on the upper levels of the dungeon (DMG, p. 175). Subsequent versions of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the second edition of the advanced game, downplayed and discouraged the use of mercenaries outside of the context of strongholds and domain management. This coincided, it is often noted, with the increased emphasis on small parties of four to six player-characters.

As with hirelings, henchmen are divided into two types for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say standard and exceptional. The former are down on their luck adventurers of first to third level, arriving with little but themselves by way of possessions, whilst the latter are higher level characters who may agree to become permanent or temporary henchmen, depending on their level relative to that of the player-character seeking their service. Alternatively, they may agree to become associates, which is presumably similar to the relationship between player-characters. Indeed, the Dungeon Master’s Guide notes that henchmen operated independently tend to become associates, or even rivals, of the player-character (p. 38). The potential for a henchmen to become an associate or rival is somewhat analogous to the possibility of a player character being permanently rendered a zero level character as a result of life energy level drain (DMG, p. 119) or of the textually unmentioned, but otherwise well attested, capacity of a zero level and classless hireling to receive a battlefield promotion and attain the rank of henchman. Movement between hireling, henchman and associate, then, is a feature of the game.

The concept of a non-player-character associated adventurer is interesting, as when a player fails to turn up (and even the best campaigns invariably suffer from scheduling issues sometimes) this is what the character they would usually play essentially becomes, assuming some alternative device is not employed. It is also possible that a player whose character is slain, incapacitated, lost, or simply not present at the scene of action, will be asked to take the part of a non-player-character, such as an associate. This recourse seems most successful with experienced players, as they are usually better able to divorce the persona and aims of one character from another, or even capable of running multiple characters at once, but it is also a good exercise for neophytes and often a welcome change of pace. In the Shadow Peaks campaign there was a considerable amount of role-changing as player-characters were frequently incapacitated or removed from the action, and there were often several associated non-player-character adventurers accompanying the party. Such individuals were recruited to assist in difficult expeditions, allotted equal shares of treasure and received full experience, but had their own agenda.

Since each of these had their own personality and opinion of the party, the players grew to like and trust some of them more than others, which was rather gratifying. In fact, they had their beginning as the nine pregenerated player-characters for the Twisted Tower of Mordras introductory adventure (and can be downloaded here), but ended up as an integral part of the campaign, supplying the players with information and many role-playing opportunities, as well as accompanying them on adventures from time to time. For their part, the players seemed interested in the fortunes of these characters, even seemingly trying to impress them from time to time (their own reputation was a frequent source of concern to them). This did not discourage them from taking on hirelings and henchmen, though, so the party was usually comprised of four to six player-characters, two or three henchmen, two or more associates, and half a dozen hirelings. In fact, the difficulty of their adventures encouraged it. In retrospect it is interesting that at the time it seemed unusual to me, because my earliest campaigns were very similar, but at some point four to six characters became my normal expectation.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

[Article] Thieving Ability

Analogous to, and in contrast with, fighting ability, the concept of thieving ability usually refers to a discrete subset of "skills" typically only available to thieves, and the probability of their success. In the first edition Player’s Handbook it is referred to when describing the limitations of the multi-class thief (pp. 16 and 33), indicating the reduced capability of the assassin in the same regard (pp. 28-29), the monk (pp. 30-31), and the limitations on the bard (pp. 117-118). By contrast, the Dungeon Master’s Guide uses thieving ability in the sense of thief experience level when referring to life energy level drain (p. 119). A rendering of Conan as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons character, authored by Gygax and published in Dragon #36 (April, 1980, pp. 10-11), makes use of both terms in the wider and narrower senses, also noting that his exceptional ability to move silently and hide in shadows (which Conan can naturally accomplish as though a tenth and fourth level thief, respectively) allows him to surprise opponents fifty percent of the time. So, as with fighting ability, the term appears to be employed loosely, but can be usefully applied to the collection of ten abilities that differentiate the thief class from the other three.

It is worth considering that there are a number of objections to the thief class, these often being rooted in, or deriving legitimacy from, the fact that the thief was not included in the original three booklets that composed the Dungeons & Dragons adventure game, but was introduced only afterwards with the Greyhawk supplement. These run from at best perceiving the class as superfluous to requirements, to at worst as a usurper of activities that ought to lie in the domain of the fighter. In fact, though, as soon as one steps away from the simple abstract dichotomy of the fighter and the magician, the result is intrusion or surpassing of a sort. Moreover, and as Robert Fisher pointed out to me several years ago by ways of his writings on the subject, thief abilities are not just colourfully named skills, but frequently duplicate spell effects, such as silence, invisibility, knock, find traps, and spider climb. The fighter class lost nothing in this regard, even if the perception was created that they could not be stealthy or search for traps. Indeed, it seems to me that the quartet of classes, fighter, magician, cleric, and thief, are fundamental to the identity of the game in a way that the subclasses and, even the races, are not.

Whilst objections on the grounds of aesthetics or misunderstandings have little weight, a more substantial criticism of the thief class is its relative weakness in comparison to the other three. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, the starting fighting ability and progression of the thief has varied across editions, and even the relatively speedy level advancement that he enjoys will not serve to make him the equal of the fighter nor often that of the cleric. Much like the magician and cleric, then, we must look to the special abilities of the class in order to seek justification for its inclusion. Unfortunately, the probabilities of success for most thief abilities start out exceedingly low and then rise rapidly until almost certain by around twelfth level in the original and classic versions of the game. For the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the starting probabilities were slightly increased and then the rate of advancement reduced by a relatively more significant amount, so that by the same point several abilities compared very unfavourably with earlier versions. With second edition an entirely new approach was taken making use of point allocation so that the player determined the probabilities within certain defined limits.

The benefit of this approach was that a single ability might start at around forty percent, higher if racial and dexterity modifiers were favourable, and be increased by up to fifteen percent at each level. The obvious problem with this was that the abilities of any given thief were unpredictable, depending on what the player had decided to specialise in (or not, as the case might be) and relatively less useful abilities were sacrificed in favour of high scores in more desirable ones. Less obviously, the allocation of points substantially increased character creation time, most importantly for non-player characters, and required an entire extra statistic line for each individual entry. This may seem like a small price to pay for a resolution to the problem of the underpowered thief, but it is more of a redistribution of power than it is an actual solution to the underlying issue, which is that the class starts out with very limited usefulness and then rapidly rises in capability in uneven steps, much like the non-advanced fighter does with regard to fighting ability. A comparison of the various approaches taken to thief abilities in different editions and versions can be downloaded in pdf format here.

However, there is one major difference between the first edition version of the thief and all of the others, and that is the seeming lack of a limit on the number of times a thief can try some abilities. In the case of move silently, hide in shadows, and climb walls there are obvious immediate repercussions for failure, but none that prevent further attempts under the same conditions, assuming life still remains of course! The asterisks in the Greyhawk supplement indicate that only hear noise may be retried, but the actual note only refers to pick pockets, so it could conceivably be an editing error (pp. 11-12). The rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons put no absolute limit on the number of times that characters may listen, nor seemingly on the number of times they may attempt to open doors, or search for secret doors (DMG, pp. 60 & 97). In particular they contrast with Greyhawk by explicitly allowing repeated attempts at picking a pocket (DMG, p. 19). On the other hand, more than one attempt to open a lock is prohibited and restricted to one attempt per thief (PHB, p. 28). More significant is the time consumed for each attempt, as this increases the probability of being interrupted by wandering monsters.

For my Silver Blade campaign the concept of thieving ability has suggested a different approach to the problem. Many tasks are rated by thieving ability (or thief level), so certain secret doors can only be found by a third level thief, for example, and the same applies to hearing noises, opening locks, as well as finding and disabling traps. In some cases no ability check would be required, in others repeated checks permitted, though obviously the dice roll must be hidden from the players so that they remain uncertain as to whether they have failed or there is simply nothing to be found. The probability used is a base thirty percent plus five percent per level, though it can be adjusted if the situation requires. With regard to stealth, lightly or unencumbered parties have an increased three-in-six probability of achieving success, medium encumbered parties two-in-six, and heavily encumbered parties a reduced one-in-six chance. A magically silenced party, silently moving and lightly armoured thief, elf, scout or ranger would thus have a four-in-six probability of surprising enemies. I remain in two minds as to whether to follow the example of Conan in forgoing the move silently roll in favour of overall increased surprise.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

[Article] Void Elementals

The “great wheel” cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons was not something that particularly concerned me until the introduction of the Planescape campaign setting, and even then its impact was confined largely to extra-planar adventuring within official game worlds and products. As written, the “blood war” seemed an enticing concept, but the differentiation between demons (or daemons) and devils was not something that I cared for. Nor can I say that the four elements as discrete planes of existence really made much sense to me conceptually. Whilst the illustration that adorns the cover of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, depicting adventurers doing battle with an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire in the vicinity of the City of Brass, which “can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil”, is evocative, it hardly speaks to a realm of existence primarily comprised of the element of fire. Indeed, such an idealisation of the elemental planes of existence is less than readily imaginable, mainly because the four elements hardly describe everything that there might be in existence, nor clearly define what exactly they do encapsulate. This, of course, led to such things as the para-elemental planes in second edition.

Elementals as monsters are initially found in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, using the traditional earth, air, fire, and water typology. Interestingly, at this juncture air elementals were almost entirely synonymous with djinn, and fire elementals with efreet. That is to say, they were imagined as conjured spirits closely associated with a particular element, but not necessarily exclusively comprised of that element in the way they literally later came to be; they were also divided into two classes, those subject to flame (earth and fire) and those subject to lighting (air and water). All four types are impervious to normal attacks, but have different movement rates and fighting strengths. The air elemental has a move of twenty-four, fights as four light horse, and adds two to its dice score in aerial combat; the water elemental has a move of six on land and eighteen in water, fights as four light horse on land, but as four heavy horse in water as well as adding two to its dice score in such combat; the earth elemental has a move of six, fights as four heavy horse, and adds one to its dice score against earth-bound opponents; the fire elemental has a move of twelve, fights as four medium horse, and adds two to its dice score against fire using opponents.

It would seem that the fire elemental is the odd man out in the above schema, as its abilities rely not on the environment, but the attack forms of the enemy. By the time of Monsters & Treasure (1974) djinn and efreet were separated out from the elementals. The elementals were rendered more powerful than previously in terms of hit dice, which vary in number between eight, twelve and sixteen, depending by what means they were summoned. As before, the combat effectiveness of the earth, air, and water elementals increases if fighting in a favourable environment, but the conditions for the fire elemental are reversed so that it does more damage against normal opponents than against fire using enemies. This suggested that affinity for fire made one less subject to its attacks, rather than more vulnerable as a result of using its element. Movement rates remain the same except that the speed of the air elemental is increased to thirty-six. As with Chain Mail, elementals will run amok if not successfully controlled. The advanced versions of elementals are very similar, the main difference being the requirement to use magical weapons +2 or greater in order to be able to harm them.

Many other creatures are native to the elemental planes, and the Monster Manual alludes to the existence of beings of greater and lesser power or intelligence not documented, but the elementals seem to be the “purest” standard form. However, the idea of creatures and places that purely exist of one element is more limiting than it needs to be, and when it comes down to it fire seems fundamentally different from the other three, in that it is largely energy rather than substance. In perhaps pseudo-philosophical terms, earth, air, and water can all be hot or cold, and their form may change by the application or absence of energy; creatures eat, drink, and breathe, and they are hot or cold, but energy is active on each, rather than separate. At first it seemed that an “ice elemental” might fill the gap, but frozen water is not an opposite of fire. Reading around the subject it seemed that perhaps Buddhism might suggest a solution in the form of void as a fifth element, but that has more in common with the Aristotelian conception of aether as a sort of heavenly substance than with the presence or absence of energy. Indeed what is translated as void from the Japanese godai (五大) system is better understood as a form of divine or pure otherworldly energy.

Nonetheless, the more prevalent usage of void and connotation of cold suggests another possibility within the cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say the negative energy plane. Indeed, it is possible to conceive of the planar layout as a three-part cylinder with the energy planes extending it in the two opposite directions, negative and positive. These would not represent physical places, however, but rather how negative and positive energy might relate to the other three elements, or states of being. The City of Brass could be located on a plane of existence suited to seas of fire, pitiless wastelands, and dry, hot air; an environment typically hospitable only for certain sorts of otherworldly beings, but visitable by those with the means, or misfortune, to find their way thither. Inhabitants of such a place would not normally be natural creatures, but rather spirits of varying powers, whether diabolic, angelic or somewhere between; garbed in terrestrial raiment, they may appear to be composed chiefly of earth, water, or air (or metal or wood, for that matter), but their true form might appear more like a burning white fire or an icy black void. The idea is that the physical manifestation of the spirit need not be a reflection of its nature.

These thoughts are admittedly incomplete ramblings, and present their own problems in equating heat with life and cold with unlife, whilst associating them with good and evil respectively. In its own way it makes sense for otherworldly evil beings to be closely associated with negative energy in Dungeons & Dragons, since clerics are able to turn or command them. But, by that logic, an evil cleric ought to be able to “turn” living creatures and good clerics be able to “command” them, though I suppose that is not too far from the truth. Still, part of the point is to allow elementals to be potentially more than simply the brutish personification of one of four elements and become more akin to the djinn or efreet otherwise closely associated with them. Whatever the case, a plane uncompromisingly comprised of a single element does not represent much of an adventuring locale, nor does it seem to correspond with renderings of the elemental planes, so that concept can be usefully discarded. As envisioned here, then, a void elemental would be a neutrally aligned spirit comprised of negative energy, exuding cold, and perhaps manifesting as an icy blue-black flame; a draft version of this monster can be downloaded here.