Saturday, September 29, 2012

[Article] Gnomes

Unlike the other demi-human races in Dungeons & Dragons, gnomes have no analogue in the mythology of Middle Earth. Judging from the list of literary influences in the first edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it seems likely that the inspiration for their inclusion was the work of Poul Anderson. In particular, gnomes appear in The Broken Sword as well as Three Hearts and Three Lions. Whilst in the former their depiction is brief, but separate from that of the mountain dwelling dwarves, in the latter gnomes are synonymous with dwarves, and are indeed only referred to as such. This goes a long way towards explaining why they are classified as the same troop type in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, but are nevertheless somewhat differentiated in the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Moreover, it sheds light on the decision to later present them as a separate playable race in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. Simply put, gnomes had originally been conceived as a type of dwarf within the game framework and so already were a playable demi-human race from the start. It can reasonably be surmised that this was changed because dwarves were perceived to be eclipsing gnomes as a potential archetype.

Of course, this strikes at the heart of the matter, in that the gnome is a relatively weak archetype that has not subsequently been able to establish itself firmly at the centre of the corpus. Perhaps the most significant and unavoidable difficulty is that it is vying for much of the same conceptual space that the dwarf already fully occupies. The first attempt to differentiate them from one another seems to have come with Strategic Review #6, where gnomes are listed as chaotic good and dwarves as lawful good. Whilst this was retained for the Holmes version of Dungeons & Dragons, it did not carry over into subsequent editions, perhaps because they reverted to the three point alignment system. Neither, however, was this distinction retained for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, even though it used a nine point alignment system. Instead gnomes were classified as neutral to lawful good, which in second edition became just neutral good. Most likely these neutral to lawful alignment designations refer to the opposition of law and chaos in Three Hearts and Three Lions, as that is roughly where gnomes and dwarves stand in that work. Still, it is not very useful in drawing a distinction between the two for swords & sorcery adventure games.

In the post Holmes Dungeons & Dragons monster entries for gnomes and dwarves there is little difference between the two races; one point of armour class, one point of average damage, thirty feet of infra-vision, an especial hatred of kobolds for the former and of goblins for the latter. For the most part this echoes their depiction in the Monster Manual, though gnomes and dwarves there have the same degree of infra-vision and overlapping racial animosity toward goblins. The advanced system also gives both races a resistance to magic and poison, as well as the ability to detect various facts about dungeon environments, such as depth underground and the gradient of sloping passages. Whilst the Monster Manual indicates that gnomes are around three feet tall, thus a foot shorter than dwarves, the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests three and a half feet is average, closing the gap by half a foot. Probably it is no coincidence that the average height of gnomes in the former work is the same as that of Hogi the dwarf in Three Hearts and Three Lions. Either way, the height disparity appears to affect what creatures they get their defensive bonuses against, gnolls and bugbears being added to ogres, trolls and giants for gnomes.

As well as being physically smaller, the Dungeon Master’s Guide indicates that gnomes also have a lower average strength than dwarves, being 10 and 14 respectively; the racial minimums for attributes outlined in the Player’s Handbook further suggests that there is a similar or greater differential in constitution, though they have a higher minimum intelligence. Whilst in the original game all demi-humans have a 2-in-6 chance of successfully listening at a door, which is twice that of humans, in the advanced system gnomes have the best chance and dwarves no advantage at all. The Dungeon Master’s Guide also notes that gnomes have less ability than dwarves as armourers or jewellers, but greater skill in the cutting of gems, though this is of little direct consequence to player characters. Perhaps the most significant difference is hinted at in the Monster Manual, where it is suggested that some gnomes are rumoured to possess magical ability, which is fully articulated in the Player’s Handbook with the introduction of gnome illusionists. Notably this directly contradicts what Hogi says of his folk in Three Hearts and Three Lions, reinforcing again the eclectic way that Dungeons & Dragons used its sources.

Whilst gnomes were a relatively popular choice of player character race in the earliest World of Silver Blade campaigns, as with halflings, interest in them later waned sharply. Only three examples come readily to mind, and the latter two a purposeful comedic pairing of twin brothers named "Bill" and "Ben" (yes, as in the eponymous "flowerpot men"). None of these prospered long enough to have a significant impact on the campaign world or contribute to the milieu as retired non-player characters. For the most part, gnomes have been employed as comic relief by players and game master alike, from a ship full of muscle-bound Nordic pirates to a squeaky-voiced eccentric inventor. Initially there was no specific place for gnomes in the Silver Blade campaign setting, but during its resurrection and the redevelopment process it was quickly established that a number of gnome princedoms bordered on the dwarf kingdom. These were conceived of as being somewhat reminiscent of the medieval Welsh principalities, if on a larger scale. As a sort of adjunct of the mountain dwelling dwarves it seems like the gnomes have more gravitas; proud, fierce and clannish they make the wilderness of the borderland their home.

Since gnomes never appeared as a separate player character option from dwarves outside of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there are few contradictions to reconcile. The main difficulty lies in differentiating them from one another without defining them in terms of what they are not. Rather than seek to do so by minor variations, such as the range of infra-vision, it may be considered better to embrace the shared abilities of demi-humans as a common faerie heritage. Nevertheless, one ability evident in Three Hearts and Three Lions, but absent from gnomes in Dungeons & Dragons, is that of Hogi to track magical enemies by their scent. Giving them the tracking capability of the ranger subclass seems like a natural fit and does serve to help to set them apart from the other demi-humans. It is also quite interesting to note that as originally presented in Chain Mail the defensive advantage that gnomes and dwarves enjoyed versus ogres, trolls and giants was just as much of an disadvantage offensively, which happily argues for dropping them from consideration altogether. As with halflings, the following must be somewhat speculative on account of there not being much call for their use in play: Silver Blade Gnomes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

[Article] Halflings

Of all the demi-human races in Dungeons & Dragons, halflings are surely the most undeniably linked to the mythology of Middle Earth. The earliest printings of the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement reference them as hobbits, along with nazgul, balrogs, rangers, and various tribes of orcs, terms which were apparently mostly removed after some legal disagreement with the Tolkien estate. Nonetheless, halflings remained completely recognisable as their former selves; indeed the term itself is drawn from the Lord of the Rings, being a word used by men to describe the "little folk". As presented in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, halflings are indicated to have "small" (pun intended, no doubt) place in a war game, and are only included for the recreation of "certain battles". In fact, though, they are rather effective troops in that they have the ability to turn invisible in brush or woods, have a movement of 12", and every two shooting count as three on the missile table. Unfortunately, no point value is provided, so players must come to their own agreement as to how and when halflings can be deployed. Most likely Gygax had in mind scenarios recreating the "scouring of the shire" or perhaps the exploits of "Bullroarer Took".

Whatever the facts of their initial inclusion, halflings certainly made the transition to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons as a player character option. However, it is again reinforced there that they have no great place in the game, which is to say that "should any player wish to be one, he will be limited to the fighting-man class" and in any case "cannot progress beyond the fourth level" of ability. On the other hand it is noted that halflings have "magic-resistance equal to dwarves" and "deadly accuracy with missiles", so they are not completely unappealing, for example as henchmen. These limitations were slightly mitigated with the release of the Greyhawk Supplement and the introduction of the thief class, which provided all demi-humans with unlimited advancement potential and the prospect of multi-classing. Furthermore, it included errata to the effect that hobbits got +3 to hit probabilities with slings, translating the earlier Chain Mail advantage into the alternative combat system. Unlike the other demi-humans, halflings do not get a listing in Monsters & Treasure, and are inconsistently referenced in the Swords & Spells supplement, so we are left in the dark as to their original capabilities as "monsters".

However, halflings do get a half page entry in the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which preserves and elaborates somewhat on the previous details. By contrast with dwarves and elves, halflings are deemed a rare encounter, which tells us a little of their relative expected frequency in a given campaign milieu. Following Strategic Review #6, their alignment is fixed as lawful good, whilst the fourth level of ability continues to be the highest they can achieve as a fighter, though two subraces are introduced whereby advancement to fifth or sixth level is possible for those with very high strength. In keeping with Swords & Spells the halfling movement rate is reduced to 9", no doubt reflecting their size and typical armour type. We also learn there that halflings are very intelligent, but stand only 3'+ in height; the subraces are a bit taller at 3½'+ and 4'+ respectively, though the former is intriguingly implied to be therefore smaller than the average. The "stout" halfling subrace exhibits some dwarvish qualities, including the ability to see in the dark with apparently no drawbacks. All halflings enjoy the equivalent of elvish stealth and can operate together with them in that capacity.

Notably, there is some controversy over how the halfling entry in the Player’s Handbook relates to that in the Monster Manual, especially with regard to their adjustment to hit with missile weapons. Essentially, the question is as to whether the bonus encompasses the dexterity of halflings or not, since the saving throw adjustment versus magic and poison clearly does subsume their constitution. A compromise approach was taken by the Holmes edition of Dungeons & Dragons whereby the bonus was reduced to +1, and this was followed in subsequent iterations of the non-advanced game and the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Confusingly, the latter assigns the bonus to slings and thrown weapons only in the Player’s Handbook, but the Monster Manual indicates that a +3 adjustment applies to attacks made with slings and bows. This confusion is compounded by the Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings and Player’s Option: Skills & Powers, the former indicating that the +1 applies to all missile weapons and the latter again restricting it to thrown weapons and slings. Similarly the second edition of the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual disagree as to whether halfling base movement is 6" or 9", respectively.

During the first campaign in the World of Silver Blade, halflings were a popular choice of race; there were at least three amongst a dozen or so player characters. In part this may have been the continuation of a trend carried over from the non-advanced version of the game, but it is also worth noting that level limits were of little concern, being as if there was any awareness of them at all it was in the context of the less stringent second edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system. Concerning the fates of these halflings, one was unlucky enough to put on a vampiric helmet, and another slain by a powerful demon, but the third did manage to retire as a wealthy burgher. Subsequent Silver Blade campaigns witnessed a pronounced decline of interest in halflings as a player character race, indeed no examples spring to mind. Even widening the net yields only two recollections, the first being from almost two decades ago in a Ravenloft campaign, and the other a more recent addition to the Greyhawk roster. This apparent lack of interest suggests that halflings have as little place in adventure games as they do in war games, but nevertheless it behoves us to offer them as an option, perhaps for the recreation of "certain adventures".

From a design and development standpoint it is relatively straightforward to resolve the contradictory rules that have accrued around halflings through the editions. It is much more difficult to make them a compelling and interesting game option, as the article by Roger Moore, the "Halfling Point of View" (Dragon #59), and the Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings both amply demonstrate in their over generalised restatements of a Tolkien gleaned mythology. There is no reason halflings could not be presented as more fey than mortal, for instance, less "little men" and more "little elves". Maybe, like the faerie folk of the Broken Sword, they have not souls as men do, and belong properly to the unseen otherworld. Nor is there really any compelling purpose to keeping them married as a race to the lawful good alignment. Certainly, a lot of potential for differentiation could be realised without needing to go so far as the kleptomanic kender of Dragonlance or the cannibalistic halflings of Dark Sun. Since there has been so little call for them in the World of Silver Blade, though, the following must be necessarily somewhat speculative, but is intended to explore one way in which they might be leveraged a little way out of the Tolkien mould: Silver Blade Halflings.

Monday, September 3, 2012

[Article] Races & Subraces

As they appear in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, the various humanoids and demi-human races have only a single troop classification each. For example, there are no elvish light foot or elvish heavy foot, there are just elves, all of which are classified as heavy foot with 12” movement and bows. Somewhat amusingly, then, it could be argued that Chain Mail was the first place where the concept of “race as class” manifested in the Dungeons & Dragons corpus. Indeed, this conceit seems to have persisted into the Monster Manual, where for instance elves are listed as doing 1-10 damage, and beyond. However, it is worth noting that in Spells & Swords lightly and heavily armoured elves are provided as an analogue to lightly and heavily armoured men, even if the same cannot be said for halflings, gnomes, dwarves or humanoids. Nonetheless, the four basic demi-human races of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons originated in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, and it is noticeable that gnomes are not presented as a playable race in the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons, though they are described in Monsters & Treasure. By the same token, fairies are listed in Swords & Spells, but not in Dungeons & Dragons.

One possible reason for the exclusion of fairies and gnomes from Dungeons & Dragons as playable races is that they are in the same troop class as elves and dwarves, respectively. When gnomes are described in Monsters & Treasure it is noted that they are “slightly smaller than dwarves, and with longer beards”, that they live in “hills and burrows” as opposed to the “mountainous homes” of the dwarves, that they are more reclusive than their “cousins”, but in all other respects resemble them. Similarly, when fairies resurface in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual it is as an alternative name for “grey elves, albeit now spelt as “faerie”. It can be seen, then, that these shared troop classifications in Chain Mail were the kernel for the concept of the demi-human races being organised into subraces, a fate that gnomes more or less escaped when dwarves were divided into hill and mountain types. Also first introduced as a playable races in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook are the semi-humans, which is to say half-elves and half-orcs. These two options are fairly clearly imported from Middle Earth and the Lord of the Rings, though altered during the transition in various ways; as combination races they are an analogue to the multi-classes.

Just as with the prohibition on demi-human player character clerics, the subraces made their way out of the pages of the Monster Manual and into Unearthed Arcana as playable options. Perhaps the most famous of these subraces is the drow or dark elves, not only as exotic and despicable antagonists, but also as the progenitors of perhaps the most popular and simultaneously unpopular Dungeons & Dragons character of all time. In this way halflings were subdivided into hairfoot, stout, and tallfellow, gnomes into deep and surface, dwarves into hill, mountain and grey, whilst perhaps most egregious of all elves were subdivided into dark, grey, high, valley, wild and wood subraces. Frankly, this proliferation of playable options needlessly bloated the game, the net result being the encouragement of character optimisation; as Gygax attested, players who wanted to play an elf magician, including himself, selected the grey elf subrace because it was the best prospect for the advancement of magical ability. Rather unsurprisingly, second edition initially reversed this trend and then gradually reintroduced all of the previous options and more, giving us sundered and deep dwarves, rock and forest gnomes, not to forget orcs and other monsters as playable races.

Most of what Advanced Dungeons & Dragons calls subraces rely on their environment for differentiation, which is to say that there is barely any justification for them. The distinctions drawn are rarely any more sophisticated than denotation as mountainmen, hillmen, woodsmen, plainsmen, rivermen, and so on; fantasy adventure games being what they are, the prefixes “dark” and “deep” can also be profitably employed to describe evil aligned or subterranean dwelling variants on a demi-human race, in other words of the underworld. Indeed, this simple taxonomy of races and subraces can potentially be quite attractive, and certainly the World of Silver Blade initially embraced such concepts readily. When one considers dark gods, elves, dwarves, priests, wizards, and knights, it is a rather short step to “dark” men, halflings and, gnomes, not to forget the ever popular “anti-paladin”. At around this point it all becomes faintly ridiculous, or at least it ought well to seem so to anybody with a decent sense of aesthetics (yes, that is a somewhat subjective sentiment). None of this is to say there is no place for “mountain dwarves” and “wood elves” or “dark gods” in adventure games; it is just a rejection of proliferation for its own sake.

The basic underlying question rarely asked of playable races and subraces is what the point actually is of having them and where the appeal lies. Gygax was quite frank when questioned about his motive for their inclusion, which was that the Lord of the Rings was enjoying an unprecedented popularity at the time as the touchstone for fantasy and he hoped to harness that for commercial purposes. Bearing in mind the ever controversial demi-human level advancement limitations and discouragement in the Dungeon Master's Guide as to monsters as player characters, this does ring true; Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons is human-centric. However, it does not really answer the question, which is why is it that people desire to play non-human characters in the first place? A passable case could be made for it being chiefly about escapism, shedding even humanity in a bid to get as far away from the mundanity of life as possible, and for some people this may well be true. Really, though, that is a fantasy underlying a fantasy, inherent humanity is a basic limitation on the ability of the mind to explore any imagined landscape. It is this that leads to the assertion that playing a demi-human is typically nothing more than playing a human in a “funny suit”.

Such sardonic condemnation somewhat misses the point of playing a demi-human, though, and that is role emulation. It is no coincidence that so many new players name their first halfling Bilbo, their first dwarf Gimli, or have a Tanis Half-Elven. Perhaps the most alluring prospect of adventure games is the ability to step into the skin of a beloved literary character and assume their role, or one close to it. That is the actual purpose of playable demi-human races, not to escape human experience, but to facilitate the exploration of a particular character or archetype, often including its own subversion. A subrace usually isolates particular characteristics and repackages them as something new, dwarves that definitely live in mountains for instance, narrowing the role for the player in advance. Essentially it comes back to the question of abstraction versus specificity, with subraces as a means of increasing the degree of the latter at the expense of the former. More detail determined in advance of contact with the imagination of the player, more structure and uniformity with less room for deviation and innovation. Not that such is inherently bad; it is just that treating a subrace as an optimised version of a race rather defeats the point.