Sunday, November 30, 2014

0 Level Characters in Zylarthen

There aren't any.

That is, Zylarthen avoids distinguishing, say, 1st level player character Fighting-Men from any other able-bodied fighting types such as non-player character soldiers, mercenaries, etc., at least in any general sense. Among other things, all use the same attack and saving throw tables, though for simplicity, soldiers and mercenaries might sometimes use the "Up to 1" hit dice row of the Monsters Attacking table if keeping track of their weapons becomes more trouble than it's worth.

Now, note that I use the phrase in any general sense. There are a few specific ways in practice that player-characters will differ from other types.

  1. Members of the Fighting-Men class (whether player characters or non-player characters) get 1+1 die of hit points as opposed to simply 1 die of hit points for all other able-bodied types.
  2. All starting player characters get as many hit point roll mulligans as they need so as to guarantee their hit point roll will be at least 4.
  3. All player-character or non-player character members of a class have the chance to gain levels by accumulating experience points.
  4. Only player characters or important non-player characters ("important" probably ruling out mercenaries etc.) get to roll on the Zero Hit Point table, thus having a chance to cheat death, if only temporarily. 

That said, it is implicit in Zylarthen that the difference between, say, a classed Fighting-Man and a soldier is merely one of, so to speak, initiative or chosen circumstance. It's certainly not genetic or metaphysical or anything like that. So, for example, when player characters have mercenaries arrive in response to their advertisements--anything from Barbarians (1 silver a day) to Cataphracts (20 silvers a day)--the rules make it clear that they could either be hired in their "ordinary" role, or if the player characters desire, any of them could be invited to be "close associates"--Fighting-Men with the potential to gain levels--as long as they are promised at least half-shares in any treasure.

So, in essence, the only thing that separates you (as a starting character) from that "typical" or "average" guy with a sword over there is that you're brave enough (or stupid enough) to tramp into that dungeon a day's ride away. Or rather, you are that soldier, but you have a desire to make something of yourself by tramping into that dungeon. This may or may not be a good thing.

One might say that Zylarthen shares with Dungeon Crawl Classics the idea of the funnel. Except that in Zylarthen, the funnel isn't something that happens before first level; it is first level. That's a bit of an exaggeration but still...

Why did I design the game this way?

Well, first, since Zylarthen was intended  to follow OD&D in spirit, I wanted to eliminate as many AD&D accretions as possible. And AD&D made much of the distinction between 0 level and leveled types, among other things introducing the term henchmen for non-player characters you could hire--who had a character class and the potential to gain experience and thus level up--as contrasted with hirelings--who were just "normal" mercenaries. In truth, the idea of a Normal Man with attack numbers inferior to starting player characters was first introduced by Holmes, but I'm not sure whether the idea originated with Holmes or whether he wasn't just giving an early launch to an idea that was being tossed around by the AD&D planners. It's also possible, I suppose, that Gygax or Arneson had intended the 0 level distinction for OD&D but hadn't stated it explicitly, or that it was present in some form in Chainmail. Nevertheless it's not in the OD&D text itself.

Second, adding another row or column (for 0 level types or normal men or whatever) to the attack tables just seems fussy. What's the purpose of it exactly? Why are, say Bandits any better at fighting than the average mercenary you might hire? Or, to put it a different way, why go to the trouble of adding an entirely new class or category of people, just to make it clear that bandits (or player characters) are 5% better? Again, what goal does that serve in game terms?

But finally and most importantly, introducing the concept of 0 level characters was in my view one of the first steps into inducing the players to think of their characters as pumped up superheroes--complete with elaborate back stories and titles, etc.--before they had even raised a sword against a Kobold. The Gygaxian conception outlined in The Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) was almost Nietzschean. Only 1 in 100 humans in the average village, town or city were leveled or even had the potential to level. Needless to say, I find the whole trend to be annoying for about five different reasons.

Here's one of them: I wanted Zylarthen to be in part a game about heroism. And yes, I even felt that it had the potential to teach children about this virtue, at least in some small and non-obnoxious manner, without of course getting in the way of the game's primary purpose--using one's imagination to have fun. Not to sound too curmudgeonly, but the point about heroes and heroines is that they need to earn the title. They're not born but made. Or rather, they make themselves through their own actions. Though, having teachers or role-models can obviously help. The anti-0 level thing is only a small part of promoting this idea, I know, but it is a part.

Those who choose to act as heroes or heroines may succeed completely--killing the monster or saving the land or the prince or whatever, perhaps even getting rich as a reward for their efforts. Or they may succeed only partly. Or they may die in the process.

But it is the act that confers the title.

Friday, November 28, 2014

OSR Art Friday: Cover of The Dragon #67

This festive scene is from one of six covers that Jack Crane drew for Dragon Magazine. He also did some interior art for the magazine and wrote a short story, "The Legacy of Hortus", which appeared in Issue # 87.

Scott Taylor of Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature, recently did an illuminating interview with the artist here, from which we took most of the information below. Among other things, Crane stated:

I’ve always been a bit of a non-conformist, as is probably the case with most artists and creative types. And I’ve always rejected the “norm”, meaningless rules, and established styles for almost everything. My style of drawing is … my style of drawing … as is the case with most artists. And when I first started working for Dragon I was unambiguous about insisting that I never create art depicting one human being inflicting death or injury upon another human being … or any other sentient beings. This seems to be a predictable response to having spent four years in the military with one of those years in a war zone. Kim (Mohan) was perfectly comfortable with those parameters.
Fair enough. His pieces stand out from other fantasy offerings of the day partly for their whimsical humor and Art Nouveau-style use of shading and colors. Add another important mark to Old School art: it was diverse.

Luckily, he didn't apply his otherwise laudable philosophy to holiday turkeys.

The other covers, including the iconic Tree-Men in the Dismal Swamp (# 54) and the unforgettable Andragon (# 96) can be seen in the same Black Gate post, among other places.

Since the 1980's he has had a great diversity of non-fantasy art commissions including newspapers, trade, hobby and craft publications as well as three-dimensional legal displays for law firms. Recently he publicly returned to fantasy art, doing some work for Gygax Magazine. Great stuff.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Winners!

"Someone may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it."

-Steve Prefontaine, proto-Old School gamer.

The winners of the Jack Vance Writing Contest are:

Dear Pfenning, this presumption is unbecoming! I regard myself a grandee of discernment and propriety! If I expend a terce or two, it is only to cultivate the goodwill of the townsfolk. Are we rude mermelants, covetous of one another's turnips, or are we men fortunate enough to share the abundant joys of life?


My disposition is choleric, not sour. Nor is it habitual; it is entirely occasioned on finding your image here, inspecting the contents of my treasure vaults. Is this gratitude, to make use of my own gift to spy on my chambers?
etc. etc.

Each received a small (quite) gift certificate from RPGNow to purchase Proteus Sinking or another product of their choice.

In my opinion, the multiple entries of the above writers were pretty brilliant. You may find the others in the comments section of the original post.

Have either of you thought of going the Michael Shea route?

Congratulations again!

On a related note, vfults was the winner of the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen Name Shortening Contest, but I have yet to hear from him or her. Please step forward and claim your prize! Does anyone here know them so they can be reminded?

The deadline is when the sun dies or I go broke, whichever comes first. That should not be reassuring. The sun has been looking quite dim in cold Chicago recently, and I am currently on my third glass of expensive bourbon...

Friday, November 21, 2014

OSR Art Friday: World of Adventure Movie

World of Adventure, created by Riley Swift in 2006, is our first video entry in the OSR Art Friday series. Swift, who was already known in gaming circles for his set of Dungeon Majesty actual play videos, put this together for a fan movie contest. It won of course.

It's a perfect homage to early 80's D&D (has anyone created a more perfect one?), using seemingly found and modified TSR art as well as "original" pieces such as the big-hair nymphs or sexy shamans or whatever they are exactly, beckoning to the viewer in the opening seconds. There are dungeon corridors, more dungeon corridors, slithering things, skeletons and skulls and more skeletons and skulls including a giant skull with flashing jewel eyes. There are references to Spelljammer as well as tavern scenes and floofy wilderness settings with bards and maidens. My three-old son was looking at the video very intently and seriously, but then burst into a spontaneous and joyous laugh when the talking tree appeared.

Scott Martin of the metal/punk bands 400 Blows, Crom (the American one) and Big Business created the original heavy metalish soundtrack. Speaking of which, the whole video is sort of a shorter and more fun version of the 1981 film Heavy Metal. Again, remember, World of Adventure was made in 2006.

Swift would later be hired by HASBRO to use pieces of the movie to create thirty second television ads for the "Red Box" version of D&D 4e. Many Old Schoolers predictably sniffed at this as an attempt to portray a bad game in nostalgic terms it hadn't earned. They were right of course, but the ads are still fun. 

Dungeon Majesty (whose 2004 trailer is here) features Swift and four ladies sitting around a small table playing D&D 3.5 in a relatively demure if nerdy manner. However, the greenshot background shows the ladies dressed as their characters in cheesy but cool early 80's style costumes, sneaking through corridors and swinging their weapons. I'm not sure how many episodes there are but they seem to all be available from multiple sites. You either like this sort of thing or you don't. I like this sort of thing.

Swift is a graphic artist and video maker who directed and wrote the Multinauts, with a similar 70's/80's low-budget ambience. His website also features a diverse set of commissioned works ranging from the Intro to the Sophie Grace and Rosie Show, a toddler's website, rock and roll tee-shirts and a Disney Cars video featuring, of all things, the great Stooges song Search and Destroy.

Cool stuff all around. We wish him well.

But most of all, thanks for World of Adventure.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Lulu 30% Off Sale Ends Tonight...

Lulu's three day 30% off sale on print books ends at midnight tonight. I'm not sure what time zone it is, so to be safe I would assume it is East Coast. Use the code FLASH30. It's a great opportunity to buy those OSR products you've perhaps been flirting with buying for so long. (I'm describing me. I often make at least five visits to a book page before I get up the courage to buy). And if any potential customers are feeling guilty about it, the 30% discount only cuts into Lulu's profits, not those of the authors. Thus, the authors love these offers.

For the fun of it, I put together some price comparisons of the original TSR offerings (plus 5e) with some of the the current Lulu offerings (with the discount, of course). The inflation adjustment was taken from here. Though, a few things are left out (such as shipping) and one could debate issues involving the relative quality levels of the bindings and paper, etc.,overall the comparison is obviously quite favorable. Indeed, one could buy the complete set of all six of the clones described below (in their hardcover editions, where available) for only half the price of the three "core" 5e rulebooks.

Back in the Day (plus 5e)
Adj. Price

Dungeons & Dragons (1 box, 1974)
Holmes (1 box, 1977)
AD&D (3 books, 1977-79)
B/X Dungeons & Dragons (2 boxes, 1981)
5e (3 books, 2014)

With 30%
Right Here Right Now


Come on guys, what would you rather have, Delving Deeper or a cheap pint of beer? Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox or a good pint of beer? Seven Voyages of Zylarthen or a martini at the Ritz? Er, okay, don't think about that for too long. Just go to the Lulu page...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The OSR Explodes Into the Mainstream!

Actual Screenshot from my computer, 11:04 AM Sunday 16 November 2014

Okay, so when I ran into the bedroom screaming "I made it!" my wife looked at me like I was crazy. She often looks at me like that, so I wasn't offended. But her expression soon changed when she saw it.

"That's targeted advertising, honey."

I have no idea what she meant by that but I think she's jealous.

(Just so everyone knows, I don't usually read the Drudge Report. I just happened to have been doing scholarly research for a paper I'm writing on the psychological processes of RPGPundit.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

OSR Art Friday: Editing Batten (a long post with too many pictures at the end)

This post will be annoying to some of you in that you were probably expecting a pretty color picture. Instead you will be getting many black and white pictures.

And the featured artist of the day is not some 1970's luminary but well, meOr rather, the featured artist is the brilliant John Dickson Batten, but the post is about what I did to him.

And if that doesn't irritate you enough, be warned, I will be doing some bragging (explained below).

The post is about how I edited the illustrations of Batten to better suit their inclusion in my four booklet game, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. The bragging is not how about how great I am compared to you. I am not great compared to you. I expect that most of you reading this post are more experienced/adept/talented at editing illustrations than I am, and that many of you are familiar with illustrations programs that I haven't even heard of. No. I'm bragging because I did it. I did it. Knowing nothing about editing or graphic design, and being generally uncoordinated and not artistic, I nevertheless figured out (temporarily) how to (arguably) do a passable job at it. That's an accomplishment I want to brag about.

A few months ago I said this about Batten:
Finally, in regards to setting, I should mention the artwork of Zylarthen. There are close to a hundred pieces, all by the same artist--the turn of the century illustrator John Dickson Batten. I said elsewhere that once I had chosen the works of Batten, the art actually began to inform the setting and even the writing. Batten's works appeared in children's fairy-tale books. But appropriately enough they were also from a diversity of sources--English, Celtic, general European, Middle-Eastern and Indian. In my humble view, the art was not merely the best art I could find for free, but was in fact precisely right for what I was trying to do. I couldn't have paid for anything better. To the extent that Zylarthen as a visual or physical product succeeds it does so due to Batten. But equally importantly, to the extent the setting and tone are interesting or attractive is also I think due to Batten. Indeed, he deserves an entire post, and will get one soon.
In the review of Zylarthen on the Save or Die! podcast. DM Liz paid the product one of its finest compliments do date (I think). To paraphrase, despite the fact that the art was public domain from approximately a hundred years ago, each piece still seemed appropriate to the subject or the page. It enhanced the work rather than looking just tacked on to fill up space. (Then her husband emphasized the point by making a joke: "hey what's that 57' Chevy doing there?")

I think it worked for three reasons:

  1. The art itself. Now, Batten didn't draw illustrations for dungeon expeditions, obviously. But the exotic, fairytale vibe was exactly right for what I was trying to do.
  2. Having drawn hundreds of illustrations for nine books, there were enough of them so that I could make informed choices as to appropriate pieces to use.
  3. I edited most of the illustrations. Obviously many of them worked on their own without any (or hardly any) touch ups. But I think if I hadn't edited the rest, they would have looked forced or slightly inappropriate. The editing was a crucial part of the process.

And some of the editing was for tone. Many of Batten's fairytale drawings were comical. I didn't want a severe tone, but I didn't wan't it silly either.

So part of this is bragging (see above). Again, not I'm so great, but, rather I did it. Most of it was just whiting stuff out, which is easy and actually almost cathartic.

I used the free program Gimp. I only learned 5% of it, but it was all I needed.

In a handful of cases I actually pasted a few images. In two instances, I actually drew small bits of my own. Once I actually sketched a foot.

But the main message is, it wasn't hard. If I could do it, you can. I suspect many of you could almost do it with your eyes closed.

So enough of these boring words. The rest of the post will feature a long line of actual examples. I think this sort of thing is interesting, but you are pardoned if you think it goes on for too long.

Before precedes After:

To me, the odd hand angle was reminiscent of the Judges Guild "Flying Turkey".

The Ducks were silly.

The original was too busy.

This was one of the only cases where I pasted something in (I duplicated the dagger). I don't know. I thought a second dagger might be more effective in combat than a mask.

Better just a corpse than a corpse with a silly man standing over him.

I love this monster. I think it's a Solian.

This was ironic in that I took a fantastical drawing and made it more mundane. The Boar went from two heads to one.

From silly to (hopefully) sinister.

The original was too well-known to leave as is.

Pure greed.

Dungeons don't have beds. Okay, maybe they don't have curtains either, but still...

The original was fine but the bird didn't fit.

This was my second choice for the magic cover. The first was a great drawing, but it just didn't seem to work on its own. I think this one works. I liked the contrast in that it was the only cover not featuring a person.

Away with that little man!

I'm not sure this totally works but people seem to like it.

These bottles were lifted from various places.

Okay, I'm proud of these drums (look on the top). Also, note that I removed the lute from the otherwise identical picture on the back cover of Volume 4 (see the blog heading picture). It just seemed too much. But that's probably just me.

I'm sort of proud of this. I edited out the arm and of course re-angled it. But the design in the center is obviously kind of screwed-up, especially if you look at it closely. I banked on readers not looking at it closely, mentally processing it as "oh, a rug", and then quickly moving on.  

Too many angels, or bird women or whatever.

I like this sullen creature.

Again, the original was too busy...

So there it is. Part of the method to my madness. Perhaps exposing the method was too much--oh dear, the magic is gone! But I figure we're all adults here and are enough interested in the craft of game design such that the above might be entertaining and useful.

It's not perfect. I know that. But we tried. This is part of how we tried...