Monday, May 2, 2011

Reading Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Part 6

Here we get some of Gygax's infamous high-handedness at its best. He gives us, in this section a full page on why players shouldn't be allowed to play monster races...and right from the getout makes a blanket statement that anyone who wants to play a nonstandard race clearly just wants to munchkin the game. His exact words:
From the Dungeon Master's Guide, p.21
This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign.
Never mind, I suppose, players who think it just might be fun to play a goblin thief.

In any case, he goes on to justify why monster races aren't kosher, the game is humanocentric being the most important of these. The general idea is that littering the campaign with monsters lessens the impact and population of humans in a game. How very species-ist of him But he goes on to explain why the game is humanocentric, its basis in modern fantasy, our own point of view being the easiest one from which to approach the milieu, etc.

Following this, he gets into the racism aspect. In a human culture, orcs and goblins and other "wholly alien" races would be subject to abuse, hunting, prejudice, murder, etc.

There are some good bits of advice in here: discouraging players who wish to play dragons in a standard campaign, for example, by telling them they have to start off as hatchlings with the mind of a child, few powers, and a limited ability to even assume human shape to function in the human world. But my own limited vision shows here; I tend to jump to the conclusion that a player wishing to run a dragon in my normal D&D game is, in fact, out to munchkin.

The last two paragraphs discuss what to do if you do decide to allow certain monsters, stressing again that while he doesn't recommend it, it's your game to do with as you please and the rules herein are only guidelines.

What is perhaps the most interesting point to be made here is that the philosophy of "no monster characters!" is in direct conflict to the original philosophy set forth in Men and Magic, the first book in the original D&D, which reads:
Men and Magic, p. 8
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

The advice regarding dragons is the same; the core philosophy is utterly opposite.


In any case, I've never really agreed with this, and feel that one of the (few) things third edition really got right was allowing monsters as PC races (even if Level Adjustment and ECL represent an ugly, swampy, convoluted mess of a solution). In the end, I've always been willing--with reasonable justification by the player--to allow monster races in my game, especially those races with one or fewer hit dice.

Wow. Lycanthropy gets its own section, outside of the rest of the diseases...but strangely removed from the rest of the diseases. Go figure.

Anyway, this is a pretty good, thorough, and comprehensive coverage of lycanthropy, its cause, treatment, and effect on game play. It gives good DM advice on keeping the infection secret from the player, talking about how you should try to drag it out so that it's months before the player realizes her character has been infected. It provides a means to halt the progression of the disease by consuming intriguing mistake, as likely he means wolfsbane, which in fact is aconitum, or monkshood, not belladonna, which is nightshade (though the two were historically used in conjunction as an hallucinogenic compound). Gygax makes a couple mistakes like this in the book; we'll get to another when I hit "Insanity."

It strikes me that what would be really neat would be to allow an alchemist to concoct a "Lycanthropy vaccine" from belladonna and aconite; the two, so far as I can tell, were combined because each offsets some of the other's toxicity; this might have a reduced ability to fight off the disease but be less potentially fatal to the character (interestingly, the book doesn't discuss the toxic nature of belladonna; it just advises you eat it to stave off lycanthropy).

But I digress. After the initial 1-hour window, if "belladonna" is not ingested, the only way to get rid of the disease is by cure disease cast by a 12th level cleric. If three more days passes, you're stuck with remove curse, cast while in lycanthrope form. Pretty brutal, but that's kind of as it should be.

Now it gets into practical concerns: what if a player chooses to contract or keep lycanthropy? This is a gateway to exceptional power within the bounds of the game. The book stresses that lycanthropes are not under the control of their normal host psyche when transformed, and that players should become quickly aware that when they shift, they lose control of their character and remember nothing the next day. Though the book doesn't say this, by extension it could even be possible to die outright, and have little to no say in the matter (though a DM would have to be a real bastard, IMO, to pull that trick).

It talks about the mental anguish characters will doubtless suffer as they go through the cycle of the moon, and stresses that just because a character is Lawful Good means nothing; in werewolf form he is still Chaotic Evil. Talk about an excuse to send that (now former) Paladin on a quest to regain his standing!

It goes on further to clarify that the character gains no XP while in lycanthrope form, and discusses other situations in which a transformation can be forced (even the stress of combat can trigger it). In the end, it does a very good job of reinforcing the notion that lycanthropy is a curse, not a means of power or a fun new direction to take your character (though the latter may well apply for exceptional players).

In the end, one of the better treatments of lycanthropy I've seen.

The first part of this section is mostly redundant; breakdowns of the major divisions and how they combine to form the nine alignments with which we are familiar. Each alignment gets a paragraph on its general ethos and outlook, which is precisely paraphrased from that in the Players Handbook. Redundant info for the most part, though I do like the brief discussion of chaos vs. law and good vs. evil that precedes it. I would've liked a bit more of this rather than the nine paragraphs of redundancy which follow.

The final paragraph in this section clarifies that the alignments are stated "simplistically and ideally, for philosophical and moral reasonings are completely subjective according to the acculturation of the individual" (DMG 24). It talks about how it's really up to the individual DM where the lines between alignments lie. Basically, alignments aren't a rigid set of "do's" and "dont's," but a general ethical and moral outlook held by players with a wide variance of possibilities within that general outlook.

Alignment with respect to the planes: This paragraph discusses the alignment association of different planes such as the seven heavens, the nine hells, the positive and negative material planes, etc., but is mostly a general overview that doesn't really discuss specific planar travel. It seems to refer to Appendix IV in the PHB, but isn't explicit on this issue. My suspicion is that Gygax liked to play it fast and loose with the cosmos and didn't concern himself too much with the properties of individual planes until he had to take players there.

Graphing Alignment: this bit discusses creating a graph (such as the one presented in the PHB) with which to track players' activities within the broad spectrum of their chosen alignment. It talks about how DMs should chart the "drift" within the areas of this chart as players go through their lives, stressing that particularly for characters such as paladins and clerics alignment should be kept strictly tracked. There is a discussion here about the all-too-common theme of paladins (for example) "looking the other way" when the rest of the crew does something out of line. It stresses that if a paladin with any sort of brains at all simply allows himself to be "distracted" or "led away" while the party engages in questionable tactics, he should lose his paladinhood. Personally I agree with this sentiment; it should never be easy to be a paladin. Indeed, it should be one of the most difficult character types to play; paladins walk a very fine line as paragons of law and goodness and gain exceptional abilities as a result. But again, just my opinion on the matter (which in this case happens to jibe with the book).

ALIGNMENT LANGUAGE: This is one of the quirkiest aspects of first edition fantasy. It establishes alignment as a real, physical presence and force in the world rather than just a simple moral and ethical code. It presents the basic idea that there is some sort of commonality between people of given alignments, and that there exists a system of code that can identify two people of a given philosophy. Much like the fish scratched in the dirt by early Christians in Rome, alignment language is a series of code words, symbols, and even "secret handshakes" that can communicate basic ideas strictly related to the alignment in question. It's not a "full language," as we know it; similar to druidic or thieves' cant, the book is explicit that outside of the precepts of the alignment, the language "will permit only the most rudimentary communication, with a vocabulary limited to a few score words" (DMG 24). It's not a secret language to be abused by players, but a code that must never be lightly uttered when one is not already fairly certain of the alignment of one hearing him; otherwise he risks pariah status for revealing secrets.

I always thought alignment tongue was a fun add-on which gives alignment a bit more substance in the campaign.

CHANGING ALIGNMENT: This section discusses what happens when a player crosses those lines on the graph, when they drift into the adjacent (or center) alignment's range and suffer a shift in outlook. The book here again makes alignment something substantial, a real part of the character's persona, by implementing penalties such as lost experience points as the cosmos imparts its punishment for losing a champion, and mentions that for clerics the consequences could be even more severe, as their deity might disown them, robbing the cleric of all power and prestige.

This, in the end, is a mechanical enforcement on players staying in character and not acting however they feel like it from session to session. Okay, I can roll with it; it's something that'd only come into play under extreme circumstances anyway.


  1. I've always felt that a few more PC races can be an interesting thing to have. For example, in the Elder Scrolls computer game series (which was based on the creators' own D&D games), you can play a cat-person, a lizard-humanoid, an orc, elves or various types of humans. Why not? And yes, I understand the difference between a computer game and an RPG, but fantasy fiction is full of differences from the norm. I'd rather find out what happens inside the mind of a lizard man (of a type whose intelligence is not limited) rather than the millionth book with elves and dwarves.

    When I read Men & Magic, and the Holmes blue book, I was struck by the different tone. They seemed to indicate that it would be cool to see different races played. Maybe Gygax had seen too much munchkinism and was trying to put a stop to it? You can put all the rules you want to in a game for game balance -- I met more than one who would find a loophole and use it, or just made complete asses of themselves until they got their way...

  2. I don't think it was an effort to curb munchkinism as much as an effort to codify the rules more. Remember, AD&D was designed for tournament and convention play. Limiting PC races to those in the book made sure that everyone's characters were equivalent when a bunch of strangers met at a con to play the game.

  3. He wrote the first bit when there was barely a D&D game and it had little history behind it. After playing and running games for a while he came to the accurate conclusion that many players wanting to play monsters see doing so as a great advantage.

    It was from this perspective he wrote the second bit. It did not strike me as high-handed at all.

  4. I remember reading in Dragon years ago that while AD&D strictly forbade the use of Monsters as Characters, but D&D didn't always struck me as odd since I had no idea where it all came from. Now I see.

    Frankly I have never been interested in playing non-human races. The furthest I get is the occasional elf. I just like humans more I guess.

  5. @DuBeers: I should clarify--I was being somewhat facetious with the use of "high handedness." I've always been rather a defender of Gygax, and a proponent of the idea that people (sometimes deliberately and almost maliciously) take him out of context all the time.