Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Memories: The Atlantean Trilogy

In a recent post I helped explore the meme of 15 games in 15 minutes.  Now, as the mists of time part, one game rises to the fore.  One game that I used to be enthralled with:

The Atlantean Trilogy. 

I first discovered this in 1985 through a friend who was visiting from California at the time.  He had a copy of the Arcanum, the first edition, the cover in living greyscale.  I looked through it, and was enrapt with the game-related art inside.  While not technically fantastic, it was interesting enough, and as I skimmed it, I saw rules that were like D&D, yet were not D&D.  Gone were the nebulous Armor Class rules and attack matrices and saving throws.  Ability saves were used to resist spells.  Given that the hobby was still quite young at the time, it was still shackled to some of the more cumbersome engines, tables for things that would have better used a target number, variable percentages for skills, etc.  My friend told me that he thought that it was D&D, and therefore his campaigns were set there, and used those rules. 

The Arcanum
It had the standard D&D abilities, but swapped WIS for WILL and added Perception.  You didn't just have the choice of Thief, Fighter, Magic-User, or Cleric anymore.  You had Witch Hunters, Astrologers, Alchemists, Witch Doctors and more.  You didn't have the bog-standard choices for races -- you now had Druas (Dark Elves, before anyone else ever did), Aesir (giants), Zephyr (like ordinary people with huge eagle wings), and Andaman (half-human, half beast).  You didn't have the standard array of spells anymore.  Things like Fire Sign and Lesser Invocation of Mars gave the spells a much needed revision.  They separated the spells into nine schools of magic, such as Black Magic, Astrology, High Magic, et al.  All of this gave the game a definite flavor, a "feel" to it.

Skills were given to you based on race, class, level, and what climate you were raised in.  The skill list not only included Martial Arts, several different sub-types of Acrobatics, but also Knife Throwing, which gave you the ability to "call" your shot to any location, including throat, heart, etc.  This would cause the roll to be halved, but a hit to any vital area caused 2x damage and the  target would need to save vs. CON or be incapacitated by the wound.  If I had to quibble with the skills, it would be that some of was percentile, and others were based on attack rolls in combat.  One of my house rules was that each skill was tied to an ability and got a bonus if the ability was "exceptional."

Combat itself was almost rewritten from the ground up, and was a whopping four pages long.  Combat ability was defined by three different ratings: Highly Trained, Skilled, and Untrained.  Each determined to hit bonuses and hit points per level, and each of the classes had one of these ratings.  A straight 11+ on a d20 was a hit, and was modified by DEX, magic, and the bonus from class and combat rating.  Each opponent rolled a d20 -- the attacker and the defender.  Highest die roll + mods won.  The standard offensive tactics were in there -- melee, missile, hand-to-hand, dirty tricks, and called shot.  Defenses included parry, evasion, dodge, or counter (which you wait for your foe to strike first, then you strike him back while he's off-balance from his attack).  Damage was a bit more (such as 2d8 for a two-handed sword), given that hit points were higher (CON + set number from Combat rating).  AC was gone, so Armor actually subtracted 1-6 points from your damage, based on whether it was leather, ring, chain, plate, ad infinitum.  Also, chain, plate mail, and plate armor gave you -1, -2, and -3 on DEX saves respectively.      

Alignment was handled a bit differently, too.  It had only four Alignments: Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic, and Neutral.  Lawful Good characters were committed to honor, truth, justice and mercy.  Lawful Evil characters despised honor, lied, had no sense of mercy or justice.  Devils were LE.  Neutrals uphold and maintain their own beliefs.  Chaotics analyzed a situation and then acted.  The best of these are loners.  The worst lack all conscience (demons).

The spell system was markedly different from the Vancian system.  At first level, all spellcasters get every first level spell from their school of magic.  Any higher level spells must be found, and they offer ways to do that, from private collections to libraries, to learned mages, and adventuring in ruins and tombs.  It is worth noting spellcasters may only cast two spells per day, plus 1 per level.  In combat, it is also impossible to cast anything other than a first level spell, due to the stress and frenzy of battle.  They also had extensive rules for the properties of various plants and metals, alchemical rules, signs and symbols, and spell research.  

I went home the next morning and dug up one of my dragon magazines that had that book in it.  I sent in a check to Bard Games.  They told me that it really cost a buck more, but they'd send it to me anyway.  I soon found the Bestiary and the Lexicon published in one book (I don't recall where -- the now-defuct Crown Books?), and thus began my love affair with the Atlantean Trilogy. 

Of course I houseruled it, I found the AD&D-inspired ability tables lacking (i.e., bonuses all over the place) and so tacked on the BECM ability bonuses, instead.  13-15: +1; 16-17: +2; 18: +3.  Easy to remember, easy to apply and easily consistent.

The Bestiary
This was an interesting book.  The colorful cover by PD Breeding draws the eye, almost reminding one of Don Maitz's work.  The interior illustrations were rendered by comic artist Bill Sinciewicz.  Though I despised his run on The New Mutants (they hadn't had a good artist since Bob McLeod), the illos in the Bestiary were perfection.  His crazy, somewhat manic-messy style fit the tone of the book.  They had an interesting way of handling the monsters.  Each monster was given a class and a level.  From there you could figure out the to hit bonuses.  They also had no orcs, they were lumped under the label "goblin," which would handle everything from the standard D&D goblins to the big nasty orcs.  The other thing is that they had mythical or quasi-mythical names for the monsters.  A mummy was a "sahu,"  a lich was a "yatu," and they had special undead monster types for those who have been slain by ghouls and vampires to rise from the dead once more. 

For those who wish to see a sample of the gonzo art, here's a peek:

The Lexicon
The Lexicon was the atlas of the antediluvean world.  This product was obviously a labor of love, and parts of it resembled nothing so much as Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age (even going so far as to use some of the names, themselves taken from ancient history), but everything was ripped from myth and folklore and ancient cultures.  A giant mixing pot of Greek, Roman, Inca/Aztec/Mayan, Native American culture, and Medieval Europe.  The entire earth is described.    In a nutshell, the world suffered a massive Cataclysm, and Atlantis is a shadow of its former self.  Mu and Lemuria and similar mythic continents all share space in the Lexicon.  All in all, it's a fascinating read.         

This is one of those games I kinda wish had reached ascendancy, but it is a very different game than it started out as.  The first time some of this material saw print was in the "Compleat" series by Bard Games.  The Compleat Alchemist, The Compleat Beastmaster, etc.  Then, Bard Games put out these three books.  And later, Talislanta was born and would change publishers again and again.  If the Atlantean Trilogy is at the dawn of the world, Talislanta takes place at twilight, well after the Atlantean Cataclysms and the ice ages that followed.  A decade later, Death's Edge Games picked up and republished the Arcanum, the Lexicon, and the Bestiary, added some new material and changed the art.  A decade after that, Morrigan Press decides to update and revise the material, calling it Atlantis: The Second Age.  They changed the game to a series of suggested templates, spells that are created from different "elements" that combine to create specific effects, and a different system more based on the one found in Talislanta.  I'm not sure what Morrigan Press set out to achieve, but it has a very different flavor than the original Atlantean Trilogy.  I'm no less intrigued, but I miss the old game.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Something interesting about Blogger

I've noticed something interesting about Blogger.  Every time I try to post something, it tends to end up a little wonky.  Typos aside, the formatting tends to get all munged up.  And I don't think I ask too much -- large font, Verdana, single spaced. 

I've since remedied the situation by composing in Notepad, and then copy/pasting into the "Compose" field, and adding links and formatting as necessary. 

Yay! Another Meme!

Perpetuating the meme I found over at Save or Die!, here's my 15 games in 15 minutes:

1. D&D - the boxed B/X and BECM, starting with Moldvay and moving to Mentzer.
2. Gamma World 1st Edition
3. Palladium Games, particularly TMNT, Fantasy, and Heroes Unlimited
4. Feng Shui
5. WoD (old), particularly Vampire and Mage, for better or for ill.
6. Warhammer FRP (1E)
7. Risus
8. Atlantean Trilogy
9. Gothic II (since I'm an avid video gamer)
10. Drakensang (another CRPG, itself based on a P&P rpg)
11. Risen (another CRPG)
12. The Fantasy Trip (first Melee, then Wizard, and then Labyrinth)
13. Baldur's Gate & Torment (more CRPGs, this time based on D&D)
14. GURPS (3e)
15. The HERO System (particularly Champions 1st-3rd editions)

This list could be a lot longer, but 15 was the rule.  I've also been influenced by Ars Magica, Fading Suns, Theatrix, Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer, etc.  The sad thing is that some weren't necessarily all good -- the World of Darkness in particularly seemed almost a parody of itself over time (look at me...I'm so dark).  And some (like Risus or Feng Shui) I wish I could play more.  

Some of them are computer games, as I've long held that some video games have content in them that need to be ported over to the pen n' paper genre.  Of course, this can be way over the top.  I have little love for MMOs or RTS games.  Those games are the way they are for a specific reason, and while I am familiar with them, I don't think they necessarily need to influence much in the way of gameplay.  Flavor?  Yes.  Gameplay?  Unlikely.

Others have pointed how 4E is like an MMO.  While I won't get into that here, it makes me wonder if that's why I don't care for 4E?  I've tried MMOs and mostly what they seem to be is quite pretty Roguelikes.  This isn't to say Roguelikes aren't fun, but I don't have fun with 'em for very long anymore.  

It's interesting to see what you can glean about others from looking at their lists. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gary Gygax and House Rules

I just read a disturbing editorial in The Dragon #16 (what would eventually become Dragon Magazine). Gary Gygax, starting on page 15 in the July '78 issue, blasts Amateur Press magazines and house rules that people have made for D&D. A few choice selections:

"D&D encourages inventiveness and originality within the framework of its rules. Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

"Why can’t magic-users employ swords...On the surface this seems a small concession, but in actuality it would spoil the game!"

"Each character role has been designed with care in order to provide varied and unique approaches to solving the problems which confront the players...This same reasoning precludes many of the proposed character classes which enthusiasts wish to add to D&D. Usually such classes are either an unnecessary variation on an existing class, are to obtuse to be interesting, or are endowed with sufficient prowess to assure that they would rule the campaign..."

"The “critical hit” or “double damage” on a “to hit” die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D as well."

"Any fighting man worth the name made it a point to practice daily with all forms of arms....The truth of the matter with respect to weapon expertise is, I believe, another attempt to move players closer to the “instant death” ability.

"...[Amateur Press Associations] are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticise those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious...they are unprofessional, unethical and seemingly ignorant of the laws concerning libel...When I first got into this business, I felt that the APA-zines might be good for the hobby...Now I know the error of my thinking. They serve no useful purpose."

"Additions to and augmentations of certain parts of the D&D rules are fine. Variants which change the rules so as to imbalance the game or change it are most certainly not. These sorts of tinkering fall into the realm of creation of a new game, not development of the existing system."

"Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game."

"Many seek to trade on D&D’s popularity by offering “new” or “variant” systems which fit only with D&D, even though the game is not actually named. Buy them if you have money to throw away, but at peril of your campaign; do not use material which alters the basic precepts of the game."

He uses "framework" and "precepts" as if they are unalterable, or sacrosanct. But what are the precepts of D&D? Roll a d20 and interpret the results the way the rules tell you? Randomly generated ability scores? Experience, level, and class systems? Spell memorization? Some combination of the above, or none of these?

I can understand why a designer might think his design choices are best, but to publicly lambast someone else's design choices is purely unprofess-ional. I may not like AD&D nor the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th editions. I can tell you at length why I do not like them, but I'm not going say that their design choices are bad. I can tell you without a doubt that they are not for me.

What's funny is that, as time progressed, D&D changed:

  • Everyone used the "natural 20" rule, and it made it into 2E as an optional rule, and into 3E as an official "critical threat" roll.
  • Weapon expertise found its way into all editions as "Weapon Mastery" (in BECM), "Weapon Proficiencies" in 1 and 2E, and through various Feats in 3E.
  • Character classes were added, first in the form of "Kits" in 2E, then 180+ "base classes," and over 700 Prestige Classes in 3E (this is according to the Wizards official site).
  • Bulletin Board Services sprang up, host to a number of house-rules, and then this ballooned to blogs and retro-clones, each touting his or her own "variant system which fit only with D&D."
  • Spell Points made it into the Wheel of Time game published by WotC.

I've played with mages who used spell points and found it refreshing and new. It brought a flavor to the game that somehow the spell slot system lacked. I know the way Vance describes it is fantastic, but in D&D it was cut, dried, clinical, and limiting. I've since found variants to make it less limiting and more flavorful, but still use basically the same system.

It's pretty interesting to see Gygax violently defend a game that later on, even under his watch, changed immensely. True, even before 2E, he was ousted and even hunted by TSR's legal team. But it's also strange to see such venom being spewed at people who simply were trying to add rules to a game they loved. It is even more interesting if you consider he had a hand in Castles & Crusades decades later, itself a variant of D&D.

Regardless of the "angry young man" showcased here, we owe Mr. Gygax a debt we cannot repay, and I'm glad that he was able to continue to ignite our imaginations and inflame our passions about the hobby up until the end.