Sunday, 30 June 2013

Magic Item: Shield of Invisibility

On a field invisible, an invisible man proper,
dressed in mail of the first
This item appears to be a normal small (1-2), medium (3-7) or large (8) shield when viewed from behind and has the same encumbrance as a normal shield of its size. From the front it is invisible and renders its user invisible likewise.

Unlike a ring or cloak, however, the shield only hides its user from those creatures which are viewing it from basically the front, in an arc of 60°, 120°, or 180° for the largest versions. Likewise, the small version only hides figures of elf or smaller stature, the medium size hides those of less than ogre size, and the large any being of hill giant or less height.

In combat, the shield allows a full +5 to AC (one for the shield and 4 for being invisible) when opponents are unaware of the user's whereabouts. After one round's worth of attacks by the user, the bonus drops to +3 as their opponent can see flashes of movement as the weapon arm makes its attacks (seeming to appear from thin air) and the shield itself is moved about in combat. Since these bonuses are not magical pluses in the normal sense, they can stack with any other magical defences.

The shield's invisibility bonus of +4 applies to saving throws against specifically targeted spells such as disintegrate, but against area effect spells or breath weapons it has no effect on saving throws. Against magic missile, the shield grants a saving throw (at +4). If the roll succeeds then then caster has pointed in the wrong direction and either struck some other living thing (see firing into melee discussion on DMG p63
) or the spell has simply failed to find any creature to be a target and fails; in any case the spell is considered cast.

Naturally, these bonuses only apply to opponents who are not attacking/viewing from an area the shield covers.

The normal chance to detect invisible creatures (DMG p60) apply even when the user is not attacking, but simply using the shield for stealth, although this does not in itself modify any of the shield's combat or saving throw bonuses.

Xp: 500/650/800 by size.
Gp: 2500/3000/4000 by size.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dwarves

Dwarves are an interesting race in AD&D. On the one hand, they're the race that derives the least from folklore on paper (except half-orcs, I guess, but I've never seen anyone actually play a half-orc) but in a way they have marched away from The Lord of the Rings and manage to not feel like a lift from Tolkien during play, at least in my experience. They have managed to become just a "role-playing race", independent from any particular origin. In the process they have diced with becoming dangerously generic but never quite tipped over the edge.

I think part of what saved them is the fact that there are dwarves in folklore. Probably the best known (to me, at least) being Albrecht from the legend of the Rinegold and the Ring of Power - which obviously lay under Tolkien's work. So, unlike Hobbits halflings, there was somewhere else to mine for background material and inspiration. Indeed, even JRRT seems to have translated "real world" dwarves into his setting in the form of the "petty-dwarves" of the Silmarillion, who bear no real resemblance to the more typical Gimli/Thorin types that inspired the AD&D race.

"I never even met Tolkien!"
It's worth pointing out, perhaps, that dwarves are unique among the playable fantasy races in actually being real in some sense. The vast majority of folktales of "dwarves" are obviously based on mediaeval views about very short people, and reflect the typical accepting, tolerant, and cosmopolitan outlook of that period. It's noticeable, for example, that legends about dwarves rarely feature large numbers of them mixing with "normal" people - they are loners, because real dwarves were unusual and if a mediaeval peasant ever saw any, it was probably just a single man or woman surviving as best they could in a world where their very bodies were seen as a mark of sin. Groups of dwarves are always depicted as being in wild places or deep underground where, in fact, most people would never be.

Snow White
As Matthew has said on Silver Blade Adventures, the main motivation for adding dwarves to the Chainmail rules was to allow re-creation of stuff like The Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit. But for me, that battle was the least interesting part of the book - almost completely irrelevant to the main story of Bilbo's travels, it's as if Saving Private Ryan had included a section about  the bombing of Nagasaki. What The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings really gave D&D was a vision of a party of characters on an adventure where they encountered other characters of various non-human races. But, even if that's what JRRT gave D&D in general, he gave our group nothing at all directly, at least initially.

Too much "snow white"
It's funny looking back on it how little we as a group took inspiration in our play from Tolkien - in fact I doubt that any of my original group had even read his work before we started play and when the BBC Radio version came out in '81 it was too late to really make a mark on long-established play styles.

The class restrictions in AD&D - fighter, thief, or assassin - always struck me as a bit odd and I only remember one dwarven thief. A dwarven assassin seemed, and seems, to me as a strange combination as a dwarven monk. In actual play this meant that dwarves were always fighters. So mostly it was the "angry Glaswegian" version that triumphed over the "tragic race" picture in LotR and dwarves were popular choice in AD&D play.

In the original D&D's little brown books, the dwarves' advantages were slight and the race rarely played although there were many NPCs, particularly on trips to Thunderhold in CSIO but the PHB presented dwarves in a much more expansive way, including several great illustrations by Trampier, including page 108 (the magic mouth) which is one of the best of all AD&D's artworks. And, since being a fighter is an easy option for newcomers, dwarven fighters were common enough that one even managed to make it to the level cap at 9th level! Through various magical quests, the limit was gradually and with great difficulty lifted a level at a time until he reached 12th level, at which point our campaign ended.

I suspect that the director hasn't actually read The Hobbit
Unearth Arcana's solution of generally increasing level limits by 2 for single-classed characters seemed a little strained to me, in that I could not imagine a dwarf ever being multi-classed - the idea that dwarves were only fighters had become self-reinforcing by the early 80's - and, anyway, it took so long to reach the level limits that I thought it reasonable for the player to have the resources to sort that out themselves.

So, dwarves sit in a strange place for me. They're the go-to race for fighter characters and they have interesting mechanical advantages in AD&D, and suffer very little from the Tolkien effect in play, but they've become perhaps a little too generic and these days I'd quite like to play a dwarven cleric or even druid and explore that relationship with the other dwarves than just another "Is that tha best ya kin do, pal?" fighter. But then, I've never played a dwarf at all, other than NPCs!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Leisure Games

Get the bus to Aldershot here
Went to Leisure Games in Finchley today for the first time in about 24 years. Won't be going back.

Useless staff, bad layout (really, you stack the shelves by publisher? Did you not know that people have the Internet at home now?) and actually quite small and cramped, especially when the useless staff are standing about in the middle of the narrow space between the wall and the centre shelf unit talking non-stop to their mates about the game they played last week while customers squeeze past them and mutter to each other that "it must be a self-service shop".

Also: appears to be located in a slum, which isn't their fault but it is not a nice place even in broad summer daylight.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Demi-humans and history

An elven sage
It was recently suggested somewhere that any humans' questions about ancient scrolls, cities, dungeons etc. in a campaign could be solved simply by asking the elves, and to some degree the same argument applies to the other long-lived demi-humans.

The problem with this, is that it assumes: 1) that the elves care, 2) that any elf even knew in the first place, 3) that the elves that knew and cared enough to notice are still alive, and 4) the living elves who know are traceable.

1. Caring. The elves generally don't really like humans, and view them with suspicion. The things the elves are likely to be interested in are questions like "are the humans planning any colonies in places we live, eg clearing forests for farmland?" not "where is the Invulnerable Coat of Arn these days?" or "What is the name of the guy that dug that megadungeon in the hills?". Only if these questions impinge on elven history are the answers likely to be recorded therein. Otherwise, it's all just "Some stuff the humans were doing but by the time anyone looked into it they had all died of old age. Typical."

2. Knowing. While there is a case that one may study those things that you are worried about, the standard game takes the view that what mostly happens is that the demi-humans keep away from the humans except for a handful of "exceptional" cases, where "exceptional" has strong undertones of "insane". This leads on to #3:

3. Living. Demi-humans who mix with humans in the "standard setting" are almost exclusively adventurers. And what do adventurers generally do better than anyone else? That's right - they die at low level trying to jemmy open a tomb somewhere and are never heard of again. So the elves, dwarves, gnomes etc. who are most likely to know stuff relating to human legends are the ones least likely to have taken advantage of those long lifespans.

4. Traceable. We have an elf who is interested in the subject at hand, has actual knowledge of it, and is still alive somewhere. Where? The answer depends in many things but unless you're running the City State of the Invincible Overlord it's unlikely to be "running the tobacconist shop at the end of the street". Even if you are running the CSIO, the chances are they're keeping their mouths shut about their background in order to not be constantly inundated by amateur arch├Žologists who want some bit of pottery identified.

In the end, "ask an elf" is a viable solution but there's not really any good reason to think that it's an easy solution to questions of object identification and that's a good thing. Because it makes "ask an elf" into an adventure hook, not just a dull short-circuit of a mystery.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Pop Art: How to Spot a Fake

Here's two Pop Art images from the second half of the last century:


The one on the left is fake Pop Art by Roy Lichtenstein; the one on the right is the genuine article by Jack Kirby. Here's another pair, with a more action oriented theme:


Did you spot the fake? This time, the Kirby is on the left. The difference in quality between the artist and the bored doodler leaps off the page/screen.

The Kirby has vim, movement, and a degree of grit; the imposter's work is static, clinical (and cynical), and devoid of any real connection to its subject. The linework is also clearly much less adept and the coldness serves to point up the irony that this is the purely commercial effort, rather than the professional work-for-hire that Kirby produced for a cheque but nonetheless from his soul.

Indeed, Lichenstein did claim his work was ironic, even when he was simply stealing someone else's work. And to be fair there is an irony in that all of his most famous work is ripped off from real artists who he simply copied badly. This goes well beyond the simple imitation of style, genre, or atmosphere as in the above examples, but even dialogue in his pictures. For example:


In this case, the original at the bottom is by Irv Novick. If you can think of a print by our friend Roy, the chances are almost 100% that someone else did the work and he just took the credit.

"Pop" is short for "popular" of course, and the huge popularity of Kirby's work totally overshadows the niche appeal of Lichtenstein for an effete elite of buyers who's understanding of art is limited to the bits and pieces they see hanging in a few galleries when they're not shoving heaps of cocaine up various orifices. Kirby (and Novick and the may other artists ripped of by hacks like Lichtenstein) produced work that was seen, and sought out by, millions of people every month for decades, whereas Lichtenstein is hardly known outside of a few posters that get flogged in gift shops or "insta-style" picks from Ikea. The few bits he did which were original are hardly known at all, and for good reason.

Like that other artistic parasite, Warhol, Lichtenstein postured as a sort of frontiersman, exploring paradigms too "out there" for the mainstream, while in reality they were completely dependant on the mainstream of the art world for their living, and in particular on its almost complete ignorance of art and the work of artists. A thin veneer of "irony" and "decontexualization" and all the ethical worries vanish, further shoo'd on their way by the sound of rustling banknotes.

Never in his wildest dreams could someone so devoid of original thought as Lichtenstien have come up with this:




Let alone this:


So, if in doubt about a piece of Pop Art, the simple advice is to look for the signature - if it says "Roy Lichenstein", it's a fake.