RIP, Dave Trampier

I learnt through Facebook that former TSR artist Dave “Tramp” Trampier died earlier this week. There’s a very brief obituary here.

Tramp’s art was a major part of my AD&D experience. Not only did he have the cover of the Player’s Handbook – always the first rulebook you buy – he supplued several full page drawings in the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. To this day, all my fantasy campaigns feature an inn or tavern called the Green Griffon, after a Tramp ink drawing in the DMG.

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FASA Star Trek: to boldly go

West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored, and the young star-captains glow

James Elroy Flecker

I’m not so much a games collector as a games hoarder. The covers of my ancient rulebooks are tattered, pages have notes in the margins. Boxes of games that might be valuable in mint condition are held together with Sellotape. My games are meant to be played, and they’ve been lugged around with me from house to house, and shipped in a Chinese freighter from one continent to another.

But a hoarder I am. I rarely let a game go once it enters my clutches. I can name the ones I’ve lost over the years – the original Warhammer box set, my 1977 classic Traveller box (replaced with the 1981 version), Wilf Backhaus’s Mage and Warrior, Advanced Melee and Wizard.

The only game I can remember actually selling was FASA’s Star Trek. I loved that game, and wanted to play it so badly, but no one I knew at the time wanted to. I created characters alone in the evening. I designed starships with the Starship Construction Manual and sent them into battle with each other in the Star Trek III Combat Simulator. I designed traders a little more ethical than Harry Mudd and sent them on to earn their living in the Triangle. But it’s a lonely experience, pretending to be a bridge crew, and their enemy. Space is cold. Eventually I got rid of it.

I’ve regretted that decision for years, and finally I’ve rectified it, with a copy of the deluxe edition rules from Wayne’s Books, and some of the supplements I once owned from Wayne, Noble Knight and the Dragon’s Trove.

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

And I’m loving it. The deluxe box cover art is rather more dull than the basic set I had so long ago, but once again, after more than 25 years, I’m creating characters alone in the evening.

My lonely character creation this time is not born of wishful ennui, but part of my efforts to re-familiarise myself with rules I haven’t seen since I was a teenager.

The system is rather quirky. Character generation is a somewhat complex affair, with characters earning skill points in various professional or hobby skills at various points in their training and career. Skills are percentage based and, unlike in Traveller, in which you discover where you career takes you, you first decide what position you’ll hold on board the ship, and learn what happens to you character between joining Star Fleet and beginning the game.

The game rules emphasise tactical combat rather heavily, with a particular focus on character movement. Combat resolution is extremely simple.

Some searching around second-hand game sites backed up the deluxe rule set with some of the classic supplements I used to own: The Triangle campaign setting, Merchant Princes, the Starship Construction Manual, and The Romulans sourcebook.

I aldo managed to find the Enterprise and the Klingon D-7 15mm floorplans.

All in all, it’s a hefty haul of nostalgic game material. But I think the time-consuming, complex character generation may mean I prepare pregens or templates for players to customise rather than run the full character development.

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Medieval charters from Salford Hundred

Stuart Mendelsohn runs a superb blog examining the medieval documents of Salford Hundred in Lancashire – an area he rightly points out is among the least explored in England, at least as far as medieval history is concerned.

He’s just uploaded some magnificent high-resolution scans of some of the charters relating to Spotland, near Rochdale, which he found in Chetham’s Library, Manchester. I am going to have to have a stab at translating some of these – but the first difficulty will be transcribing them. Medieval handwriting is not the easiest thing to decipher when you’re not an expert in it.

Here’s Stuart’s post with the charter images.

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My Pathfinder set-up

I’m a rather old-school gamer, more used to descriptive combat, judgement calls and hand-wavery than a strict adherence to the rules. Even when I ran the tactically intense D&D3.5 I kicked it into submission with my gaming style.

With Pathfinder, I’m modifying my style somewhat. I’m doing my best to stick to the rules. No, I’m not tracking low-value spell components, and yes, PC/NPC social interaction still requires a fair bit of handwaving. But I’m using minis – Pathfinder Pawns, actually – battlemaps, combat trackers, and there’s no friendly fudging to save PCs’ necks.

Many of the reasons for old-school handwavery and friendly fudging simply don’t exist with Pathfinder (or, to be fair, with D&D3.5). Combat is more of a tactical skirmish game if you have minis/counters. Rules are clear and more comprehensive than older systems – there’s less need for a judgement call. And, particularly with Pathfinder, rules are there online for players to read and become familiar with.

I’m not stopping my old style – there’s plenty of scope for it with other games – but I find the experience of GMing Pathfinder a rather liberating one. I’ve also become something of a Pathfinder fanboy – as well as rules and setting books, I’ve picked up a couple of the adventure paths, and some tabletop accessories of use in many different games. I’ve also bought the comics and some of the novels in digital form (and though I generally loathe game fiction, Dave Gross’s novels I rather like).

Last week, several players were off watching the Hobbit before the game, so after setting up the lounge for play, I had enough spare time to photograph it (yeah, OK, I was bored).

I don’t suppose it’s radically different to most other people’s, but here’s what my current set-up looks like:

1) For players

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

The player set-up is reatively simple. I’ve several sets of Pathfinder pawns (very high quality cardboard minis, which I highly recommend as a much cheaper and still attractive alternative to metal or plastic minis), a handful of Pathfinder flip-mats and map packs, with a Chessex megamat for drawing battlemaps on the fly.

I am running this as a tactical game, so the battlemaps and counters are crucial. The table will also see maps of Golarion (the Pathfinder world) and its towns, villages and the like laid out as well.

The Pathfinder pawns, by the way, I happily use for any fantasy game, backed up by things like Steve Jackson Games’ Cardboard Heroes and Arion Games’ and Okumarts paper minis when necessary, or when I’m playing genres other than fantasy. I let players pick appropriate pawns for their characters from the NPC Codex box. Besides that, they’ll have their character sheets and dice (because dice are in fairly short supply in the Middle East, I keep plenty of spares).

I encourage players to bring spare Pathfinder Core rulebooks – either physically or digitally. If I forget a rule, they can pick me up on it. This is not rules lawyering – I have some great players – but a valuable aid to me as I try to follow rules more closely than I have over the past 30 years. The only thing I don’t like is players checking the bestiaries to find opponents’ stats and weaknesses.

2) The GM set-up

Pathfinder GM set-upI don’t usually use a laptop for anything more than playing mood music when I GM. It’s different for Pathfinder. The PDFs are so well designed that they’re excellent to use in play – not only are they well bookmarked, but they are hyperlinked within the text, so you can click on a creature’s special abilities and be taken to the rules definition, or follow up combat results to check the effects of a condition imposed on PCs or opponents. Other game companies take note: this is what you should be doing when you make PDFs for sale.

With using a laptop comes the second monitor to display maps, handouts and NPC portraits. I didn’t plan for this; I ran out of printer ink just before the first session, so rigged up an old monitor as a stand-in. It worked well, so I added it to the regular set-up. I’ve currently got a Pathfinder wallpaper set up, but that can easily change for other games. I could also use it for inspirational illustrations, but there are relatively few available for sale in a suitable digital format.

I also run Hero Lab on the laptop, and keep the master copies of the PCs stats there. Players can have printouts, but my electronic copy is the master when in doubt. I don’t use Hero Lab’s combat panel in play – I haven’t quite succumbed to that yet.

The Pathfinder GM screen is mostly just to shield my notes. It does have reference tables and whatnot, but my eyesight is now bad enough that I have to switch between reading glasses and distance glasses – and even then, the print is small enough and on a greyish background, that I find it hard to read – and the PDFs do a good enough job of getting me to a relevant rule in a hurry.

In addition I have the magnetic combat pad (on the left). This is one of the best game accessories I’ve ever bought, and I highly recommend it to anyone running any game with complex initiative orders. It helps me track PC/opponent turn sequence, the number of rounds, when spell duration expires and the like. Brilliant – a major, major aid to keeping things as close to the rules as possible. I put it on a mini-easel so everyone can see it, everyone knows when their turn is coming up, and can remind me if I’ve skipped someone (and they do, even if I skip an opponents’ turn – I have good players). It doesn’t always stop dispute, but it does keep it to a minimum.

Speakers are there for mood music. I use a lot of film or game soundtracks, but I’ve also used things like the fan-generated Pathfinder Goblin Song, which annoys my players intensely when ever they fight goblins – at least it speeds up combat.

I also keep a good stack of printed rules behind the screen – rulebooks, any adventure path I happen to be running (Rise of the Runelords at the moment), and printouts of stat blocks for easy reference. And a space for rolling my dice – I have experimented with rolling openly, but I found myself running backwards and forwards from player table to GM table too much.

It’s all ready to add players.


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Star Trek TOS characters for Hero System

I’ve just updated my Hero System page with the Enterprise bridge crew statted out for Hero System 6th Edition.

You can find them here.

They’re intended for a minicon where I’m running Trek Hero tomorrow.

I’ll also be running the Battlestar Galactica RPG, and the old Victory Games James Bond RPG, updated with modern cars and weapons, set sometime after Skyfall.

But I haven’t prepped BSG and Bond yet. Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring, sir!


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Hârn: Back in the saddle

It’s been a long time since I ran a Hârn game, but at last the drought is ended.

Hârn is a setting I adore. I named this website after it (which may not be apparent to those who just read the blog – the main site is the Penultimate HarnPage). I’m pretty keen on the HârnMaster rules system as well – I’ve played most incarnations of it since 1987, but have played the HârnMaster Gold edition from Kelestia Productions since it came out.

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to play in the setting for the last few years, but moving to a new country can crimp your gaming style. It took a while to find other gamers, and I couldn’t convince them to try Hârn, so we played Hero System or variations of 3.5 – both also systems I enjoy – as one-offs or short campaigns.

But following the first Middle East Comic Con last year, the Gulf gaming scene has really taken off. Thanks to the efforts of a few bold gamers who set up some gaming tables, our little gaming group discovered we weren’t the only ones. The Gulf Roleplaying Community is behind a tabletop renaissance in the Arabian Gulf.

And now, at last, I have players who want to play in Hârn. A couple of nights ago we created characters for a campaign I’ve designed to fit the transient nature of Middle Eastern life, and the hectic (and often incompatible) nature of working shifts.

Rather than the open-ended style of campaign I’ve run before, Agents of the Crown is designed to run around a series of short missions. I’m back in my old stomping ground of Káldôr, and the players will be royal agents, troubleshooters working on behalf of the king’s private secretary. In theory, this will allow for players to play a session or two, and drop out and rejoin as their schedule allows. It’s also likely to mean that I use HârnMaster’s rules for character development during down time for the first time.

Gaming in the Middle East also means I’m making small changes to my Hârn. We’re a multicultural set of people, and I’m activiely looking for ways to make Hârn – in some ways a traditional fantasy medieval England analogue – more multicultural too. I don’t think it’s enough simply to allow players to play characters from other parts of the world. My Hârn has to become more multicultural too.

I’ve always had a black character in my version of Hârn, Sergeant Mbunte of the Army of the Oselmarch, a mercenary who decided to settle in Káldôr after falling in love with a local woman. But now I’m playing with ideas to add more. It’s easy enough for the port towns and transient populations – merchants and their factors can come from almost anywhere – so I’m simply having more settle for longer.

I’m looking forward to this game.

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Dangerous Journeys: Mythus

Note: Since writing this piece I’ve had the opportunity of playing in a Mythus campaign. You can read about those experiences here.

Back in 1992 I was on the lookout for a new set of game rules. I’d spent my time at university playing MERP and HârnMaster, with the occasional foray into Megatraveller, Fantasy Hero and RuneQuest III. I fancied a change.

Two things drew me to Dangerous Journeys – or, properly speaking, to Mythus, the only part of the Dangerous Journeys system that was ever published. The first was the wonderful artwork by Janet Aulisio on the Mythus Gamesmaster Screen, a beautiful triptych watercolour of a Middle Eastern dock scene that promised something radically different from stereotypical European fantasy.

Janet Aulisio's awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn't want to meet these people during their adventures?

Janet Aulisio’s awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn’t want to meet these people during their adventures?

The second was the name of the designer – Gary Gygax, co-written with Dave Newton – and the promise of the blurb on the back of the Mythus rulebook, which seemed to address every issue that led me to abandon AD&D: it had a percentile-based skill system, logical advancement, social classes, plenty of background detail. A flick through the book confirmed that armour absorbed damage. Gygax, the grand old man of roleplaying, had designed a system that seemed to tick every box I had at that time.

The main rulebook, magic supplement and screen were more than I really wanted to spend. I put them back on the shelf and continued browsing while I had one of those in-shop debates with myself. We all know how those end. I walked out of the shop with a lighter wallet and a new rules system. I even picked up the first couple of copies of Journeys magazine, intended to support the system.

And thus began the longest love-hate relationship I’ve ever had with a game system. Mythus has intrigued me and frustrated me in equal measure, but I’ve never been able to put it entirely out of my mind. As one person put it, when I mentioned the system on an old school discussion group, “I tried to like it… still trying.”

My main frustration with the system is Gygax’s writing style. Long-winded, precise to the point of prissiness, self-referential and full of exclamation marks! There are endless acronyms, most of them pointless bacronyms. Money, for example, is the Base Unit of Currency, or BUC, unless you want to call it the Quantifying Unit Indicating Denomination, or QUID. Grrrr…

Some people like Gary’s style; I don’t. That’s not criticism of Gygax the man, or of Gygax the designer, just of his writing style in games (oddly, his style in his novels is much better). In Mythus, Gary’s game style is pretty much unadulterated – it isn’t so much that it needed a decent editor as that it needed a complete re-write before ever being sent to an editor. Still, my reaction to it isn’t quite as bad as the chap who made a drinking game out of reading Mythus.

And yet I’ve always sensed a pretty solid system lurking somewhere behind the modifiers, sub-clauses, digressions, pomposity and axe-grinding. And every time I go to look for it, I get caught up in the frustrations again.

My fascination was further compounded with the number of people praising Mythus’ setting book, the Epic of Aerth, even as they condemned the rulebooks. I didn’t have that. So last year, I splashed out on a second-hand copy. And, I thought, while I was at it I may as well get the rest. I’m now the proud owner of almost everything ever put out for Dangerous Journeys. I’m missing the third novel and the last two copies of Journeys.

And it still frustrates me. Tempts me. Taunts me.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

Last night, I sat down determined to finish a character. Yeah, I know: 20 years and I’d never made it through character generation once. I chose the simpler option of a non-heka user (Mythus uses Egyptian terminology for magic).

I wish I had done so earlier. Things are falling into place. My frustrations have become less to do with the language and writing style, and more with the need to flip through rulebooks hunting for elusive tables – the booklet of tables in the GM screen helps, but doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem. But I am convinced this is playable. The question is whether it offers anything more than systems I’m using now. It is, after all, an early 90s rule system.

Mythus has a fairly complex random character generation system, but nowhere near as complex as Rolemaster Standard, for example. I’d put it on a par with games like Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd edition (or Rebirth), or creating a mid-level Pathfinder/3.5 character. I’m OK with that; I don’t mind complex character generation if it helps enhance play and roleplay.

Character generation

In Mythus, generating a PC (the game calls them HPs, Heroic Personas) is a six-step process. I’m going to go into a fair bit of detail.

1) Determine socio-economic class (SEC)

SEC runs from level 1-9, representing lower, middle and upper class, each further subdivided into lower, middle and upper. Level is determined by a simple percentile roll. There’s a  table. I roll 13, and discover my character is SEC 3, upper lower class – a skilled bluecollar worker, in US terms. My SEC will limit the vocations I can choose.

2) Determine characteristics

Mythus has three traits – Mental, Physical and Spiritual – each subdivided into two categories. Mental is divided into Mnemonic and Reasoning, Physical into Muscular and Neural, and Spiritual into Metaphysical and Psychic. Each category is subdivided into three characteristics – Capacity, Power and Speed. Power and Speed cannot exceed Capacity for any given category. Characteristics are listed in the form SMCap (Spiritual Metaphysical Capacity), PNPow (Physical Neural Power) and so on. Each category is the sum of its characteristics; each trait is the sum of its categories.

To determine characteristics, you roll 2d6+8 18 times. Yes, 18. Once you’ve done this, you assign each roll to a characteristic. Cap must be the highest in any given category, and the game advises assigning your six highest rolls to the six category scores. Since I want to make a non-heka user, I’m going to put my highest scores into the Physical categories. Once you’ve assigned all the rolls, you can add up to three points to characteristics – no more than one to each, and Cap must remain highest.

My rolls are: 13, 13, 15, 11, 20, 17, 13, 18, 14, 17, 18, 13, 14, 13, 15, 12, 14, 14.

Including the three bonus points, I assign my characteristics so:

MMCap    17    PMCap    20    SMCap    18
MMPow    13    PMPow    16    SMPow    14
MMSpd    13    PMSPd    16    SMSpd    15
MRCap    15    PNCap    18    SPCap    17
MRPow    12    PNPow    14    SPPow    13
MRSpd    11    PNSpd    14    SPSpd    13

This gives the following Traits and Categories: Mental 80 (Mnemonic 43, Reasoning 37); Physical 98 (Muscular 52, Neural 46); Spiritual 88 (Metaphysical 45, Psychic 43)

Physical is the total damage I can take before dying. My Wound Level is 75% of that, 74 – that’s what I can take before becoming dazed. My Recovery Level is 10% of it, or 10, as is my combat speed – 10 paces.

Mental and Spiritual have effect levels of 80% of the total; these act as my wound levels in mental and spiritual combat.

3) Choose Vocation and Skills

Since this PC (or HP, since this is Mythus) has SEC  3 (social class, remember) and I want him to follow one of the Physical vocations, my choice is limited. All in all, Mythus has a good selection of vocations, broken down into 10 areas: Alchemy, Arms, Dweomercraeft, Mysticism, Outlawry, Priestcraeft, Primitive, Scholar and Voyager. The 10th area is for non-humans, and includes Alfar (northern Elves), Alfen (halflings), Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes.

I decide I want a fighter. There are three Arms vocations, Cavalier (Knight), Engineer and Soldier/Mercenary. With a SEC of 3, I can only pick Soldier/Mercenary. This gives me a decent selection of combat and physical skills, each calculated as a base (ranging from 8 to 20) plus one of my characteristics. What other systems call Skill Level or Rating, Mythus calls STEEP (Study, Training, Education, Experience and Practice). Sigh.

In addition, I get a number of additional skills (did I forget to mention Mythus calls these Knowledge/Skill Areas, or K/S for short?) based on my TRAIT scores. I get 2 extra Mental skills, and 3 in each of Physical and Spiritual. Each of the bonus skills will start at 2d10 + governing characteristic. I have the option to forego one of these skills and use its points to boost skills I already have, which I choose to exercise in Physical skills to boost my combat ability.

I decide this character’s a mercenary. I think of him as a sergeant, maybe – hardcore professional soldier. I won’t go into the picks I made here – the skills are listed on the character summary below – except to note that I decided not to pick Weapons, Special Skills, which would allow me things like called shots and two-weapon fighting, because I don’t see that fitting with a common soldier: solid weapon skills, yes, flashy tricks, no.

What I will note is that a number of skills have sub-areas. How many of these you can pick depends on your STEEP for the skill – between 1 and 4 of them, unless your STEEP is 51+, in whcih case you know all sub-areas. You can use any sub-areas you know at full STEEP, and others at half STEEP.

4) Additional Details

This is where a few game details and the character fluff is added – and quite a lot of fluff it is.

First, Attractiveness. It’s another 2d6+8 roll, and I get 15 – Attractive.

Then starting Joss Factor – Joss is Mythus’ hero points system; spending points can allow re-rolls, change success levels or buy plot twists like an escape from captivity. I roll 73 on percentile dice, and start with 11 Joss; that’s pretty good, as the table allows from 2 to 14.

Next up is birth rank, another percentile table, cross-referenced to social class. I roll low – 03 – and I’m the first child of the family. There are subtables should you be the seventh child, which carry bonuses including extra Joss, characteristic bonuses and extra heka skills, maxing out if you’re the 7th child of parents who were each also 7th children.

Age, oddly because it has a game effect, you choose rather than roll for. I’ll stick with the default starting age of 25-35, which adds 1 to PMCap (taking mine to 21). If you’re younger than this, you lose STEEP points but gain small bonuses to physical characteristics and attractiveness; of you’re older to lose attractiveness points and (if very old) other characteristics, but gain STEEP points.

You’re encouraged to choose personal details like height, weight (it’s odd that this isn’t rolled for, as weight has a game effect on wrestling), general description, usual dress, brief background and a typical quote.

Quirks – minor bonuses – are assigned by the GM, who can roll randomly, pick from a list or make them up. Each quirk generates a counter-quirk, again determined by the GM. I roll for one of each, and find that my character is toxin resistance (poisons are at 80% effectiveness against him) and a poor sense of humour.

The remaining details are optional – tables are provided for people who want their inspiration prompted or challenged.

Handedness is rolled for – ambidexterity allows you to fight with two weapons even without the skill. It’s another percentage roll, and I discover I’m right handed.

There’s a table for the briefest and brief backgrounds, cross-referenced for social class, and I discover I was an apprentice craftsman before becoming a soldier.

Then it’s time to determine race (as in, the type of human; we didn’t pick a non-human vocation). Now, you can pick this, but there’s a table provided, and random is fun, right? First, you roll to determine colour: Black, Brown, Red, White or Yellow. Each has a sub-table to determine actual race. Now, that kind of terminology was pretty dated even by the early ’90s, and it’s positively cringe-worthy now. But terminology aside, kudos to Mythus for not assuming everyone is a white European. Random rolls determine first that I’m brown, and then that I’m Hindic.

There are a set of tables for political and religious beliefs, general personality, interests and conformity. I discover I’m apolitical; follow nature deities; am a conformist (though might be trendy or a fashion chaser); am a sober person, if not downright introverted or stubborn; and that my interests are politics, status and power. Apolitical, but interested in politics and power? Interesting – that would seem to suggest a desire for political power but no firm principles. He chooses expediency.

5) Determine resources and connections; buy equipment

Starting money is determined by SEC rating. I’m not going to have much. Mythus divides wealth into several areas – Net Worth (which determines home, equipment and other possessions), Cash on Hand (which isn’t counted against net worth), Bank Accounts (which is) and Disposable Monthly Income. Age also plays a factor – the younger you are, the less money you have.

Wealth is measured in BUCs, though Epic of Aerth details coinage of its various nations.

My character’s at the default age, so no adjustment, but he’s still pretty poor – Net Worth of (3d3+5)*10 = 100 BUCs, and 5d3*50 = 500 BUCs cash on hand. I have no bank accounts or monthly income. 50 BUCs net worth isn’t even going to get me a decent set of clothes, so I’ll be spending some of that cash on hand straight away.

You get one special connection for each TRAIT over 90, rolled on a table cross-referenced against social class. Exactly who your connections are is determined the first time you call on them for help in play, at which point you note down their identity. In my case, I have only one TRAIT over 90. I roll a d20 and discover my special connection is a juggler.

For equipment, my 100 BUCs will buy me a kilt (25 BUCs) and a pair of shoes (50 BUCs). I’ve got 25 BUCs of my net worth left, which won’t buy much. I’ll dip into my chash on hand to get a longsword and a cheap (half-price) small roundshield, which won’t protect me as well as a full-price one, but it’s the best I can do. All but 50 BUCs of my cash is gone; I can’t afford armour.

Looks like I’d best be off adventuring – I’m going to need the loot.

All I need to do now is name this chap and decide where in the Hindic lands he’s from.Logging on to, I decide his name is Chandrakant Tamboli, and he comes from the Deccan Highlands near Hyderabad. I also have to pick a couple of foreign languages, but I’ll do that once I know where the campaign will be set.

Chandrakant Tamboli

Vocation: Mercenary     SEC: 3 (upper lower class)   Current Joss: 11

30-year-old Hindic male from Deccan Highlands. First child. Former apprentice craftsman. Attractiveness 15 (attractive). Right-handed. Height 5ft 11ins. Weight 190lb. Stocky. Black hair. Brown eyes. Usual dress: Kilt and shoes.

Personality: Apolitical, but seeks power and status. Conformist. Worships nature deities. Sober & introverted. Tendency to be stubborn.

Special connection: A juggler.

Wealth: None

Equipment: Kilt, shoes, longsword, cheap small roundshield.


Mental: 80 – Mnemonic 43 (MMCap 17, MMPow 13, MMSpd 13); Reasoning 37 (MRCap 15, MRPow 12, MRSpd 11). Mental Effect Level: 64

Physical: 98 – Muscular 53 (PMCap 21, PMPow 16, PM Spd 16); Neural 46 (PNCap 18, PNPow 14, PNSpd 14). Wound Level 75, Critical Level 89, Recovery Level 10

Spiritual: 88 – Metaphysical 45 (SMCap 18, SMPow 14, SMSpd 13); Psychic 43 (SPCap 17, SPPow 13, SPSpd 13). Spiritual Effect Level: 70

K/S Areas (sub-Areas in brackets)

Mental: Etiquette/Social Graces 15, Native Tongue (Hindi) 32, Language (Trade Pheonician) 26, Gambling (Dice, Dog & Horse Racing, Sporting Events) 32, Criminal Activities – Mental (Extortion, Gambling Operations) 27, Military Science 28, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Fortification & Siegecraft 26, Weapons – Military Other 27.

Physical: Perception – Physical (Noticing, Hearing) 25, Riding (Horse, Camel, Teamstering) 36, Combat – Hand Weapons (1H Swords, Spears, Daggers & Knives, Shields) 46, Criminal Activities – Physical (Sneaking, Hiding, Ambushing) 36, Escape 36, Handicrafts 35, Survival 42, Combat – HTH Lethal (Hands, Feet, Sais) 32, Combat – HTH Non-lethal 32, Combat – Hand Missile (Bows, Knives, Crossbows) 38, First Aid 31, Jack of all Trades (Carpentry, Masonry, Construction) 32, Travel 28, Arms & Armour (Swordmaking, Bowyery & Fletching, Making Light Armour) 42, Endurance 32.

Spiritual: Streetwise (Rural Poor, Mercenaries, Urban Poor) 33, Jury-Rigging 27, Animal Handling 28, Leadership 23.


Overall, Mythus character generation isn’t too bad – if you can get past rolling 2d6+8 18 times and you have the booklet of tables from the GM Screen to hand. Without the booklet, you’ll be flipping from page to page, moving between the table itself and the note on another page, buried between layers of unnecessary verbiage, which describes how to use it. Mythus may be a usable system, but it’s not user-friendly.

It does, at least, produce an interesting character. I’d like to play this guy. However, this is a deliberately simple character with no heka abilities. Making a magic user or priest adds another layer of complexity. And that’s what I’ll be trying next… Cover me. I’m going in.

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We were munchkins once, and young

Note: some of this was previously published on James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog, where he called it Memories of the British Old School. I’m allowing myself more time to ramble now; you have been warned.

I played my first roleplaying game – Holmes edition Basic D&D – during a school lunch hour in September 1981. I was 12. This puts me firmly in the second wave of roleplaying, towards the tail end of what Maliszewski calls the Golden Age of D&D.

The blue-cover Holmes edition Basic Set - my first taste of D&D.

The blue-cover Holmes edition Basic Set – my first taste of D&D.

My classmate Jon was the DM; it was a dungeon he’d created himself. Jon and a few of my other friends had been introduced to the game during the summer holidays and had played it a bit; I lived out in the country on the far side of town, so didn’t see my classmates during the hols.

They persuaded me to give it a go. I rolled up a character – a cleric – and Johnny (different to Jon), who’d played a couple of times before, rolled up another, a thief perhaps. We entered Jon’s dungeon, walked into a room full of zombies armed with two-handed swords, attacked, and died within a couple of rounds. The whole game lasted about 20 minutes, including character generation. I loved it. I rolled up another character and joined Jon’s regular lunchtime gaming group.

But in some ways, this first taste of D&D, of what would later become roleplaying, was not a beginning, but a culmination of schoolboy pastimes. We were already gamers.

We know the history of the hobby, how D&D derived from tabletop wargaming. But that wasn’t our experience. We didn’t play wargames, though I played toy soldiers with the kid next door.

But we had our schoolboy games – I went to an all-boys school – played on rainy day lunchtimes or the back of boring physics classes. Noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans); hangman; battleships; boxes, where you draw lines on a grid to capture territory; and a game we called War – drawing coastlines on opposite ends of a piece of paper, drawing an agreed-upon number of gun emplacements, ships and tanks, and taking turns to flick a pencil from one of your guns to try in hit your opponent’s. Some of these games are – or were – common British schoolboy heritage going back to at least the generation before us. I played War with my Dad – he may have taught it to me; he certainly mentioned playing it when he was at school in the 1940s.

Then we started playing a game we called mazes. As far as I know, this was one we developed ourselves. It had humble origins – one person drew a quick maze on a sheet of paper, someone else tried to find their way through it as quickly as they could. We didn’t keep score; it was a way of relieving boredom in a world with three TV channels, no internet and few video games, when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea (thank you, Douglas Adams).

It wasn’t that we were particularly inactive. We weren’t the sporty kids who played for the school, for sure, but at home we rode bikes, ran, played in the fields, built dens in the woods and so on. I rode in Pony Club gymkhanas, sailed dinghies and fished. We were all in the Boy Scouts. We were the Goonies. But school was in the middle of the city, and we weren’t allowed out of the gates at that age.

During the academic year of 1980/81, mazes grew from a way to pass a few bored moments into something resembling a challenge. I recall Jason being the prime driver behind this. Our mazes became larger and more intricate. Rather than discarding them, we held onto them, embellishing them, allowing each and every one in our little group to play each one. We tried to outdo each other in the size and intricacy of our mazes.

Then someone – Jason, I think – added a trap to the maze. If you went down a path with a trap, you were dead and had to start over. We all added traps to our own mazes. Than someone added fire; go down a path with fire and you died. But then someone added a fire extinguisher – if you found the fire extinguisher before hitting the fire, you could put it out and get past. Then Daleks were added, then machineguns to defeat the Daleks. Pretty soon, the only way to get through a maze was to pick up all the equipment you needed to get through the traps, fires and Daleks that lay between you and the middle of the maze. By the end of the summer term in 1981, Jason’s maze filled a piece of A3 paper, covered with twisting passages a quarter of an inch thick. Navigating through it could take an entire lunch hour or a double maths class, with Jason watching like a hawk for any excuse to declare you dead and send you back to the beginning.

That’s the summer the lads who lived on the far side of town were introduced to D&D. When we came back after the break, they described D&D to me as “like mazes, but better”.

I’m not sure who introduced Jon to the game, but his dungeon was filled with hand-me-down ideas of what Maliszewski terms the “gonzo fantasy” of original D&D. There was some kind of folk-process going on, a shared meme. Traps were designed, not to kill, but to confuse the party mapper – revolving rooms, teleportation chambers and the like. Nobody laid out a battleboard, we mapped what the DM described; if we went wrong, that was part of the point. Every square of graph paper was laid out with room or corridors, so you could find secret rooms or corridors by default unless the mapper got confused.

When we did find a secret door or passage, a little old man appeared, yelled “Secret Door” or “Secret Passage” with a speech impediment and disappeared. I later discovered the Little Old Man was such a common meme, he got an acronym: the LOM (a few years later Roger Musson, in Imagine magazine, wrote about the the LOM and the LOLITS – the Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes – but we never encountered her).

The first level of Jon’s dungeon featured a large room with a sleeping giant in it. His name was Jarl (and how our characters knew that, I never figured out). You had to tiptoe past for fear of waking him. How he got there, who knows? He certainly couldn’t move out of the room. There was treasure – gold and magic items – and experience to be had.

There was no village to resupply. Once you’d picked your starting equipment (don’t forget the silver dagger, or a silver arrow, and especially not the 10-foot pole) you entered the dungeon and stayed there, getting ever deeper. We reached level 3, I think, playing only during school lunchtimes over the course of the year. As far as I know, my second character (also a cleric, I think) is down there still.

My birthday was that autumn. I knew what I wanted: a set of D&D rules of my own. I got it – by this time, not the Holmes edition but a box set of the Moldvay edition, including B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, a set of blue dice and a crayon to colour in the numbers on the dice. I still have the d20 from that set. I keep it on the dashboard of my car, and it rolls every time I go round a corner.

With those rules, I made a dungeon of my own and became a Dungeon Master.

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Vancian magic revisited

One of the things that’s bothered me about D&D from its early days was that magicians forget spells when they cast them – the so-called Vancian magic system, named for the late Jack Vance, who developed it for his Dying Earth novel series. I have no problem with Vancian magic in its place – but as far as I’m concerned, its place is in the most excellent and bodacious Dying Earth RPG, and not in generic fantasy settings.

I’m not the only one. From the early days of the hobby, GMs have been developing variant spell point or fatigue-based systems, allowing magicians to repeatedly cast any spell they know, so long as they have the resources to do so. But these systems alter the nature of play quite radically, and are either too simplistic to consider the fixes to balance them or too complex to be playable (or too complex to explain quickly to new players, which is the same thing).

I developed my solution many years ago. It’s not the mechanics I dislike, it’s the explanation.

So in my games, magicians do not forget spells. But spell-casting is such a long, drawn-out affair that it’s impossible to cast a spell in the tactical environment – unless you cast most of it, leaving the last little bit to finish off when needed.

Naturally, no one can hold too many part-finished spells in their heads, but they do get better at it with practice. Slowly they can hold more, and more complex, spells in abeyance, ready for those last few words and gestures which will complete the casting and unleash the spell.

Once they’ve cast a spell, they have to prepare it for casting once more – that’ll require the standard 8 hours’ sleep and whatever preparation time your edition requires (for example, in 1st edition, it was 15 minutes per spell level; in Pathfinder, it’s one hour for all the spells you can cast).

The mechanics of this are exactly the same as the standard D&D or Pathfinder rules. No change whatsoever. A simple change in the explanation, the way I envisage what the mechanics represent, satisfies me.

As for those few spells which already take a long time to cast, well, they can’t be held in mind. If you know it, and have the time and a spare spell slot, go ahead and cast it. If you don’t have a spare spell slot of the appropriate level, you’ll have to clear one. A generous GM will likely let you seep the energy out slowly and safely. A harsher one might insist the only way to clear a slot is by finishing the last part of the spell and casting it – and take those 8 hours sleep before you can cast the new one.

To me, it seems an easy and obvious fix, but a few months ago another GM was complaining about how the Vancian system didn’t work for him; he beamed once I told him my solution, and said that’s the way magic would work in his game from then on.

Perhaps others who dislike Vancian magic outside Vancian settings will find it useful as well.

In a related matter, I regard Traveller’s 2D starmaps as a triumph of graphic design and visual presentation in much the same way as Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is. Of course Traveller’s space is three dimensional; the starmaps distort and twist the reality in order to give a simple visual guide to people not versed in the multi-dimensional mathematics of jumpspace astrogation. Just like the Underground map, Traveller starmaps will show travellers where they need to go, and what star systems they’ll pass or visit, to reach their destination, but they won’t help you get around in real space, or pick out a star in the night sky.

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RIP Mick Aston, 1946-2013

Mick Aston died yesterday, June 24, 2013.

I never met him, never spoke to or corresponded with him. Those who knew, worked or studied with him will have their own stories. Though I saw some episodes, I was not an avid watcher of Time Team.

But I do want talk about Aston’s influence as an archaeologist.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Before I left the UK, and with the support of and frequent collaboration with my nightschool archaeology tutor, I carried out small research projects into medieval villages and their landscapes. Professor Aston, though he did not pioneer this area of archaeology – he routinely cited WG Hoskins and Maurice Beresford as his inspiration – was one of a small number of early proponents who developed the use of geographic techniques in archaeological studies.

Aston didn’t get me into archaeology. Growing up near York during the Coppergate dig and an enthusiastic teacher at school did that. But his books did get me into landscape archaeology.

As I began my own forays into understanding the English landscape, Aston remained one of my three main guides – the others being Professor Brian K Roberts and Dr Oliver Rackham.

Both Aston and Roberts began their academic careers as geographers. Roberts has remained one, and has long held a chair as Professor of Geography at Durham University. Aston moved into archaeology, becoming the first county archaeologist for Somerset, and teaching at Bristol, Birmingham and Oxford. Rackham is a botanist. Hoskins and Beresford were historians. The study of the landscape is a broad field.

Aside from his reports and papers, and away from his popular works, Aston’s two greatest contributions to landscape studies were his two synthesis works, Interpreting the Landscape (1985, revised 1997) and The Landscape of Towns, co-written with historical geographer James Bond (1976, revised 2000).

General works covering wide periods on a national scale must, of necessity, skip many details, but Aston managed to paint a sufficiently comprehensive picture of trends, methods of investigation and techniques. Though I now live far from the fields and deserted villages he once guided me through, his books are never far from my hand.

In his own words, from his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape: “The past is all about us… a truism which deserves to be repeated because it is so true; whether we like it or not, in this country we do live in a museum. Yet how are we to disentangle and interpret it?”

Aston not only disentangled it and interpreted it, he explained it and taught people how to read it. Many’s the time I’ve stood on a hill, looking down into a dale or valley, noting the patterns of the walls and hedges and tracing the outlines of medieval strips, 16th or 19th century enclosures, traces of square prehistoric fields. Aston’s work taught me to differentiate medieval ridge and furrow from Napoleonic ridge and furrow, to read the humps and bumps revealed by shadows or by more intensive survey with theodolite and staff, with resistivity meter and magnetic resonance.

Aston closed his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape with these words: “When Professor W. G. Hoskins wrote The Making of the English Landscape in 1955, he said (p14) ‘The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.’ Since then, study after study has shown how much can be learnt. We now know that the landscape as created and used by people is much older than we thought, with perhaps as much as 12,000 years of intense activity represented. We know that its development has been more complex than we ever imagined, with many combinations of and interrelationships between the factors mentioned above. Change, rather than stability, has been the order of the day. The idea of an unchanging landscape since time immemorial has had to be replaced now by one of great dynamism. If we could see the English landscape developing over the last 6,000 years in a speeded-up film, it would certainly resemble an ants’ nest, with not only the ants moving about at a great pace, but the nest itself being shifted continuously!”

Aston may have been an eccentric, wild-haired caricature of an archaeologist, but his passion and enthusiasm shone through his writing and his TV presentation, and was tempered with professionalism, honesty and academic rigour. Archaeology could not have had a finer poster boy.

And as to the influence of Time Team, I remember doing a resistivity survey with a colleague around the remains of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield, which lies on the edge of a golf course (those ridges across the fairway are from Napoleonic steam-ploughing, golfers, and are not medieval). We were looking for a grange (a monastic farm) which was thought to lie close by. Lacking the high-tech computerised add-ons of Bradford University’s geophysics, we were working in a taped grid, recording results the old-fashioned way, on a clipboard with a pencil, when a golfing party walked past. Thanks to Aston and co, they knew exactly what we were doing.

“Eyup, it’s Time Team,” one called.

“Nay, lad,” replied my colleague. “It’s Saturday – we’re t’Time-and-a-Half Team.”

The golfers chuckled, and continued their game. A few years earlier, we’d likely have had to stop the survey, or assign a dedicated volunteer, to explain to passers-by what we were doing, how the equipment worked, and reassure them we weren’t developers planning to build over their golf course.

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