Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Mystery of the Mistletoe Men

'Tis the season, etcetera, etcetera.  In addition to eggnog and the Grinch and goodwill toward men, one of the things the holiday season brings to my mind is those crazy wielders of scimitars and mistletoe, the druids.  Man, Christmas would be even cooler if it had more scimitars!  But I'm already getting off track.

The first known appearance of druids in fantasy gaming coincides with one of the earliest recorded instances of fantasy gaming.  Dave Arneson reported his first use of a fantastic element in wargaming was the equipping of a druid with a phaser in an otherwise straightforward Romans vs. Celts miniatures game.  The Romans charged with their elephants and the druid reduced them to so much pachyderm barbecue.

Early druid concept art.
The druids first enter into published D&D via the original supplement to OD&D, Greyhawk.  They weren't a playable class yet, nor did they have their own spells.  Rather, the druids can be found in the monster section of that ancient pamphlet.  A druid back then was a neutral nature priest NPC with the powers of both a magic-user and a cleric, as well as the ability to change shape and some barbaric fighting man followers.

In a way, as a combiner of arcane and divine magics, the original druid was the spiritual predecessor of 3e's Mystic Theurge and Rolemaster's Archmage.  Being able to cast both kinds of spells was a pretty neat power back then, as by the original Men & Magic rules players were not allowed to dual class as cleric/MUs.  (Though Greyhawk did introduce the half-elf player race, which could be fighter/magic-user/clerics if one had a high enough wisdom score.  Cleric ability maxed out at measly 4th level, though.)

The druid as a playable class with its own spell lists made its first appearance in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry.  This version is pretty close to the AD&D1 druid that I first encountered back in the day: a potent spellcaster (including 2 spells at level 1!) with a pile of special abilities on top.  With only a Wisdom of 12 and Charisma of 14 (everybody loves druids, they're just so darn likeable) it was a pretty easy subclass to qualify for.

And then there was the XP chart.  For most classes, the XP needed to advance doubles each level until you reach name level or so.  Not the druid.  For some reason, they get a noticeably faster advancement curve from levels four through eleven or so.  A cleric with 100,000xp is seventh level and can cast spells up to fourth level.  A druid with the same 100K is ninth level and can cast fifth level spells.  There's no real reason for this disparity that I'm aware of, other than the chart says so.

In the kind of loosey-goosey games me and my group players, the druid was a bit of an ass-kicker, especially when they hit seventh level and could turn into a bear.  But if you tried to play AD&D as written, there's one big limit on the druid's power: the mistletoe rules.

I think material components for spells are awesome, but very few people (especially players of MUs) seem to agree with me.  AD&D specifies needed components for a crapton of spells but then provides no guidelines for how to acquire them.  Druids suffer the worst under this regime, because they need to use mistletoe with the casting of every spell of theirs.  Here's the key quote (PHB page 54):
Notes Regarding Druid (Cleric) Spells: 
The religious symbol of druids is mistletoe.  Of lesser importance is holly.  Some magical power resides in oak leaves.  All of the druidic spells with a material component assumes the use of mistletoe, as gathered by the druid character in the manner prescribed hereafter.  Lesser mistletoe, as well as holly and oak leaves, will reduce spell effectiveness as follows. 
Lesser mistletoe
Borrowed mistletoe
Oak leaves
*or +1 on saving throw, if any, if category is not applicable. **or +2 on saving throw, if any, if category is not applicable. 
Greater mistletoe, that is, mistletoe which is properly harvested by the druid, must be gathered by the druid as follows. On Midsummer's Eve, the druid must locate his mistletoe, cut it with a gold or silver sickle and catch it in a bowl before it touches the ground. 
Lesser mistletoe is that which is not harvested on the eve of midsummer, or that which the druid takes in a way which is not prescribed (such as picking by hand).
Borrowed mistletoe is any mistletoe which is not personally harvested by the druid. 
Holly and oak leaves must be gathered by the druid, but these may be picked or gathered in any manner.
But the problem here is that this passage is the last mention of druidic mistletoe in AD&D.  The Dungeon Master's Guide doesn't expand upon it, nor does Unearthed Arcana.  I even tried to find something in the Wilderness Survival Guide to no avail.  Since mistletoe is obviously so dang important to druids, I have long wanted an official answer to a simple question:

How many sprigs of mistletoe can a druid gather on Midsummer's Eve?

I've also take to Dragon magazine in search of the answer.  There are a handful of good articles about druids, "The Druids" by James Bruner (issue #12), "The Druid in Fact and Fantasy" by William Fawcett (issue #32), and "Druid in a dungeon? Why not?" by Tim Lasko (issue #48, renamed "The druid and the DM" in Best of Dragon volume 3).  These articles mention mistletoe, but none of them answer my query.  Nor does Michael Dobson's seminal work on material components, "Living in a Material World" (issue #81).  If there's a Sorcerer's Scroll or Sage Advice that addresses this issue, I have yet to find it.

It's a darn shame, too, because a lot of interesting situations can develop out of the druid's reliance on mistletoe.  Especially if you assume--since the gathering is a holy ritual and not an industrial process--that each druid can only gather a small amount of Greater Mistletoe per year, say 2d6 or 3d6 sprigs.  Here are just a few ideas that spring to mind:

  1. When you encounter a druid matters.  Right after Midsummer's Eve they are at the height of their power.  But as the year progresses and they exhaust their supply of greater mistletoe, they become less potent spellcasters.  The week before Midsummer's Eve is probably the best time to pick a fight with a druid.  But if they know you know that, most druids probably lay low during this period.  Druids of level 7+ probably disguise themselves as animals a lot more when their mistletoe supply is low.
  2. That gold or silver sickle used to gather mistletoe is the most precious possession of any druid.  If we assume they have to be custom made and ritually invested prior to use, then the theft of one right before Midsummer becomes a big honking deal.  Retrieving a druid's stolen sickle could be a decent adventure hook.
  3. You know what comes between a druid and their sacred grove on Midsummer Eve?  Not a damn thing.  Delay a travelling druid at your peril.
  4. Finally, playing a druid under these rules has got to be interesting.  You've got 3d6 (or whatever) opportunities per YEAR for your spells to be maximally potent.  How do you manage that?  When do you use your greater mistletoe and when do you get by with holly or oak leaves?  (I'd probably not carry two types of mistletoe at the same time.  In a frenzied situation you may mix them up.  At least, I'd make the player roll if I was the DM.)  And you bet your ass I'd watch the campaign calendar more closely.
So does anybody know if mistletoe gathering ever got official rules?  Does OSRIC or Hackmaster say anything on the subject?  Any good stories of mistletoe rules used in actual play?