Saturday, April 21, 2018

Three Weird Books

This is one of those things I had sitting around as a mostly complete draft for a long time.  Finally finished it while at O’Hare yesterday waiting for my connecting flight.

These tomes were designed with 1st edition AD&D in mind.

Experiments of the Phantasmaster

Ordothig the Phantasmaster was an illusionist of great power in the days when that subclass first broke its ties with the magic-user establishment.  The Phantasmaster is said to be the original author of the strange illusionist spell that today is called First Level Magic-User Spells.  

This tome represents Ordothig's early efforts towards the development of that spell.  It contains six sections, all written in an archaic form of the Common Tongue, with many passages struck through and later corrections added.  The first five sections detail the following first level magic-user spells: Hold Portal, Read Magic, Protection from Evil, Charm Person, and Sleep. A magic-user reading this work may transcribe these spells into their spellbook following the normal rules, except that Read Magic is not required to decipher them.

The last section describes a mnemonic technique that allows an arcane caster to use a single second level spell slot to hold any two of the previous five spells.  No other spells may be prepared in this manner, two of the same spell may not be memorized, and only one second level slot may be so employed.  This ability strains the caster physically, who must save versus poison each time it is used. Failure to do so results in d6 points of damage , which can be healed normally, and the caster being exhausted (-2 on to-hits and saves) until both spells are cast.

Secret History of the Nameless Brotherhood

Sages today consider Yertog the Whisperer to have been one of history’s greatest conspiracy theorists.  To most readers of this, his most famous work, the story of an ancient all-powerful secret society that determines the fate of the civilized world can be easily dismissed as the paranoid ravings of a madman.  However, any druid, assassin, or monk who reads this Secret History and makes an Intelligence roll will realize that what Yertog is describing is the now-forgotten predecessor order to all three classes, before they became separated by centuries of schism.  

A druid, assassin, or monk who achieves this insight may make partial use of the abilities of the other two classes.  Each time they gain a level thereafter they may select one of the charts below and roll to gain a bonus ability. Abilities marked with an asterisk can only be gained once; subsequent rerolls indicate that no new ability is gained.

Bonus Druid Abilities for Assassins or Monks
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-20 Gain +2 saves versus fire and electrical/lightning attacks*
21-25 Gain the ability to understand the secret language of the Druids.  Subsequent rolls allow for a selection of the language of a forest creature, as per the druid ability.
26-30 Gain the ability to use druidic magic items, including scrolls.*
31-35 If 4th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to identify plant type, animal type, and pure water.  If 3rd level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
36-40 If 4th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to pass without trace through overgrown areas, moving at up to full speed.  If 3rd level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
41-45 If 8th level or higher, gain the druidic immunity to charm effects of fairy/sylvan creatures such as dryads, nicies, and sylphs.  If 7th level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
46-50 If 8th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to change form into a normal reptile, bird, or mammal up to three times per day.  If 7th level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
51-00 Gain the ability to cast spells as a 1st level Druid.  Subsequent rolls of this item advance caster ability by one level.

Bonus Assassin Abilities for Druids or Monks
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-20 Gain proficiency with any one weapon of your choice.
21-30 Gain the assassin ability to safely use and research poisons.*
31-35 Gain the ability to use Thieves Cant.* [If you actually use alignment languages in your campaign, ignore the asterisk and treat this entry as “Gain the ability to use an Thieves Cant or an alignment language of your choice.]
36-40 Gain the assassin ability of disguise.*
41-45 Gain the assassin ability to spy.*
46-90 Gain the ability to use the Assassination chart at one level lower than the character’s current level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
91-00 Gain the ability to backstab as a thief of one level lower than the character’s level.  Unlike the assassination chart ability above, this ability improves as you level up normally.*

Bonus Monk Abilities for Druids or Assassins
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-25 Gain a damage bonus equal to one half your current level (round down) when using any weapon that is on the monk list, providing you are proficient with it.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
26-45 Gain the open hand damage of a monk of one level lower than your current level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
46-50 Gain the movement rate of a 1st level monk.  Subsequent rolls advance this ability by one effective level.
51-70 Gain the lettered special ability (special ability A, B, C, etc.)  of a monk one level lower than the character’s current level. If there is no listed ability for that level, treat this result as no additional ability gained.
71-75 Gain the unarmored AC of a monk one level below your current level.  This ability will automatically improve as the character advances levels.*
76-80 Gain the monk ability to dodge/knock aside normal missiles (arrows, bolts, slingstones, thrown weapons, etc.) with a successful save versus petrification.*
81-85 Gain the ability to take no damage from any effect that normally does partial damage on a successful save when the saving roll is made.*
86-95 Gain the ability to be surprised as a monk of one level lower than the current character level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
96-00 If 5th level or higher, gain the ability to fall up to 20’ and take no damage, provided the character is within 1’ of a wall or other structure for the duration of the fall.*

The Golden Theurgy of Myrdoff the Thrice Blessed

Myrdoff was one of many magic-users who sought a return to the possibly apocryphal era of the original Archmages, before magic was split into divine and arcane realms.  His results were better than most in this regard. Using the secrets contained in this book, any arcane caster who possesses an intelligence score of 15 or higher and a wisdom of 17 or more may learn the ability to treat the spell list of one divine class of their choice as spells allowed by their own class.  

For example, an illusionist who meets the qualifications and studies this book successfully could opt to treat druid spells as legal illusionist spells for purposes of research, use of scrolls, and may opt to add a random druid spell to their spellbook when advancing a level, in lieu of the new illusionist to which they would normally be entitled.  These spells remain unintelligible to others of their class who do not practice the same variety of theurgy.

Less gifted spellcasters (those with less than the required scores) may still make partial use of Myrdoff’s writings.  They may use (but not transcribe into their spellbooks) scrolls created for members of one divine class of their choice, but there will always be a 1 in 6 chance of mishap when they do so.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Value of a Penny

What can a single copper piece buy in your game?

Adventure Gaming was the generalist game nerd magazine that Tim Kask started after he left editing The Dragon and working for TSR.  It only lasted 13 issues, but the issues that got made are pretty sweet.  Issue 4 (October 1981) contains Diplomacy variants by the ever-awesome Lewis Pulsipher.  A generic fantasy adventure called "Pyramid of Light" by Kathleen Pettigrew notes "This adventure was originally designed for and run as an AD&D tournament scenario at GenCon XIV.  TSR Hobbies has in informed us, however, that to publish it in its original form would violate their copyright."  Bastards.  There's also part 1 of a two-part piece on playing out the First Romulan War in Star Fleet Battles.

Lots of other good stuff in this issue, too.  But my favorite article is "How Much is That Bearskin in the Window? Rational Economics in FRP" by Glenn Rahman of Divine Right fame.  The bulk of the article consists of a two and a half page price list for ordinary objects and services in the Roman empire.  Clothes, grain, transportation, footwear, and real estate all have multiple entries, for instance.  Most prices are listed in denarii, the silver piece of the Roman world.  Campaign economics aren't really my bag.  And I don't know if Rahman's basic premise that Roman prices were stable enough over the the history of the Empire to serve as the basis for rational economic thinking in D&D is true or not.  But I do like having supplementary price lists handy.

Rahman notes that the Romans also used a smaller value coin than the denarius, called the sestertius, valued at one quarter of a denarius.  As I was looking over Rahman's list, I started to wonder what a sestertius could buy me.  Here's what I found.  A single sestertius can buy one item from the following list:
  • 1 large snail, suitable for eating
  • 2 small apples
  • 1 garden-grown asparagus stalk
  • 2 wild asparagus stalks
  • 1 small cucumber
  • 1 reed pen of second quality
Those aren't exactly earth-shattering choices for how to spend one's money, but a nearly broke person with just one sestertius to their name can at least get something to stave off starvation for one more day.  Keeping the reaper at bay is the first and most important use of money, after all.  Ol' Robert Anton Wilson used to call paper money "bio-survival tickets."

Rahman's article and the sestertius got me thinking about what the smallest value coin, the copper piece, might be good for in D&D.
Paizo will gladly sell you a
dozen fake CP for 12 bucks.

My precious BX D&D, like OD&D before it, lists all costs in gold pieces, so none of the coins smaller than a gp are very useful.  Of course, the BX and OD&D price lists focus strictly on adventuring equipment.  And with BX aiming for a younger demographic, I can see not wanting to muddy equipment purchasing with different denominations of money.  However, if you visit the tavern at the Keep on the Borderlands, the menu there includes items for less than 1gp each.  A single copper can only buy you one thing, a slice of bread.  Still, that's better than nothing.

The first edition AD&D Players Handbook has prices in gold, silver, and copper pieces, but a single cp can only buy you a few things.  You can get a tallow candle (wax costs a whole silver piece-fancy!), a single iron spike, or a single torch.  A 10' pole costs 3cp, so I guess you could get a  3 and a third foot rod for 1cp.  That's all useful stuff, I guess.

2nd edition AD&D has several items available for one copper piece:
  • a meal of "egg or fresh vegetables"
  • a day's worth of firewood
  • a candle (type unspecified)
  • chalk
  • a torch
  • a live pigeon (non-homing)
  • hiring someone to do one load of laundry
  • a sling bullet
Page 12 of Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets (still one of my favorite supplements for the game) indicates that a copper piece is the appropriate pay for 5 hours of labor.  I find that to be a handy guideline.  Incidentally, this means that, under City State coin values, a gold piece can buy 250 hours of labor.

Dragon #117 has a great two-page article by Robert A Nelson called "Dungeoneer's Shopping Guide" that does a good job expanding the AD&D price lists to include more everyday items.  I highly recommend it.  I was hoping to find more ways to spend my single copper penny in it, but no dice.  Still, I recommend DMs get a copy of this article and slip it into their campaign materials.

First edition Oriental Adventures has a copper coin called the fen, which is a real unit of Chinese currency.  It is roughly equal to the occidental copper piece in value.  A single fen coin can buy you the following things:
  • a jo stick
  • a straw hat
  • a loincloth
  • a torch
  • a blank paper prayer strip
  • the services of a lantern bearer (per day?)
  • the services of funerary mourners (per day?)
Though I'm not sure what mourners (plural) are going to do with a single fen between them.  Maybe they can buy a fraction of a standard measure of rice.  Still, it doesn't sound like a lucrative career.

The Hackmaster 4th edition Player's Handbook has a quite robust goods and services chapter.  One cp in Garweeze Wurld will get you any of the same stuff you can get in 2nd edition AD&D (not surprising), but you can also purchase a pint of watered down wine for your wineskin or a "shoddy" garment to hide your nakedness.

The DCC RPG has 3 one-cp items: candle, piece of chalk, torch.

Middle-Earth Role Playing isn't really on the same coin standard as D&D.  Starting characters get 2 gold pieces and that's fairly sufficient to buy some starting gear.  The smallest coin in MERP is the tin piece, which will buy you a pint of cider at the Prancing Pony and not much else.

James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only modern D&D variant I try to keep up on
nowadays (though there are lots and lots of other good ones out there).  Below are all your options with a single copper piece in Raggi's messed up world.  LotFP actual gives two prices for each item, one for shopping in the city and one for rural settings.
  • a belt pouch (rural)
  • a drink, cheap (either city or rural)
  • a meal, horrid (rural)
  • a night's stay in a barn (rural)
  • a candle (either)
  • a piece of chalk (either)
  • a bulb of garlic (rural)
  • a wooden holy symbol (rural)
  • a vial of ink (city)
  • an unknown quantity of lard (presumably enough to cause trouble)
  • some nails (city)
  • soap (either)
  • a wooden spike (either)
  • a torch (either)
  • a sprig of wolvesbane (rural)
That's a great list.  It helps that, like MERP, Lamentations isn't on the gold standard.  Most transactions are by the silver piece and 1sp of loot equals 1 experience point.  A single gold piece is actually a pretty decent treasure in LotFP, worth 50 bucks.

Anyway, what's the point of this analysis?  Whatever your campaign's money system, you should give a little thought as to the function of the lowest-valued coin.  What can a down-on-their-luck murderhobo get for a single such coin?  If the answer is "nothing" then maybe you want to think about why that coin even exists.  From a DM's point of view, I feel like copper pieces mainly exist to give logistical hassles when found in great quantities.  But those coins should have a function in the campaign.  Perhaps before the collapse of whatever Roman empire predates your campaign's current dark ages a copper piece had real buying power, but runaway inflation has depressed it to near worthlessness.  No contemporary political point is being made here, honest.

I'm going to conclude with half an idea, which is a terrible way to end a post, but here we go anyway.  What if prices were wide enough in variety that you could have a viable copper piece price list, a silver piece price list, a gold piece price list, etc.  Then for each new campaign start you could decide how toney you want starting PCs to kit out.  A copper campaign would begin with clubs and wooden shields.  A silver campaign would have more metallic weapons, but be less cool than the standard gold lists.  And the platinum list would have all sorts of fancy boy equipment on it.  Because why play a pseudo-medieval setting if you can't have some class conflict?