AD&D 2nd Edition: Holy Shit, Guys, Identify Is Hard

It’s shocking how many misconceptions about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons you pick up partly from the way the videogames implemented things, partly from how many people glossed over significant sections of the rules.

For instance, the Identify spell? Really kind of difficult to use. It just recently came up in my Roll20 game (where the players have finally found some honest-to-goodness magic items but need someone to identify them.) I’m convinced a lot of people just skim the description, if they read it at all, because they go “oh, that’s the one which identifies magic items” and that’s enough for their purposes. Oh, no no no no no! In 2nd Edition, Identify requires you to spend 8 hours prior to casting the spell handling and preparing the items, and then gives you a 10% chance per caster level (maximum odds of 90%, 96-100% gives you false information) of finding out something about the item. If it’s a multi-purpose item, you only get to find out about one purpose. If you fail to discover anything about an item because you didn’t make the roll, you can’t try again on the same item until you have gone up a level. You need to expend a 100gp pearl each time you cast it (if you include a luckstone then you can get more detailed readings), and you temporarily lose 8 Constitution (and may lose consciousness) once the spell is done. You don’t get precise details of weapon and armour bonuses, or of number of charges left.

In some respects this is kinder than 1st Edition, in some respects less so. 1st Edition did not have a flat 8 hour preparation time but had a variable preparation time which you only need to do once so long as the item remains in the caster’s possession (though the Constitution drop is unchanged), and the wording in 1st Edition implies that you can only do it for 1 item (in 2nd Edition you can try 1 item per caster level). In principle, the odds of success in 1st Edition are better for 1st and 2nd level casters, even at 3rd level and worse at higher levels compared to 2nd Edition, but in 1st Edition the magic item gets a saving throw to deny information to you, so in that respect 1st Edition is both more awkward to adjudicate and less kind to the caster. In addition, in 2nd Edition preparation merely requires handling the item – more than enough to kick off curses if it’s a nasty item – but 1st Edition requires you to actually wear rings or other garments and otherwise handle items as you would to actually use them, making it substantially more likely that ill effects will kick off.

Earlier versions of the game did not even have Identify! It’s completely absent from the core OD&D set and from the Holmes basic rulebook. The Rules Cyclopedia (and thus the BX/BECMI line) offers the very similar Analyze, which gives the same basic odds on the roll as 1st Edition with far fewer restrictions but with the handling requirements still intact.

In short, in TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons quickly working out what magic items do requires you to either be a quite accomplished wizard or have one to hand – otherwise, you have to rely on trial and error. Conversely, whilst Identify still takes ages to cast in 3.0, it does at least give you the details guaranteed with no mucking about. Looked at another way, TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons is much more inclined, especially at early levels, to push you into saying “fuck it, I’ll put on the ring/drink the potion” and seeing what happens. Some may not find this fun because of the potentially unexpected and chaotic consequences of doing this. Some of us, though, play tabletop RPGs precisely because we’re after the unexpected and chaotic consequences.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Kult

More or less emerging simultaneously with the release of Vampire: the Masquerade (the two games being published within a month or two of each other), Kult hit the RPG scene at just the right time to ride the wave of horror games focused on pessimistic modern-day settings, though it came from a very different angle compared with White Wolf’s output. Whereas Vampire and its offspring cast the player characters as entities set apart from the common run of humanity, Kult was based around the premise that “humanity” as a category is broader, more powerful, and far more sinister than you think it is. Whilst the World of Darkness games tried to claim highbrow inspirations, Kult showed no aversion to embracing the most outrageously surreal end of the splatterpunk spectrum. Whereas White Wolf would occasionally try to moderate their content, if only for the sake of not losing sales (at least at first – the Black Dog era would rather change that), Kult is a game specifically about transgression and paid absolutely no heed to any boundaries suggested by good taste or common sense, and caught a certain amount of grief in its native Sweden as a result, being cited by pundits in murder and Satanism cases in a manner parallel to the way American panic-mongers would try to latch onto Dungeons & Dragons. (The English versions of Kult didn’t attract that sort of attention very much at all, though, possibly because the peak of the Satanic Panic had passed and the likes of Pat Pulling had been exhaustively discredited by that point.)

Kult has been stubbornly out of print in English for a while now, but I recently had an opportunity to snag the 1st and 3rd Edition cheap and thought I’d do the old compare-and-contrast (and then eBay them if I decide not to keep either because they go for silly money on eBay). The first edition, penned by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, is a well laid-out and very readable rulebook which suffers a little here and there from slightly diffuse organisation (though actually, having read through it once I reckon I could reasonably quickly find any particular bit of information there – it enjoys an index which is actually functional too, which is a nice bonus). Following the split of subject matter from the original Swedish boxed set, the book is divided into The Lie (character creation and experience rules), The Madness (the rest of the rules systems, including magic) and The Truth (the cosmology underpinning everything).

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What’s Up With My Traveller Article?

Seriously, what gives?

My article about Traveller character generation gets a crazy amount of traffic. As in daily clicks direct to that page. The majority of pageviews I get are just for the main page, but when it comes to specific posts, the Traveller character generation article gets around 250% of the direct views its closest competitor enjoys.

I’m flattered that people like the article, but what’s up with that? What is it specifically about that one article that you guys enjoy so much more than my other posts, and what can I do to deliver it more often?

Referee’s Bookshelf: Kobold Guides to Game Design and Worldbuilding

I don’t jump for every offering from the fine folks at Bundle of Holding, but I do keep an eye on it because their PDF bundles are insanely good value. One recent bundle, in particular, looked to be extremely useful just on general principles – the Worldbuilders Bundle, which despite the name seems to have been a more general Game Prep Bundle.

Two of the books included that are the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design – a compilation of the three previous Kobold Guides to Game Design with the articles rearranged thematically – and the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. These are put out by Kobold Press, the folks responsible for the late Kobold Quarterly magazine and who have now shifted their priorities to focus on their Open Design adventure-design-by-patronage project.

This background has, perhaps, shaped the focus of the Guide to Game Design more than a little. Kobold Press are mostly built around supporting recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons (including Pathfinder), and consequently a proportion of the articles in here seem to be more about “game design” in the sense of “writing stuff for Wizards of the Coast or Paizo or Kobold to publish for an existing game line” rather than “writing your own shit”. On top of that, there’s an almost complete failure to discuss the self-publication route, which in the post-Forge/storygames period that the original Guides came out in was a huge oversight and in these post-OSR days is downright farcical.

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Referee’s Bookshelf: Legend of the Five Rings 4th Edition

My Monday evening gaming group has the various group members GMing games in 4 week slots (give or take a week here and there), and when his slot comes around one of our newest members is going to be starting a Legend of the Five Rings campaign using the 4th Edition rules. In preparation, I looked at some previews of the book and realised that a) this is a gorgeous, gorgeous book and b) this is quite an involved setting and system and it would be handy to have my own copy. This being the case, I picked up the core rules to give them a read-over.

Legend of the Five Rings is inspired by wuxia, martial arts movies, and a host of Japanese sources (not least the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa) and presents a distinctly non-European fantasy setting. There’s obviously a fine tightrope to walk here in terms of cultural appropriation when you’re dealing with a Western RPG publisher taking inspiration from other cultures, and to give them their due Alderac Entertainment Group seem to be well aware of this. Firstly, they provide a big fat health warning that the world of the game is not Earth and the empire of Rokugan is not and should not be mistaken for Japan, China, Korea or any of the other cultures that the game draws on; secondly, although the GM section notes that there’s nothing stopping your gaming group taking a lighthearted, superficial approach to the setting if you want to and provides pointers as to how you can accomplish this, overwhelmingly the game encourages participants to engage with the style and conventions of the source material as well as engaging with the setting. Ultimately, whilst cultural appropriation is a problem, equally under-representation of non-European cultures in fantasy RPGs – or shallow misrepresentations – are a problem too, and although everyone will draw the line on this one differently and it isn’t my place to give Legend a free pass on this front I think it is important that the occasional RPG out there which isn’t white-centric gets published and pushed in the Western market.

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ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – February 2014: What the Fuck Is Going On?

I’ve been keeping track here of ENWorld’s chart of the “hottest RPGs” – hotness, in this case, being based on what’s being actively discussed on as wide a pool of internet fora and blogs as they can find RSS feeds for. Remember: this isn’t tracking sales, and it isn’t even tracking popularity (because conceivably a game could get onto the chart if there were a sufficiently virulent negative reaction to it).

I’ve been going month-by-month compiling this stuff to see how things change; even though the chart samples the last 90 days of discussion to my understanding, because the chart seems to be a work in progress and I want to see how it evolves and only checking in on it every 90 days would mean I missed a lot of updates. This month, I find myself glad I made that decision.

Note that I’m presenting here the scores assigned to each game, not the percentages (which vary depending on which chart on the page you’re looking at due to the way you have a chart of non-D&D RPGs, a chart of D&D-based games, and a combined chart (new this month).

1	Pathfinder RPG				288
2	D&D Next (5E)				164
2	D&D 3rd Edition/3.5			164
4	FATE					114
5	D&D 4th Edition				104
6	World of Darkness			 73
7	Old School Revival (OSR)		 56
8	13th Age				 51
9	Shadowrun				 39
10	Savage Worlds				 38
11	OD&D					 35
12	Numenera				 31
13	Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures	 30
14	Warhammer 40K				 27
15	Star Wars (SAGA/d20)			 24
16	Traveller				 23
16	Call of Cthulhu				 23
18	Exalted					 22
19	Dungeon World				 21
20	GURPS					 20
21	AD&D 2nd Edition			 19
22	CORTEX System				 16
22	Dnd/Pathfinder				 16
24	AD&D 1st Edition			 14
25	Star Trek				 12
25	Dungeon Crawl Classics			 12
27	Gumshoe					 10
27	Star Wars: Edge of the Empire		 10
27	ICONS					 10
30	The One Ring				  9
30	Earthdawn				  9
32	Eclipse Phase				  8
32	Castles & Crusades			  8
32	Dread					  8
35	Dragon Age				  7
35	Deadlands				  7
37	Warhammer FRP				  6
37	Ars Magica				  6
37	Chainmail				  6
40	RIFTS					  5
40	Apocalypse World			  5
40	HERO System / Champions			  5
41	Stars Without Number			  4
41	Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space	  4
41	Gamma World				  4
41	Alternity				  4
41	Mutant Chronicles			  4
46	The Strange				  3
46	Marvel Heroic Roleplaying		  3
46	Iron Kingdoms				  3
46	Feng Shui				  3
46	Firefly					  3
50	d20 Modern				  2
50	d20 Future				  2
50	True20					  2
50	Hackmaster				  2
50	BESM					  2
50	Smallville				  2
50	Colonial Gothic				  2
50	All Flesh Must Be Eaten			  2
50	Hobomancer				  2
50	Stage					  2
50	Other Superhero RPGs			  2
61	Rotted Capes				  1
61	A Song of Ice & Fire			  1
61	Godlike / Wild Talents / NEMESIS	  1
61	Fading Suns				  1
61	Aberrant				  1
61	DC Heroes				  1
67	Brave New World				  0
67	Marvel SAGA				  0
67	Star Wars (d6)				  0
67	Runequest				  0
67	Paranoia				  0

Note that according to the chart page a 0 score doesn’t mean nobody’s mentioned a particular game –  a statistically significant sample has shown up but no more than that. For sanity’s sake I’m only tracking zero-scores which previously scored.

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