Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Origin of Man

Of late I’ve been taken by this whole evolutionary biology thing.  The way organisms gradually develop into other organisms better suited to their environment is incredible and astounding and all sorts of other adjectives I would use to cushion my word count were I writing this for an assignment.  I’ve been particularly excited about computer simulations of evolution (like this one which simulates the hypothetical evolution of a clock) and the evolutionary ancestry of the human race.  Even more specifically, Neanderthals.

There is debate withinthe scientific community whether the Neanderthals were a separate species withing the Homo genus (homo neandertalus) or a subspecies of homo sapiens, as we are (homo sapiens neandertalus).  The difference being that if they were a subspecies, they would be able to mate with modern humans and produce viable offspring.  Otherwise, they would not be able to produce offspring with anatomically modern humans, or those offspring would be infertile.  I believe the common prevaling hypothesis is that they were a subspecies, thanks to elements of the human genome that are shown to be shared with neanderthals which were not present when the two species split, which would suggest interbreeding.

The question is related to the question of how the neanderthals went extinct.  There are two prevalent hypotheses here as well, each corresponding to whether neanderthals could interbreed with anatomically modern humans.  If they could (that is, were they a subspecies), they likely went extinct through assimilation with the human population.  That is, through extensive interbreeding, the two populations merged into one, which is indeed what is expected to occur when external barriers to breeding are removed between two subspecies.  However, if they were a separate species, then it is believed that they would have been driven to extinction by direct competition with modern humans.  Either way, the neanderthal is an extinct species.

But for a period of time (a very long period of time by standards of modern civilization), there were two or more species of intelligent, sapient beings on Earth, living in communities very near one another.  My hypothetical yet certainly not rhetorical question is this: how would society have evolved differently provided that (a) modern man and neanderthals were separate species, and not genetically compatible, and (b) rather than competing in prehistory, the two species comingled and formed mixed-race societies.

I do not have satisfying answers to this question, I’m afraid.  I do know how improbably such a scenario really is, but it is still an interesting thought experiment to try to imagine a modern society in which two separate races physically cannot reproduce.  Would inter-species marriages be allowed?  Would racism be softened by the years of literal inter-racial communities or would it be heightened?  Would such a society even be stable, considering there would undoubtedly be communities consisting entirely of one race or the other at least in the early history of humanity?  If the two species could produce offspring, but those offspring would be infertile, where would these children’s place be in society?

I want thoughtful answers, and I know that my adoring fans have been holding out on me as far as comments are concerned.  So come on, what would this society look like?  I really want to know!  In return, boobies:

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This Day In History

Today in 1938, a man was born who would change the world, although most people do not recognize this fact.  Gary, you are missed.

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What Six-Year-Olds Are Good For

I’m just going to come right out and say it, Adventure Time is the best show on television right now.  Yes, it is on Cartoon Network.  Yes, I was introduced to it by my six-year-old brother.  Yes, The Simpsons is still on air, and The Simpsons is the greatest show of all time.  But right now, at this moment, I have seen nothing else that is as refreshing, as creative, or as downright entertaining as Adventure Time.

For the uninitiated, Adventure Time is based on a short that came out a few years ago, and it follows the antics of self-proclaimed adventurers Finn (a human boy with an awesome hat) and Jake (his canine companion, who inexplicably has the power to alter his size and shape at will) as they explore their native Land of Ooo.  The Land of Ooo is populated by all sorts of zany surrealistic characters, including a puppy-sized elephant, a rainicorn, a cantankerous old-man-winteresque Ice King, and all shapes and sizes of monsters to be slain and princesses to be rescued.  At the beginning of one episode, Finn and Jake are seen melting beached icebergs with flamethrowers in search of parts to be used in building their gauntlet-dock (“A dock which is also a gauntlet!”).  Jake, however, can find nothing but left childrens’ booties.

It is this kind of wonderful surrealism that saturates every moment of the show.  The ridiculous situations in which these characters find themselves are made all the better by the protagonists’ relative groundedness.  Perhaps “grounded” is too kind.  Finn and Jake relish the opportunity to perform heroic deeds, to fight monsters, to rescue princesses, and, more to the point, go on adventures.  In short, Finn and Jake are PCs.

More specifically, they are PCs in a decidedly old school world.  If you don’t believe me, or you think I’m overthinking things, one recent episode features the following:

  • A descent into a clearly dangerous dungeon in search of “The Crystal Eye”
  • A Mimic
  • A Trapper
  • A Gelatinous Cube

This episode, titled “Dungeon,” is currently available on Kids On Demand if you have Time Warner Cable (at least it is in my region).  I strongly suggest anybody who has ever been remotely interested in anything I’ve ever said on this blog or elsewhere go and watch as much Adventure Time as you can.  There has so far not been a bad episode.

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In Which I Comment On A Blog Post That Is 11 Days Old

I was really going to try to make this post about something non-D&D related.  Yes, I know, where other blogs apologize for straying too far away from the hobby, here I am apologizing for being too focused.  The reason being that I am an attention whore who seeks to please everybody in every way possible.  And I mean every way.

And now that we are officially PG-13, I’d like to touch on an entry from a couple weeks ago on Playing D&D With Porn Stars.  In it, Zak equates Old D&D with DC, in that the games facilitated by these systems are less about the characters and more about the worlds they inhabit, and New D&D with Marvel, in that those games are more about the characters themselves and how they affect the world around them. (It is strange that I unconsciously capitalize “new” and “old” in reference to Dungeons & Dragons, as if I hold a reverence for different editions of a game almost to the extent that Christians do for different Testaments of the Holy Bible, but I’m afraid if I comment any further, Jack Chick would have a field day)

Old School

I think this is interesting in that it highlights an aspect of my personality with respect to gaming that I didn’t really know existed before.  As a gamemaster, I love the simplicity and unobtrusiveness of early (B/X, BECMI, and OD&D) versions of the game.  When world-building for the earliest incarnations of D&D, there are so few assumptions made by the system that it facilitates an enormous variety of worlds.  There is much more room for improvisation around the core three/four classes of fighter, magic-user, cleric (and sometimes thief) than later editions.  No matter what kind of world you want to create, be it standard medieval fantasy, feudalistic Japan, time-traveling neanderthals bent on destroying the future galaxy-spanning empire that threatens to eradicate the peaceful spore-producing alien race of the Planet of Unicorns and Lava Floes, the basics will always apply.  Your character can fight, cast spells, steal, or pray.  Don’t like the magic system?  Change it.  The changes will affect two classes, as opposed to the 7 spell-casting classes in the core books alone for 3.x and the total unbalancing of the entire power system that would occur if you tried to fundamentally alter the way magic works in the first version of what Wizards of the Coast are now calling D&D.

Building worlds for later editions (I will use 3.x as my basis here, since I am the most familiar with its system) the GM is under much greater pressure to conform to an established, albeit implied, setting.  With seven core races, eleven core classes, and more of both in the various splatbooks, at least one of which some experienced gamers in your group are bound to own, the game expects your setting to have room for all of them.  And while, yes, you can set your game in the seedy underbelly of a world-spanning city where demi-humans are spat upon and the only way to the top is on a ladder of corpses, there’s going to come a time when somebody wants to play a half-orc paladin, or a tiefling bard, or a gnome anything, and you’re going to have to either downright refuse or somehow shoehorn in an explanation.

New School

New School

You could, of course, handwave all the fluff and just use the mechanics of a class but deck your character out totally differently, but at that point couldn’t we just handwave everything away down to the core three/four?  Personally, as long as we’re cutting away certain aspects that don’t fit, I’d rather just cut all the way back to OD&D and take it from there.

The difference, however, is that the classes of 3.x and beyond are specifically and scientifically engineered to be badass.  High-level characters get multiple attacks, and the combat types get all sorts of cool abilities that let them kill even more enemies in a single round.  Spellcasters develop the power to change worlds and kill at will.  Thieves can perform feats of agility and deceipt that would fool any mere mortal.  Bards… well, they help everybody else do it.  The thing is, while I don’t want to design a setting for these types of characters, it’s sure as hell fun to play them.

Take, for instance, my character in the only 4E game I have played thus far.  He was a dragonborn rogue.  Upon entering combat with a large number of opponents, he would catch them flat-footed, jump into the middle of them, and explode into shurikens and lightning-breath.  And opponents would drop like flies.  Yes, this was awesome every single time.  No, this never got old.  Sure, I was pretty much useless after that unless I could maneuver myself to flank somebody.  And no, that character would have absolutely no place in my current setting, especially as dragonborn seem to me to be an inherently new school race.

Does this mean that everybody’s preferences are or should be just like mine?  No, of course not.  Does it mean that either system is objectively superior to the other?  Yes, yes it does.

P.S. Writing this post has led me to the conclusion that the new Google Images system is obnoxious.  Probably because it is new, and if it is new, I fear it.

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Parsing the Chainmail Combat System

The original rules for Dungeons & Dragons claim to be intended for use with the combat system put forth in the earlier set of medieval wargames rules Chainmail, co-written by Gary Gygax and published by Tactical Studies Rules.  Whether or not Gary ever actually used these rules in the context of D&D is debatable, but I believe it worthwhile from both a historical and a potential gameplay perspective to take a closer look at the “intended” combat ruleset of the original game.

As such I have been spending some time between working on my Megadungeon looking over the charts and tables at the back of the book, and I’ve taken the liberty of parsing out a set of algorithms to use to determine the necessary combat odds.  To understand the following, you need to know the basic system.  Whenever a group of men (stands of 20 in the original mass combat system) attacks another, a number of dice is rolled based on the number of men attacking and the types of the opposing units (expressed hereafter as x/y, where x is the number of dice rolled per y men attacking), with each die needing to fall within a certain range to score a kill (or a hit dealing 1d6 damage in D&D). So if eight men are attacking, with a 1/2 ratio, needing a 5 or 6 to kill, 4 dice would be rolled, and every 5-6 would score a kill or a hit (meaning, on average, 1.3 hits will be scored in such an attack).

Now I’m not entirely sure if the actual ratios and ranges required can be reproduced if there is no clear algorithm, so I will simply present the algorithms I have found that underlie the original system and note where there are exceptions.  For my purposes, there are three levels of foot soldiers and three levels of cavalry, light, medium, and heavy, which is a slight deviation from the original terminology.  Here is what I have found:

There are four basic strengths of unit, ranking from A to D, D being the worst and A being the strongest:

  • D includes only light foot
  • C includes medium foot and light cavalry
  • B includes heavy foot and medium cavalry
  • A includes only heavy cavalry

Based on this, mounting a footman on a proper horse appears to improve its combat capability by one step.

To determine the ratio range of rolls required to kill, a few guidelines are:

  • To kill a unit within the same class or a higher class, a 6 is needed
  • For each difference in steps between the attacker and the defender, when the attacker is stronger, the kill-range is increased by one (so a heavy foot attacking a light foot would require 4-6 on a d6 to kill)
  • Foot attacking cavalry always requires a 6 to kill
  • Heavy cavalry is an exception in the original rules, in that in regards to the range it is underpowered compared to the algorithm

To determine the x/y ratio, the following guidelines can be used:

  • Foot cannot have a higher ratio than 1/1
  • Within a category (that is, foot attacking foot or cavalry attacking cavalry) every positive difference in step increases the y value by 1
  • For foot attacking cavalry, if the cavalry is in the same class or higher, y is increased by 1
  • For cavalry attacking foot, if the cavalry is in the same class or higher, x is doubled
  • Light foot are an exception in that they are slightly overpowered against cavalry compared to the algorithm
  • Heavy cavalry is an exception in that it is slightly overpowered compared to the algorithm

For use in D&D, each character can be assigned a Fighting Capability based on class and level (you can use the values given in the original booklets, or use some other system, possibly using the hit dice proposed in the Swords & Wizardry White Box with bonuses being applied to only one die) which indicates how many men he or she represents using this algorithm.  Whether they are light, medium, or heavy foot, can be based on their equipment at the purview of the GM.  There are other, better thought-out guides to using Chainmail with OD&D, but as those mostly require the original rules of Chainmail to use, this guide can supplement or supplant those tables.

I hope the above was clear enough to read. They are basically transposed from my own notes, which were written pretty much for my own reference. I have yet to closely examine the man-to-man or fantasy combat rules.  Ultimately I hope to come up with a separate combat system to plug into the original D&D rules (or their simulacra) based on concepts in the Chainmail ruleset that I can then release for others to use.  I’m not sure yet whether I want to use the Chainmail system or the now-standard “Alternative Combat System” for my OD&D game.  I should probably get on that, as it begins tomorrow.


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From the Mouths of Babes

I am well aware that this is not an actual frame from an actual Batman comic, but dammit I wish it was

Pic Unrelated

As a roleplayer, and as a hobby enthusiast in general, there is a unique pleasure in introducing a fresh face into the hobby, especially when said face takes to it with gusto and enthusiasm.  I’ve had this experience twice this past year, once with a group of four people completely new to RPGs at college (playing 3rd edition, for the sole purpose that it’s how I got my start and as such running it for me requires much less flipping between tables and page references which could bore or turn off a new player), and once just a few days ago with my brother, who just so happens to be six years old.

For him, I used the Basic rules as edited by Tom Moldvay, which I was thrilled to purchase on eBay along with the corresponding Expert rulebook (including Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread, naturally) for a cool $10 a few months ago.  His character, who had abnormally high ability scores (for which I was glad, as the tyke can develop quite the temper pretty fast when things don’t go his way), was a fighter, a red knight specifically, whose name was… Red Knight.  Later he told a group of gnomish adventurers he found in the dungeon (“What do I tell them?” “Whatever you want to tell them.”) that he came from the kingdom of Red Knight and, after some deliberation, decided that he was named after the kingdom, not the other way around.

Being a knight he was, of course, sent on this mission by his king.  And although from a more experienced gamer I would severely scold this kind of behavior, it warmed my heart a little when he tried to pull things like “Does my sword have those three jewel things on the handle?” “Sure, if you want it to.” “OK, those are all bombs.” and “Oh no, the king made a mistake and he accidentally gave me his own magic sword!”  To those antics I simply responded “nuh-uh, if you want magic items, you’ll have to find them the old-fashioned way!”  It’s only a matter of time before he starts recording things on his character sheet when I’m not looking, trying to make like he’s always had ten iron spikes to climb out of that hole with.

The second session (for we played two days in a row, mostly because DMing a game of D&D is much easier for me than having him boss me around in LEGO Star Wars for the Wii) ended with him losing all five of his hit points in one trap, which I ruled rendered him unconscious, as I was in no mood to deal with that kind of backlash.  There is, of course, more to report, but it would be unwise to do so, as it would spoil portions of this dungeon which I have crafted for my group this Sunday, and if any of them read this (which is, granted, highly unlikely do the fact that mostly beautiful sexually deprived women between the ages of 19 and 24 read this blog) well it would just be a disaster, now wouldn’t it?

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Meet The New School (Same As The Old School)

I have been gone for a while, I know.  I let a lot of people down there, too.  A lot of attractive women, if my information is correct (and it always is).  But now I’m back, with a new banner, and a new purpose.

You see, over the past, oh, six months I have become increasingly infatuated with this Old School Renaissance of (and this is where all the hardcore Run-DMC fans should leave lest they face extreme disappointment) Dungeons & Dragons.  I was led to Zak S’ fantastic blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars, a title that is perhaps unfitting of the sheer creativity, wit, and usable game material that comes out of every post, with actual X-rated content coming along only once in a blue moon.  His blogroll led me to James Maliszewski’s Grognardia and from there a whole new world of old school D&D goodness that I never knew existed opened up to me.

Not a week after I began my journey through this wonderous world of descending AC and thiefless dungeon delving (seriously, Run-DMC fans, there’s nothing here for you) I yearned to contribute, to play a part in hopefully rekindling a hobby that, in my humble opinion, has been struggling under the strain of unnecessary complexities and pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator from one end of the spectrum, and rampant pretension and pedantry on the other.  But up until recently, I have felt unqualified, inadequate, to throw my own untested ideas out into the blogosphere, for I was at the time the saddest of creatures, a DM without a campaign.

But now, oh now, after working tirelessly (save for all that tiring) on that oldest school of settings, the Megadungeon, and running a short B/X romp for my brother, followed by the beginning of a hopefully more drawn-out campaign scheduled for this upcoming Sunday, only now do I feel sufficiently prepared to let loose ideas or questions and back them up with legitimate play experience.  So get ready, this just got real.

But don’t fret ladies, this does not spell the end of my usual fare (which admittedly over the past half a year has been regular installments of no updates).  I still intend to talk about movies, video games, life in general, even the occassional book! (if any of you Run-DMC fans are left, you are probably offended that I’ve chosen this particular point in the post to remind you to leave, as it implies that you are either illiterate or simply hate literature or any artistic medium outside of hip hop, which we all know is simply not true)  I’ve been reading voraciously (or as voraciously as one can when one’s attention span has been gradually compressed by the horrors of the digital age as the multitasking instincts increased tenfold).  This summer I’ve read The Little Prince, two John Green books and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.  I am reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone to my brother for the first time.  I am currently reading Les Miserables at a breakneck pace.  My brother, six years old, introduced me to Adventure Time, as well as other less awesome but still entertaining shows, proving useful in bridging the generational gap that apparently exists between us.  I have things to say about all of these.

And now that that’s out of the way, here’s some Run-DMC.

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