Monthly Archives: February 2013

Vance without DRM

Image from JackVance.com

JackVance.com is offering DRM-free ebooks (in epub and mobi formats) of most or all of Vance’s books. Some of the cover art (particularly for the Dying Earth books) is quite good. For example, see the covers of Mazirian the Magician or Cugel the Clever. I also like this Demon Princes cover.

I have yet to be¬†disappointed¬†by any Vance story (though I haven’t yet read them all). Particular pointers to Dying Earth stories (of course) and the Arthurian Lyonesse cycle seem warranted. Note that there is an all-in-one option for the DE tales.

Footnote placement is one minor issue with the ebook files. They seem to be embedded in the text several paragraphs below the reference, which looks wrong to me. I wrote to the site administrator about this, and was informed that they were aware of the problem but that it was a conscious compromise. Also, strangely, despite the files being DRM-free, it seems like purchase is limited to certain countries. Perhaps the original contracts for various locations differ (I noticed this only because I’m writing this post from the UK).

Despite those two minor downsides, the availability of these titles without DRM is something to celebrate.

Forgotten Realms Adventures

Image from D&D Classics

The primary selling points of the Forgotten Realms, to me, are the manipulative, interventionist gods. I’m not a big fan of canned settings, particularly those that accrete a large amount of setting canon, but I think that this basic play on Greek-style gods could work well in a tabletop RPG. I had this book back in my Second Edition days, and though I don’t have memories of using it much, I do remember enjoying the detailed pictures of the specialty priests. I just picked up the PDF from D&D Classics.

This book came out in 1990 and was the primary FR setting product for Second Edition until an updated boxed set was released in 1993. In hindsight, it’s a rather strange book that doesn’t focus much on tools or information that would actually be all that useful for starting up a campaign set in the realms, being instead a mix of splatbook (things like new spells) and gazetteer.

The actual contents are (approximately):

  • Conversion from 1E (7 pages)
  • Time of Troubles metaplot changes, including some firearms rules (5 pages)
  • Gods and specialty priests, essentially each a new class (25 pages)
  • New spells and a few pages on magic in the realms (25 pages)
  • Cities (50 pages — yes, seriously)
  • Several pages on secret societies (Harpers, Zhentarim, Red Wizards of Thay)
  • Replacement treasure tables with lots of info on gems and jewels

Do those sound like the first resources you would want when starting a new campaign? At least for me, they are definitely not, but there are still a few interesting things in this grab bag.

Fabian

The first pleasant surprise was that all the black and white interior art was done by Stephen Fabian, one of my favorite fantasy artists. I had totally forgotten this detail, which, alone, is enough for me to recommend the book; everything else is a bonus. I have included a few samples of some of my favorite pieces throughout this post, though there are many, many more within. This further reminds me that the 2E Tome of Magic also featured Fabian art. Hopefully, that will be one of the next PDFs released. Second Edition also had one of my favorite layout styles: two-tone, clean, unpretentious, and balanced. Third Edition layouts are just gaudy, and Fourth Edition layouts are functional but uninspiring.

Fabian

In terms of actual gameable content, there are several random tables, including a good d100 table of art objects (contained in the treasure chapter), a collection of tables for randomly determining spells, and a somewhat boring table of wild magic effects (not worth your time). The spell tables divide all the spells from each level into common, uncommon, and rare (each with a table) and then provide a meta-table to select which rarity table is consulted. This seems like it would be a decent way to award spells, if you don’t mind dipping into 2E for the spell definitions (virtually all of them should work just fine with any clone). I think that all the spells listed are from either this book or the 2E Player’s Handbook.

Most of the specialty priests have an illustration

As I noted above, each specialty priest is essentially a new class, with ability score requirements, weapons useable, armor wearable, cleric spell spheres available, and granted powers. There are a lot of them (over 30). For example, priests of Ilmater (The Crying God, lawful good, portfolio: endurance and suffering) require constitution 14 and wisdom 12, can use bludgeoning weapons and the scourge, may not wear armor, has +4 to saves that involve endurance, can survive without food and water for a number of weeks equal to level, etc. The presentation is somewhat dry, but this content actually plays to the strength of the Realms as a setting (the divine machinations, mentioned above) and is illustrated with a verve not often seen for this kind of my-precious-setting infodump material. It actually makes me want to roll up a specialty priest.

Fabian

The pages on magic in the realms are not very useful (this is an enchanter, necromancers prefer black robes, etc) but many of the spells are useable. In fact, the spells and monsters of Second Edition deserve more attention than they get, being so easy to slot into pretty much any early edition of D&D or simulacrum. Of special note are a number of necromancy spells, as the school of necromancy is often either underrepresented or significantly underpowered in TSR D&D (the few interesting and effective spells being high level). This is probably because the authors expected necromancers to primarily be NPCs. Given that this is one of my favorite types of character to play, this has always annoyed me.

There are around 20 maps in this style

Cities as presented suffer from the 2E template fetish. Every single one has who rules, who really rules, population, major products, armed forces, notable mages, and now I’m bored before I even get to the end of typing all this out. There are some interesting background bits, but I would have preferred if the cities were presented more dynamically, highlighting the aspects that make specific towns distinctive. Each of the 20+ cities also has a rather detailed map that could easily be repurposed. There are some interesting ones, such as Marsember, which seems to be built out over a series of islands (all connected by bridges), Procampur (divided by walls into obvious districts), and Scornubel (a reasonable large unwalled town). Sort of a dry section overall, but not without its uses.

Overall, even though the book feels disorganized and sort of arbitrary, it seems like there are things to use, even for a reader who cares nothing for the setting as a whole. Many parts of the treasure chapter seem like they were just paraphrased from a geology book, but the system as a whole looks like a reasonable (and more detailed) replacement for the official random treasure tables.

Fabian

Point buy alternative

A method for randomly generating 3-18 stats:

  • 12 + 1d6
  • 10 + 1d6
  • 8 + 1d6
  • 6 + 1d6
  • 4 + 1d6
  • 2 + 1d6
The resulting scores could then be distributed randomly or arranged to taste. This is meant to be more consistent (guaranteed one low and one high score) while still being somewhat unpredictable.
The total expected value of both this method and 3d6 each is the same. Expected value of 3d6 down the line is 10.5 each and thus 63 in total. Expected value of this method is:

(12 +10 + 8 + 6 + 4 + 2) + (6d6) = 42 + (3.5 * 6) = 42 + 21 = 63

I posted this on G+ already, but I figured it was worth putting up here too.