The Unearthed Arcana, Advanced Dungeons&Dragons

During the summer I moved from second edition AD&D books to first edition. I think the one I used the least when playing AD&D – the Survival guides got a lot of use, and even the Manual of the Planes was somewhat useful.

This is also one of the two AD&D books for which I clearly remember when I saw them the first time. The other one is Monster Manual II, and I will write something about it later. The first time I saw Unearthed Arcana was at a friend of a friend. We had played a lot of roleplaying games for some years with one group, and one of my friend had this a bit older friend who was also a gamer.

The older guy ran some Top Secret for us – a fun game, though I think he was somewhat annoyed at us younger people not quite getting the tone of the game.

Anyway, he also had a collection of AD&D books. I think he had most AD&D books at that point, but I’m not sure if the second edition was already published. He had also this rare book in his library and he let us take a look at it. I was quite amazed by all the polearms in the book and decided that I would really like this book.

I didn’t get a copy until years later, and then I had gotten over the idea of having a humongous list of weapons, so I never really used the polearm list.

We used the book in one long AD&D campaign. It was a mix of first and second editions so we didn’t really use much of it – the new classes weren’t used and spells were mostly from the second edition.

The book itself is a collection of new, well, for a lack of better word, stuff, for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It has new classes, a new ability (Comeliness), new spells and magic items, new rules, and of course, the polearm list.

The new classes are mostly quite overpowered. I could see a campaign of only barbarians or only cavaliers, but they might not fit very well in a normal campaign as both are quite powerful compared to the “standard” classes. Perhaps this set the idea for later expansion books – usually it seems the things in new roleplaying books are more powerful than the older ones.

Some of the spells got taken into the second edition of AD&D. Some were just forgotten, which is as well – there are quite a lot of spells altogether.

We did use the Comeliness ability in the long AD&D campaign. The rules have charm like effects, but we ditched those and just used common sense. For that the ability was useful, and of course my bard character was quite handsome. Objectively I don’t see much point in the Comeliness, though – Charisma is much of the same thing, and players can define their characters’ looks themselves, too.

One rule we used was the ability score generation so that the most important ability was rolled by best three of eight dice, and then less dice until one was rolled with just three dice. This created quite high abilities, but my bard had strength 4, which is of course quite low, scale being 3-18.

The magic item list has useful stuff, like Hevard’s Handy Haversack, the improved portable hole. Now it seems to me that AD&D has just toomuchmagic items, so I’m not use the list was useful even when playing the first edition.

In conclusion, the book has some legendary value for me – it was a rare book and much talked about, but we didn’t really use it even when we had it. The usefulness of the book for playing even first edition AD&D nowadays is, in my opinion, very limited. It’s a nice artifact of its time, but it’s just not very good as a gaming supplement.

AD&D Second Edition, Dungeon Master’s Guide

I read also the Dungeon Master’s Guide after reading the Player’s handbook. The Second Edition put most of the rules in the PHB, contrary to what the First Edition AD&D did, so this is a thinner book.

In addition to being thinner, the DMG has some duplicate information from the PHB. I have no idea why, as I think every Dungeon Master has also the PHB. I think the largest single section is the duplication of unarmed combat, which is quite strange, because I think nobody really used it.

In addition to special rules for situations, like more combat rules (flying, morale, and things like that), much of the book is dedicated to game mastering advice. There’s talk about alignments, classes, races and of course the dreaded class generation rules. They looked so bad even when I was thirteen that I didn’t really try them out ever. The gamemastering advice (or dungeonmastering advice, more properly) is okay, but not great. The alignments are of course an important thing, but there is one strange thing: the advice says that characters should never be sure of each others’ alignments. All fine, but the PHB has the second level wizard spell “Know Alignment”…

Of course forbidding the spell does much to the game – now I would run a game where alignments are not so obvious. Even then the advice is a bit strange.

There is some advice on how to run a game world, how time is measured and so on. This is also passable – I think I used at least the titles for some rulers and the NPC personality generator many times.

After the advice most of the book is taken by the treasure lists. There really are many different magical items and different kinds of treasure hoard types. Rolling them was fun twenty years ago, but now I’d again probably use some other method for assigning treasure to monsters. Also the Dragon magazine article about the sizes of cooins made me think of the dragon treasures: even ten thousand gold coins isn’t that big a pile.

All in all, not a very good book. It was the first English language roleplaying game I bought, so it had a lot of influence on my early gaming, but looking back now the advice could have been much better. This really isn’t even needed for running an AD&D game – most of the rules are in the PHB anyway, and making up treasures is fun even without a book.

AD&D Second Edition, Player’s Handbook

I recently re-read (again) the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook. I did it because I have played the Baldur’s Gate computer game, and also because I have been reading James Maliszewski’s blog Grognardia. The game uses a modified AD&D system, and James talks often about D&D style gaming.

The reading was very nostalgic. The second edition of AD&D is probably the roleplaying game I have played the most, and it was also one of the first English-language games I played. It was also markedly not a very simple game, and I think it’s a good thing we had played Dungeons and Dragons and RuneQuest in Finnish before tackling this monster.

I remember that we waited eagerly for the Player’s Handbook to be published. This was in 1989, I think, and most stores in Finland which carried roleplaying games had only the supplements, and not the basic books. I think that was mainly because the new version was coming out, and the RPG business wasn’t that large even then.

I got some of the supplements, which were obviously for the First Edition AD&D, before the Second Edition was published. The first book I got from the AD&D line was the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and I remember adding some of the stuff to our D&D games, too. We did play AD&D then on and off for years – the last long campaign I played in ended I think in 1996 when most of the players had their compulsory Army service, and I have played a couple of short games even after that.

Now I of course have a somewhat better grasp of the language, and the translations I scribbled make me laugh even now. It still amazes me how accurately we did play the game, even when we learned the language while playing. We did even use some of the optional rules, but the damage-dependent armor classes were tried once, and I don’t remember anybody ever using the unarmed combat rules.

I have long though that AD&D is basically unplayable. The Grognardia blog (and some other old-school publications, like Lamentations of the Flame Princess) has made me re-think that. I now think that AD&D could well be used to run a fun campaign, if one will just learn to play with it.

I also think that it might be better not to define the game world that much before the game. We usually played in the Forgotten Realms world when I GM’d, mainly because I had the box and a lot of region modules. It was an easy choice, and I did add a lot of my own stuff, and used a lot of modules written for different worlds. It was fun, and the world wasn’t that well defined. Many settlements had just a three-line description and no major NPCs defined, so it was mainly exploring an unknown continent.

While reading the book I also remembered that we never really got into the high-level play. The spell lists contain a lot of spells which I remember reading about but which were never used in the game. This means the iconic spells for me are the ones at or below fourth level or so. It was fun playing with these 4-8 level characters. They had power over regular people but even a single dragon was a tough challenge.

One thing I found amusing were the small problems in the book. There are some typos in the book: my copy didn’t have the broadsword listed, and we got it from the DM’s screen.

In the spells there are some strange things, too. Even when we played we noticed that the range of the priest spell Speak with dead had range of just ’3′, with no units. This didn’t come up in play, though, because I think we just winged it.

I also now read the priest spell Creeping doom more throughly. The spell summons a mass of from 500 to 1000 bugs, and it calls this a “swarm”. The swarm covers a 20 feet square, that is, a six-metre square. The spell never says anything that the bugs are gigantic, and I would assume they are just regular bugs, though they can be large ones.

The fun thing here is that if the spell summons the maximum of a thousand of bugs, the bugs either have to be very large or the swarm isn’t very imposing. The square root of one thousand is a bit over 31, which means that if the bugs are arranged neatly and regularily  in a square, there are 31 by 31 bugs. This means that in the area affected, the distance between bugs is about 20 centimetres, so perhaps eight inches.

If the bugs are “normal-sized”, the “swarm” isn’t very imposing, in my opinion. If the bugs were the largest insects or spiders in the world, it would be more scary, but even then it wouldn’t be a “mass” like the spell says it would be.

I think this is just because the writers didn’t really go through the numbers. I think it would be better if the spell just summoned a large horde of insects six metres a side – it would be like a huge army ant swarm, and very, very scary.

The other priest spell problem I noticed is that the priestly version of Reincarnation really has no use, at least in a regular adventuring party. The priest version of the spell is the one that might reincarnate the target as a woodland animal, and it’s very obviously meant to be the Druidic version of the Resurrection spell. Resurrection is the spell for clerics, and it ‘just’ restores the target to life.

Also, in the first edition of AD&D, Reincarnation is in the druid spell list, and Resurrection is in the cleric spell list, so this is obviously where the second edition thinking comes from. In many ways the Reincarnation is the inferior of the two as it gives no control over what kind of creature the target reincarnates as, and the target needs to be more recently dead than with Resurrection.

This isn’t a problem. Having two different spells for raising dead is fine, and they are both seventh level spells, so they are both very powerful. The problem comes with the priestly spheres introduced in the second edition: both these spells belong just to the Necromantic sphere, very obviously because they bring dead people to life. The spheres are different for clerics (they get a lot of spells) and for the various specialty priests, of which the druid is the example given in the book.

Only the druids don’t get access to the Necromantic sphere. They are not healers, or at least not on the same level as clerics, so it’s obvious they don’t need the Resurrection spell. They just don’t get the Reincarnation, either, and so are a bit screwed, and the poor Reincarnation never gets used as written.

Of course the easy fix is just to change the sphere of Reincarnation to Animal or whatever druids get and clerics don’t. It just shows that there are a lot of small and easily missed errors in the book, and I can imagine that if we had noticed that we would have had arguments about what to do with the spells.

One other thing I’d fix if I’d play AD&D again is the damage of the crossbows. I remember only one instance of a player character using a crossbow in our games, and that was an assassin (we were using a mix of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D rules at that point) using hand crossbows. They didn’t do much good, I think he got off a couple of shots in his first fight and then the carrion crawlers paralyzed and ate the whole party.

Fun times.

It was a nice nostalgia trip reading the book. I remembered the fun games we had, and learning the game and the language at the same time. My vocabulary was (and is) very much influenced by this game, and I can still spell phylactery thanks to Gary Gygax.

I’ll perhaps run an AD&D game at some point, but not in the near future. There are too many games I feel are more fun for the gaming I want to do nowadays, but there is still a soft spot in my heart for AD&D.

Libraries are useful

I have been living with books and libraries all my life. My father used to be a librarian, we had a lot of books (and still do, both me and my parents) and of course read them a lot. I got my first library card when I was I think five years old. This means I have a lot of emotional attachment to books and libraries. I talked about books before, so now it’s turn for libraries.

Finland has been a world leader in library usage. We have had a good literacy rate and there have been many books published in Finnish, so people also read a lot. Interconnected with this reading is of course the Finnish municipal library system. We do have other libraries (like the National library in which my father used to work), but usually when talking about the library I mean the municipal libraries.

They have been used much in Finland in the past, though now the use is declining (only in Finnish, sorry). The fact that the libraries are very cheap or even free to use probably contributes to this. I’m not sure about most places, but at least here in the Helsinki metropolitan area the municipal library card (valid in the four cities here: Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen) is free and borrowing books (and other items, like cds or dvds, or console games) is free. There are small fees for reservations, but the excellent reservation system is so good that the 50 cents for reservation is a very good price.

The decline is not very well known. There are probably many reasons for that. It might be because the libraries are mainly a place for books and the books they buy are not that popular, or people might just read less.

One of the reasons will at least in the near future be the ebooks. Even though the libraries do have them even here for borrowing, there are problems with them and libraries. Not every publisher is happy with the library loans, and I’m not even sure how easy it is for a Finnish municipal library to negotiatie with a publisher based in, for example, Germany, not to mention the United States. The copying of books is an issue here. Every DRM scheme can be circumvented, and at least I’m not keen on even borrowing books which would have DRM on them.

Even with that, our local library has ebook readers and books for borrowing, so these are not unsurmountable problems. Also here in Finland people are allowed to make their own copies of music which they have gotten from legal sources, so for example cds borrowed from the library are perfectly okay for copying. The libraries pay more for this right, obviously, and nobody seems to think it’s a major issue, so I don’t think the ebooks are impossible.

Also the libraries are good repositories of books. I read a lot and buying all the books I read would be somewhat expensive and with physical books very difficult as we’d run out of bookshelves even faster than we do now. In addition to that, it’s very easy to go to the library and look for books either on a subject that I have thought of beforehand or just go and browse. Of course I can buy almost any book I can think of on the internet and even search for the books, but I haven’t yet found a web interface that’d be as good for browsing as the bookshelves of the library are.

Also borrowing books is good when you are not sure you want to own the book, either because you haven’t yet read the book or because you are sure you don’t want to own the book. I wouldn’t want this to go away even when the ebooks will dominate the market.

I have also bought books after reading them in the library and realizing that I want to own them.

Then there’s the searching for information. There’s of course search engines and forums on the net which either can automatically help searching or have users who might know where to find information, but when I’ve asked librarians about where to find some obscure piece of information, they’re unsurpassed. Also the libraries contain also old books – not everything is on the Internet, yet – so having a repository of information from thousands of years has its merits.

This also comes back to the piece I wrote on the permanence of items. If somebody makes a book, chances are the effort is big enough that not everything gets printed and somebody should have done some editing, so the books are an edited version of information. This doesn’t of course hold for all books, as there’s a lot of complete crap published, but it works for me.

So, librarians and having books from many years ago are good things. Even if the information itself would be out of date, there’s the metadata (heh) about the history: you can tell a lot about the time period and even how people thought by reading old books. I would want that to stay. Of course, it seems that having good skills in searching for information and deciding what to trust is important with the Internet, but having professionals for that for everybody is useful.

The libraries as  repositories is of course not so much of a matter for municipal libraries, though they do their part there, but more of the aforementioned National library, and of course other, smaller and more dedicated libraries.

This far I have been talking about libraries as places to borrow books (and that other stuff) from and perhaps ask what to read. The libraries have other uses, too, and they are very useful for poor people.

One thing the libraries here do is subscribe to a lot of newspapers and magazines. One can of course debate how useful they are, but I did address that already. Subscribing to all magazines would be again expensive and it’s good to have them available. One option for not subscribing to a daily newspaper, especially with little money, is to go to the library and read the newspaper there. I have read a lot of magazines (for example Scientific American) in the library when I didn’t have the money to subscribe to that, and I did read a lot of Pienoismalli scale modeling magazines as a kid, but I really didn’t want to subscribe  them.

This is a good thing from libraries: they provide subscriptions to magazines and newspapers for people who for various reasons don’t want to get them to their home.

Here the libraries also have other services. Every library seems to have at least a computer or two with an Internet connection and they’re very useful again for people who for some reason don’t have (or want) one at home. I think, with no reference, that they are very useful for many people, especially nowadays when more and more services are only on the Internet.

There are also more rare things which libraries are in an unique position to provide. Today I was in a story reading session for children, in a library. This session was special in that it was done in the Finnish sign language, taped and should’ve been broadcast on the Internet. Technical problems prevented the sending of the story, but old sessions have been made available already.

This is one thing libraries are a very good enabler for. They aren’t the only organization in this, but they did provide the room and technical and practical experience on doing story sessions. I think doing that would’ve been much more difficult without libraries.

There are probably other good reasons for libraries, even in the changing world where all books would be available on a personal mobile device for almost free, but this is getting long already. Please add reasons in the comments if you can think of them.

There’s also the fact that I seem to have a face which the local librarians notice easily. I don’t think I’ve lived anywhere where the librarians don’t remember me soon after moving there. The libraries are a very important part in my life, and I spend a lot of time in them, for reasons stated above and also because I just like them. For some years now we have visited the local library almost weekly with my daughter. She seems to be growing into it, too, and I hope her possible children would have libraries, too.

On physical media

Even though most of the media I consume nowadays is available in downloadable digital form, accessible through the internet, I still have some soft spot for some physical media.

I haven’t yet bought that much music online. I’m an annoying nitpicker and almost all the music I have bought in the last 25 years has already been digital, except the ten or so LPs I did buy because I got them cheap (I don’t have an LP player anymore). I still buy cds occasionally, but less than I used to, because after putting all my collection on a hard disk, I found out that I have more than enough music to listen to. So, there quite few new physical music items in the house. I do buy some records by small Finnish bands occasionally, though, and I do like the album art on some cds, but I rarely look at it, so I probably could do without buying physical music at all.

This week Jari, my friend, commented that I’m “one of them”. I asked what he meant and he said that I’m one of the few people who still subscribe to physical magazines. The one I had just mentioned I subscribe because my union provides a subscription two magazines out of eleven, and I thought this computer magazine, MikroPC, would be good. I also subscribe to Scientific American.

I like to subscribe to these two magazines. They both have interesting articles, and I probably could subscribe to them digitally and read most of the articles online, but for me having the physical magazine makes me read them more thoroughly. Even if I could subscribe to the magazines for a tablet (and if I had a tablet), I probably wouldn’t. I throw the magazines away after reading, though I do pass the Scienfic Americans to my father-in-law first. (He does the same thing for Tekniikan maailma for me.) This means I don’t collect them, like I used to do for some magazines earlier.

The physical magazine is somehow a collection of interesting articles and other pieces, which somebody has put some effort to compile. This makes it more enticing to read for me than the same articles on the internet, and they are a reminder at home for me that I do have some reading to do. It’s very easy for me to get distracted when I’m on a computer, so I don’t feel I concentrate on the reading that much.

So, for now I’ll subscribe to some magazines, just to get the editing done. I do miss the Mathematical Recreations columns in Scientific American, but there are other good columns in it. even now. When I get a tablet, I’ll probably subscribe to other publications, but on the desktop computer I don’t see the need, and even with a tablet I probably won’t read in the same way.

We also do own a lot of books. I have bought less and less books lately, but I haven’t yet bought a tablet or an ebook reader, for various reasons, mostly having to do with Yet Another Device syndrome and DRM. I will probably get a tablet at some point and hope it can double as a non-DRM ebook reader, which it presumably will, but the time hasn’t yet come. I do use the library a lot, and they loan out physical books still.

I have long venerated the physicality of books – I like them as objects in themselves, as my parents owned (and still own) a lot of books, and like the idea of having a filled bookshelf. I have also thought of physical books as being more permanent than ebooks, but John Scalzi wrote this week about the permanence of books, and that got me thinking. I already consider my “real” music to be on the disk, so why not books? I think I stated the reasons in the previous paragraph, though I still like books. I won’t get rid of all the physical books, but when the DRM problems get solved, and when somebody thinks of publish ebooks usably in Finnish, I’ll get a reader and not look back.

For some things having multiple physical books is a boon, though. I have planned many roleplaying sessions with 5-10 books open at relevant pages and even though an ebook device (or a computer) can of course have that many books open, the display is not as large as my kitchen table or living room floor. (I expect to have a working kitchen table touchscreen in the future, though. This will change things.) So, for that having the books just as ebooks would not be as useful as physical books. Also for some art references it’s good to have multiple books open.

Today I also noticed that I have too many physical media for computer games. I finally threw out the Space Quest collection I had. It didn’t work very well in the Windows XP I tried to run it in last, as the discs said that the game was optimized for MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. As these are not very current systems and I can get the game (rather, games) for current Windows at Good Old Games very cheaply, there’s no point in having the games on cds as badly working versions.

Usually I don’t like buying the same content twice in different formats, but getting old programs working is always a hassle. I also don’t play those old games that much, so I don’t have to buy them.

I should probably sometime soon go through the games I own and see which ones to throw away. Not the Ultima V box, as the map is very good, but other stuff could go.

It seems that mostly I don’t need most physical media, though there are some benefits to it, and also some nostalgy. The permanency issue is not clear-cut and I think I’ll return to it later as this is getting somewhat long already.