Sunday, August 22, 2010

Artifact Powers

Just some brief thoughts. If you're unfamiliar with the artifact and relics power/effects tables from first edition AD&D, Mr. Jeff Reints explains them here.

If you're like me, those tables have fascinated you for decades. To look at Baba Yaga's hut and know it was an artifact of mythic power but not know what powers it had, was tantalizing. It makes me long to either find the Hut as a player, or run a campaign as a DM that the has the Hut.

In a way, that evocative uncertainty is what makes D&D work. We know of dragons, and wizards, and the City of Brass. But we don't really know about those things. Nothing definite; I don't know the street plan of the City of Brass, though I feel it's more real for me than a city like Baltimore, or Ottawa, places I've also never been but that evoke nothing for me personally. Likewise, we've all read about powerful mages, but the stories all differ. And so each DM can have their own vision of such wondrous things as wizards, and dragons, and Baba Yaga's Hut.

This is especially fascinating in that it's counter to the whole Gygaxian tendency to codify everything in 1e. It really is a quirk of a wargamey desire to not have players knowing all the game secrets that ended up giving DMs some creative breathing room.

I'll go farther and say those tables are the best thing in the 1e DM's guide and their real benefit was unintended.*

And it's interesting how we can have this cross-blog conversation about artifacts using this simple system of roman numerals and understand each other. I think that other loose but simple standards might help us DIYers communicate back and forth, maybe poison types, or treasure types, anything that would benefit from a kind of communal short hand.

  1. Artifact power tables are a perfect example of just the amount of detail in a game product; enough backstory to get me interested but not so much I can't make it my own.
  2. The system used for categorizing their magical effects is a simple and useful tool for facilitating communication between all of us.
Now that I think of it, I guess that's what I was going for with my unfinished Mix-n-Match charts; a sort of community effects table. Just imagine if a module even used such a system for traps, rather than spelling them out. Saying something like "Triggering will result in two Type I effects." And the DM could customize to their liking.

(*I don't mean to be provocative, but this is why I don't get all starry-eyed thinking about Gygax. Yes he helped create something really new under the sun. But I don't think he really understood it, because he almost immediately started down a path to make D&D more centralized, codified, and focused on tournament play. All features in no way new under the sun. If he had only focused on empowering DMs the way he had in B1, B2 and these tables, rather than constraining them, imagine what we might have had by now.)


  1. I wouldn't say that AD&D is as codified and centralised as some people make out. Take this quote:

    "This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places, they are guidelines and suggested methods only. This is part of the attraction of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"

    from page 8 of the Players' Handbook, 1978

    For me, that says "Use what you want, get rid of the bits you don't want, make up other bits; the game is yours"

    Of course for tournament play, there has to be a standard, recognised quorum of rules, but tournament play is such a minuscule part of what D&D is that I don't think it's even worth considering. Gygax may have wanted it to be, but like quicksilver, it slipped through his fingers. The genie was out of the bottle and it's resisted all attempts to recapture.

  2. I think the irony is that D&D may have slipped through the fingers because they were so poor at centralizing and codifying.

    It's true there are several places in the rules sentiments like the one you quote can be found. In the very same rule book there are also explicit rules about:

    Minimum and maximum ability scores for races to be considered for certain classes.

    Absolute minimum and maximum ability scores for gender.

    Limitations on which races can be which classes and what level limits the receive.

    Racial preferences.

    Alignment restrictions on class.

    Rules for multi-classing and dual classing.

    All of these are things I imagine individual referees might change, and are not central to a successful D&D game, but if you ignored enough of these it would be odd to say you were playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

    There was always a kind of double message: "People can play whatever they want at home, but these are the official rules."

    So why does it matter to me? Because can you imagine if back in 1978 Gygax wrote something about making a sandbox and how player choice worked in his campaigns?

    And you're probably right that tournament play was minuscule in the culture, but I'd argue that it dominated the published adventures. Can you imagine how different the culture would have been if TSR had turned out a line of hundreds of one-page dungeons rather than the high-level, linear tournament modules that became the models of play.

    I know, I shouldn't bitch. I should be happy at the bounty of the OSR now. I don't know why it bugs me, maybe because it took the company going under and the game itself being rendered unrecognizable before we could have back the freedom they had when they first invented it.

  3. Great post. I too look at the tables and charts in the DMG with wonder. It is the randomness that still holds the magic of the game. The tighter you make the ruleset, the more magic slips through your fingers. (you can quote me on that) :)