Arms and armour in Middle Earth – Update

I spent some thought on yesterday’s post (mostly, to make sure I had not written bullshit). I ended up picking up my Italian translation of David Day’s Tolkien Bestiary: a book pretty much hated by Tolkien fans these days, I assume deservedly (one third of the information seems to have been, well, entirely made up). The quality of the illustrations, though, is indisputable.

I am now in a position to crown the most “techno-faithful” Tolkien illustrator in all matters of arms and armour: Victor Ambrus.  His warriors, mostly elves, wear long chain mail hauberks, occasionally supplemented by small plates. They have simple conic helms, and wield single handed melee weapons (spears, axes, swords) coupled with round or oval shields. Pretty much what Tolkien himself would have drawn, had he been able to, I guess.

Last but not least, the man also gave us one of the most beautiful renditions of Galadriel: maybe less ethereal than Alan Lee‘s, but surely miles above Angus McBride‘s glorified Barbie doll. So kudos to Mr. Ambrus!

Arms and armour in Middle Earth

[While this blog is meant to be dedicated to RPGs, I will from time to time comment on other, loosely related topics. ]

It is not terribly surprising that in the last couple of years, when I happened to develop a renewed interest in RPGs, I have also started feeling the desire to reopen my old Tolkien books. I had read (Italian translations of) them in the early Nineties, a time when Jackson’s trilogy had not make them mainstream yet. In fact, reading Tolkien was very much a niche thing, made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that in Italy he was popularly associated with neo-fascists (long story, don’t ask). I was of course immensely impressed by them , and they surely left a mark on my RPG imagery (at least, in the Fantasy genre).

If and when I will have found the time to re-read the books, I will write something about how I did not like Jackson’s adaptation very much. Now I would like to limit myself to a (comparatively harmless) background issue that some people might have missed: the military technology of the movies is entirely different from the one implied in the books. As exemplified by this interesting encyclopedia entry,  in Tolkien’s Middle Earth armour reduces to chain mail and helms, much like what you see on the Bayeux tapestry.  As for melee weapons, spears, swords and axes are most often mentioned in the books, and all of them were wielded one handed and coupled with shields. The movies “modernize” the armament quite a bit, showing men-at-arms in plate armour which brandish longswords with two hands.  In the books, it also seems to be the case that (at least when it comes to fighting) men and elves are culturally homogeneous: not the case in the movies, where elves are given distinctly exotic armour and curved single-edged swords.

Interestingly, good old MERP was tempted in the same direction: while many illustrations were roughly “correct”, the game did include stats for plate armour and two handed weapons, and many key characters (including Morgoth) were given (often magical) plate armour as their armour of choice.

Even more interestingly, the two legendary illustrators who were consultants for Jackson, Alan Lee and John Howe, differed noticeably when it came to armour. Alan Lee offered a very faithful rendition, depicting men and others in mail armour very much like those in the tapestry. Howe, on the other, could not resist the appeal of polished metal, and gave us a some gorgeous warriors in full plate.

Ode to a FLGS

Let me make one thing clear first. In the old days, local game stores were the only option. The large Italian city I grew up in had just a bunch of those: they were rarely well stocked, and none of them was terribly “friendly”, in spite of the acronym. And compared to, say, bookstores or music stores, they were also quite pricey. And yet, when I was getting older and they were closing one after another, it was nothing to rejoice about.

Today I discovered that one of them, after many changes of name and place, still exists. And, incredibly enough, it has shelves full of old Iron Crown material (MERP, Rolemaster, Spacemaster) , all in good conditions. It sells volumes away at prices ranging from 3 to 20 euros, when old, battered, dog-chewed copies are sold on Ebay at 50 dollars plus shipping. Some of those crappy copies I had JUST bought on Ebay myself. What could I say? Should I have told the guy that he was missing a fortune by selling rarities from the Eighties at one fifth, or one tenth of their value on the aftermarket? What if he had chosen to do so, for reasons I cannot fathom (nostalgia, old school gaming solidarity, poverty vows)?

I instantly bought a good bunch of his treasures. Had I been a true collector, I would have secured the whole lot, because besides being stellar quality material and rarities, they are also worth a discrete sum. But since I am a mere hobbyist with a limited budget, I limited myself to what seemed most interesting. Surely, I will find the time to review some of the material on this blog.

Balance and class restrictions in D&D

It is reasonable that game authors, at times, need to impose some limitations on characters, not to let some class or style of character to overshadow all the others. But to put it bluntly, the fluff must cover the crunch: arbitrary mechanical limitations must be justified in the setting, however vaguely. In D&D we have always had this problem with things such as (a) Vancian magic (never justified in setting: I will write about it some day) or (b) weapon limitations. Strange as it seems, the case of clerics was, if anything, less absurd than, say, the cases of magic users and thieves. BECMI, which strictly enforced the “no sharp weapons” ban for clerics, explicitly gave a religious taboo as explanation: “you shall not shed blood”. Of course, things got awkward when you realized that the same ban was supposed to apply to clerics of all sorts of chaotic and/or evil deities: in BECMI adventures, evil clerics such as Xanathon or the Master wielded maces or warhammers, never spears or swords. In fact, one could go as far as to say that this ban is more plausible than the entirely arbitrary dichotomy which is enforced in post-2000 editions between simple and martial weapons: there, it is obvious that the only basis for the distinction is the will to handicap thieves and clerics, because it is obviously awkward to imagine that the spear (the main infantry weapon for millennia) should be regarded as “simple” as opposed to “martial”. AD&D2e had injected some common sense by saying that clerics were expected to have restricted choice of weapons, but the exact restriction was to be determined in setting, depending first of all on the respective cults. But the bans on thieves or magic users were and are entirely unjustified. Nothing explains why they should not be able to use certain weapons or, worse, to wear armour. Mind you: one reasonable way out would have been to say that if they did wear heavy armour, they could not use their special abilities (casting spells or doing furtive things). That would have made sense (Rolemaster did that with magic). But no, the authors were adamant about it: people could not use the weapons or wear armour, that was all. How to justify it in game, was up to the DM. It is nice, if somewhat amusing, that this particular flaw of the D&D system was never solved to this day, while for years people fought edition wars over attack tables vs THAC0 vs roll-over-AC. De gustibus, I say.

EDIT (5 June 2015): I had entirely forgotten (in spite of playing the game for at least two years!) that AD&D2e had penalties to thieves skills when they wore armour, as opposed to flatly forbid them to do so. Wizards, on the contrary, were never allowed to wear any armour because “they had no time to learn about armor” (sic).

What I think of when I think of HERO

[This post initiates a series dedicated to my opinions, recollections and personal impressions of classic systems and games.]

I first came to know HERO in the guise of Champions, and I became familiar with the cover of Champions 4e, AKA the Big Blue Book: I never managed to have it in my hands, but I remember it being discussed/advertised in gaming magazines. Skip one decade: an old friend of mine (a much better connoisseur of RPGs than me) had just bought the then brand new HERO System 5th edition (the 2002 unrevised version), and let me browse it with the promise “with this thing, you can build anything you like”. By then I was already more or less out of gaming, or at least, out of GMing, so nothing came of it. In my recent days of RPG revival, I managed to browse through some PDF editions of HERO materials, but I still have not studied (you do not read this stuff: you study it) or played anything. So, what do I know about HERO? Little. And yet, I am strongly convinced (a) that HERO is the most influential system after D&D, and (b) that its approach to “extras” is the most complete and elegant system ever devised in a game.

First, even though I am no historian of RPGs, I am inclined to think that (the first game to “champion” the HERO System) introduced or at least popularized the notion of point-buy character creation. Bear in mind that early RPGs followed the lead of D&D in building characters on random foundations: you rolled dice for your attributes, in some games you even rolled the dice for your class/profession. Where rules for background were available (place of birth, social condition, relations) they also involved rolling dice. Two prominent examples from my early days of gaming are MERP and Stormbringer. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, but it does presuppose a fair amount of flexibility, good nature, or at least fatalism on the player’s part. I seem to remember somebody who rolled a “beggar” (sic) on the profession table of Stormbringer, and was not exactly happy. Champions gave you some points and said: use them to build a character you feel like playing. Personally, I was exposed to the approach only in the early 90s via GURPS, but even then I knew that Champions was the precursor in this respect. Today, point-buy character creation is the norm, rather than the exception. In fact, I cannot think of one single system that endorses a purely (or even predominantly) random approach to character creation. The two most beloved universal systems these days, Fate and Savage Worlds, use rough equivalents of point-buy systems for character creation. In fact, all the recent editions of D&D had to reduce more and more the random component in the character generation. All of this began with the HERO System, so here I come to my first claim: HERO introduced the most fundamental innovation in game design (or at least, in the character creation subsystem) since the beginning of the hobby. For this alone, HERO has my fullest respect.

Second, the rules for power design. Here, again, HERO has been followed by countless systems, unbeknownst to many readers and players. The great insight behind HERO is that everything “extra” about characters, everything that goes beyond basic attributes and skills, has to be treated in a uniform manner in terms of character creation. Advanced technology, magic, psionics, cinematic martial arts: one system to describe them all. The trick, of course, was to describe them in the most abstract manner: anything that could do damage at a distance had a certain cost in points, anything that let the character fly had another cost etc. The source of these powers, the specifics, were immaterial. Of course, single instances of the power could be differentiated by limitations: if your death ray comes from a weapon, maybe it has batteries that can run out, if it is a gift from the Gods, perhaps not. This approach, if at times counterintuitive, has in fact the greatest expressive power (most of what you find in any kind of fiction can be replicated decently in HERO) and maximal consistency (one unified system). The appeal of this approach is such that one of the most acclaimed system of the late 90s, Tri-Stat, basically cloned it. Even GURPS came back to take inspiration from its older brother when in the 4th edition catalogue it included GURPS Powers: basically, a HERO-style toolkit adjoined to the old GURPS. Again, Fate and Savage Worlds were not entirely immune from this influence, I think. But none comes close to the elegance of the original model.

Funnily, the little I know about the actual game mechanics of HERO (the combat system, action resolution etc.) leaves me sort of cold. I find the combat system at the same time abstract and slow, two properties which one does not expect to go together. The emphasis on non-fatal (‘stun’) damage, which I guess originates from the superhero settings, is perplexing. But it might be me: I have read tons of Marvel and DC comics as a teen, but I have never really been into the notion of superhero RPGs. Also, from what I have seen, HERO rulebooks read much less leisurely than GURPS books (at least, less than good old 3e).

So, shall I buy the books? Would I play the game? I am not sure. I am wary of the mammoth-like Revised 5th edition, and of the 6th edition (two fat volumes that make GURPS books look like Penguin paperbacks in comparison). Not to mention the fact that the first volume of the 6th edition seems to be out of print, and is currently being sold at crazy prices, and when I say “crazy” I am not thinking “much beloved D&D classics”, I am thinking “well cut blue diamonds”. So if I managed to find a decent copy of the 2002 book, slimmer and cheaper, I might add it to my reference library and give it a serious try.