Thursday, August 11, 2016


If you're into dinosaurs and paleontology, you'll doubtless already know all about Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, a recently (2014) described primitive Neornithischian from Siberian fossil sites in the Ukureskaya formation.  I've been trying to narrow down exactly when this formation tracks to, but so far all that I've been able to find is that it's somewhere between the Bajocian and the Tithonian; a period of almost 20 million years that covers 6 ages of the Middle and Late Jurassic; although at least one source states that the find is "probably" from the older portion of that rather large window.  The dating of the formation in general is poorly understood, but as a type comparison, Kulindadromeus comes out cladistically as extremely closely related to other basal Neornithischians such as Othnielosaurus from the late Jurassic Morrison Formation of western USA, or Hexinlusaurus of Middle Jurassic China.  This would place it as a very primitive member of the odds and ends group of what are usually classified as hypsilophodontids; some studies even have these primitive members outside of Ornithopoda altogether, and even outside of Cerapoda.

In any case, it's about as far as can be from the bird-ancestry therapod lineages where most of the feathered dinosaurs have so far been discovered.  When there were suggestive discoveries such as possible feather-like plumes on Tianyulong or Psittacosaurus, I was saying back in 2009 that I'd have bet a "hypsilophodontid" with feathers would be the clincher, assuming one turned up that was well and truly feathery.  Kulindadromeus is that specimen.  The following image carefully crafts what it was discovered with on integument impressions.

Anyway, as I said back in 2009 while describing Tianyulong, the implications of finding feathered Ornithischians that have homologous integument to therapods is, of course, that it means such a feature had to have been ancestral to all dinosaurs.  Boom.  Most specialists also recognize that these type of proto-feathers appear to be homologous with pycnofibers on pterosaurs, meaning that it is actually ancestral to all Ornithodirans.  At least.

Of course, I've also talked about the beta keratin genomic studies of alligator scales that suggest that they may also be homologous as a structure (even if they are not in appearance).  All it would take now is the discovery of a protofeather integument to be found on a small, gracile suchid of some sort, like Hesperosuchus or Terrestrisuchus to push what this tantalizing hint may be pointing at: that the evolution of protofeathers may go back all the way to the base of Archosauria.  At least.  Given other anatomic details that suggest warm-bloodedness may have been common in Suchia prior to the actual crocodiles and co. losing it so they could be better semi-aquatic ambush predators, that's not even very far-fetched really.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves quite yet...

Friday, August 05, 2016

Totems of the Dead race/culture calques

Although the Totems of the Dead setting isn't entirely humanocentric, it mostly is.  The Feral Ones and the Skinwalkers are the exceptions; and they're mostly human, just touched with a bit of the supernatural (not unlike how I did it in DARK•HERITAGE to be honest.)  Because my MAMMOTH LORDS is based on a very similar premise (actually, almost the identical premise, plus Ice Age animals) I thought it might be fun to see what they did, and then compare it to my own "calques."

For those who don't remember me using it before, or who are otherwise unfamiliar with the term, calque is a linguistic word that refers to borrowing a phrase or from one language into another, but "translating" it rather than it simply being a loanword, which is borrowed as is without translation.  For example, in English, when we refer to Kindergarten, that is a loanword from German.  If it were a calque, we'd call it "kids' garden" or something similar, because that's what it means in German.  In Tom Shippey's wonderful book The Road to Middle-earth, he describes that Tolkien (both Shippey and Tolkien are linguists) used the concept to "calque" or translate, actual historical cultures into a fantasy milieu, so that the Rohirrim are, in fact, horse-riding Anglo-Saxons of the Anglo-Saxon period of English history—but slapped smack-dab into Middle-earth as allies of Gondor.

Robert E. Howard had already "calqued" (although naturally he didn't use that word) a number of cultures together to create the Hyborian Age; in fact, the Hyborian Age is just a big cobbled together patchwork quilt of calqued historical cultures.  For example, the Aquilonians are essentially the Carolingians, the Nemedians are the Byzantines, the Aesir and Vanir are the Vikings, the Cimmerians are the Gaels (both Scottish and Irish) his Stygia is ancient Egypt, etc.  Games Workshop also calqued the Old World in many ways; Bretonnia is medieval France, the Empire is the Holy Roman Empire, Tilea is Renaissance Italy, Estalia is an immediately post-Reconquista Spain, and you can easily imagine exactly what places like Norsca, Ind, Cathay, and Araby, for instance, are meant to be calques of.

Anyway, the races of Totems of the Dead correspond more direclty with what I'm doing with MAMMOTH LORDS because in both cases, they take a Hyborian Model and apply it to the New World at the time of the Viking settlement.  Totems actually does more than I did, because it's a slightly bigger, more expansive and varied setting than I am likely to develop—but not by much.  Anyway, we've got:

Amizani: Amazons.  I'm not sure why Amazons are associated with the New World, but Warhammer did it too.  They're a completely fictional thing taken from vague reference by Herodotus to what are most likely Sarmatian women.  I don't see any reason to have New World Amazons, so I have no corresponding group in MAMMOTH LORDS.

Arctic Tribesmen:  Eskimos, basically.  I'm using Inutos—a name borrowed from Lovecraft which obviously is similar to Inuit, to represent them.

Atlantean: In Totems, Atlanteans are not dissimilar to how they are presented in Howard's earlier Kull stories, although they still have a memory of the high civilization that they've left behind.  In fact, Atlanteans here are seen as refugees from political turmoil; Atlantis itself hasn't sunk yet and the threat of Atlantean invasion is one of the main conflicts of the setting.  In MAMMOTH LORDS Atlantis has already sunk, but it was a wicked, decadent place, and the Atlantean colonies on the southeast of the New World are meant to be more like the Black Numenoreans with even more black sorcery than they are any historical group.

Bantanu:  This name is very close to the actual group Bantu, and as such, it refers to an African colonization of the New World which is ahistorical, of course, in real life.  Totems also has the Bantanu as possessing a high culture that is largely dissimilar to anything that ever really happened in sub-Saharan Africa, but I suppose you could see them as similar to the Mali or Songhai Empires, but more "utopianized" in terms of art and refined civilizational features.  Which is, of course, a little bit ironic since those were Mande and Nilo-Saharic cultures, not Niger-Congo cultures, like the Bantu.  Whatever.  I have no corresponding group in MAMMOTH LORDS.

Buffalo Plains Tribesmen:  Referring of course to the Plains Indians, of various ethno-linguistic persuasions, but all of whom had a very similar economy and social and material culture, like the Sioux, the Blackfoot, the Comanche, etc.  I've got two names for them in my setting: Tatonkans and Nakota.  In theory, there should be many tribes that are only loosely affiliated, if at all, by similar life-style, but I doubt I really need to come up with names for all of them.

Desert Tribesmen: Refer to the cliff dwelling Pueblo indians like the Hopi and the Zuni.  I also include them, and have offered up the names Kayenta and Azani.

Eagle Coast Tribesmen: This refers to the Pacific Northwest coast indians; you know, the tribes that made the famous totem poles of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Vancouver.  I hadn't really given much thought to the PNW as a region that I was likely to use, so I don't have any corresponding group. Instead, I'll actually have "Muans"—Ainu-like people who represent the remnants of Kennewick Man-style pre-Indians.  From the other lost continent of Mu, of course.  Maybe they'll be responsible for Easter Island like heads too.

Eastern Woodlands Tribesmen:  For Totems, they went with the probably rather expedient lumping of the Algonquin and Iroquois groups as eastern woodlands tribesmen.  I've elected to keep them separate, because the ethnic and political tension between the Iroquois confederation and the more loosely (but also more numerous and spread through greater geographical area is an important dynamic of the Colonial period of America, and therefore what we actually know something concrete about.  The Ojowe and Saunak are the MAMMOTH LORDS calque of the Algonquins, and the Mowawk and Wendat are my Iroquois.

Grandfather Mountains Tribesmen: The Totems map of the continent only has one bit, young, craggy western mountain range, so it kinda applies to the Rockies combined with the Sierra Nevada and Cascades together; the Great Basin and American Southwest area that is intermontaine in real life is merely east of the Grandfather Range here.  In real life, the tribes associated with the mountains are usually the same tribes that are associated with the plains nearby—which was ecologically much more productive and fertile anyway.  I don't know who these guys are supposed to be a calque of, or if they're even a calque of anyone at all.

Ruskar:  Although the Russian settlement of parts of America, especially Alaska, post-dates the timing of the setting considerably (to the extent that it represents a "real" time to any degree) Totems has gone ahead and added what are essentially Cossack-style steppe barbarians to the setting.  It's actually a pretty fun idea.  I don't have them, but my "Vikings" have a number of other nations that are along for the ride—nations that were historically associated to some degree with the Vikings, like the Anglo-Saxons, the Gaelic guys, and the Rus Norse-Slavic syncretic culture.  I've got the Haestings, Angl-Saxons, and the Gaidhel, similar to Hiberno-Norse and Scottish.  Although initially dragged along in the shadow of the "Vikings", they've now arrived in sufficient numbers to have their own enclaves and whatnot.

Shenese: There is a lot of evidence to suggest that there may have been a limited Chinese presence on the West coast, which is what the Shenese represent.  I had that idea too, although I called them Fusangites, i.e., from Fusang, the Chinese name for what is believed to be a North American colony.  As with the pseudo-Vikings, my pseudo-Chinese colony is more of an established entity, and not merely an ephemeral beachhead.

Skadian: The Vikings of Totems.  I use Vendels as my name, with the alternate name of Norsmenn.  In Totems, they are posited to be three different subraces; the Oesir, the Einheir, and the Sea Wolves.  The first two are comparable to REH's split between the Aesir and the Vanir while the Sea Wolves are a more overtly piratical group.  I'm only going to go with one variety of pseudo-Vikings, but because I have pseudo-Anglo-Saxons and pseudo-Scots along for the ride, that gives me enough variety.

Southern Empire Tribesmen: The inhabitants of either Maztlani (pseudo-Aztecs) or Yuarcoan (pseudo-Incan) empires.  My setting doesn't go that far south.

Spirit Plateau Tribesmen:  I'm not exactly sure what these guys represent.  I'm not 100% sure what the Spirit Plateau represents (the Columbia Plateau, maybe?)  They seem to be Plains Indians but separated by religious tradition or something.  Needless to say, I have no real analog in my setting.

I also have an Arctic population that may be kinda sorta like Great Perm, except that I don't really know much about them.  I'll make them more or less a Finnish-Lapplander hybrid, call them Kvens, and make them refugees of Zobna, with their new land called Lomar (shout-out to HPL, yo.)

I doubt that they'll be major players in the New World, but I do have a handful of other Old World calques that may or may not make cameo appearances: pseudo-Turko-Mongols called Komans, pseudo-Byzantines called Komnenians (for whom some of the Vendels may have served as Varangian Guards) and pseudo-slav/cossacks called Kayazy.  And I might have Cahokians; mound-builder types, although I'm actually mostly thinking that they'd have been enslaved and culturally swamped by Atlanteans on the southeast Gulf Coast area.

Friday, July 29, 2016


Just a bit of research that I'm doing for the DREAMLANDS REMIXED setting.  I'm a bit inspired after reading the first three stories of Libram Mysterium to look back into this kind of stuff.  Plus, sword & sorcery is always good.

Anyway, most of these details are from Lovecraft's very short story "Polaris" but some come from "The Mound" or "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" or other sources.  Every detail that I was able to scrounge about Lomar is presented here; which isn't much.  But it's enough to start with.  The image is one I found online at Mark Foster's blog and is of the cannibal Gnophkeh's whom the men of Lomar defeated to settle the land of Lomar, and who it is expected, will eventually reclaim the land after the Inutos finally defeat them.

I also plan on using the Inutos in my MAMMOTH LORDS setting, and if I'm doing that, why not Lomar too?

Anyway, without further ado: here are some details about Lomar.  All of the known details, as it happens.

capital city is Olathoë
which is located on the plateau of Sarkis
betwixt the peaks of Noton and Kadiphonek
there is a vaporous distant valley called Banof that can be seen from the towers of Olathoë
Olathoë is "ghastly" and built of towers, domes, pavements and pillars of marble
Olathoë is "many-templed" but only the worship of Tsathoggua is specifically mentioned
the upper part of the city has carved images of grave, bearded men
the Lomarians are tall and gray-eyed
Daikos is another city of Lomar
Lomar was at war with the Inutos and they were eventually over-run
the Inutos could come upon Olathoë via a narrow pass behind Noton
the watchtower of Thapnen guarded the pass
Alos is a politician-general of Olathoë
the Lomarians moved to Lomar from Zobna in the north due to advancing ice
Lomar is located near the north pole
the air of Olathoë was warm, despite it's northern lattitude
Olathoë contains a square with many statues from which its leaders speak
besides the Inutos, they Lomarians also contended with "hairy, long-armed cannibal Gnophkehs"
the Inutos are "squat, hellish yellow fiends" come from the west, who are mighty in the arts of war and fight without scruples of honor
the men of Lomar wear strange robes and are noble and wise
the men of Olathoë were the bravest of Lomar
the men of Lomar brought with them from Zobna the Pnakotic manuscripts as well as the "wisdom of [their] Zobnarian Fathers"
the Pole Star shines balefully above Olathoë and seems to be possessed of a malignant antipathy towards Lomar

Now, granted, we can presume, I think, that some of the above is nativist propaganda since it comes from a patriotic denizen of Olathoë itself.  But that's a sufficient capsule view of Lomar to make it usable, I think, to potential gamers.

It is worth noting that there are Gnophkehs and Gnoph-kehs, which are not the same.  The former, referred to here, are in the words of Clark Ashton Smith, "detested," "repulsively hirsute cannibals" from his Hyperborean chronicles, who worshiped the cosmic obscenity Rhan-Tegoth.  They were driven from Hyperborea by the Voormis to Lomar (the Voormis themselves supposedly the ancestors of the sasquatch and yeti.)  After being driven from Lomar by the men from Zobna (and there's a minor discrepancy between Smith and Lovecraft's narrative, since Zobna was north of Lomar, and the Lomarians drove the Gnophkehs to the north of Lomar also) they started worshiping instead Ithaqua.

The relationship between Lomar and Hyperborea is unclear; Lovecraft himself seems to have once hinted that they were indeed the same, or at least neighbors, and that Olathoë was very near to Commoriom, both located (presumably) under the ice of Greenland today in a letter to Smith. Smith called his Hyperborean stories the most similar to the Lovecraft Mythos (although told with a tone of grotesque humor not entirely compatible with the Mythos as it is normally presented.)

For my stories, I don't necessarily need to maintain every (admittedly not entirely consistent) detail as told by Lovecraft and Smith of the area... but if I'm going to diverge, it's nice to know where I'm starting from first, at least.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Just in case anyone was wondering where I went;

  • A week at Sundance for a family reunion.  Spent very little time online, and none on the blog
  • On the way home, my son was hospitalized and diagnosed with Type I diabetes.  Spent the entire week in a hospital en route.
  • Came back to an absolutely crazy amount of work that had piled up while I was away.  Been too busy with work to log on during the day and post, and too busy with stuff at home to do so at night.
So, I haven't had anything to post, or any time to post even if I had material.

Should be back on track in early August—just in time for another week and a half out of town.

Sigh.  It's been a rough summer.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Random encounter tables

I didn't use this specific piece.  But this is the exact kind of public
domain art that I did use, and I have other pieces from this same artist.
I've spent a little time on my FANTASY HACK m20, which is what I'm calling my "My Perfect D&D version" conversion.  Actually, I finished it, more or less, without much in the way of difficulty.  I bulked up the text from the CULT OF UNDEATH rules just a little bit; made a few updates, added a few details; mostly added some examples of use making the whole thing much friendlier to potential new players.  It came to 34 pages once a few illustrations were stuck in too.  One of those pages is the cover page, one is the table of contents, one is the character sheet (I had to make it from scratch, because porting into Google Docs so I could use it on any of my computers made a hash of the formatting—I opted for one that's meant to be printed out and written on by hand; an old-school type of sheet, if you will) and one is the OGL, so that puts it at 30 pages of actual document.  Roughly 2-3 pages worth of that is taken up by illustrations—all public domain old fashioned art like Gustav Dore and Howard Pyle and Alphonse de Neuville type stuff; fun artwork from a happier day.  Another 2-3 pages is taken up by examples, and another 2 or so pages is the Author's Note and Introduction.  This is still very much a small, rules-light version of the game.

Starting on page 35, I get going on the Appendices.  The first one I'm creating pretty much from scratch, and I admit that it will probably undergo various revisions.  My first draft is, admittedly, a bit rambly and covers all kinds of topics from GM style advice; a distillation and exegesis of everything I've read in the past that actually worked in practice, to advice on how to handle wilderness travel, to random encounter tables (which are themselves heavily modeled after the ones in the Cook/Marsh Expert set.)  All in all, I'm not super happy with the Appendix I; I think it needs to be better organized, and maybe just significantly rewritten altogether.  It ends up being a little bit GMing rules/mechanics material, a little bit philosophical treatment on how I prefer to run the game, and a little bit of a few other things too, which makes the whole thing a little bit uncomfortably random.  But, I've got a first draft done, and that's usually the hardest part anyway.  And maybe the format isn't really a problem, especially as it's an Appendix and therefore optional by default.  Still trying to decide exactly what I want my random encounters tables to look like as the major open issue.

The Appendix II, which includes new races, new classes, and the race and class builders that I've already developed for DARK•HERITAGE and elsewhere was easy; after all, I'd already developed it.  The Appendices in general were largely modeled after Part 8 the Cook/Marsh Expert book, and like that book's own sample Grand Duchy of Karameikos, I wanted to have a sample hex map with setting.  I was surprised, I admit, at how sparse the material was that they presented in the Expert book, though.  In only three pages (two of which are maps/images) they give us everything that we get.  I had forgotten that; I guess I expected a much more robust key.  I'm still working on my Appendix III; I've got a map already, and if I key it the way the Expert set did, I could go to "press" with half an hour or so more work.  I'm not sure I want to be quite that Spartan; I might add several pages of hex key detail.

So between needing to polish and work on Appendix I and figure out exactly how much work I want to put into Appendix III; I'm done.  I'll have ended up being a little short on my page-count estimate.  Even if I go the super-short route for describing Timischburg, my sample setting, I'll probably end up somewhere closer to 50 pages than the 35-40 that I had estimated.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

D&D Mine

One curious artifact of the current DIY OSR and OGL inspired era of gaming is the fact that rather than printing up traditional "Fantasy Heartbreakers" folks are simply making D&D their own.  In some cases, these guys will attempt to sell their product; usually as PDF, sometimes via a Kickstarter or GoFundMe or somesuch, but many times, it's just put out there as a free PDF for anyone to use, peruse and pilfer as desired.  There may never have been—even in the dawn of the hobby—such a wide proliferation of "what do you want your own personal D&D game to look like?" being answered with substance, with detail, and with customization and personalization.  Given that I've been blogging quite a bit lately about various versions of D&D, it's fair to ask what I've actually got going on here.  And keep in mind that by "D&D" I mean "any game system that's meant to emulate a D&D-like 'generic' fantasy setting" so Pathfinder is a D&D; Microlite74 is a D&D, Delving Deeper is a D&D, etc.  It should also be apparent given my patterns, that my D&D is going to be some derivation of m20.  However, most of the m20 games that I've actually tinkered with myself have not been developed to emulate a D&D-like generic fantasy setting.  There is, however, one exception: the Cult of Undeath.

I went back and re-read that, made a few minor adjustments to the system, and thought of a few "holes" that probably should be filled.  I've decided to create this as an actual system; an actual game; not just a "mostly complete" game that is available as a wiki of sorts specifically designed to work with a small setting.  No, it's going to be a "Real Thing™."

What Needs to be Done?

The good news is: not much.  My system as an emulator of sorts of D&D is well over 90% complete.  I need to copy and paste the stuff I already have into a document that I can PDF up, including with a public domain illustration or two to pretty it up (maybe I'll use the image here; I like it a lot already), add a little bit of introductory text and very slightly more robust descriptions of the races, classes, spells, monsters, etc., and I'm good to go.  What I should also do, however, is bulk up the monster (and maybe the spell list) a little bit, and then add a couple of appendices.

The first appendix would be designed specifically to discuss a few GMing skills.  I would create some wandering monster tables, random tavern and NPC name tables, etc.—useful stuff that isn't really part of the game per se but which is useful to have.  Some magical items would be nice too, as my rule-set currently doesn't include any at all, other than various blasphemous tomes.  The second appendix would be optional rules.  I'd have the race and class builder rules, as articulated in my DARK•HERITAGE m20 rules as well as a few sample completed ones, mostly.  And then maybe I'd include a third appendix that's a sample hex map and hex key.  For this, I will use my Cult of Undeath material, which will also be nice, because I never really finished putting that together for Cult of Undeath.  I can kill two birds with one stone!

And that's it.  My roughly 20 pages of game as it stands right now would balloon all the way up to... 35-40 or so pages, I estimate?  Most of it based on material that I already have.  It will more be a task of organizing rather than actually creating much.  Oh, and I guess I need a name.  I called it before Cult of Undeath, because that was the campaign that I was proposing to use that system for.  Something more generic.  I dunno; FANTASY HACK m20, or something.

What makes your "D&D Mine" different from "D&D Someone Else"?

  • It's based on m20, so it's extremely rules-lite, including a drastic reduction of the stats, the skills, and elimination of saving throws.  It starts with only four basic classes and 5-6 races.  Tons of spells and monsters don't appear.  It's a very slim, stripped down version of d20, but it's so slim and stripped down that it doesn't really run anything like d20; it feels more like a smooth, consistent, rational version of OD&D in terms of how it plays.  This is, however, common to all m20 games, and is not specific to my m20 game.
  • Magic is not Vancian, it's Lovecraftian.  There's no magic-user (or wizard, or sorcerer, or cleric, etc.) class; anyone can learn any spell, providing he finds access to it.  There's no fire and forget.  Spells damage you to cast, representative of the physically taxing nature of casting magic.  They also threaten your sanity, and if you really botch something up, extradimensional predators might come for you (hounds of Tindalos.)  That said, it's not meant to be overly punishing to cast magic, although it certainly is a bit more risky.  It's just got a very different kind of pulp root than D&D does, and it has a very different feel.
  • The monster list is also skewed towards the Lovecraftian.  Although I'll probably go back in and add a few more classic, mythological type monsters and whatnot, I don't have tons of them right now; but I do have things like byakhees, gugs, shoggoths, etc.
  • When you add in the extra, optional rules of what will become Appendix 2, it essentially jettisons completely the notion that you need pre-fab classes or races, because you can build anything you want with them.  This may seem anathema to some old school D&Ders who think the archetype protection of the character class is an ironclad requirement, but classes in this game (and races too, for that matter) really only offer a modest benefit; some flavor for role-playing, rather than something that's constrictive and prescriptive.
  • While the game as it stands now doesn't make much in the way of assumptions about what kind of game you'll be running, once the appendices are out, it will better support wilderness exploration and urban gaming much more than dungeoneering.  Literally nothing about the rules for the classes, the races, or anything specific about task resolution, or anything else, will assume a dungeon.  While the system is certainly flexible enough to be used that way, if you so desire, what it's meant to be good at is fast and loose swashbuckling action story, like a fantasy version of Sabatini or Dumas, or something out of Burroughs, Howard or Leiber.
Anyway, this is a terrible distraction from the AD ASTRA stuff that I was supposed to be working on, but what can I say?  Sometimes my muse is fickle and has ADD, and because this is just a fun hobby, I don't intend to apply strict discipline to her.  I'm an overly indulgent parent to my muse, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Top Ten (and then another Ten) Troll Questions

This is an older blog fad that passed through a few years ago.  Naturally, I just discovered it, and naturally, I don't care how old it is, I'm going to answer them anyway.  This is, perhaps, an interesting Rorschach test for gaming tastes and preferences overall.

The First Set

1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?  I don't really care.  I tend to prefer no, but it's not a strong preference.  Part of this was Gary Gygax's own inability to come to terms with the idea that players might want to play anything other than human.  As I've aged, or my tastes have evolved, or whatever you want to call it, I've come more into sympathy with this perspective.  So I don't have any problem with what earlier seemed like bizarrely arbitrary rules like the race as class stuff (and #4 below too.)

2). Do demi-humans have souls? I have never once attempted to answer this question.  I know it's a permutation of the raise dead spell and some fluff around it, but I've never given it any thought.  I prefer that there be no raise dead spell at all, personally, and if there is, I prefer not to think through the metaphysical questions that it begs anyway.

3). Ascending or descending armor class? Ascending.  Descending is a bizarre artifact of older games.  And I never played enough D&D to ever really memorize the THAC0 table.  But again; not something that I care a lot about as a player.  As a GM, my preference is more strongly towards ascending.

4). Demi-human level limits? Sure, why not.  Honestly, moot point.  My own personal preference is for campaign level limits that are below the lowest of the demi-human level limits anyway.

5). Should thief be a class? Yes, absolutely.  It's one of my favorite classes to play.

6). Do characters get non-weapon skills? Yes, absolutely.  I strongly disagree with the received OSR wisdom that skills "ruined" the "I can do anything I want" paradigm of the game prior to their existence.  That's only true for profoundly stupid players—or at least players and GMs that lacked initiative and didn't believe in rulings.

7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)? I have no preference.  I will point out that in the sword & sorcery literature, magic-users tend to be played as if they are really powerful.  That said, fighters (like Conan, for instance) seem to routinely be able to deal with them.  Conan is, of course, exceptional.  But then, so are all PCs, right?

8). Do you use alignment languages? No.  I don't even use alignments.

9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc...)? Get rid of XP altogether.  Advancement to a new level is the purview of GM ruling.  This actually is a rule that I think would have been better off unstated and left in the GM's hands.  It's curious that OSRians complain so bitterly about skill systems taking rulings out of the hands of GMs (which isn't actually true) but they are often extraordinarily strict about how they think XP should be deployed.  I dislike XP altogether and prefer to toss the whole system.

10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E DD, 4E DD, Next ?  I'd play Moldvay for quite a while.  Eventually I'd get annoyed with its idiosyncrasies, but it'd take a while.  I'd play 3e, but only if it were contained within a fairly narrow window (I think the system is absolutely atrocious for the top two thirds of the levels presented.)  And curiously, even though it was designed to be foolproof from a DMing perspective, I think it requires more than most other systems a really good DM to be fun to play.  Either that or I just don't think the designers are good DMs and I disagree with them fundamentally on the nature of how to DM.  And finally, I'd play 5e just to try it out, I suppose, if someone else were to offer to run it.  That doesn't make it in the running for the "best" edition, but in reality, those are the only three that I'd even be willing to play at all.

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class? Don't have a strong opinion either way.  Don't care.  Surprising to me that I actually don't care a lot about more of these questions than I thought; but in most of them, even though I didn't care very much, I at least had a weak preference.  In this one, I honestly have no preference whatsoever.

The Second Set

1). Should energy drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?  No, that's complicated to do, and kinda finicky and metagamey anyway.  I'd prefer to do away with energy drain entirely and replace it with CON drain everywhere where it appears.

2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?  Depends.  Is the assumption that it's difficult to put out the fire, or that it clings, or whatever?  If a character so attacked can immediately "stop, drop and roll" (reflex save once hit?) I'd rule that no, it doesn't do significant damage really—although it'd sure screw you up tactically for a round or two.  Otherwise, sure—being set on fire sucks.  That's why being burned at the stake was a fatal sentence, after all.  1d6 per round until put out or character dies.

3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicating instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work? Depends on the poison.  I don't have a problem with that in general.  I don't think that applies to every poison.  Plenty of poisons are not immediately fatal.  Plenty of poisons aren't fatal at all.  I like the d20 use of poison, actually.  It made a lot of sense to me. although I don't like long lists of poisons.  I like "Schrödinger's poison" with effects that you make up on the fly.  CON damage, or become violently ill, or whatever.

4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead? I tend to go to negative CON, but I don't feel strongly about it, and I'm coming around more and more to 0 = dead.  Right now, I'm settling on a 0 = make a saving throw or die immediately.  Make this throw every round until character is either stabilized, healed, or dies.  I guess that kinda splits the difference, right?

5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use? I use m20, which uses a "casting spells causes HP damage" mechanic.  I like it, especially when coupled with a lightweight sanity system which is also damaged by casting spells.  Instead of Vancian, I prefer to call this system "Lovecraftian."

6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage? I prefer various weapon damages, but I think that the standard array of weapon damages that is common to D&D and D&D derived games probably leaves a lot to be desired.  I've never bothered trying to change it significantly, though.

7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No? No, but see above.  Get rid of XP.  That was a poorly conceived idea from the get-go anyway.

8). Should a character with an constitution of 18 get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?  No to all.  Having a high ability score is a good enough benefit in its own right.

9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else? I like how m20 has folded saving throws into the skill system (such as it is.)  Saving throws themselves are an odd mechanic that stands out oddly.  I also think it strange that saving throws correspond to an ability so closely; in that case, why not just use an ability check in place of the saving throw (I know, I know; because we want to scale saving throws with level.  Or at least the designers did.)  I'm actually not a fan of the saving throw mechanic at all, honestly.  Especially not in earlier games where they were bizarre and arbitrary; save against breath weapon, save against poison, etc. Third edition made saving throws more logical, but they also, ironically, made them superfluous.

To some degree that edition did the same to ability scores, but that's a whole 'nother question.

10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level  (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?  The cleric class should be removed from the game entirely.  The Thief archetype has much more standing, especially as based on the source literature, than the cleric does.

The Thief

In our continued refinement (occasionally to the point of absurdity) of defining the term "old school" with relation to D&D we're continually pushing the "old school" envelope back.  I'm not quite sure where the end point of this is, but it's already absurdly far as it is, in my opinion.

While there is absolutely a style difference between D&D of the late 70s and AD&D as it developed, I still think that the notion that AD&D is the anti-"old school" and that old school has to, by definition, pre-date AD&D is kinda ridiculous (especially given that the OSR was specifically kicked off when the first retro-clone, OSRIC, managed to pass legal hurdles and become a reality—OSRIC, of course, being a retro-clone of AD&D, not OD&D.  The later focus on OD&D was just that—a later focus, and largely a rediscovery of that style of play.  But saying that only OD&D is old school, while AD&D is post-old school still seems like a quixotic splitting of hairs to me.

But this is nothing.  The other day Jeffro made the argument that the Thief class was the end of old school—and in old school discussions, that's hardly a unique position.  [NOTE: Since typing that, Jeffro has taken exception somewhat to my characterization of his position, so take that for what it's worth.  Personally, I still don't know how else to read that post other than, paraphrasing, "The Thief class introduced a number of elements that were the roots of the New School changes to D&D, which is why Old Schoolers are always trying to 'fix' it."  But although I don't know how else to read it, Jeffro has claimed that he does not believe that and he doesn't know where I got that conclusion, so... there you have it.  Follow the link and read it for yourself and make your own conclusions.  For purposes of this post, I'm going to talk about that argument whether or not Jeffro specifically made it, because whether he did or not, it's still a position that is held by some in the OSR.]  While one can say that the way the Thief class was implemented may have had an unintended cascading effect that changed the tone of the game over time, that's not really the issue.  The Thief class was being extensively used (pre-publication) at the very first Gencon that post-dated the publication of D&D—mere months after it was published.  Greyhawk, the supplement that included the thief officially, was in print a mere year after the first printing of D&D.  To suggest or even imply that the only old school game predates the thief, as can reasonably be inferred from both Jeffro and Maliszewski's posts (and many of the comments that follow) means that old school becomes a vanishingly small window of gaming, and begs the question; why not suggest that the publication of D&D in the first place was the end of old school!  Gygax and Arneson really sold out when they printed the game up, man!

I disagree with the notion that the Thief class caused a cascading effect of limitations, though—or at least that if it did, it was the fault of stupid players, not the mechanics themselves.  The argument goes a little something like this, and if I'm not making it with sufficient force and attention to detail, you'll have to forgive me, because I don't take it very seriously anyway: before the thief class, any character could do anything.  After the thief class, it became common to believe that only thieves could listen at doors or pick locks or climb walls, etc.  Also; it was the prototype for what later became skill systems, which even further eliminated the ability of any character to do anything.  Before skill systems, there were no rules at all, and if a character tried to do something, the GM just told him how likely it would be based on common sense, his experience, his whim, etc.  Most likely he rolled under his ability on 3d6, or was given a percent chance that he had to beat on a percentile roll (although that may have been an idea that started with the thief abilities anyway.)

This argument is of course absurd, because if a character could do it before without any rules for it, he could still do it without any rules for it.  The GM could make the same ruling that he always made.  Skills gave the GMs a framework whereby any character could attempt anything and he didn't have to make an arbitrary roll for it.  Those who say skill systems stifle GM creativity are on a slippery slope to "why have any rules at all; they all stifle GM creativity."  As I said, I have little sympathy for this argument.  It can also be a reducto ad absurdum; if thieves are the only ones who can do those things, then why is every other class besides fighter (or fighting man) capable of fighting?  Or why can only magic-users and clerics cast spells (Oh, whoops, that's a different can of worms.)

I've seen some players (Maliszewszki's post above, and the comments therein make this argument) that there's no problem with skill systems, but that skills and classes are fundamentally at odds and a game should either be a skill-based game or a class based game.  I also think this is a reducto ad absurdum and actually requires the notion that each class is a straight-jacket and that only members of the class that are specifically designed to be the only one that can do stuff.  I understand academically the concept of using classes to make easily digestible archetypes, but I disagree with the idea that that's important.  I don't think that it's too complicated to understand the idea that people can dabble in a variety of different skills.  They can have one profession, yet pursue other hobbies.  They can excel by natural inclination at certain tasks and struggle with others, in spite of some grand designers attempt to couple both tasks together.  After all, that's exactly how real life works.

Rather, I think that the Thief exposes a problem with D&D itself at a very fundamental level; that of the dungeon.  The archetypes on which the Thief class is based (Bilbo, the Gray Mouser, Cugel, various picaresque-type characters) are not ones that appear in a dungeoneering environment.  In fact, the dungeoneering environment is so unique, unprecedented (and monotonous) as to have literally no connection to anything that any normal person can understand.  So yes, while there are very limited examples of it in the literature (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the Thieves' Guild, the Fellowship in Moria, John Carter or Tarzan breaking out of various prisons, etc.) those are very limited examples, that are over with quickly.  Primarily because if they dragged out any longer than they did in the stories in which they appear, they'd very quickly become extremely tedious and boring.

Almost every complaint I hear from OSRians about the Thief class have to do with its interaction with the dungeoneering environment, or how it (purportedly) changes other characters interaction with the dungeoneering environment—at least in the perception of many of the players.  But what if this isn't a problem with the class itself, but rather one with the constant dungeoneering assumption of play?

For what its worth, this isn't unique to the thief.  What's the ranger without wilderness travel, anyway?  The ranger is another of my favorite archetypes (that I also rarely like the interpretation of) which always struggles because so seldom to D&D players actually spend any meaningful game-time in the wilderness.  For me, since not only the archetypes that the thief (and ranger) model are among my favorites from the source material literature and because I find the dungeoneering paradigm tedious and ridiculous, naturally, I don't have problems with including them in the game per se.  That doesn't mean that I don't have a lot of issues with many of the specific iterations of them that have appeared over the years.

Speaking of which, another curious curiosity with regard to the thief class is that as non-weapon proficiencies and their descendant, skill systems, spread through the game, the designers, in trying to protect the role of the Thief and give it a chance to shine, focused more and more on the backstab ability, which evolved into the Sneak Attack ability.  This had the added side effect of transforming the Thief into an Assassin; even though the terminology never caught up.  So this begs another question to; exactly what is the role of the Thief archetype in the game?  What is it supposed to look like and how should it be modeled?  Of course, there are various equally valid opinions on this question, depending on what kind of game you like to play and what you expect the character to actually do, which is one of the reason why these two classes in particular tend to get more customized, more house-ruled, and more "fixed" by amateur designers than most other classes.