Saturday, February 18, 2017

Magic Items, By Way of 10Rogue

Brief bit of background beforehand: I have been playing a small, little-discussed game called 10Rogue off and on since middle school. A classmate was playing it, and I asked for the name, interested as to what such a primitive-looking game might be like; when I downloaded it and started playing, I was hooked. Even though it took the better part of 5 years to understand most of the mechanics (mainly due to the fact that Googling "10rogue" mostly brought results about MMOG players discussing how best to optimize their rogue character builds... and now those people have taken up D&D 5e), I still found it fascinating. I took it for inspiration when I tried to make a pen-and-paper version of it, until I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and learned that I had been essentially reinventing the wheel.

For those who aren't familiar with it, 10Rogue is a freeware clone of the original Rogue, the game that spawned an entire subgenre of "roguelikes". I'd be tempted to call 10Rogue a retroclone, except that it came out in 1984 - less than 5 years after the introduction of the original. It simulates a randomly-generated dungeon crawl, with the primary divergence from old-school D&D being the lack of a distinct class or race system; the player's character can use any weapon, armor, magical implement, or scroll, and can search for secret doors. The main reason that I prefer 10Rogue over the original Rogue is that the interface is very stripped down and streamlined (you can use the arrow keys or the numpad to move). The ASCII graphics are also a huge plus, as any version of Windows prior to 8 can run it in a command prompt window, although I still prefer to use DOSBox so that the save/load and scoreboard features work properly.

Here's one example of Rogue; graphically, it's almost
identical to the version that I play regularly, 10Rogue.

Getting back on topic, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that 10Rogue cemented in my mind the way that RPGs should work. It definitely comes from the old-school way of thinking about dungeons: monsters are there to kill or be killed; the only way to learn what an item does (aside from using a scroll of identify) is to use it, with potentially deleterious effects; and if your character dies, they're dead. The only flaw with 10Rogue is that having a party of multiple characters - essential for any old-school D&D session - is impossible, which means that the odds are stacked against you from the start. But this is part of the reason I pull no punches as a DM of B/X. Your character died? Do you want to pay/go on a quest to have them raised? You can't? Oh well, better make another one.

(I also haven't pulled any punches when I've run the original West End Games Star Wars, but that's for an entirely different reason; it's damned difficult to kill characters in that system!)

The main thing that I like about 10Rogue mechanically, though, is the way magic items are handled. When you find an implement, potion, or scroll, you don't know anything about it other than what your eyes tell you. This staff is made of mahogany; this potion is blue; this scroll has the words "jujmon lij dodlom" written on it. Unless you have a scroll of identify, the only way to figure out what an item does is by using it - wave the staff or wand, quaff the potion, read the scroll aloud. After this is done - and if the effect is immediately obvious, which it isn't always - then other items of the same appearance are automatically "remembered" as being of that particular type. The appearances are consistent from item to item, within the same game - but when you start a new game, everything changes.

This process of risky discovery is what I want to capture in my B/X sessions. I personally don't like the rule that every single potion, even one with identical effects to another one, is a different color (and presumably scent, opacity, etc.), so I decided to make them uniform. This doesn't mean that a potion couldn't be deliberately adulterated to resemble a different one - indeed, poisons almost always are designed to resemble beneficial potions - but in general, two blue potions of identical size, scent, and viscosity will have the same effect. This allows the party to gradually discover more about the world by experimenting.

I didn't want to just haphazardly assign color values and materials to magic items, though, nor did I want to give too many cute clues (a red potion heals, a transparent potion confers invisibility, etc.) to the players. Since I quite enjoy the system of the eight "schools" of magic in AD&D 2e, I decided to use them as the basis for a unifying scheme of colors, metals, woods, and gems. This was partly inspired by my research into Alchemy and the Hermetic Qabala, but I was careful to not apply them too similarly out of respect for the traditions. (Not like I could, anyway; most Western esoteric systems are based on 3-, 7, and 12-part schemes, whereas magic in AD&D 2e has eight divisions.)

Yep, an eight-part color wheel. At least it allows
for opposition, unlike its seven-part counterpart.


I won't go into too much detail about the specific attributions I used, in case some of my players stumble across this post. But the advantage of using the schools of magic in this way is that it allows me to assign specific color values, as well as corresponding materials, for both main types of magical effects - thaumaturgic (arcane/wizard spells) and theurgic (divine/priest spells) - because the designers of AD&D 2e were helpful enough to include the appropriate school of magic even in the priest spell descriptions. This does mean that not every potion or implement is unique; there are obviously multiple potions in B/X whose effects fall under the school of Necromancy or Alteration, for example. But I still like this system a lot.

As for scrolls... I'll have to deal with those in a separate post. Stay tuned!

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