The Hall of RPG Oddities — The Arduin Grimoire Part III (text slightly NSFW)Posted by Anthony Pryor
Hola, amigos… I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but to tell the truth I’ve had a couple of real, live paying gigs, for Pulp Empire and Paradigm Studios — more on those bad boys when they finally appear.
If I recall, when we last spoke I was promising (nay, threatening) to give a review of the third triumphal volume of the Arduin Grimoire, the aptly-named Runes of Doom. This one continues the venerable Mister Hargrave’s random and slightly mad collection of gaming supplements that were most definitely not intended for use with Dungeons and Dragons, but were a separate, independent roleplaying game in their own right.
As before, the art of Runes of Doom (what little there is of it) is of top-drawer quality, fine pen-and-ink illustrations by Greg Espinoza, with a couple of smaller pieces by future legend Erol Otus. The cover is particularly vivid, portryaing as it does a couple of appropriately-clad Arduin adventurers (and by “appropriately clad” I mean that the guy is in skin-tight, form-fitting mail, showing off his bulging biceps and gnarly back muscles, while the blond female is in some kind of string bikini), battling a gigantic, tentacled vagina dentata while a wizard’s tower broods on the heights aboves, and over it all shines what I’m sure is a grim, blood-red moon. You really couldn’t find a picture that screams “THIS IS ARDUIN!” if you tried.
The interior contains the familiar word-processor text, somewhat better laid out and edited than the original volume, and as usual it is organized in a chaotic and haphazard manner that I’m certain made sense to Dave Hargrave.
Another keen set of tables opens the volume, titled Individualization of New Player Characters, aka random character backgrounds – the beginning of a tradition that continues to this day in such publications as the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign supplement. As in previous cases, the Arduin version of the system is random, rolled on a series of tables, and can yield some kind of odd results. A new character’s economic class is rolled first, cross-indexed with his/her race. An elf who rolls a 66 on the table, for example, yields a result of “commoner,” while an Amazon who rolls a 91 is considered a “craftsman” (craftswoman?), and so on.
The tables reflect an interesting slant on socio-economic classism in Arduin, for as the elves were defeated and driven from Arduin millennia ago, they remain lower class, with only a 20 percent chance of being anything better than a “freeholder” — poor land-owners. Generously, elves can indeed be part of the royal family, but for the most part they’re dirt-digging peasants, as are the dwarves and hobbits. For some reason, grubby creatures like goblins, kobolds, half-orcs and even ogres have a better chance of being born outside of poverty than the poor, fallen elves.
A table that grants starting wealth follows, cross-indexed with relative economic status — poor, average, well-to-do and wealthy, but unfortunately there is no way given to determine this, i.e. whether the PC in question is a wealthy freeholder or a poor member of the nobility — indeed, it is possible for a freeholder to start with more wealth than a royal, depending upon how impoverished his circumstances are. We end up with a table that determines starting equipment, this time based on class rather than relative wealth, making the process once more somewhat inconsistent.
Character aging follows, and boy does Arduin penalize you for aging. See if you can follow this: “For each 10% of maximum life span left a character has after he reaches his majority… that character will loose (sic) 1 point off of his/her strength, dexterity, agility and constitution… no character may loose (sic) more than half his/her points through natural aging.
Let’s see… Humans (according to volume I) reach age of majority at 17 and have an average lifespan of 80 years. Assuming a human with an average Constitution of 12, he’s going to be down to an 8 Con by the time he’s 50. Had he started with a nice, above-average Strength of 16, by the time he reaches the half-century mark he’ll be at an average of 12. While the rules give a break to fighters and other physical types (they drop one for every 15 years instead of 10), this radical degradation of basic attributes seems to be a little bit much to me.
Another very useful section follows, with a series of tables that DMs can use to determine events in NPCs’ lives, families and kingdoms. They’re worded pretty generally, and are as with most things Arduin, guidelines. A kingdom roll of 60 on the Political Alignment Chart suggests that the NPC is offered a higher standing politically, with a 25% chance of advancement. Exactly what “advancement” means is up to the DM, but it is useful for pointing campaigns in the right direction, and there’s no reason why the tables can’t be used for regular PCs to provide interesting diversions in downtime between adventures. Other results include being robbed, falling ill, a tragedy happening to a family member, financial loss, etc.
Of course, there are a couple of amusing elements to the tables. On the Random Event (good) table, we get wonderful events such as “Girl of same type falls madly in love with” and “fall madly in love with different type female.” Given this, it seems that Arduinians are all either heterosexual males or lesbians, given that there is no option for “boy of same type” falling madly for the PC.
More Arduin character classes follow, all going up (as usual) to 100th level. I haven’t dinked around with them too much but if they ended up being like the other classes — intriguing concepts with overly generalized details that are left up to the DM to adjudicate, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Here we have Arduin equivalents of the Alchemist, the Assassin, the Druid and the “Forrester” (sic) or “Woodlands Ranger,” as well as what Hargrave calls the “True Paladin.”
The Alchemist is as expected frustratingly vague, with only a list of level names and the following note under “Special Acquired Abilities”: “These are open to each individual Dungeon Master’s adjuication(sic). They cover smoke-bombs, low; medium and high glues; stink bombs; medical poultices; water purification; poison manufacturing and antidotes; flash powder; gun powder; nausea gas; tear gas; poison gas; various physical attribute boosters; food preservatives; slippery liquids; chemical welding agents; pyro-technics; thermite; fire retardants (for clothes etc.); various aromatic oils; pastes; powders; and assorted chemicals and devices… They acquire experience by selling their goods (1 point per 10 g.s. in value) and for using their devices (as in combat) and acquiring alchemical artifacts.”
Now this is an aspect of Arduin that really chaps my hide — Hargrave presents us with a new character class, then basically tells us that, as DMS, we have to do all the hard work in determining what abilities the Alchemist gains. No rules, no playtesting, no suggestions or guidelines… Hell, no suggestions about how much XP they get for “using their devices.” Again, this is a great example of the maddeningly vague yet brilliant nature of the series.
The True Paladin is something of a hoot, since it’s prefaced with another of Hargrave’s sly digs at traditional D&D: “In the past, paladins as a class have always seemed to be nothing more than fighting Clerics. This is because their true nature as Warriors with a near-mystical religious fervor has never been properly delt (sic) with.” Needless to say Hargrave seeks to remedy the woeful inadequacy of traditional paladins by making them a little bit more like religious fanatics than holy warriors. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s another example of why people don’t like paladins much — he strongly suggests that they be played as uptight preacher-types with corncobs jammed up their collective asses, constantly trying to convert everyone and treating people unlike them with undisguised contempt, making them into medieval equivalents of the Tea Party.
The class section wraps up with the Sage, a character class no one I know has ever wanted to play, and is followed by guidelines for playing Saurig, Deodanths and Phraints as PCs. Suggestions for “improving” clerical healing and resurrection rules follow, then a very interesting (but to my experience horribly impractical) new hit point system.
Hargrave suggests essentially front-loading hit points, granting a more-or-less fixed number based upon class and constitution that increases very slowly if at all. This means that in terms of damage capacity, all characters of a given class are more or less created equal, and that they differ only in fighting ability.
In response to what he rightly expects to be a flood of complaints, Hargrave says “A few of the players (most notably those of the ‘Monty Hall’ variety with 150th level paladins that carry laster (sic) swords (after 2 weeks of play!) (sic) and have +100 armor have screamed that: ‘my high level characters will all die! They’ll go from 500 hit points to 55! Your system stinks!’ Well, you can’t please everyone, nor do I try to do so any longer [Dave H is actually starting to sound kind of like Gygax here, frankly]. The new hit point system makes physiological as well as intellecutal (sic) sense, but above all it plays so very, very well (and the overall game is much better because of it).
“People now have a chance to run a character or characters on any expedition they choose without regard to difference in levels of experience. They can have their 1st level warrior stand shoulder to should (sic) with a 10th level lord and hold the gate together! Just as in real life young and inexperienced warriors accompanied older, more experienced fighters. They fought and died together.”
I’ll interrupt Mister Hargrave’s screed to note that he’s quite right in his assertions. Having just attended my first SCA event in years, and renewing acquaintances with some folks that I haven’t seen in forever, I was reminded of just exactly how exciting it was for me — a 20-something noob in clanky mismatched armor, standing on a bridge and bearing the Baronial banner of An Tir while fighting alongside the celebrated and still-legendary Duke Steingrim Stellari as the hordes of the Kingdom of the West tried to force their way past us.
While it was easily one of the most awesomely metal moments in my life, even if it was just play-acting, the experience was nonetheless enlightening. While the Duke was a few years my senior and definitely in better overall shape, in terms of pure physical prowess I think we both had roughly the same number of “hit points”, or body mass. However, I got hit more often than he did (no, check that… I got hit WAY more often than he did), so I was knocked out of the fight more easily — while we won the battle, I nevertheless fell heroically, the banner wrapped around my body to deny it to the enemy.
So on that level, Hargrave’s system — which essentially amounts to averaging out a class’ potential hit points then throwing in a few extra — makes abundant sense, and if D&D had been built around such a system it probably would have worked pretty well. However, that assumes that hit points are merely a measure of the ability to take physical damage, when in reality they are more like an abstract combination of physicality, fighting skill and defenses that can be worn down over rounds of combat.
I thought this system sounded awesome, so I tried it out, then after a few sessions quickly abandoned it. Low level characters became so difficult to kill that I largely stopped using low-hp monsters against them, or resorted to unleashing hordes of gobbos and kobolds, creating a huge bookkeeping headache. Conversely, the higher level characters became much easier to kill, meaning that I had to cut down on the use of more powerful monsters, lest I eventually murder everyone. I finally decided that the threat of quick and easy death at lower levels was an integral part of the system and the way I wanted to play, as was a sense of relative invincibility at higher levels.
This really shows the law of unintended consequences and puts some backbone in Gygax’s arguments about game balance. While I certainly have frowned upon the late Mister G’s editorials and his sour, combative and cranky attitude, he did indeed have a point that changes to a game system need to be carefully weighed and their consequences considered. Far from playing “so very, very well” the new HP system kind of wrecked my game and I changed it back to normal before it could inflict any further (pardon the pun) damage.
More fun and rule tweaks follow, along with a marvelous chart of energy weapons such as hand lasers, blaster rifles and the like — notable in that they all do fixed amounts of damage, rather than ranges, and have some interesting features such as reflecting off highly-polished surfaces such as shiny armor.
The next several sections are all pretty familiar by now. First comes a list of New “Magikal” Items, including one of my favorites, the Amulet of the Amazon Mother, which resembles “a silver phallus and scrotum impaled by an arrow (golden) on a golden chain” that increases Amazons’ fighting abilities, especially against males (big shock there). Along with the Staff of Stupidness and the Ruby of Runaway Regeneration (causes severed body parts to regenerate randomly, such as a lost leg regrowing as a kobold’s head), it’s yet another treasure trove of items from the mundane to the seriously wacky.
Mage and clerical spells follow, and I’m going to blip over them since I think I’ve already given you a taste of Hargrave’s over-the-top magic. Next we get still more new monsters with names like Blastarr (didn’t he have his own Saturday-morning cartoon show back in the 80s?), Doom Watcher, Rainbow Dragon, Freeze Bees and Sky Scorpions. My favorite from this volume is the monster known only as “X” — a glowing green brain with tentacles that feeds on mental energies, has a permanent antimagic shell and can’t be hit with missiles. Ugh.
Elementals and demons follow, and Hargrave has lost none of his imagination here. Acid fiends are huge blue blobs of acidic protoplasm that enjoy rolling over helpless foes, digesting them as they go. Hell cats are “large felines apparently made of shadows with eyes of green balls of fire and claws of red crackling flame (and teeth of silver moon beams).” Electric blue storm demons have wings made of lightning (and I think formed some of inspiration for the creatures of the same name in my Wulf series). Swamp demons are pulpy, warty beasts that sound kind of like the monsters from “Attack of the the Eye Creatures.”
Our tour of the monster wing ends with a gloriously random collection of “Greater (Name) Demons” presented in non-alphabetical order, probably as Hargrave thought them up. Here we can learn about the demoness Apharoe: “7′ tall, beautiful (‘all men’ have a 50% chance of falling immediately in love!) Buxom, tall woman. Women are usually (50%) jealous and hate her… she can split (sic) fire and move like elves… She has been known to seduce men then literally ‘drink’ their souls while kissing them…” (one wonders about Dave Hargrave’s experiences with women, given creatures like Apharoe… Stay tuned for even more disturbing signs of misogyny).
Hargrave also includes Arioch, which some of you might remember from Michael Moorcock’s awesome Eternal Champion series. I do not, however, remember Mr. Moorcock describing Arioch as “18′ tall, black furred like an otter humanoid with one huge eye like a many facedted ruby (shines with an inner light). He has two thumbs and 4 fingers and retractable talons. His arch enemy is the demi god ‘NODENS’” and thus we include a shout-out to the works of H.P. Lovecraft in addition to everything else.
The other demons are equally colorful, but I have a soft spot for Vorcas — “Shiny, wet-looking, smooth black skin, sea green eyes (3 — pupilless) with webbed, 8 taloned feet/clawed hands and 3 shark-like fins vertically down its back. It has a shark-like head with bright red inside mouth and green teeth (like emerald) and red slash gills (4 per side) on his neck. He has a long 12′ whip-like sting ray tail (red sting). 18′ tall.”
Whew! This makes the one- and two-sentence descriptions that we get in the Pathfinder Bestiary sound downright nonexistent. And I’m not even going to get into the effing 4E Monster Manuals which don’t even bother to give a text description of the creatures. While I’m not entirely sure what difference the number and hue of Vorcas’ gill slits makes in game terms, but it certainly speaks well for Hargrave’s sense of detail.
More wonderful fluff follows — a list of the noble families of Arduin (in case your legacy roll says you belong to one), and several pages listing the most-wanted brigands and highwaymen of the Arduin cycle.
Okay, we’ve pretty much reached the end of our journey through the Arduin world, but there are a couple of gems left to unearth. The brigands list provides a list of great campaign ideas and NPCs, but as with everything else in Arduin, it is not without its dark (and in this case, quite disturbing) side.
Again, the brigands are listed in totally random order, organized neither by name, level, class or anything else as far as I can tell. They all sound like pretty colorful characters — Morgen Ravenswing is “an illusionist of some repute (16th level) [the adjacent column says he's 18th level, but no matter]. He dresses in black, has silver hair, violet eyes. Very somber. Carrys (sic) a “magikal” heat weapon.”
Half-orc corsair Bragga Sea-Devil is “Ugly, yellow-eyed with prominent gold-capped fangs. Carrys (sic) (and uses) cutlasses in either hand (both magik). About 5’8″ tall.” Amazon Wildra Wolfsister has 24 in her band, is 6’3″ tall with “single waist-length braid (red hair, green eyes). Rides a huge warg (8+1 HD), stark naked and uses a magic composite bow, broadsword, shield and spear.” Auri Wirinnaen, a female half-elf “rides a flying carpet, uses a magik composite bow and rapier and wears magik yellow scale mail. Also known to be an insatiable lover. 5’7″, night black hair, smokey grey eyes, extremely beautiful!”
I don’t want to make Hargrave out to be too terribly sexist here, as several men are described as handsome, and women as “not beautiful,” but there still seems to be a slight undercurrent here that he can’t quite hide. All of the bandits, as I said, are very interesting individuals and we’re given enough details to be able to play them quite well, but unfortunately the whole process grinds to a halt when we reach that paragon of evil, psychotic femininity, Shardra the Castrator.
For those not familiar with this individual, Shardra is an Amazon, with an all-female band numbering 21. She’s 26 years old (how did she get so fucked up in such a short time, one wonders?), she’s 7th level and unsurprisingly Chaotic Evil. Here’s how Hargrave describes her: “She castrates (and eats it!) all men and rapes all women. 6’6″ tall, very beautiful, buxom. Green eeys, red hair. Wears no armor but has criss-cross harness of tanned male skin. Giant strength? magick 2-handed axe.”
Okay, that’s it. After that description I’ve kind of had enough of the Arduin Grimoire, as it has now strayed firmly into F.A.T.A.L. land. I don’t really care that Shardra is a thoroughly blackhearted villainess without a decent bone in her body, I really don’t think much of including murder, rape and cannibalism in a single NPC. I’ve speculated about Hargrave’s feelings toward women — Shardra doesn’t really condemn him, but it doesn’t make it easier to defend the sexism in the rest of the trilogy.
Back in the day, when we were all around 17, my friend and I were quite appalled by Shardra. My friend (who was 17, remember) wondered how a woman can even rape another women, to which another friend (who unlike us actually had a girlfriend, and consequently liked to play the jaded, decadent man of the world) replied, “Have you ever heard of a strap-on dildo?” I draw the curtain of charity over the remainder of that particular scene, but rest assured it didn’t get any better.
We wrap up the final Arduin volume with more color — a list of “under city” denizens (presumably famous criminals), none of whom are as vividly described as the previous bandits, nor as disturbing as Shardra the Castrator; wild tribes of Arduin; notable NPCs and a list of famous dungeons and other places where treasure/death is particularly plentiful. The most interesting of these charts is the “real world equivalents” of various Arduin nationalities — the Blue Barbarians are more or less equivalent to the Franks, the Sakas are like Parthians, the Eaters of Men like insane neanderthals and so on.
The final page of the trilogy’s last volume is a pretty mundane encounter chart, and the inside back cover contains Hargrave’s farewell from the land of Arduin. ”These three volumes,” he claims, “are in themselves a complete and playable game system.”
Excuse me for a moment while I catch my breath. I could have sworn he said that Arduin was a complete and playable game system. I must have hallucinated it or something.
On with the farewell. “The dreams and hopes of my life are poured into these pages, as well as the lifeblood of my soul. The trilogy represents, for me MY MOUNTAIN, my insurmountable goal. Well I have climbed my mountain and have seen the joyous vistas of new lands ahead!”
Normally I would accuse such prose of being hyperbole of the most extreme kind, but in reviewing his work, I feel that I’ve come to know Dave Hargrave, and I genuinely believe that he meant every single maudlin syllable. He goes on to tell us that he’s sold the Arduin license (“to a true friend”) and that he’ll be moving on to the life of a game designer. Watch for his first new game in March of 1979, he tells us, and until then, bon chance!
Regrettably, it seems that Hargrave didn’t author any more games, but did return to produce more material for Arduin in the subsequent six volumes that would be published in the coming years. He also wrote some material for Call of Cthulhu and the fatally-flawed and never-complete SF RPG, Star Rovers (I owned a copy and frankly found it unplayable). Plagued by health issues that he linked to his service in Vietnam, David Hargrave permanently returned to Arduin in 1988, a young 42 years of age, leaving a legacy that many, many of us who gamed in the 1980s and beyond still remember.
I keep my copies of Arduin in a special place and hope that I’ll always have them — crude layout, typos, chaotic organization and all. I still sometimes turn to Hargrave’s insane random tables when I want to know what a character looks like (and if I generate a woman who is 42-20-36, I generally reroll until I get something more reasonable), or if I need a quick and colorful evil NPC (though Shardra the Castrator remains permanently exiled from my campaigns). Had Dave Hargrave not been cursed with poor health, he might be with us still, cranking out D20 and OGL material in his hoary sixties.