Sunday, May 19, 2024

Let's Dig Into: ArcticMUD

Since my late teens or early twenties, I've looked at text-based video games with a curiosity born of novelty. I was too young to play text-based adventure games during their heyday, so the idea of manually typing out your character's actions was always a strange one to me. It was like some lost artifact of a bygone era, so obscured by layers of electronic sediment that it wasn't even preserved in pop-culture's folk memory of what old school video games were like, what with all the beeps, chirps, joysticks, high scores and such.

Some of the first text-based games were mixes of exploration, puzzle-solving, wry humor, and occasionally bizarre logic, like Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure from the 1970s. They helped birth the adventure game and RPG genres, and their influence continues to be felt to this day, both in the inherited tropes and language of gameplay and in the continuous reference to old early memes like the Grue that have never fully died out in nerd culture.

Multi-User Dungeons/Dimensions/Domains/Detcetera (MUDs for short) are a multiplayer genre of text-based games that branched off from their single-player ancestors in the 1980s when enough nerds who weren't busy playing chess or Roguelikes got together and figured out how to use their college campuses' computer networks for video games. A MUD is basically a series of self-contained rooms that players can guide their avatars through independently of one another, each populated with its own NPCs, tasks, interactive objects, or flavor text. Under the hood, the game world is just a disjointed series of flowcharts, but with care and craft it can be presented as an engrossing, living world that knows how to get your imagination going.

MUDs started off limited to whoever was on a given internal network at an institution, but with the emergence of the Internet they began to catch on wherever someone could afford both a connection and a personal computer. MUDs were, in essence, the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, depending on how strictly you define the word "massively"; dozens, even hundreds of users could be logged onto a MUD at a time, depending on how popular and stable the server was.

MUDs exploded in scope as their popularity grew. The first few were Tolkienesque fantasy or science-fiction in theme, but others soon came along that delved into horror, Westerns, film noir, post-apocalypse, erotica, and just about any other genre people experiment with when a new medium of artistic expression comes along. Many MUDs hosted user-generated content as well, which gave a game's fanbase real influence over the thing they shared an interest in. That bit might be the sharpest differentiation between old MUDs and modern MMOs, because rather than being a customer or consumer of the game, you were often a collaborator with it.

Countless ephemeral clones and spin-offs were born and died according to the whims of fate, community fracture, and occasional license disputes. The '80s and early '90s were a crucible of MUD creativity that is in many ways forever lost to those of us who didn't live to experience it firsthand: like pieces of tectonic plate subducted into the mantle and melted down to their base elements, most of these early games are for all intents and purposes gone forever, but little pieces of them exist everywhere in the bedrock and bones of online communities and gaming culture.

I've dabbled in a handful of MUDs over the years. Most of them were LotR- or D&D-inspired, as well as one Discworld-themed game I could never figure out how to finish character creation in. What they all have in common is that they stood the test of time long enough to appear on my radar, which means 20 or even 30 years in operation. Usually I'd either fail to get very far, or get into the groove until I ran out of easily accessible content to experience before one of the semi-regular server wipes hit, at which point I'd move on. Many of the MUDs I've played owe their existence and rhythms of gameplay to one particular MUD that had an outsized influence among its contemporaries: DikuMUD.

Diku, named for the computer science department at the University of Copenhagen where it was created in 1991, is in many ways the archetypal hack-and-slash MUD. You crawl through dungeons fighting monsters and collecting loot, with or without a party of friends, and it have stats, mechanics, and combat inspired by D&D, although technically the game uses a d100 behind the scenes. Diku was a massive inspiration for 1999's EverQuest, which some of the designers including Brad McQuaid played. It was so inspiring in fact, that there was a brief legal kerfuffle where the folks at Verant/Sony had to swear they didn't outright steal some of Diku's code.

The DikuMUD spinoff I'll be writing about today is ArcticMUD, a 1992 community project based on AD&D and in the Dragonlance setting. I played it fairly regularly between Summer 2022 and Winter 2023 the same way I play most MMOs: solo, and very poorly.

ArcticMUD starts with character creation, which is heavily but not completely based on character creation in AD&D tabletop. You choose from a surprisingly robust roster of species and classes, from kender and minotaurs to dark knights and scouts. Naturally, I rolled a goblin shaman self-insert named Furt.

You also pick your character's alignment, which is slightly different from the classic 9-point spectrum from tabletop. The game accounts for some amount of nuance and variance within the classic alignments, so Lawful Neutral and Neutral Lawful are separate options you can select, for example. I thought I was going cross-eyed the first time I read that. Alignment is limited by class and species, although not to the same extent as some other MUDs, so I considered myself lucky to get away with a Neutral alignment as a goblin. Better off grillpilled than chugging the Takhisis Kool-Aid, I suppose.

Unlike in AD&D, you don't roll your ability scores at character generation. Sure, the game rolls them behind the scenes, but the results are hidden from you at creation in order to discourage people from spending hours rolling and rerolling for the optimal stat array like some of us have done with the first few Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games. You have to spend a bit of time playing and getting invested in the character before you can drink a potion that gives you full knowledge of yourself and all your stats.

I was a weirdly slim-buff gobbo.

Arctic actually hides a lot of the inner workings of the game from you. You rarely see a die rolled or referenced in-game, unless you do something like successfully identify a magical weapon at the shop, in which case you'll see the damage range but that's it. You aren't given a clear idea of your AC, saves, or really any statistic beyond the HP and Vitality points displayed down in the corner at all times. You are given even less information for NPCs and monsters, forcing you to approach potential challenges cautiously and with /consideration like in old school EverQuest. You don't even know for sure what your own variable spell effects are, which makes prepping them Fun™.

This constant, deliberate obfuscation of mechanics is part of the game's design philosophy, believe it or not. The designers don't want you to attain full knowledge and mastery of the game or its systems. They want you to always be in a state of guessing, whether those guesses are educated or truly blind. They want players new and old alike to have to feel their way through everything organically and authentically, like the entire game is under an aggressively enforced spoiler warning. They go so far as to delete posts on the forums that reveal too much about the game or one of its secrets- or at least, they did before they deleted the forums entirely a little while ago, apparently because the mods couldn't keep up with the number of spam bots flooding the place. The wiki and other officially-sanctioned gameplay guides are similarly sparse on details.

Assuming something does leak out and become common knowledge, even just through in-game player word-of-mouth, that thing won't stay the same for very long. Arctic does a yearly server wipe in which all characters are deleted, like many MUDs do to prevent too many characters accumulating at the very top of the game's content and ruining the ecosystem. Years before Diablo II was doing seasonal ladders, MUDs were coming up with their own multiplayer refresh mechanics.

But Arctic takes it a step farther by remixing pieces of itself with every wipe, changing small aspects like how a quest works or where to find a particular item. When I started playing for example, one wing of a low-level dungeon commonly recommended to newbies was completely sealed off and inaccessible, meaning I had to go elsewhere while it was under construction. This significantly altered the roadmap of my early playing experience, and pushed me into different areas at weird times.

I've never seen anything quite like this before or since playing Arctic. The game is in a state of perpetual New Game Plus, by and for the small handful of regular users who still play the game after 32 years in operation. The tiny trickle of tourists and new players like myself are expected to just kind of go along with it, or perhaps we're not really considered at all. It's a certain kind of charming to me, I suppose.

Gameplay begins with your newly-created character zipping down from the heavens into a city of your choosing, which for newbies is usually the town of Solace, forever frozen in time immediately before the events of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The game has a day/night cycle, but technically it's always the morning before the imperfect reunion of the Companions. You can even find Tanis Half-Elven moping around in the Inn of the Last Home, while Tika serves up some drinks and Otik's spiced potatoes nearby.

You're walked through a brief tutorial by an NPC who teaches you the basics of the game and guides you through Solace. Solace is a city that really needs a guide, even after the first few levels, because it is a very vertical and sometimes disorienting starting city, replete with multi-level vallenwood tree buildings and aerial walkways between them. I almost always had a .png of the official site's map up in the background while I was playing. After you've gotten your bearings as well as you can, you're encouraged to head down to the dump where you can muck about in the sewers for your first few levels killing vermin, but otherwise the game takes its hands off and leaves you to get lost in the world.

And it is a dang big world to get lost in. Huge areas of the continent of Ansalon have been rendered in-game, and I can only say that they didn't recreate the entire world because I couldn't personally reach every area during my relatively brief time with the game. You can spend hours wandering in any direction, and you're bound to run into towns and dungeons (as well as a few maddening dead ends or loops) along the way. You don't have to hoof it everywhere, though: an all-terrain caravan added in one of the content updates in 2004 regularly makes the rounds through every major city in the world for a reasonable fare. There are many ferries connecting the coastal and riverine areas of the world, too. It's faster than walking, and safer. As long as you don't say anything about the upholstery.

I read this just as we hit some rapids and I thought I was
being transported straight into "The Most Dangerous Game".

My personal journey saw me wandering around in the forest beyond Solace once I outgrew the sewers a few levels in. Mostly animals and a few of my larger cousins turned to banditry could be found out there, as well as some very random touches of personality that the game threw in. For example, every sign that isn't a big official road sign between cities tries to simulate the scrawl of an inexpert hand by using mixed caps, which leads to warnings like this:

I can't not read this in the mocking Spongebob meme voice.

Other times, looking more closely at a bit of wildlife will reward you with a surprisingly competent bit of ASCII artwork in a game that is otherwise completely devoid of visuals.


After I wandered too far out and got overwhelmed a few times, I made my way back to Solace and ground the sewers again until I made up my loss of XP and gear, which gets left behind on your corpse when you die, also very EQ-style. It was around this time that I actually met another living soul.

Sure, I'd seen a handful of other players in town or in the /who list, but up to this point I'd never interacted with any of them. They were all seasoned veterans doing their own circles and their own things by my guess, and even though there's a chat channel specifically designed for them to help newbies out, I felt too intimidated to approach.


But eventually at the surprisingly easy-to-reach level of 16, someone named Hippy reached out to me in PMs. They asked me what I was up to and inadvertently offered some good advice when they found out I was new. Turns out I was playing my class all wrong. Shocking, I know!

Or maybe you could be generous and say I was playing hardmode. To start off, my alignment put me at a disadvantage. You get more XP for killing creatures of your opposite alignment, because character alignment is mostly expressed through violence and magic in this game. Being neutral, my goblin was essentially running around with a permanent XP gain penalty compared to everybody else... also a lot like EQ. Wow, learning that tidbit really opened my eyes to a lot of things here.

I don't really begrudge that part, though. I couldn't start off good as a goblin, but I wouldn't have wanted to go evil either. Especially once I learned that a lot of what constitutes evil character XP grinding is just slaughtering townsfolk wholesale.

Butchering them into meat was just for fun, apparently.

The other major inefficiency was in my loadout.

Up to this point I had been spending all of my steel coins on whatever weapons and armor I could afford off of either basic vendors or the shared market auction house style thing which I currently forget the name of. Sometimes I'd live long enough to turn a profit on those pieces and sell them in favor of upgrades, but usually I'd lose them from death or forgetting to repair.

Shamans don't need weapons, though. They can make their own, as the other player explained. I was aware of the Bone Shape spell they were talking about, which creates a club, staff, bow, or arrows out of the bones of a slain creature (even if the creature doesn't have bones, amusingly). But because of the paucity of details given by spell descriptions and the very low level I had tried the spell at, I assumed that the weapons created by the spell were low-damage and completely nonmagical; weapons of last resort to be quickly replaced by 'real' weapons.

I was very wrong. The weapons made from Bone Shape scale with caster level, and actually outclassed anything I could buy with my half-empty wallet. What's more, the weapons' power stacks with the Ancestral Blessing spell that buffs a weapon with scaling hit rate, saving throw and healing bonuses, and a chance to make extra attacks every swing. In essence I had an uber-Shillelagh sitting in my back pocket at all times, and all I needed to cast it was to have a dead centipede handy. This was on top of a plethora of other self-buff spells I hadn't been taking full advantage of, because I was spending most of my memorization slots on healing and status effect cure spells for when my weakness inevitably caused a fight to drag on too long.

This was that moment of mechanical satisfaction that I was waiting for. The synergy hit, and what followed was one heck of a dopamine rush. Which is ironic, because I can't write any accurate description of my next few levels of gameplay in a way that doesn't come off as incredibly boring and grindy.

What I did was make my way into the higher-level dungeon located in Solace; a burned-down school filled with the restless ghosts of the students and teachers who died there, only visible and hittable with the aid of magic items or spell effects- spells my shaman just so happened to have, but which I couldn't really do much with before I had the DPS for the task.

So I started clearing out the rooms of the school again, and again, and again, wielding nothing but a centipede bone staff and presumably wearing only a loincloth, because I began selling every single piece of armor that I could. Once I was finished whacking ghosts and nuking the area's unique enemies (a renegade mage, a pit fiend, and the wraith of the man who caused the whole mess) with a health-leeching spirit blast, I went back to central Solace to deposit all my earnings and occasionally check in with the eccentric shaman class teacher Foghorn for a shot at spell and skill upgrades.

You don't lose money that you have set aside in the bank, and so that's what I began to judge my true success by: an ever-growing bank account that I could eventually invest into something meaningful and more permanent once I reached a high-enough level.

Once I had outleveled the school I struck out west into the wilderness, skirting a lake until I reached an old copper mine filled with kobolds, myconids, rats, giant crawdads, a giant snake, an owlbear, and a very deadly giant spider at the bottom of a hundreds-of-feet-deep pit of no return that is frustratingly easy to accidentally walk off when your mental map of the area is just 1 room off. There I got used to the new rhythms and finally started to use scrolls of recall to cut down on travel, before settling into the grind all over again and soon surpassing 20th level, at which point I began acquiring a secondary advancement resource called Rank Points, used to purchase small permanent boosts separate from character level, yet again like in later expansions of EQ.

In essence I turned a party-centered game about socialization and exploration into the least compelling elements of a roguelite mixed with a dash of sigma grindset.

Yet I was having fun, and every level where I didn't fail my rolls to learn new spells, I gained new tricks that made my cup runeth over with options from moment-to-moment in combat. On top of all of my self-buffs and curses, my shaman could also hex a target, cause fear, enter a berserk rage like a miniature barbarian (pun intended), and bind the spirits of slain foes to myself or my weapon as combat minions/buffs. The only thing that stopped me in combat was my ability to type fast enough.

Which did become a legitimate issue for me, later on.

After a certain point, combat on a caster has so many moving parts, and can involve as many as a dozen participants at once, depending on the dungeon. When this happens the text scrolls very, very quickly and it was easy for me to miss important details like what had died, when a buff ran out, or what special attack an enemy just used. I would often try to cast a healing spell only to realize I had been sitting on my butt for the past few rounds after someone roundhouse kicked me off my feet. And then when I did stand upright again, I'd lose another precious few seconds misspelling the spell shortcut.

The game does have an answer for this, but it's not something I ever brought myself to use.

In most modern programs that run MUDs, there are options to create aliases, highlights, substitutes, and triggers. These are tools to allow you to navigate and respond to the game easier and faster, such as by condensing long typed lines of text into very short macro commands, highlighting or changing the language of important notifications, or just outright automating certain parts of the game by setting the program to run background commands that activate when X event happens.

It's enormously useful for standing up when you're knocked down, resting and preparing spells, and doing busywork like looting corpses after battle. And as long as you're not completely automating your character or turning them into something like a healbot, you don't run afoul of any of Arctic's policies. But it's a hell of a lot of coding for a tourist like me, so I never committed to it, and eventually that led to me hitting a skill ceiling of sorts, where if a battle was too hectic I just couldn't keep up and only pulled through thanks to lucky crits.

I wonder if combat was easier back in the '90s when everyone had dialup and you had more time to think in between ticks?

I also had a few unpleasant run-ins with people who did use all those commands, or at least that's what it looked like to me. Arctic is a server with PvP enabled, although you're discouraged from using it to grief specific players. But out in the world you're always vulnerable to attack from other players, and I was PK'd a few times during a run. Invariably, what would happen was I'd be engaged with a monster when the other person or party entered the room, evaporated me and everything else in the room into a red mist with AoE spells and crushing melee attacks, rapidly looted anything of value, and then moved to the next room like a tornado of death and avarice. Within 10 seconds I'd go from having a handle on a slow, tedious fight to sitting on the menu screen wondering how I'll pay off the new XP debt.

That would usually kill my motivation to pick back up where I'd been, and revenge was as impossible as it was undesirable, so I took frequent breaks and then went off in some other direction instead. I took advantage of the transportation system to find some of the more far-flung areas where I would be the only player-controlled soul for miles. I wandered the Plains of Dust in the shadow of Icewall Glacier, got extremely lost in some mountains, ran from trolls in Thorbardin, visited Pax Therax and other locations from the trilogy, undertook a vision quest with a Qué-Shu shaman, discovered tiny out-of-the-way hamlets that probably exist in one of the other hundreds of Dragonlance novels, and even stumbled upon a war crime or two.

I no longer feel so bad about the kender-skin sofas.

Eventually my wandering in search of secrets stranded me far from home with little to show for it, though I probably could have paid my way back to someplace more familiar thanks to the weirdly globally-connected banking system Krynn has in this game. But by that time it was getting late in the year, and the server wipe was on the way.

Nothing, not your bank account, character, or rank abilities, survive the great reset, so I was faced with the prospect of restarting from scratch, or not at all. I took a lengthy break and picked back up early in 2023, at which point I was able to smooth out my early leveling experience considerably using all that I had learned the first time around- and I finally got to access that part of the sewers that I'd been barred from entering. But I was still enough of a noob to forget that part of the Inn of the Last Home is an anti-magic safe area, so I spent a good fifteen minutes fizzling my hunger spell while angrily shouting "SATIATE!" at the wall- which is weirdly true to life when lunch rolls around and I don't want to spend so much time and effort feeding this carcass of mine.

I ended up focusing on Bridgetown for much of that year though, so I played little beyond that, and in time another wipe came. I've yet to partake in 2024.

I don't know if I'd recommend ArcticMUD to anyone who isn't already pretty into MUDs in general, which I imagine is a pretty small segment of people who read these posts. But my time with it has been entertaining so far, and if you are interested I'd recommend jumping in during one of the occasional special events that they host throughout the year, which often involves unique quests or bonuses to XP and other stuff. Sometimes they're purely focused on in-game lore, other times they commemorate real life events in some way.

Hey, maybe monarchs are good for something!

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

TROIKA! Background: Corpse-Cutter

Sky Burial by Ronan Boyle

You are a constant companion to death. Not the process of it; that usually runs its course on a battlefield or in a bed miles away. But the state of death, the decaying evidence of it, is your life and livelihood.

It is your duty to bear mortal remains up to those high, lonely places where they may be returned to the elements from which they came, in as efficient a manner as possible. The body is just an empty vessel now, after all- best not to let something else fill it. In this arduous task, you have companions of your own: your tools, and the vultures.

Your tools are many and varied. Knives to remove the flesh, cleavers to disarticulate the limbs, a mallet to pound the bones into pulp. According to best practices, each should be used no more than once, then destroyed and purified. Bereaved families and monasteries rarely pay you enough to buy frequent replacements though, so you use each for as long as you can. The grizzled, rusty accoutrement doesn't do your public image any favors, but it marks you as a seasoned officiator.

Most people find the vultures to be foul, noisome creatures. In your experience they are quite decent, resourceful, and polite. They occupy an important role that no one else is willing to take; just like you. The worst you can say about them is that sometimes, a few members of the wake get impatient and try to make off with the flesh before you're finished processing it. You just shoo them away until they wait their turn.

Some people afford you great respect and reverence for your service. Others, mostly outsiders, consider you unclean—even untouchable—by association with your work. Others still don't say anything; they just come to gawk and stare. You don't pay any of them much mind anymore.

You know when to crack jokes and laugh as you work, so that the spirit is reassured and convinced not to return to their empty shell. You know when to stay solemn and silent for grieving family members of the deceased who may be in poor humor. And above all, you know that your actions help this great, groaning wheel turn a little more smoothly.


Possessions

  • A set of pitted and worn Knives.
  • A cracking wooden Mallet.
  • Bloodstained Apron & Gloves.
  • 1D6 uses of Incense (more for the burial attendees than yourself).
  • 1D3 Sin Cakes from a curious funeral you recently attended (count as Rations but makes you feel vaguely uneasy while eating).

Advanced Skills

3 Funerary Rites
2 Etiquette
2 Strength
1 Knife Fighting
1 Maul Fighting
1 Mortuary Science

Special

You have an unusual rapport with scavengers everywhere. Vultures behave, hyenas act playful, even flies avoid buzzing around you. This friendship effect extends to nearby allies of your choice, and breaks for 1 day if any of you harm a scavenger.

Additionally, you are thoroughly inured to the sights and smells of death and decay.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

TROIKA! Background: Psammomancer of the Singing Dunes

Your people exist at the whims of the sand.

Sure, you do all that you can to resist the desert. You plant rows of saxaul trees to root the soil every year. You build windmills to spite the sandstorms and focus valuable labor elsewhere. Water conservation is built bone-deep into the beliefs of your culture. You survive the desert.

Some even dare to claim that you are taming it. Those people are fools.

Every year the dunes encroach a little closer. Your cough gets a little bit worse. Some of the saxaul grows, but most of it dies. When the herders come to market they tut and say you are planting next year's firewood, then do their business and retreat to greener parts. The inland sea your grandmother swam in as a girl has vanished, and the dust blowing from its salt-encrusted bed tastes like ash and death. You warn the children not to breathe it in.

You hold no illusions. You know you live because the desert has decided not to do anything about it. Yet.

That is why you go to the dunes for answers- you, and anyone else who realizes that the desert will betray its thoughts, feelings, and even the future through its endless, mindless mumbling. You need only listen.

Well, not only listen. Anyone can listen to the sand. How it sings, howls, moans, drums, and even barks as it slides and strikes against itself. No other sand in the world does it quite like this. Long ago, you're told, travelers even came from far and wide to hear the sand. A bygone epoch when the desert couldn't reach them fast enough.

But you are not some awestruck tourist. You have trained for years to listen, watch, and understand.

From the patterns of the sand particles drifting through the air off the edge of a dune, to the cadence and tamber of their call, you know that omens and portents abound. Sometimes the wind alone gifts them to you; other times you have to bribe a camel or a youth to run across the dunes and coax out the secrets of the sand. Always, you cut through the idle chatter for the truth of the dunes.

Maybe someday it will share some good news with you.


Possessions

  • Extra-Large Waterskin.
  • Saxaul Divining Rod (Damage as Small Beast).
  • Beautifully Beaded Headdress and Long, Billowing Robes (doubles as 10' rope).
  • Pocket Sand! (the stuff just gets everywhere).
  • Mild Silicosis.


Advanced Skills

5 Language - Sand
3 Second Sight
2 Awareness
2 Deserticulture
1 Survival

Special

You may Test your Luck to study the sights or sounds of blowing sand for hints of the future. Test Luck normally to divine a pertinent event that is currently destined to happen in the next week. Test Luck -1 for an event destined to happen sometime in the next month. Test Luck -2 for an event destined to happen sometime in the next year.

Additionally, your hearing and vision are not reduced by sandstorms and similar phenomena.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Spell-Handler's Guide to Magic

Howdy, 'zardner!

So you're lookin' to become a certified member of the Wizened Pardnership of Spell-Handlers?

Well you should thank your lucky stars, because you've come to the right place! With this handy little primer, you'll have everything you need to embark on your journey to become a trained spell-handler, breeder, or even arch-rancher!

Let's begin by going back to basics, and answering a few simple questions about the nature of magic. If you have any aspiring young buckaroos nearby, now would be a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the topic of spell-handling as well!


To start off, what is Magic?

Magic is a blanket term for the huge and diverse range of bodily functions produced by Spells.

What are Spells?

Spells are small, domesticated creatures belonging to the phylum carmenifera. Each species of spell produces a magical effect unique to itself. It is the job of the spell-handler to rear and harness spells for their magic.

What can Spells do?

Why, plum near anything! A better question to ask would be "what can't spells do?" Even then, the Wizened Pardnership believes that it should be even more precise to ask "what can't spells do yet?

What is a Spell-Handler?

Spell-handlers (also known as "wizards" or "'zardners" for their association with the Wizened Pardnership) are specialists trained to rear and care for spells. They are the foremost experts on the theories and applications of magic, and often serve as pillars of their community besides.

How do Handlers use Spells?

Spell-handlers form lifelong² bonds with their spells that grant them the trust, familiarity, and know-how to coax magic out of them. This is sometimes called "casting" because many magical effects involve the spell ejecting substances from its body, sometimes at impressive ranges. A skilled spell-handler knows how to get their Fireball to sneeze, how to shake their Daylight just right, how to stimulate their Cure Wounds' musk glands to express healing goo on their pals, and so many other marvelous tricks!

What is Spellcare like?

Handlers have a robust set of daily obligations toward their spells. They must ensure that each spell is given proper food, water, exercise, and attention. If they are adventuring together, the handler must also tend to any injury or fatigue suffered by their spells, and keep any others from befalling them. Proper spellcare avoids waste and ensures that spells and their magic can be relied upon when they are most needed.

Why do Spell-Handlers go adventuring?

There's only so much a body can learn in class or in front of books. At the end of each handler's initial training period they enter their Journeyman Years, in which they gain practical experience and know-how about magic in the real world. Oftentimes this may be done by working at a string of ranches away from where they studied. Less common but more famous are the handlers who go a-venturin', often for the same reasons anyone else does: for excitement, challenge, and opportunity!

How long do the Journeyman Years last?

On average, handlers-in-training spend 2-to-3 years on the road. Some prodigies may complete this period in as little as 1 year, while slow-goers may take as long as 3-and-a-half or 4 years, depending on the details of their contract.

Contract? What contract?

Every spell-handler-in-training negotiates an education and employment contract at the start of their career. The contract outlines a mutually beneficial split between training, and making use of that training. Teaching someone how to handle spells is an expensive process, after all, and the educating institution has to make a return on its investment somehow. And that is why after a gap period, all spell-handlers return to their alma mater to work and repay the awesome opportunity that has been provided for them, as set forth in their voluntary and mutually agreed-upon contract.

Isn't that kind of like Indentured Servitude?

Haha, what?

Nothing, nevermind. Do Journeyman Handlers befriend their Spells?

'Friend' is a strong word that has many connotations incompatible with the realities of spell-handling. Spells are not pets, and handlers are not pet-owners. It is a serious working relationship in which attachment is unbecoming of someone of the handler's office, which requires executive decisions in the interest of the whole community.

Do Spells grow attached to their Handlers?

Unfortunately the spell-breeders have yet to breed attachment out of most spell strains. They are prone to mistaking grooming and cordiality for affection, and may respond in kind, even to the inconvenience of its handler.

But there is a silver lining: this makes spells great for ranch-sponsored petting zoos. Bring your kids!

How many Spells can Handlers have at a time?

As many as they can handle!

C'mon now buckaroo, you walked right into that one.

Jesting aside, the number of spells in a handler's repertoire can vary greatly depending on their individual responsibilities and skill level. Many folks go their entire lives with just 1 or 2 handy spells by their side, while some mavens have been known to handle a dozen or more at a time!

How do Handlers carry all their Spells?

Spell-handlers invariably rely upon the invaluable spell-kennel for all their on-the-go magical needs. A spell-kennel is a container for a spell meant to be convenient and accessible for the handler carrying the kennel, and cozy for the spell inside. Anti-magic lining³ and a convenient feeding port ensure that no day is too long or too arduous for a prepared handler.

What do Spell-Kennels look like?

Spell-kennels may take the shape of backpacks, bandoliers, folding organizers colloquially known as "spellbooks", and many other styles depending on individual needs and preferences. They may project an air of style, confidence, or simple, workmanlike professionalism to suit the handler. The beauty of the spell-kennel is that it is whatever you want it to be!

While supplies last, of course.

Can't Handlers keep Spells outside of their Kennels?

Technically they can, but any handler worth their salt would know better than to let their spells flop around all willy-nilly. It poses a needless inconvenience and risk to the handler to have their spells not immediately at-hand and under their control. Besides, most spells would not be able to keep up on foot.

Why can't some Spells walk?

The marvels of selective breeding have only been achieved by making a few very carefully considered sacrifices across the many diverse breeds of spells. One consequence is that many breeds of spells possess vestigial limbs that are no longer functional for locomotion- which makes it all the more important that the world have plenty of licensed spell-handlers to help take care of them.

Where do Handlers get their Spells?

Most spell-handlers receive their spells from the spell-ranch where they were currently are employed. If that is impossible or impractical, such as the case is with spell-handlers working abroad, they may acquire replacement spells from any nearby ranches or independent breeders at their convenience.

What is a Spell-Ranch?

Spell ranches are the centers of all things spellish. They are where spells are raised, new spells are created, spell-handlers learn, and countless members of your communities work, all to build a better and brighter future together. You could call it a farm that grows spells instead of crops, but to call it just a farm is to sell it woefully short. It would not be hyperbolic to say that the modern spell-ranch is the cornerstone of society.

Non-Handlers work at Spell-Ranches too?

Of course!

Spell-rearing is a multidisciplinary market, and it wouldn't behoove a ranch to have nothing but academics running around the fields sweating buckets. Anyone from any walk of life has the skills necessary to help keep a ranch running. Many towns and villages receive the majority of their employment from nearby ranches, all of which are solemnly grateful and duty-bound to provide for them in turn.

It may be hard for the layman to see it, but ranch hands know that they are essential: every spell fed, ditch dug, and pen mucked is a step toward prosperity and magical progress, and it fuels each and every one of their boundless hearts with a burning purpose that the Pardnership is plum gobsmacked at, even to this day.

I heard some Spell-Ranch workers are trying to unionize due to alleged mistreatment.

"The Wizened Pardnership and its affiliated spell-ranches are not anti-union, but they are not neutral either. They will boldly defend their direct relationship with their workers as something that is in the best interest of the worker, the ranc [sic], and the community. They do not believe unions are in the best interest of the ranch, the community, or—most importantly—the worker.

Spell-ranches optimize themselves to work best according to the core values of dependability, innovation, and efficacy, without which the world would not have such revolutionary wonders as brand-new spells."

Hang on, let's back up. How do you create "new" Spells?

So glad you asked!

An important part of spell-breeding is selecting for desirable traits. By paring the right spells of the same species together, those traits can be brought out and enhanced, made even more wonderous than what nature endowed them with. This is how you get new, subtle variations between spells of the same class; the kinds of things an outside buckaroo looking in might call different "ranks" of spells, though the reality is far more nuanced.

Alternatively, a skilled breeder may hybridize two different spells together into an all-new spell that combines some of the traits of each parent, or even results in something entirely new to magic and science.

It isn't as simple as plopping two spells down in the same room and waiting for the magic to happen, of course. Conditions must be carefully controlled, and a lengthy period of stabilization and strict testing follows all successful attempts.

What is Stabilization?

Stabilization is the process by which a new spell's magico-genetic structure is made stable enough for the specimen to be viable, as well as safe to handle. Failure to run a new spell through proper stabilization protocols is dangerous: it may behave erratically, attempt to self-terminate, discharge its magic uncontrollably, or even spontaneously explode.

Do some folks still try it anyway?

Regrettably yes, there are some bad actors among us who would disregard the wisdom of the Pardnership and pursue their own agendas in spell-breeding without oversight, putting themselves and their communities at risk. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms.

What should be done about that?

It is for the stated reasons above that unauthorized spell hybridization has been made strictly illegal in most jurisdictions. It is your civic duty—as well as the professional and moral duty of all 'zardners everywhere—to report any suspected cases of spell-breeding or related activity to local law enforcement.

We don't want another Larrold's Ridge Incident, now do we?

What Happened at Larrold's Ridge?

The Larrold's Ridge Incident was a tragic ████████ ██ █████ ███████ ██████ ██████ █████████ at an uncertified independent facility rapidly █████████ ███████ ██████████████ resulting in large-scale destruction and the almost complete loss of all ████ ███ ████████ within a 3-kilomile radius.

For more information, contact ███████████ at ████████████████████████.

Wow, I feel kind of unsafe right now. How can we trust Magic?

By trusting the Pardnership!

The Incident was shocking in its size and severity precisely because of the efforts of the Pardnership; otherwise, it and events like it would be far worse and far more frequent. But by putting the best and brightest minds in spell-handlerdom together, we can work to prevent such things from happening. It is thanks to these fine folks that magic remains and will continue to be a net positive and a force for good, both in your communities and across the world.

Trust us. We will protect you.

I feel much safer now, but I am not a certified Spell-Handler. How else can I help support the Pardnership?

There are many ways to help support the Pardnership, and they can all be done at the local level. You can volunteer your time at a local ranch, support the Pardnership by purchasing some of its marvelous products, or just be a good citizen and attend to the civic duties morally incumbent upon all of us. Keep the world clean and friendly, and make sure to report any feral spells you find!

Feral Spells? Aren't all Spells domesticated?

Almost! While most spells have been bred in captivity and virtually all extant species have been selectively bred from their wild ancestors, there are many feral spell colonies across the world. These "wild magic" populations are the result of domestic spells escaping captivity or being abandoned by negligent handlers, then reproducing in the wild. Wild spells should only be approached by certified spell-handlers with trap-neuter-return training, as they pose a potential danger to bystanders and their communities if agitated.

If you believe there is a feral spell colony in your area, please contact your nearest ranch.

Wait! I saw someone using Magic without a Spell. How is that possible?

Easy now, buckaroo. There are many spell-based products commercially available nowadays. What you may have witnessed was the proud owner of a spell-egg, magical wand, or staff showing off their shiny little slice of modernity.

What is a Spell-Egg?

Simply put, a spell-egg is an egg laid by a spell!

More properly, commercially available spell-eggs are unfertilized eggs that contain enough residual magic from the spell that laid it to allow it to be used as a sort of disposable single-use spell. The effects produced by eggs pale in comparison to what a live spell can do in the care of a handler, but they offer a wide range of options and conveniences to the layman.

How does one use a Spell-Egg?

Simply break open the shell of an egg to activate its latent magic. This may be done either by throwing the egg at the spell's intended target or, in the case of spells intended for oneself, by cracking that bad boy open and sucking the yolk down like a real Hoss.

Always consult the expiration date on spell-eggs before use. Do not purchase if shell is broken. Report any health code violations to your local ranch.

What are Magical Wands & Staffs?

Wands are a spectacular invention designed for the discerning non-handler who wants dependability and scalability out of their magical products for the best price. Through generations of selective breeding, certain spells have been designed to fit inside an enclosed space as small as a piece of wood or ceramic tubing without food, water, or air for months on end before reaching a natural expiration date.

Staffs are functionally identical to wands, except they are enlarged to hold up to a half-dozen (or more!) spells at once.

How does one use a Magical Wand or Staff?

Wands and staffs need only be activated with the proper gesture or phrase in order to effect its magic. This may be done several times depending on the size and type of the product in question. Once the spell within has been fully discharged of its magic, the wand may be disposed of in any way that is safe and convenient for perishable goods.

Vendors are required by law to supply suitable activation instructions with every purchase. Do not attempt to open wands or staffs or activate opened ones. Check your local ordinances.

Are there any sources of Magic other than Spells or Spell-Based Products?

We understand that in this modern age there is a growing sense of conscientiousness surrounding the use of spells, stemming from ecological, ethical, and dietary concerns. For those whom it concerns, it may be pleasing to know that a group of researchers is hard at work inventing a synthetic form of magic for experimental use. But R&D is a slow process, and Big Egg has one hell⁴ of a wizard lobby. In the meantime, remember that all available spell-based products are guaranteed safe and sustainable.

This has all been very enlightening, but I want to learn more.

You're in luck! Chances are, you have a world-class education in spells just a stone's throw away from home. Every Pardnership-affiliated spell-ranch has an information and admissions office ready and waiting to receive you and all your questions, curiosities, or concerns. Take a guided tour of the ranch, join community outreach programs, or apply for preliminary screening interviews to become the spell-handler of your dreams.

You'll know you're in the right neck of the woods when you pass the statue of our beloved mascot, Blorpy the Excarnating Illiquation spell.

Have a good'un, 'zardner!


¹ Such as create gold. No known magical effect can as of yet spontaneously generate gold, nor convert another substance into gold. But the fine folks at R&D are hard at work, and thanks to their ceaseless self-sacrifice and the hard work of their communities, a breakthrough could come any day now! The cost will be worth it. Literally.

² Lifelong for the spell, that is. The average life expectancy of a spell is 6-8 months, depending on species. Particularly long-lived specimens can exceed 2 years. Parents are advised not to get spells as children's pets.

³ Made from only the most high quality spell stomach lining using state-of-the-art rendering and polymerization techniques.

⁴ Literally. Since they successfully bred the Infernal Gulper (binomial name pending), portals to the underworld have been opening left and right. Watch your step, pilgrim!

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dungeons & Diablos: Past and Present Attempts to Port a Foundational Action-RPG Series to Tabletop

Dungeon crawling had existed in some form, traditional or digital, for a solid 20 years before the release of the first Diablo title for PC in 1997. It was a tried-and-true formula of exploring dank halls, killing increasingly deadly excuse villains, and acquiring loot and ever-greater power for your character. Sometimes you perma-died when you inevitably got unlucky, sometimes there was a save file or a cleric sitting at the table with you; the differences between crawlers were typically tangential to that core gameplay loop. When Diablo released, it changed none of those steps, yet still managed to transform the dungeon crawl genre of video games forever.

Functionally, there is no difference between what you're doing in Diablo and what you're doing in Angband, rogue, or The Keep on the Borderlands. Diablo differed in how it presented and delivered that dungeon crawling experience using procedurally-generated dungeon floors and items, enthusiastically shlocky, gothic fantasy visuals, fast and relentless real-time gameplay (for its time at least), and sound design calibrated to make your brain light up with good job happy time chemicals like a Skinner Box rat whenever a treasure chest opens or loot pops out of a boss's corpse.

When Diablo II released three years later, it took that formula and honed it almost to perfection. It gave you more monsters to kill, more characters and powers to kill them with, and more loot to get for killing them, all while crafting a story and a world that were pretty decent, even beyond their primary function, which was to exist in service of the gameplay loop. They were big hits, and they helped cement the long-ago tarnished pedigree of Blizzard Entertainment, who acquired the original developer Condor and renamed it Blizzard North shortly after Diablo I released.

You can learn more about the series as a whole from this very good and extremely long retrospective Noah Cladwell-Gervais released a few weeks ago, if you're interested. I've been playing it on loop for inspiration as I work on this. But that's enough parroting better writers than me for the moment. I'm here to talk about the interaction between Diablo and the medium of TTRPGs.

Video games and their tabletop predecessors have always been in conversation with one another, each influencing the other over the decades in ways that are often far more subtle and long-lasting than the uproar about D&D 4E being "MMO-like" that one time. So it's little surprise that eventually, somebody wanted to port the Diablo flavor of dungeon crawling back to the genre's birthplace in Dungeons & Dragons.

It's also unsurprising that no one has yet pinned down how exactly to do that.

Stuffed almost entirely into the year 2000, WotC and Blizzard got together to take several shots at a Diablo tabletop game, each slightly different from the last. They are weird artifacts of that liminal twilight era of AD&D 2E, sandwiched between the acquisition of TSR by WotC and the emergence of D&D 3E.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game: Diablo II Edition: Fast-Play Game: The Bloodstone Tomb (Early 2000? Publication Date Claims 1999)

A mouthful of a title for a pretty small game, written by Jeff Grubb and Bill Slavicsek. This fast-play booklet is 16 pages long, including cover material. It was apparently packaged with certain copies of Diablo II the computer game on release, and served as an introduction to tabletop gaming for newcomers using Diablo as the hook.

The D&D "Adventure Game" is something that has popped up several times throughout history. Normally it is a very simplified version of the game rules packaged together with some dice and token or map pieces in a little boxed set, similar to the Starter Sets and Essentials kits of later years. AD&D2E got one, as did 3E- the latter with its orange box and several of the iconics flanked by a red dragon on the front was my first ever experience with D&D.

The Bloodstone Tomb is not that, however. It's a one-shot module that uses an even more simplified system, to the point that it mechanically does not resemble D&D. You don't even use polyhedral dice outside of the ordinary d6. The attack mechanic is 3d6 roll-above your character's to-hit stat, for example.

You can play 4 different premade characters for Bloodstone Tomb; Amazon, Barbarian, Paladin, or Sorceress. Sorry, Necromancer. You didn't make the cut. Each character comes on a card that has set ability scores, Life and Mana displayed in little bubbles that you can individually cross out, short descriptions and lists of equipment, and 1 or 2 skills inspired by the computer game. Barbarian can Bash for triple damage for 1 mana for example, or the Paladin can Pray to heal d6 damage from anyone.

The adventure itself is very basic: your party discovers the wreckage of a merchant caravan in the wilderness and follows the curiously bodiless blood trail to a nearby dungeon in the hills. There you fight bloodhawks and fallen ones to rescue the survivors from sacrifice. Six rooms later, you're left at a cliffhanger where you can journey down the stairs into pitch blackness and an unknown fate.

It's quick, simple, reasonably Diablo'y in tone, and easy to tackle for a couple of kids who got their parents to buy them an M-rated game. It actually plays a lot like a simulation of a "cellar dungeon" from newer Diablo titles. But it's not really enough to play a full game with. For that you need the full version of the Adventure Game, which is conveniently advertised on the back cover.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game: Diablo II Edition (May 2000?)

The full version of the game introduced in the Fast-Play, that isn't really similar to the fast-play at all. Which strikes me as odd, because this version was also designed primarily by Grubb and Slavicsek.

This boxed set contains a full set of traditional D&D dice, a rule book, quest book, monster book, several dozen tile-based terrain pieces to arrange for your own dungeons, monster tokens, character sheets (including the Necromancer this time!), and a DM screen. It is much closer to a D&D Adventure Game this time around, both in contents and mechanics.

Diablo II Edition still uses pre-made character cards, but they look more like traditional character sheets this time. They track level and experience, THAC0, armor class, simplified all-in-one saving throws, movement rate (in squares), and magic item slots. They retain all of their Diablo-themed parts too, such as Life and Mana, skills, and somewhat curiously for a D&D spinoff, a grid-based inventory a la the computer game's backpack.

Characters have more than 1 or 2 skills this time. They start off with their choice of only one, but every level-up they may check off a new ability to use, up to a total of 4 out of the available 5 each. This is similar to how you acquire new skills in Diablo II, albeit without the cross-skill synergies or the option to add more points to a given skill to make it more powerful.

You also get a hit of loot randomization (and a reason for getting loot to begin with), which was absent in the fast-play. Whenever the random magic loot table roll results in a non-unique piece of equipment dropping (which is a solid 8-19 on a d20), you customize that item by rolling on a table for Prefixes, Suffixes, or both, which affect its stats and bonuses (or penalties). That hand ax might be an Iron Hand Ax of Quality that has a +1 to attack and damage, or that shield might be an especially unlucky Rusted Shield of the Vulture that decreases your AC by 1 and life by 1d4.

There are thousands of different combinations, which is a pretty good approximation of the dizzying numbers of items the computer game is rolling for behind the scenes every single second of play. The rate of loot acquisition might be slower than in the digital version of the game though, or else the session might slow to a crawl as your DM pores over the same couple of tables until their eyes bleed.

Other mechanics are far closer to D&D. You use a d20 for most things including attacks, ability checks, saving throws, etc. Weapons deal differing amounts of damage besides d6 for example, though they don't use variable damage vs Medium or Large-sized adversaries, which was en vogue in AD&D. You get better to-hit and saving throw ratings with each level-up, but life and mana are linear increases rather than random rolls or determined by ability scores.

The quests for Diablo II Edition are an odd mix of Diablo 1 and 2 themes and locations. The party starts in Khanduras, somewhere in the mountains close to the Citadel of the Sightless Eye, the headquarters of the Rogues sisterhood. This is almost identical to the beginning of Act I of Diablo II, except instead of being centered on the Rogue Encampment where Warriv's caravan is stopped, you find yourselves in the village of Waystruck. Here you are directed to most of your quests by the villagers and Delpha, a healer and seer of the sisterhood who is obviously a reskin of Akara from the video game.

What begins as a few disconnected quests clearing out dens of evil (but not the Den of Evil starter dungeon from the video game) soon gives way to larger plot: there is a powerful Overlord demon lurking in the pass, hunting down the infamous cleaver that once belonged to The Butcher boss beneath Tristram from Diablo I. If this demon, The Slayer, is allowed to take up the cleaver, he will gain all of its former wielder's power and in fact become the new Butcher.

That's a weird but kind of nifty bit of lore completely unique to this book, but it also just so happens to explain why The Butcher keeps on popping up in almost every single Diablo game to date: it's a title passed down among many demons alongside the weapon; a legacy character kind of like a big red cannibalistic Green Lantern.

Also notable is that starting here in the Adventure Game and going forward into all future Diablo books, you gain bonus experience points specifically for completing these quests, not just for killing things or stealing loot while doing stuff pursuant of completing the quests. It's a means of incentivizing satisfying narrative conclusions that video games had been using for decades, but which mainstream D&D was hesitant to try until it began experimenting with different kinds of progression starting in 4E.

The adventure is very oriented toward newbies to tabletop roleplaying, players and DMs both. It has ample sidebars explaining how to play NPCs, how to use the tables, and what to do if the party tries something unexpected- to the point that they have half a page dedicated to the contingency of one of the players panicking and murdering Delpha the second they meet because they think she's a ghost. 

Seriously.

All told, the Adventure Game is a novel and fairly even split between D&D and what you could expect to do with Diablo without automation. But it isn't a full game of either type, because the quests and progression track fizzle out at only 5th level. To have an entire campaign worth of content to hack and slash through, you'll need to buy the fuller full version of Diablo for D&D.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: The Awakening (Also May 2000?)

While writing this post I realized that what's going on here has a weird parallel with how early Basic and AD&D were envisioned by Gygax and some of the other folks at TSR: when you're finished with the simple game for babies, you're expected to "move up" and shell out for the bigger version of the game so you can play with the big boys. Except in Blizzard's case, it isn't being done to screw Dave Arneson out of his money.

The Awakening is designed with existing AD&D players in mind. There is far less space dedicated to teaching newcomers the basics of play, and more focused on if and when to use this product as a sourcebook that is in conversation with the rest of the edition. It even advises you on how to slot the challenges and character options of Diablo II into your group's existing campaign world, genericized into setting-agnostic chunks kind of like Greyhawk in D&D 3E.

Because of that concession—that this is a box of Diablo supplements for a diet consisting mostly of AD&D—the mechanical influences from the two games no longer have the same parity that they enjoyed in the Adventure Game version. It still tries to emulate the feel of Diablo, but it is AD&D first and foremost.

You can see this right away in the character classes, which are presented as kits for AD&D's base classes. Amazons, Barbarians, and Paladins are Fighters, while Sorcerers and Necromancers are specialist Mages.

There are no Druids or Assassins in The Awakening, which I think is the most lamentable part of the whole book. The introduction only references the story of Diablo II up to its incredibly rushed base game ending, with no mention of the events or added content from the Lord of Destruction expansion pack the Druid and Assassin are from. This is despite the expansion having been out for a good 6 months before this book released, suggesting to me that it was either finalized very early that year or that they just chose to omit them. Maybe they would have added them in a sequel book that never came to be.

A sidebar describes how regular Fighters and Thieves from AD&D can be slotted into the world fairly easily, although I don't know how well a Thief would do in the heavy combat emphasis of the game with no Diablo powers to draw upon like the above kits provide. None of the classes in the Priest group really exist in the Diablo setting, but you can force a Cleric to fit if you want to. The book makes this easier by putting some Paladin and Necromancer spells on the Priest list.

And I mean spells in the traditional, AD&D sense. Mana points and the abilities you spend them on are gone in The Awakening, replaced by a mix of nonmagical skills and good old Vancian spellcasting. Sorcerers and Necromancers use Mage spellcasting progression, while Amazons and Paladins progress as fast and as far as Bards with a small spell-list. What remained a skill and what got turned into a spell is a little arbitrary; Necromancers have Bone Armor as a skill for example, but Create Zombies is a spell. Barbarians are the only kit with no spellcasting ability at all, and bizarrely they can't specialize in weapons like Fighters or their video game counterparts, but they do get some nifty abilities like a self-heal, and a taunt ability that actually works half-decently.

Skills (and spellcasting progression, where applicable) are purchased using proficiency slots. Weapon or nonweapon proficiency slots can be used, depending on the skill in question. As was the case in the Adventure Game, skills are named after and inspired by the abilities you use in Diablo II. Each costs between 1 and 3 slots, meaning you can start with several at 1st level. It also makes Intelligence a really desirable ability score regardless of class, because bonus proficiency slots at 1st level are keyed off of Int. A Sorceress with even middling Int can probably grab 1 rank in every single skill on her list.

You can dump more than 1 rank into a skill if you want, as in the computer game. But rather than making the skill stronger, more ranks make the skill more likely to succeed: skills are activated using an ability check with an associated penalty, and every rank above 1st decreases that penalty by -1. Unless you use the optional rule to make it -3 per rank instead, because most classes only get 1 nonweapon proficiency every 3-4 levels, and spending it on such a tiny bonus to a single roll can feel pretty unrewarding in a game that is largely about pummeling you with rewards.

You can use more than 1 skill in a round, but typically can't use the same one more than once, and they often have internal cooldowns besides. Some of these are measured in rounds, others in hours, so you can't quite spam them like in the video game. Still, it gives martials a surprising number of Nice Things for AD&D.

The randomized loot tables are back and bigger than ever, spanning 9 pages and boasting over 1,000,000 combinatorial magic items (a word which the writers assure you does not mean "demon-summoning incantations"). The book throws some d40s and d60s at you in amidst the d20s and d100s, but it's nothing you have to use custom dice for.

The monster list is bigger too, over 100 total counting stronger palette swap versions of creatures, although each entry is truncated somewhat by taking a few stablock lines and making them universal for all monsters in the game.

I don't think they thought that one through, because this technically applies to everything including the completely ordinary wildlife of the world. It is slightly amusing though.

Also, one of the demon types is literally just named Balrog? And they printed that and used it in multiple games for years with no issues? I guess the Tolkien Estate was busy copyright hounding somebody else at the time.

At the end of the monster list, we are treated to a set of new mechanics that try to emulate the sometimes random and chaotic monster AI and pathfinding in the game: frontage, trains, and streams. If you've ever ran out of a packed Fallen den and heard their caterwauling and Rakanishu'ing coming up behind in spastic and random intervals, this is basically that, but reified into the game text.

Frontage is not a unique mechanic in and of itself so much as an acknowledgement that bottlenecking numerically superior enemy forces in a narrow area can be a good idea. Certain monster-dense rooms in Diablo I and II can be trivialized by standing in or next to the doorway and taking enemies on one at a time. Choosing to engage enemies in a constricted space with limited frontage can do the same, here.

Trains are what happens when a party engaged with monsters leaves the room and those monsters follow them out of the room. There is an 80% base chance that [total # ÷ 2d4 (round up)] monsters will start a train and pursue fleeing heroes, which can be bad if it's a serious retreat, or good if you're falling back to a place where you will have more advantageous frontage.

Streaming is when the monsters who didn't leave the initial room continue to send groups of reinforcements after the train, and have a 40% chance to start sending 1d4 monsters every 1d4 rounds. The force is greatly broken up and easier to manage in smaller chunks, but they become a constant, harrying problem if the group is trying to do anything other than stand its ground and grind demons into paste. Manipulating foes to train or stream into areas with limited frontage can greatly alter the dynamics of a battle in your favor.

Just watch out if anyone thinks to throw a fireball into that crowded hallway.

After all the lists of magic, items, and monsters, we are treated to a description of the main setting for the Awakening adventure...

Tristram.

Because despite this book being titled Diablo II, talking about the plot of Diablo II, and showcasing most of the classes from Diablo II, the actual plot of the campaign is lifted straight from the original Diablo. King Leoric has gone mad, evil festers in Tristram Cathedral, Griswold's still hammering away on his anvil, you can kill the Butcher again (again), and Adria is standing around pretending that she won't have world-shattering plot significance in a few years.

It's such a weird creative backtracking decision that tells me once again that this book's development was disjointed from the rest of Diablo II media. It was either finished way before the final game launched, faced some behind-the-scenes issues, or was consciously limited in the hopes of using the extra stuff in a sequel book that never panned out. I can't be that critical of the book alone for this, though. Diablo II the video game shipped barely finished, thanks to the legendary amount of rush and crunch its developers were put through.

As it stands, the book ends when you kill Diablo. The campaign conforms to the soulstone possession stuff from canon, but it doesn't include the Dark Wanderer as an NPC, nor does it ask any player to sacrifice their character to become the next vessel for plot significance. Instead a completely made-up fighter/thief adventurer named Qarak leaps into action to seize the soulstone just as Diablo is killed, having been hiding in the corner of his room next to his own dead party for who-knows-how-long using his invisibility armor. It somehow feels even more contrived than the next vessel being Aidan, the other son of King Leoric whom nobody namedropped or even acknowledged the existence of in Diablo I.

Weird and disappointing though it may be to me, hey, Diablo I is still a pretty good dungeon crawl to adapt to tabletop from a gameplay perspective. 16 levels of tombs, caves, and a section of Hell with a town and shop located conveniently on the surface is exactly like many classic roguelike games. The Awakening also adds Shrines throughout the levels, which grant buffs (or debuffs) to help keep the party in a flow state of dungeon delving and loot-selling for several sessions before they either hunt down Diablo or die horribly.

Speaking of dying horribly, there's a roguelite rule for that.

Perhaps I was unfair to say The Awakening is more AD&D than Diablo, because it includes the most video games-ass optional rule I've ever seen printed in a tabletop book. Death is common, even likely for a Diablo protagonist, even when they have friends. In order to take some of the sting out of TPKs and keep to the game's spirit of jumping right back in where you left off until you cleave your way through that one part of the dungeon, an optional Save Game rule is offered.

If the DM lets the party save their game, they are to set their character sheets aside and not touch them for the entire session. All changes to their characters, items, actions, kills, etc. are instead recorded on copies of the Adventure Tracking Sheet included at the end of the book. If the party survives their excursion and makes it back to Tristram, they update their sheets and save their progress. If they all die, the tracking sheets are torn up and the party restarts from its last 'save point', so to speak.

As someone who knows how important narrative can be to the flow and enjoyment of D&D, I understand that this hard reset option might feel cheapening and silly. As someone who genuinely hates tabletop character death and dislikes the naked corpse run Diablo II saddles you with, I also love the option being there.

For folks who don't like making things easier, don't worry: The Awakening also carried over the difficulty modes from Diablo II.

You can play on normal from levels 1-10, or you can play on Nightmare (recommended for levels 11-15) by upgrading some or all monsters with +3 HD/AC/Damage/Damage Dice Per Ranged Attack. If that's not enough you can crank it up to Hell difficulty (ideally for levels 16-20) where it's a +6 to the above. And if you still want bigger and beefier monsters, throw a second layer of Hell on top of the unique bosses for a total of +9 to everything. Naturally, this cranks up both the XP and magic item rewards you earn.

I think The Awakening is about as complete a mechanical port of Diablo II as one could ask for, barring figuring out how to implement the Horadric Cube or runewords or something like that. It's rough in places and missing some pieces, like its parent games, but it gets pretty close to what it set out to do. If Blizzard had an opportunity to go back and update it, I feel like they could have nailed it.

Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: Diablerie (December, 2000 for sure this time)

Orrr they could decide to go the Diablo III route and give existing ideas and concepts a facelift without fundamentally altering or improving upon them.

A few months after Diablo II launched, so did D&D 3E. With it came the waves of 3rd party books that earlier incarnations of the Diablo RPG actually preceded, but which the latest book, Diablerie, released right alongside. I've rewritten this paragraph several times now because I can't quite figure out where in relation to the 3E Gold Rush Diablerie lies.

On one hand, there's some amount of care and craft put into emulating the video game on tabletop. Not to the extent that the Everquest RPG went hog-wild with its books, but definitely more than some other d20 adaptations. But on the other hand, most of that craft is preexisting material adapted from the 2E and Adventure Game books, with relatively few genuinely new additions introduced for 3E. Does that make Diablo 3E a bit of a cash-grab? I'm not sure.

Diablerie (which is a pretty fun alternative to just saying 'devilry') is first and foremost an edition update of everything important that was in The Awakening. The 5 base classes are carried over (still no Assassin or Druid), their powers are a mix of spellcasting and mana-less active skills (renamed magic abilities so they don't cause confusion with 3E's skill system), and magic item tables were ported over virtually untouched, d60s and all.

Nightmare and Hell difficulties still exist- albeit here they're just a suggestion to beef up the monster list for a room with tougher creatures appropriate to the party's CR, rather than increasing existing enemies' stats by a prescribed amount. Which feels like a needless change that introduces more work for the DM. It's also a wasted opportunity to take advantage of one of the edition's new mechanics, because 3E was the age of monster templates and that's essentially what The Awakening's difficulty adjusters were.

The most meaningful gameplay change from AD&D to 3E in my opinion is the shift of abilities from nonweapon proficiency slots to level-gated class features. The Amazon, Barbarian, and Paladin get 6 tiers of abilities to choose from, virtually all of which require a full-round action to use, unlike previously. Each tier is a list of 4-5 abilities, of which you may only ever choose 3 before moving on to the next tier. Some abilities have prerequisites from earlier groups, so you're encouraged to map your character build out well in advance.

This bit of metagame is very true to the experience of playing Diablo II, where most practical builds for high-level play ignore huge swaths of character abilities in favor of a very specific path to power. They have to be this rigid because you have only 1 character respec available per playthrough, so no points can be wasted. You have even less recourse here in tabletop where there is no retraining option for characters, barring table fiat of course.

Necromancers and Sorcerers get only a few passive "mastery" type class features this time around, with the overwhelming majority of their power coming from spellcasting. Remarkably, that spellcasting has been significantly reined in compared to their AD&D counterparts; they only advance to 6th level spells, putting them more on par with the Amazons and Paladins of The Awakening, or Bards in core 3E. Those spells are still big and flashy and can deal a lot of damage, but the lack of 7th-to-9th level spells coupled with the naturally narrower spell lists available to Necromancers and Sorcerers means that there's much less of a power level gap between them and the martial classes than normal for a 3E game.

Another step toward fidelity to the game that I am far less thrilled about is equipment durability. Technically speaking, durability is already a thing in 3E if you really want it to be; most items and materials have hardness and hit points listed somewhere, and sunder experts are just a few feats away from ruining the group's wallets. But those are a collection of overlapping rules that don't have a lot of attention paid to them, normally.

Durability in Diablo is a whole bespoke system, meanwhile. Instead of having to be targeted by sunder attempts or certain AoE damage, you are constantly checking for equipment damage just by playing the game. Weapons degrade by 1 point for every 2 damage you deal above their hardness, while receiving a damage-dealing attack causes a random piece of your armor on a d20 roll to suffer damage at the same ratio. At 1/2 durability weapons and armor suffer -1 to damage or AC respectively, -3 at 1/4th, and they're completely destroyed at 0. Yes, items get 3x the usual hit points than in core D&D, and anyone with the Craft skill can attempt repairs during downtime, but it still strikes me as a time-consuming busywork mechanic, even more than it is in the base game since you can't automate it while conducting combat.

At least they recognized how annoying running out of Stamina in Diablo II is, and made the Fatigue rule optional. It's the exact same thing as the core game condition, except it prompts you to check for more things than the specific causes of fatigue in core, and it can be cured with 10 minutes of rest instead of 8 hours, or by chugging one of the many stamina potions you're likely to come across. But at the same time, this rule being optional highlights the artificial inconvenience of durability.

As I see it, the reason stamina and durability exist in video game Diablo (and plenty of other games) is to act as a resource sink or time-waster to slow progress and therefore extend the game's playtime and make it seem bigger and implicitly better. Kind of a "ludo-monetary" continuation of the logic that you need to do whatever you can to keep people standing at the arcade cabinet for as long as possible. This is opposed to situations where those mechanics are meant to act in service of value, tone, or realism. There absolutely are games that do accomplish that with the mechanics, but the Diablo series isn't one of them in my opinion.

Diablerie ends with another short adventure, Morgen Keep. It's very short, consisting of only 3 dungeon levels, putting it closer to the Fast-Play's bloodhawk lair in scope than the Waystruck campaign or the Tristram delve. But the two underground areas are dense and looping and full of dead ends, which feels just like a bite-sized Diablo II dungeon. The adventure ends with the party facing the demon Crushskull, who is guarding the magical Siegehammer, an anti-undead and -demon heirloom of the family that once owned Morgen Keep. He was watching it until more powerful demons could come to destroy it. It's the perfect gift for your group's aspiring Barbarian or Paladin, or alternatively a quest item to spin a greater plot out of- the rest is up to you.

Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: To Hell and Back (March, 2001)

It wasn't until the following year that we would finally get a full Diablo II D&D campaign that finally addresses the plot of Diablo II. To Hell and Back makes that long-overdue delivery. It also completes a pretty nifty split cover art piece with Diablerie that I didn't notice until I was writing this post.

To Hell and Back follows the base storyline of Diablo II almost perfectly beat-for-beat, so I won't go over each of the acts in detail. What I find more interesting is the ways the book tries to emulate the video gamey feel of playing through that campaign, by implementing a few mechanics that were absent in earlier books.

To start, respawns. Respawning monsters are a staple of farming in Diablo, and they've finally been added to the rules. Now no matter how many times you run through a particular area, it will never be demon-free for very long. Once a week as long as there are surviving stragglers, or once the party is wiped out, all zones in a region respawn their monsters. Which implies that the campaign world is meant to persist beyond a single group, and that this edition declined to carry over the Save Game rule.

Next up, waypoints. Those iconic stone circles with gently glowing blue lights that teleport you from major location to location within the same act made their debut in Diablo II. They are very handy for getting back to and then back from town without using up your supply of town portal scrolls. They also act as useful landmarks and points of reference to look for within the semi-random wilderness regions.

In previous books, scrolls and higher-level spells existed to bring you back to town, but the waypoint network was absent until now. Their presence can greatly reduce or eliminate travel time between completed areas, which as far as Diablo is concerned is empty downtime. They make it so the utilities of town are never far out of reach, but more importantly get you back into the action faster once you're done with them, giving more time over to dungeon delving or hunting through the overland maps for a new secret, unique enemy, or next waypoint to discover.

Those maps are also randomized this time around, or at least can be. The book gives very specific instructions on how to do this: get a pad of 8 1/2-inch x 11-inch graph paper with 4 squares per inch, then subdivide an 8x10 area into 2-inch square zones to populate with monsters and other random map features, with each square equaling 10' in-game. Make the map edges jagged, add impassable terrain like cliffs, trees, and insurmountable waist-high fences in between zones, plop the waypoint down somewhere, and the region map is good to go.

I like the idea behind this, although the execution feels a little claustrophobic and mismatched with the game. At 10' per square and 4 squares per inch, the entirety of the Blood Moor is an area of only 320'x400', for example. Combining all the outdoors zones in Act I gets you less than 12 acres (that's 0.05 square kilometers for most of the rest of the world).

That's absolutely tiny by D&D standards; an Amazon with a longbow could loose an arrow from one edge of a region map at a target on the other side at only -8 to-hit, and an unencumbered character could use the run action to clear that same distance in about 4 rounds. The book explains this away by saying that Diablo's influence has created general overcast and haze over the land, greatly reducing visibility and making it so that each encounter zone remains somewhat self-contained and separated from one another (with the aid of all those hedges and walls they told you to add, of course).

Personally I think that sounds like the Kryptonite Fog justification from Superman 64; a system limitation that the designers tried to give plot excuse to. It might have been better to measure regions in larger increments than 10' squares, or instead to approach outdoors regions via hexes or just a simple pointcrawl. Because as it stands, the areas of expansive wilderness meant to encourage wandering and exploration just feel like slightly larger dungeon floors- which is another moment where I think video game emulation is a detriment here, because Diablo II's developers had wanted to create a larger, more open world before all the technical limitations and player legibility considerations came into play later on in the game's development.

Gripes about specific rules aside, this is the most full and complete Diablo tabletop experience we have ever had, for better and worse. As I mentioned earlier, it did not go as far in its simulation as the EverQuest RPG for d20. But it did do more to distinguish itself than other 3E products would.

I don't know the reasons why the product line was discontinued, but had it not been I could easily see a Lord of Destruction splatbook coming out to finish up the plot and round out the class roster.

But this is not the last Diablo tabletop game we will ever have.

Diablo: The Roleplaying Game (TBA)

Late last year, Blizzard announced that there are a Diablo RPG and board game in the works. It is being developed by Glass Cannon Unplugged, a studio that seems to have board game adaptations of video games as its whole shtick, if the Apex Legends, Dying Light, and Frostpunk titles in their catalogue are anything to go by.

I don't know how transferrable board game expertise is to a proper tabletop RPG, but I'm curious to see what exactly they wind up making. It's confirmed that the game will use its own proprietary system rather than using something else like d20 5E, but beyond that we really don't know much about it. Press releases have been sparse and pretty buzzwordy since Blizzcon.

Apparently there will be an emphasis on fast combat with large numbers of enemies, as well as some kind of inner struggle that suggests a corruption mechanic or karmameter that would be new to the universe, despite how prevalent demonic corruption is in the story. They also seem to want to push the story and setting in new directions, rather than following existing games- although the branding and art style we've seen thus far are extremely Diablo IV-inspired, including a prominent image of Lilith on the website.

What I'm most curious about is why they're making a TTRPG and a board game. Will they be designed to play similarly? Differently? Can they share assets like character minis? Will they go for some kind of weird integration between the games like D&D has done with the Battle System or Warriors of Krynn over the years? I guess we'll find out more when the RPG's crowdfunding campaign starts later this year- because of course Blizzard wouldn't front the money for a project when they can just make their customers pay extra for it instead.

Unenthused as I may read, I do hope they do something worthwhile with this return to tabletop. I want to see how they continue to emulate the video games, or alternatively how they might move beyond them in a new creative direction. I loved the WoW RPG more than it deserved back in the day, and I still seem to have that susceptibility now. I won't back it, and I don't participate in the predatory monetization schemes of recent Diablo titles, but I too am touched by that insidious corruption we call hype. How cynically appropriate for a series about fighting demons.

Just gimme a dang Druid class while you're at it, alright?