Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Mosquitoes!



Summer is upon us and, if you live in Manitoba, that means its time to break out the shotgun and engage in a little point-defense against our provincial 'bird,' the ubiquitous mosquito.  Okay, I know, mosquitoes are so commonplace as to defy the tag 'weird wonder,' but I was inspired by James Maliszewski's recent post, Summer of the Shrooms.  We're getting the same weather here in Manitoba as in Ontario; namely wet.  Mostly cool and wet, but then the sun comes out and it becomes hot and wet, which, to quote Robin Williams: "is okay when you're with a lady, but it ain't no good when you're in the jungle."

The uncommonly moist weather has, indeed, been a boon for local fungus.  My wife, Diana, who is the Curator of Botany at the Manitoba Museum, has been having a field-day - quite literally - collecting many uncommon fungus species that have been cropping up, for the museum's collections.  But mushrooms are beneath the notice of most, while mosquitoes are on everyone's radar, hereabouts.  Manitoba is a swampy lowland where numerous river systems drain into Hudson bay, and it has so many lakes that there is almost as much surface water as land (okay, not literally, but you get the drift), and since mosquitoes lay their eggs in water, this makes Manitoba an ideal  habitat for one of the Earth's most obnoxious pests, second only to telephone solicitors.

Mosquitoes have four stages in their life-cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult and all but the adult stage lives in water.  As we know, all too well, mosquitoes have mouth parts that are well-adapted to piercing the skin of plants and animals.  Males feed mostly on nectar, but females require a blood meal before they can produce their eggs.  Below is a picture of my friend, David Rudkin a palaeontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, serving up many such blood meals in Churchill, Manitoba (Photo by Graham Young).


As annoying as mosquitoes are, their main impact on humanity is as vectors for diseases and parasites, such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and elephantiasis - and it is in their capacity as vectors that mosquitoes are relevant to the 'weird wonder' series.

My main goal in writing the 'weird wonders' series was to highlight some of the more bizarre and fascinating creatures of the natural world that could be used as inspiration for new monsters in gaming.  Of course, 'mosquitoes' have long existed in D&D canon:

As unsettling as a swarm of blood-sucking stirges are to a party of adventurers they could pose an even bigger threat as carriers of disease or, worse still, parasites.  Oddly, though diseases have long been a facet of D&D, I don't ever recall seeing parasites associated with the game.  To my mind these are even more unsettling an infliction - to have something living within you, growing and working its insidious purpose is just the sort of frightening threat that might make for an interesting game situation.  I've never seen an ecology for stirges; perhaps they not only draw blood from a victim, but lay their eggs within its flesh, nourished and warded by the living tissue of its host.  Imagine the horror when a character discovers cysts growing all over his body.  And what happens when those cysts burst and stirge larvae erupt from within.  This gives me the creeps just thinking about it so, naturally, I'm going to have to think about it some more.  I think stirges are about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Of particular note are the very nice stirge miniatures produced by Otherworld Miniatures:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Winging It

I've got nothing but respect for actors who perform improvisational theater.  The mental agility required to pick up a story line and run with it, deftly crafting an amusing tale at the drop of a hat is amazing, and quite beyond my brain's sluggish processing speed.  My shortcomings in this area have been painfully illustrated in recent weeks as my four year old daughter, Elena, has recently developed an unwholesome appetite for improvised stories.

The whole thing began when I grew bored reading the same books to her each night and began to elaborate on them, usually incorporating monsters who like to devour little girls.  This wasn't the only monster I created.  Ever since then, Elena is no longer satisfied with having a story read to her; now she only wants 'Daddy's made-up stories.'  This is really cool, except that the pressure to be entertaining and creative each night is really beginning to tax my limited ability to ad-lib and I'm beginning to get stage-fright at bed time.  It kind of reminds me of my early days as a game master (don't tell me you didn't see a segue coming).

When I first discovered D&D I was possibly the worst game master ever to cower behind a screen.  I always chuckle when I see lists of mistakes that bad DM's make because I've been guilty of nearly all of them.  As I've mentioned previously, my very first D&D session, in which I attempted to run Keep on the Borderlands,  was a disaster as I tried to cope with rules I didn't really understand, an adventure that overwhelmed me with details that I felt I had to get right, and a table full of my friends who just sat there and looked at me like I was mental.  I'd like to say that I improved greatly after that first session, but I didn't, and as much as I loved being the DM for the creative outlet it gave me, I dreaded actually sitting down at the table and running the game.

It wasn't until more than a year later, with a different game system, that I began the transformation into something resembling a competent game master.  In June of 1981 I was at The Wizard's Corner, my local game shop in search of a present to buy myself for my birthday (a habit I continue to this day) and I was perusing a rack of micro-games by Metagaming, and noticed one called Melee, written by some guy named Steve Jackson.  I'd already bought quite a few of these cool little wargames in the cardboard pocket box, and this one looked neat, so it became my self-bestowed birthday present.  Melee, for those unfamiliar with it, was a tactical combat game where each player would make up a warrior character and then duel on an arena map.  I loved it.  I quickly bought the companion game, Wizard, which was the same game but allowed you to fight wizard duels.  With the two games together you could even pit a warrior against a wizard.  I spent the majority of that summer fighting duels with  my friends and, when they were away on family vacations, with myself.  Later that year, I upgraded to the Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard rules and shortly thereafter bought In the Labyrinth, which combined with Advanced Melee and Wizard to transform a simple board-game into a full-fledged roleplaying game, called The Fantasy Trip, albeit a rudimentary one.

I really loved this game and I was especially fond of the cover art on the books, which sparked my imagination and evoked the system's particular 'feel.'  More importantly it helped me down the road to becoming a competent game master, mostly because of its very simple rules.  Characters could be one of two basic archetypes: a warrior or a wizard.  There were only three attributes and a handful of skills.  To hit in combat you rolled under your Dex - that's it.  No charts or byzantine formulas, just a minimal, dead-simple set of rules.  This might sound limiting, but I found it immensely liberating.  For the first time since I began playing rpgs I was free to actually think about the game and the story we were telling rather than looking up charts or tables and arguing with the players about rules interpretations.

My mind was now completely focused on the story - the rules just faded into the background.  I could adjudicate player's actions in fun and novel ways without worrying that I was 'doing it wrong,' and I was spontaneously creating interesting NPCs, some of which stick out in my mind to this day.  One such character was Malcolm Brinebester, the king's tax collector who always had a sixth sense for when the characters were back from a lucrative adventure.  Where the characters fearlessly faced down the worst horrors I could throw at them, they lived in mortal fear of fussy little Malcolm, whom I always enacted with a prissy falsetto voice.  Whenever they saw him coming down the lane or heard them calling outside their door, they'd dive out the rear windows, hide in bushes, or otherwise lay low until he went on his way.  Sometimes there was no avoiding him and they had to render undo Malcolm that which was His Majesty's.  I just made Malcolm up on the spot and he became one of the campaign's most endearing characters (to me, at least).  Playing TFT was also the first time I actually had fun being a game master.  It taught me that rules weren't really all that important and that dwelling too much on playing the game 'right' would ensure that you would end up playing it wrong.

My friends were less enamored of TFT than I was.  The characters were pretty rudimentary, and the players preferred to have more mechanics to flesh the characters out.  I tried to explain to them that lack of rules meant that they were unfettered in how they could define and envision their characters - this was an opportunity to really have fun with them without worrying about breaking the rules.  But, in the end, players want crunch.  It's almost inevitable.

In 1983 I met Steve Jackson at a convention.  I got to chat with him about role playing games and mentioned that I loved how easy TFT was to play, but that the players would have liked more options for character creation.  He just smiled and said, "let me tell you about an idea I have for a new game..."  A few months later I received a play test copy of Man to Man, the combat system for what would become GURPS.

So, my early deficiencies as a game master were due, in part, to my inability to handle a rules-heavy game system.  It must seem ludicrous for me to call AD&D rules-heavy; by today's standards it is quite a simple game.  But to me, at that time, it was more game than I could handle.  Ironically, I went on to become a Champions fanatic, but I was able to take the lessons in ad-libbing that I learned playing TFT, and apply them to anything.  But, there is no getting away from it: the more complex a game's rules are, the more they are going to intrude into your play.  Sometimes complex, crunchy games are a lot of fun to play, but most of the time, especially these days, I want my rules to fade into the background and let spotlight shine on the play and the character interactions.

My TFT books are long gone, but the fond memories remain.  I find, though, that I'm getting the same sort of vibe from Swords & Wizardry that I did from TFT and I look forward to being able to run some seat of the pants sessions again after a decade spent buried under a heavy mountain of 3E books.  I predict that this game is going to provide me with more fun behind the screen than I have had in over twenty five years.  Its about damned time.

I might even become a better bed-time story teller.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Towards a Unified Mechanic

I returned home from the lake to find that no progress had been made on the kitchen while we were away.  Disappointing, but to quote Edward Norton, "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise."  Construction projects always take longer than expected.  My father was a contractor who specialized in building and renovating homes.  When I was six years old, he decided to tear the roof off our house and add a second story.  The project still wasn't finished when I left home.  I'll be happy if the kitchen is done by the end of July.

The trip was great, nonetheless.  The weather was fine and I spent four days canoeing, hot-tubbing, reading, and thinking about a task resolution mechanic for S&W.  There's nothing like taking a game out for a test-drive to find out what you like and dislike about the rules, and there were a couple of things that I felt needed changing after having played last session.

For one thing, I rather dislike that clerics and elves don't get spells at first level.  That makes them very dull to play and fairly useless at low levels, so I'm going to adjust their spell progressions to give them a spell at first level.  The other thing I disliked was having small weapons, like short swords and daggers, deal 1d6-1 damage.  This was illustrated when the thief got in a backstab then rolled a '1' for damage.  Since 2 x 0 = 0 this was a really underwhelming backstab.  Henceforth all weapons will deal 1d6 damage.

The biggest thing I learned from last session, though, is that incorporating the SIEGE mechanic from C&C into S&W isn't a good idea.  I wanted to make attribute checks by rolling under the attribute score on 1d20, but having a totally different mechanic requiring the player to roll above a target number for skills and class abilities is going to get confusing real fast.  Having multiple resolution mechanics also upsets my desire for elegance, symmetry, and simplicity.  One of my primary goals was to have a resolution mechanic that will allow any character to attempt anything, while still providing niche protection for specialists.  For example, I want a system that will allow any character to try to be stealthy, but give the thief a much better chance of succeeding.

The SIEGE mechanic allows characters to add their level to the roll to succeed at any task that is a class or racial ability for them, thus allowing them to become greatly superior to laymen after a few levels.  This works great, but the SIEGE mechanic, itself, relies upon adding attribute modifiers, which are scarce to non-existent in S&W, making it difficult for characters to succeed at all at non-class abilities.  I wanted to use the 'roll under your attribute' mechanic for everything.  Since attribute scores in S&W are mostly in the low to medium range, rolling under the attribute score makes every attribute point worthwhile (i.e. a dexterity of 12 gives you better chance of success than a score of 11), and by making the roll on 1d20, instead of 3d6, even characters with low attribute scores could still have a reasonable chance of success.

Here's what I came up with after sitting in the woods for four days:

1. All attribute checks, skills and abilities, and saving throws will be made by rolling under the character's effective attribute score on 1d20.
2. 'Effective attribute score' is defined as the base attribute with all positive and negative modifiers applied.
3. Positive modifiers will include the character's level for all saving throws and when attempting to perform class abilities, and situational modifiers appropriate to the circumstances.
4. Negative modifiers will include the level or hit dice of the target creature when attempting a skill, ability, or saving throw that contests another creature, and situational modifiers appropriate to the circumstances.

Example 1 (sneaking): Joe, the 4th level fighter wants to sneak past some 2HD Hobgoblin guards.  Joe has a dexterity of 12 and is wearing chainmail armour.  The negative modifiers would include -2 for the hit dice of the hobgoblins and a -2 penalty for wearing chainmail, so his effective dexterity is 8.  Joe needs to roll 8 or less on 1d20 to succeed.

On the other hand, Sneaky Pete, the 4th level thief, who also has a 12 dexterity and is wearing leather armour has the following modifiers to his effective dexterity: -2 for the hit dice of the hobgoblins and +4 for his level.  His leather armour bestows no penalty.  So his effective dexterity is 14; he needs to roll this or less on 1d20 to succeed.

Example 2 (saving throws): Joe and Pete have confronted the evil mage, Malifico, a 6th level magic user.  Malifico casts a Hold Person spell on them and they are entitled to a Charisma saving throw to avoid its effects.  Joe has a 10 Charisma, while Pete, a charming fellow, has a 13.  They modify their Charisma scores by +4 each for their levels and -6 for Malifico's level, so their effective Charisma scores are, respectively, 8 and 11.  I wanted to incorporate the level of the spell caster as a negative modifier for saving throws since I figure that it ought to be a lot harder to resist , say, a Charm Person cast by a 20th level archmage than a 1st level magic user fresh out of his apprenticeship.

Example 3 (attribute checks): Joe wants to lift a heavy pillar that has fallen, trapping Pete.  His strength is 14 and so needs to roll a 14 or less to succeed.  Sometimes attribute checks are in the form of a contest, in which case both sides roll.  If they both fail then they are in a stalemate and the contest continues for another round.  If one person succeeds and the other fails, the one who succeeded wins.  If both succeed, whoever succeeded by the greatest amount wins.

For example Joe and Pete agree to arm-wrestle to see who gets the extra treasure share when they're dividing up the loot from their latest quest.  Joe makes an attribute check against his Strength of 14 and Pete makes a check against his Strength of 9.  Joe rolls an '11' and Pete rolls an '8.'  Both succeed, but Joe succeeded by more so he wins (of course, Pete already helped himself to some of that extra share while Joe wasn't looking, so it was a win-win situation for him anyway).

Niche protection is further ensured by not requiring specialists to roll in certain circumstances: if Joe and Pete want to climb a cliff face which has lots of hand and foot holds, Joe can make a climb check to succeed, while Pete just scampers up the cliff without making a check - such a climb is child's play to him.  On the other hand if they want to scale a tall castle wall, which is smooth except for narrow mortar joints, Pete can make a roll to climb the wall, but such an ascent is impossible for Joe, who will have to wait for Pete to get to the top and throw down a rope.

I'm quite pleased, in principle, with this unified mechanic that uses the full 3-18 range of attribute scores.  It also makes magic items that give a bonus to an attribute score a much bigger deal.  I look forward to trying this system out next session and see how it works in practice.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, the Carnage!

My long-awaited and much-procrastinated kitchen renovation began today and in the morning I'm off with my family to a cabin at Whiteshell Provincial Park for the rest of the week to avoid being underfoot whilst construction is going on.  The contractors told me, this afternoon, that this is the most difficult kitchen they've ever had to demolish, which is supported by the loud crashing, hammering and not-infrequent swearing coming from the kitchen all day.


 This entirely vindicates my decision to hire professionals for this job and not attempt to do the work myself in a misguided demonstration of manliness that most likely would have taken me three weeks and resulted in one or more trips to the emergency room.

So, I'm fleeing to the wilderness and I'm not taking any electronic doo-wackies with me so I won't be making any more posts until the weekend, at least, and there won't be a weird wonder this week.  I've been assured that the new cabinetry will be installed by the time I get back, but I'm skeptical - I'm just not that lucky.

Session 6: The Crater of Murias

The party spent some weeks in Glen Morag, training and inspecting their land grant.  While there they met a shifty-eyed Callovian named Akillian who was traveling Llanvirnesse in search of ancient treasures and had heard the legend of de Danann city of Murias that had been destroyed by a falling star millenia ago, and of the dwarven mining expedition that disappeared from the crater without a trace.  He, too, thought to investigate the crater in search of riches and joined the party who have been tasked by the sinister mage-priest, Frosck, to slay the renegade mage, Sothiss, and recover a sphere in his possession.

The party set out for the crater, two days north of Glen Morag, in a region of the Mac Morne Highlands said to be infested with redcaps.  Upon reaching the crater's rim, they saw that the basin extend three miles across with a sinkhole in the center, and the inner slopes were pocked with cave entrances from which fire-light and smoke could be seen.  They decided to wait until night-fall and see what was living in the caves.  After sunset, redcaps and wargs began to patrol the crater while guards were posted at the entrance of the sinkhole to regulate traffic coming to and from the depths in an old dwarven lift.  At sunrise guards and patrols returned to the caves and the basin was quiet once more.

The party made their way carefully to the sinkhole at the basin's center.  The sinkhole's depths could not be seen, but there were a series of landing platforms on alternating sides of the sinkhole, the first being fifty feet directly below the lift.  The party descended in the cage to the first platform, and as they drew near, two redcap sentries began to shoot at them with shortbows.  The party's archers returned fire, killing one of the sentries, until the cage landed on the platform and everyone piled out.  The remaining sentry bolted out of the tunnel and around a corner.  It took several minutes for the party to get organized and light torches before following after the sentry around the corner and into an empty room with no apparent exits, but large cracks in two of the walls that might permit ingress by a small sized creature. 

As they began to investigate, flasks of oil were thrown into the room from the wall cracks, followed by torches which set the room ablaze.  Bvar, the dwarf, ran for one of the cracks and crawled inside with his dagger drawn and was confronted by a particularly menacing goblin warrior.  The two fought a deadly duel in the narrow confines of a rough-hewn tunnel and both Bvar and the goblin were badly wounded; Bvar retreated back into the room, bleeding profusely, while the goblin similarly retreated down the tunnel, eager to escape with his life.

Shortly thereafter a giant spider with a redcap handler emerged from each of the two cracks and set upon the party.  This proved to be a long and perilous battle, with both Bvar and Akillian losing consciousness from blood-loss before the enemy was finally dispatched.  Since Theon's healing spells were now exhausted and most of the party wounded there was discussion of leaving the sinkhole to rest and recover rather than risk any further redcap ambushes in their current, weakened condition.  On the way out, however, Akillian couldn't resist peaking through a door that they had passed and when he opened it a crack he found himself looking straight at a big, hairy bellybutton.  The door was flung open the rest of the way and he found himself confronted by a large, angry ogre. 

Directly behind the ogre was the redcap warrior who had fought Bvar and apparently had made his way around to this room and was planning to have the ogre flank the party.  He commanded the ogre, Durshrukh to attack and then fled through a doorway to the north.  Akillian, with very few hitpoints remaining, decided that discretion was the better part of valour fled at best speed toward the sinkhole followed by a bellowing ogre, hungry for his blood.  The rest of the party, who had lingered behind now followed the raging ogre and finally caught up with him at the sinkhole's precipice where they were able to finish him off.

They decided to press their luck still further and investigate the room the ogre had been in, and found a chest of treasures hidden beneath Durshrukh's sleeping furs.  While they were looting the treasure, the wounded goblin warrior returned with his brother and swore the vengeance of the sons of Brazarag.  They attacked the worn and wounded party and gave a good account of themselves but were finally slain.

The party decided not to risk investigating any more, being now badly injured and fatigued and decided to camp out in the room for the day and recover.  If the redcaps decide to give them any rest...

First S&W Session

Last night we played our first session using the Swords & Wizardry rules, and I wanted to share a few of my first impressions.  I grew up playing AD&D and have never played OD&D, so I'm looking forward to getting my feet wet with the new system.

First, the characters needed to be converted and attributes rolled - I was going with 3d6 rolled in order and there was much groaning at the results, punctuated by an occasional 'Woo Hoo!' when a high score was rolled.  Rolling attributes this way creates a completely different appreciation for what a good attribute score is.  Using the point-buy method I had retained from 3E, having a score of 18 in the prime attribute was considered par for the course, along with the consequent 'dump stat.'  This made characters fairly homogeneous and, to my mind, boring.  When rolling 3d6 I noticed the players were quite pleased to get a score of '12' in important attributes, and when the fighter rolled a '16' for his strength he almost started doing a victory dance.  I figure that score of 16 will mean more to him than a score of 18 bought with points and taken for granted ever would.  I think it will make that character a lot more special, too.

Once play began the differences in the rules started to become apparent.  One of the first things I noticed was that I'm really enjoying having all weapons deal 1d6.  The thief decided to be a knife specialist.  He has outfitted himself with a collection of daggers for throwing, and fights with a dagger in each hand.  To me, a dagger-wielding thief is an icon in fantasy literature, but I've never seen it in a D&D game before - no player would cripple himself by using a weapon that does so much less damage than others he could use.  I think it's great that players can now equip themselves with weapons they think are cool without worrying about whether they are the 'best' weapon.  This adds a lot of flavour.

Having only 1d6 for hit points became an issue, and many of the characters are considerably less durable in a fight.  This will take some getting used to as the players adjust to the level of threat that they are capable of surviving.  In the very first encounter of the session, against a few goblins, the cleric ran out of healing spells and the whole party was left with only a couple of hit points each.  Of course this was exacerbated by the fact that the players were having abysmal luck with their die rolls, seldom rolling better than '5' to hit.  I'm sure if they were rolling better and ended the fight quicker they wouldn't have been in such dire straits, but it did serve to illustrate the greater need for caution when the fighters have only a d6 for hit points instead of a d10.  It makes a big difference and changes the dynamic of play.

Using a descending armour class and THAC0 is going to take a bit of getting used to.  While there are a few of us that started out playing with this mechanic, none of us have done so in many a year so it will take a while to adjust.  But, in general, it seemed to make combat flow a little easier when players aren't having to remember so many modifiers to add to their die rolls.  Even just removing the 'base-to-hit' bonus makes a difference.  So I think we'll like THAC0 once we adapt our minds to it and remember that low AC is better.

Oddly, I didn't find that adopting the one-minute combat round made a significant difference to play.  I had assumed that it would speed things up by not having to worry about tactical maneuvering and counting squares in combat - since most characters move 120' per round they can usually just move their miniature wherever they want it.  One positive benefit was that characters with ranged weapons got more attacks per round with them or, rather, it would be a benefit if the players could roll high enough to actually hit their opponents with those extra attacks.

So, in general, I think this first session went quite well.  All the characters survived - by the skin of their teeth - and I think everyone had fun.  I suspect that the flow will improve as we become more familiar with the differences in the rules and I'm looking forward to gradually incorporating my own house-rules to create a unique, customized rule set.  One of the things that attracted me to S&W as that you can download the rules in MS Word format, so that you can change them as you wish and have a single, complete copy of the game with all the house rules seamlessly incorporated.  This is very attractive to me because I'm a compulsive rules-tinkerer.  I can't ever seem to leave rules alone; I have to fiddle with them.  This was tricky with a game like 3E where the game is so rigidly defined that tinkering with the rules is like pulling a loose thread on a sweater - the whole thing starts to unravel.  Its much easier to start with a bare, framework like S&W and add in whatever you like and I'm looking forward to seeing what develops.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Touch of Class

I've been giving a great deal of thought for quite some time about what classes to include in my campaign.  At first it was which ones to retain when I was using Castles & Crusades, and now the question is which classes to add to Swords & Wizardry.

I think it was during my 3E years that I became averse to unnecessary character classes.  Classes for that game proliferated like bacteria, spawning new ones for every conceivable role that a character could want to fill.  Almost all of them were completely unnecessary, duplicating things that could already be accomplished using basic classes.  This inelegant inefficiency bothered me greatly, and I still dislike the idea of creating a class when it isn't necessary.

I've previously explained my decision to add thieves into the game and I also like monks;  they've long been one of my favourite classes and they do things that can't be duplicated by any other class.  But what about the other classes?  Rangers, berserkers, assassins, druids, bards, and paladins have long existed as distinctive organizations in my campaign world and I need to retain what they bring to the game.  But what I've been pondering lately is whether there is a simpler, more elegant way of incorporating them into the rules without bogging the game down with an excess of classes.  After all, bare-bones simplicity was what attracted me to S&W in the first place.

 Within my campaign world these archetypes are not broadly defined niches, but represent very specific organizations and groups.  Rangers are not just any old woodland warrior, they are very specifically the Rangers of Llanvirnesse, a group of wardens dedicated to protecting the land and the Caemric people.  Operating singly or in small groups they hunt threats to the land and answer only to their patron, the High King of Llanvirnesse.  Berserkers are a society of Caemric warriors who have undergone the Rites of Sussarach and learned to induce berserk fury on the battlefield.  Assassins belong to the dreaded Black Veil guild of Callovia or to the mysterious cult known as the Daga-shai.  Druids are magic-users brought up in the Caemric tradition, while bards are not just minstrels but students of the prestigious bardic colleges of Llanvirnesse and Callais - chroniclers of the living history of the land and traveling story-tellers who connect isolated communties by bringing news from afar.  Paladins are Aquitainian zealots, fanatically devoted to the teachings of Mithras and ruthless opponents of chaos.

It seems to me that all of these archetypes represent only minor variations of the existing classes and can be effected by applying a template to modify the base class.  I envision these templates as similar to prestige classes from 3E; an idea I liked in concept, but hated in practice.  Characters can't begin the game belonging to any of these groups, but can be attained only through play.  At the beginning of a level prior to gaining template abilities, the character announces his intentions to begin training for them.  An experience point cost for the template is added to the point total needed to gain the next level.  As soon as the character gains the next level he is inducted into the ranks of the organization in question.  The experience points needed to gain subsequent levels will be based upon the new total with the template cost added on. 

For example, a fighter who has just reached 3rd level petitions to join the Rangers of Llanvirnesse and begins training.  The experience cost for the Ranger template is 250 xp, so he now needs 8,250 xp to reach 4th level instead of the normal 8,000 xp.  As soon as he reaches 4th level he becomes a ranger and gains the template abilities.  The experience points for each subsequent level will be based on the 8,250 points he needed for 4th level (e.g. 16,500 to reach 5th level, 33,000 to reach 6th level, etc.), which reflects the greater effort he will need to make to improve his skills and abilities from this point forward.

Templates
I use the SIEGE mechanic from Castles & Crusades to resolve ability checks, but if not using that system, one could simply roll under the relevant attribute on 1d20 for success.

Ranger of Llanvirnesse
Base class: fighter
Abilities: Tracking, Woodland Stealth
Prerequisites: Lawful alignment, Wisdom 12+
Experience cost: 250 xp
Restrictions: rangers may not wear armour heavier than leather when using Woodland Stealth

Berserker
Base class: fighter
Abilities: Berserk Fury, To the Last Breath
Prerequisites: Any non-lawful alignment, Con 12+
Experience cost: 250 xp
Restrictions: must chew Iracunda root to use template abilities; Addiction: Iracunda root is a powerful and addictive stimulant.  If the berserker is unable to chew at least once per day he becomes sluggish and lethargic and his Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores are reduced by 1 until  he gets his fix.

Berserk Fury: The berserker may induce a berserk fury by making a successful Charisma check.  He may make this attempt every round.  The character automatically goes berserk, but may make a Charisma check to avoid doing so, if reduced to one-half hit points or less.  The berserk fury lasts a number of rounds equal to his level.  While berserk, the character gains a +1 bonus to hit and damage, +1 hit point per level, immunity to fear effects, and a +1 bonus to saves against charm and mind-control effects.  He also receives a -1 penalty to all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma checks and opponents gain a +1 bonus to hit him.  While berserk the character must attack the nearest enemy, may never withdraw from combat, and must pursue fleeing foes.  The berserker may attempt to end the fury prematurely by making a successful Charisma check.  Once the fury wears off, the character immediately loses his temporary bonus hit points and becomes fatigued, suffering a -2 penalty to strength and dexterity, and is reduced to one-half movement.  The berserker can recover from this fatigue after one turn (ten minutes) of rest.

To the Last Breath: The berserker can remain conscious and able to fight until his negative hit point total equals one-half of his Constitution score.  As soon as his hit points drop below this level he immediately loses consciousness and takes an additional 1d6 points of damage from shock.

Bard
Base class: thief or fighter
Abilities: Lore, Charm
Prerequisites: Charisma 12+
Experience cost: 250 xp
Restrictions: none

Lore: the bard may recall some long-forgotten lore with a successful Intelligence check.  This lore may be legends, rumours, history, or even partial understanding of ancient script.

Charm: the bard may attempt to captivate one or more nearby creatures by singing, playing or reciting poetry.  The creature(s) may make a saving throw to avoid being influenced by the bardic charm and if they fail they listen quietly for as long as the bard continues to perform.  The effect ends as soon as the bard ends his performance.

At present these are the only templates I have designed.  I consider druids to be magic users trained in a different spell-casting tradition.  No template will be necessary - they are magic-users in all respects, but I plan to give them a different spell list.  Assassins and paladins I am unsure of.  I've always been a bit uneasy about the assassination ability - it seems almost too easy, and poison use could reasonably be learned by anyone so I'm not sure that there needs to be an assassin template.  I may change my mind about this, but for the present I think I'll go without.

Paladins are another puzzler.  I don't see them as being much different, mechanically, from clerics.  The cleric is assumed to be a holy warrior and the Paladins of Aquitania could just be an order of particularly militant clerics.  I'm not certain there needs to be a template to turn a fighter into a quasi-cleric.  I might also change my mind about this later, but I'm willing to wait and see how things work without the template.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Sea Spiders

The Pycnogonida, commonly known as sea spiders, are not actually arachnids but a class of marine chelicerates, which crawl along the sea floor on long, spider-like legs.  These odd looking creatures, which bear strong resemblance to the 'face-hugger' reproductive life-cycle stage from the Aliens movies, consist of little more than legs and a digestive system.  Indeed, female pycnogonids even carry their eggs within their legs as shown by the following illustration:
Pycnogonids are mainly predatory carnivores, feeding on hydroids, soft corals, anemones, bryozoans, and sponges.  Many species apply their proboscis to the prey and use it to suck up tissue, while others cut off pieces of food with their chelicerae and pass them to the mouth at the tip of the proboscis.

During reproduction, the male hangs beneath the female and fertilizes the eggs as she emits them  from the gonopores in her legs.  The male gathers the fertilized eggs into his legs and cements as many as 1,000 eggs into an adhesive mass, which he broods until they hatch.

Sea spiders are only rarely found as fossils, but are known as far back as the Late Cambrian Period.  Sea spiders are near and dear to my heart; the specimen shown below is a fossil pycnogonid that was found during my field season in the summer of 2008 by palaeontologists from the Manitoba Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the University of Saskatchewan from the Late Ordovician of Manitoba.  It is the oldest adult sea spider known from North America.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Adventures: Episodic or Serial?

I've always run campaigns as serial adventures; it's never occurred to me to do it any other way.  Each session ends by pressing the metaphorical 'pause button,' sometimes at a cliffhanger moment, sometimes not, and the next session always picks up from that point.

In general, this type of adventure pacing has worked reasonably well, and is often necessary when a session ends mid-adventure, but of late I've been contemplating the virtues of episodic adventures in which, much like a television series, an indefinite period of time has passed since the last episode.  This is also how Conan and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser adventures are presented: a series of loosely linked adventures with a brief introduction to explain what has transpired in the heroes lives since the last story.

One of the problems inherent with the serial style adventures that I usually run is an that the game becomes one unending string of adventures without pause.  Often, one forgets to provide much-needed downtime for characters to pursue other interests like spell research or building that stronghold the party has always wanted.

One of the advantages of episodic games is that players can provide a list of things they want their characters to do between sessions, be it carousing and wenching, training with the 'hidden master of forbidden lore,' or building a  network of street-urchin informants - the sorts of things that would be difficult to do when each session picks up immediately where the last one left off.  Another thing that episodic adventures allow for is the passage of time.  I've run campaigns lasting several years in which only a couple of months have passed for the characters and I always thought it odd that games like GURPS charge a hefty point cost for advantages like Unaging, which never seemed like much of an advantage or, like AD&D, provide rules for aging that are unlikely ever to be used unless a character is somehow magically aged.

Yet another advantage of the the episodic adventure is that it can serve to keep the characters hungry for treasure.  I propose assigning an upkeep cost of 100 gp per level each session to cover the interim expenses incurred by the free-spending lifestyles enjoyed by most adventurers.  I am finding it necessary to come up with ways to part characters from their money since in a game where most of the character's experience comes in the form of treasure the coin starts to pile up faster than players can spend it, and soon there is little incentive to adventure.

There is also a super-cool idea that I read about on another blog (I can't remember where I read this, so I'm not able to give appropriate credit where it is due - it may have been Jeff's Gameblog, though I could be mistaken) of allowing players to spend extra treasure over and above their upkeep costs on wenches and ale and gain an equal amount of experience.  It stands to reason that characters might be spending time between sessions improving themselves, even if only their ability to endure prolonged bouts of debauchery.  The amount of treasure that one can spend on wenches and ale in exchange for experience points would depend on locale; obviously 'Shadizar the Wicked' offers far greater opportunities for debauchery than, say, the Village of Hommlet.

Ideally, I think a campaign will need to consist of both serial and episodic adventures.  It isn't always practical to allow time to pass between session when in the middle of an adventure, and I'm fond of ending sessions at dramatically appropriate places whenever I can manage it.  Nothing beats a cliffhanger ending to make everyone eager for the next session.  But I look forward to allowing for periods of downtime between adventures.  I just can't believe I haven't thought of doing this before now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Mantis Shrimp

Stomatopods, commonly known as "mantis shrimp," are crustaceans characterized by large, raptorial forelimbs.  The forelimbs can be employed with the dactyl closed to make smashing attacks against the shells of armoured prey, or with the dactyl open to spear soft-bodied prey.  This dactyl strike is one of the fastest of all known animal movements.  It can be completed in as little as five milliseconds under water, generating enormous percussive force, comparable to the impact of a .22 calibre bullet, and has been known to shatter aquarium glass.

Stomatopods are territorial and pugnacious, and frequently fight amongst themselves.  Keeping two stomatopods unseparated in a tank will usually result in one of them killing the other.  This video demonstrates the effectiveness of the stomatopod's strike.

Not only do mantis shrimp possess a remarkably efficient attack mechanism, they have the most sophisticated and complex eyes in the animal kingdom.  They are able to see objects with three different parts of each eye, giving them trinocular vision and depth perception with each of their eyes.  They are also able to see in the infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The Burgess Shale animal, Yohoia tenuis has many features in common with living stomatopods, including forelimbs similar to the raptorial appendages of the mantis shrimp.  A large number of fossil brachiopods that I've collected from the Middle Cambrian Deadwood Formation in South Dakota have shell damage identical to that of modern shells that have been attacked by stomatopods.  No other known Cambrian predator could have caused such damage, and Yohoia may have been responsible, making it the earliest known durophagous (smashing) predator.

The aggressive nature of mantis shrimp, combined with their devastatingly effective forelimb strike and superior vision make these creatures something you wouldn't want to stumble upon in a dark cave, thus make excellent monsters for your players to encounter in their next subterranean delve.

Monday, June 7, 2010

To Thieve, or Not to Thieve?

That is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged guardsmen,
Or to take them unawares, and by furtive stealth sneak past them?

The suitability of the thief class to old-school campaigns is a much-debated issue in message forums and old-school blogs.  The main argument against them is that in a sword & sorcery campaign everyone is a thief, in the respect that every character's goal is to acquire other people's wealth.  Old school practice dictates that any character should be able to find and avoid traps by careful observation and canny, cautious play and the implication is that the inclusion of a thief specialty class renders other classes obsolete in the performance of such duties and is the start of the path down the dark side toward modern style play where die rolls rather than player skill determine the outcome of all events.

I've been on the fence about thieves for a while now.  I've been long considering stripping unnecessary character classes out of my C&C game and now that I'm switching to S&W, which comes 'pre-stripped,' the question is what classes to add back in.  I've already green-lighted the monk for inclusion - I simply love the class and its abilities are not just minor elaborations of an existing basic class - a necessary criterion for inclusion.  Thieves, though, I could go either way with.  On the one hand I have a certain nostalgic fondness for them; they've been part of D&D since the Greyhawk Supplement, and one of my first characters was a thief.  On the other hand, the anti-thief camp makes a compelling case that I find hard to argue against.

I was pretty much decided against thieves until I recently read this post by James Maliszewski on Grognaridia.  James's argument is that the thief is a profession, not an archetype, and that 'thief abilities' used to be something that any class could attempt.  The thing that struck me about this argument is that it could equally justify the removal of the fighter class.  After all, fighting is something that every class can do; fighters just do it better.  By the same token, attempting thief abilities should be something that every class should be able to attempt, but thieves are really good at it, just as fighters are really good at combat.

Its easy to see why thieves could be perceived of as stepping on the toes of other classes because in traditional versions of D&D (OD&D, AD&D, Basic D&D) only the thief had a game mechanic to allow them to attempt thief abilities like hiding in shadows, moving silently, picking pockets, etc., expressed as a percentage chance to succeed (and a pretty darned low chance at the lower levels, at that).  Given the old-style resolution of thief abilities, it is no wonder that the thief emasculated other characters in a way that fighters didn't.  Non-thief characters were no longer able to even attempt to perform thief abilities.

Having played Castles & Crusades for several years now, I tend to think in terms of its SIEGE mechanic, which allows any character to attempt just about anything, while protecting niches by ensuring that specialists 'do their thing' better than anyone else.  For this reason, I didn't immediately grasp the threat that thieves posed to other classes because, in C&C other classes can still attempt thief abilities - just not as well, just as other classes can use weapons, but not as well as fighters

For those not familiar with C&C's SIEGE mechanic, tasks are resolved by making an ability check against a target number.  The target number varies, depending on whether the attribute is a prime or non-prime attribute for the character.  In addition to the obvious class-based prime attributes (i.e. Strength for fighters, Intelligence for wizards, etc.) players may customize their characters by selecting one or more additional prime attributes of their choice.  All attribute checks for prime attributes are against a target number of 12, whereas checks for non-prime attributes are against a target number of 18.  Thus anyone can attempt anything, but whether they are good at it depends on how they've customized their character by choice of primes.  For example a fighter who has dexterity as a prime and wishes to sneak past a guard just has to roll a d20 plus his dexterity modifier and beat a target of 12 plus the victim's hit dice. 

So where do thieves fit in?  Characters attempting something that is their class or racial ability also add their level to the roll, but characters attempting non-class abilities do not.  Thus, say you have a 5th level wizard who grew up as an orphan on the mean streets before being adopted by his mentor.  If he has a dexterity prime and wishes to pick the pocket of a 1st level npc would need to roll 1d20 plus dex modifier and beat 12 + 1 = 13 to succeed.  The same wizard without a dex prime would have to roll 18 + 1 = 19 to succeed.  A 5th level thief picking the same pocket would need to roll 1d20 + dex mod + 5 against a target of 12 + 1 = 13, so obviously he is going to be much better than even the sneaky wizard.

So, I think I will be including the thief class in my S&W game, but I will also be incorporating the SIEGE mechanic from C&C as the most elegant means of letting characters attempt anything while ensuring that they don't overshadow the specialists.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Perfect Day

My wife returned, last night, from a week-long trip to Ottawa that left me alone with our high-maintenance four-year-old daughter.  They're off having a picnic in the park for some much-needed mommy-daughter time, giving me a much-needed afternoon at home alone.  Since everyone in my gaming group is away at Prairie-Con this weekend, tonight's game is canceled, so I don't even have any pre-game prep to do.  This is truly a free-day.

After consuming two pots of dark-roast Ethiopian coffee while sitting on the front porch reading S.M. Stirling's In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, I've turned my somewhat jittery hand to finally finishing painting the unit of Ork Boyz that I've been picking away at for the past couple of months while listening to Fleetwood Mac with the volume turned up as loud as I want.

Now it's time to work on converting my campaign over from Castles & Crusades to my newly acquired Swords & Wizardry.  As much as I love C&C, the Player's Handbook is a badly organized and rife with errors that make it frustrating to use in-game.  Since, over the past few months, I've been incorporating more and more house rules to bring the game more in line with AD&D and OD&D, I've decided that it's probably easier just to use the bare bones S&W system and add in what I like, instead of stripping things away.  For quite some time I've been considering doing away with weapon damage by type and adopting the OD&D 1d6 damage for all weapons.  I've also recently come full-circle on my opinion of THAC0.  I was initially quite enamoured with 3E's ascending armour class and base-to-hit system.  I eventually became indifferent to the THAC0/Ascending AC debate, considering them mirror images of the same thing.  But now, I'm of the opinion that THAC0 is a better way to go.  I've come to find that having players add up all their to-hit bonuses and calculate their final score to hit really slows down combat a lot.  What I really have come to appreciate about THAC0 is having the 'base-to-hit' bonus already factored into the table, so all the player needs to do is roll the die and read the result.

I realized that if I were to adopt THAC0 and do away with weapon damage by type, on top of all the other old-school rules I've incorporated, I have very little left of C&C but an annoyingly disorganized rule-book.  So, Swords & Wizardry it is, though I will be retaining the SIEGE mechanic from C&C, which I consider one of the simplest, most elegant, task resolution mechanics I've ever seen.

Converting the characters will be easy: the human cleric and dwarven fighter will be largely unaffected.  I'll be allowing player of the elven wizard to choose to play either a human magic-user or the elf class.  I'm guessing he'll go with the elf, since he's been wanting to be an archer and the elf's fighter/magic user fusion will enable to be even better with a bow.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Swords & Wizardry

One of the best things in life is getting a parcel in the mail - especially when that parcel is a box full of gaming-goodness.  This week, my long-awaited Swords & Wizardry Whitebox set arrived and I once again performed my happy-dance of avarice.  While there are likely few people in the Old School community who aren't familiar with Swords & Wizardry, especially since the PDF is available as a free download, I thought it might be worthwhile to review the physical product and discuss what distinguishes S&W from the recent proliferation of retro-clone games.


The boxed set of the Whitebox edition contains four staple-bound digest-sized rule books, a set of polyhedral dice, a pad of character sheets, and a copy of Matt Finch's excellent essay: A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

The first thing that one notices is the evocative black on white illustrations.  I have to say that I like the art a lot; it is simple and captures the spirit of OD&D style gaming.  The box art features a group of adventurers facing off against a dragon emerging from its lair, and the picture is reminiscent of the box cover of the 1977 Holmes edition basic set.

Book I: Characters.  I love the scene depicted on the cover of book I.  A party of adventurers confronting some unseen menace.  The party is arrayed in typical fashion with the fighters up front and the spell casters at the rear.  What I really love about this picture is the look on the foremost fighter's face - he looks like he really doesn't want to be in the front rank right now.  The dwarf is standing wide-eyed with his mouth hanging open, while the halfling is looking warily to the side.  The only people actually doing anything are the elf, who is drawing an arrow, and the magic-user who is firing a blast from his staff over the party's heads.  This is a great illustration for the character book, as it depicts a party composed of every type of character in the game being confronted by an unseen menace.  Book I contains everything you need to make and equip a character (including hirelings), and also covers the basic rules of play - all in 24 pages!

Book II: Spells.  The cover illustration on book II is even more impressive than that of book I.  It depicts a magic-user performing some conjuration.  The splatter of the background, to me, suggests breaking the breaking of dimensional boundaries as a small, winged, demonic creature is summoned forth.  There is a lot going on in this picture that emphasizes the nature of magic in sword and sorcery settings.  This guy is clearly no Gandalf and is willing to traffic with the powers of darkness and chaos in exchange for his power.  Check out the amorphous, multi-eyed, tentacled denizen of the Outer Dark in the background.  To me, this is what old-school magic is all about.
The twenty-one interior pages describe all of the cleric and magic user spells.  The spell lists are very abridged compared to newer editions of the game - the 1st level magic user list has only eight spells, while the 1st level cleric list has only six.  The spells themselves are not nearly as rigidly defined as spells in modern games, which go to great efforts to constrain the effects of magic to provide 'game balance.'  In S&W magic is powerful.  The descriptions themselves are left open to the GM's interpretation, and the effects and durations are often considerably greater than modern players are used to.  The back of the book has several pages where home-made spells can be entered.  I love this and it fits perfectly with my campaign setting, in which arcane spell casters have been hunted nearly to extinction and their libraries burned.  The surviving mages have banded together and now seek to restore magic to the world.  The abridged spell lists fit perfectly with my vision for my world, representing the spells that are commonly available, leaving it to the players to seek out lost arcane knowledge and research new spells.

Book III Monsters.  The cover illustration of the monster book is attractive, but is my least favourite of all the cover illustrations because it isn't as suggestive as the others.  I do like the giant skull that the monsters are gathered around, though.  I implies that death awaits within.  I also like the vermin; the snake, spider, and centipede, crawling around the skull.  I have a fondness for giant vermin and I especially like spiders (in real life as well as in game).  The monsters are only cursorily described, allowing the GM to interpret and employ them however he wishes to suit his campaign.  This differs from the contemporary practice of providing long, exhaustive descriptions that allow very little room for personal interpretation.  Like the spell book, the monster book ends with several pages of blank stat-blocks for people to add their own monstrous creations.  What struck me as odd, at first, about this book was the inclusion of the monster attack matrix.  All the other attack matrices were in book I, and it seemed odd not to put them all together in the game rules chapter.  But, on second thought, putting it in the monster book is brilliant.  When I'm running a session and need to look up stats for a wandering monster, the last thing I want to do is then have to look in another book for its THAC0.  Having this right in the same book is dead useful and far more logical than putting all the attack matrices together for the sake of hidebound consistency.

  Book IV: Treasure.  This is my favourite cover illustration - a room containing fabulous treasure and an adventurer lying dead at the threshold.  I love how the doorway looks like a gaping maw, and the helmet impaled upon the bent portcullis bar leaves no doubt as to the cause of the adventurer's demise.  If this picture had a caption it would be "Do you feel lucky, punk?  Well, do you?"  This book is great fun to read, reminding me of the many hours I spent drooling over magic items when I was a kid dreaming about the cool stuff I wanted for my character.  The treasure tables at the front are easy and fun to use, and make it easy to generate treasure really quickly on the fly.

So what distinguishes Swords & Wizardry from the panoply of retro-clone games currently available?  This is the game that emulates the original, 1974, version of the D&D rules, and S&W has gone to great lengths to capture the free-form, do-it-yourself spirit of the original game.  This bare-bones rule set can almost be considered an armature upon which to build your own custom role playing game.  Mythmere Games has even gone so far as to provide a link to download the rules in MS Word format so that you can modify and add to them to create your own unique game as a single, unified document rather than having disorganized pages of house rules in a binder.  You can then create a PDF of your game suitable for printing, or even use Lulu to create a professionally bound copy of your rulebook.  I'm very happy with the quality of S&W: the product is well-constructed and clearly written.  There could be just one thing that would make it perfect.  In addition to all the other goodies added to the box, I would really like to have seen a quick reference sheet with all of the attack matrices and saving throws so I'd never have to look them up in the game.  This isn't a big deal - the books are so short its easy to find everything in short order, but it would have been the butter-cream rose on an already well-frosted cake.

If you're trying to decide which retro-clone game is for you, S&W is a good choice if you are a do-it-yourself-er and are looking for a bare-bones system that is easy to house-rule.  S&W also appeals to me because I missed out on OD&D and have always regretted it.  The original game was still in print when I started playing D&D, and while most of my friends wisely bought the OD&D rules, I foolishly dismissed them.   AD&D had already been released and, in the naivety of youth, assumed that 'Advanced' meant better so passed on OD&D - a decision I've regretted ever since.  Now I have the chance to play a version of the original game without paying hundreds to thousands of dollars on Ebay for a copy.

Of course since most of the retroclones are available as free PDFs there is no need to limit yourself to just one, and since they all 'speak the same language,' and are generally interchangeable, support material for one will be usable by all.  Even now my copy of Labyrinth Lord , the retro-clone emulating the 1981 Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Sets should be in the mail and on its way, so there will be another Happy Dance of Avarice in my near future.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Nectocaris

The enigmatic Burgess Shale animal, Nectocaris is the featured 'weird wonder' for this week, chosen for its recent spot in the limelight in science news the past couple of weeks.  Since its first description, in 1976, Nectocaris has defied categorization, largely because it was, at the time, known from only a single specimen, shown above.  However ongoing fieldwork at the Burgess Shale over the past three decades unearthed a further 91 specimens, which have been the subject of a recent study, published in the May 27 issue of Nature, that suggests that Nectocaris may be the early ancestor of cephalopods.

The new specimens, which measure between 2 to 5 cm long, reveal greater details about the animal.  It is kite-shaped and flattened from top to bottom, with large, stalked eyes and a pair of grasping tentacles, presumably used to capture prey.  It may have swum using lateral fins, like modern cephalopods, and may also have used its nozzle-like funnel for jet propulsion, like a squid.  Unlike the nautiloid cephalopods of the Ordovician period, Nectocaris does not have any mineralized tissues, so they are very rare as fossils.

This finding extends the fossil record of cephalopods by 30 million years.  Given that cephalopods are startlingly intelligent for invertebrates and have very complex eye structures, for them to have evolved by the Middle Cambrian puts a new meaning to the term 'Cambrian Explosion.'