Time for the next installment of old school D&D! I have been buoyed by a visit to Games Plus in Mount Prospect outside of Chicago, which has a massive collection of new and used game stuff! (So expect posts to continue in the future!)
So let’s get going!
The Complete Psionics Handbook, by Steve Winter (1991). Time to look at another rules supplement for 2nd edition AD&D!
A little background: 2nd edition AD&D attempted, among other things, to reduce the rather haphazard design of the 1st edition, which became increasingly convoluted with new rules supplements like Unearthed Arcana.
Suddenly there were tons of “sub-classes,” many hugely overpowered. UA introduced the cavalier and barbarian as fighter alternatives, and the thief-acrobat as a thief alternative. The original AD&D included anomalies, too, like the magic-user subclass illusionist.
Second edition AD&D removed most of these sub-classes (though paladin, druid and ranger remained). TSR instead introduced “Handbooks” for the base classes that introduced the concept of “kits” to implement the various flavors of warriors.
Bascially, 2nd edition AD&D ended up removing lots of bloat from the core game and re-introduced it in a more systematic way as supplementary material. One somewhat infamous set of rules from 1st edition AD&D was psychic powers, or “psionics.”
Certain monsters like mind-flayers could use psychic abilities, so AD&D provided the option for characters to have psychic abilities as well. For ANY character, there was usually a 1-2% chance of that character having powers.
These powers could unbalance the game, as they were powers above and beyond the regular character’s abilities. I’m sure I wasn’t the only player to “luckily” roll psionic characters at a rate well above the average.
The Psionics Handbook solved this by making the Psionicist its own balanced character class. You could still roll to see if a normal character had “wild” psionic powers, but now you could deliberately play a character dedicated to the psychic arts.
The psionicist had powers VERY different from wizards and priests. Among the cool traits: an ability to wage psychic battles against other psionicists, where you gradually break down their psychic defenses.
There were five attack and five defense modes for a psionicist, each with advantages/disadvantages. At low levels, a psionicist only has access to a few, with more appearing at later levels. I’ve always loved the names of these.
Psionicists also gained spell-like powers (but explicitly stated to be NOT magic), and I’m pretty sure many of these like synaptic static first appeared as psionic powers and were later made into spells in later D&D editions.
The art in the books, like many later TSR books, is well-done and fun! For example, here’s a depiction of the chameleon power…
… and here’s the potentially nightmare-inducing elongate power!
Like later TSR books, The Psionics Handbook also includes a few color plates, though these are used for very vague “New Age” depictions and the designs could have been chosen more effectively.
The book also revises and tweaks the rules for the various psychic monsters like the mind flayer and intellect devourer (and brain mole).
The Psionics Handbook also includes its own “Appendix N,” which must be the weirdest one D&D has ever produced, considering it includes various “non-fiction” books on psychic powers!
Overall The Psionics Handbook is one of the most ambitious handbooks released for 2nd edition AD&D. It included not only a complete new class, but a whole new set of rules for psychic powers. I’m curious how many gamers took full advantage of them.
Witch Hunt (1983), by Paul D. Baader and Roger Buckelew. Time to look at a very weird non-D&D roleplaying game product!
This one is weird because it is literally a roleplaying game where you play witches, or magistrates hunting them, in 1692 Salem!
It feels a little strange to take the historical tragedy and turn it into a scenario where people are *actual* evil witches, and clearly the writers felt a little bit of that awkwardness as well. Though the dedication is a bit weird as well.
The basic rules are very much in line with RPGs of the era, though very simplified and stripped down. Witch Hunt feels more like it is intended to be a one-off party game more than a regularly played RPG.
There are rules not only for witchcraft, but for the whole witch-hunting process that the magistrate goes through to detect, accuse, and eventually execute the witch.
The magistrates even have a collection of counter-spells that they can use to track down witches and recover from the curses that they give.
The witch spells are unusual enough to be interesting, but the spells themselves seem so ineffective one wonders why one would sell one’s soul to be a witch in the first place. These may be based on “actual” witches spells of the time.
One interesting difference in this game from other RPGs is that the gamemaster, the “Town Crier,” is an actual character in the game, rather than an omnipotent invisible being. The players are encouraged not to murder the Town Crier.
The game comes with a map of Salem to get players oriented…
… and an introductory scenario to play, as it is assumed that many people will not have played an RPG before.
Adding to the awkward uncomfortableness of the whole premise, there is a merchandise page in the back of the book which gives directions on how to order t-shirts!
If the whole thing seems in poor taste, let me note that this would not be the last time someone sold a game on hunting witches; see, for example, Witch Hunt (2016), a social deduction party game!
So why the heck do I own this bizarre game I will never play? I saw it selling for cheap on a used game site, and just had to know more about it!
Swords of Deceit (1986), by Bourne, Rolston, Mecca, Dobson. Time to look at some AD&D in a non-standard setting!
This one is one of TSR’s licensed products, set in the fictional world of Nehwon, created by Fritz Lieber. Lieber’s books, which began publication in the late 1960s, feature the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
In 1985, TSR released the first supplement for Lieber’s world, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, describing the main city setting of Lieber’s books. Lankhmar is a lively yet corrupt and dangerous city.
Swords of Deceit is a trio of adventures set in Lankhmar, basically to give people who bought City of Adventure something to do! Happily, the adventures are all quite nice, and the module comes with a map of Lankhmar and its sewers.
The first adventure is a story of family intrigue and revenge, though the players do not know it at first! They are hired to investigate a “curse” on a noble family, and only later learn the whole sordid story behind it. (The best part of this adventure is how horrifying things can get in the end. Depending on what actions the characters take, a lot of nasty things can and will happen.)
The second adventure is a continuation of Lieber’s first book, Swords of Lankhmar, where F & GM find that the city is under attack by the intelligent rats that live in it! In this sequel, the PCs journey to the rat kingdom and potentially run afoul of the rat god.
The third adventure is the one featured on the module cover, and the whole reason I bought it back in the day! A little background: the “Gods” of Lankhmar are the city’s founders, now powerful and feared undead. On one night of the year, it is thought that the Gods of Lankhmar wander the streets to observe their city, and any unfortunate soul who meets them is certain to die. So most people hide out at home or a bar until dawn on that night.
This is where the adventure picks up! The PCs are killing time at a bar when a noblewoman comes in seeking aid! She needs to be escorted home urgently on the night of the gods, and begs the PCs to help! Will they risk the wrath of the dessicated deities for some coin? (Suffice to say that the noblewoman’s story is more complicated than it first appears, and the PCs end up in quite a bit of trouble indeed.)
The adventure is designed for quite high-level characters, and the module includes pregenerated characters with detailed backstories. Or players can play Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser themselves for some adventures!
I’ve always been impressed with TSR’s Lankhmar adventures, which are quite high quality. I’ve talked previously about Slayers of Lankhmar, which is a true classic D&D adventure.
Lankhmar lives on today in RPGs in Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics, which features its own Lankhmar sourcebook and adventures!
Drums on Fire Mountain, by Graeme Morris and Tom Kirby (1984). Let’s wrap up this post by looking at one of the more… interesting… adventures published by TSR!
This is one of those modules for which Wizards of the Coast has the disclaimer: “Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”
The module draws from Polynesian and African culture to create a tribe of islanders that the PCs come into conflict with. What do they make these islanders? As the cover shows, A TRIBE OF GREEN ORCS.
I honestly think the creators were trying to avoid being culturally and racially insensitive by making the enemies green orcs who had defeated and replaced an ancient civilization. Not sure this actually doesn’t make it worse, though!
But let’s look at the adventure itself. The green orcs, the kara-kara, have traditionally been more of a nuisance to seafarers and not a real threat. But in recent months, they have become organized and more aggressive.
It is learned that they are now being led by a foreigner who has organized them to attack. A wealthy merchant hires the PCs to infiltrate the island and eliminate the mysterious threat.
The fun twist is that there are a LOT of islanders, but they are celebrating a festival, and the PCs must infiltrate the island without alerting the bulk of the enemy forces (at least until they’re ready to run).
The TSR UK people are known for making innovative modules, like Beyond the Crystal Cave, which has almost no fighting in it. “Drums” isn’t quite as creative, but has some nice touches.
My favorite touch is that, in order to get to the bad guy, the PCs must run right through the islanders’ ceremony! They have to be a bit clever in order to cut off the majority of the islanders from mobbing and overwhelming them.
The art in Drums is quite nice. I found this illustration of the daughter of the main baddy to be particularly elegant for some reason. (And she has a cool dagger!)
The artists clearly had fun coming up with unusual monsters with exaggerated features reminiscent of tikis or African masks.
Overall, Drums on Fire Mountain isn’t one of the most spectacular adventures out there, but it is well-crafted and has nice illustrations!
Okay, another old school post done! Stay tuned for more in the future!