It was the year 1997, and I was ten years old. My parents had gotten my brother and I an Ayyám-i-Há gift — a Dungeons and Dragons book. (My parents were open-minded people who didn’t know much about D&D but generally encouraged my nerdy habits. I had, after all, just finished reading Lord of the Rings at my father’s insistence.) The book was Players Option: Spells & Magic for AD&D. The inscription read, “To Grishnak and Ugluk, from Celeborn and Galadriel. ”
While I read the entire book cover to cover, one section was particularly well-thumbed: the critical hit tables. They fascinated me. I pored over the lists of different terrible things that could happen to the poor souls who failed their saving throws. I read the examples of play where 20th level characters had their legs burned off by red dragons and where Melf’s Acid Arrow dissolved eyeballs and ruined noses. I never actually used these rules (and I never actually used most of the D&D books I had as a youngster), but I memorized them nonetheless for reasons that, if asked about, I’m not sure I could articulate.
A few months ago, my husband suggested that he run a game for me. A traditional fantasy game, he said, using the Arduin rules system. Like most people who were ten years old in 1997, I’d never heard of it. He explained the basics of the game to me, and I did some research on my own.
Arduin was one of the earliest D&D spin-offs. The game took a more freewheeling approach to the fantasy genre than D&D, featuring rules for playing an psychic otter-person from outer space who wields a laser rifle in addition to rules for your typical elves and dwarves. The other thing that people tend to associate with Arduin are the brutal critical hit tables (which have been kindly posted for your morbid fascination by Anthony Pryor). Because any given attack might have a ten percent chance of gruesomely disfiguring or killing your character, Arduin games tended to have players control more than one character. A dungeon crawl with four people playing twelve characters was a normal part of the game.
David Hargrave, the creator of the game and a US Army veteran who spent six years in combat during the Vietnam War, gave the following justification for Arduin’s brutal mechanics:
I think that war is the ulimate stupidity, and that the one real drawback to most fantasy role-playing games, and wargames, is that the consequences of combat are never fully understood by the players. To swing a sword or fire an arrow is going to result in blood letting, pain, and even death–it is all a game to be sure, but the intent of the players is still the same. Thus I have always tried (with my Critical Hit Chart and such) to forcefully bring home to players that battle and battle results are always ugly and terrible. I felt that then, and still feel now, that the truest way to show people what war and battle really do, is to give them concrete examples to see, not abstract ideas that cannot be related to living, breathing beings. I think that perhaps my rules have done this, and perhaps now, there will be a new understanding of that earlier, graphic mode of writing. A mode that, though I no longer feel compelled to have to include in future rules systems (having, I hope, made my point) will still be a trademark of mine when neccessary.
– from Different Worlds, issue 311
Whether the game was used more for The Black Company-style grim fantasy or for splatterpunk antics, I suppose, must have depended on your group’s tastes.
The game that Geoffrey is running doesn’t use the Arduin setting — only the rules. It’s set in Rothlingsmark, a feudal province on the borders of the kingdom of Sunderland. Rothlingsmark was decimated in a recent war, and the game focuses around a handful of advisors and servants of the local jarles who are trying to establish order and stability in the region. My character, Kylikki, is the court mage.
One would think that I’m a poor fit for any game that uses the Arduin system. Most of the tabletop games I’ve played in have had the tacit understanding that permanent, random player death was unlikely to happen. (LARP was another matter entirely, of course — LARPers are a bloodthirsty lot.) When they did occur, character deaths were planned in advance and generally with the consent of the player. Unplanned character deaths happened only in games where death wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, like in D&D, and ressurrection magic doesn’t exist in Rothlingsmark.
I’m also also one of those awful players with a terrible history of getting too invested in their characters. When I was younger, I was a god-awful diva and I feel sorry for pretty much everyone who ever gamed with me before I graduated college. Even now, after three sessions, I’d already figured out what kind of shoes Kylikki likes, and how her grandparents met. I draw pictures of my characters. I studied method acting, and I use it in games — I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve while playing.
But thematically, the rules seemed to fit Rothlingsmark well. The focus of the game is about rebuilding a state that has been destroyed by war, and a system designed to showcase the dangers of combat and the horrors of war seemed altogether appropriate for this setting. As Geoffrey pointed out, a world where the wealthy can easily afford to be ressurrected does lose some of its drama, as illustrated by the hypothetical conversation below:
KYLIKKI: Lady Trondviga, your noble brother, the brash and daring Sir Holgar, was slain by a troll in the Marwold last night!
TRONDVIGA: I see. How is he?
KYLIKKI: Oh, he’s fine now. I just thought I ought to let you know.
So how did it all bear out in play? Was Kylikki’s nose torn off in the second session? Did she lose her left eye before I decided what color they were? Part 2 of this series will discuss her fate. Watch for next week’s article: “Life, Death, and Arduin II: ‘Maybe we should try Rolemaster instead?’”