Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 5: Small But Vicious Dog

Back in 2011, Chris Hogan - author of the OSR blog Vaults of Nagoh - wrote a hilarious 36-page free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog, with the aim of combining 1st edition WFRP with B/X D&D. Like many 1st edition WFRP fans, Hogan was openly contemptuous of WFRP 3rd edition, and SBVD plunged defiantly back in the opposite direction to WFRP 3's more new-school, high-fantasy take on the setting. In Hogan's own words:
Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witch hunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.
Hogan's blog hasn't been updated since 2013, but Small But Vicious Dog lives on. You can download it here for free.

SBVD is, essentially, a collection of rules hacks for making B/X D&D look more like WFRP. Some parts of it are just B/X in WFRP drag: so Constitution is called 'Toughness', melee attack bonus is renamed 'Weapon Skill', hit points become 'wounds', and so on. The four base classes are Academics (who get magic), Rangers (who can shoot people), Warriors (who can hit people), and Thieves (who can sneak attack people). Each character also gets a Career, which in turn grants them some Trappings and a Career Skill. The combat-oriented career skills, like Dodge Blow, have specific rules effects. The rest just give you a thing that you can do by rolling equal to or less than your relevant ability score.

PCs start with 6 'wounds' (i.e. hit points) plus their initial hit dice, and they also get 'fate points' which act as 'get out of death free' cards, just like in WFRP. They also get one more fate point and the ability to increase one ability score by one point each time they level up, to mimic the way that the stats of WFRP characters rise as they progress through their careers. Hogan writes a lot about how doomed and miserable the PCs should be in SBVD, claiming at one point that 'Nothing better evokes the spirit of the source material that inspired SBVD than making the PCs suffer', but between their fate points and their increasing ability scores and their extra HP (sorry, 'wounds'), SBVD PCs are actually much tougher than their B/X D&D counterparts.

Other parts of the game have also been modified to make them a bit more WFRP-y. Falling to 0 HP - sorry, 'wounds' - means a roll on the critical hit table rather than automatic death. There are some rather clever rules to differentiate weapons from one another, making them more like their WFRP equivalents: so two-handed weapons make you attack last but let you roll damage twice and keep the better option, daggers can be drawn as a free action, firearms ignore armour at close range but may misfire, and so on. There are rules for the various psychology effects from Warhammer, like Frenzy, Stupidity, Fear, Terror, etc. The biggest change is the magic system, which ditches spells per day in favour of a WFRP 2 style system where you can cast as many spells as you like, but each casting carries a risk of (possibly catastrophic) side effects. Further rules cover social status, drugs, disease, medicine, insanity, and hirelings, which gives a clear sense of the kind of material that the game is intended to focus on. The rules only cover characters of levels 1-3, but it would be easy to extend them into higher levels.

This is all well and good: but at the end of the day, SBVD is very much D&D rather than WFRP. The careers system is a superficial varnish over the class system, rather than being integral to the game as it is in WFRP, and nonhuman PCs don't even get to have careers (or classes). Advancement is still mostly a matter of getting more hit points (as in B/X D&D) rather than improving across the board (as in WFRP). XP also comes from finding treasure rather than completing scenarios, which is a big change from WFRP, and likely to motivate very different player behaviour. 

The best thing about SBVD is its gleefully demented take on the Warhammer setting. At the very moment when FFG were trying to convince people to take WFRP seriously as High Fantasy Drama, Hogan was writing things like this:
All dwarves are beer-soaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental. 

There’s a 10% chance that any dwarf character created is a Troll Slayer, a kamikaze no-pants dwarf with a big orange mohawk, prison tats, a two-handed axe and a burning desire to ragequit life as violently as possible. 

All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker.  

Rumour has it that the Elven homelands are contested in an endless war between two mighty and ancient factions: the louche-and-arty vs. the darker-and-edgier. The origin of their interminable strife is unknown, although it probably began as a spat over the relative aesthetic merits of art nouveau and gothic revival styles. 
If you only know Warhammer from its later, more serious incarnations, then this will read like parodic caricature. But here are some extracts from the actual (real, official, canonical) description of the Lothern Sea Guard from 1985:
The job of Captain of the Guard of Lothern is not a popular one. Few jobs are popular in the Elf Kingdoms, as Elves despise all forms of work. Perhaps it is because of this that important or responsible positions tend to fall to eccentrics. D'roi Haisplinn, Captain of the Guard of Lothern, is a case in point; a neurotic, homicidal maniac. At dusk he can be seen pacing the battlements of the great lighthouse of Lothern, cackling madly and, perhaps, torturing an underling.

The battlecry of this regiment is based up the age old tradition of challenging strangers during the hours of darkness. In Elvish the cry is 'Elo Cailor Gotda Liet', which is popularly supposed to translate as 'Hello, Hello. What's going on here then?'

Amongst Haisplinn's many deeds of infamy the destruction of the 'Halfling House' Inn and rest home, must be one of the basest. Many Halflings were slain, or suffered horrible and embarrassing torture at the hands of the Guards. Haisplinn's only motivation seems to have been that Halflings are short, ugly and have very poor dress sense.
Hogan's interpretation of WFRP as absurdist black comedy, concerned exclusively with the miserable lives of the poor, mad, and desperate and their comically doomed attempts to get rich quick, very much emphasises one aspect of the Warhammer world over others - after all, high fantasy elements have also been present in the setting from the very start. It does, however, neatly summarise what many people find most distinctive and appealing about WFRP, and acts as a welcome reminder of just how crazy the setting used to be, back before everyone started trying to take it so damn seriously.

The bestiary for SBVD is a bit of a treasure trove, featuring all kinds of mostly-forgotten weirdness from the early days of WFRP, and rejoicing in the now deliberately-forgotten fact that the Warhammer world was once overrun by killer puffins, 'carnivorous laser slugs', and other nonsense. The write-ups of these creatures are often accompanied by jokes about how poorly they've fared in subsequent editions of the game:
The Bog Devils are monocular amphibian humanoids of evil aspect. These ancient terrors of the wetlands have been driven to the verge of extinction by divisions among their creator gods, and by the inexorable expansion of Ratmen and Dark Elves into their conceptual niche territory

[Zoats] have a long and convoluted history. They originated as druidic defenders of the forest, and then went into space as the shock troops and diplomats of an alien hive race before disappearing entirely. They appear to have vanished into a combined time travel/ret-con portal, returning as fearsome lightning-powered Dragon Ogres. Suffice it to say these guys are weird, a bit confused and not to all tastes. 
There's a lot to like, here, but at the end of the day I'm not sure how useful SBVD actually is. As Hogan himself repeatedly points out, B/X D&D and WFRP 1st edition are already pretty similar, which makes it easy to adapt material for one game for use in the other even without a halfway house ruleset such as this one. Rather than an actual game to be played as-written, it's probably best viewed as a collection of suggested house rules and monster write-ups, which people who want to make their D&D games a bit more WFRP-esque can borrow from as best suits the needs of their individual campaigns.

I'll end by quoting Hogan's own list of things to remember about SBVD, which serve as a useful manifesto for the kind of black comedy WFRP spirit that the game embodies:

1. The world is not fair. 
2. The gods hate you, and your suffering amuses them. 
3. 90% of people are corrupt, greedy scum. The remainder are vicious fanatics. 
4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several. 
5. It can always get worse, and generally should. 
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it! 
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder. 
8. Glowing green rocks = bad. 
9. There are no such things as Skaven. 

13 comments:

  1. Gotta print out that manifesto and tape it to both sides of my GM screen

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love SBVD, but I actually smashed it together with your Against the Wicked City classes (plus Noncombatant, renamed "Ingenue") to make my own ruleset for Early Modern D&D, rather than ran it as-is. I found that the loose SBVD careers system combines well with the AtWC 'skill system'. If a Fighter or a Boatman could reasonably do it, you don't need to roll. I found that players used their career skillset and associated equipment more often than their class stuff when trying weird schemes, and that it was a good jumping off point for extemporaneous characterization.

    Gotta love Elf coppers who charge in shouting "what's all this then?"

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was in a WHFRP 1st edition game years ago, led by a friend steeped in nostalgia. I dreaded the sessions of railroaded importunity, with characters so pitiful it was mathematically unlikely that you could put on pants without suffering something. The godfather of grim-dark is so much worse than SBVD or even horror D&D. Rewrites like Zweihander just inflict the same displeasure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds awful. WFRP doesn't have to be like that - the published adventures clearly assume characters who are capable enough to slay monsters and foil heinous chaos cult conspiracies, after all - but I can totally see how someone could mistake WFRP's trappings for its essence.

      It's a bit like those people who think the old joke about Call of Cthulhu being the game where everyone goes mad and then dies is - or should be - an actual description of how the average CoC session should unfold...

      Delete
  4. Wait, what's the deal with Skaven?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a joke about their contradictory status in the Warhammer canon. Supposedly they're a hidden menace whose very existence is doubted by most people, even though they openly rule a major empire and frequently send out entire armies to battle with other races.

      See also here:

      https://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2018/09/bringing-down-hammer-part-6-children-of.html

      Delete
  5. Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on Vampirelord7878@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lord Mark, I am *so* tired of being human. I long for good human posture and sensitivity to mental alertness. I'm even willing to put up with being made to walk in the very middle of broad daylight. But I'm just not sure that a vampire lord who advertises his gmail address via blog comments is the kind of vampire lord I can really *trust*, you know?

      Delete
  6. Enjoyed this. Hogan's old Dangerous Journeys readthru series is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I will never understand some folks' attachment to treasure as XP. In a pseudo-medieval or early Renaissance setting, it practically guarantees that all heads of guilds and nobles ranking above viscount-- and only those people -- will wield godlike power in addition to monopolizing land ownership and the practice of a trade. It would necessitate that all objects of any value whatsoever would be ruthlessly hoarded by whomever in the world was first to level up. Too much like the real world for my taste.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think most D&D-esque games apply the gold=XP rule to NPCs as a way to simulate the world (ACKS being a notable exception).

      Delete
    2. GP = XP sends a very clear message regarding what the game is about. You go into dungeons because that's where the treasure is. You fight as little as possible because your XP comes from loot, not murder. In B/X D&D, the assumed end-goal was buying your way into the feudal system, because by the time you reached Name Level and became lords you'd have enough money to build yourself a castle. Thus all the castle-building rules in the Expert Set.

      You only get XP for gold obtained via adventuring - you can't just put it all in a high-interest bank account and let the levels roll in. So even if those guildmasters or nobles were playing by the same rules as the PCs (which usually isn't the case), they wouldn't get any levels just from getting rich off commerce or taxation.

      But as Ynas says, the normal assumption is that these rules only apply to the PCs. Otherwise every high-level NPC - all those lords, archmagi, high priests, etc - would have to be people who had personally looted vast amounts of money from underground lairs, this being known as the only way to advance in power...

      Delete
  8. Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on Vampirelord7878@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete