Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Worst: Blackmoor

This is another installment in my irregular series of the Best & Worst bits that I have had the luck (or misfortune) to read in RPG products. Normal service will resume shortly...

OD&D is both brilliant and flawed. For example Greyhawk is full of many brilliant ideas but has others which are (at best) a tad iffy (does anyone have much love for percentile strength?).

Blackmoor though completely stumped me - there is almost nothing inspired or even of any use in the whole first half of the book (and the second half is only saved by being mostly a very strange module).

New Classes
Firstly there are the new character classes. Monks are just plain weird. Described as a Cleric / Fighter / Thief. Any hit by 5 or more has a 25% chance of killing outright...  Hands are a deadly weapon, but they only get d4 hit points. They are dead easy to hit, until at high levels were they do ridiculous amounts of damage. Does this class work in practice? I never allowed one in AD&D but no-one ever asked to play one either!

In the middle of the Monk we get a picture of a Lammasu. No, it's not a monster described in the book. Throughout the rest of the supplement we get pictures of Hell Hounds, Umber Hulks, Harpies, Mind Flayers, Ropers, and a Chimera - none of which are monsters out of this book...

The second new class is equally strange - Assassin. Must be Neutral? Can use poison, but if someone spots you are they get angry and can attack you at +4 to hit, +4 damage?? The % chance of assassination table is just plain strange. What happens if you fail in the attempt?

Hit Locations
Did anyone ever use this? Did the author ever use it? Is it just a brain dump of random thoughts?

Rolemaster come back - all is forgiven!

Giant Monsters! 
Giant Crab. Giant Octopus. Giant Squid. Giant Crocodile. Giant Toad. Giant Frog. Giant Leech. Giant Beaver. Giant Otter. Giant Wasp. Giant Beetle. Giant Shark. Giant Eagle. Giant Sea Spider. Giant Wasteoftime. (To be fair it does have Sahuagin - and an illustration of one!).

The Second Half
At this point the supplement changes tack entirely. There's half a page of brief descriptions of Magic Items with an underwater theme which are OK.

The Temple Of The Frog forms the bulk of the second half of the supplement (21 pages). I'm unsure of how you were expected to run this adventure, and I don't know whether Dave had ever run it or just wrote it for the supplement. It is certainly very different from other early adventures, and if nothing else it's an interesting curiosity.

Then we have seven pages of Underwater Adventures, Sages, and Diseases, which all manage to read as fairly sensible and potentially of use.

Who Wrote What?
As is fairly well known, Blackmoor had a difficult gestation. It was the work of several authors, Tim Kask given the unenviable task of combining them together. Steve Marsh wrote the Underwater Monsters, (probably) the Magic Items and the Underwater Adventures section, which are some of the best sections. The Temple Of The Frog is Arneson. The rest appears to be by various authors with Tim Kask attempting to work them into something usable, and unsurprisingly not really succeeding.

I've found a thread over at Dragonsfoot which discusses who may or may not have written what.

This supplement would have worked much better simply as a bunch of articles in The Strategic Review. As such they would not be viewed so critically now - as the follow up act to Greyhawk they invite derision. The best that can be said is that it encourages the reader to think "I can do better", and readers frequently have. As a view into Dave Arneson's game it isn't very illuminating. For that you're better looking at The First Fantasy Campaign (I'm still on the look out for a reasonably priced copy).

Monday, 1 February 2016

Poleaxe not Pollax

There is a common repeated webtruth that "Poleaxe" is not the correct spelling, but a 19th century erroneous change, and that the correct spelling is "Pollax".

For example, the Wikipedia entry is "Pollax" and it states:

The poleaxe in that spelling[citation needed], refers to an animal culling device of similar appearance. It was swung so the spike struck the animal, normally cattle, in the forehead. Hence also the phrase 'to be poleaxed' referring to being stunned. This term does not seem to appear before the 19th century.

This is in direct contradiction to the Oxford English Dictionary:

[ME. pollaxpolax, Sc. powax = MDu. polaexpollaex, MLG. and LG. polexepollexe (whence MSw. 15th c. polyxepulyxe, MDa. polöxe), f. polPOLL n.1, Sc. pow, MDu., MLG. pollepol head + AXE: cf. MDu. polhamer = poll-hammer, also a weapon of war. It does not appear whether the combination denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy. In the 16th c. the word began to be written by some pole-axe (which after 1625 became the usual spelling), as if an axe upon a pole or long handle. This may have been connected with the rise of sense 2. Similarly, mod.Sw. pålyxa and Westphalian dial. pålexe have their first element = pole. Sense 3 may be a substitute for the earlier bole-axe, which was applied to a butcher's axe.]
It intrigued me as to whether one could find corroborating proof that it had indeed changed from pollax / polax to poleaxe during the period 1500-1625.

The Middle English Spelling
In Middle English, the spelling was Polax, as can be seen from these lines in Chaucer from The Knight's Tale:
No man therfore, up peyne of los of lyf,
No maner shot, ne polax, ne short knyf
Into the lystes sende, ne thider brynge.
This is not a primary resource however, so I looked for scans of early editions, and I found:

This is from an online scanned copy of The Canterbury Tales - William Caxton's printed edition (the first such) from 1478. There is no single authoritative version of Chaucer, and there are many differences between versions. This source has "pollax" instead of "polax", but also has many other changes in these three lines, for example "los of lyf" to "losyng his lif" which shows the sheer variety of spellings at this time.

Hence it is reasonable to accept that in Middle English the word could be "pollax" or "polax".

The Modern Spelling
If one is looking for the spelling of a word, where else would you look other than a dictionary?

The first edition of Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language" (1755) is also rather handily scanned and online, and here we find:

So by 1755 the spelling "Poleaxe" was the accepted one in the dictionary. Note that in the intervening 277 years the spelling has almost entirely changed from the odd Middle English spellings (such as knyf for knife) into modern spellings.  We cannot tell whether the spelling changed from "Polax" to "Poleaxe" which made them think that it meant "Pole" + "Axe", or whether the belief that it was "Pole" + "Axe" caused them to change their spelling. What we do know is that it is not a recent change by the Victorians.

Johnson helpfully cites sources for his words, and here gives a quote from Dryden. This is from John Dryden's poem "Palamon and Arcite", a reworking of The Knight's Tale, published in "Fables, ancient and Modern" in 1700. You'd expect Johnson to have preserved the spelling, but when we look on line for a scanned copy of this book we find:

So in the original from 1700 it is Poleax (spelling variant #4!!). There are also later printings of this poem which change it to Poleaxe, so perhaps Johnson was referring to them. Note also the reference to "Coat-armour, imitating Scale"!

Since "Palamon and Arcite" was a retelling of The Knight's Tale it is perhaps no surprise that at the end of the book Dryden gives Chaucer's original text, and it has the old spelling "polax":

(Though note knyf has changed to knife). Hence we have now seen that the spelling "poleax" was in use by 1700, and with full knowledge that this was a change of spelling from middle english. During this period English saw a major upheaval, changing from Middle English into something very close to the English of today, and this change of spelling was just one of many changes.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary we can date this introduction of the "e" in the middle as starting in the 16th century and becoming the usual spelling after 1625.

The Rebutal
There are several possible grounds by which one might claim that Pollax is the correct spelling - let's examine them one at a time.

Poleaxe is an incorrect spelling
Any spelling listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is "correct". Poleaxe is spelled this way in the OED, so cannot be called incorrect.

Poleaxe is a modern spelling
The OED dates it back to the 16th century, and we've seen the "e" in the middle in a document from 1700, it is most definitely NOT a modern spelling

Poleaxe is an anachronstic spelling  - it post dates the period of the weapon
The weapon called the pollax/poleaxe was in use roughly from 1300-1700. Thus for nearly half this period "poleaxe" was a normal spelling, and it was the usual spelling for the last 75 years of this period.

Pollax is the original spelling, and therefore correct
By this argument we should use "knyf" for knife. We cannot replace English spellings with those from Middle English.

Poleaxe is etymologically incorrect and misleading
Many words are equally so. "Shamefaced" is a corruption, it comes from Middle English scamfæst, which is scam ("shame") + fæst ("fast"). So it *should* be shamefast. The change from "fast" to "faced" changes the meaning to imply showing guilt on the face. This does not mean we should change the meaning of Shamefaced in the dictionary to match the old meaning, nor should we change its spelling.

So it will be Poleaxe in Explore ;-)