Monday, November 22, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Traveler in Desert Lands

As a general rule, I tend to be skeptical of the efforts of writers who take it upon themselves to play in someone else's playground. Heck, I'm similarly skeptical about the efforts of writers who return to their own playgrounds many years after the fact. The results in both cases are rarely good in my opinion, which is why I tend to avoid them. Nevertheless, I occasionally make exceptions, usually because I'd either heard something positive beforehand or because I allowed my own enthusiasm get the better of them. The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique is an example of the latter.

Edited by John Pelan and published in 1999, The Last Continent is an anthology of original stories set in Clark Ashton Smith's setting of Zothique. Now, Zothique is a favorite of mine. Of all of Smith's creations, it's the one I most enjoy – which is saying something. Consequently, when I heard about this collection, I quickly snapped it up, hoping I'd find at least one new Zonthique story worthy of the Bard of Auburn himself.

As it happened, I found several, but the one I most recall, years later, is "A Traveler in Desert" lands by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is, of course, the celebrated author of The Shadow of the Torturer and the other volumes of The Book of the New Sun, so his byline on a short story set in Zothique is not entirely surprising. The world of Severian is a kind of far future "dying earth" with some similarities to Zothique and Wolfe's command of archaic and esoteric vocabulary is every bit as hypnotic as that of CAS. That said, "A Traveler in Desert Lands" contains little that explicitly links it to Zothique beyond its mellifluous style and morbid subject matter. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed it as much as I do; unlike some of the other stories in this collection, it doesn't read like someone's Clark Ashton Smith fan fiction but rather a wholly original homage to his works.

The titular traveler is making his way across a desert on the back of a camel. Tired and thirsty, he stops "in the soft and shifting dust of the lost town of the dead" where he spies a very slender woman walking with a water jar upon her head. Courteously, he asks her if he might take some water from her.

"You would honor me by drinking," the woman with the jar said, "and by filling whatever skins and bottles you may have. If you empty my jar," her face convulsed as if to dislodge some brass-backed carrion fly that none but she could see, "it is a matter of no moment, for I can easily refill it at our well."
Though this surprises the traveler – he did not expect to find water so readily in the desert – he is very grateful. He takes a drink of water to slake his thirst and then asks where the well is, so that he might fill all his canteens and water his camel before moving on. 

The woman does not respond; instead, she simply walks away. The traveler and his camel follow her into the nearby town and its "bleak streets of tombs." 

Some remained sealed – or so it appeared. Others had clearly been broken into, looted, and abandoned. Still others gave evidence of habitation; and at the door of one he saw an old man seated, his dusty cheeks streaked with tears and his raddled face stamped with grief. The woman with the water jar halted to speak to this old man, though the traveler could not hear what she said; the old man nodded in response, his face perhaps a trifle less hopeless than it had been. 

As he continued to follow the slender woman, hoping she was leading him to the well of which she had spoken, his mind wanders. He thinks about the tombs he sees everywhere and what they imply.

Where there were tombs and men who robbed them, there might be silver and gold besides, necklaces and emeralds and torques starry with opals. The thought revived him more, even, than the water had – for the traveler had been born of woman and suckled at the breast, and like all the breed was in need of money. 

I smiled when I first read these sentences, as they struck as being not only true to so many of Smith's venal protagonists but also to the player characters one encounters in many a fantasy roleplaying game campaign. In any case, the woman does eventually lead him to the the well, located underground and accessible by a set of stone steps. She tells the traveler to leave his camel behind and to descend into the depths with her.

He agrees and fills canteens to capacity. He also takes up water for his camel, a process that, even while aided by the woman, takes some time. Before long, the night is beginning to fall. This leads the woman to ask him, "Will you stay in our town tonight?" Again, the traveler agrees, hoping that, in addition to rest, he might be able to buy or trade for provisions from the inhabitants of this strange settlement. The woman assures him her people can provide him with goat's meat, cheese, and vegetables – but only in the morning. The traveler accepts this and prepares to settle in for the night.

This being a pulp fantasy story – and one after the fashion of Clark Ashton Smith, no less – things are not what they appear to be, as the traveler soon learns. What separates "A Traveler in Desert Lands" from other stories of this kind is not so much its revelations as the overall mood of the piece. Wolfe does a superb job of slowly building tension through the accumulation of small details and hints. His description of the town where the woman and her family live is a good example of this, as the reader slowly comes to realize that they actually live inside of a looted mausoleum. "Town of the dead" is not a metaphor; this is no ghost town in the conventional sense. Rather, it is an ancient cemetery whose tombs have now become the dwelling places of later inhabitants. It's wonderfully macabre and exactly the kind of thing I'd expect to find in a good tale of Zothique. That I found it in a Zothique tale not written by Smith is all the more remarkable – but then Gene Wolfe is no ordinary writer.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

White Dwarf Interviews Greg Stafford

 As I mentioned in my recent post about issue #17 of White Dwarf, the issue contains a fascinating interview with Greg Stafford, creator of the fantasy setting of Glorantha and a founder of Chaosium. The interview was apparently conducted at GenCon XII (1979) by Ian Livingstone and covers a wide range of topics, with special attention paid to Stafford's thoughts about Glorantha, RuneQuest, and roleplaying in general. From the vantage point of 2021, I find the interview remarkable, not just for the topics it covers but for the answers Stafford gives, some of which are truly unique.

Livingstone begins by asking about the origins of Glorantha – or "the world of Dragon Pass," as he calls it throughout the interview – and Stafford replies at length:

There's a lot to unpack here, starting with the fact that Glorantha begin, much like M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel, as something Stafford created "for [his] own entertainment." More interesting is his partial agreement with the rude editor who claimed that "All S&S is the same hackwork." I hear variations of this claim a lot, particularly from those who dislike this blog's focus on the pulp fantasy antecedents of D&D and other early RPGs. Consequently, I was initially taken aback by Stafford's seeming acceptance of it, if only partially. However, as he seems to suggest in the second paragraph of his response, he recognizes the value of "standard S&S types." 

Stafford explains a bit about his own literary education, including the authors and stories that most influenced him.

None of what he says here surprises me, though why he singles out Vathek for opprobrium I can't be sure. More notable, I think, is that Stafford elevates Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Sir James Frazer, and Bob Dylan(!) to the same level as Tolkien and Homer in terms of influence upon him. That says a great deal about what Stafford hoped to achieve through the development of Glorantha. It also explains why I was frequently told, in my early days, that RuneQuest was "a hippy game" to be avoided by good East Coast boys like myself.

Interesting though all this is, the real meat of the interview comes when Livingstone asks Stafford about his thoughts on the popularity of RPGs. Stafford replies that he believes this popularity rests on four elements: "1. Communication with others; 2. Participation in a shared fantasy; 3. Exploration of our minds; 4. Exploration of the psyche." He expands upon each of these shortly thereafter:
A whole series of posts could no doubt be written teasing out the implications of everything Stafford says here. Perhaps one day I'll do just that. For the moment, though, I think it suffices to say that Stafford definitely has some genuine insight here into the appeal of roleplaying games. In particular, I think his comments about "shared fantasy" are spot on, at least as far as my own feelings are concerned. 

Later, Stafford returns to some of these same topics, when he offers his opinions on the future of the RPG hobby and what purposes roleplaying games might serve in the future.
I remember the late 1970s quite well; there was definitely a pessimism about the future in the air, much as there is in many quarters nowadays. That Stafford saw RPGs as a lifeline in difficult times is worth bearing in mind, regardless of whether one shares his gloominess. I can certainly say that I greatly value the games I play each week with my friends across the globe. The connection they provided during the last couple of years has been vital and I doubt I am alone in feeling that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Retrospective: Telengard

I didn't own a computer until I was well into the start of my third decade of life. Nevertheless, from my elementary school days on, I had ready access to them, thanks to friends and classmates whose families were more technophilic than my own. For example, my best friend in the latter years of grade school (and who shared my love of D&D) owned a TRS-80 on which I spent endless hours playing a primitive Star Trek game. Similarly, a high school buddy of mine had an Apple IIc, making it possible for me to play Wizardry. So, while I didn't have a computer of my own, I was quite familiar with many of the primitive models available in my youth and used them when I was able.

Of all these, the one I remember most is the Atari 400 8-bit computer. A neighborhood friend, whose older brother was a gaming mentor, owned one – or, rather, his father did – and our little circle of boys used to gather round it in his living room to goggle at this marvel of modern technology. We also played games, as we were able, most of them quite forgettable. Of course, we didn't care at the time. The mere existence of a computer game was usually enough to hold our attention, resulting in a lot of wasted time.

Looking back on those days, one game continues to stand out in my memory as being better than the rest: Telengard, released by Avalon Hill in 1982. Telengard was what would nowadays be called a "dungeon crawler" in that the focus of play was navigating one's randomly generated character through an immense, 50-level dungeon filled with all manner of monsters, traps, and treasures. Like most computer games of that era, it was exceedingly limited, both in terms of options and presentation, but that didn't matter. To a thirteen year-old in the early '80s, Telengard was unbelievably cool – and about as close as you could get to digitizing the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

That's because Telengard pretty much was D&D. I'm honestly surprised that TSR didn't sue or at least legally threaten Avalon Hill over the game. Characters in the game had the exact same ability scores as in D&D and the purpose of the game was to amass experience points through defeating monsters and finding treasure, thereby achieving higher levels of power, just like D&D. The selection of monsters (36 in all) included a number obviously derived from D&D, such as the gnoll and experience point-draining wraiths and spectres. Spells and magic items were likewise derivative of Gygax and Arneson's creation, with elven cloaks and boots, magic missile, and cure light wounds available, among others. As I said, I'm startled that TSR let this slide.

The primary difference between Telengard and D&D is that the computer game had no character classes. Instead, every character was equally adept at casting spells and engaging in combat. Spellcasting was handled through the use of a spell point (or "spell unit") system, but was otherwise reminiscent of the way D&D handled magic. Interestingly, turn undead was a spell; indeed, the spell list is a mixture of those available to clerics and magic-users in D&D. This gave your character a bit more versatility than in D&D, but that's understandable as Telengard provided neither an option for multiplayer nor for the acquisition of henchmen. Instead, your character was left to his own devices in facing off against the dangers of the dungeon.

To call Telengard unforgiving is an understatement. Not only were the contents of dungeon rooms random (though, like D&D, scaled to level), the entire game was played in real time. In fact, the game manual, as I recall, takes great pains to point this out to the player. There are no safe areas except outside the dungeon itself. Further, you cannot save your progress within the dungeon. The combination of these factors meant that caution was advisable, just as in D&D. Of course, the computer was even more merciless than a living referee; no amount of whining or wheedling could convince it to keep your character alive after a foolhardy decision or a bad throw of the virtual dice.

And yet, we loved it. Some of that love was no doubt a function of neopohilia. The very idea of playing a fantasy game on a computer was simply so captivating in itself that we didn't care how hard it was to survive. At the same time, I also think that its difficulty appealed to our competitive instincts and desire for genuine challenge. Being able to escape the dungeon with enough gold to gain a new level felt like a genuine accomplishment, especially when we knew just how easy it was to turn the wrong corner and run into a dragon or a vampire, not to mention a teleporter trap that sent us to some unknown lower level. The very unfairness of Telengard was part of its attraction, I think – but then the minds of teenage boys are strange things.

I don't know that I'd enjoy Telengard or a game like it anymore. At the time, though, it was genuinely engrossing and I can still remember how much fun we all had facing off against the program. There are days when I wish I could have these kinds of experiences again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #17

Issue #17 of White Dwarf (February/March 1980) features a science fictional cover by Angus McKie. In my memory, one of the things that distinguished White Dwarf from, say, Dragon is that the former frequently boasted cover art that drew from SF or that mixed sci-fi with fantasy. As a huge fan of the genre, this always pleased me. 

The issue begins with an interesting editorial by Ian Livingstone, in which he talks about the perceived expense of a roleplaying game versus a more traditional boardgame. "Is this all I get?" he imagines a newcomer to the hobby saying upon opening his D&D Basic Set. Livingstone then suggests that, because RPGs are a niche hobby, they'll always be more expensive than their mainstream counterparts. The only way that will change is if roleplaying games were to appeal to a wide enough audience that mass market factors enter the equation. For that to occur, he opines, RPGs "would have to be modified out of all recognition and lose their appeal." I'm not sure that history has proven Livingstone wrong.

"The Fiend Factory" offers up six more monsters in this issue. Perhaps I am unusual in this respect, but I'm tiring of the "The Fiend Factory." I'd much rather see clever ways to use existing monsters – of which D&D already had an immensity in 1980 – than an endless menagerie of new ones. "Open Box" is mostly given over to Judges Guild product reviews, starting with Under the Storm Giant's Castle (5 out of 10) and Dark Tower (9 out of 10). These are joined by reviews of both Operation Ogre (5 out of 10) and Caverns of Thracia (9 out of 10). This is, I think, a fairly representative sample of JG's output over the years – plenty of forgettable mediocrity but a number of true classics as well. Also reviewed is Yaquinto's game Time War, which receives a score of 8 out of 10.

"My Life as a Werebear" is an unusual article by Lewis Pulsipher. In it, he delves into the question of playing a monster as a character in Dungeons & Dragons. Pulsipher then provides for monster classes for use with the game. They're an odd assortment, consisting of the blink dog, lammasu, stone giant, and titular werebear. While I'm unsure I'd ever allow such characters in my own games, I think the guiding principles behind Pulsipher's designs are solid and the end results are good (though why anyone would want to play a blink dog character is beyond me). Shaun Fuller's "The Magic Brush" is a lengthy article on the finer points of painting miniature figures. Not being a painter myself, I can't speak to its utility, but it is clearly thorough in its treatment of its subject.

"The Sable Rose Affair" by Bob McWilliams is a superb scenario for use with Traveller. The adventure is quite detailed and includes lots of maps and NPCs, all of which contribute to its overall excellence. More noteworthy is its presentation as a series of "modules," which are discrete sections focusing on specific events or locales within the overall scenario. Depending on the approach the PCs take, only certain modules are needed, which offers the referee flexibility in how he adjudicates the course of play. "Treasure Chest" details seven new artifacts and relics, after the fashion of the mighty magic items found toward the end of the Dungeon Masters Guide. They're fine, as far as they go, though none really stand out as memorable.

The issue ends with an interview with Chaosium stalwart, Greg Stafford. It's a truly fascinating interview, one worthy of its own post (which I'll write either later today or tomorrow), in which Stafford talks at length not just about the origins of Glorantha, RuneQuest, and Chaosium but also his general philosophy of roleplaying and related activities. There's some eye-opening stuff in the interview serves as a good reminder – as if we needed one – of why Stafford was truly one of the greats of our hobby.

All in all, this was another fine issue, one that brings the magazine ever closer to the one I remember from just a few years later.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Lords of Tsámra

With a few exceptions, I am not a fan of "game fiction," which is to say, stories or novels that take place within a roleplaying game setting. There are a couple of reasons why this is so. The first is that most game fiction is written not by writers of literature – even pulp literature – but by game designers trying their hand at a new medium and, as such, isn't very well composed. The second, and in my mind more important reason, is that most game fiction just isn't very interesting. I'm actually quite forgiving of hackneyed writing and wooden characters, if the overall story being told is imaginative and introduces me to some aspect of its setting that I might otherwise not have encountered. Unfortunately, that's pretty rare, hence my skepticism toward books of this kind.

But, as I said, there are a few exceptions and among those that quickly come to mind are the novels of M.A.R. Barker, creator of the world of Tékumel. Starting with 1984's The Man of Gold, Barker penned five Tékumel novels. As works of literature, they're of varying quality, but all of them contain compelling plots, memorable characters, and immense insights into Tékumel and its societies and cultures. Indeed, I'd argue that the novels do a far better job of presenting Tékumel to newcomers than do almost any of the RPG materials published for the setting since the appearance of Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975.

The third novel in the series, Lords of Tsámra, offers a good example of what I mean. Originally published in 2003, Lords of Tsámra takes place sometime after the events of the previous two novels in the series, The Man of Gold and Flamesong. The protagonist of the former, Hársan hiTikéshmu, re-appears here, though his role is secondary to that of an entirely new character, Korúkka hiKutonyál. Whereas Hársan is a priest of the gentle god of knowledge, Thúmis, Korúkka serves the grasping god of secrets, Ksárul. As such, he is a very different kind of person – arrogant, sneaky, and suspicious, but also thoughtful, quick-witted, and even brave when circumstances demand it of him. His differences from the more traditionally heroic character of Hársan makes him, I think, a more fascinating character. He's also a terrific window into the society of Tsolyánu, the titular Empire of the Petal Throne, whose inhabitants cannot be easily described in stereotypes.

The plot of the novel concerns a diplomatic mission sent from Tsolyánu to the Tsoléi Isles, to effect a cessation of hostilities between the Tsoléini and the Livyáni, another empire which was simultaneously involved in a wat against a third combatant, the Mu'ugalavyáni. If this all sounds confusing, on a certain level it is, but it's to Barker's credit that the reader is initiated slowly into the complicated geopolitics of Tékumel. It's a good thing, too, because, as Lords of Tsámra unfolds, more elements are added to the mix: a plague, conspiracies involving other-planar beings, and more. There's a lot going on in the novel and its characters are constantly tossed this way and that on tumultuous waves of plot not entirely of their own making. In this respect, Lords of Tsámra often reads like an old-fashioned pulp serial, filled as it is with perilous situations and unpredictable cliffhangers.

What saves the novel from becoming impossible to follow, let alone enjoy, is that, for all the clashes of nations and machinations of hidden cabals, its focus remains largely on the characters. This is the story of great events told from the ground, as it were. Everything that happens is seen through the eyes of Korúkka and his companions, as they navigate the strange cultures first of the Tsoléini and then the Livyáni (and a subculture within them, the Dláshi). Whatever his other weaknesses as a writer, Barker excels at offering his readers a kind of National Geographic-meets-Fodor's approach to the immensely rich world of Tékumel. Nearly every page of Lords of Tsámra describes some cultural detail, geographical description, or historical tidbit. One is slowly initiated into deeper mysteries along the way – some of them very deep indeed – the end of which is a better understanding of and appreciation for the remarkable fantasy world Barker has created.

Assuming that's what one wants out of a fantasy novel, Lords of Tsámra is a very good one; it's probably my favorite of all of Barker's Tékumel tales. That's not to say that the novel doesn't include its fair share of adventure and excitement. There's plenty here to hold the attention of fans of magic and swordplay, imminent danger and narrow escapes. That's not the focus of the novel, however, nor is it where Barker's skills shine. M.A.R. Barker is often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien in that he was a three-initialed linguist who created a rich fantasy setting. Another point of similarity is that, as a novelist, his strengths lie in describing his imaginary world and the varied people who inhabit it rather than on feats of derring-do. Pick up the novel with that in mind and I don't think you'll be disappointed. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Random Roll: PHB, p. 32.

 A close reading of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks often reveals little details that are easy to overlook. In most cases, these details are rules-related, but one occasionally finds details that pertain to the implied setting of the game. I came across one of these just recently while re-reading the description of the monk class found in the Players Handbook.

There can be only a limited number of monks above 7th level (Superior Master). There are three 8th level (Master of Dragons) and but one of each higher level. When a player character monk gain sufficient experience points to qualify him or her for 8th level, the commensurate abilities attained are only temporary.

The above is, I think, well known and has been an aspect of the class since its first appearance in the pages of OD&D's Supplement II. Like the druid, the monk is a class that advances to higher levels only through the defeat of the current holder of that level in a trial by combat. I know that, even back in the early days, some players and referees disliked this aspect of the class, both because of its seeming unfairness – why don't other classes have to do this? – and because it introduced an additional layer of complexity to leveling up. For myself, I liked it precisely because it was unique; it gave the monk a bit of flavor to distinguish it further from other classes.

The next sentence of this section of the PHB also contains a bit of flavor, but one that I must have somehow overlooked, because I honestly cannot recall ever reading it before.

The monk must find and defeat in single combat, hand-to-hand, without weapons or magic items, one of the 8th level monks – the White, the Green, or the Red. 

For a moment, the colors baffled me. I quickly realized that they were connected to the fact that the title of 8th-level monks is "Master of Dragons," of which there are only three. Thus, it would seem that these monks consist of the Master of White Dragons, the Master of Green Dragons, and the Master of Red Dragons. How had I never seen this detail before? It's baffling to me and yet I have no recollection of ever having seen it, let alone making any use of it in all the years I played AD&D.

The detail makes a certain amount of sense, since, unlike levels above 8th, there are three 8th-level monks, so there ought to be some way to distinguish them. Of course, I soon find myself wondering: Why only three? Why not one for each color of dragon? Is there some special significance to the three dragon colors chosen? Why are they only evil dragons? Thinking about and potentially answering these questions are the stuff from which a fantasy setting is made. I have no idea if Gary Gygax intended there to be a logic behind the three Masters of Dragons or not, but I enjoy puzzling out matters like this regardless. I doubt I'm alone in this regard.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Strange Fascinations

Swiped from Wayne's Books
Like anyone who's been involved in this hobby for decades, I own a lot of roleplaying games, the vast majority of which I don't play regularly. That's inevitable, as there are only so many free hours in a week. Moreover, I still hold out hope that, one day, I'll get the opportunity to gather round the table (real or virtual) and play Gangbusters or Stormbringer again. 

On the other hand, my library of RPGs also includes a few games I've never really played. These are games I bought once upon a time either because I hoped I'd play them or their subject matter simply piqued my interest. I say "a few" such games, because, as a general rule, I try to limit my library to games I have played or are currently playing. I'm not a collector and, in fact, make an effort to prevent myself from developing that sort of mentality toward my games (not that I always succeed).

Yet, as I said, I do own games I've never played. SPI's Universe is a good example of what I'm talking about – perhaps the best example of it in my library. I first encountered Universe in 1982, in the Ballantine paperback edition of the game, which I borrowed repeatedly from my local public library. I think what first attracted me to the game is its fold-out "interstellar display," which is basically a map of star systems within a 30 light year globe around Earth. I can't even begin to tell you how appealing that map was to me; I spent many hours simply staring at it and imagining. This was heady stuff to a 13 year-old.

But I never really succeeded in playing Universe, despite the fact that I wanted to. Nevertheless, a copy of the game sits on my shelf next to my desk, alongside Hawkmoon, Bushido, and a handful of other RPGs for which I retain a strange fascination even though I've never played them. I suspect I'm not alone in behaving like this. In fact, I'd love to hear from readers about the roleplaying games they still hold on to, despite the fact that they've never played them. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Retrospective: Snapshot

I've never made any secret of the fact that Traveller is without question my favorite roleplaying game. In large part, that's due to my lifelong love of science fiction – some of my earliest memories are watching Star Trek reruns with my aunt in the early 1970s – but I firmly believe that my affection is also due to the elegance of the game's design. Traveller's rules are straightforward, wide-ranging, and expandable. Time and again, GDW showed how relatively easy it was to add to, subtract from, and modify Traveller for various purposes.

A good example of what I'm talking about is evident in the various boardgames derived from Traveller that GDW published, such as  Snapshot. Snapshot first appeared in 1979 in a black and green box of similar size to the 1977 Traveller set. A second edition released in 1983 came in a larger, 8½" × 11" box. I owned the second version and, like so many RPG products of that era, I played it until the box literally fell apart. 

Snapshot is an adaptation of Traveller's combat rules for the purposes of simulating, as its subtitle proclaims, "close combat aboard starships in the far future." Inside the box is a 28-page rulebook, a collection of counters, and a sheet featuring the deckplans of a Type-S scout vessel and a Type-A free trader (scaled for use with either the included counters or 15mm miniatures). If you're already familiar with Traveller's combat system, Snapshot is easy to understand. Newcomers might find it takes a little effort to comprehend, but not much. Compared to most miniatures wargaming rules, Snapshot is refreshingly simple.

Make no mistake: that's what Snapshot is – a set of science fiction miniatures wargaming rules. Like other wargames of this kind, it's played in conjunction with scenarios, several samples of which are included in the rulebook. For example, one scenario deals with alien animals destined for an imperial zoological park that get loose while in transit; another deals with an attempted hijacking of a starship. All of the scenarios include victory conditions for one side or the other, as well as options for altering their basic parameters. Of course, referees and players of Traveller would likely have no trouble coming up with scenarios of their own.

Snapshot would seem to have had two audiences in mind. The first is people just looking to play a quick miniatures game and who might, through playing the game, become interested in Traveller. The second is people like myself, who already played Traveller and were keen to get our hands on counters and appropriately scaled maps for use with our RPG adventures and campaigns. It was in that capacity that my boxed set fell apart. Over the course of several years, I made regular use of Snapshot to adjudicate hijackings, boarding actions, and many other combats in and around starships. I can't begin to tell you how many hours my friends and I spent doing this, but it was a lot. I suppose any kid who thrilled upon seeing the opening scene of Star Wars would have a natural affinity for this kind of thing.

A few years ago, when I was refereeing my Riphaeus Sector Traveller campaign, I regretted that we were playing online, because I was keen to pull out my old Snapshot maps and counters whenever the characters became involved in combat aboard a starship. We made do with virtual tools that allowed us to do the same thing, more or less, but I can't deny it didn't quite feel the same to me. They say nostalgia is a hell of a drug and perhaps that's so. On the other hand, the fact that a little box containing cardboard squares and a fold-out map still exercise a hold over my imagination decades later has got to be worth something too.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #16

Issue #16 of White Dwarf (December/January 1979/1980) features a remarkable cover by Les Edwards. Edwards did a lot of cover illustrations for Games Workshop over the years, as well as providing them for the Fighting Fantasy series. That's probably why this issue gives off such powerful vibes for me, even though I never owned it at the time of its original release. It also helps that the issue's contents are excellent, as I'll discuss presently.

"Chronicle Monsters" by Lewis Pulsipher is a collection of monsters for D&D derived from Stephen Donaldson's "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" series. The accompanying illustrations are by Russ Nicholson, which is always a treat. Part IV of Andy Slack's "Expanding Universe" for Traveller focuses on social standing and psionics. "Boot Hill Encounters" by Dominic Beddow is, as its title suggests, a collection of random encounters for use with TSR's Boot Hill or other Wild West RPGs. I was surprised to see this article, short though it is, simply because, even in the United States, Western-themed RPGs have always been an acquired taste at best. I can't imagine the genre is any more popular in Britain, but perhaps this simply shows my ignorance.

"Open Box" reviews four products, starting with Boot Hill, which scores 8 out of 10. Also reviewed are GDW's Imperium (9 out of 10) and Snapshot (8 out of 10). The final review – by Don Turnbull – is the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Turnbull's review is, of course, effusive, so much so in fact that he offers no numerical score for the book. Instead, he says the following:

In the end, set the task of reviewing something to which I know I cannot do justice, all I can say is – can you afford to be without it?

I say again: it's little wonder to me that Turnbull would eventually be selected to head up TSR UK.

"Paths of the Lil" is a Gamma World adventure by James Ward. This is a scenario that's appeared in various forms over the years, including the second edition of the game published in 1983. Meanwhile, "The Fiend Factory" offers up five more monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons. "Treasure Chest" presents seventeen new potions, a few of which are quite fun. Consider, for example, the potion of truth:


Mind you, I'm a fan of cursed items and think they ought to be used more often in games, so your mileage may vary. 

Finishing out the issue is a brief report on Games Day V, which took place in October 1979. Accompanying the article are a number of photographs, some of which are quite charming, like this one:

All in all, I found issue #16 very enjoyable. As I mentioned at the start of this post, it looked and felt very much like the issues I would buy and devour several years hence. I'll be very curious to see if this one represents a turning point in the magazine's history and that the things I recognize here, like the cover and interior artwork, will become permanent features or if there will still be a few more bumps in the road.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Mother of Toads

"Mother of Toads," which first appeared in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales is a short but very disturbing story by Clark Ashton Smith. Like most of the tale set in the fictitious French province of Averoigne, this one touches upon sexual themes but in a way that's far removed from the prurience and titillation that were hallmarks of the pulps. Here, Smith uses sex – and the regret it can engender – as the basis for revulsion, horror, and, ultimately, doom. 

The titular Mother of Toads is a witch called Mère Antoinette who dwells in the swamps not far from the village of Les Hiboux. Pale, obese, and possessing "eyes full-orbed and unblinking," she is also knowledgeable in the ways of potion making. It's for this reason that the villagers sometimes call upon Antoinette, including Pierre Baudin, the hapless apprentice of the apothecary Alain le Dindon. 

Pierre's master had sent him to obtain from Antoinette a "vial contain[ing] a philtre of curious potency." He'd done this many times before, but he hated it, for the old woman clearly harbored a lust for him and regularly propositioned him: "Stay awhile tonight, my pretty orphan. No one will miss you in the village." Pierre was repulsed by such amorousness and hoped to finish his business with Antoinette as quickly as possible.

The witch was more than twice his age, and her charms were too uncouth and unsavory to tempt him for an instant. Also, her repute was such as to have nullified the attractions of a younger and fairer sorceress. Her witchcraft had made her feared among the peasantry of that remote province, where belief in spells and philtres was still common. The people of Averoigne called her La Mère des Crapauds, Mother of Toads, a name given for more than one reason. Toads swarmed innumerably about her hut; they were said to be her familiars, and dark tales were told concerning their relationship to the sorceress, and the duties they performed at her bidding. Such tales were all the more readily believed because of those batrachian features that had always been remarked in her aspect.

During his latest visit, Antoinette offers Pierre "a goodly measure of red wine" that she has mulled specifically for him. The youth is suspicious.

"I'll drink it," said Pierre a little grudgingly. "That is, if it contains nothing of your own concoction."

"'Tis naught but sound wine, four seasons old, with spices of Arabia," the sorceress croaked ingratiatingly. "'Twill warm your stomach … and …"  She added something inaudible as Pierre accepted the cup.

Pierre drinks and declares that it is truly good wine but, having quaffed it quickly, he explains that he must be off to his master. Too late, he realizes the mistake he has made.

Even as he spoke, he felt in his stomach and veins the spreading warmth of the alcohol, of the spices … of something more ardent than these. It seemed that his voice was unreal and strange, falling as if from a height above him. The warmth grew, mounting within him like a golden flame fed by magic oils. His blood, a seething torrent, poured tumultuously and more tumultuously through his members. 

Smith is a master of subtlety and suggestion, making excellent use of innuendo to make his points. He is equally adept at bluntness, often in service of horror. In what follows next, he employs both approaches, describing the "philterous ardor" that overtakes Pierre's senses as he suddenly sees in Mère Antoinette – and her propositions – in a new and disturbing light.

She led him to her couch beside the hearth where a great cauldron boiled mysteriously, sending up its fumes in strange-twining coils that suggested vague and obscene figures. The couch was rude and bare. But the flesh of the sorceress was like deep, luxurious cushions …

"The Mother of Toads" is an unsettling tale, not solely for the events it depicts or the frightful luxuriance Smith deploys in describing them but more for the realization that inevitably dawns on Pierre, as he understands what has transpired. It's that psychological element that I think elevates the story and stays with the reader after the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.