Friday, December 9, 2022

What Price Glory?!

 Last week, I wrote about Sir Pellinore's Game, an obscure 1978 RPG, whose existence I'd been alerted to by a couple of my regular correspondents. Like many (most?) people, I'd never heard of Sir Pellinore's Game, let alone knew that it had three different editions over the course of its existence. Fortunately, Precis Intermedia has made the game available again, in both print and PDF form. I don't know how many people will actually play the game, but there's no question that it's an invaluable resource for learning about the history of the RPG hobby.

Now, I've been alerted to the fact that Precis Intermedia is preparing to make another obscure RPG from the 1970s available once: What Price Glory?! Written by John Dankert and James Lauffenberger, What Price Glory?! first appeared in the same year as Sir Pellinore's Game, 1978. Needless to say, this game is also unknown to me, so its imminent re-release is of great interest.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Tedium and the Limits of Simulation

If you're a fan of the first edition of Gamma World (or, for that matter, Expedition to the Barriers Peaks), you'll immediately recognize the flowchart above. It's used to simulate a character's attempts to discern the use and operation of a technological artifact. The way it works is relatively straightforward. A token is placed on the square marked "S." Every hour of game time, a player rolls 1d10 up to five times to represent his character's efforts to puzzle out the workings of a piece of high-tech device. The roll is modified by his character's Intelligence score (and the presence of others helping him), The goal is to advance through the flowchart to reach the square marked "F," which indicates success in figuring out how the artifact works. Along the way, there's even the potential that these attempts might result in damage to the character and/or his companions, represented by the skull and crossbones symbols.

I've used this chart or ones like it many times in the past, since figuring out how to operate the tools of the Ancients is an important part of the fun of Gamma World. However, what I noticed is that the fun very quickly dissipates. After a half-dozen or so uses of the chart, the whole process ceases to be enjoyable and simply becomes tedious. I suspect I'm not the only one who felt this way, because the second edition of Gamma World, published in 1983, abandoned the use of these flowcharts entirely, opting for a different system that still involves a lengthy series of die rolls. Having made use of it as well, I can only say that I didn't find it any more consistently fun to use than the flowcharts.

I bring this up not to knock either system. Both are, in my opinion, valiant attempts to present a relatively simple method of simulating something that should be an important part of any post-apocalyptic RPG setting. Unfortunately, they fail – or, at least, they fail to do so in a way that holds up after more than a few uses. This, to mean, is an example of something that most roleplaying games struggle with in one place or another, namely the limits of simulation

I've been thinking about this over the last week or so, after re-reading the last two issues of White Dwarf, which include details of a system for crafting magic items. I think most people would agree that the making of a magic item, especially something as impressive as a magic sword or a staff, should be an involved and difficult process, one that requires time, effort, and significant resources. Ideally, it should also be the foundation of many sessions of engaging activity by the player characters. In practice, though, I've generally found the opposite. Rather than being engaging, they've been enervating, often to the point where a player eventually decides that it's simply not worth all the effort.

That's a real shame. On the other hand, it's not an uncommon problem in many (probably most) RPGs of my acquaintance. There are many activities that, from a "dramatic" point of view, which is to say, from the perspective of a character living within a given imaginary setting, ought to be both significant and compelling. Yet, these are quite hard to simulate within a roleplaying game without bogging gameplay down in tedious detail. Research, whether of forgotten lore or the mysteries of spellcraft, is another example of the kind of thing of which I'm thinking. Poring over a blasphemous tome to unlock its secrets is a momentous endeavor for a character, but how best to handle it via game rules?

I suspect there is no single answer to that or any other question. Naturally, each player has varying degrees of interest and indeed tolerance for devoting precious game time to the simulation of certain activities. What seems tedious to one might well represent the epitome of pleasure for another. We see this all the time in debates over, for instance, how complex and detailed combat ought to be. For some, D&D's very abstract combat is more than sufficient, while, for others, nothing short of Rolemaster will do the trick. If that sounds like I'm waffling on the matter, I suppose I am, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Probably a Crazy Idea

Among the most commonly forgotten and/or outright ignored rules in Dungeons & Dragons concerns wandering monsters. Once every 10 minutes of game time (in OD&D anyway; other editions of the game employ slightly different timescales), the referee rolls a six-sided die. A roll of 6 indicates that a wandering monster has appeared and one or more tables is consulted to determine their type and number. Even if one is not, as many contemporary referees seem to be, opposed to the idea of wandering monsters, it is very easy to let this rule fall by the wayside. I know this well, since it happens to be me regularly and has done since I first began to play D&D.

I have a theory of why this is so. Unlike combat, each of whose rounds is played out individually, the 10-minute turn is much less directly concrete and the activities occurring during it are often abstracted rather than explicitly played out. As a result, turns "stick" less in the mind than combat rounds. This is compounded by the fact that often nothing of note happens during the course of a turn beyond simply advancing further down a passageway (and mapping it, of course). After enough turns of "nothing" happening, they tend to blend into each other and all but the most fastidious referee is going to lose track of in-game time.

This is why I propose rolling for wandering monsters once every 10 minutes (or whatever interval) of real time. This may seem radical, even nonsensical, but I think there's merit to the idea. For one, it's much easier (for me anyway) to consistently keep track of actual intervals of 10 minutes. Second, it's an additional incentive for the players to get things done. Over many years of refereeing, I have observed that players have a tendency to, as one of the players in my House of Worms campaign would say, faff about. However, given the limited time available for play, it behooves the players to stay focused on the matter at hand. The threat of a wandering monster roll every 10 real minutes might serve to light a fire under them, don't you think?

Obviously, this approach demands some degree of flexibility. For example, I wouldn't make a wandering monster roll in the middle of an active combat, even if the 10-minute mark had arrived. There are probably a handful of other circumstances where I'd be similarly inclined. However, the wandering monster rule exists, I suspect, as a pacing mechanism, as well as a potential drain of resources, which is why it's vital to ensure it's used rather than forgotten. If tying it to the real-world passage of time aids in this, I don't see an immediate problem in doing so (though I am sure my readers will find plenty of problems I've overlooked).

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The New Force in Software

Issue #60 of White Dwarf magazine includes reviews of three Games Workshop computer games: Battlecars, D-Day, and Tower of Despair. Because they were all released for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum personal computer, which was, so far as I know, unavailable on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I never saw (or played) the actual games themselves. Instead, I had to content myself with the advertisements that appeared in WD. Of the three, I'd have probably been most interested in Battlecars, because I always wanted to play the tabletop version of the game, but couldn't find a copy.

Did any readers own and/or play any of these games? If so, were they any good? Even after all these decades, I remain genuinely curious about them.

Retrospective: Creature Catalogue

Like a great many players of fantasy roleplaying games – probably most, come to think of it – I am a collector of monsters. The AD&D Monster Manual was the very first RPG product I ever bought for myself and, ever since then, new collections of monsters are usually an easy sell for me. Contradictorily, I'm also largely of the opinion that Dungeons & Dragons has too many monsters. If pressed, I'd walk back that assertion with a variety of cavils and equivocations, in part to justify my continued interest in new books of monsters – I am nothing if not self-justifyingly hypocritical. 

A good example of my hypocrisy comes in the form of 1986's Creature Catalogue. As an avid AD&D player, I believed myself obligated to ritually denounce "kiddie D&D," the truth is that there was a lot of excellent material published for that game line over the years of its existence. I clearly recognized this fact even at the time, because I'd often buy – and use – its modules, accessories, and even boxed sets in spite of my ostentatious repudiation of them. 

I rationalized my purchase of the Creature Catalogue on the grounds that it was simply a monster book and that I might find some new foes in its pages with which to challenge the characters of my AD&D campaigns. To be fair to my youthful self, there was quite a lot of truth in my rationalization. It was indeed very easy to make use of elements of D&D – particularly its monsters – in AD&D, which is what I sometimes did. I did this to go effect with several of the monsters from Castle Amber, for instance, so the Creature Catalogue seemed like a solid investment.

In the end, though, I wound up being somewhat disappointed by my purchase. While the book presents more than 200 monsters, a little less than half of them were previously published elsewhere, generally in D&D modules. This was admittedly also true of my beloved Monster Manual II, but less so, since fewer appeared elsewhere and, there's no denying it, the overall quality was better. The monsters of the Creature Catalogue are simply not as good as those of the Monster Manual II, being by turns mundane or silly. There are naturally plenty of exceptions – with so many monsters, it would've been odd if there weren't – but my overall feeling remains that the Creature Catalogue is underwhelming.

The book is divided into distinct sections, each one of which is devoted to a type of monster. Thus, we get a section on animals, another on humanoids, and yet another on "lowlife," the term adopted for vermin monsters. The size of each section varies, with animals and, frustratingly, humanoids being quite numerous and undead – a favorite of mine – being comparatively less so. I say "frustratingly" with regards to humanoids, because it's long been my feeling that D&D could use a lot fewer intelligent, bipedal beings, but I realize this is an unpopular opinion.

Another disappointing aspect of the Creature Catalogue is how many "new" monsters it includes that are translations of pre-existing AD&D monsters into D&D terms. There are nightmares, hook horrors, umber hulks, and ropers, to name just a few. This is admittedly a continuation of a trend begun by the later Frank Mentzer-authored Companion, Master, and Immortal boxed sets, so I can't lay any special blame on the compilers of the Creature Catalogue (Graeme Morris, Phil Gallagher, and Jim Bambra) for it. However, I felt even in 1986 and feel more so now that one of the genuine virtues of the separate D&D line is that it had its own unique flavor distinct from that of AD&D. It was precisely this flavor that regularly got me to sheepishly buy D&D products in the first place. By "crossing the streams," so to speak, TSR was diluting what made D&D worthy in its own right.

The Creature Catalogue is not bad, so much as less good than I had hoped it would be. That's probably an unfair assessment born largely out of my own overblown expectation that it might be a Monster Manual III, but there it is. In general, I like monster books, even idiosyncratic ones like the Fiend Folio. Unfortunately, I can't count the Creature Catalogue among those for whom I have much fondness today and that's a shame. For all my adolescent snobbery, the Dungeons & Dragons line, at its best, offered another imaginative perspective on fantasy roleplaying that I found valuable; that's why I kept buying its releases. For the most part, the Creature Catalogue lacks that perspective. Instead, it feels tired and played out – and that's a genuine shame.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #60

Issue #60 of White Dwarf (December 1984) is another issue I remember well, largely because of its Call of Cthulhu scenario, which I rather liked at the time. I also remember finding its installment of "Thrud the Barbarian" – "Thrud Gets Sophisticated" – enjoyable as well, though, in my defense, I was only fifteen at the time and I was easily amused. Ian Livingstone's editorial focuses on the rising price of metal miniatures, which he fears will lead to figures becoming a luxury. He suggests that plastic miniatures might be a solution to this problem – which did, in fact, happen a few years later, the first plastic Citadel minis appearing in 1987 or thereabouts.

"First Issues" by Simon Burley is the first part of a series about superhero roleplaying. As its title suggests, the article deals with what makes a good kick-off adventure for a superhero campaign. For its length (two pages), it offers solid advice and suggestions, along with some examples to illustrate its points. As these kinds of articles go, it's pretty good.

Dave Langford's latest "Critical Mass" column makes a few suggestions of books appropriate as Christmas gifts, some of which are high-priced, hardcover reprints of classic science fiction and fantasy books, often illustrated. Even more than usual, the column is mostly of interest historically rather than being of enduring interest. "Open Box," on the other, held my attention more fully. First up, we're treated to a review of Chaosium's ElfQuest, which its reviewer praises (9 out of 10) as "really the nicest RPG I have seen to give someone as a present." Dungeon Planner 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh gets a solid 7 out of 10, while the first two Lone Wolf books – Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water – score the same. Finally, there are reviews of three AD&D modules: The Sentinel (8 out of 10), The Gauntlet (7 out of 10), and Dragons of Despair (8 out of 10). The review of Dragons of Despair is notable for its belief that Tracy Hickman is a woman and its dislike for Clyde Caldwell's cover. 

Part 2 of Graeme Davis's rules for magic item creation, "Eye of Newt and Wing of Bat," appears in this issue, with rods and potions being its subject this time. As I mentioned previously, I love the idea elaborate item creation rules, but most of them, this one included, are simply too fastidious ("The leg muscles of one axebeak. Simmer for 24 hours and stir in one powdered platinum arrow, minimum value 500gp.") to be workable in almost any campaign in which I have played. I don't know; perhaps others' experiences are very different from mine.

"The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah" by Steve Williams with Jon Sutherland is an excellent Call of Cthulhu scenario set in Jerusalem. Professor Foster is an archeologist being mentally manipulated by the Great Race of Yith, who seek to use him to open a gate that would enable them to escape destruction in the ancient past – but at the cost of mankind's survival in the 20th century. Fortunately, Foster is sufficiently strong willed that he is sometimes able, often with the aid of opium, to break free of the Great Race's control, thereby aiding the Investigators in thwarting their plans. Originally a convention adventure, it's short and focused, both of which are blessing in my opinion. I had fun with this in my gaming group of old and still think fondly of it.

"Boarding Actions" by Marcus L. Rowland is a look at the hazards of attempting to seize a starship in a science fiction RPG. Very well done, it's an extended examination of the tactics behind such an endeavor, from the perspective of both the would-be boarder and those who wish to repel them. The issue also includes new episodes of "Gobbledigook," "The Travellers," and "Thrud the Barbarian." Earlier, I alluded to "Thrud Gets Sophisticated," in which writer/artist Carl Critchlow attempts to (unsuccessfully) interject some elegance and urbanity into the adventures of the mighty-threwed barbarian – with predictable results.

Stuart Hunter's "The Fear of Leefield" is an AD&D adventure for characters of levels 3–5. In some ways, it's a fairly typical "rural village" in trouble, as the PCs must contend with mysterious events that are threatening the townsfolk. However, the scenario has an interesting twist in the form of its primary antagonist, a troublemaker who'd been exiled from Leefield in his youth and nursed a grudge against the place of his birth. Now a cleric in service to an evil deity (Bane the Black Lord), he is engineering a situation that will not only enable him to avenge himself upon the village but make him rich as well. 

"Microview" reviews five computer games, three of them produced by Games Workshop. I had completely forgotten that GW was at one time involved in this part of the hobby. "Ars Arcana" by Kiel Stephens continues to provide commentary on AD&D spells, including clever uses for some of them. This series continues to be unexpectedly good and I'm amazed I hadn't recognized it before. "Felines, Fungi and Phantoms" presents four new monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, while "Bits of Fluff" does something similar for RuneQuest. Of the two, "Bits of Fluff" is better – and sillier – in that its monsters play with expectations in a way that a referee might find useful. Take a look and see what I mean:
Concluding the issue is "A Wash and Bush-up" by Gary Chalk and Joe Dever, an article about techniques for color washing miniature figures. As ever, I found the piece fascinating, probably because I was never a very good painter of figures (or indeed of anything else).

All in all, this is a solid issue, though not quite as good as I remember its being. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Wild, Fanciful, and Often Trippy

I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to suggest that the covers of science fiction and fantasy novels have gotten much less imaginative over the years. By the mid-1980s, the writing was already on the wall and the wild, fanciful, and often trippy covers that simultaneously attracted and frightened me as a kid were on the way out, to be replaced by an endless parade of Michael Whelan, Darrell K. Sweet, and their imitators. This is no knock against Whelan, who's a great artist, but there is a certain predictability to even his best work that I frequently find disappointing. Come to think of it, predictability might well be the defining characteristic of post-1970s SF and fantasy art, itself a reflection of the mainstreaming and commodification of these genres. (Cue my inevitable dig at much of the oeuvre of Larry Elmore.)

Science fiction and fantasy were still (relatively) fringe interests in the 1960s and '70s and the artwork from the period reflects that. Take a look at these three different covers to the paperback releases of Michael Moorcock's The Stealer of Souls, starting with the Lancer edition of 1967:

I have a certain fondness for this cover, because my local public library still had a copy of the book on one of its spinner racks, where I first saw it. Jack Gaughan, best known for his work on the unauthorized US printings of The Lords of the Rings, is the artist of this piece, depicting Elric in battle against the reptilian demon Quaolnargn, summoned by Theleb K'aarna as part of a plan to separate the Melnibonéan from Stormbringer, while the spectral visage of (I assume) Yishana watches. 

The 1968 Mayflower edition took a completely different tack:
Bob Haberfield, who'd go on to do the covers of many more Elric novels, is responsible for this one, which is a terrific example of the kinds of covers I remember well from my youth. Unlike Gaughan's Lancer cover, this one has no obvious connection to anything that occurs in the novelette. That's pretty much par for the course in the late '60s and throughout the 1970s.

Finally, there's another Lancer edition, this time from 1973.
This piece is by Jeff Jones, who had an extensive career as a comics illustrator and I think that shows in the cover. I'm not entirely sure what it depicts, though my guess is that it might be the naval assault on Imrryr from The Dreaming City, with the monster being a Melnibonéan dragon. In any case, it's a very dynamic piece that grabs the attention, which is exactly what the covers of science fiction and fantasy covers used to do. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Stealer of Souls

Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné is unquestionably one of the greatest characters in all of fantasy literature. The stories of his exploits exercised a profound influence not just on subsequent writers in the genre but also on the early history of roleplaying games. In particular, the idea of an eternal war between the powers of Law and Chaos – cribbed from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Moorcock's own admission – is one without which Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, to cite just three prominent examples, would be impossible. 

Yet, for all the cosmic elements of the saga of Elric, what makes its tales compelling are the personal struggles of its protagonist, as he attempts to square the demands of his conscience with those of the soul-hungry demon sword whose magic enables him to overcome the physical impairments of his birth. In this respect, the stories of Elric are very much in keeping with those of his pulp fantasy forebears, including Robert E. Howard's Conan, whose own adventures often stem from clashes between his convictions and the vicissitudes of life. Though Elric and Conan could not be more different – intentionally so – in this important respect there is a remarkable similarity.

I was reminded of this when re-reading The Stealer of Souls, the third of Moorcock's original Elric novelettes. Originally published in the February 1962 issue of Science Fantasy, it was published as a separate volume less than a year later by UK publisher, Neville Spearman. The Stealer of Souls is, first and foremost, a story of revenge and, in that respect, it could have featured Conan as its protagonist – except, of course, that Elric, unlike REH's barbarian, depends upon and wields dark magic to achieve his desired ends. Indeed, dark magic plays a significant role in the tale's events, which is part of why it's one of my favorite stories of Elric.

Another reason is that Moorcock's prose is delightfully pulpy and evocative throughout. Consider, for example, the start of the novelette:

In a city called Bakshaan, which was rich enough to make all other cities of the north-east seem poor, in a tall-towered tavern one night, Elric, Lord of the smoking ruins of Melniboné, smiled like a shark and dryly jested with four powerful merchant princes whom, in a day or so, he intended to pauperize. 

It's wonderful stuff, all the more so because Elric is much more immediately active in this adventure than he was in his previous outings. That lends a certain energy, even urgency, to The Stealer of Souls that I find quite attractive.

The merchant princes wish to hire Elric for his "particular qualities as a swordsman and sorcerer" and are willing to pay well for them. They offer him gold and gems for his services, but he rejects them, calling them "chains," adding that "free travelers need no chains." Elric says he decide on the nature of his payment later, which arouses some suspicion in his would-be employers, but they are sufficiently keen to enlist his aid that they let the matter rest.

The merchants explain that they wish Elric to eliminate a competitor of theirs, a man named Nikorn of Ilmar. Nikorn, it seems, is able to undercut all other merchants of Bakshaan. This impresses Elric, who states that, from what they have described of him, "[Nikorn] has earned his position." Why should he wish to kill him? Moreover, why not simply employ an assassin? They are commonplace in Bakshaan, after all. This is where the merchants come to the real crux of the matter – and of their need for Elric.

"... Nikorn employs a sorcerer – and a private army. The sorcerer protects him and his palace by means of magic. And a guard of desert men serve to ensure that if the magic fails, then natural methods can be used for the purpose. Assassins have attempted to eliminate the trader, but unfortunately, they were not lucky."

After briefly pausing to drink "a wine for those who wished to dream of different and less tangible worlds," Elric asks

"And who is this mighty sorcerer, Master Pilarmo?"

"His name is Theleb K'aarna," Pilarmo answered nervously.

Elric's scarlet eyes narrowed. "The sorcerer of Pan Tang?"

"Aye – he comes from that island."

Elric put his cup down upon the table and rise, fingering his blade of black iron, the runesword Stormbringer.

He said with conviction: "I will help you, gentlemen." He had made up his mind not to rob them, after all. A new and more important plan was forming in his brain.

Theleb K'aarna, he thought. So you have made Bakshaaan your bolt-hole, eh? 

Theleb K'aarna, we learn, is not only a sorcerer of Pan Tang, but an enemy of Elric, in large part because Elric had previously displaced him in the affections of Yishana, the queen of Jharkor. Now, he seeks to "prove" to Yishana, whom he still loves, that Elric is not worthy of her esteem by bringing him low. Elric, for his part, has been pursuing Theleb K'aarna across the Young Kingdoms for some time and sees the merchant princes' offer as an opportunity to best the Pan Tangian once again. 

Naturally, there's more to The Stealer of Souls than the tale of two men seeking vengeance upon one another, but revenge is its through-line, as well as its overarching theme. Along the way, though, the reader is treated to several magnificent displays of sorcery, including a battle between two elementals summoned by Elric and Theleb K'aarna. Elric must also deal with the aftermath of the downfall of Melniboné that he effected in The Dreaming City and that, too, adds to the personal stakes of the story's events. All in all, it's a fast-moving and character-driven narrative that, I think, shows Moorcock at his best.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Abstract Movement

Traveller is a very old roleplaying game, first appearing in the summer of 1977. As one might expect, the influence of Dungeons & Dragons – and the miniatures wargames out of which it grew – is evident. At the same time, Traveller is not merely "OD&D in space." Its design is not simply distinct from that of OD&D, but genuinely original and indeed innovative. I frequently marvel at how much better put together Traveller is than OD&D, despite only a three-year gap between their publication dates. Clearly, Marc Miller had learned a lot from his predecessors in the hobby.

One area of innovation that stands out in my mind is how Traveller handles combat movement. The game makes use of a lined grid of "bands," each one representing relative distance. Characters can walk between one band and another per combat round or run between two during the same time period. While the rules suggest that those interested in greater detail could make use of a square or hex map to track precise positions, the combat rules are presented with abstract range bands in mind. In play, I never had any trouble with range bands. In fact, I found they worked very well, especially in circumstances where we weren't making use of counters or miniatures on a map, which was most of the time. 

I started thinking about this as I continued work on the Secrets of sha-Arthan rules. At base, this will be a very D&D-like game and that's intentional. The setting is sufficiently strange that I don't want any potential players to get hung up on its rules. Plus, the rules of D&D work well and I see little point in reinventing the wheel. However – there's always a "however" – I have long found the movement rules of every edition unnecessarily fiddly. They're among the first rules that fall by the wayside when I am refereeing, especially if I'm playing online.

Consequently, I'm pondering the introduction of something akin to Traveller's range bands, albeit modified to take into account the peculiarities of dungeoncrawling, something with which Traveller rarely has to contend. Nevertheless, I hesitate. Such is the weight of hoary tradition, I suppose. Somehow, the idea of a D&D-like game that lacks detailed and specific movement rules feels wrong, as I know all too well that I'll almost certainly never use them as written.

I'd be very curious to hear others' thoughts on this, specifically those who have experience with using abstract movement systems in play. I feel increasingly strongly that the Secrets of sha-Arthan rules should better reflect the way I prefer to referee games, hence my consideration of a different approach to movement. Yet, I recognize that not everyone has the same playstyle I do and thus would prefer a system that is flexible enough to accommodate multiple styles. In any case, I'd like to hear your thoughts. If nothing else, they'll provide me with additional inputs as I ponder the matter for myself.

Thanks in advance.

REVIEW: Mörk Borg GM Screen

As I have mentioned before, I haven't made regular use of a referee's screen in many, many years. In my youth, it was more or less expected that the referee would have and use a screen, behind which he'd keep his maps – and dice rolls – hidden from the prying eyes of the players. Consequently, I used to own screens for RPGs I played regularly, assuming they had them, of course, as Gamma World did. Back then, I simply saw screens as part of the referee's "kit" and that was that.

At some point, my feelings on the matter changed. There was no single reason why they did, but an important one was the unwieldiness of most referee's screens. To use them effectively, one generally has to have a large, flat surface, usually a table, available for use. This wasn't always practical during my university and grad school days and so I largely abandoned my prior attachment to referee's screens. In recent years, I've been refereeing online a great deal; the idea of setting up a screen for these games seems positively laughable.

Despite all that, I not only own but think rather highly of the Mörk Borg GM Screen. Simply as a physical artifact, it's quite impressive. Consisting of five A5 panels, it's made of very sturdy material; there's no question in mind that it's far more durable than almost every other screen I've ever examined. Because of its size, it's also compact, meaning that, even unfolded, it takes up far less space on the table than the screens I was familiar with from my youth. That's important to me, given my eventual feelings about the practicality of using screens. 

The screen's player-facing side features moody illustrations in black, white, red, and gold by Johan Nohr, who also provided the artwork for the Mörk Borg rulebook. To be honest, I think many of these illustrations are even better than those in the rulebook, being somewhat more subdued in both content and presentation. I think they do a good job of demonstrating that a more restrained, even sober, version of Mörk Borg's doom metal fantasy is not only possible but completely in keeping with its spirit. Of course, the interior, GM-facing side of the screen is the usual riotous yellow, with black text and white highlights, that is Mörk Borg's visual calling card. Much as I appreciate the more muted artwork of the player side of the screen, I would have been slightly disappointed if my eyes weren't assaulted by garish color contrasts as well. 

Because Mörk Borg's rules are few, the interior of the screen is able to include most of them for reference. The game was already simple enough that the GM could more or less run a game session without the need to flip through the rulebook, but the screen makes it that much easier. Not only are there the usual charts for combat, equipment, and magic, there are also the statistics of common NPCs and multiple random tables covering everything from the weather to city events to traps. Some of these tables are printed on sheets of cardstock that can be swapped in or out of the screen, thanks to plastic holders at the corners of the first and last panels of the screen. The GM could use them to hold other appropriately sized sheets – like maps – further increasing the utility of the screen.

No referee screen is a must have and the Mörk Borg GM Screen is no different in this regard. At the same time, this one is durable, attractive, and practical, making it one of the best examples of its kind I've ever owned. If you're refereeing the game regularly, I think you'll quickly find there's genuine benefit to having it,