Friday, January 22, 2021

Remembering REH

After so many years of writing about pulp fantasy and highlighting the contributions of its essential writers, what more could I possibly say about the life and works of Robert E. Howard, born this day 115 years ago? You need only search through this blog's archives or click on the "Howard" tag to see how often I've written about him in the past – and with good reason! Though the success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings understandably receives the lion's share of the credit for making fantasy the popular (and profitable) genre it is today, I think a very strong case could be made that, when it comes to contemporary fantasy, it is to Howard that we owe a bigger, unacknowledged debt.

Tolkien was, even in his own day, an anachronism, writing in a style that was self-consciously old-fashioned, intended to recall the sagas of Northern Europe and create "a mythology for England." Howard, on the other hand, had much less lofty ambitions for his writing, wanting only to tell ripping yarns that would entertain his audience and bring him a meager income. Yet, as he gained experience and honed his craft, Howard nevertheless succeeded in creating the elements of a modern mythology, some of which are arguably more well known in the 21st century than the hoary legends of the ancient world. Conan the Cimmerian stands beside Superman, James Bond, and Darth Vader as a fictional icon of the modern world.

More than that, though, Howard's characters, particularly Conan, typically bring with them thoroughly modern outlooks and concerns. Take, for example, Conan's disinterest in matters of religion, preferring to live his life by his own lights rather than those handed down by tradition. Though a man of his word, Conan adhered to no "code," guided by his wits and his sword rather than by high-minded ideals. "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content," he famously said in "Queen of the Black Coast," the closest the barbarian ever came to stating his personal philosophy – and one that is, in practical terms, not far from the way most people live their lives today. I cannot imagine one of Tolkien's characters giving voice to such a perspective.

It's here, I think, that Howard's impact on fantasy has been the strongest and most enduring. Howard was an iconoclast and freethinker; he had equal disdain for the priests of old and their modern descendants, schoolteachers. His skepticism of tradition and received opinion is distinctively, if not uniquely, American, and this mindset can be seen throughout his literary works, where his characters regularly run afoul of the pettiness and arrogance of the established order. This rebellious streak – Howard would no doubt have called it "independence" – is nowadays ubiquitous among contemporary heroes, fantasy and otherwise and REH was ahead of the curve in valorizing it. In a very real sense, all of fantasy since has been following a trail that Robert E. Howard blazed long ago.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

House of Worms, Session 210

The lights in the darkened chamber were three in number, blue-white in color, and rotating around each other, several feet above the ground. Keléno and Znayáshu recognized these as nexus points, similar to those seen elsewhere in the ruins of Pashkírigo. The ancient Naqsái city seemed to be situated in an area where the "skin of reality" was thinner and magic generally more effective. Consequently, nexus points were unusually common here and, when encountered, were often seen in odd configurations such as these. Regardless, the pair believed that it was likely through these nexus points that Arúken hiSesmúga, with whose spirit Znayáshu had communicated, intended to rendezvous with his ally, Kétem. 

After a time pondering the best way to test this theory, one of the group's guards, a younger member of the House of Worms clan, stepped forward and offered to enter one of the nexus points and, if he survived the journey, return to the chamber to report what he saw. With some reluctance, the group endorsed this plan. The guard entered the nexus point – and did not return. The group waited several more minutes, eventually amounting to thirty in the end, before deciding that something untoward had happened to their young charge and someone else would have to test the nexus point. Grujúng volunteered, along with Nebússa. They entered the nexus, one after the other, and likewise did not return. This began to worry the party, who eventually decided, with great reluctance on the part of Keléno, that they ought to all enter the nexus point, reasoning that their purpose would not be served if they were separated from one another with no means of communication.

What they discovered, upon passing through the nexus point, is that they had all arrived at the same point and at the same time, despite their having passed through the nexus point at different times from their perspective. Keléno noted that it was not uncommon for such temporal anomalies to occur, as nexus points can traverse time as well as space. More pressing was the fact that, up ahead, they saw a young man employing both sorcery and an eye to defend himself against a half-dozen strange, silvery-white humanoid figures. These figures were utterly featureless, having no discernible faces or or even fingers or toes. They seemed to possess sorcery of their own, shooting bolts of energy at the young man, who, for the moment anyway, was able to protect himself. 

Nebússa suggested that perhaps the young man was Kétem and, if so, they should join the battle on his side. Though there was some dispute about this, the characters ultimately decided to do so, with Grujúng and Nebússa running ahead, weapons drawn, supported by the guards they brought with them. Meanwhile, the others attacked from range, with Chiyé making use of his crossbow, Keléno his eye of Krá the Mighty, and his third wife, Mírsha, her spells. Most of their efforts proved ineffectual, or seemingly so, as the silvery beings were quite resilient. Keléno in particular was frustrated that his eye had failed him multiple times, while Grujúng, usually a potent combatant, was unable to do much damage against these weird beings. Ultimately, it was Mírsha's sleep spell that proved most effective, causing all six of the beings to enter a quiescent state and stop attacking.

The young man smiled at the sight of this and, addressing Mírsha, said, "You must show me how you did that!" He then thanked the characters and suggested that they vacate this space by returning to the chamber from which they had come. He showed them the proper nexus point to enter and they all did so, leaving the weird beings behind. Upon returning, he said that his name was Kétem and he inquired what had become of Arúken. Kétem was saddened to hear of his ally's death but was nevertheless grateful the characters had come to his aid. He explained that those beings appeared "whenever someone was attempting to meddle with branches of the Tree of Time."

Upon hearing this, the characters erupted in questions, which Kétem did his best to answer. Over the course of much discussion, the following was learned. A group within the Temple of Ksárul known as the Ndálu Clan had been traveling between two branches – two alternate versions of Tékumel – transporting people and objects between them in an attempt to merge the two into a single branch, thereby altering reality more to their liking. Kétem explained that their efforts had already succeeded in part, resulting in numerous changes to the past, present, and future of the branch the characters inhabited, a fact that explained a great deal about what they had experienced both on the Southern Continent and back in Tsolyánu before they had any inkling that a plot of this magnitude was afoot.

Needless to say, the characters were simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the information Kétem shared. They pressed him for more information, especially about the Ndálu Clan and their purposes, but he knew little, saying only that, "whatever they are up to, much of it has already been achieved." However, it was still possible to prevent more changes by "sealing the breach" between the two branches that the Clan was using to move between branches. He explained that there are certain fixed points on the Tree of Time that cannot be altered. The Ndálu clan was using one such fixed point as a "bridge" of sorts and that he and Arúken had been planning to travel to this fixed point in order to seal up access to it from the other side – something he hoped the characters would now join him in doing.

Naturally, they were interested in doing so, at least until they learned two details. First, the fixed point in question was the fabled Battle of Dórmoron Plain, the Armageddon of the Gods. The characters had earlier discovered a nexus point that seemingly led to this location/event and had spent a short time there before fleeing it. Second, Kétem stressed that, in order for the seal to work properly, it would have to be effected from the other side and be permanent. In other words, they would be forever trapped at that fixed point and unable to return to Tékumel. 

While the characters recognized the logic of what Kétem suggested, they were understandably concerned, to the point that Keléno stated outright that he was unsure he would join them in this endeavor. However, before any decisions were made, Kétem recommended that they ready themselves. He opened a nexus point to the Linyaró so that they return to their home, speak with anyone they wished, and otherwise make any preparations they felt were needed. If he were correct in his claims, they might well never be seeing Linyaró – or Tékumel – again.

Individualistic and Imaginative

Issue #2 of Lee Gold's famed Alarums & Excursions (July 1975) is well known for having published a letter by Gary Gygax, in which he offers his opinion on a number of topics, the most interesting part of which (to me anyway) is the following:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark. Let us consider the magic-user question.

Needless to say, I approve very strongly of what Gygax says here, but it's worth noting that it would seem to be in contradiction to his later statements that OD&D was a "non-game" because of its high degree of variability. This is an area of great interest to me: how individual referees took OD&D's basic framework and ran with it in different ways to suit their own campaigns. Even now, I love hearing about house rules and unique interpretations and implementations of the sparse text of OD&D and other RPGs. 

Likewise, this passage is yet more evidence in support of the notion of two Gary Gygaxes – the gamer and the corporate spokesman. The former clearly speaks in this letter, defending individualism and imagination and utterly rejecting any suggestion that he should "play god" for other referees (or, to quote OD&D's closing words, "do any more of your imagining for you.") The latter is the author of perfervid denunciations of deviations from the published rules in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. I doubt I'm alone in preferring Gamer Gary over Corporate Gary nor, I hope, in recognizing that these two Garys could exist side by side. Nevertheless, I often ponder how the early history of the hobby might have been different, for good and for bad, if the Gary Gygax of this 1975 letter had been the only one.

Grognard's Grimoire: Vephar

Vephar (Old School Essentials)

Vephar by Jason Sholtis
AC –2 [21], HD 22**** (132hp), Att 2 × claws (1d10), 1 × tail slap (1d6), THAC0 5 [+14], MV 360' (120'), SV D2 W2 P2 B2 S2, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 10,500, NA 1, TT I, K, N, O

Vephar is a duke whose watery domain can be found on Demon World Dawo within the Fifth Shell. His 29 legions include many cohorts of aegaei (q.v.), as well as even more terrible aquatic demons. Vephar's preferred form is an emaciated humanoid whose grotesquely distended belly reveals his viscera. Instead of legs, he has a fish-like tail. His gangly arms end in large, clawed hands. Vephar's designation in the Grimoire Major is 01-23 Blue.

Vephar may only be struck by +3 or better weapons. While in contact with water, he regenerates 2 hit points per round. He has the following spell-like abilities, usable at will: cause fear, control weather, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, feeblemind, polymorph self, read languages, read magic, teleport, and wall of ice. Vephar can summon (with 60% chance of success) 1–6 aegaei. Damage dealt by his claws does not heal unless the spell cure disease is first applied.

Vephar claims suzerainty over all Chaotic marine life, including amphibians. This latter point is a source of contention between himself and Bael (q.v.), as both demon lords regard the Ranine (q.v.) as their subjects alone. Evil Men sometimes beseech Vephar to cause storms at sea, an appeal he is only too happy to oblige.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Definite Article

I was reminded that today is the 87th birthday of the one and only Tom Baker, who definitively portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord known as the Doctor between 1974 and 1981. During my high school years, I became a devoted fan of Doctor Who, thanks in no small part to Baker's remarkable performance. His effortless combination of eccentricity, wit, and, if you'll pardon the expression, humanity absolutely sold me on a program that, by all rights, I should have viewed with derision. Baker elevated the show and I look back on watching it all those years ago with great fondness largely because of him. 

Happy birthday, Mr Baker!

"The only Dragons … Lawful in nature"

One of the primary reasons I prefer OD&D and its descendants over AD&D is its "primordial" character. Being Gygax and Arneson's first stab at a published version of the game, its presentation is raw and undeveloped, often to the point that the referee has no choice but to interpret its meaning for himself. Relatedly, OD&D often contains ideas and concepts that were either forgotten or rejected by them. In some cases, these ideas and concepts were no doubt left behind for very good reasons, but I nevertheless enjoy going back to the original source and seeing if perhaps something might have been lost in doing so.

One such area concerns dragons, first described in detail in Volume 2 of the game. As first presented, there are only six varieties of dragon: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden. Earlier, in Volume 1, there's an alignment chart that includes dragons.

What you'll see is that dragons appear only in the columns for Neutrality and Chaos. However, it's clarified, in the description of the golden dragon, that these dragons "are the only Dragons which are Lawful in nature, although this exception is not noted on the Alignment table." This is in contrast to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which includes many more good-aligned dragons that first appeared in Supplement I of OD&D. 

I'll be honest: I've never been wholly on board with good-aligned dragons. Due to the influence of medieval stories of St. George, Tolkien's Smaug, and Disney's Maleficent, I've long looked on dragons as inherently evil creatures. In all my years of playing D&D, I don't believe I've ever made use of a good dragon on my own initiative (there was once a ranger in a campaign among whose followers was numbered a young bronze dragon, if I recall) and I don't think anyone complained. Indeed, as I've remarked before, dragons ought by all rights to be among D&D's iconic adversaries.

That said, I'm a sucker for stories of villainous redemption. As I continue to work on Urheim, I've started toying with the idea that golden dragons represent Chaotic dragons who turn to Law and, in the process, are physically metamorphosed by their shift in allegiance. What I like about this approach is that it not only provides an explanation of why most dragons are Chaotic but that it also emphasizes the significance of alignment, a concept that seems disappointingly downplayed in contemporary Dungeons & Dragons. 

"Less than Worthy of Honorable Death"

No matter how many times I crack open Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, I come across something I don't remember ever having read before. That's probably not literally true, but the book is so large and anarchic in its organization that it's very easy to overlook (or forget) bits of its text. Sometimes, the text in question is insignificant; other times, it's actually vital to understanding some aspect of AD&D's rules. More often, the text is simply amusing and/or provides insight into the mind of Gygax himself. 

And then there are the head scratchers – passages or paragraphs that leave one wondering whether or not to take them seriously. I found one of these the other day as I was seeking out something else entirely from the DMG. In the book's preface, shortly before the credits and acknowledgments section, Gygax offers the following warning:

As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of an honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that would otherwise arise from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players. If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting "sages" and other sources of information not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge that could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment – insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.

I'm genuinely torn between thinking the whole paragraph in jest and thinking that Gygax was being completely serious. Like the Dungeon Masters Guide itself, the paragraph contains both genuine wisdom and absurd bluster. In my youth, I don't think I knew a player of AD&D who didn't own the DMG, it being seen as part of the essential "three-book set" one needed in order to participate in the game. If Gygax were serious in his admonition, very few people heeded him (and, to be honest, I can't imagine that TSR would have wanted to discourage anyone from buying the biggest – and most expensive – of the AD&D hardbacks).

And yet, for all that, there is a kernel of truth in what Gygax wrote. Not knowing is an important part of the fun in almost any RPG campaign; I can remember many occasions when the players' puzzling out something previously unknown to them was the source of much excitement. (Mind you, I feel the referee is a player too and some things should remain unknown even to him.) Secrets, hidden knowledge, and the thrill of discovery are all vital tools in a good referee's repertoire and Gygax is quite right to caution against allowing players to know too much, lest it lessen their own enjoyment. But the "solutions" he advocates, I hope humorously, are small-minded and vindictive. Far from achieving the laudable goal of preserving campaign mysteries, they would, if implemented, only convince players that their referee is petty martinet. I am certain that was not Gygax's intention, but, as with many passages in the Dungeon Masters Guide, who can say?

Retrospective: Hexagonal Mapping Booklet

"The past is a foreign country" is a saying of which I am fond. I am reminded of it often as I look back on my early experiences in the hobby, which are replete with things that scarcely make sense from the vantage point of the present. Living as we do in a world relatively inexpensive personal computers and desktop printers, as well as Internet connectivity, the idea that anyone would pay for something like character sheets (or non-player character sheets) probably seems a little bizarre and understandably so. Yet, I can say, with complete sincerity, that products such as those were much appreciated, even coveted, though we nevertheless balked at their price – not to mention complained that they were difficult to photocopy, thanks to the colored paper on which they were printed.

When I think back to this time, I am also reminded of the 128-page Hexagonal Mapping Booklet that was originally released in 1981, with a cover illustration by Bill Willingham. This is a book I desperately wanted, since, unlike graph paper, which was readily available from any office supply store, hex paper was hard to come by. I had up until that time been making do with hex pages photocopied from a sheet included at the back of Gamma World, which were merely adequate to the task. It always frustrated me that the D&D Expert Set, which includes a section on designing a wilderness for use with one's campaign, did not include a sample hex sheet (nor did The Isle of Dread, a module whose impact on my sense of what a hexcrawl is cannot be overstated). 

It's funny: I consider hex paper to be as much a marker of roleplaying games as polyhedral dice. Since I was never a wargamer, RPGs were the first place I encountered the idea of hex maps and their oddity left a strong impression on me. I was already familiar with graph paper from school, so that, when I first picked up Dungeons & Dragons, there was nothing the slightest bit strange about it. As I recall, I already had graph paper in my home when I cracked open my copy of the Holmes Basic Set on that fateful day in December 1979. But hex paper? I'd never seen it before and I was thoroughly enthralled by it. Being able to own an entire book filled with it was a proud moment and I treasured that book for years afterward.

My original Hexagonal Mapping Booklet is long gone and it's now easier than ever to find hex sheets of any size without incredible ease. Nevertheless, I can't help but look back fondly on those early days, when I would spend untold hours mapping out enchanted forests, perilous mountains, and pestiferous swamps for the players in my games to explore. I eventually graduated to even bigger and more ambitious maps (though, oddly, I used graph paper for my Emaindor setting) and remain, like most gamers in my experience, a devoted fan of maps of all types. The Hexagonal Mapping Booklet wasn't the source of my devotion, but it certainly encouraged it and for that I'll always be grateful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Contact Higher Plane

I was perusing Men & Magic the other day and my eyes fell upon the 5th-level magic-user spell, contact higher plane. The funny thing is that, while I remembered the existence of the spell, I had misremembered its name. I had mistakenly believed that it was called contact other plane, a perfect example of what I have called the long shadow of AD&D – the way that AD&D's prominence has skewed perceptions of OD&D. Now, to be fair, AD&D isn't wholly to blame for my misremembering; it's also due to the fact that I can't recall ever using this spell in any game in which I've taken part. Granted, I'm old and my recollections are often spotty, but, even so, contact higher plane has never been a staple of my D&D experience. 

As I was looking at the OD&D version of the spell, several things stood out. First, there's the name, that is, its original name. Why "higher plane?" This is where genuine research will need to be done, something for which I don't have the time right now. My guess is that it's "higher" rather than "outer" plane because, at this stage in D&D's development, its cosmology is vague. For example, Gygax had not yet come up with the idea of "inner" and "outer" planes. Instead, he (likely) cribbed a more common notion, popularized by Theosophy and its offshoots, of "higher planes of existence." 

Second, the spell states that it allows the "magical-type" – now there's an odd turn of phrase – to "seek advice and gain knowledge from creatures inhabiting higher planes of existence (the referee)." Just who (or what) these creatures are is not defined, either in this spell or its AD&D descendant. What is most notable to me is that the spell does not declare that these "creatures" are gods or divine in any way. In fact, OD&D does not include the words "god" or "deity" anywhere in its text.

This might tie into my third observation about the spell: whatever the nature of the creatures contacted, they are neither omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Even those dwelling on the "highest" plane contacted (about which I'll say more below) have a chance of not knowing the information requested and all but those dwelling on the highest plane has a chance of lying about their knowledge. Furthermore, the higher the plane contacted, the more likely it is that the magic-user will go insane. That last bit is suggestive, in that it implies, at the very least, that the creatures contacted are so unlike mortal minds that mere contact with them is enough to end one's mental stability. 

Finally, the spell connects the number of questions the magic-user can ask of these creatures to the plane on which they dwell. Thus, a creature of the eighth plane can answer eight questions, which makes some sense, I suppose. Why is it that the planar numbering system starts at three rather than one? Is this purely an artifact of game logic? Did Gygax believe any fewer than three questions would be insufficient for a 5th-level spell or was there some other factor at work here? 

Spells like this, whatever one thinks of their in-game utility, please me greatly, because they raise questions for me to ponder. That's one of the main attractions of OD&D for me: it's filled with mechanical and "philosophical" lacunae that demand the referee fill. 

A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Lots of people, understandably, remember the Dungeons & Dragons advertisements that appeared in the pages of Marvel comics over the course of 1981 and 1982, starring Valerius the fighter, Grimslade the magic-user, and Indel the elf exploring Zenopus castle. I've always been particularly fond of this installment of the story, which features perpetual victim, Indel, falling prey first to green slime and then a trap door (that ultimately lands him in the lair of a dragon). 

However, as it turns out, there's a second series of D&D advertisements featuring a comic story drawn by Willingham of which I was unaware until very recently. Here's a representative panel:
The artwork is much more obviously Willingham's work than the other comic. His kobolds, for example, are unmistakable if you've ever seen the AD&D Monster Cards. More interesting to me is the revised cast of characters, which still features a trio consisting of a fighter, a magic-user (here called a "wizard"), and an elf, but who have different names and appearances. The wizard is named Khellek, which would seem to be a variation on the name Kelek used in other media for an evil wizard and antagonist. 

I find all these advertisements quite fascinating, since they're all from around the time period when D&D had just broken into the popular consciousness (thanks, in part, to the story of James Dallas Egbert III) and TSR was beginning to make real money from it. Clearly, the company had no idea how to promote and sell its products and was simply throwing lots of things against the wall to see what stuck. These ads are one example of their fumbling attempts at marketing – and one of the better ones, in my opinion.