Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Obscenity in Lead

Fantasy Role Playing Games by J. Eric Holmes is a fascinating book. Published in 1981, it's an overview of this then-new hobby, written at least in part to clear up some popular misconceptions about RPGs and the people who play them. It's also a terrific window into the state of things in the late '70s and early very early 1980s from the point of view of someone knowledgeable about the West Coast scene and with connections to many of the movers and shakers of the Midwest region as well. 

Over the past few months, I've been returning to the book and re-reading certain sections of it, focusing on those where Holmes offers interesting or even unusual takes on those times. A good example of what I'm talking about occurs in Chapter 11. Entitled "Little Metal People," it discusses, among other topics, the use of miniatures in roleplaying games. At one point, Holmes notes that

Traditional wargame figures were all male. Minifigs did make castings of a few ladies who might appear on a battlefield – Queen Boadicea, for instance. The wives, sweethearts and camp followers of the armies of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon were not depicted in lead, however. Fantasy gaming has changed all that, since female characters are of major, or central, importance in many fantasy and science fiction stories. Also, for the first time, the game players who used the figures were often female.

The first set of female figures wasn't much to brag about. Minifigs added Amazons to the early Sword and Sorcery line and "Valka Spacewomen" to the first science fiction series. These ladies were either nude or almost so. It was several years before any of the figure companies realized that there was a market for lady adventurers and sorceresses who dressed appropriately to their role and did not look as if they were about to star in the middle of a Las Vegas nightclub chorus line.

I was, at best, an indifferent collector and user of miniature figures in the roleplaying game campaigns of my youth. Nowadays, I don't make use of them at all, though I have made good faith attempts to do so in the recent past. Consequently, I had – and indeed still have – relatively little knowledge of the history of miniature figures. What Holmes says above is not surprising to me, but, until I'd read it, I never gave it much thought. He talks more about this topic and, in doing so, discusses some intriguing bits of history.

The women in the Western, Star Trek and Barsoom figure series are all dressed appropriately. For the Barsoomian ladies this does mean near nudity, but that is true of the male figures also and entirely faithful to the stories. Ral Partha now makes a series of amazonian warriors whose femininity is obvious but whose armor and military equipment look distinctly functional. There are now appropriate figures for a princess, a lady thief or an old witch, although as yet no lady clerics, orc or dwarves. There is a sharp controversy within TSR Hobbies over whether a female dwarf wears a beard. Since Gygax insists she would, perhaps there is no hurry to produce a game-playing figure.

Intriguing, as I said, not least because the matter of female dwarven beards remains a contentious one, even among old schoolers. I sidestep the issue entirely by imagining sexless dwarves, though I nevertheless like to tweak my fellow gamers who hate the idea of bearded female dwarves by sharing this illustration from Dragon (and others like it). I find it equally intriguing that Holmes treats Gygax's opinion on the matter – which I remember his voicing on several occasions – as if it settled the matter. That, too, comports with my memory the oracular status Gary once possessed in certain quarters of the hobby at the time (though just as many, perhaps more, people would have laughed at the suggestion that Gygax's thoughts had any special status).

Holmes continues, bringing us to the section that occasioned this post's title.

This sexual revolution among wargaming figures appears to have taken place without much fanfare. Such is not the case in the hobby of the large military miniatures. I gather there had always ben an "underground" traffic in castings of the female body, but when fantasy figures began selling in the larger sizes as well as the game-playing 25 millimeters, an advertisement for a series of beautiful and sexually exciting nude figures in the British magazine Military Modeling produced several letters of protest. Protest was over the "obscenity" of the figures and their appearance in a hobby magazine that appeals to "innocent" young boys. These letters were followed, of course, by others pointing out the ludicrous nature of a charge of obscenity against the female body, long an accepted challenge for the artist and sculptor, in a hobby devoted to the accurate depiction of men and mechanisms equipped for the killing and maiming of other human beings. Meanwhile, in 25 millimeters, the ladies seem to have entered the field, in various stages of dress and undress, without serious opposition.

Some things never change! Unfortunately, I can find no evidence of the particular advertisement of which Holmes speaks. He provides insufficient detail to determine when this might have occurred or even which company's advertisement it was. If anyone has any insight into this, I'd love to know more. In any case, it's precisely these kinds of stories that Holmes shares regularly in the page of Fantasy Role Playing Games and why I find it such a remarkable book. 

Retrospective: Fiend Folio

Resting on a shelf atop my desk are, among other things, my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcover book collection. Most of them are about forty years old or close to it and it's obvious they've all been well loved. Their covers are faded and scuffed at the corners and their interiors reveal their age through a collection of small stains scattered across their once-white pages. I say "most," because there's one volume that looks almost brand new, despite the march of the years: the "tome of creatures malevolent and benign," the Fiend Folio. There's a reason the book appears nearly pristine and it has nothing to do with the high quality for which TSR's first edition AD&D books were made: I didn't think much of the Fiend Folio and, therefore, almost never used it.

I realize that, in some quarters, that's a controversial, verging on blasphemous, opinion. There is a contingent of old schoolers for whom the Fiend Folio is the best monster book published for AD&D – alas, not for me. I owned it more out of completeness than any enthusiasm. I adored the Monster Manual, which was my first AD&D hardcover, ordered at a Sears catalog store with money given to me for Christmas by my grandmother. I still cherish that book to this day, a fond possession from my youth, portions of whose text I can quote from memory, so often did I read it in those early days. The Fiend Folio, though? I've barely cracked the spine.

I used to think, when the matter of the Fiend Folio came up in conversation, that my dislike of it was based on a failure to appreciate the book's idiosyncratic Britishness. The tome quite clearly evinces a different sensibility from its rather staid American predecessor, most notably in its illustrations. Though the volume contains artwork by TSR stalwarts like Jeff Dee, Erol Otus, and Dave Sutherland, their familiar visuals were buried beneath an avalanche of pieces by Alan Hunter, Albie Fiore, Russ Nicholson, and others, none of which looked much like what I'd seen in the Monster Manual. There was a gloomy, gritty quality to the illustrations that shocked and repulsed me at the time. This wasn't what Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to look like and I found it hard to accept. 

But it wasn't (just) the artwork that turned me against the Fiend Folio; it was the content. Compared to the Monster Manual, most of the creatures in this book are, at best, weird and strangely specific and, at worst, downright silly. Again, I recognize that many see this as precisely why they like the Fiend Folio. I can see that, but, for me, monsters like the Enveloper, the Flail Snail, and the Gorbel, to cite a few obvious ones, are simply goofy and I can't think of any circumstance in which I'd use them. And they're not alone. I could easily go through the book, page after page, and point out all the monsters that strike me as too ridiculous (lava children), overpowered (death knight), or bizarre (trilloch) for my tastes. The whole thing has a rough, unfinished, and fannish quality to it – filled with the kinds of monsters overly enthusiastic but not very creative kids would come up with for their homebrew adventures. I realize that's an unduly harsh judgment, but it's how I felt at the time.

In the years since, my opinion of the Fiend Folio has softened a bit, in particular with regards to the art, some of which I now consider among the best ever done for AD&D. Russ Nicholson, for example, is now a favorite of mine and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once didn't much care for his illustrations. Likewise, I've come to accept that there's a place for some of these monsters, if only as occasional palate cleansers. However, except for those that had appeared previously in published adventures (like the drow or the bullywugs), there aren't any that I feel fill an obvious gap in AD&D's roster of monstrous opponents. The Fiend Folio should, therefore, be treated as a book of options to be used with care rather than as a regular supplement to the Monster Manual (or Monster Manual II, which I consider a much better book, despite its flaws). Viewed in this fashion, I think of it much more kindly.

But before I forget, it must be said: the githyanki are overrated. Ugh.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

When Does D&D Take Place?

No, I haven't gone insane. Yes, I realize that's a very odd question, but I think it's a question worth exploring.

When Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1974, it billed itself  as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns." Gary Gygax elaborates a bit on this matter in his foreword, when he talks about the Castle and Crusade Society, the chapter of the International Federation of Wargaming formed by himself and Rob Kuntz in 1970. Among other things, the C&C Society served as a testbed for the miniatures rules that would eventually become Chainmail, itself one of the foundations on which the published version of D&D was built. He adds:

While the C&C Society is no longer, its spirit lives on, and we believe that all wargamers who are interested in the medieval, not just fantasy buffs, will enjoy playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

So, at the start, Gygax in some way saw D&D as a "medieval" game, though precisely what "medieval" means is unclear. Looking at Chainmail, one sees that "medieval" covers a very broad swath of history, since the troop types include Saxons (6th–9th centuries), Normans (10th–15th centuries), Landsknechts (15th–17th centuries), and Condottiere (14th–17th centuries), among many others. Further, it's worth noting that Gygax quickly concedes that D&D "need not be restricted to the medieval," but, in so conceding, he is implying that "fantastic-medieval wargame play" is normative, or at least expected. 

The rules of OD&D themselves provide few clues as to what "medieval" means, since their details are both vague and inclusive. One could look at its list of "basic equipment" and attempt to draw historical conclusions, I suppose. The presence of, for example, plate mail armor might imply a late medieval (15th century) setting, but it's far from certain. In the discussion of clerics, there's a reference to "Turcopole-type" horsed crossbowmen that might imply a different time period (11th–12th centuries), that of the early Crusades. Again, though, it's far from definitive and one might well say it's evidence of the fruitlessness of this line of questioning.

I'm sympathetic to that point of view, if only because I don't think that Gygax ever intended Dungeons & Dragons to be a historical simulation. "These rules are strictly fantasy," he famously explained and all his most explicit references to the game's inspirations are works of fantasy literature, not history texts. Given that, what's the point of this exercise? For me, the point is simply gaining a better understanding of the original game's unstated assumptions so as to understand OD&D better. My intention is not to limit the scope of what's acceptable – something Gygax himself rejected, as noted above – but rather to see if there's anything we can learn about the game's characteristics and idiosyncrasies that might be rooted in its tacit historical antecedents. 

I remember thinking, upon reading Gygax's last published works, particularly those related to Castle Zagyg, that he had begun to embrace a very late medieval or even early modern vision of fantasy gaming. This made sense on multiple levels, given both his well-known fascination with exotic polearms, many of which did not appear on the scene until the late Middle Ages, and the fact that "adventuring" as an occupation is more plausible in a post-medieval world filled with rootless freemen and mercenaries. In fact, I have a recollection of Gygax's having admitted, in one of his many Q&A threads, that, were he to have written D&D at a later time rather than in the early 1970s, he'd have drawn more heavily from early modern history rather than the medieval. Unfortunately, I can't find the quote and might well have imagined it. 

Regardless, I think there's value in pondering the extent to which Dungeons & Dragons (and fantasy RPGs more generally) are in any sense "medieval" and what, if anything, that means for the worlds in which they are set. 

Halls of the Dwarven Kings

 Does anyone remember this advertisement?

I remember seeing it in the pages of Dragon originally, but I was reminded of it again after reading issue #21 of Imagine. Part of something called "The Complete Dungeon Master" series, it was apparently a system-agnostic boxed set that included an adventure, an illustration booklet, maps, player handouts, and even a referee's screen designed to help keep all the details of the scenario straight – the kind of thing that Chaosium frequently did with its boxed sets for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu and that TSR would later do for D&D

I never saw a copy of the thing, but I was intrigued by the advertisements. I believe there were several sequels to this set, though, again, I never saw them. If you owned a copy or even saw one in the wild, I'd love to hear about it.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #21

Issue #21 of Imagine (December 1984) is another themed issue, this time devoted to superheroes. The cover illustration by Steven Kyte depicts Captain Arrow, a character with whom I am unfamiliar, which means he's either a lesser British superhero or original to Imagine. If anyone reading this can provide some insight into the matter, I'd appreciate it. Regardless, it's a fun cover piece and very much in the style of art I remember from the days when I actually read comic books. 

The issue kicks off with "To Save the World," an overview of superheroes and superhero roleplaying by Nige Squires. Taking the form of a compendious history of the genre, Squires uses that history to illustrate how to create adventures and characters for a RPG campaign. It's an interesting approach and enjoyable to read, especially when you consider the time it was written. The comics world was still vaguely intelligible to an outsider in 1985, though mega-crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths were just starting become an unavoidable trend. In any case, I liked the article and think it succeeded in what it set out to do.

Paul Cockburn provides us with "Kiss of Death," a mammoth 12-page adventure for Marvel Super Heroes that includes several detachable pages of battle maps and stand-up figures, as well as stats for Captain Britain (by Pete Tamlyn). Martin Lock writes "Harrier Comics," which is both a discussion of comics publishing in the UK as well as an advertisement for the titular comic company (of which Lock was founder). Again, my lack of knowledge of the British comics scene, aside from 2000AD, limits my perspective and I'd be happy to learn more from readers who know more. Game reviews continue the comics theme, with reviews of Marvel Super Heroes, several Champions supplements, and TOON. There are also reviews of Justice Inc., The Adventures of Indiana Jones (which the reviewer felt was a good idea badly executed) and Psi World, among others. I was struck by just how many products were discussed – more than fourteen in all – and wondered if I'd ever seen so many reviews in a single issue of any gaming magazine before.

Roger Musson pens two articles in this issue. The first is his regular "Stirge Corner" column, which continues to tackle alignment. This time, though, it's Neutrality that catches his attention. Like the others in the series, it's a solid article with some genuine insight. His conclusion, which serves as the conclusion to the whole series, is worth reproducing here:

Altogether, the morals of the average adventurer are somewhat open to suspicion. Of the players I have seen, few have demonstrated a true alignment in any positive sense. The rest have concerned themselves almost exclusively with staying alive, gathering treasure, and gaining experience levels. 

Musson's other piece, "The Curse of the Purple Potion," is a pun-filled story of the sort I adored when I was in high school but that now seems far less funny.

Chris Felton's Pellinore article, "The Arena," presents the City League's gladiatorial and chariot racing arena, along with maps and NPCs associated with it. There's also a simple set of rules to adjudicate chariot racing that includes a hex map of the race track and counters to represent the chariots. John McKeown's "Monsters, Magic & Menageries" is a very unusual article. It covers the process of breeding – and cross-breeding – monsters, a topic I don't believe I've ever seen in a RPG article before. I can't see using it in any games I'd run, but I'm always intrigued by unusual options like this nonetheless.

"For Whom the Bell Jingles" is a "not terribly serious" AD&D adventure by P. Howard, G. Baker, and L. King. The adventure takes place at Christmas and involves the characters rescuing Santa Claus from a demon called Nurk. I'm not a fan of such scenarios, but I know many people like them. Colin Greenland's "Fantasy Media" reviews several movies, including Red Dawn (which he, quite reasonably, pans) and Ghostbusters (which he likes). He also reviews the second Thieves' World novel, Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn and treats it favorably, despite disliking the stories by Philip Jose Farmer and A.E. van Vogt, whom he calls "two burnt-out stars if ever there were." Mike Lewis, in his "Soapbox," compares RPG rulesets to computer hardware and software, a somewhat odd analogy but one that probably seemed very relevant at the time, as affordable personal computers were just starting to appear. Finally, "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Phalanx" comics return and I continue not to care.

Issue #21 is fine but, for me anyway, not as enjoyable as issue #20. That's not slight against Imagine itself but more of a testament to my own relative lack of interest in superheroes compared to other subjects. I hope that next issue will be more to my liking.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Huge Ruined Piles


Men & Magic, Volume I of original Dungeons & Dragons, in a section entitled "Preparation for the Campaign," rather famously describes a dungeon as a
"huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses".

The quote is a popular one in the OSR and for good reason: it's incredibly evocative. Reading it, I find myself thinking of an immense, crumbling Gothic structure, perched precariously on some mountaintop and sprawling across its slopes. In this, I've likely been influenced by the cover illustration to OD&D's Supplement II: Blackmoor.

What's interesting is that both the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns were centered around – and indeed named after – a castle (as was Rob Kuntz's El Raja Key). Despite that, it was the levels beneath those two castles that served as the focus of player character action rather than the castles proper. Castle Greyhawk did have an "upper works" (as did Castle Zagyg), but they did not occupy much of the player's attention, at least according to one account by James M. Ward. For Castle Blackmoor, we have a map of the surface levels of the castle, presented in Judges Guild's The First Fantasy Campaign, but they're sadly not very interesting – hardly a "huge ruined pile."
Speaking of Judges Guild, the 1977 module, Tegel Manor, is in some ways closer to this ideal, though, at only 250-ish rooms, it's probably too small to be called truly "sprawling" (though moreso than either Castle Amber or my own The Cursed Chateau). 

I've written before about "above ground" dungeons, but, in that case, I was thinking mostly of ruined cities on the model of Glorantha's Big Rubble, which is itself worthy of further discussion. However, my present musings are occasioned more by today's Pulp Fantasy Library entry. I now find myself thinking about immense, haunted castles – an unholy amalgam of Castle Dracula, Neuschwanstein, and the Winchester Mystery House, peopled with all manner of monsters and perhaps even the degenerate descendants of the original inhabitants á la H.P. Lovecraft's The Lurking Fear
It's funny really that "the dungeon," meaning an improbable warren of subterranean tunnels should become the default environment for adventuring in RPGs. On one level, it makes perfect sense, since dungeons, as conceived by roleplaying games, have no real world analog, thus freeing the referee to map them according to his own fancies. Mapping a castle, even an absurdly large and rambling one, might demand at least a little knowledge of the layout of such buildings and that can impede one's creativity. I've experienced a little of this myself, in detailing the surface ruins of Urheim, since it's meant to be a "real" fortified monastery where all of its buildings have a clear and logical purpose. 

That aside, I don't see any reason why a would-be designer of a massive castle "dungeon" need be limited by real world considerations. My references above to Neuschwanstein and the Winchester Mystery House were chosen specifically to highlight the legitimacy of whimsical, irrational, and downright deranged design choices. After all, if your huge ruled piles is the result of "generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses," why should its floorplan be bound by normal logic? 

I remain quite taken with Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone's notion of "the dungeon as mythic underworld," which I believe comports almost perfectly with OD&D's presentation of the game's play environment. But we need not be too literal when it comes to adopting this perspective. Properly presented, a sprawling, crumbling castle can be every bit an example of an underworld as any series of monster-infested tunnels. Indeed, if one looks at Gothic fiction from the late 18th through 19th centuries and beyond – fiction that has had a clear influence on fantasy roleplaying – cursed and haunted castles abound and entering them is often metaphorically akin to descending into Hades (consider Jonathan Harker's trip to Transylvania in Dracula, for instance).

Obviously, creating a dungeon of this sort will require some re-thinking of the traditional structure of levels and the difficulty associated thereto. Off the top of my head, I might suggest dividing the castle into wings, with certain certain wings being "low level" and others "high." Alternately – or even in conjunction with wings – one might instead opt for a vertical approach: as one ascends the castle's spires, it becomes more difficult. Another possibility is simply to dispense with such artificial notions and opt for a more "organic" one, where the challenge is independent of location and characters exploring the place must learn to be clever to avoid running into dangers beyond their present abilities. The possibilities are quite large and, were I a better cartographer, I might start work on my own huge ruined pile. Alas, my skills in this area are negligible, so it won't be happening anytime soon. One day ...

RIP David Prowse (1935–2020)

By now, most of you will have heard that the news that English bodybuilder, weightlifter, and actor, David Prowse, best known for physically portraying Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, has died at the age of 85. I don't believe it's an exaggeration to say that Darth Vader is one of the greatest fictional characters ever created, as instantly recognizable across the world as Superman or Mickey Mouse. While none can –or would – deny the importance of James Earl Jones's vocal performance to cementing Vader in the popular imagination, Prowse's contribution is often sadly overlooked. 

That's understandable, I suppose, given that we neither saw his face nor heard his voice, the two most commonly understood tools in any actor's repertoire. Yet, Prowse was more than just "a guy in the suit," as I've sometimes heard said of him. His performance in Star Wars is quite good, portraying the imposing physicality of the Dark Lord of the Sith while also evincing a low-key intensity that's even more evident in The Empire Strikes Back. From what I have read, the Vader costume was bulky and stiff, which would have made it hard for any actor, particularly one whose face was completely obscured, to convey much of anything. Nonetheless, he did so and did so memorably.

I was seven years old when I first saw Prowse as Darth Vader on the big screen and I will never forget it. The moment he strides into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia's starship, surrounded by stormtroopers, is one of the truly great character introductions in all of cinema. Prowse effectively portrayed menace and authority in equal measure. By all rights, Vader could well have come across as ridiculous rather than threatening. That he did not is no mean feat and a testament to Prowse's skills. In a very real way, Star Wars would have been impossible without him.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Titus Groan

Two admissions before I begin. 

First, and most obviously, Mervyn Peake's 1946 novel, Titus Groan, cannot, by any reasonable judgment, be called a work of pulp fantasy. Certainly it's a fantasy and a remarkable one at that, but it's quite far from the sort one would have found in the pages of Weird Tales. Nevertheless, because of its relevance to matters near and dear to fantasy RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, I hope I can be forgiven for this taxonomical impropriety (a sin I've committed on more than one occasion previously). 

Second, despite numerous entreaties by people whose opinions I respect, I hadn't read Titus Groan or its two sequels in the Gormenghast Trilogy until quite recently, an omission that, having now corrected, I feel was a terrible lacuna in my literary education. Please bear that in mind, as you read this post, as what follows are the fervid thoughts of a neophyte experiencing a rare delicacy for a first time rather than the carefully considered opinions of someone well-versed in its unique pleasures.

Titus Groan begins with the birth of its titular character, the only son of Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, who will one day inherit rulership of Castle Gormenghast. City-like in size, Castle Gormenghast is effectively a world unto itself, to the point that all the novel's action takes place within its vast expanse. The castle is so large that characters who dwell in different parts of it occasionally remark that it's been years since they last saw one another. Filled with innumerable sub-buildings, chambers, and hiding places, many of which have evocative names – the Tower of Flints and the Hall of Bright Carvings being but two that feature in the novel – the castle is almost a character in its own right. It's certainly more than just the setting of the story: characters make frequent references to the castle and "the stones" (or variations thereof) in their oaths and exclamations, reinforcing its centrality to the unfolding story. Castle Gormenghast is truly a singular literary creation and I now understand why so many people have recommended I read Titus Groan over the years.

Contemporaneous with the birth of Titus are events in the far-off – and insufferably hot – Kitchens, overseen by a cruel chef called Swelter. (As an aside, the names in Titus Groan are terrific: reminiscent of Dickens in their dark whimsy and portentous of the natures of those who bear them.) Among Swelter's many abused minions is a teenaged boy named Steerpike, who wishes nothing more than to leave his service and find escape. This he does during the commotion caused by the celebration of the birth of Titus. Unfortunately, he is soon discovered by Mr Flay, Lord Sepulchrave's majordomo, who consigns him to a locked room for, among other things, not knowing his proper place. Mr Flay is quite keen on such matters, as Castle Gormenghast depends on everyone who dwells within it – and there are seemingly a great many of them – knowing his place and acting in accordance with it. Even Lord Sepulchrave himself is bound by his duties, which consist in large part of performing rituals dictated by the books of the Master of Ceremonies, rituals passed down from previous Earls of Groan and added to as circumstances demand. It's a ponderous, hidebound system and one can't help but be a little sympathetic to characters who wish to see it ended, one way or another.

Steerpike is one such character and much of the book focuses on him, as he uses his natural charm and cleverness to work his way up the ladder of Castle Gormenghast's internal hierarchy. He escapes from the confinement into which Mr Flay flung him through a window and then scrambles across the rooftops of Gormenghast. While doing so, he spies Lady Fuschia, the teenaged sister of newborn Titus and decides to endear himself to her as a means of bettering his position. This he does through a combination of flattery and genuine friendship, appealing to her loneliness and romantic yearnings for a more exciting life. In fairly short order, he uses her to secure himself a job with the court physician, Dr Prunesqualor, but his goals are much, much higher and the bulk of the novel concerns the rise in fortune that results from them – as well as the chaos he unleashes on the previously staid world of Castle Gormenghast. 

Titus Groan is, at times, a mildly confusing book whose narrative demands attention to follow, which is why I'm uncertain I've understood all the details. There are a large number of characters and locales within Gormenghast, in addition to references and allusions that give the book a fevered, dream-like quality. This is simultaneously commendable and infuriating, as the very elements that make Titus Groan so compelling sometimes work against immediate comprehension (or at least they did in my case). Admittedly, the same could be said of, say, The Lord of the Rings, another great work of English fantasy that appeared a few years later. Titus Groan is thus a book one might need to read a couple of times before fully appreciating but that should prove little chore, given the richness and imagination of Peake's prose. It's a pleasure to read and I look forward to doing so again when time permits.

Though named for the young heir to the throne, who spends much of the book a child, the real stars of Titus Groan are Steerpike and Castle Gormenghast itself. The former is a charming rogue who, as the story progresses, becomes increasingly black hearted and outright villainous. Peake is to be praised for his ability to lure the reader into initial sympathy with the downtrodden young man, even as he slowly reveals the true depths of his wickedness. Gormenghast, meanwhile, could be called the greatest literary example of a megadungeon, despite being almost entirely aboveground. Nevertheless, it's hard not to imagine what it would be like to wander the twisting halls of this immense structure and uncover its secrets. It's in this context that I think Titus Groan and its sequels are perhaps of most immediate interest to roleplayers and, on that basis, alone I highly recommend it, though it offers a great deal more, if you're willing to stick with it. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

News from the Front

The other day, I received PDF copies of the alpha version of Free League's upcoming new edition of GDW's classic military roleplaying game, Twilight: 2000. I was very pleased to see these, first because I was a fan of the original game and, second, because Free League makes excellent RPGs. If anyone could produce a new edition of T: 2000 worthy of the original, it's them. 

I've only had a chance to scan the PDFs briefly. From what I've seen, though, it looks very good. One of the things I liked about the original was its emphasis on the details of survival – keeping track of food, water, fuel, and ammunition, as well as avoiding disease and radiation. That, combined with its attention to the dangers of overland travel, make it potentially one of the great hexcrawl RPGs of all time. Free League has a great deal of experience with this style of game, which is why I'm not at all surprised that they're producing the new edition.

The new edition embraces an alternate history angle, as the game's tagline – "Roleplaying in a World War III that Never Was" makes clear – and that's the right approach, I think. At the time Twilight: 2000 was released in 1984, a limited nuclear war in 1995 didn't seem all that implausible a scenario. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, though, that future seemed less likely and GDW, rather than embracing the possibilities of an alternate history, retooled the background of the war to keep it current. Ultimately, this undermined the game and, I suspect, contributed to its demise (the awfulness of the second edition's rules, which were more "action movie" oriented than the sober, grounded ones of first edition probably didn't help). With the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, an alternate history makes so much sense and, oddly, I think it makes the setting easier to embrace wholeheartedly. 

A few years ago, I did a re-read of many of the original Twilight: 2000 adventures. What struck me is how hopeful many of them seemed. Despite its reputation in some circles as the ultimate murder hobo game, Twilight: 2000 was nothing of the sort. Nearly all of the adventures involved the player characters working to shore up civilization and rebuild some semblance of normalcy in the face of the chaotic aftermath of the Third World War. Far from being just heavily armed marauders, the adventures assumed the characters were interested in using their military skills to help pick up the pieces of the shattered world. In a weird way, I rather think that, rather than being depressing, Twilight: 2000's alternate history might seem comforting in 2020 – a much needed reminder of humanity's resilience and capacity for learning from its mistakes, even ones as grave a nuclear war.

In any case, I'm looking forward to the final release of the new edition, sometime early next year. Some of my friends have already asked that I start up a campaign and I'm very likely to do so. If that happens, you can be sure there will be posts discussing our experiences.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Urheim: Northeast Ruins

Today, we look at the area to the northeast of the Lower Temple, consisting primarily of rubble and debris where once were a series of monastic buildings. As always, comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome, as they help me to develop this locale better.