Thursday, April 18, 2024

At Arm's Length

Though I write most often about my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign – understandable, I suppose, because of its longevity – it's not the only RPG I'm currently refereeing. Another is the Barrett's Raiders Twilight: 2000 campaign that began in December 2021. Though quite different in many ways, I realized the other day that there's actually one significant point of overlap between House of Worms and Barrett's Raiders: they both occasionally feature some unpleasant realities. In the case of House of Worms, those realities include slavery, torture, and human sacrifice, while in Barrett's Raiders they include all the usual horrors of modern warfare (not to mention the unique horrors of nuclear warfare). 

I've sometimes been asked about how I handle such things in my campaigns, particularly those in House of Worms. Even before the recent unpleasantness, Tékumel long had a reputation – somewhat undeserved in my opinion – for being a particularly brutal setting that included lots of aspects of pre-modern societies that, while perhaps "realistic," are usually glossed over, if not outright excluded from games like Dungeons & Dragons. The same, too, could be said of almost every RPGs whose setting is a time of war or strife, whether that setting be pre-modern, modern, or futuristic. How does one referee a campaign that contains such dark elements?

As with most aspects of my refereeing, I don't have any systematic answers, only anecdotes and examples. However, looking back over what I have done does, I think, provide something approximating an overarching philosophy that might be of use to others referees whose campaigns deal with such things. For example, let's look at a ubiquitous and indeed foundational aspect of most of the cultures of Tékumel: slavery. Abhorrent though it is, slavery is commonplace throughout history. Indeed, there's scarcely a human society that hasn't practiced slavery at one time or another. Though a fantasy setting, Tékumel draws on several real-world cultures for inspiration, like ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, and Mughal India, all of which practiced slavery, hence its inclusion in Empire of the Petal Throne. 

The player characters of the House of Worms campaign are thus all members of a slaveholding culture and do not question the practice. Their clan owns slaves and at least a couple of PCs have had personal slaves who became important NPCs (though one was later manumitted and adopted into the clan). Despite this, slavery has never been important part of the campaign. It's part of the "furniture" of the setting, something that's undeniable there, but that we've never really dwelt upon, because the focus of the campaign has always been on adventure, usually out in the wilds, far from any Tekumeláni civilization. 

Similarly, the major cultures of Tékumel all approve of human sacrifice to varying degrees, as have many cultures on Earth. The god most of the characters worship, Sárku, accepts such sacrifices as part of his rituals and so priestly characters have occasionally been involved in them, too. The same is true of the torture of prisoners, which is seen as a legitimate form of interrogation in Tsolyánu and elsewhere. So, again, these deeply repugnant elements of the setting have appeared from time to time, but they've never been its focus. When they have appeared, such as during attempts to invoke divine intervention (for which there are rules), we'd simply acknowledge it and move on – the equivalent perhaps of the cinematic "fade to black" of old. 

I could cite plenty more examples from both House of Worms and Barrett's Raiders, but I trust that's not necessary. What I have come to realize is that, unless it's absolutely relevant, I don't spend a lot of time going over the finer details of all the unpleasant things that happen in my games. This includes combat, by the way, which, as players of many old school RPGs know, is generally very abstract. Now, there are indeed times when the precise nature of a horrible injury is relevant – this has come up several times in the Twilight: 2000 campaign – and, in such cases, I don't shy away from the gory details. However, as a general practice, I avoid doing so, because my games are meant to fun escapes rather than luxuriating in the darker corners of the human soul.

I offer my experiences not as a universal prescription. Each referee and player will draw his lines in different places and that's as it should be. I personally feel that there's generally nothing wrong with including unpleasant realities in one's roleplaying so long as everyone's on the same page in this regard. I don't fault anyone who wants to keep his games "family friendly," but neither do I condemn anyone who wants to venture farther into the shadows. One of the things that's great about roleplaying is that it's a flexible enough entertainment that it can accommodate both approaches – and more besides – without any difficulty. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Retrospective: Cyberpunk

As I've explained before, I hadn't read many of the books in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide before I first picked up that book in 1980. In fact, Appendix N (and the list of "Inspirational Source Material" that appeared in Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Rulebook) played a role in introducing me to a wider world of fantasy and science fiction literature. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu played a similar role, pointing me in the direction not just of Lovecraft but writers like Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and others with whom I might otherwise not have been familiar. This is part of why I'm such a proponent for the inclusion of bibliographies in RPGs: they can serve as literary gateways to the uninitiated.

I'm fairly certain that 1988's Cyberpunk, published by R. Talsorian Games, included a short bibliography of cyberpunk books that I would eventually find useful in much the same way as Appendix N had been for fantasy. Though I'd been a huge SF fan since I was quite young, most of my favorite stories and authors dealt with space travel, aliens, and galactic empires rather than more earthbound topics. Consequently, I didn't take any notice of William Gibson's influential 1984 novel, Neuromancer, or any of the other seminal works by him and others that both followed and preceded it. 

Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have noticed Cyberpunk either when it was first released. I was away at college at the time and, while there, I became friends with a student a year older than I, who was much more plugged into the current trends of SF. He was also, as it turned out, a big fan of the 1982 movie, Blade Runner, his dorm room down the hall regularly blaring its Vangelis soundtrack at odd hours. It was through him that I was introduced not just to cyberpunk literature but also to Cyberpunk "the roleplaying game of the dark future." He refereed several adventures for myself and our mutual friends that never quite amounted to a proper campaign. but we had fun and they succeeded in increasing my interest in and appreciation for cyberpunk SF.

Cyberpunk came in a black box that featured an illustration that reminded me somewhat of Patrick Nagel, whose distinctive line art will indelibly be linked in my memories with the 1980s. For that matter, cyberpunk – the literary genre, the esthetics, and the RPG – is, for me, a quintessentially '80s phenomenon, despite the fact that it's supposedly about the future. That's not a knock against it by any means. In my estimation, nearly every work of science fiction is really about the time in which it was created, but cyberpunk, with its mirrorshades, megacorps, and rockerboys (not to mention its American declinism and Japanese fetishism) somehow feels every bit as dated as the atomic age optimism of the 1950s. Though I regularly joke with my friends that we currently live in the worst cyberpunk setting ever, the world envisioned by Cyberpunk is now solidly within the camp of a retrofuture.

I say again: this is no knock against Cyberpunk. At the time I was introduced to it, at the tail end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Internet Age, it felt incredibly bold, fresh, and relevant. Plus, I was nineteen at the time and, even for congenital sticks in the mud like me, the lust for rebellion is strong. That, I think, is a big part of why Cyberpunk succeeded so well in establishing itself: Mike Pondsmith and his fellow writers had succeeded in making rebellion – or a consumer-friendly facsimile of it – the basis for a game that also included trench coats, neon signs, chrome-plated prosthetics, and guns – lots of guns. Say what you will about its plausibility or realism, but it was a brilliant stew of elements that somehow worked, despite the objective ridiculousness of it all.

Inside that black box were three booklets, each dedicated to a different aspect of the game. "View from the Edge" contained the rules for creating a character, including its "roles" (i.e. character classes) and life path system. As a fan of Traveller's character generation system, I really appreciated the latter, since it helped bring a new Cyberpunk character to life. "Friday Night Firefight" was devoted entirely to combat and to weapons. As I said, this was one of the big draws of the game, at least in the circles in which I traveled at the time. Finally, "Welcome to Night City" presents an urban locale that I took to be a stand-in for any dystopian megalopolis, though, as I understand it, was eventually established to be an actual city within R. Talsorian's official Cyberpunk setting. 

More than thirty-five years after its original release, it's difficult to overstate just how new this game felt upon my discovery of it. Some of that is, as I've suggested, due to my own limited tastes in science fiction up till this point, which made Cyberpunk feel even more revolutionary than is probably warranted. Still, there is something genuinely brash about the game, both in terms of its subject matter and its presentation. The artwork, for example, is frequently dark, moody, and violent, which set it apart from the increasing stodginess of, say, Dungeons & Dragons and perhaps even laid the groundwork for the coming tsunami of White Wolf's World of Darkness. 

Like a lot of games, I'm not sure I could ever play Cyberpunk again, though, in fairness, I'm not sure I could ever play any game in this genre anymore, since the real world is now frequently more unbelievable than anything a SF writer could dream up. At the same time, I retain an affection for this game, which served as my introduction to the genre. Further, I recently learned, completely by accident, that the older student who lived down the hall from me died almost a decade ago. We'd lost touch over the years and, while I'd occasionally think of him, I never made the effort to try and reconnect. Now, it's too late – but I still have many fond memories of late nights holding off security goons while our netrunner tried to break into a corporate data fortress. 

Rest in peace, Chris, and thanks for the good times.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #22

Issue #22 of Polyhedron (March 1985) features an interesting piece of artwork by Joseph Pillsbury. I say "interesting" not solely for the subject matter of the piece – a downed spacecraft – but because Pillsbury is an artist I mostly remember for his humorous comics in the "Dragon Mirth" section of Dragon. I can't recall his having done any "serious" artwork before, but it's always possible I've overlooked his wider contributions to the hobby.

Penny Petticord's "News from HQ" has two items worthy of note. The first is an announcement that Polyhedron is actively seeking submissions from readers. Petticord states that "only a few members" have thus far been making submissions and she'd like to change that. I wish I'd paid more attention to this at the time, because I made several submissions to Dragon while I was in high school and all were rejected. I might have had a better shot with Polyhedron, given the dearth of submissions. Secondly, Petticord warns readers that the next issue will a "special April Fool" issue, so "don't believe anything you read" in its pages. Fair enough!

This issue also features a large letters page, with multiple letters written in response to Roger E. Moore's "Women in Role Playing" essay from issue #20, While not all of the letters were critical, many of them were, largely because the readers felt that Moore had "belittled" or otherwise failed to understand female gamers. Though Moore apologizes for any unintended offense, he nevertheless stands by what he wrote, noting that it's an important topic in need of more frank discussion. Some things never change, I guess. 

Gary Gygax returns to this issue, writing yet again about marlgoyles and their reproduction. He provides AD&D stats for every stage of the creature's growth from hatchling to mature. It's baffling to me, but it's definitely in keeping the naturalism that's a hallmark of his worldbuilding. He also provides stats for a "monster" that was somehow left out of Monster Manual II – amazons. Amazons, in Gygax's vision, are a female-dominated society of barbarians, with menfolk in secondary or support roles. Beyond that, he doesn't have much more to say about them, which I found a little disappointing, because they're a great fantasy concept worthy of inclusion in D&D.

Frank Mentzer's "Spelling Bee" focuses on druid spells and abilities. Interestingly, Mentzer concern this time seems more focused on reining in druid abilities (like shapechange) that he thinks can be easily abused rather than on finding new and creative ways to make use of them. "The RPGA Network Tournament Ranking System" article is not especially interesting in itself, at least to me. However, the accompanying ranked list of RPGA judges and players is. Gary Gygax, for example, is the only Level 10 Judge, just as Frank Mentzer is the only Level 9. There are no Level 8 or 7 Judges and only one Level 6 (Bob Blake). The names on both lists include quite a number of people who either were at the time or would later be associated with TSR or the wider RPG world. It's a fascinating window on a particular time in both the hobby and the industry.

"In the Black Hours" is an AD&D adventure for levels 6–9 by David Cook. The scenario is unusual in a couple of ways, starting with its lengthy backstory about a high-level mage who learned the true name of the demon lord Juiblex and, in order to protect himself, was eventually forced to imprison the demon with a magical crown. That crown has now come into the possession of a merchant who wishes to protect it from would-be thieves (employed by Juiblex's demonic underlings who wish to free him). The characters are hired by the crown's present owner to protect it over the course of the night when he believes the thieves will make their attempt. There's a lot going on here and the basic structure of the adventure – mounting a defense against waves of attackers – seems well suited to a tournament set-up. If anyone ever played this scenario (or one like it), I'd be very curious to hear how it went.

"Away with Words" by Frank Mentzer is a 26-word multiple choice quiz that challenges the reader's knowledge of High Gygaxian words. It's a fun enough little diversion, though less hard now, thanks to the ubiquity of online dictionaries. "Unofficial New Spells for Clerics" by Jon Pickens does exactly what it says: offers a dozen new spells for use by clerics. Most of these spells are connected in some way to existing magic items, like the staff of striking or necklace of adaptation, filling in gaps in the spell list that, logically, should exist. While that certainly makes sense, it's also boring and exactly the kind of magic-as-technology approach that I've come to feel kills any sense of wonder in a fantasy setting.

"Dispel Confusion" continues to narrow its scope. This issue we're treated only to questions pertaining to D&D, AD&D, and Star Frontiers. Most of them are the usual collection of nitpicks and niggling details. However, one stood out as noteworthy (and indeed unexpected):

I have to admit that this answer surprised me – not because I didn't already know what it would say, but because I didn't imagine I'd ever read such a thing in a TSR periodical. In the past, these magazines tended to advance a very strong "by the book" line when it came to the rules, as evidenced by the fact that there's an official column for questions and answers. I can't help but wonder if perhaps this represented a change in thinking during the final years of Gygax's time at the company (he'd leave for good October 1986 – about a year and a half into the future).

"Of Great Ships and Captains" by Roger E. Moore is the second part of his "big ships" article for Star Frontiers. Unlike part one from the previous issue, this second part focuses on the fine details of running a campaign aboard a large starship. Moore takes a look at deckplans, crew complement, shipboard positions, and the kinds of adversaries and adventures that work in such a campaign. It's all very good stuff and, as I mentioned in my write-up of issue #21, I found it very inspirational in my younger days. The only real criticism I can muster about the article is that it does not include a set of sample deckplans for a big ship, as promised. Production delays apparently prevented their inclusion and, while Moore states they would appear in a future issue of Polyhedron, I don't believe they ever did. If I'm mistaken about this, I'd love to know.

The issue concludes with the return of "The Treasure Chest," the RPGA catalog of exclusive items that has not been seen in quite some time. The items available for sale are now mostly RPGA tournament modules that were otherwise unavailable at the time, along with some exclusive miniatures and back issues of Polyhedron. I wonder what occasioned the return of the catalog, since I can't imagine that it made enough money for that to have been a serious consideration. In any case, we're inching ever closer toward the end of my time as a subscriber to the newszine, meaning this series will likely conclude before we reach the summer months.

Monday, April 15, 2024

"Gimme a break!"

By the time the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series premiered in September 1983, I'd been playing D&D almost four years. I was also just shy of fourteen years old. Perhaps inevitably, I greeted the arrival of the cartoon with some trepidation, despite the involvement of Gary Gygax as its co-producer. That's because, at the time, I was increasingly concerned about the "kiddification" of my beloved D&D.  Consequently, I turned up my nose at the cartoon and only caught a handful of its 27 episodes when they were originally broadcast. 

Then, at the tail end of the 3e era, a DVD collection of the entire series was released in 2007. My daughter, who was quite young at the time, took an interest in it and so I bought a copy for her as a Christmas gift. It was only at this point that I ever had a chance to watch the show for any length of time and discovered, with the benefit of age, that it wasn't that bad. It's written for children, to be sure, but, judged with that in mind, it's certainly no worse than any other cartoon of its era and, in some respects, it's better

I bring all this up because my now-adult daughter asked me if the DVD collection had been placed in the garage, along with so many other childhood things. I went and checked and, sure enough, that's where it was. I brought it back inside and, over the last couple of weeks, we've been rewatching it slowly, looking to see if there were anything about that we might not have noticed when she was a child. So far, I can't say that there I've gleaned any particularly deep insights from this rewatch. However, I have noticed a few things worthy of comment. When I'm done with the whole series – perhaps in several weeks – I'll do at least one more post on this topic. If nothing else, I have some thoughts about this early attempt to broaden the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons beyond its original audience.

Fantasy Master: Michael Moorcock

Yesterday, Dan Collins and Paul Siegel of the Wandering DMs channel hosted a truly excellent interview with author Michael Moorcock, creator of Elric of Melniboné, among many other memorable fantasy characters. Regular readers of this blog – and lovers of pulp fantasy in general – will definitely find it worth an hour of their time.

REVIEW: A Folklore Bestiary (Volume 1)

An aspect of Dungeons & Dragons – and, by extension, all fantasy roleplaying games – that I find equally fascinating and frustrating is the way that it adopts and adapts the mythology and folklore of the real world in order to provide fodder for new spells, magic items, and (especially) monsters. I find it fascinating, because of how wide a net Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and those followed in their footsteps cast in establishing the canon of D&D. For example, how many of us reading this had ever heard of the tarrasque before seeing it in the pages of the Monster Manual II? On the other hand, I find it frustrating, because of how far D&D often deviates from its legendary source material. Again, consider the tarrasque, which bears very little resemblance to its Provençal inspiration.

It's for this reason that I was very excited by the release of A Folklore Bestiary by the Merry Mushmen, perhaps best known for their "adventure gaming bric-a-brac," Knock! "Inspired by folk tales and superstitions," according to its front cover, the Bestiary is a collection of almost forty creatures drawn primarily, but not exclusively, from European legends for use with Old School Essentials and other similar RPGs. With its focus on offering less well-known folkloric monsters as adversaries, allies, and enigmas for fantasy gaming, the Bestiary is a monster book seemingly written with my own peculiar tastes in mind.

With ten different authors credited, no two entries are exactly the same in terms of presentation. In general, though, each entry begins with the creature's name (including a phonetic pronunciation) and place of origin, followed by a short piece of in-setting fiction, like an excerpt from a journal or a transcript of an interrogation. The fiction is largely flavor text, setting the scene for what ordinary people might know or believe about a given creature. After that, there's an Old School Essentials write-up for the monster, sometimes accompanied by random tables useful to the referee, like rumors, motivations, and similar details. All entries also include a collection of adventure hooks involving the creature. Some include full scenarios, featuring a keyed map. Rounding out the entries is a full-page, full-color illustration (and some smaller sketches) by Letty Wilson, whose slightly whimsical artwork some of you might already know from Dolmenwood

A Folklore Bestiary is a 160-page A5 hardcover that is cleanly and attractively laid out. Compared to, say, Knock!, whose layout some have found cluttered to the point of illegibility at times, the Bestiary is much more conservative, though still distinctive. It's the kind of book that's equally useful as a reference and as reading material that one can flip through for inspiration. This could be off-putting to the more curmudgeonly among old school fans, since there's a lot more in each entry than the monster's game statistics and a basic description of its habitat and behavior. This is a book filled with creatures that live in a larger world and have connections to that world, potentially leading to much more compelling and even meaningful encounters.

Of course, this is also potentially a drawback. Because nearly all of these monsters are drawn from real world mythologies (a standout exception being Lord Dunsany's gnoles), they might not fit into a generic fantasy world as easily. For example, the dybbuk has strong associations with Jewish legends, while Jack-in-Irons is similarly associated with medieval Yorkshire. These associations are a big part of the appeal of the monsters described herein, grounding them in "reality" in a way that is often missing from standard fantasy monsters like goblins, zombies, and even dragons. Yet, they also make it mean that, unless a game is set in the real world, they might need to be stripped of some of their specificity, which could, in turn, genericize them, which would be a shame. Thinking about this now, I can't help but wonder if Gygax and company faced a similar conundrum in creating D&D's well-known menagerie.

Despite that minor point of concern, A Folklore Bestiary is a delightful product, filled with excellent and, above all, unusual new monsters to include in your fantasy roleplaying game campaign. It's also a good reminder that, even a half-century later, there's still plenty of myths and legends that have yet to be tapped for RPGs. Judging by the fact that this book is called "Volume 1," I can only assume that the Merry Mushmen have plans to produce more. If so, I very much look forward to seeing what strange new creatures they'll include.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The True Birth of Roleplaying

Though I was not an avid reader of comic books when I was a kid, I did read them – mostly Star Wars, Micronauts, and the occasional Doctor Strange issue. Nearly as much as the comics themselves, I loved looking at the advertisements. I could (and probably should) write several posts about all the weird and wonderful stuff that was being hawked on the pages of comics in the 1970s, but the one that, to this day, still sticks in my brain, is the one to the right, offering 100 toy soldiers for a mere $1.75.

I never took the plunge and bought this. As alluring as it was, I had the sneaking suspicion that it was too good to be true. Plus, I already owned a very large number of toy soldiers – or "army men," as my friends and I typically called them – so there was no immediate need for more of them. My soldiers were all molded from camo green plastic and, from the look of them, were modeled on World War II era US troops. There came in a dozen or so different poses, including a medic, a sniper, a mine detector, and one aiming a bazooka. One of my friends had a collection of German soldiers molded in gray plastic, along with the Navarone play set that we all envied.

One of the main ways my friends and I would play with our army men was by finding a large, open space, whether outside or inside, and then arranging our toy soldiers in various positions. Many of them we'd place right out in the open, but some of them we'd secure behind "protection" of one sort or another, such as rocks, potted plants, or even other toys, like appropriately scaled military vehicles (jeeps, tanks, etc.). After we'd done this, we'd then take turns shooting rubber bands at one another's battle lines, with the goal of "killing," which is to say, knocking over as many of one another's soldiers as possible. We'd keep doing this until only one person had any army men still standing. He'd then be declared the winner of this "battle." Sometimes, we'd have longer "wars," consisting of multiple rounds of battles, the winner being determined by which army won the most battles.

This was simple, childish entertainment, but we had a lot of fun doing it. I can't quite recall when we first started using our army men in this way. We were probably fairly young, because I cannot remember using them any other way. Consequently, the rules of rubber band warfare slowly evolved over the years, as a result of adjudicating disputes and edge cases, such as what constituted being "killed" for soldiers, like the sniper, who was already lying horizontally or indeed just how horizontal a soldier had to be in order to qualify as "dead." In my experience, both as a former child and as a parent, these kinds of negotiated "house rules" are quite common, a natural outgrowth of the fact that no set of rules, no matter how extensive, is ever going to cover every circumstance. Kids intuitively understand this and act accordingly.

Another natural evolution was identifying with and even naming particular army men who'd survived multiple rubber band attacks and somehow, against the odds, continued to stand. I recall one soldier, who had a Tommy Gun and a grenade, who, for a time, seemed unbeatable. A combination of good luck and good positioning made him seemingly invincible. He belonged to a friend's army and, after the friend had one the battle in which the soldier had participated, he acquired a name: Sergeant Phil Garner, named after the mustachioed second basemen of the Oakland Athletics – don't ask me why. Sgt. Garner set a precedent and soon we were all naming and creating stories about the army men who survived or otherwise distinguished themselves in our rubber band wars.

I've always found it interesting that, when trying to describe roleplaying to those unfamiliar with the hobby, game designers will often analogize it with Cops and Robbers or improvisational theater – not because the analogies are necessarily wrong but because RPGs, as we know them today, grew out of miniatures wargaming. It's not for nothing that OD&D's subtitle is "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." Though I was never, strictly speaking a wargamer of any variety, I cannot help but think that my early experiences fighting wars with army men and rubber bands served as an unintentionally excellent propaedeutic for roleplaying. I doubt my friends and I were unique in this regard.

Thank you for your service.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Comments

In the wake of my "Whither Grognardia?" post from earlier this month, I learned that a lot of readers find it difficult, if not impossible, to comment on the blog. That certainly explains why the number of comments per post has generally been lower than it was during the first iteration of the blog. In response, I did some poking around to see if the reported problem related to settings that I could change or if it was something else out of my control. 

I'm still not sure of the answer. However, I did make a few changes to the comment settings. If you're someone who has, in the past, had difficulty commenting, give it a go and see if anything has changed on your end. If so, I will be pleased. If not, I may need to look into the matter further.

[UPDATE: It would appear that most people can now comment without too much trouble, which is good. However, I should point out that all comments are still manually moderated, in order to stem the tide of spam (of which there is a lot). Consequently, a comment's not appearing immediately doesn't necessarily mean that it didn't go through, only that I'm not at my computer or otherwise haven't yet approved it.]

Retrospective: Prince Valiant: The Story Telling Game

When I was kid, I always looked forward to the Sunday edition of the local newspaper, because it had this enormous color comics section. Truly, there were dozens upon dozens of these strips – everything from Peanuts to Garfield to Hagar the Horrible and more. Also present were a number of "old" comics, like Mark Trail, Apartment 3-G, and Mary Worth, whose continued presence baffled me. Who read these comics? Certainly not I, nor any of my childhood friends. 

However, there was one "old" comic that I often did read: Prince Valiant. I did so partly because of the comic's subject matter, Prince Valiant was set, as its subtitle proclaimed, "in the days of King Arthur" and I had long been a devoted fan of Arthurian legendry. Furthermore, Prince Valiant was beautifully drawn and had a very – to me – strange presentation. There were no speech balloons or visual onomatopoeia, just lots of text arranged like storybook. 

I was never a consistent reader of Prince Valiant, but, when I did take the time to do so, I almost always enjoyed it. There was a sincerity to the comic that I appreciated as a youngster, as well as an infectious love of heroism and romance (in all senses of the term). I wouldn't say that Prince Valiant played a huge role in my subsequent fondness for tales of fantastic adventure, but there's no doubt that it played some role, hence why I took an interest in Greg Stafford's 1989 roleplaying game adaptation when it was released.

Stafford is probably best known as the man behind Glorantha, the setting of RuneQuest. For me, though, Pendragon will always be his magnum opus – and one of the few RPGs I consider "perfect." Consequently, when I eventually learned of the existence of this game, I was intensely interested. How would it differ from Pendragon? What specifically did it bring to the table that justified its existence as a separate game rather than, say, a supplement to Pendragon? These are questions whose answers I wouldn't learn for quite some time. 1989 was something of a tumultuous year for me; I was busy with other things, and it'd only be sometime in the mid-1990s that I would finally lay eyes upon Prince Valiant.

The most obvious way that Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon is revealed in its subtitle: "The Story-Telling Game." Now, some might immediately think that, in this instance, "storytelling" is simply a synonym for "roleplaying" and you'd be (mostly) right – sorta. The important thing to bear in mind is that Prince Valiant is intended as an introductory game for newcomers to this hobby of ours. Consequently, Stafford tries to use common sense words and concepts that aren't rooted in pre-1974 miniatures wargaming culture. Hence, he talks about "storytelling" rather than "roleplaying" and "episodes" rather than "adventures" or "scenarios" and so forth. The result is a game that's written in a simpler, less jargon-laden way than was typical of RPGs at the time (or even today).

At the same time, Stafford's use of the term "storytelling" isn't simply a matter of avoiding cant. Prince Valiant is, compared to most other similar games, intentionally very simple in its rules structure, so that players can focus on the cooperative building of a compelling narrative set in Hal Foster's Arthurian world. Additionally, the game provides the option of allowing even players to take over the story-telling role within an episode, setting a new scene or introducing a new character or challenge. The chief storyteller, which is to say, the referee in traditional RPGs, is encouraged not to ignore these player-inserted story elements but instead to run with them, using them as a way to introduce unexpected twists and turns within the larger unfolding narrative. 

The other clear way that Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon is its rules, which can fit on a single page. This makes them easy to learn and remember, as well as to use. Unlike more traditional RPGs with their assortment of funny-shaped dice, Stafford opted in Prince Valiant to use only coins. For any action where the result is not foregone, a number of coins are flipped, with heads representing successes. The more heads flipped, the better the success. In cases where a character competes against another character, such as combat, successes are compared, with the character achieving the most successes emerging victorious – simplicity itself! 

Last but certainly not least, Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon because of the pages upon pages of beautiful artwork derived from the comic. Not only does this give the game its own distinctive look, it also highlights its adventuresome, Saturday matinee serial tone in contrast to the heavier, occasionally darker tone of Pendragon and the myth cycles on which it drew. That's not to say Prince Valiant is unserious or "for kids," only that it's a fair bit "lighter" than its "big brother" and thus probably more suitable for younger and/or less experienced players. In that respect, it makes an excellent first RPG.

It's worth noting, too, that the bulk of Prince Valiant's 128-page rulebook is made up not of game mechanics but of advice and tools for players and storytellers alike. Stafford quite obviously distilled the lessons he learned from his many years of playing and refereeing roleplaying games, presenting them in a conversational, easy-to-understand way. Indeed, I've met many people over the years who've claimed that Prince Valiant's true value is not so much as a game in its own right, despite their affection for it, but as an introduction to roleplaying. True though this is, it's also undeniably an excellent game that I'd love to play some day.

That's right: I have never played Prince Valiant and am not sure I ever will. The copy I read years ago was owned by someone else and I've never found a used copy at a reasonable price. I recall that there was an updated or revised version published a few years ago. It doesn't appear to be available through the Chaosium website, alas. Mind you, I certainly don't lack for good RPGs to play; it'd just be great to give this classic one a whirl one day.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #21

Issue #21 of Polyhedron (January 1985) features a cover illustration by Timothy Truman, who produced a lot of artwork for TSR throughout the 1980s before going on to greater success as a comic book artist. The piece depicts the protagonist of this issue's "Encounters" article, facing off against a creature of para-elemental ice, but, as I'll explain shortly, I have some questions. 

The issue starts with another "Notes from HQ" article by Penny Petticord. Her position is RPGA Network Coordinator, which I assume is the title of the head of the RPGA. However, starting with issue #22, Petticord will also be the editor of Polyhedron, taking over from Mary Kirchoff, who'd been on the staff of the newszine since issue #5. She would then devote herself full-time to fiction, writing numerous Dragonlance novels and later becoming part of TSR's book publishing division.

Next up is the aforementioned "Encounters" article by James M. Ward. The scenario sees a young paladin named Ren Grakkan on a quest to retrieve "the most potent of all artifacts," the white cloak of enchanting (or is it charming? The text is inconsistent) for his unnamed lady love. The cloak is found in a cave guarded by para-elemental ice monsters. As I noted, I have a couple of questions. First, Ren is described as a paladin, but he looks more like a classic sword-and-sorcery barbarian based on Truman's illustration. The text at least supports this, since he's described as wearing no armor but only bracers of defense (AC 4) and having Dexterity 18 (hence a –4 defensive adjustment). Even so, he looks nothing like what I'd expect of a "paladin," but perhaps I simply lack imagination. (I suppose it's possible the artwork depicts the cloak's original owner, a barbarian lord, who lost it in battle against the ice creatures, but then why isn't the cloak shown?) Second, this so-called "potent artifact" Ren is seeking makes its wearer's charm and illusion spells harder to resist, especially if the wearer is female. Could it be that Ren's "lady love" is actually a sorceresss who's charmed him? There's no evidence of this in the text, but the thought occurs to me. (Also, why does Ward keep re-using the name "Ren" for his characters?)

Sonny Scott's "Observations from a Veteran Gamer" is short piece of fluffy advice from a long-time player of AD&D who's also a stalwart of the RPGA. I don't mean to be so dismissive, but there's nothing here you've never heard a thousand times before. More interesting is Gary Gygax's "Why Gargoyles Don't Have Wings But Should." The article begins with classic Gygaxian boasting: he speaks of his association with Flint Dille ("Did you know his grandfather invented Buck Rogers?") and their upcoming joint projects. Then, he moves on to his dissatisfaction with depictions of both the gargoyle and the mar(l)goyle from Monster Manual II. The illustrations for both, Gygax says, lack wings and this should be corrected in "some future edition" of AD&D. For reference, here are the two illustrations in question: 

"Don't try to tell me those dark shadows are wings!" Thus spake Gygax.

Gygax also explains that the second monster's proper name is marlgoyle, with an "l," just as it's named in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. This is one of those cases where, if one knows anything about geology, the error is obvious. In any case, I find this sort of thing fascinating – all the more so because the error was never corrected in any subsequent edition of the game. 

Roger E. Moore's "Take Command of a Titan!" is, by far and away, the best part of this issue and indeed one of my favorite articles ever to appear in any gaming periodical, not simply Polyhedron. In it, Moore lays the groundwork for a "Big Ship" campaign in Star Frontiers. By "big ship," he means a space vessel whose crew numbers in the hundreds at least, if not more. This is territory well covered by both Traveller and Star Trek, but it's not really discussed in Star Frontiers. Additionally, Moore provides lots of ideas on what makes a Big Ship campaign unique and fun. Back in my youth, this article, along with its sequel in the next issue, was a very inspirational one for me. To this day, I find myself longing for a science fiction campaign set aboard a Big Ship.

"Spelling Bee" by Frank Mentzer returns, looking at the ins and outs of a few low-level magic-user spells for AD&D. I'm always of two minds about these kinds of articles. On the one hand, I appreciate seeing the clever ways that people can make use of well-worn spells. On the other hand, some of these clever uses depend on very specific, nitpicky, and possibly tendentious readings of the text. It's a fine line, to be sure, which is why I can't be outright dismissive of articles like this, even as I, as a habitual referee, tend to grit my teeth at some of the more "creative" applications put forward.

"Witchstone" by Carl Sargent is an AD&D adventure for character levels 8–12. It's an odd adventure, because, at base, it's pretty mundane: a bunch of hill giants are causing trouble and it's up to the PCs to deal with them. However, the reason why the giants are more hostile than usual concerns a power play by a giantess wishing to make her son chief. This she does by trickery, pretending she is a witch and arranging for "accidents" to occur that support her false claim. It's certainly interesting in an abstract sense, but I'm not sure how much of this would be communicated to the characters involved in the adventure.

"Five New NPCs" is just what its title suggests: a collection of five non-player characters submitted by RPGA members. None of them are especially memorable. "Module Building from A to Z" by Roger E. Moore is vastly more worthy of attention. In this lengthy, four-page article in which Moore presents the guidelines by which modules submitted to both Dragon and Polyhedron are evaluated. It's a remarkable article for its insight into the culture of TSR in early 1985, as well as into the readership of its periodicals. There are already hints of the "TSR Code of Ethics" that would appear later, for example. The guidelines also allude to the relative popularity of various RPGs at the time, with modules for games like Boot Hill and Gangbusters being excluded "due to low reader interest." There's a lot here to consider; I may need to do a longer post dissecting the whole thing.

I could not bring myself to read "The RPGA Network Tournament Scoring System" – sorry! "Dispel Confusion" covers only three games this month: AD&D, Gamma World, and Top Secret, with AD&D questions taking up slightly more than half of the pages devoted to this section. That shouldn't come as a surprise, but I nevertheless find it notable. What does surprise me is how often the submitted questions amount to "In my campaign, can I do ...?" with the answer usually being, "Yes, if the referee will allow it." What a strange world! This seeking of permission from the publisher is bizarre. I wonder if anyone ever wrote to Parker Brothers to ask about whether it was OK to use Free Parking as something other than an empty space?