Saturday, January 22, 2022

And Silence I Was Born

Robert E. Howard (January 22, 1906–June 11, 1936)
By rose and verdant valley
And silence I was born;
My brothers were the mountains,
The purple gods of morn.

My sisters were the whirlwinds
That broke the dreaming plains-
The earth is in my sinews,
The stars are in my veins!

For first upon the molten
White silver sands I lay,
And saw the ocean beckon
With eyes of burning spray.

And up along the mountain,
And down along the lea,
I heard my brothers singing,
The river and the tree.

And through the ocean’s thunder,
And through the forest’s hush,
I heard my sisters calling,
The sea-wind and the thrush.

And still all living voices
Leap forth amain and far,
The sunset and the shadow,
The eagle and the star.

From caverns of the ocean
To highest mountain tree,
I hear all voices singing
Their kinship unto me.

Friday, January 21, 2022

"Presents the Wrong Image"

Last week, I discussed James M. Ward's (in)famous "Angry Mothers from Heck" editorial, which appeared in issue #154 of Dragon (February 1990). It's possible to read Ward's editorial as disingenuous or at the very least canny – an act of "wink, wink" public relations intended to burnish the image of D&D in the eyes of a vociferous minority with whom the good folks at TSR no longer wished to deal. I'm not wholly convinced that's the case, but, even assuming it is, let's look at a different article appearing in Dragon exactly three years earlier. 

This article, by David Cook, is part of a series of "designer's notes" on the forthcoming second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a project for which he acted as lead designer. Entitled "Who Dies?", the article appears in the February 1987 issue of Dragon (#118) and discusses which AD&D 1e classes will carry over into the new edition. Cook's answers to the article's titular question are more or less as one would expect, as are most of the reasons he offers. In the case of the assassin sub-class, he has this to say:

His first point, that the assassin is "disruptive of party harmony," is an odd one in my opinion. I don't at all deny that the inclusion of an assassin character could, in certain groups, be disruptive, but in all of them? I suspect Cook was making a blanket assumption about the kinds of campaigns AD&D is intended to support, namely one in which evil player characters have no place. Since assassins must be of evil alignment, they don't belong, according to Cook. (My interpretation of his assumption is based largely on the discussion of evil PCs in the 2e Player's Handbook, which states that "the AD&D® game is a game of heroic fantasy" and that playing an evil character "is not a good idea.")

This leads to the second and, I think, stronger comment, that the assassin class "presents the wrong image about AD&D games" [italics mine]. Perhaps I am reading too much into what Cook wrote, but, as I look at it, this seems to suggest that, from its conception, Second Edition was intended to be a more "family friendly" version of the game, one that scrubbed many of its more "gritty" (for lack of a better word) elements, in favor of ones that promoted "heroic fantasy." 

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, of course, and it may well be that TSR saw the sanitization of the game as a way to increase its sales. They might even have been correct, for all I know. All that said, I think, in light of statements like this by David Cook, it's incontrovertible that bowdlerization was baked into the 2e cake from the beginning. What Ward says in "Angry Mothers from Heck" may well be wholly insincere, but it wasn't a last minute decision by TSR but rather something the company had committed to years earlier, as it charted the course of AD&D sans Gary Gygax. 

Again, one can view this as positive or negative, according to one's own tastes; that's not my point. Rather, I wanted to cite an example of the kind of tonal shift that occurred with the creation of Second Edition, one that likely contributes to the casual dismissals of that version of AD&D in many corners of the old school scene. These days, I'm much more sympathetic to 2e than I have been in the past, but there's no denying that, on many levels, it's a very different game than its predecessor and those differences are foundational.

White Dwarf Interviews Marc Miller

Issue #23 of White Dwarf features a lengthy – and insightful – interview with the creator of Traveller, Marc Miller. I'm always interested in early interviews with foundational designers of the hobby. In this case, though, I'm especially interested, as Traveller is a game that's near and dear to my heart. The unnamed interviewer (Ian Livingstone?) asks a number of excellent questions and Miller's answers tell us a great deal about himself, GDW, and the origins of Traveller.

Miller's comment that he initially disliked D&D in intriguing, in light of the fact he (and Loren Wiseman) produced some of the earliest D&D-related comics in the pages of The Strategic Review. I also continue to boggle at the usage of "FRP" as shorthand for the hobby of roleplaying. It's not one I regularly encountered myself, but, based on what I've read, it was once quite widespread.

This perspective was, I think, quite commonplace in first half-decade of the hobby, but became less so as time went on. Certainly by the mid-1980s, if not sooner, roleplaying's connections to miniatures or board wargaming were tenuous to the point of non-existence. That said, GDW seemed to be a company that tried to maintain the connections, as evidenced by its publication of both miniatures rules and board wargames to support Traveller, for example.
While there is lots of useful information here, I find the acknowledgement of D&D's influence the most important. Of course, the presentation of Traveller in the form of three digest-sized booklets revealed this already, but Miller's admission clinches the matter.
This section of the interview is, for me, the single most important one. I've often encountered people who believe that Traveller was primarily inspired by cinematic science fiction. Miller certainly makes a concession to this possibility – "Movies and television particularly affected me." – but I think it's significant that all the direct influences he mentions are literary, from Anderson to Tubb to Niven and Pournelle. It's not an accident that, when pressed, the titles Miller rattles off are books, most of which were written in the two decades prior to Traveller's release. 

The interview, as I said, is quite lengthy and touches on a number of important topics regarding Traveller's design, such as why it has no levels or experience rules ("Most people in their real lives don't improve much as they live out their lives."), why many characters are middle-aged, and even why the game uses two six-sided dice ("Six-sided dice are ubiquitous; they are easily obtained, and most people are familiar with them."). Miller's answers are always interesting and, much as I'd like to share them all here, I don't want this post to go on interminably. However, I will include his answer to a longstanding criticism of Traveller, one that I think roleplayers have been making since 1977.
And there you have it!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Merit of Merritt

From the vantage point of our present day, Abraham Grace Merritt is probably not the most obscure name on Gary Gygax's Appendix N, but he's nevertheless in the running. This is especially true when one compares him to some of the more widely recognized names, like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack Vance, or – especially – J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, I'd be amazed if there were many other places on the Internet besides this blog that take even the slightest note of his 138th birthday today. 

Even someone as naturally censorious as I can't muster any vitriol about this. The simple truth of the matter is that tastes change. That Merritt's popular literary reputation has likely suffered more than some of his contemporaries doesn't alter this reality. Neither does it alter the fact that Merritt remains a foundational author of fantasy. Many of his works, while largely unknown today, have nevertheless exercised an outsized influence over later writers, popularizing many of the archetypes and elements of the genre. 

For that reason, here's a collection of links to previous posts I've made about Merritt and his writings:

If you have a few minutes, take the time to read a couple, especially if Abraham Merritt isn't an author with whom you're familiar. Better yet, try reading something he wrote. They're pretty much all in the public domain now and are easily obtainable online.

Grognard's Grimoire: Tharantal

Tharantal (Silent Deceiver)

The Heritor Lords of the Epoch of Wonders applied their sciences to beget many strange creatures, like the shapeshifting tharantal, whom they employed as spies and assassins. Standing 7' tall, the tharantal's natural form is that of a spindly, pale-skinned humanoid with a single eye. In the present cycle, sorcerers and potentates sometimes enlist them and independent bands of them dwell in secluded locales, including, it is said, the Vaults.

AC 5 [14], HD 4*** (18hp), Att 2 × fist (2d4), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 90’ (30’), SV D6 V7 P8 B8 S10 (10), ML 10, XP 225, NA 1d6 (1d6), TT E

  • Change Form: May take on the appearance of any person or creature observed three times per day. Takes 1 round.
  • Healing: Regains 4d4 hit points upon changing to a new form.
  • Surprise: On a 1–4, due to stealth.
  • Tracking: Without error.
  • Reversion: If killed, reverts to its original form.
  • Spell Immunity: Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.
A tharantal by Zhu Bajiee

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Retrospective: Ivinia

I feel about Hârn the same way many feel about Tékumel or Glorantha: it's a great setting to read about but I don't think I could ever run a campaign there. 

I don't mean that as a criticism of Hârn – far from it, in fact. Rather, it's simply a statement that, for the kind of fantasy roleplaying gaming I enjoy, Hârn isn't now nor has it ever been a particularly good fit. What I mean by that is that, as much as I admire and appreciate the work of its creator, the late N. Robin Crossby, it's a bit too grounded a setting for my tastes. I prefer my fantasy worlds a little weirder and, well, fantastical. (Yes, I am aware of the Gargun and, yes, they are weird, but that's simply not enough for me.)

Nevertheless, the overwhelming quality of the materials produced for Hârn has ensured I've bought a number of them over the years, a few of which I think very highly. One of these is the Ivinia regional module, which was originally released as a boxed set in 1985. Ivinia is the name of an area to the northeast of the island of Hârn, one that's home to a collection of petty kingdoms that bear some similarity to those of early medieval Scandinavia.

If there's one thing fantasy roleplayers like, it's Vikings and Ivinia definitely scratches that itch. The book included with the boxed set gives this northerly region the same treatment as Hârn. There's an overview of Ivinia's history and culture, including religion, law, and military capabilities. There are also descriptions of the numerous Ivinian kingdoms and their rulers. What strikes me about this material is the way that Crossby presents something that feels very much like one's imaginings of Viking era Scandinavia without simply copying it. This was the same approach he took with Hârn itself, which feels like Anglo-Saxon England without duplicating its specific details. 

That might not seem like an impressive feat but it is. Too often, in my experience, fantasy settings are little more than copy-and-paste reproductions of medieval Europe with elves, dwarves, and magic added to them (and, to be fair, even Hárn suffers from this to an extent). Ivinia tries to avoid by varying the details of the local cultures from the real world ones that inspired them. For example, the Ivinians practice formal polygamy, which has far-reaching consequences for the way their society is structured. Changes like this, along with unique Ivinian names and words, go a long way toward making the region feel unique and distinctive.

Like Hârn, Ivinia includes an absolutely beautiful map of the region. Maps are one of those aspects of Hârn products that has always set it apart from most other fantasy settings. The map style reminds me a bit of those from National Geographic or a historical atlas. 

I'm a sucker for maps of all kinds. That probably explains why I've bought as many Hârn products as I have. Whatever else one can say about them, the maps are gorgeous and almost worth the price of admission alone.

I really like Ivinia and wish I could say that I've made extensive use of it over the years. Of course, that's true of all of the Hârn products I own. It's very well made, filled with lots of interesting details and artwork. I've enjoyed reading it many times, but I've never quite felt inspired enough by it to make use of it in a campaign. That probably says more about me and my own preferences than it does about Ivinia and thank goodness for that. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Official AD&D Figures Collection is Here

TSR fanboy that I was, I was naturally also a buyer of the AD&D miniatures produced by Grenadier Models. How could I not be? After all, these were "the only figures officially approved for use by the AD&D Game Originators," in the strange turn of phrase of the advertisement below (which appeared on the back cover of White Dwarf issue #24).
I remember lots of ads for Grenadier in  Dragon (usually the inside back cover), but they were mostly pretty goofy and didn't include close-up photos of the figures, as this one does. What's interesting is that Grenadier only had the AD&D for a short period of time – 1981–1983, I believe – during which they produced a lot of boxed sets and blister packs. That's likely one of the reasons why I so strongly associate the company with my memories of AD&D. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Maze of the Enchanter

A characteristic of older fantasy that's fallen out of favor in recent decades is the more whimsical – or at least less rigorous – approach to world building than that evinced in, for example, Middle-earth and its legion of imitators. The action of many pulp fantasies occurred in weird worlds whose creators cared little for consistency, let alone plausibility. Clark Ashton Smith's Xiccarph is a world of this sort, an alien realm possessed of three suns and four moons. Consequently, its nights are short and its most abundant forms of life are a wide variety of deadly and toxic plants. 

Smith wrote only two tales of Xiccarph, the first of which was "The Maze of the Enchanter." He had a great deal of trouble selling the story, which suffered repeated rejections, first at the hands of Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and then Astounding Stories and Esquire. Nevertheless, Smith was very pleased with it. In a letter to August Derleth, he described it as "ultra-fantastic, full-hued and ingenious, with an extra twist or two in the tail for luck." With no other outlet for the piece, he included it in The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, a 30-page volume Smith self-published in June 1933. (An abbreviated version would eventually appear in Weird Tales under the title "The Maze of Maal Dweb" in October 1938.)

The story opens with a man named Tiglari, his "naked body smeared from crown to heel with the juice of a jungle plant repugnant to all the fauna of Xiccarph," surreptitiously attempting to enter :the ever-mysterious and terrible house of Maal Dweb." Maal Dweb, we learn, is a "half-demoniac sorcerer and scientist," who rules as a tyrant and whom Tiglari hopes to slay

not for himself but for the girl Athlé, his beloved and the fairest of his tribe, who had gone up alone that very evening by the causey of corundum and the porphyry stairs at the summons of Maal Dweb. [Tiglari's] hatred was that of a brave man and an outraged lover for the all-powerful, all-dreaded tyrant whom no man had ever seen, and from whose abode no woman came back; who spoke with an iron voice that was audible at will in the far cities or the outmost jungles; who punished the rebellious and the disobedient with a doom of falling fire that was swifter than the thunderstone. 
Tiglari is not alone is his "uncouth adoration" of Athlé. The warrior Mocair is the most formidable rival for the maiden's affections and Tiglari believed that he had already made his way to the home of Maal Dweb ahead of him. There was thus no time to delay, lest Mocair rescue Athlé rather than himself. 

Like any tyrannical sorcerer-scientist worthy of the name, Maal Dweb had protected his home with numerous traps, as well as monstrous guardians of many sorts, not least of them being "iron servitors … whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel." Against all these dangers, he was well prepared; he made his way past them all until he found himself in the sorcerer's harem, "peopled with all the girls that the enchanter had summoned to his mountain dwelling over the course of decades." 

In fact, it seemed that there were many hundreds, leaning or recumbent on ornate couches, or standing in attitudes of languor or terror. Tiglari discerned in the throng the woman of Ommu-Zain, whose flesh is whiter than desert salt; the slim girls of Uthmai, who are moulded from breathing, palpitating jet; the queenly amber girls of equatorial Xala; and the small women of Ilap, who have tones of newly greening bronze. But among them all, he could not find the lilied beauty of Athlé.

As he surveys the women, Tiglari notes that they "had been made the thralls of a death-like spell of immortal slumber," making them appear almost as if they were statues. He pressed on, toward a nearby chamber, in which he beheld a man reclining as if in sleep. 

The face of the man was a pale mask of mystery lying amid ambiguous shadows; but it did not occur to Tiglario that this being was any other than the redoubtable tyrannic sorcerer whom he had come to slay. He knew that this was Maal Dweb, whom no man had seen in the flesh, but whose power was manifest to all; the occult, omniscient ruler of Xiccarph, the overland of kings; the suzerain of the three suns and of all their moons and planets. 

Unfortunately for Tiglari, he soon learns that the man before him is an illusion, a mirrored image – another trap of Maal Dweb, who laughed at him, unseen, before asking, "What do you seek, Tiglari?" The young man boasted of his intention to find and free Athlé, to which the voice replied,

"Athlé has gone to find her fate in the labyrinth of Maal Dweb. Not long ago, the warrior Mocair, who had followed her to my palace, went out at my suggestion to pursue his search amid the threadless windings of that never to be exhausted maze. Go now, Tiglari, and seek her also … There are many mysteries in my labyrinth; and among them, mayhap, there is one which you are destined to solve." 

"The Maze of the Enchanter" is an unusual story om that, as Smith claimed in his letter to Derleth quoted above, there's a twist or two in its conclusion. I won't spoil it here, but will only say that the story's ending is not a happy one – unless one is Maal Dweb. Smith is almost unique in the history of pulp fantasy for sympathizing with his evil sorcerers, or at least presenting their thoughts and perspectives sympathetically. It's what sets him apart from both Lovecraft, whose antagonists' motives are largely inscrutable, and Howard, whose dark magicians are never portrayed as anything but villains to be cut down. It's one of the reasons I think Smith and stories like this are well worth reading: they do something different in a genre that is too often filled with banal imitation.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Elemental Honorifics

The Olyosh Dras Chamri (“Principles of Hidden Power”) asserts that there are five primordial elements out of which everything in the Four Worlds is constituted: energy, matter, mind, time, and void. The sages of the Light of Kulvu incorporated this idea into their metaphysics, thereby ensuring it became widespread. In doing so, they also popularized the custom of granting special honorific prefixes to people, places, or objects demonstrating exemplary qualities thought to spring from an element. These honorifics all derive from Hejeksayaka, the so-called “Exalted Speech” of the Makers in which many magical texts are written.

Energy: ja– (“mighty”)

The element of energy denotes power, motion, and heat. Energy feeds the element of mind, making sorcery possible. It also accelerates the element of time, thereby playing a role in the end of all things.

The archons of the final cycles of the Empire of the Light of Kulvu routinely added this honorific to their regnal names. Meanwhile, Men acknowledge the deeds of the Ga’andrin hero Hejneka by declaring him ja-Hejneka (though the Ga’andrin themselves do not do so).

Matter: ba– (“invulnerable”)

The element of matter refers specifically to inorganic substances, such as clay, glass, or metal. Matter feeds energy, which is why sorcerers typically avoid carrying items associated with this element. Matter also impedes the element of mind.

The fortress of Kuruma, which withstood continuous siege for eight years without yielding to the forces of Nektekash, is often referred to as ba-Kuruma in recognition of its impregnability. Likewise, the warrior-king Meshakur is lauded as ba-Meshakur for his single-handed defense of Suritanesh Pass during the legendary battle of that name.

Mind: sha– (“true”)

The element of mind includes all immaterial substances, including both spiritual entities and concepts. Mind perceives the element of time and comprehends the element of void.

The world of mortal beings is dubbed sha-Arthan in the belief that it is the True World, in contrast to the False or Mirror World. Similarly, devotees sometimes dub the Light of Kulvu sha-Takun – “the true teaching” – as a sign of respect.

Time: da– (“eternal”)

The element of time encompasses past, present, and future, which places it in the paradoxical role of simultaneously upholding fixity, transience, and change. Time is generally held to weaken the element of matter and to generate the element of void, though this interpretation is not universally accepted.

The ancient capital of the king-emperors of Inba Iro, da-Imer, bears the honorific of time, owing to its great antiquity. Also, the people of Allakun-Tenu regularly invoke their god as da-Ten, because they believe him to be everlasting, unlike the lesser gods of other lands.

Void: cha– (“barren”)

The element of void describes cold, emptiness, and entropy. Void is held to dissipate energy but also to coalesce into matter, suggesting that, despite its generally negative qualities, it plays a role in creation and the generation of new things.

There is an island located in the Sea of Mejal all of whose inhabitants, both human and animal, disappeared more than a millennium ago in a magical cataclysm. Now called cha-Siritana, the island is home only to ruins.

Double Damage and "Instant Death"

 Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) contains the following section:

This is the first appearance of what would later be called a "critical hit" in the history of roleplaying games. Since the start of my ongoing House of Worms campaign, I've made use of this rule without modification. According to one of the players, there have only been four such "lucky hits" (as Professor Barker called them) in the nearly seven years we've been been playing, all of which affected opponents of the characters – until our most recent session.

During Session 253, the characters were exploring a series of caverns beneath a ruined step pyramid they'd found on a coastal island. There was plenty of reason to suspect the caverns were inhabited, not least of which being that they seem to have been picked clean of anything organic. This worried Kirktá, the apprentice to Keléno, scholar priest of Sárku. For that reason, he volunteered to keep watch on the ledges of a large cave while his comrades explored nearby. His worries proved well founded, as a large insectoid creature began to crawl down one of the ledges, apparently attracted by the echoes of the characters' actions.

Aíthfo and Grujúng rushed to meet the creature, attacking it as it slowly descended the wall of the ledge. They soon realize that its carapace protected it well and that, owing to its size, it would take a great deal of effort to slay it. Initially, the fight went well, with the creature failing to land a blow on any of the characters. However, on the third round of the fight, I rolled for a 20 and then a 19 against Aíthfo, resulting in his instant death. I decided that the creature's mandibles sliced through the unlucky Aíthfo's neck, severing his head from his body. 

Needless to say, this shocked everyone. No character had ever suffered an instant death due to the critical hit rule before. Ironically, Aíthfo had failed a saving throw some years ago that had resulted in his death, but he was eventually restored to life by Naqsái magic (which led to some long-ranging consequences). Now, though, the characters were quite far from any means of revivifying Aíthfo and worried that this might indeed be his end. Znayáshu, however, had an idea. After sewing his decapitated head back onto his body – Znayáshu is an accomplished embalmer – he made use of his excellent ruby eye on Aíthfo's remains. This device of the Ancients freezes its target in a moment in time. In this way, the body would be immune to decay or corruption until Znayáshu used the eye on it again. The body was then submerged in the water of an underground river to keep it safe.

The characters continue to explore the caverns. Once done, they plan to seek out some means of revivifying Aíthfo and will return to the caverns to do so. How or when this will occur is still unknown. Given the way this campaign unfolds, it could well be many, many more sessions before it comes to pass, assuming it ever does. But that's the nature of this campaign: it's unpredictable. In the meantime, Aíthfo's player has taken up the role of Lára hiKhánuma, a sorceress of Ksárul and a relative of Aíthfo's new wife (or should I say widow?). It will be fascinating to see what happens next.
Aíthfo in happier times