Monday, July 8, 2024

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Trolls

It's well known that, in populating the bestiary of Dungeons & Dragons, Arneson and Gygax regularly looked beyond mythology and folklore for inspiration. Such is obviously the case with the troll, which borrows heavily from the monster's description in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions right down to its green color and ability to regenerate. Unlike many of the other monsters we've looked at in this series, the troll's appearance is remarkably consistent during the TSR era of D&D. Despite the large number of artists who've drawn this horrid creature, nearly all of them seem to be using its initial appearance in 1977's Monster Manual as a guide.

In point of fact, the troll appears twice in the MM, both times drawn by Dave Sutherland. The first is on the cover:

Perhaps because it's likely the first time I ever saw a D&D troll, I've always been quite fond of this particular illustration of it. The interior of the book gives us this second depiction:
This second piece is unusual in that it depicts the same monster from two angles, like a model sheet. I can't think of any other monsters drawn this way in the Monster Manual. 

During the same year, Minifigs produced a figure of a troll that looks almost identical to that of Sutherland's illustration (unless the inspiration goes in the other direction). In any case, the troll's primary physical characteristics seem to be its tall, lanky body; tooth-filled mouth, long nose, black, deep-set eyes, and bristly black hair atop its elongated head. 
The next year, 1978, sees quite a large number of troll illustrations, starting with this one by Dave Trampier, which appeared in module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King:
Though Tramp's style is quite different from Sutherland's, his trolls nevertheless look identical. Speaking of Sutherland, here's another one by him, this time from module D1, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, about which I've posted before, because it's a favorite of mine.
What a terrific piece! Not only is it a great battle scene, featuring men in historical armor fighting a band of trolls, it also includes possibly the only depiction of the severed body parts of a troll fighting independently. It's such a signature element of the monster that I'm surprised there are no other such depictions (you'll tell me if I'm wrong in the comments).

Tramp returns for this fun illustration from the Players Handbook:
1980 brings us more trolls, starting with a Grenadier Models miniature that looks very much like the Sutherland original:
Then there's this one by Jeff Dee, appearing in the Arthurian Heroes section of Deities & Demigods
1981's Fiend Folio introduces us to several new troll variants. Though they are different sub-species, you can still see a "family resemblance," starting with this giant troll by Russ Nicholson:
Then there's the giant, two-headed troll, another illustration by Dee:
At the dawn of the Second Edition era, Jim Holloway provides this image of a troll for the Monstrous Compendium. Despite its small alterations to the template late down in 1977, this is still very recognizable as the same creature Sutherland originally drew.

Finally, there's Tony DiTerlizzi's take from the Monstrous Manual, which is – again – just a variation on Sutherland's. There's a reason why I continue to argue that Dave Sutherland is perhaps the single most important and influential artist in the game's history
So, what have I missed? Are there any notably different takes on trolls during the TSR era? Or do they all follow in Sutherland's footsteps as these do?

Friday, July 5, 2024

Polyhedron: Final Thoughts

In my post about issue #30 of Polyhedron, I promised I'd do write a summation of my thoughts about the RPGA newszine before taking up my next series about a gaming periodical (more on that below). A combination of distraction and forgetfulness led to my not following through on that promise until today. As it turns out, this delay was probably for the best, as it's given me more time to reflect on my feelings about Polyhedron – why it worked, why it didn't, and its place within the history of the early hobby.

As I've explained before, I joined the RPGA around the time issue #8 was published (October 1982), which would have been just shy of my thirteenth birthday. I did so almost entirely to gain access to Polyhedron, which I (mistakenly) saw simply as another gaming magazine akin to Dragon, to which I was already subscribed. At that particular point in my life, I lived and breathed everything TSR, so it seemed only natural that I'd want to subscribe to their other RPG periodical. I had zero interest in the RPGA itself. I was not a regular attendee of gaming conventions – I wouldn't actually attend one until 1991 – and had no interest in tournaments. My only reason for joining was to get Polyhedron delivered to my mailbox.

Consequently, I was frequently disappointed in Polyhedron. Not only was it much shorter than Dragon in terms of page count, but its content was also often too focused (in my opinion anyway) on matters of little interest to me, like the results of Dungeons & Dragons tournaments, changes to the scoring system for these tournaments, and similar ephemera. If you look back over my recent reviews of the 'zine's issues, some of that disinterest is still very much in evidence there. I never understood why it was that so many pages were given over to covering cons and subjects related to them. To me, that seemed like a waste of space that could have been better served by the inclusion of new articles about TSR roleplaying games.

While I portray this as my problem, I get the impression that quite a number of people who subscribed to Polyhedron felt similarly. That's why, as time went by, its page count expanded and its content started to include of the material that I'd always been looking for. I was especially pleased when I'd see articles penned by TSR employees, like James M. Ward or Frank Mentzer, because they carried with them an air of authority that, in my younger days, was important. It seems silly in retrospect, but, as a good disciple of "TSR Gary," I'd accept no substitutes when it came to my gaming material. If it didn't come from TSR or someone associated with the company, I'd have no part of it. Polyhedron thus filled an important role of (eventually) providing me with more TSR-approved content for its RPGs.

Even so, the content in Polyhedron was wildly inconsistent, even when penned by luminaries of the hobby. While I, for example, appreciated all the new Gamma World articles that appeared in Polyhedron over the course of the years I subscribed to it, a lot of those articles felt like filler rather than carefully considered content. This was true of the articles published to support other games, too. That's not to say there weren't numerous excellent pieces – far from it – but, compared to Dragon or White Dwarf, they were fewer. The quality of the articles became even more wildly inconsistent as more of its articles were written by RPGA members rather than TSR staffers. This is understandable, since, as I've noted before, Polyhedron did not pay for its articles. Any writer of real talent would thus focus his attentions on getting published in Dragon instead. 

Based on my re-reading of the first thirty issues of Polyhedron, I don't think TSR ever really had a clear sense of what to do with Polyhedron. Initially, the goal was probably to produce a short periodical to keep members of the RPGA abreast of its activities, with some "exclusive" content to make members feel special. Once people like me started joining the RPGA solely for access to that exclusive content, its editors responded – haphazardly, it's true – with constant expansions and innovations intended to appeal to this new group of members. The result was a periodical that varied a lot from issue to issue, both in terms of content and quality. Polyhedron was constantly reinventing itself and it showed.

That said, I still have an affection for Polyhedron. I wouldn't have devoted so many posts to covering it if I hadn't. Nevertheless, I also view it as more of a mixed success than Dragon or White Dwarf, both of which eventually settled into a solid consistency. That's why I subscribed to both of them longer than I did to Polyhedron and why, even now, I'm much more likely to reference articles or ideas that first appeared in their pages rather than those in Polyhedron. 

Which brings me to the next series I'll be undertaking: The Articles of Dragon. Longtime readers might well ask, "Haven't you already done an Articles of Dragon series?" Yes, I have, but I will be taking a slightly different tack with this "relaunch." In the past, I focused only on a single article from each issue and then summarized it. Now, I wish to write about each and every article that made an impression on me in my younger days and why. This might mean I will linger over one issue for several posts, while other issues will be skipped entirely. The only consideration is whether or not an article had an impact on me or my gaming. This series is, therefore, as much about my own development as a roleplayer and referee as it is about the articles themselves. We'll see if this slightly different approach proves to be appealing or not ...

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Retrospective: Secret of the Slavers Stockade

The "Slave Lords" series of AD&D modules consists of four modules, beginning with Slave Lords of the Undercity, about which I have fond, if complicated, feelings. Truth be told, that's true of all the modules in the A-series, They're a mix of compelling ideas, some memorable encounters, and contrived situations in order to serve their purpose as tournament scenarios. When TSR published them, the designers cleaned them up for more general use, to varying degrees of effectiveness. 

The second module in the series, Secret of the Slavers Stockade, by Harold Johnson with assistance from Tom Moldvay, is, in my opinion, one of the better ones. Its premise is that the characters have a map to an old fort in the hills that is really a front for the salvers. Their goal is to investigate the fort and, if possible, disrupt the operations of the slavers within. It's a solid basis for an adventure, one that demands stealth and thoughtful action to succeed.

The fort (the titular Slavers' Stockade, which gets an apostrophe in the text but not on the cover) is large and well defended, with plenty of guards whose presence makes it difficult for the characters to move about. In fact, the place is so well defended that the tournament scoring system operates under the assumption that, after three hours of play, the characters will not make it very far into the fort. In addition, there's a section specifically devoted to "hill fort strategy," detailing how the guards will respond once it becomes apparent there are intruders in their midst. That's not even factoring in wandering monsters. In short, the characters have their job cut out for them.

Ultimately, to put an end to the threat of the Stockade, the characters will need to find and kill its overseer, Markessa, an evil female elf fighter/magic-user, who keeps a pet owlbear and is guarded by goblins. Here's Bill Willingham's [I'd originally incorrectly identified this as Roslof's work – JM] illustration of her and two goblins.

These goblins look a lot like Roslof's depiction of them for the AD&D Monster Cards in 1982, the year after the publication of this module. Once again, I find myself absolutely fascinated by the variability in the way some humanoid monsters are drawn in Dungeons & Dragons, with goblins having some of the greatest variability. 

The module includes some of other interesting illustrations, such as that of a new monster, the boggle, drawn by Jeff Dee.
I draw your attention to the boggle because he's not terribly dissimilar in general appearance to Roslof's goblins. Of course, he also looks a bit like Gollum from the 1978 Ralph Bakshi The Lord of the Rings animated film, so what do I know? The module includes several "tactical maps" for major encounters, which are decorated with illustrations of some of the monsters found in the Stockade.
Both of these figures are drawn by Jeff Dee: the upper left being a goblin and the bottom right a kobold. Both look very similar to those drawn by Roslof for the Monster Cards. That makes me wonder if perhaps there was some level of art direction at TSR during this time or if it's simply a case of a group of artists who all cribbed from one another when drawing these creatures. I simply don't know the answer at this point, but I must confess that I'm now of a mind to see if I can find out.

In any case, Secret of the Slavers Stockade has the potential to be a fun module, if your players enjoy sneaking around and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. If not, it's probably going to turn into a huge combat slog and will likely result in one or more character deaths. The latter was my own experience of refereeing it in my youth, but, in those days, we were much more tolerant of gigantic slugfests than I am today. Even careful players will likely find this a difficult module, so I won't be surprised if many commenters don't share my largely positive opinion of it, which is fair. For me, I appreciate that Johnson didn't make the Stockade easy to overrun. This is, after all, the headquarters of a powerful evil organization; it should be a dangerous place and it is. 
Have a blurry orc by Jeff Dee

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Kobold Variants

Investigating the art of TSR era Dungeons & Dragons is a deep rabbit hole and I expect I'll be delving into it a great deal over the next few weeks. Apologies in advance to those of you who don't find this sort of thing nearly as interesting as I do. That's why I'm briefly going to return to the subject of kobolds.

Lore Suto reminded me that Jim Roslof did some illustrations of kobolds for AD&D module A4, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Here they are:

These kobolds look very similar to those he drew for the AD&D Monster Cards in that they're, for lack of a better word, more impish in appearance than the small, scaly dog-men of the Monster Manual. Also in the same module is a second depiction of a kobold, this time by Erol Otus, who had previously drawn a kobold for the Tom Moldvay Basic D&D rulebook.
The kobold above is actually dead, reanimated via myconid spores. Even so, its appearance differs from that of Roslof's kobolds earlier in the same module. Otus's depiction is closer to those in the MM, in spite of the fact that he had previously drawn a kobold for Basic D&D with different characteristics. It's fascinating and makes me wonder about the nature of art direction during the days of TSR. Were all these variants the result of a conscious policy or was there not much direction, leaving artists largely to their own devices? 

They're Multiplying ...!

The discussion surrounding the depiction of gnolls in TSR era Dungeons & Dragons has been quite lively, both in the comments and in emails sent to me privately. Another commenter pointed me toward an even more obscure gnoll illustration.

This full-page piece originally appeared in 1981's The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and is by Stephen D. Sullivan. There are two gnolls depicted above, both in the center of the illustration. The first is standing upright, grappling with a sword-wielding fighter. The other is on the ground, biting at the fighter's leg. It's an odd thing to depict, since I don't recall gnoll's having a bite attack in any TSR edition of D&D, but, if I am mistaken about this, I am certain one of you will correct me. 

In any case, Sullivan's gnolls teeter on the line between looking properly hyena-like and more canine/lupine. Personally, I prefer it when monsters are their own thing, not just real-world animals with a few bits added or subtracted, so I don't want gnolls to look exactly like hyenas. At the same time, I also don't want them to be dog or wolf-men either (though, interestingly, The Keep on the Borderlands) does, on its rumor table, describe them as "big dog-men," so what do I know? 

OK, One More

Once again, my readers have demonstrated that they have better memories than I. There is indeed an illustration of a gnoll in The Secret of Bone HillThe illustration in question is by Harry Quinn, an underappreciated TSR artist whose name is rarely brought up in discussions like these.

A couple of things immediately strike me about this piece. Most obviously, the gnoll definitely looks more wolfish than hyena-like, an impression that's probably heightened by the fact that there are also two actual wolves depicted here. In addition, this gnoll seems to be wearing the same kind of attire (padded or scaled shirt with a leather skirt and huge girdle) originally seen in Sutherland's Monster Manual illustration. Likewise, he wields a spear, which, based on previous illustrations seems to be the signature weapon of gnolls (assuming we count polearms as a flavor of spear).

I find it fascinating how often a single artist set the terms for all those who followed him. As I look more closely at the depictions of various humanoid monsters in D&D, it becomes ever clearer how common this is throughout the game's early history. This is especially true, I think, for monsters, humanoid or otherwise, that are unique to Dungeons & Dragons. Since there was no prior tradition of them on which to draw, there was a good chance that the work of the first artist to draw a given monster would become definitive – the one later artists would look to for inspiration in their own work. That's clearly what has happened in the case of gnolls, even if, as in Harry Quinn's case, he introduced some variations of his own.

Monday, July 1, 2024

One More

Reader Lore Suto pointed out that I'd overlooked an important early illustration of the gnoll – by Erol Otus, no less! The image appears on the cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. Appearing in 1980, I have a great fondness for this particular product, which I used a lot in my youth. That's why I can't believe I'd forgotten that the cover featured a party of adventurers squaring off against a gnoll.

It's a terrific illustration that recalls Sutherland's original from the Monster Manual, right down to the gnoll's arms and armor. To my eyes, Otus's gnoll looks a bit more wolfish than does Sutherland's, but I like it nonetheless. I like it, too, because it's a good reminder that, despite his reputation for "trippy" visuals, Erol Otus was quite capable of something more akin to "traditional" D&D art, of which this piece is a solid example.

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Gnolls

There's no use in fighting it. You'll be seeing more entries in what has inadvertently become a series for a few more weeks at least, perhaps longer. After last week's post on bugbears, which are a uniquely D&D monstrous humanoid, I knew I'd have to turn to gnolls this week, as they, too, are unique to the game. Perhaps I should clarify that a little. There is no precedent, mythological or literary, for the spelling "gnoll." However, the spelling "gnole" appears in "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles" from Lord Dunsany's 1912 short story collection, The Book of Wonder (as well as in Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles"). 

There can be no doubt that Dunsany's story served as the seeds for the gnolls of D&D. In their description in Book 1 of OD&D, gnolls are described as "a cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany [sic] did not really make it all that clear." The original short story contains no description of the titular creature, leaving Gygax to advance his theory of gnolls being a weird hybrid monster. Artist Greg Bell interprets them thusly:

Sometime in the three years between their first appearance in OD&D (1974) and the publication of the Monster Manual (1977), someone at TSR decided that gnolls were, in fact, "low intelligence beings like hyena-men." That's how they're described in J. Eric Holmes's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where I first encountered them, courtesy of this delightful illustration by Tom Wham:
Meanwhile, the Monster Manual itself, published the same year, gives us this illustration by Dave Sutherland.
The Monster Manual also includes another Sutherland gnoll-related piece, this time of Yeenoghu, the demon lord of gnolls. To my eyes, Yeenoghu looks a lot more hyena-like than does the illustration above, but, even so, they're still broadly similar.
Speaking of Yeenoghu, he reappears in the pages of Deities & Demigods, this time depicted by Dave LaForce. I've always found this version of the demon lord a bit goofy. I'm not sure if it's his grin or the strangeness of the arm that holds his infamous triple flail. 
The AD&D Monster Cards sets are a good source of unusual takes on many monsters and that's especially so in the case of gnolls. Artist Harry Quinn depicts them in a way that, to my eyes, looks decidedly feline. To anyone familiar with the weird phylogenetics of hyenas, that's inappropriate, but it still feels off somehow. Perhaps it's simply the weight of all the previous depictions that makes me think so. In any case, Quinn's version of the gnoll is quite distinctive.
The 2e Monstrous Compendium features what is probably the most hyena-like of all versions of the gnoll, courtesy of James Holloway.
Tony DiTerlizzi provides an even more hyena-like version of the gnoll in the Monstrous Manual, right down the spots on its fur. 
I feel like I have probably overlooked some illustrations of gnolls from the TSR era of D&D, but, if so, they must be fairly obscure, as these are the only ones I could easily find in my collection. What's most notable about the ones I did find is how closely they hew to the post-OD&D notion that gnolls are hyena-men. I'd chalk up most of the differences to artist skill and choice rather than a fundamental disagreement about this fact. In this respect, they're quite similar to bugbears, another distinctly D&D monster whose look stayed largely the same during TSR's stewardship of Dungeons & Dragons.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Against the Black Priory

Back at the start of April, I wrote about my inability to replay the old AD&D computer game, Pool of Radiance. The difficulty lay primarily in its user interface, which was clunky and difficult to use on a contemporary computer. Likewise, the graphics, which looked fine on the screen in the late 1980s, did not translate well on a better monitor with a higher resolution. Consequently, I found it nigh impossible to play, let alone enjoy, Pool of Radiance again (or likely any of the other AD&D computer RPGs from that era). That's a shame, because I'm a fan of computer roleplaying games and am always on the lookout for enjoyable ones.

Fortunately, I stumbled across Skald: Against the Black Priory, a brand new (released May 2024) computer RPG inspired by the 8-bit CRPGs of old, while introducing aspects of modern design to make it more playable on contemporary machines. Though Skald no doubt took a lot of inspiration from games like Bard's Tale – likely explaining its title – one of the things that sets it apart in my opinion is the combination of sword-and-sorcery and cosmic horror of its narrative. Think Robert E. Howard's "Worms of the Earth" or Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea stories and you have a good idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about.

I've enjoyed my time playing the game. It's party-based (with up to six characters) and uses a top-down perspective, in keeping with its inspirations. There are lots of little details hidden throughout the game, both to assist you in your quests and to paint a picture of the overall setting. The game is quite unforgiving at times (again, in keeping with its inspirations). Not only are enemies tough, especially at low levels, but there are some choices you can make that result in automatic death. Though its interface is better suited to modern sensibilities, the game itself is quite old school in its deadliness (though there is an option for "narrative play," if you aren't interested in a challenge).

All in all, I have almost entirely positive feelings about Skald: Against the Black Priory. My biggest complaints are minor (the combat system can be grindy) and are outweighed by the game's cleverness and atmosphere. Playing through it has definitely whetted my appetite for more games like this. Now, I just need to find them ...

Friday, June 28, 2024

REPOST: Have Space Suit – Will Travel

[This is a repost of something I wrote almost four years ago. Last night, I found myself thinking about space suits in science fiction RPGs and decided to write a post about it. As usual, I soon realized I'd done it before. Rather than abandon the idea, I thought I'd repost this, since its initial appearance was very early after I'd returned to blogging and was therefore not widely read.]

When I was a child, I owned a copy of the Marvel Treasury Special adaptation of 2001 by Jack Kirby. I can't recall how I acquired it, though I suspect it was a gift by a well-meaning relative who knew that I liked science fiction. I am certain that I read the comic before I ever saw the movie (which wasn't released on home video until 1980). The combination of Clarke's story, Kubrick's visuals, and Kirby's art was a heady mix and I was equally enthralled and frightened by what I saw in those large newsprint pages. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I became a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey when I finally did see the film and it remains one of my favorite movies. I recently re-watched it; my feelings toward it are unchanged: I consider it not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but one of the greatest films regardless of genre. 

Even if you disagree with that assessment, it's hard to deny how influential the movie is. Without even paying close attention, you can recognize imagery, set designs, costuming, even plot details that have clear echoes in subsequent motion pictures. Ash from Alien owes a lot to HAL 9000, for example, particularly in his having been given a hidden agenda at odds with those of the human characters. Likewise, the Enterprise's encounter with V'ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have been impossible without the final act of 2001, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite."

Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo lunar lanading, astronauts and space suits were everywhere. 2001 has particularly stylish and iconic space suits – so much so that I am convinced the multi-colored thruster suits from the aforementioned Star Trek film are a tribute to those in Kubrick's masterpiece. Come to think of it, Alien also had remarkable space suits, but those are the work of French artist Jean Giraud, better known by his nom de plume, Moebius. 

On the other hand, science fiction like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica didn't have a place for space suits – flight helmets, yes, but not full suits of the sort seen elsewhere. It's probably for this reason that I've subconsciously come to divide space-oriented sci-fi into space suit and non-space suit categories, with the former being more "serious" than the latter. The lack of space suits is something I associate with action-oriented space opera rather than idea-based science fiction. Obviously, this is a completely unfair distinction, one largely based, I imagine, on the prominence that space suits had in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Nevertheless, it's a distinction that's been lurking at the back of my mind since childhood, affecting even my feelings about science fiction roleplaying games. One of the most basic and ubiquitous skills in GDW's Traveller is Vacc Suit (though I've never discovered the origin of the second "c" in the word). Consequently, I've always seen the game as a sober, serious, and indeed thoughtful game, compared to, say, TSR's Star Frontiers, which, while I have a great fondness for it, didn't even mention space suits or their equivalent until the release of the Knights Hawks expansion a year later. Ironically, it was Star Frontiers that saw an adventure module based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, not Traveller, which only goes to show how arbitrary distinctions like this can be.