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

Friday, January 14, 2022

Grognard's Grimoire: Dritlor

Dritlor (Doomed Dead)

The people of Inba Iro burn their dead, believing the soul can only return to the eternal gods if so liberated from the prison of the flesh. For this reason, the priests of Jilho the Protector deny condemned lawbreakers cremation. Through sorcery, they instead compel them to serve after execution as guardians of the upper levels of the Vaults. Only fire can permanently end a dritlor's earthly bondage or else it reanimates not long after its apparent destruction. 

AC 7 [12], HD 2* (9hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d8 or by weapon), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 60’ (20’), SV D12 V13 P14 B15 S16 (1), ML 12, XP 25, NA 2d4 (4d6), TT None

  • Guardians: Always attacks on sight
  • Undead: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.
  • Reanimation: If destroyed (0hp), stitches itself back together and fights again in 2d6 rounds.
  • Fire: Cannot reanimate if burned after destruction.
A dritlor by Zhu Bajiee

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Le Château des Sortilèges

Le Château des Sortilèges appeared in issue #4 of the French games magazine, Jeux et Stratégie in 1980. Designed by François Marcela-Froideval, it's not quite a roleplaying game as we'd understand it today, but neither is it a simple boardgame. Instead, it seems to be a hybrid of the two, like a more sophisticated version of Dungeon! Here's the map:
The influence of Dungeons & Dragons on Le Château des Sortilèges is very clear, particularly when you look at its counters.
The depictions of the zombie, ghoul, troll, and goblin all look remarkably like those in the AD&D Monster Manual. For comparison, here's Dave Trampier's goblin from the MM:
The second collection of counters also includes illustrations that are obviously derivative of those in the Monster Manual. Pay close attention to the demon, for example, which appears to have been cribbed from Sutherland's Asmodeus. Several of the other counters show resemblances to artwork by both Trampier and Dave Sutherland.
I'd never heard of Le Château des Sortilèges before and am grateful to reader Adamo Dagradi for sharing these images with me. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a fascinating time, as many of the foundational concepts we now associate with fantasy were in the process of being formed. I imagine this process was especially fascinating in countries outside the English-speaking world about which I know comparatively little. Le Château des Sortilèges is a good example of what was happening in France during this period. I have no doubt there are many more fantasy games like this one that offer insight into the early development of the genre. 

"I am the emperor of dreams"

I can think of no better way to commemorate the 129th anniversary of the birth of Clark Ashton Smith than to quote, as I will below, the first stanza from his 1922 poem, "The Hashish Eater (or The Apocalypse of Evil)." This is likely Smith's most famous poem, written nearly a decade before his name first appeared in the pages of Weird Tales. Smith, one must recall, began his literary career as a poet, the protégé of George Sterling. Likewise, in the years following the deaths of both his friend, H.P. Lovecraft, and his parents, Smith abandoned fiction entirely to return to poetry, a pursuit that, along with sculpture, occupied him for the remainder of his life. Smith wrote fiction to pay the bills, but it was poetry that mattered most to him, hence my decision to mark his birthday with this excerpt.


Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.
Like rampant monsters roaring for their glut,
The fiery-crested oceans rise and rise,
By jealous moons maleficently urged
To follow me for ever; mountains horned
With peaks of sharpest adamant, and mawed
With sulphur-lit volcanoes lava-langued,
Usurp the skies with thunder, but in vain;
And continents of serpent-shapen trees,
With slimy trunks that lengthen league by league,
Pursue my flight through ages spurned to fire
By that supreme ascendance; sorcerers,
And evil kings, predominantly armed
With scrolls of fulvous dragon-skin whereon
Are worm-like runes of ever-twisting flame,
Would stay me; and the sirens of the stars,
With foam-like songs from silver fragrance wrought,
Would lure me to their crystal reefs; and moons
Where viper-eyed, senescent devils dwell,
With antic gnomes abominably wise,
Heave up their icy horns across my way.
But naught deters me from the goal ordained
By suns and eons and immortal wars,
And sung by moons and motes; the goal whose name
Is all the secret of forgotten glyphs
By sinful gods in torrid rubies writ
For ending of a brazen book; the goal
Whereat my soaring ecstasy may stand
In amplest heavens multiplied to hold
My hordes of thunder-vested avatars,
And Promethèan armies of my thought,
That brandish claspèd levins. There I call
My memories, intolerably clad
In light the peaks of paradise may wear,
And lead the Armageddon of my dreams
Whose instant shout of triumph is become
Immensity's own music: for their feet
Are founded on innumerable worlds,
Remote in alien epochs, and their arms
Upraised, are columns potent to exalt
With ease ineffable the countless thrones
Of all the gods that are or gods to be,
And bear the seats of Asmodai and Set
Above the seventh paradise.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Impossible Whoppers

Retrospective: Outdoor Survival

I don't think I'd ever heard of Outdoor Survival prior to 2007. That's the year when I first started looking seriously into the history of Dungeons & Dragons, with a special focus on the original 1974 version of the game. What I soon discovered is that this rather odd 1972 Avalon Hill game played a role, albeit a minor one, in the development of D&D. Nowadays, I think this fact is pretty well known, even among those who don't play old school RPGs, but, at the time, it was news to me. This is in spite of the fact that Volume 1 of the Little Brown Books includes Outdoor Survival on page 5, as the second entry in its list of "recommended equipment," right after D&D itself.

The actual use of Outdoor Survival in D&D isn't explained until fairly late in OD&D, about halfway through the third and final volume. There, in a section entitled "The Wilderness," it's suggested that the referee use the game's board for "off-hand adventures in the wilderness," which is to say, adventures whose wilderness locales are not determined by the referee beforehand. Because of this, it was once quite fashionable in the OSR to base one's starting campaign map on the one in Outdoor Survival, a fad I myself could not resist

None of this says anything about Outdoor Survival itself, though. As I said in my opening paragraph above, it's designed by James F. Dunnigan, a legend in the wargames world. His first design, Jutland, was published by Avalon Hill in 1967, followed by many others, including PanzerBlitz in 1970 (also from AH). Dunnigan was also the founder of SPI and, believe it or not, the designer of the Dallas RPG. It's worth noting here that the game indicates that it was "produced and jointly distributed by the Avalon Hill Game Company … and Stackpole Books." Unlike Avalon Hill, Stackpole Books still exists and is a publisher of nonfiction books about arts and crafts, travel, and the outdoors. (As I understand it, Dunnigan claims, in his The Complete Wargames Handbook, to have designed Outdoor Survival as part of a bet about his ability to design a game on any subject.)

In addition to the game rules and the components needed to play, Outdoor Survival included a 24-page booklet entitled "A Primer about Wilderness Skills for Players of the Game." This is an honest-to-goodness handbook on the basics of surviving in the wild, covering everything from direction finding to killing and tracking game to first aid and more. Flipping through it reminded me of Boy Scout Handbook I had in elementary school. Its back page is an advertisement for larger treatments of all these topics in books sold by, you guessed it, Stackpole Books.  

The game proper is comparatively simple. As its title suggests, it's intended as "a simulation of the essential conditions for staying alive when unprotected man is beset by his environment." The celebrated game board represents a wild area consisting of 13,200 square miles, with a wide variety of terrain types (woods, rough, desert, swamp, etc.). This area is divided into hexagons five kilometers (three miles) across. This makes me wonder if OD&D's use of five-mile hexes is the result of a misreading of the rules to Outdoor Survival or a deliberate choice on the part of Arneson and/or Gygax. I doubt I'm the first person to have noticed this seeming discrepancy.

Play depends on which of five scenarios one chooses. They consist of "Lost," "Survival," "Search," "Rescue," and "Pursue," each with slightly different rules and victory conditions. In general, though, each scenario involves the player or players – solo play is possible – attempting to navigate the board's variable terrain in order to find food, water, and shelter, while avoiding various natural hazards. Each player keeps track of his counter's "life level," which measures food and water consumption. The less of each recently consumed, the slower the counter can move. Play is actually quite simple at its base, though there are a number of optional rules that add further "realism" and complexity, should one desire such a thing.  

Though I own a copy of Outdoor Survival for "research purposes," I've never actually played it. From what I have gathered online, opinion about its virtues is quite divided, with some viewing it as a straightforward, easy-to-learn introduction to simulation games and others seeing it as dull and tedious. Whatever the truth of the matter, it has a place in the early history of Dungeons & Dragons for the role it played in the conception of wilderness travel. That's not insignificant. If nothing else, it's a reminder that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Knights of Camelot Art

The more I look into TSR's 1980 boardgame, Knights of Camelot, the more entranced I've become by it. Take a look at some of its counters, with art that looks to me like the work of Dave Sutherland:

Mind you, I have an inordinate fondness for counters, so perhaps not everyone will be as impressed as I am. In that case, here are some interior illustrations for your delectation:

If you're a fan of TSR's artwork from that remarkable period between 1979 and 1982 as I am, this is like catnip. Darlene's map, which serves as the game board, is similarly eye-catching.
What a terrific looking game this must have been! I wish I'd seen a copy back when it was originally released. The legends of Arthur and his knights played a huge role in my early introduction to the hobby, so I imagine I would have enjoyed this game as much as I did Greg Stafford's masterful Pendragon.

Thanks, once again, to Thaddeus Moore for providing me with these images.