Thursday, August 18, 2022

"No Game is Worth Dying For ..."

The disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III on August 15, 1979 plays an important role in both the history of Dungeons & Dragons and in my own personal history of involvement in the hobby of roleplaying. The media hoopla surrounding what became known as the "steam tunnels incident" brought D&D to the attention of the American public for the first time and, with it, fears that the game was somehow "dangerous" to those who played it. 

For that reason, it's unsurprising that Tim Kask, editor of Dragon at the time, would pen a lengthy editorial in issue #30 (October 1979), in which he talks about recent events and D&D's purported role in them. Kask is clearheaded and direct: the involvement of D&D in Egbert's disappearance is a mere speculation based on minimal evidence. As we would later learn, D&D played no significant role in this incident and all of the wild tales told about the game and its supposedly baleful effects upon its players were hogwash.

I've reproduced the entirety of Kask's editorial below. It's certainly held up better than the yellow journalism of 60 Minutes, which credulously accepted the unsubstantiated claims of Patricia Pulling. While I personally never experienced any disapproval from family or friends regarding D&D – quite the contrary, in fact – I know many people did. That's why I think it's still important to set the record straight about the events of August 1979 more than four decades later. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

"Abandonment of D&D"

The publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979 completed the rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This event was heralded in the pages of Dragon by numerous articles and essays by people associated with the project, most importantly Gary Gygax, its chief designer. If the letters to the editor that appeared in the following months are any indication, not every Dungeons & Dragons player greeted this news with pleasure. Indeed, there seems to have been some anxiety on the part of some D&D players, who felt that Gygax was not simply "abandoning" his first RPG, but also belittling its players. From the vantage point of the present, these concerns remind me a bit of those voiced by players of other editions of D&D upon learning of a new edition of the game on the horizon. I guess some things never change! 

In the case of AD&D's arrival, it's clear that Gygax's use of "non-game" and similar terms to describe OD&D raised some hackles, as evidenced by letters to the editor in the pages of Dragon. In one case (issue #30, October 1979), such a letter prompted the following response from one of the editors of Dragon (either Tim Kask or Gary Jaquet). The response is fascinating, not just because of its obvious intent assuage concerns about AD&D, but also what it says about the state of the hobby at the time.

Retrospective: Steve Jackson's Sorcery!

I've opined before that the Fighting Fantasy series of solitaire gamebooks must have been very successful for both Penguin/Puffin Books and creators Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Between 1982 and 1995, fifty-nine FF books appeared, penned by many different authors (including a few, as it turns out, by Jackson's American namesake). I read and enjoyed several of them upon their initial release; they were a great way to pass the time when I was unable to get together with my gaming buddies in person. Consequently, I generally looked on the series as a "diversion" rather than a "real" game (something that it arguably didn't become until the publication of Advanced Fighting Fantasy in 1989).

That said, the publication of the first book of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! in 1983 certainly got my attention. Though not explicitly marketed as part of the Fighting Fantasy series, it nevertheless used the same basic game mechanics and format. This made it very easy for readers already familiar with the main FF line to make use of it without too much trouble. However, Sorcery! introduces a number of innovations that set it apart from its predecessors and convinced me that I should give it a go.

To begin with, the story Sorcery! is presented in four different books. Each volume is theoretically playable without reference to the others, but, taken together, the four books forms a continuous narrative that builds on what came before. Rather than rolling up a new character for each book, as one did in other Fighting Fantasy books, the reader of Sorcery! can use the same character from book to book – assuming he survives, of course. This continuity of character might not seem like a big deal, but, at the time, it certainly was. I don't believe any other Fighting Fantasy book did this and the Lone Wolf series, which was quite similar to Sorcery! in this respect, would not appear until 1984.

Another innovation of this series was the capacity to play either a warrior or a wizard. A warrior character was in no way different from the character one typically played in FF books. A wizard, meanwhile, was a rather different experience, thanks in no small part to The Sorcery Spell Book companion volume. The Spell Book describes forty-eight different spells for use with the gamebooks. Each spell had a three-letter name, such as ZAP, which created a lightning bolt or SIX, which created a mirror image of the caster. Spells cost Stamina to cast, limiting the number a wizard could use in the course of a book, since Stamina doubles as your character's hit points. 

More interestingly, the player of a wizard is expected to study the spell book and commit as many of its three-letter spell codes to memory as possible before playing through any of the other books. Referring to the book during play or writing down any of the codes is tantamount to cheating. It's an interesting and immersive way of balancing the use of magic in Sorcery! and I must say I thought it was quite clever when I first encountered it (though I will sheepishly admit to having peaked at the Spell Book occasionally in my initial playthroughs). 

In addition to the Spell Book, Sorcery! consists of four gamebooks: The Shamutanti Hills, Kharé – Cityport of Traps, The Seven Serpents, and The Crown of Kings. Together, they present the situation in which the reader's character finds himself. An evil archmage has stolen an ancient magical artifact known as the Crown of Kings. The Crown grants its wearer supernatural charisma. The archmage intends to make use of it to unite a lawless region under his control and then launch an attack against the civilized nations of the Old World. The reader's character sets out to stop him; his journey takes place over the course of the four books of the series, with each one presenting another portion of it before he finally confronts the archmage in his home territory. 

In terms of its story, Steve Jackson's Sorcery! is nothing special – a salmagundi of fantasy tropes and clichés that we've all seen many times before. However, their presentation is strangely evocative, helped in no small part by the moody artwork of John Blanche, who'd later go on to define much of the world of Warhammer for Games Workshop. Indeed, there are places here and there in Sorcery! where you can catch glimpses of Warhammer before the fact, so the series is of lasting interest from a historical point of view as well. Of course, it's also fun as a gamebook, too. Almost forty years on, I still look back on it very fondly. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

White Dwarf Needs You

White Dwarf: Issue #46

Issue #46 of White Dwarf (October 1983), with its striking cover by Gary Mayes, is one I owned but about which I have few strong memories. I'm not entirely sure why that is, because it's not a bad issue by any means. Were I to guess, I imagine it has more to do with the fact that many of its preceding issues are simply so good that, by comparison, it seems less remarkable. That's actually a fairly common problem during the early '80s when it comes to RPG products more generally: there was a surfeit of good material being published at the time, so much so that it's easy to overlook some of it in retrospect.

Phil Palmer's "Strangers in the Night" kicks off the issue. It's an article devoted to the subject of wandering monsters in AD&D. Palmer's musing on the matter are quite good in my opinion, emphasizing the need to tailor wandering monster tables to the locale to which they're connected, as well as the utility of including random events among their entries. This isn't groundbreaking advice by any means, but it's the kind of thing that gets overlooked, even by experienced referees, so I appreciate his discussion of it.

"Open Box" offers up lengthy reviews of three products, starting with the RuneQuest Companion, which earns an 8 out of 10. Also reviewed is the second edition of FGU's Chivalry & Sorcery. This, too, receives a rating of 8 out of 10, which surprised me somewhat. C&S has a deserved reputation for being quite complex and I assumed that would be held against the game. However, C&S also has a lot of genuinely clever ideas within its pages (e.g. its magic system) and the reviewer felt that those ideas more than outweighed its mechanical unwieldiness. Finally, there's the Mayfair boardgame Sanctuary, based on the Thieves' World series, which received a 7 out of 10. 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" column is very hit or miss with me, in part because the books he reviews vary considerably in content. That's completely understandable, of course. However, it does mean, especially when I re-read these columns, that my interest is often commensurate with whether I've read the books in question. Since this issue's column doesn't include a single book I can recall having read, I'll confess to my eyes glazing over a bit. Apologies to all the Langford fans out there! 

Charles Vasey looks at two fantasy boardgames at some length, Dragonhunt and Titan, both from Avalon Hill. Vasey likes both games, though he gives Titan a slight edge in terms of its design. On the other hand, Dragonhunt seems to him to be more truly fantastical in terms of its presentation and overall subject matter. I own a copy of Dragonhunt, but have never played it, so I can't speak to his claims. I've sadly never set eyes upon Titan, a game that interests me, since it was designed by the late, great TSR artist, Dave Trampier. 

Part 3 of Dave Morris's "Dealing with Demons" is the finale of this series describing demons for use with RuneQuest. It's a very good entry for the same reason that Part 2 was: the demons detailed here are wholly original creations without any basis in existing folklore or mythology. I appreciate the creativity that went into imagining these dark beings, not to mention his enumeration of the books and authors that inspired him. "Worldly Power" by Phil Masters presents a handful of new government types for use with the Traveller world generation system, along with a few adventure seeds that make use of them. This is a perfectly fine article. However, as a Traveller snob, I find most of the material unnecessary, since the existing Traveller government codes can handle nearly all of those Masters proposes without the need for creating new codes.

"The Wizard's Library" by Lewis Pulsipher is a genuinely interesting article. In it, he proposes to look for inspiration for RPGs in non-RPG books. Hardly revolution, you might say and you'd be correct if the books he proposes to use were fiction. Instead, he suggests looking to non-fiction books, such as history, archeology, and architecture books, among others. Like so many things Pulsipher writes, none of this is revolutionary but it's clever nonetheless and might serve as a source of unlikely inspiration for harried referees looking to spice up their campaigns.

Part 5 of Daniel Collerton's "Irilian" presents yet another section of the city, complete with a map, along with an adventure set in this area. The focus this time is on guilds, companies, and societies within the city. There's also a full map of a wizard tower that plays an important role in the accompanying scenario. As with previous entries, this is all very well done and its true value lies not so much in any individual installment as in the piling up of details that lead to a fuller picture of Irilian and its inhabitants. As I believe I mentioned before, in my youth, I found Irilian so well done that I dropped it right into my old campaign setting, albeit under a different name. This is an excellent series and proof of why White Dwarf was such a terrific magazine once upon a time.

"Play-by-Mail Games" by A.D. Young is an overview of computer-moderated PBM games, which, apparently, was a new and interesting thing at the time. Though I never participated in any PBM games, despite my interest, I (again) must confess that this article never got my full attention. That's not a comment on its quality, so much as its age. Neither of the games discussed – Empyrean and Heroic Fantasy – ever crossed my radar back in the day and neither sounds sufficiently interesting even as historical curiosities, alas.

We get more Thrud, The Travellers, and Gobbledigook, which makes me happy, especially the first two comics. "Death in Green" is a D&D/AD&D mini-scenario dealing with yet another secluded rural village that has come under attack by unknown forces. In this case, the forces are a variety of plant monsters – six kinds in fact – that are this month's "Fiend Factory" entries. "Swashbuckler!," meanwhile, is a collection of rules suggestions for spicing up combat in RuneQuest with moves worthy of Errol Flynn. Finally, there's "The Hellwalk Spell" by Lewis Pulsipher. Inspired by Roger Zelazny's Amber series, the spell transports its target to a pocket dimension, where they must engage in combat against random foes. As a one-off challenge, this could be fun, I suppose. However, I think it would get tedious if it were used too often in a game.

As you can see, this is a perfectly fine issue, filled with a variety of different articles for many different games. Unfortunately, with the exception of the latest Irilian entry, none of them really grabbed my attention in the way previous issues' articles did.  Though I stand by the theory I advanced at the beginning of this post, another possibility occurs to me. During this period, White Dwarf was rapidly expanding, adding more content with each issue, including several new columns devoted to other aspects of gaming beyond roleplaying. It could be that the addition of these new pages diluted the perceived goodness of the other articles to such an extent that I no longer saw some issues as being as good as they actually were. I'll keep this in mind as I look at future issues.

Monday, August 15, 2022

"The Last Word on Dwarven Women's Beards"

The issue of whether or not female dwarves have beards is a longstanding one in the hobby. It has its roots in Appendix A of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which says of dwarf women that "They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart." Some readers assert this statement is ambiguous, though it seems pretty clear to me.

Of course, whether or not dwarf women have beards in Middle-earth doesn't have much bearing on whether or not they do in Dungeons & Dragons – just ask Gary Gygax. In issue #41 of Dragon (September 1980), in response to a letter to the editor, Gygax said the following:

I don't claim to be an expert in Teutonic and Norse mythology, but, based on my reading, I'm hard pressed to recall a single instance of a female dwarf, bearded or otherwise. Consequently, I can't help but feel that Gygax is being disingenuous when he claims that D&D's bearded female dwarves are derived solely from mythology – and I say this as someone who's generally sympathetic to his claims elsewhere that D&D and The Lord of the Rings don't mix well. Am I missing something? Is there, in fact, a mythological basis for bearded dwarf women or Gygax simply trying to obfuscate the matter?

Who's This?

For a long time, Dragon ran an advertisement that featured the following image:

Since the ad was for subscriptions to Dragon, I've always assumed, perhaps falsely, that the fellow in the photo was a staff member of either the magazine or TSR, but I have no firm basis for that assumption. In any case, I'm prevailing upon readers more knowledgeable than I to help me determine the would-be jumper's identity. Is he perhaps Tom Wham, creator of Snit's Revenge? Or is he someone else?

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vandy, Vandy

In the years since I first started writing this series, I've developed a great deal of affection for certain writers, some of whom are not very well known today. Among their number is Manly Wade Wellman. Though included in Appendix N, Gary Gygax didn't specify which of Wellman's stories, books, or series he felt had had the most "immediate influence" upon him. That's too bad, because it makes it much more difficult, I think, for those interested in tracing the creative genealogy of Dungeons & Dragons to home in on writers and tales of particular significance. 

Though Wellman had a very long and prolific career as a writer – primarily of short fiction – if I had to hazard a guess as to which of his many creations might have had a strong influence over Gary Gygax's imagination, I'd certainly select John the Balladeer, sometimes called Silver John, after the silver strings of the guitar he carries with him everywhere. John is a traveling singer, who wanders the Appalachian Mountains, where he encounters all manner of supernatural beings and witchcraft drawn from the legends of the region. Wellman's stories of John are generally short in length but long in staying power. They read like genuine folktales of rural America and they never disappoint.

"Vandy, Vandy" is a perfect example of what I mean. First appearing in the March 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where much of Wellman's work appeared during the '50s), the story concerns John's visit to "that valley [that] hadn't any name" where "no lumberman had ever cut the thick, big old trees." Near sunset, John comes a family playing music and dancing outside their secluded cabin. Naturally, their somewhat suspicious of the unexpected arrival of a stranger, even one as seemingly friendly as John. He asks for a place to sleep and the eldest of them, "a long-bearded old man with one suspender and no shoes" suggests that he go elsewhere to find a place "to stretch out."

John tries another approach.

"I heard you all playing first part of Fire in the Mountains."

"Is they two parts?" That was the boy, before anyone could silence him.

"Sure enough, son," I said, "Let me show you the second part."

The old man opened his beard, likely to say wait till I was asked, but I strummed my own guitar into second part, best I knew how. Then I played the first part through, and, "You sure God can pick that," said the short-bearded one. "Do it again."

This wins the family over and the old man, who identifies himself as Tewk Millen, invites John to have a dinner of "smoke meat and beans" with his family, which consists of his son, his daughter-in-law, and their son, along with his own wife and daughter. The daughter, who had "her hair like yellow corn silk and … eyes like purple violets" is named Vandy. Her name attracts John's attention.

"Vandy?" I said after her father.

Shy, she dimpled at me. "I know it's a scarce name, Mr. John, I never heard it anywhere but among my kinfolks."

"I have," I said, "and it's what brought me here."

Mr. Tewk Millen looked funny above his whiskers. "Thought you said you was a young stranger man."

"I heard the name outside in a song, sir. Somebody allowed the song's known here. I'm a singer. I go after a good song."

The song tells the story of a rich man who comes to court a young woman named Vandy. He promises her "gold and silver," "a house and land," and "a world of pleasure," but she nevertheless rejects him, saying she already has a sweetheart, "a man who's in the army" and has been away for "seven long year." The Millens claim the song is a very old one, passed down in their family from generation to generation. They perform it for John, who observes that 

the notes were put together strangely, in what schooled folks call minors. But other folks, better schooled yet, say such tunes sound strange and lonesome because in old times folks had another note scale from out do-re-mi-fa today.

The performance is interrupted by the sudden appearance of another man, one who bears a gold-headed black cane. 

He was built spry and slim, with a long coat buttoned to his pointed chin, and brown pants tucked into elastic-sided boots, like what your grandsire had. His hands on the cane looked slim and strong. His face, bar its crooked smile, might be handsome. His dark brown hair curled like buffalo wool, and his eyes were the shiny pale gray of a new knife. Their gaze crawled all over the Millens and he laughed a slow, soft laugh.

The family treats the man, whom we learn is called Mr. Loden, with respect born out of fear and offer him a place to sit, as well as an offer to stay for dinner. Mr. Loden plays the part of a gracious guest, but it's clear the family is uncomfortable around him, "nervous as a boy stealing apples." He brings gifts for everyone present – except John, whom he is surprised to see – including a necklace for Vandy, whom he begs to "let it rest on your heart, that I may envy it."

Mr. Loden doesn't like John, though he behaves politely toward him. For his part, John is skeptical of Mr. Loden and his interest in Vandy. He also sees the effect his presence has had on the Millens.

The menfolks sat outside and said nothing. They might have been nailed down, with stones in their mouths. I studied about what could make a proud, honorable mountain family so scared of a guest I knew it was only the one thing. And that one thing wouldn't just be a natural thing. It would be a thing beyond nature or the world. 

John is right, of course, as he usually is and the remainder of the short story deals with the revelation of Mr. Loden's true identity and intentions. Fortunately for the Millens, John has learned a thing or two about dealing with things "beyond nature or the world" in his travels. He's a great example of how a bard might work in Dungeons & Dragons – a wandering entertainer who recognizes how much wisdom and knowledge are hidden in ancient traditions and folklore and uses them to good ends. John the Balladeer is a terrific character and all of his adventures are worth a read, but "Vandy. Vandy" is an especially good one in my opinion. Seek it out, if you can.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Everything-I-say-is-God's-Holy-Word

With reference to the eternal questions of what's "official" and the nature of OD&D as a "non-game," we have the following letter to the editor, which appeared in issue #43 of Dragon (November 1980), along with a response by Gary Gygax. Both the original letter and Gygax's reply cover several different topics, but the central point at issue in both are the differences between OD&D and AD&D and how those differences play out with regards to the interpretation of rules and the addition of new material. As I've explained often, I don't have much interest in Gygaxian AD&D these days, but doesn't change the fact that AD&D was avowedly "aimed at uniformity of play," as stated below. One can agree or disagree with this goal; what one can't do is deny it.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Calling All Teachers

A month after a seeking out "real-life clerics" in the pages of Dragon, the following ad appeared in issue #41 of Dragon (September 1980). Like its predecessor, I can only assume that it was part of a public relations campaign intended to counter all the negative claims about Dungeons & Dragons and its effects on young people.