Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Graveyard and the Satanic Pit

The Graveyard as it exists today, courtesy of Google Maps
At the start of Fourth Grade, my family moved into the house I most strongly associate with my childhood. The house was part of a new development in an area that had previously been farmland, so there were lots of wild, largely untamed woods nearby, not to mention creeks and ponds. My friends and I spent many an hour exploring these places, sometimes as part of a game we called "hide and seek tag" and sometimes just for the fun of it. We encountered lots of fascinating – and sometime frightening – things in those woods, including plenty of spiders through whose webs we'd regularly run in the course of our adventures. There was the occasional snake too, though never the dreaded water moccasin about whom we'd heard many tales (probably because it's not native to the region, but such little details didn't stop us from fearing it).

Outside of the wooded areas, the housing development was exactly what you'd expect from suburban America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It wasn't exactly like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie, but it's in the same ballpark. My friends and I spent nearly all of our time outside, even during the peak humidity of August and September, though we'd often visit one another's back yards on a rotating basis, depending on whose deck was most in the shade at any given hour. This is where we'd gather to play Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games, rolling dice – often unsuccessfully – across the tops of picnic tables and contending with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of mosquitos, wasps, and Japanese beetles that swarmed during the warmer months.

In the midst of the development, there was one area that remained inexplicably wild: the Graveyard. That's not it's real name; that's what my friends and I called it. On a cul-de-sac street behind where we all lived, there was this low hill, covered in patchy grass and sparse trees. For no obvious reason, the place had been left intact rather than being leveled and having several more houses built on it. Somehow, the legend had grown up that the reason the hill had been left alone is that it was the burial place of members of the family who'd originally owned the land and, therefore, could not be disturbed, hence why we – and all the other kids in the neighborhood – called it the Graveyard.

I should stress that there was only the most circumstantial evidence to support this theory. Indeed, to call it a "theory" is being charitable. At the same time, there was clearly something weird about this little hill. Not only was it still there when so much else in the area had been cleared to make way for homes, but the newsletter of the neighborhood association, which handled things like snow removal and garbage collection, often included notices that children were not to play on this hill, though no reasons for the prohibition were given. Needless to say, my friends and I spent untold hours atop the hill during the warmer months. Shaded by its trees, we even devoted ourselves to finding "proof" that the place was indeed a graveyard as we imagined it to be. One of my friends brought a shovel to dig, to little avail.

The Graveyard was not the only mysterious locale in my neighborhood. Within the remaining woods, there was another place that captured our youthful imaginations: the Satanic Pit. The Pit was a circular bit of raised concrete, maybe three or four feet across, with a metal grate across its top. If you looked down into it, you could see there were metal handholds along one side and that it extended some unknown distance into the dark. At certain times, steam would rise from it, often smelling quite foul. I presume the Pit was actually connected to the local sewer system in some fashion, but, to us, it was always the Satanic Pit. Despite our best efforts, we never managed to remove the grate from the top of the thing and our dreams of descending into the unknown depths were forever barred to us.

The Graveyard and the Satanic Pit linger in my memories even now. I sometimes even have dreams of going down into the Pit with my friends and then getting lost or being unable to return to the surface again for some reason. It's funny how these formative experiences can continue to have a hold on you many decades later. I'm actually quite grateful that the little world of my youth included mysterious places like these. They gave me a chance to explore, to flirt with "danger," and, above all, to imagine. I have little doubt that the hours I spent on or near the Graveyard and the Pit, not to mention pondering their presumed secrets, played a role in my ready embrace of Dungeons & Dragons when I eventually encountered it. For that, I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Happy Birthday, William Shatner

Unbelievably, today marks the 92nd birthday of William Shatner, whom I – and likely everyone else – will forever remember for his portrayal of James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise during the original run of the science fiction series Star Trek and its subsequent spin-offs. 

As I have mentioned before, Star Trek was my original fandom. I was introduced to it in the mid-1970s through the influence of my paternal aunt and godmother, who was a teenager when Star Trek was first broadcast. Indeed, I attribute many of my earliest interests, whether it be science fiction or cryptozoology, to the time she spent with me as a child. Every Saturday, I used to visit my grandparents, where my aunt still lived before she married, and we'd watch reruns of Star Trek on a local independent TV station. These are among my most cherished childhood memories and William Shatner is a big part of why.

Being a bookish and generally nerdy kid, you'd have thought that Leonard Nimoy's Spock would have been my role model. While I loved Spock, Captain Kirk was who I wanted to be, probably because he was so different from myself – courageous, self-assured, decisive, and, above all, protective of his friends and crew. Kirk was everything I hoped I might someday be and Shatner breathed life into him in a way no one could have.

Nowadays, I know it's more or less required that we sneer at Shatner as a big, fat ham of an actor, but, even with the benefit of an adult's perspective, I still think his portrayal of Jim Kirk is phenomenal. Shatner imbued Kirk with the fundamental decency and indeed humanity that are vital to the character's appeal. Far from being the swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood of many people's imaginations, Shatner gave Kirk a degree of thoughtfulness and sensitivity that is often underappreciated. I didn't fully recognize this as a child; I only knew that I liked Kirk and wanted to be more like him, which I think would be high praise for any actor.

Happy Birthday, Mr Shatner! My younger self owes you a lot.

Basic Roleplaying: The Universal Game Engine

Over at their official blog, Chaosium recently announced that a new edition of Basic Role-Playing – or should I say Basic Roleplaying, since the old school hyphenation is no more? – is on the way, with a PDF version appearing next month and a hardcover release sometime later this year. This edition represents not only an updating of the popular and successful BRP rules, but also the first time that these rules have been released as royalty-free open content. 

After the brouhaha earlier this year about the status of the Open Game License, I'm not at all surprised that Basic Roleplaying is being released under the terms of the Open RPG Creative License (ORC) created by Paizo. As I recall, Chaosium was an early supporter of this alternate license and it appears their commitment to it has not wavered. I'll admit I haven't been following the development of ORC at all since its initial announcement, so I can't say for certain if BRP is the first significant RPG to be released under its terms or not. Regardless, the publication of an open version of this venerable and respected ruleset is significant.

As an admirer of the original, I'm happy to see BRP continue to thrive well into the 21st century, though I still hold out hopes that Chaosium might one day publish a slimmer version of it more akin to the one included in my 1st edition Call of Cthulhu boxed set way back in 1981. In any case, I'll be keeping an eye on this and hope it might lead to a wider appreciation of these classic roleplaying game rules.

Retrospective: The Final Enemy

Published in 1983, The Final Enemy is the conclusion of the trilogy of AD&D adventure modules that began with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and continued in Danger at Dunwater. Like both its predecessors, module U3 was written by Dave J. Browne with assistance from Don Turnbull. This authorial continuity is important, lending a consistency of content and tone to the three modules that was missing in, for example, the slightly earlier Slave Lords series (though, to be fair, the latter were originally written for tournament use). 

Unfortunately, this consistency does not extend to the module's artwork. Whereas Saltmarsh and Dunwater featured some excellent illustrations by James Holloway and Harry Quinn, The Final Enemy includes some of the least attractive artwork Keith Parkinson ever produced, which gives the whole thing a drab, uninspiring feel. That's too bad, because, like the other adventures in the series, module U3 possesses some unique elements that set it apart from the AD&D adventures of its time.

The Secret of Saltmarsh was, at base, a mystery. Meanwhile, Danger at Dunwater focused on reconnaissance and diplomacy. The Final Enemy also includes a significant reconnaissance element, as the player characters, aided by up to 20 NPCs, scout out the sahuagin fortress in preparation for the main part of the scenario – an all-out assault on the fortress of the evil underwater humanoids. That assault forms the bulk of the module's content, with lots of attention given to the fortress, its many inhabitants, and their tactics in defending their lair. The whole affair has, in my opinion, a very naturalistic cast to it, with the sahuagin behaving in a rational manner in response to a combined attack by the PCs, the people of the town of Saltmarsh, and their lizard men allies (assuming they were successful in forging an alliance with them in Danger at Dunwater).

One might reasonably question whether a military-style assault against evil humanoids genuinely offers anything we haven't seen many times before in Dungeons & Dragons. The very first AD&D module ever published featured something in a similar vein and many of the scenarios that followed in its considerable wake followed its pattern. What distinguishes The Final Enemy from its forebears is its attention to planning and preparation, not to mention the additional forces the PCs can bring to bear in their efforts. Remember that this module is intended for use with characters of levels 3–5, which is still well within the level range where PCs can easily die if they are not careful.

This is a fact the module mentions several times, starting with its introduction: 

The DM must recognise from the outset that this is a very dangerous module for the characters. Play-testing has shown that the mission can be accomplished by a courageous, thoughtful party whose members have planned their incursion into the fortress carefully. Equally, play-testing has demonstrated that careless players who fail to plan ahead can quickly land their characters in serious trouble, in which case those characters are fortunate if they are able to escape from the fortress area alive.

Similar warnings are found throughout the text and rightly so. The Final Enemy could indeed be called a military-style adventure with plenty of opportunities for combat against monstrous foes. Despite that, it is not a hack-and-slash adventure and appropriately-leveled characters who behave as if it were will soon find themselves dead. Instead, players are well advised to make good use of their reconnaissance and allies to defeat the sahuagin through equal parts ingenuity and boldness.

There's an additional aspect of this module that sets it apart from its contemporaries, as well as contributing to its potential danger to the unprepared. Much of the sahuagin fortress is underwater, meaning that the player characters and many of their allies will be at a disadvantage when fighting unless they take precautions. These precautions come in many forms, including magic items and spells that enable the PCs to breathe water, but few are easily obtainable without making full use of reconnaissance and, in one case, thoughtful interaction with a potentially friendly NPC. Underwater adventures are rare, so many players will not have much experience with their niceties. The Final Enemy makes good use of this fact to present a memorable and quite challenging adventure, one that's fun in its own right and as a satisfying conclusion to the entire U-series of modules.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #68

Issue #68 of White Dwarf (August 1985) features a cover by Brian Williams, who's probably best known for his work on the Lone Wolf series (though he also produced covers for both Games Workshop and TSR UK). For me, the issue marks the first one in several years when I was not a subscriber. I still picked up copies from time to time, but I was inconsistent in doing so. Consequently, many of the issues that I'll look at in the coming weeks are ones I didn't see at the time of their original publication or that, in some cases, I never read at all.

In his editorial, Ian Livingstone theorizes, based on reader feedback, that the readership of White Dwarf is in the vicinity of 100,000. That seems implausibly high to me, especially for mid-1985, but I must confess I've never had a good sense of the actual size of the hobby. Livingstone states that "our hobby is growing fast" and I can only presume he had better information on this than I ever have. Regardless, I always find it fascinating to ponder the size and growth of the hobby over the decades and this is yet another data point to consider.

"The Artificer" by David Marsh is a new character class for use with AD&D. As its name suggests, the class focuses on the construction and use of mechanisms of various sorts. Unfortunately, as presented, the class is simply a spellcaster with a unique (and very focused) spell list and some thief abilities thrown in. While I can understand why this approach was taken, it's disappointing to me. I've long wanted an artificer (and alchemist) class that was genuinely different in its presentation and not simply a magic-user or cleric with some unusual spells. Oh well.

"Open Box" very favorably reviews Blood Bath at Orcs Drift (9 out of 10), a scenario for use with Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Also reviewed are Dragon Roar (5 out of 10), the computer game Chaos (7 out of 10), Legacy of Eagles (7 out of 10), an adventure for Golden Heroes; and The Worlds of Boris Vallejo boardgame (3 out of 10). From my perspective, though, the most notable review is Marcus Rowland's harsh one of Twilight: 2000 (5 out of 10). Rowland's many criticisms are not for the rules themselves but for the game's basic set-up and "moral stance and attitudes," which he calls "fairly loathsome." By and large, he seems to find the idea of the aftermath of a limited-nuclear World War III an unfit subject for a roleplaying game, "one written for and by Americans, with little or no understanding of European attitudes or desires." 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" continues to do what it always does: briefly – and snarkily – review science fiction and fantasy novels from the '80s that I either never read or don't remember, with a handful of exceptions here and there. He also continues to take potshots at L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, which I can't really criticize but neither can I applaud it, since it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Meanwhile, "Free the Spirit" presents two new additions for use with Call of Cthulhu, both of which are add-ons to the excellent "Haunters of the Dark" article from last issue: the clergyman profession and the hypnotism skill. Sadly, neither of these expansions are as good (or useful) as the original article.

"Beneath the Waves" by Peter Blanchard is the promising start of a series dedicated to aquatic adventures in AD&D. Blanchard begins by looking at the nature of the underwater environment, including how it affects one's movement and senses, as well as the need for some means of breathing. I give the article bonus points for referencing the 1960s anime, Marine Boy, which I strangely loved as a young child. I definitely look forward to future installments in the series, since underwater adventures have long held my imagination, even though (because?) I've largely never managed to make them work as well as I would have liked.

"Solo Series" by Simon Burley looks at the ins and outs solo adventuring in a superhero RPG. It's a very good overview of this topic, one made all the better in my opinion due to the prevalence of lone heroes in the superhero genre. "Lone Dragon" by Phil Masters is a lengthy but well-done scenario for Traveller that makes use of both Mercenary and Striker. The characters are hired by a mysterious "nobleman" from a nearby world that has fallen into political and civil unrest for what he presents as a quick smash-and-grab mission in search of wealth. Naturally, things are quite as simple as that. 

Speaking of Traveller, "The Travellers" comic begins a series of presenting its characters in game terms, starting with Captain Horatio Flinn and his sometime love interest Syrena Medussa. I'm a sucker for things like this, especially when, as in this case, the author understands the RPG system in question and uses it to humorous effect. The issue also includes further installments of "Thrud the Barbarian" and "Gobbledigook." In the former, writer/artist Carl Critchlow once again appears, this time as the narrator delivering useful exposition. 

I mentioned above how disappointed I was with the artificer class, right? Interestingly, the issue includes a very clever adventure by the same author, intended to highlight the utility of the class and its role in AD&D. Entitled "Star of Darkness" the scenario tackles the old trope of technology vs magic but does so in an intriguing and flavorful setting, complete with lots of maps, NPCs, and challenges. I did not expect to like this as much as I did, but it's an imaginative and fun little adventure for characters of levels 3–4.

"Words of Wonder" is a collection of new AD&D spells of varying utility, which is the usual pattern with articles of this type. "The Magic Frame" by Joe Dever continues to explore the question of photographing miniatures, with lots of thoughts on approaches and techniques. Dever's columns in White Dwarf continue to be my favorites, in spite of my own relative inexperience with miniatures. He clearly has a passion for the subject, not to mention remarkable skills, and he manages to convey both through his words and photos. As ever, I find myself wishing I'd devoted myself to this aspect of the hobby when I was younger and in a better position to acquire some skills of my own.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Vance on CAS and HPL

A comment to yesterday's post reminded me of a longstanding mystery: the influence, if any, of the works of Clark Ashton Smith on those of Jack Vance. Purely on the basis of subject matter and style, I'd long assumed that Vance's tales of The Dying Earth had been influenced by Smith's own tales of Zothique. I eventually read something – I cannot recall precisely where – that addressed the matter, claiming that Vance had not in fact read Smith and, therefore, any resemblance between the two mordantly witty writers was purely coincidental.

The aforementioned comment, however, spurred me to look into the question once again. In doing so, I discovered a new piece of information, new to me at any rate. The May 2005 issue of Cosmopolis reprints an old interview with Jack Vance from September 1981. The interview is fascinating for a number of reasons, but it's what Vance has to say about Clark Ashton Smith (and H.P. Lovecraft) that is of most immediate interest. The relevant section begins with the interviewer, Charles Platt, referencing Smith:

I mention that Don Herron, a critic who contributed to a symposium on Vance, deduced that Vance had been heavily influenced by the work of Clark Ashton Smith. 

"That's true. Can't help it; Smith is one of the people I read when I was a kid. But it only influenced The Dying Earth.

"I was one of those precocious, highly intelligent kids, old beyond my years. I had lots of brothers and sisters, but I was isolated from them in a certain kind of way. I just read and read and read. One of the things I read was the old Weird Tales pulp magazine, which published Clark Ashton Smith. He was one of the generative geniuses of fantasy. The others, Lovecraft, for instance, were ridiculous. Lovecraft couldn't write his way out of a wet paper sack. Smith is a little clumsy at times, but at least his prose is always readable.

"When I wrote my first fantasies, I was no longer aware of Smith – it had sunk so far into my subconscious. But when it was pointed out to me, I could very readily see the influence."

Leaving aside Vance's, I think, unfairly harsh assessment of Lovecraft, I find it strangely vindicating to see him admit to the influence of Smith on his own work. That's not something I'd ever seen acknowledged previously, though, as it now appears, Don Herron correctly surmised it more than four decades ago. Regardless, a longstanding mystery over I'd puzzled for years has been resolved.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Abbot of Puthuum

Many adjectives could be ascribed to the pulp fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, but "heroic" is generally not among them. Yet, for all of its intimations of hidden horror and ancient secrets (to paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft's own assessment of the story), I cannot help but feel that "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" is a rare example of a largely heroic tale within Smith's canon. First published in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales, the yarn belongs to the Zothique cycle, which chronicles the people and events of the last inhabited continent of Earth sometime in the distant future. As I've noted before, Zothique is one of my favorite imaginary settings, so it's always a pleasure to return to it in the Pulp Fantasy Lilbrary series.

The tale begins simply enough. A pair of mercenaries, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, are traveling as the bodyguards of Simban, the chief eunuch of King Hoaraph's harem. Together, they are making "a tedious journey through the tract known as Izdrel" in order to acquire "a young maiden of celestial beauty" rumored to dwell among the herders of the area. Zobal and Cushara, we are told,

had poured many a libation to their friendship in the sanguine liquors of Yoros and the blood of the kingdom's enemies. In that long and lusty amity, broken only by such passing quarrels as concerned the division of a wine-skin or the apportioning of a wench, they had served amid the soldiery of King Hoaraph for a strenuous decade. Savage warfare and wild, fantastic hazard had been their lot. The renown of their valor had drawn upon them, ultimately, the honor of Hoaraph's attention, and he had assigned them for duty among the picked warriors that guarded his palace in Faraad. And sometimes the twain were sent together on such missions as required no common hardihood and no disputable fealty to the king.

Perhaps it is the use of "the twain" above, but this introduction to Zobal and Cushara reminded me a little of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, at least with regards to their friendship in arms. In any case, the trio make their way to the tribe of herders without any trouble. There, Simban sets about his business on behalf of the king.

Cushara and Zobal, on their part, were instantly smitten by the charms of the maiden, whose name was Rubalsa. She was slender and of queenly height, and her skin was pale as the petals of white poppies; and the undulant blackness of her heavy hair was full of sullen copper gleamings beneath the sun. While Simban haggled shrilly with the cronelike grandmother, the warriors eyed Rubalsa with circumspect ardor and addressed to her such gallantries as they deemed discreet within hearing of the eunuch.

Again, something about this passage brought to mind Leiber's heroes, but perhaps I am seeing something that's not really there. Regardless, Simban is successful in his endeavor and, having acquired Rubalsa, he and his two guards begin the journey back to the kingdom of Yoros. Their journey is interrupted by

a peculiar pitch-black darkness had covered a great portion of the sky and hills, obliterating them wholly. This darkness, which seemed due neither to cloud nor sandstorm, extended itself in a crescent on either hand, and came swiftly toward the travelers. In the course of a minute or less, it had blotted the pathway before and behind them like a black mist; and the two arcs of shadow, racing northward, had flowed together, immuring the party in a circle. The darkness then became stationary, its walls no more than a hundred feet away on every side. Sheer, impenetrable, it surrounded the wayfarers, leaving above them a clear space from which the sun still glared down, remote and small and discolored, as if seen from the bottom of a deep pit.

Zobal and Cushara believe the darkness to be "devilry" and fear the "pestilential mist." Nevertheless, they press forward, hoping that they might somehow outrun it or, if necessary, pass through it. Within the magical gloom, they hear "a horrible multitudinous clamor as of drums, trumpets, cymbals, jangling armor, jarring voices, and mailed feet that tramped to and fro on the stony ground with a mighty clangor" and they believe themselves beset by an enemy army. 

As "the terrain grew rougher and steeper" and twilight was soon upon them, the trio sees a cloaked figure approaching them, bearing a lit lantern, In the distance, behind the figure, they also see "a square dark mass ... [that] was evidently a large buildng with many windows." The figure soon reveals himself to be a large, dark-skinned man "garbed in the voluminous robe of saffron such as was worn by certain monkish orders, and crowned with the two-horned purple hat of an abbot." Seeing their surprise, the man introduces himself.

"I am Ujuk, abbot of the monastery of Puthuum," he said, in a thick voice of such extraordinary volume that it appeared almost to issue from the earth under his feet. "Methinks the night has overtaken you far from the route of travelers. I bid you welcome to our hospitality."

Ujuk then leads them back to his monastery, where he offers them food and drink – but partakes of neither himself. Though Zobal and Cushara assume that this is simply because the abbot has already eaten, they are also wary, all the more so when he seems to know who they are and what they are about.

"How far have we gone astray from the route to Faraad?" asked Simban.

"I do not consider that you have gone astray," rumbled Ujuk in his subterranean voice, "for your coming to Puthuum is most timely. We have few guests here, and we are loth to part with those who honor our hospitality."

"King Hoaraph will be impatient for our return with the girl," Simban quavered. "We must depart early tomorrow."

"Tomorrow is another matter," said Ujuk, in a tone half unctuous, half sinister. "Perhaps, by then, you will have forgotten this deplorable haste."

Upon hearing this, the two warriors become even more suspicious and choose not to partake of "the powerful ale of Puthuum," which both Simban and Rubalsa had drunk and which had quickly made them drowsy. Ujuk then offers them all beds in which to spend the night before bidding them good night and leaving them alone. 

As Smith baldly telegraphs, things are not right in the monastery and the abbot and his fellow monks do not have the best interest of these four travelers at heart when they offered them their hospitality. This is precisely the point when "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" takes a turn that differs from that of most CAS tales. Normally, one would expect a bleak, perhaps darkly humorous, ending; that is, after all, Smith's stock and trade. In this case, though, what we get in something that is genuinely heroic, as the two comrades in arms, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, work together to defeat the evil within the monastery, as well as to protect Rubalsa not merely from the terrors of the monastery but also her fate as another odalisque in King Hoaraph's harem. This is a fun pulp fantasy very much in the spirit of Leiber and is well worth a read.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

"Look, It's supposed to be a fantasy game, innit?"

Zhu Bajiee recently pointed me toward a television program called Tucker's Luck, which was broadcast on BBC Two between 1983 and 1985. At the beginning of the episode below (from December 3, 1985), there is a brief scene in which several of the character play what is obviously Dungeons & Dragons, complete with the AD&D Dungeon Masters Screen (Tramp's art is unmistakable). (Also of note is that the referee is played by Charley Boorman, son of John Boorman)
In general, the popular media has – and continues to be – terrible at portraying roleplaying games. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, though the biggest reason is probably that, to outsiders, the whole endeavor appears boring, hence the perceived need to spice up the proceedings with lots of props that very few gamers actually use in real life. What's fascinating in the case of the episode above is that D&D plays only a very small role (no pun intended) in its overall plot and it's presented fairly accurately (albeit simply). I can't help but wonder why it is was included in the episode at all.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Bronze Anniversary

A constant theme of this blog since I returned to it in 2020 is the need for long campaigns. One of the reasons I've become so fixated on this particular point is my experience refereeing my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, which celebrates its eighth anniversary today. When I posted a call for players on Google+ all those years ago, I had no idea that it would last as long as it has. Nevertheless, I did hope that it might endure, since I do not begin any campaign lightly and indeed have come to be repulsed by the idea of "one shots" and "mini campaigns."

One of the most common topics of the emails I receive from readers concerns the "secret" of the longevity of the House of Worms. I struggle with answering this question, because I'm not sure there is a secret to the campaign's success. However, if pressed, I usually point to three "ingredients" that I genuinely believe have played a big role in keeping the dice rolling each week. The first – and most important in my opinion – are the players. I have seven regular players, each of whom brings something different to our virtual table, thereby helping to make it greater than the sum of its individual parts. One player is a mapmaker extraordinaire, another a wily schemer, and yet another a bold adventurer. I could go on, but my point is quite simple: the House of Worms campaign would be nothing without its players. Their imagination, creativity, skill, and dedication have ensured that we continue to have a lot of fun exploring Tékumel together.

Speaking of dedication, that's the second ingredient. This one is easy to overlook, because it seems so basic as to barely be worthy of comment. Yet, I can't stress enough how vital it is that we all show up each week. While there have been plenty of weeks over the years when we haven't played for one reason or another, we strive to play every week that we have sufficient players to do so (in general, I prefer we have five out of seven players, though we've sometimes played with fewer). The cumulative effect of this is momentum. Each session builds upon the one before it. As weeks become months and months years, the campaign acquires a mass that ensures that it keeps growing and changing – and entertaining us.

That brings us to the third ingredient: change. When the House of Worms began, the player characters were all 1st-level nobodies in the city of Sokátis, bossed around by their elders to do errands for their clan. Now, they are the Imperial-sanctioned rulers of a colonial outpost of Tsolyánu in a far-away land, making momentous decisions for themselves and indeed Tékumel itself. At each step in the characters' journey, the campaign has shifted and changed – from delving in the underworld to wilderness exploration to colonial governance to the present, when the PCs contend with gods and wrestle with the deeper mysteries of the setting. Though there is a strong thread of continuity between March 2015 and March 2023, there is also a great deal of change, which has kept things fresh for both myself and the players.

None of these ingredients alone would suffice to keep the campaign going after eight years. Together they combine in ways that continue to surprise and delight both myself and the players, which is what any good RPG campaign should do. I make no predictions on how long House of Worms will continue. A couple of times in the past I briefly thought the campaign was running low of "fuel" and might finally end, but I was mistaken in this. At the moment, events have shifted toward some new problems and a new phase of the campaign seems to have begun. This has once again injected more energy into our sessions and I don't see an obvious end in sight – but who knows? After eight years, the campaign has a life of its own and it will do what it wishes. I'm simply grateful to be along for the ride, however long it lasts. 

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Fantasy Comes Alive

In my post about issue #67 of White Dwarf, I noted that editor Ian Livingstone boasts about the gains the UK hobby industry had made by the mid-1980s. I also noted that there's quite a bit of truth in what he says. In evidence, there's this advertisement, which appears on the back cover of the issue.

The history of licensed Dungeons & Dragons miniatures is a vast topic in and of itself and one someone with more knowledge than myself really ought to write. Nevertheless, I think the brief eighteen-month period, starting in 1985, when Games Workshop's subsidiary, Citadel Miniatures, held the official D&D miniatures license is an episode well worth examining. 

Citadel acquired the licensed immediately after the disastrous two-year period during which TSR made a go at making its own minis. I owned a couple of the TSR boxed sets – one for AD&D and another for Star Frontiers – and can attest to their poor quality. Perhaps they were better received elsewhere, but, among my circle of friends, I think I was the only one who ever bought them and, after a few desultory attempts to paint some of them, they went back in my closet, never to be looked at, let alone used. 

It's a testament to the rising power of Games Workshop – and Warhammer Fantasy Battle – that TSR would turn to Citadel to manufacture its miniatures in the aftermath of their own failure in the minis market. From what I gather, these figures were quite good and were notable for, among other things, introducing three-stage player character sculpts, one each for the low, mid, and high levels. Unfortunately, I don't think I ever saw them outside of advertisements; the brief lifespan of the line probably didn't help.

If you owned or made use of the Citadel D&D miniatures, I'd love to read about your memories and impressions of them,