Friday, September 24, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 90

I've written a previous post in this series about page 90 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, which discusses economics, broadly defined. One of the sections on this page bears the lengthy title "Duties, Excises, Fees, Tariffs, Taxes, Tithes, and Tolls." Despite the seeming dryness of that title, the section contains some interesting details that, I think, offer us a few insights into Gary Gygax's conception of the game and campaign play. 

He begins this section by asking

What society can exist without revenues? What better means of assuring revenues than taxation, and all the names used in the title of this section are synonymous with taxes – but if it is called something different perhaps the populace won't take too much umbrage at having to pay and pay and pay . . .

Joking aside, he then wastes no time to explain why he's actually including this section in the DMG.

It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters, and taxation is one of the better means of accomplishing this end.

I really like Gygax's directness on this point. If you take a look back at the earlier post linked above, you'll see that he mentions by name "mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, [and] Elric." These names were well chosen, since an important element in the stories of these characters is their regular need for influxes of cash. The books mentioned in Appendix N might well have been simply those that Gygax most liked, but that's not all they are. AD&D in Gygax's mind is reflective of the content of those books, including the impecuniousness of the characters.

The form and frequency of taxation depends upon the locale and the social structure. Duties are typically paid on goods brought into a country or subdivision thereof, so any furs, tapestries, etc. brought into a town for sale will probably be subject to duty. Excises are typically sums paid to belong to a particular profession or practice a certain calling; in addition, an excise can be levied against a foreign currency, for example, in order to change it into the less remarkable coin of the realm …

Gygax goes on at great length, defining each of the types of taxes mentioned in the section's title, along with the circumstances in which player characters might encounter them. I won't reproduce everything he says here, in the interests of space, but the section I just quoted should suffice to give a sense of what he intends. The whole paragraph is genuinely useful to the referee, if only because it demonstrates the wide variety of options available to him when it comes to extracting money from characters. I think it's also worth noting that Gygax reminds us that "the form and frequency of taxation depends upon the local and the social structure." It's a helpful reminder of the necessity for such details in any campaign setting.

If the Gentle Reader thinks that the taxation that he or she currently undergoes is a trifle strenuous for his or her income, pity the typical European populace of the Middle Ages. They paid all of the above, tolls being very frequent, with those trying to escape them by use of a byway being subject to confiscation of all goods with a fine and imprisonment possible also. Every petty noble made an extraction, municipalities taxed, and the sovereign was the worst of all.

I am no historian, but I think Gygax exaggerates slightly here – or at least he errs in treating the real medieval economy, which was largely agricultural in nature, with later cash-based economies. Even so, his large point stands that there were a considerable number of different taxes to which medieval folk were subject. He then offers an example of how he might use medieval-style taxation in an AD&D campaign.

As you can see, Gygax is quite inventive here – but also quite tedious. I completely agree with the notion that the referee ought to use taxes and similar levies to separate the characters from their wealth, but the system he puts forward here, though perhaps simpler than that at use in the actual Middle Ages, would be a pain to adjudicate in a campaign. I simply can't imagine making use of this more than a couple of times before I decided to give up, but perhaps I simply lack the necessary intestinal fortitude to be a properly Gygaxian AD&D DM.

Much more intriguing to me is what Gygax says about foreign currency and money changers.
The town does not encourage the use of foreign currency. Merchants and other business people must pay a fine of 5% of the value of any foreign coins within their possession plus face certain confiscation of the coins so they will typically not accept them. Upon entering the town non-residents are instructed to go to the Street of the Money Changers in order to trade their foreign money for the copper "cons," silver "nobs," gold "orbs," and platinum "royals".

I find this section interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I've long been a fan of the idea that there ought to be specific currency for each kingdom. In my old Emaindor setting, I took great pains to elucidate the currencies of every realm, along with their value in the standard AD&D monetary system. I never used generic "silver pieces" or "gold pieces" in my games after a certain point and I'm glad to see that Gygax suggests something similar here. The second thing I find interesting is the list of names Gygax offers for the various local coins. These are, so far as I know, unique to the DMG and don't reflect, say, the coins of the Free City of Greyhawk. I suppose they might be the names adopted in some other locations on Oerth, but, if so, I can't place them. Anyone with greater knowledge of the setting should feel free to school me in the comments.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Retrospective: Casino Galactica

When it came to "adventures among the stars" science fiction roleplaying games, Traveller was my preference. Consequently, FGU's Space Opera was merely a game of which I was aware but of whose unique pleasures I did not partake until many years after the fact. This was partly the result of not knowing anyone who owned, let alone played, the game, as well as the fact that, for whatever reason, the hobby shops and bookstores I frequented never seemed to stock Space Opera products. Looking back on it, this strikes me as odd, since there were actually a large number of these products – not as many as Traveller but more than, say, Star Frontiers

Today, I think the Space Atlas series tends to get a great deal more attention and perhaps understandably so, since it's in these volumes that we get a sense of the wider "kitchen sink" setting of Space Opera. Yet, FGU also published a fair selection of adventures for use with the game and some of these are well worth examining, starting with Casino Galactica, published in 1984.

Written by Steven B. Todd (of "Gnome Mountain Workshops," a would-be third party publisher of Space Opera support material under license from FGU) and illustrated by Steven S. Crompton, Casinto Galactica is billed as an "adventure setting & scenarios" on its front cover. That's a good description of its contents, as we'll see. The bulk of the book consists of an extensive description of the eponymous Casino Galactica, a luxury resort hotel on Arcturus VI established by Cosmo Filroy, a wealthy man with a mysterious – and possibly criminal – background. It's a decidedly clichéd set-up for a location, but clichés are Space Opera's bread and butter. I don't mean that as a criticism. Clichés persist because they're useful and fun; one of the genuine joys of Space Opera, in my opinion, is the way it leverages pulp SF clichés to present lively, if not necessarily coherent, settings and situations for roleplaying.

Casino Galactica is divided into several sections, the first of which focuses on "personalities," which is to say, important NPCs. Each NPC is given game statistics, as well as a background and suggestions for using them in an adventure. Accompanying many are illustrations by Crompton. The NPCs run the gamut from Filroy himself to the staff of the casino to notable guests. As one might expect, many of the NPCs have hidden agendas and goals, with some being agents of governments both foreign and domestic. The book also includes maps of the casino and its environs, along with keys of the same. Much like the NPC descriptions, some of these include suggestions for their use in an adventure. This being a casino, the book discusses the various types of gambling that take place here, along with rules on how to use them in the game. There's also a series of random encounter tables, for use with the NPCs descriptions. Likewise, the flora and fauna of Arcturus VI (with illustrations) get write-ups, completing the description of the planet on which the casino is located. 

The final section of the book outlines a series of six scenarios set in and around the casino. I use the verb "outlines" advisedly, since none of these scenarios consist of no more than three or four short paragraphs presenting a skeleton of an adventure. If you're expecting fully fleshed out, ready to run scenarios, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're simply looking for a few hooks on which to hang your own ideas, they're not bad – nothing amazing, mind you, but enough to get the referee started if he's in need of a quick adventure to drop into an ongoing campaign.

I really like RPG supplements like Casino Galactica. They're reflective of an approach to refereeing that largely matches my own. I prefer to be given lots of "raw materials" from which to craft my own adventures. Give me lots of NPCs, maps, and hooks rather than a highly structured scenario anytime. Of course, I rarely use any published adventure as-is, so perhaps I'm biased. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel positively toward a book like Casino Galactica, which is both gleeful in its use of pulp SF tropes and very flexible in the hands of a confident referee. It's not for everyone, but what is?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #10

Issue #10 of White Dwarf (December 1978/January 1979) features a striking cover by Eddie Jones. It's the kind of funky blend of science fiction and fantasy I so strongly associate with the 1970s and that remains a fascination of mine. Ian Livingstone's editorial focuses only fairly mundane matters, such as the attendance figures of the Games Day IV convention and the release of the AD&D Players Handbook. The magazine will return to both these topics later.

The first article is "Talismans of Tekumel" by Jack McArdle. You'll notice that the cover calls the article "Talismen of Tekumel" and I won't comment further on that. Despite its title, it's more a collection eight new magic items for use with Empire of the Petal Throne than a discussion of talismans as such. Articles like this interest me greatly, since I'm curious about how EPT was received and interpreted in the wider world outside of M.A.R. Barker's circle. If this article is any indication, such people saw it as an exotic form of Dungeons & Dragons. None of the magic items described strike me as being particularly Tekumeláni; most aren't even that great as vanilla D&D magic items. A shame!

The "Fiend Factory" offers up nine new monsters for D&D, only a couple of which I recognize from the Fiend Folio. Meanwhile, "Treasure Chest" presents eight submissions to the magazine's tricks and traps competition. These entries range in length from a couple of sentences to several paragraphs accompanied by Grimtooth's Traps-style illustrations. The letters page is filled with discussion of "realism" in RPGs in response to various discussions of it in previous issues. Reading these letters, I am reminded of the perennial nature of the topic, which still bedevils the hobby to this day. "Games Day" is a report by Ian Livingstone on the UK convention of the same name. Most interesting is the fact that its attendance topped 2500, making it the second largest games convention at the time. That's a remarkable fact on multiple levels, not least of which being that 2500 attendees was considered a significant number. Those were the days!

"Light Sword" by Wilf Backhaus is a strange little "simulation" game of combat with laser swords. It's short and simple and is not directly associated with any RPG. "Open Box" reviews four projects, two of which it receive high marks and two of which do not. The highly rated ones were Gamma World (rated 9) and the AD&D Players Handbook (rated 10). The two low-rated ones are The Realm of Yolmi (rated 2), of which I've never heard, and The Manual of Aurania (rated 4), with which I am somewhat familiar. All the reviews were written by Don Turnbull, who'd eventually go on to be head of TSR UK. Mike Ferguson's "The Experienced Traveller" continues in this issue. Here, he presents the possibility of a Traveller character attending university to learn new skills. The system presented is workable enough, though not one I'd personally use. On the other hand, I did find it amusing, since it includes a random table for determining a character's attitude toward his studies. "Only here for the social life" and "Only here for the beer" are two (bad) results. The issue ends with part three of Rowland Flynn's "Valley of the Four Winds."

Monday, September 20, 2021

Grognard's Grimoire: Thedlani

Thedlani (Horned Lumberer)

Thedlani are large horned animals that stand 12–14 feet tall at the shoulder and support their 5–7 ton weight on four thick legs. Originating in the subtropical forests of Chametkani, domesticated thedlani can now be found across sha-Arthan, where they are used as both mounts and pack animals. Generally docile, these creatures will fight fiercely if attacked.

AC 5 [14], HD 9 (40hp), Att 1 × bite (2d4) or 1 × trample (4d8), THAC0 12 [+7], MV 120’ (40’), SV D10 V11 P12 B13 S14 (5), ML 8, XP 900, NA 0 (1d20), TT Horns

  • Trample: 3-in-4 chance of trampling each round. +4 to hit human-sized or smaller creatures.
  • Maronma: The horns of the thedlani are made of a bone-like substance called maronma much valued in many lands. Each horn is worth 1d6 × 100gp.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Screaming Skull of Silence

Among the creations of Robert E. Howard, Kull of Atlantis occupies a strange place. On the one hand, he might reasonably be called a "first draft" of the vastly more famous Conan the Cimmerian. Both are crafty barbarians who rise to the rulership of a civilized, if decadent, kingdoms, for example. On the other hand, Kull, when he is remembered at all, is thought of primarily as King Kull, ruler of Valusia, whereas Conan's reign as king of Aquilonia is less celebrated than his time as a wandering warrior (and occasional thief). This is somewhat ironic, given that Conan's first published appearance, "The Phoenix on the Sword," features Conan as king and is in fact a rewrite of another, unpublished story, "By This Axe I Rule!," whose protagonist is Kull. 

The relative obscurity of Kull, at least in popular culture, can to some extent be ascribed to the fact that only three of Howard's stories of him were published during his lifetime. The other were largely unknown until the 1967, when Lancer published King Kull. As you can see from the cover accompanying this post, the book's editor, Lin Carter, shares authorship with Robert E. Howard, thanks to Carter's having "completed" three fragmentary stories originally penned by Howard in the 1930s. Like most so-called "posthumous collaborations," I don't think much of Carter's efforts, but there's no question that King Kull was an important publication for appreciating Howard's broader literary legacy. If nothing else, it gave fantasy fans a fuller picture of Kull and his world so as to distinguish them from Conan and the Hyborian Age.

"The Screaming Skull of Silence" is one of the stories first appearing in the 1967 collection, where it's simply titled "The Skull of Silence" (the longer title being given later after an examination of Howard's papers). After his success with "The Shadow Kingdom" and "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," he submitted this yarn to Weird Tales for publication but the capricious Farnsworth Wright rejected it and I can see why. "The Screaming Skull of Silence" is quite short in length and filled with philosophical musings about the nature of reality and our place within it – hardly the stuff of thrilling pulp adventure. But then Kull, moreso than Conan, is prone to such musings; it's an important part of his character and why I find him every bit as compelling as the storied Cimmerian. 

The story opens with Kull, seated upon the throne of Valusia, "listening idly to the conversation of Tu, chief councillor, Ka-nu, ambassador from Pictdom, Brule, Ka-nu's right-hand man, and Kuthulos, the slave, who was yet the greatest scholar in the Seven Empires." 

"All is illusion," Kathulos was saying, "all outward manifestations of the underlying Reality, which is beyond human comprehension, since there are no relative things by which the finite mind may measure the infinite. The One may underlie all, or each natural illusion may possess a basic entity. All these things were known to Raama, the greatest mind of all ages, who eons ago freed humanity from the grasp of unknown demons and raised the race to its heights."

The idea that the world we inhabit is actually an illusion of some kind is an old one and one Howard has pondered elsewhere. In this tale, though, it serves as the starting point for a larger discussion that, in turn, ties into its plot. In any case, Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador, recognizes the name of Raama and dubs him "a mighty necromancer." Kuthulos objects to this simple characterization of him.

"He was no wizard," said Kuthulos, "no chanting, mumbling conjurer, divining from snakes' livers. There was naught of mummery about Raama. He had grasped the First Principles, he knew the Elements and he understood natural forces, acted upon by natural causes, producing natural results. He accomplished his apparent miracles by the exercise of his powers in natural ways, which were as simple in their manners to him, as lighting a fire is to us, and as much beyond our ken as our fire would have been to our ape-ancestors."

From this description, Raama would seem to be a scientist of some sort. The councillor, Tu, seems to understand this as well as asks Kuthulos why Raama did not "give all his secrets" to mankind, to which the slave replies, 

"He knew it would not be good for man to know too much. Some villain would subjugate the whole race, nay the whole universe, if he knew as much as Raama knew. Man must learn by himself and expand in soul as he learns."

Hearing this leads to more objections from Kuthulos' interlocutors, leading to further discussion of the nature of things and whether sight or sound have an essence of their own, apart from our perceptions of them. Kuthulos acknowledges that, yes, somewhere, there exists the essence of such things. Ka-nu pipes up saying that the essence of silence – its "spectre" – does indeed exist and that had long ago been shut up in a great castle by none other than the very Raama they had discussed earlier. Brule agrees.

"I have seen the castle – a great black thing on a lone hill, in a wild region of Valusia. Since time immemorial it has been known as the Skull of Silence."

"Ha!" Kull was interested now. "My friends, I would like to look upon this thing!"

Needless to say, Kuthulos tries to discourage Kull from this path, telling him "it is not good to tamper with what Raama made fast," but the Atlantean is undeterred. He then sets off with his companions to find the Skull of Silence and see for himself if the legends of what it contains are true.

"The Screaming Skull of Silence" is short, as I said. Yet, within the span of a few pages, it contains several engaging ideas that I think elevate it above many similar pulp fantasies. I can't completely disagree with Farnsworth Wright's rejection of the story, as it's not the most exciting sword-and-sorcery yarn ever written, nor is it even Howard's most genuinely thought-provoking one. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and found myself inspired by some of the ideas it plays with. Given its length, I think it well worth a read.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, pp. 111-112

Toward the middle of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Intervention by Deities" that has long fascinated me. In it, Gary Gygax addresses several questions pertaining to the action of gods in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He doesn't treat the topic at any length, but what he has to say is nevertheless provocative in places.

If the supernatural powers of the various Outer Planes could and would continually and constantly involve themselves in the affairs of the millions upon the Prime Material Plane, they would not only be so busy as to get neither rest nor relaxation, but these deities would be virtually handling their own affairs and confronting each other regularly and often.

This long opening sentence comes close, I think, to laying out Gygax's broad perspective on the gods and their activities: the gods, by and large, have better things to do than meddle in mortal affairs on a regular basis. This makes sense from a, shall we say, dramatic perspective, in that it ensures that mortal actions – such as those of the player characters – have their unique weight. This also makes sense from a logistical perspective, as he explains.

If an entreaty for aid is heard one time in 100, surely each and every deity in the multiverse would be as busy as switchboard operator during some sort of natural disaster. Even giving each deity a nominal number of servants able to supply aid to desperate adventurers, the situation would be frenzied at best. Add to this the effects of various spells – commune, contact other plane, gate – it is obvious that intervention by a deity is no trifling matter and it is not to be allowed on a whim, even if the characters are in extremis. 

There are a couple of things to note here. First, Gygax does not envision the gods of AD&D to be in any sense omnipotent, let alone omnipresent. Instead, they are limited beings, albeit extremely powerful ones, on par with, say, the deities of classical myth. Second, I think it's fair to surmise that Gygax's vision of the gods is at least partially grounded in his concern that the player characters deal with their own problems rather than looking to Heaven to aid them, this being the better basis for a game of heroic fantasy. That said, he is not entirely opposed to the idea of divine intervention.

This is not to dictate that deities will never come to characters. Serving some deity is an integral part of AD&D. 

That second sense is a remarkable one, particularly in light of occasional statements elsewhere that suggest or even outright state otherwise.

The mighty evil gods, demons, and devils are prone to appear when their name is spoken – provided they stand the possibility of gaining converts to their cause. The forces of good might send some powerful creature of like alignment to aid characters on a mission in their behalf. Certainly in the case of some contest between opposing deities all sorts of intervention will take place – but always so as not to cause the deities themselves to be forced into direct confrontation! 

The gods of AD&D prefer, it seems, to work at a distance and/or through intermediaries rather than directly. Again, this makes sense from a dramatic perspective, since it ensures that mortal actions are meaningful in their own right. Likewise, I might argue, this is in keeping with the traditions of pulp fantasy, where the gods, with some notable exceptions, rarely take center stage.

Otherwise, the accumulation of hit points and the ever-greater abilities and better saving throws represents the aid supplied by supernatural forces.

That's quite a statement! Yet, it's simply a reiteration of something Gygax has repeatedly maintained, namely, that the increase in a character's abilities, most especially his hit points and saving throws, represents, among other things, the favor of the gods. One might well quibble about this from a variety of points of view, but this is not a new statement by Gygax.

In most cases, therefore, you will have to determine the involvement of deities as you develop the scenario or series of scenarios of your campaign. (In my own Greyhawk Campaign there have been 9 demigods, 3 demon lords, and a handful of Norse and other gods involved in the course of many years of play. Once or twice there has been divine intervention – and twice the powers of the infernal region have at the mention of a certain name . . . .) 

I assume the 9 demigods mentioned are those imprisoned beneath Castle Greyhawk by the mad archmage Zagyg. More intriguing to me is the reference to "a handful of Norse and other gods." Did Gygax's campaign include the Norse pantheon before he created his own unique pantheons? In any case, Gygax then lays out a rough system for handling the likelihood of divine intervention.

Spur of the moment intervention can be handled as follows: If the character beseeching help has been exemplary in faithfulness, then allow a straight 10% chance that some creature will be sent to his or her aid if this is the first time the character has asked for help. If 00 is rolled, there is a percentage equal to the character's level of experience that the deity itself will come, and this chance is modified as follows:

Each previous intervention on behalf of the character                           –5%

Alignment behavior only medial                                                            –5%

Alignment behavior borderline                                                              –10% 

Direction confrontation with another deity required by the situation                                                                                                                                –10%

Character opposing forces of diametrically opposite alignment            +1%

Character serving deity proximately (through direct instruction or by means of some intermediary)                                                                     +25%

As you can see, Gygax clearly felt that, except in extraordinary cases, divine intervention, even of an indirect sort should be very rare indeed.

Note: Deities will not intervene on the planes which are the habitation of other deities, i.e., the Outer Planes. They will neither venture to involve themselves in the Positive and Negative Material Planes. Intervention in the Elemental Planes is subject to DM option, based upon the population he or she has placed there. (If there are elemental gods, the deities from the Outer Planes will NOT go there.) Intervention occurs only on the Prime Material, Astral, or Ethereal Planes in most cases. 

Whenever I read passages like this, I get wistful for the lost Gygaxian second edition of AD&D, which would surely have expanded upon his conception of the Planes. Judging from some of his later work, I think it certain that Gygax had begun to develop an elaborate understanding of the Planes, their inhabitants, and relationships to the mortal world, an understanding I would have liked to see. The Planes were, in my opinion, an underdeveloped aspect of AD&D and it's a pity Gygax was never able to present a fuller vision of them in print. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Retrospective: Top Secret Companion

Top Secret was one of those games I adored but didn't get to play as often as I'd have liked. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that I don't think my friends liked the espionage genre as much as I do. Another is that it's hard – but not impossible – to justify a "party" of spies, necessitating a smaller group of players than most other RPGs. Even so, I very much enjoyed Merle Rasmussen's articles in the pages of Dragon and kept my eyes open for new releases for the game.

Until the appearance of the Top Secret Companion in 1984, all those releases had been adventure modules. Don't get me wrong: I have fond feelings toward several of those modules, but, since I didn't get to play all that often, I didn't get as much use out of them as I might have liked. The Companion, on the other hand, was the kind of support material I could simply read without having to use it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never used anything the Companion introduced, which is why I want to talk about it in this post.

As presented, the Companion is a collection of new and expanded rules, along with some clarifications of rules from the original game. In principle, I should have loved this book – and, in principle, I did. There's a great deal of genuinely interesting stuff here, starting with an alignment system that accounts for a character's views on politics (democratic vs authoritarian), economics (capitalist vs communist), and change (radical vs reactionary). There are also new personal traits, areas of knowledge, bureaus, divisions, missions, and more, in addition to many, many random tables for generating every conceivable detail for player character agents. There are also new and optional rules for weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and equipment, not to mention a genuinely interesting system for improving a character through enrolling a character in special training courses. Topping it all off is a lengthy mission entitled "Operation: Meltdown," dealing with, among other things the space race between the West and the USSR. 

If all of the foregoing sounds interesting, you'd be right. I loved reading the Top Secret Companion and thinking about all the ways I could use the new material in my infrequent games. Unfortunately, when the time came to run a session of Top Secret, I never actually made use of any of it. Partly, it was because it simply didn't seem worth it to add new rules to a game I played so rarely and partly it was because so many of the new rules and expansions were of the kind that are simply too fiddly or hard to remember to make good additions to regular play. The Top Secret Companion was thus the first time I encountered a "theoretically good" RPG book, one that seemed to satisfy my desire simply to read rather than to play. 

I don't know that the Companion was uniquely perverse in this regard. Indeed, I am sure that there were many people who made good use of the book and its expanded options for Top Secret. If so, I am happy to hear this. For myself, though, this book represents the start of a period in my later teens when I found myself increasingly drawn towards the ideas contained in a game book than I was in actually using them at the table with my friends. In fact, during my later years of high school, I had less and less time to play RPGs at all and yet, despite that, I continued to be an avid consumer of roleplaying game products, many of which I neither used nor, in my opinion, could have used. 

From what I have gathered talking to others, my experience was not unique. Many people continued to acquire the latest roleplaying games and supplements for them, even though they never had the chance to play them. From my current vantage point, that strikes me as perverse, but, at the time, reading a book like the Top Secret Companion was a good substitute for playing with my friends, which I did less and less, as the demands of school increased and I had less free time to engage in gaming. Looking back on it, I can't help but wonder to what extent companies like TSR understood this about their customers and so published more and more material that might continue to appeal to people who still considered themselves roleplayers even though they didn't actually play RPGs all that much anymore. It's something I continue to wonder about even today, as I look out on a market saturated with so many games and game products that there is simply no way most of them are being played by anyone.

Perhaps unfairly, I look back on the Top Secret Companion as a harbinger of a change within TSR and the hobby as a whole. The faddishness of the late '70s and early '80s was dying down somewhat and the earliest generations of gamers were starting to drift away from the hobby. Even I, in my mid-teens by this point, played the games that had meant so much to me just a few years prior a lot less. Much of my "gaming" activity was no devoted to thinking about playing rather than doing so. That's probably why a book like the Companion appealed to me so much when it was released. My feelings about it now are decidedly less positive, but maybe that says more about my own personal history than it does about the book itself.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #9

Needless to say, I love Christopher Perigo's cover to issue #9 of White Dwarf (October/November 1979), but then I am a fan of non-equine mounts in fantasy. Ian Livingstone begins the issue with an intriguing editorial. He broaches the subject of "realism" in fantasy roleplaying games in a somewhat negative fashion. He wonders whether this drive toward a "realistic game" serves any useful purpose and indeed whether it comes at the expense of fun and enjoyment. He then muses that "Taken to its logical conclusion, it would necessitate … rolling for the percentage chance of being stung by nettles whilst picking blackberries or bleeding gums whilst brushing teeth." In conclusion, Livingstone concedes, "If people want this, fine, but they should try to force their method of play down somebody else's throat, claiming that they are 'authorities'." As ever, I really have to wonder what was going on in the late 1970s UK gaming scene.

Complaints about the experience rules – or lack thereof – GDW's Traveller are commonplace and have been since the release of the game in 1977. Mike Ferguson's "The Experienced Traveller" introduces a system for in-game skill improvement, if one is so inclined. While I have never had a problem with this aspect of Traveller, I don't object to its introduction in campaigns where the referee deems it appropriate. However, Ferguson's system is odd in that it makes use of percentile dice to determine whether a skill improves after successful use. Traveller uses only six-sided dice, so the use of percentiles seems profoundly off to me, but I'm a purist about such matters.

"The Fiend Factory" gives us nine more monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons. Most of these did not see publication in the Fiend Folio (unless my memory is poor – a distinct possibility!) and some of those that did saw changes (such as Svarts becoming Xvarts for some reason). I should also note that the feature's habit of using unique, hand-drawn typefaces for each monster's name is frustrating, as it's sometimes difficult to read the names. Part Two of Rowland Flynn's "The Valley of the Four Winds" story continues in this issue and I don't have much to say about it or, for that matter, the next installment of the "Kalgar" comic, which has completely failed to hold my attention.

On the other hand, Albie Fiore's "The Lichway" is well worth your time. It's an excellent trap-filled dungeon, intended to test the mettle of 1st-level characters. Most interesting to me is the presence of several groups of NPCs already present in the dungeon, including one made of man-beasts. The prospect of having to deal with so many mutually antagonistic factions sets this apart from many other introductory adventures, as does its general ambience of death and decay. It's not for nothing then that this is perhaps the most famous adventure ever published in the pages of White Dwarf. 

"Open Box" reviews Superhero 2044, Legions of the Petal Throne, the three Gygax-penned giants modules, and Citadel of Fire. All but the giants modules receive middling reviews (6 out of 10). Following it "Foresters" by Trevor Clarke and Ed Simbalist, which is in fact an extract from the Chivalry & Sorcery Sourcebook. The article deals with what are effectively Tolkien-style rangers for use with C&S. Meanwhile, this month's "Treasure Chest" offers up seven new "tricks & traps," along with an amusing percentile table of "useless items" (like an Albanian dictionary, a sack of stuffed voles, and a copy of "Greyhawk on 10 g.p. a Day"). There's also a handy chart for quickly generating the ability scores of monsters, should they be needed in play.  

This issue of White Dwarf feels a little thin to me. I certainly observed many pages devoted to advertising, a trend that's been building over the past few issues. I can't say for certain that there actually are more ads than before, but it certainly seems that way, a perception helped in no small part by the largely lackluster content of the issues ("The Lichway" being the primary standout). But, as I have said many times before, this has always been the nature of gaming periodicals. Perhaps next issue will be more impressive.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Pulp Fantasy Library: The Scroll of Thoth

Richard L. Tierney has long associations with the writings and ideas of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, having penned scholarly articles about these authors as well as fiction derived from their works. Unsurprisingly, Tierney's own fiction is suffused with the sensibilities of both. One such story is "The Scroll of Thoth," first published in the pages of Swords Against Darkness #2 in 1977. It's another installment in Tierney's saga of Simon of Gitta, better known to history as Simon Magus, the sorcerer who challenges St. Peter in Acts of the Apostles. 

In Tierney's telling, Simon is a Samaritan ex-gladiator turned magician who travels across the 1st century Roman Empire, fighting the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Of course, Tierney's revisionism isn't limited to Simon himself. His portrayal of the Cthulhu Mythos is tinged with Gnosticism: the Demiurge is none other than the blind idiot god, Azathoth, for example. Whether one likes this approach or not, there's no question that it's a bold one. More than that, it's a terrific set-up for a Howardian tale of historical fantasy.

"The Scroll of Thoth" takes place at the start of A.D. 41, during the reign of the emperor Gaius Caligula. As it opens, the emperor is overseeing the torture and execution of a prisoner. Upon the prisoner's death, Gaius orders his Egyptian physician to read an invocation from the Book of Thoth intended to restore the deceased man to life once more. The ritual seems to work at first, but the risen corpse quickly collapses into a heap and does not stir again. It's worth noting that, in an aside, Tierney notes that the Book of Thoth was written in "the forgotten language of dark, sorcery-riddled Stygia, the fabled land which had flourished before even nighted Egypt – a revelation that the Thoth of its title is not the Egyptian deity but rather Conan's old adversary, Thoth-Amon (a revelation similar to one found in a previous story of Simon of Gitta, "The Ring of Set.")

Soon after, we learn the reason for Caligula's actions. He boasts to the commander of his Praetorian guardsmen, Cassius Chaerea:

"… never forget, though you are a commander of men, that I am a commander of gods and demons! What you have seen this day is but the birth of my power over all things. Long have I labored to achieve what you have just seen – the conquest of death! Long have a I garnered the occult wisdom of antique Khem and Mesopotamia, and many are the experiments I have performed in this very chamber – and now, at last, as you have seen with your own eyes, I have banished Death himself, if only for a moment, from the lifeless clay. Soon I shall learn to banish him utterly – and then I shall live forever!" He surveyed the room with burning exultant eyes, as though expecting a challenge. No one spoke.

"Forever!" he shouted. "Do you hear me? I'll live forever!"

I have two comments here. First, take a moment to relish the pulpy goodness of the passage above. If ever there was a historical character worthy of being portrayed as a power-mad pulp fantasy villain, it's Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. What makes the above passage so enjoyable is the way it plays with the popular understanding of the third Roman emperor and his claims to divinity. I find it delightfully over the top. Second, for the historically minded, the name of Cassius Chaerea should be well known and a tip-off as to where the narrative of "The Scroll of Thoth" might go. 

We soon learn that the Egyptian physician whom Caligula has employed is named Menophar and that the slave he brought with him to attend the emperor is none other than Simon of Gitta in disguise. Together, they discuss the mad emperor's plan to acquire eternal life "and in the end rule all gods as well as all men." This he hopes to do by gaining the favor of both the Deep Ones, "who live for aeons, perhaps forever," and the Pain Lords (the Great Old Ones).

Simon shuddered slightly. He had long known of Gaius' madness, yet only now did he realize the full extent of it.

"You were right, Menophar: Whatever the cost, the Book of Thoth must not remain in the hands of this lunatic. It is the most dangerous of all sorcerous works, and in Gaius' hands it could make him the most dangerous of men."

"But you, Simon of Gitta, are perhaps the most adept of all magicians – and that is why you have been chosen for this task."

Simon scowled, and then took another sip of wine. "I am not a true magician," he said, "in that there is naught of true magic in anything I do. Yet you are right; I have learned enough to be an accomplished mummer – perhaps the best."

"And a fighter! Your service in the arena may stand you in better stead than ever your 'mummery', as you choose to call it. You have seen the situation here; consider what must next be done. I think you realize, Simon of Gitta, that the fate of all men may rest on the success or failure of this venture."

"The Scroll of Thoth" is quite short – fifteen pages – and to the point, but it's got some terrific ideas and memorable scenes. It's fun, fast-moving historical fantasy filled with Lovecraftian-tinged Gnosticism and sword-and-sorcery action worthy of Robert E. Howard. I cannot speak more highly of this story, especially if you're a fan of Roman history and legend.  

Friday, September 10, 2021

Random Roll: FF, p. 3

I will in future return to highlighting choice passages in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, but I recently came across a section of the Fiend Folio that I thought worthy of attention. In the foreword to that tome of creatures malevolent and benign, editor Don Turnbull talks about the process of putting together this "companion" to the Monster Manual. In doing so, he makes a number of intriguing statements, starting with the passage where he explicitly compares the FF to its predecesssor.

There is one major difference between the two volumes – the source of their contents. The Monster Manual is very largely the work of one person – Gary Gygax – who not only created and developed most of the Monster Manual monsters himself but also developed those he did not personally create.

Remember, this is 1981, by which point Gary Gygax reigns supreme over all things AD&D and I suspect that Turnbull's statement needs to be considered in that light. Even so, there is nevertheless merit to what he says about the contents of the Monster Manual. One can rightly quibble about how many of the MM's entries were created solely by Gygax. Yet, the larger point remains that Gygax's influence over that first published AD&D book was considerable.

The new monsters in the FIEND FOLIO Tome, however, are the creations of many people. Some time ago, the editor of a UK magazine asked readers to submit their monster creations to a regular feature which became known as the Fiend Factory. The response was quite enormous and many worthwhile contributions reached the editorial offices.

There are several things of note here, starting with the fact that the name of the "UK magazine" referenced above – White Dwarf – is never mentioned. This is despite the fact that the Fiend Factory feature of that periodical is mentioned. Likewise, one assumes, since White Dwarf was never owned by TSR, some sort of financial and legal arrangement had to be arranged whereby some of the content of the Fiend Factory feature would appear in this book. I wonder if the establishment of TSR UK played a role in the circuitous way that Turnbull speaks here (Games Workshop, publisher of White Dwarf, having previously been the distributor of TSR products in the UK).

Also notable is the fact that, while the text bolds the titles of TSR game book (and, in the case of the Fiend Folio, capitalizes them as well), there are none of the ubiquitous trademark or registered trademark symbols that started to appear in 1980. In any case, Turnbull continues:

As editor of the feature, I never lacked for new and interesting monsters to fill the Factory pages each issue – indeed (for a magazine has inevitable limitations on space) it very soon became evident that many worthwhile creations would not be published until long, long after their submission, if at all. At the same time, the readers were praising the feature and demanding more! So there was a goodly supply of, and strident demand for, additional AD&D monsters – and these two factors gave birth to the FIEND FOLIO Tome of Creatures Malevolent and Benign.

This volume therefore contains an overwhelming majority of monsters which were originally submitted for the Fiend Factory feature. A small fraction of them already appeared in the Factory (though not in as developed a form as they appear here) while a larger number have come straight from creation via development to this book without pausing at the Factory en route.

The second paragraph is very interesting to me. It's regularly stated that the Fiend Folio is largely a compilation of Fiend Factory monsters. If I'm reading Turnbull correctly, he's saying that many of them never appeared in the pages of White Dwarf at all and that he drew upon his large "slush pile" of submissions for many of the monsters that appear in the FF.

Later in the foreword, Turnbull talks about his own role in producing the book.

My own task has been quite a simple one – to select monsters for inclusion, to develop them as necessary and write the statistics and texts, to assemble them in coherent form and to produce the various tables. Perhaps selection was not so easy a task after all, for there were over 1,000 contributions to consider; I have been quite ruthless in selection to ensure that the monsters which finally did appear were of the highest quality and originality.  

"Over 1,000 contributions?!" That's considerably more than I would have expected.

To have sacrificed quantity for quality in this way is, I believe, what discerning AD&D enthusiasts would want me to have done. On the development side my efforts have been variable. Some "originals" were almost fully developed when they reached me and not a great deal of work was required to add the final touches to them. At the opposite end of the development spectrum, other contributions arrived incomplete and embryonic, with the tip of a good idea just showing above the surface, as it were; these needed development to "flesh them out" into complete and coherent form. A few names have been changed and a few characteristics altered (most for good and sufficient reasons, some out of sheer instinct) but substantially the task has been to build on creations rather than re-work them entirely. 

 Had I greater love for the Fiend Folio's monsters, I might take the time and compare their original appearances in the Fiend Factory feature to the versions that later appeared in the AD&D book. I may still do that, as part of my ongoing examination of the early issues of White Dwarf, but, if so, it will be in a haphazard fashion. Regardless, I think Turnbull's admission of the extent to which he was involved in the development of the book's monster entries is important. It's a pity he's been dead for nearly two decades, as I'd love to talk to him about the nitty gritty details of his shepherding the Fiend Folio to its final form. I suspect he'd have a few additional surprises to share with us regarding both the process and the extent of his own creative contributions.