Thursday, July 31, 2008


Anyone out there good at producing dungeon maps?

Alternately, anyone know a simple, easy-to-use computer program that would allow a technological illiterate such as myself to produce dungeon maps?

The Cursed Chateau

I have just learned that my submission to the Fight On!/Otherworld Miniatures Summer Adventure Contest, The Cursed Chateau, has been awarded an honorable mention, along with an entry by Allan Grohe. First prize went to David Bowman of Sham's Grog 'n Blog. Many of the other winners are well-known contributors to the old school revival. I very much look forward to seeing some of these entries published in a future issue of Fight On!, the second issue of which is now available for purchase.

I am, frankly, amazed and gratified that my entry placed at all, as I wrote it as a death trap of the worst kind and I know that sort of adventure isn't much in favor these days, even among folks who are very sympathetic to the darkest aspects of grognardia. I can't help but think I should post the adventure here after expanding on it a bit and perhaps converting it to Swords & Wizardry. I'd like to refine the adventure further and perhaps expand on it too, as I had some ideas for an additional level that I never got around to writing. Of course, I'm tempted to write an entire anthology of adventures that run the full gamut of styles and content as a way to promote S&W and illustrate the old school philosophy in action.

And a reminder: you still have until midnight this coming Saturday (August 2, 2008) to submit an entry (or entries) to Grognard's Challenge #1. I've already gotten a slew of entries from many people and they're uniformly excellent. It's going to be very hard to choose just one as a winner.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Breaking Down Doors (Again)

Like the last two covers of the Dungeon Masters Guide, the fourth one -- for the revised 2e books, sometimes called 2.5e -- was painted by Jeff Easley.

I can only assume that the art director of this revision gave explicit instructions to Mr Easley to go with a "breaking down doors" theme. It's the only explanation I can come up with as to why both this cover and the cover of the revised Players Handbook both illustrate a group of characters busting down a door in a dungeon.

I'll give this cover points for including a dungeon, but that's about the only good thing I can say about it. Easley is not one of my favorite D&D artists by a long shot; he's not even my favorite 2e era artist. Even so, some of his earlier work is good, if not necessarily old school. His later art, though, strikes me as ... cartoonish. Perhaps that's not the word I'm looking for. In any case, the three creatures bursting through the dungeon door here -- Ogres? Hill giants? -- simply don't look real to me. They have an almost stylized character to them that's made worse by the shading and coloration of the piece. They look, as I said, like cartoon characters rather than like something appropriate for a D&D illustration.

More to the point, what exactly do these ogres have to do with the Dungeon Masters Guide? Had this been the cover of, say, the Monster Manual, it might be a bit more appropriate, but the DMG? The illustration reveals nothing about the content of the book on whose cover it rests. It's just a generic piece, devoid of both context and meaning. I understand that some people don't mind covers that don't really "connect" to the content, particularly when dealing with things like referee's manuals; I'm not one of them. For me, referee-oriented books already have enough strikes against them as it is. There's no point in making them even more unattractive to buyers by giving them covers that are so uninspired and unrelated to their purpose.

All in all, I think I can safely say, with even looking at the 2.5e Monster Manual, that this iteration of Dungeons & Dragons has by far and away the worst cover art of them all. I simply have no idea what TSR was thinking when they commissioned these pieces, but then it's quite likely, given subsequent events, that neither did TSR.

Other Games I Have Known

Brian Murphy over at The Silver Key asked me the other day if I might share my experiences playing games other than RPGs. I thought that was a very good idea, so here's a brief overview of the games I've played and enjoyed over the years. Not all of them qualify as "old school" by any reasonable definition, but I figure someone might find it fascinating to know the games with which I spent my time. For this post, I'm keeping details of my experiences short. I might expand on them later if there's interest.

  • Gamma World: I think this was my second game after D&D and I played a great deal of it during my youth. I dissent from grognard orthodoxy in preferring the second edition over the first, despite its Jeff Easley cover and Larry Elmore interior art. I confess that, in retrospect, I find something vastly more "moody" and weird about the first edition. In any case, I had great fun with this game, which I always treated as much more science fantasy than science fiction. Come to think of it, that may explain why my D&D tastes tend less toward the outré than many other old schoolers: Gamma World nicely sated my hunger for gonzo weirdness. Dan Proctor's Mutant Future perfectly recreates the mood and feel of those old days and I'm itching to give it a whirl sometime soon.
  • Traveller: After D&D, I've probably played more Traveller than anything. It's the game that inspired me to become a writer and my earliest publishing credits are for it. I ran many, many campaigns using these rules and probably remember more about my old Traveller campaigns than I do my old D&D ones. That's because I only once -- and briefly -- went through an anti-Traveller phase, whereas I had many long-ish periods where I dropped playing D&D and even openly disdained it. For whatever reason, Traveller has always been my SF RPG of choice and the qualities it evinces -- soberness and seriousness, chief among them -- are those I most seek in the genre.
  • Call of Cthulhu: CoC is important for me not just because of the game itself, of which I played a great deal, but because it helped spur on my love of pulp literature. I already knew of Howard and Smith, of course, but reading Call of Cthulhu reinforced my love of them, as well as many (to me) lesser-known writers of the same era. CoC also taught me a thing or two about good refereeing as well, not to mention a fine appreciation of the dramatic value of player character death.
  • Pendragon: I simply love this game and consider it one of the most perfect gaming evocations of its inspirations ever written. I've run three lengthy Pendragon campaigns over the last 20 years and several shorter ones and I've enjoyed them. As games go, it's an acquired taste and I can't fault anyone who simply doesn't have the taste for it. At the same time, I have to pity anyone who can't enjoy chivalric romance as a gaming genre. Many of my fondest gaming memories comes from playing this game.
  • Star Trek: The FASA version of this licensed RPG is the only one I ever played much of and I loved it to death. Looking back, it's hard to remember why exactly, as the game system was mostly workmanlike but otherwise unremarkable (except for character generation and the starship combat system, both of which were stellar). I suspect it's because the game came out early in the "movie era" of Star Trek, when canon had not ossified to the point where it was no longer possible to have fun adventures without tripping over thousands of hours of accumulated facts and trivia. Back then, Star Trek still retained something of a "philosophical" character, being a kind of slightly retro, almost pulpy adventure sci-fi that drew heavily on Westerns as inspiration. I like that kind of SF (even if it's not my preferred idiom -- see Traveller above) and FASA's game delivered those goods. I fear Star Trek can never again occupy that same mental space in my life again.
  • Fading Suns: Take D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and bits of Traveller and throw them in a blender and you get Fading Suns. I had many fun times playing this game, especially once I cottoned on to the fact that it wasn't intended to be played "straight," which is to say, deadly serious. No, Fading Suns is unabashed pulp SF after the fashion of Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series or C.L. Moore's "Northwest Smith" stories. Bear that in mind and it all makes much more sense, what with the strange mix of science and sorcery, religion and the occult. The game eventually succumbed to "splat book syndrome" and canon-itis, but the core concept remains terrific and I played a lot of it once upon a time.
Those are the games other than D&D that I love. What are yours?


Anyone out there know why so many of Expeditious Retreat Press's Advanced Adventures are written for such high levels? I intended to pick up a couple more the other day and then didn't when I realized that the ones in my local game store were all written for levels 8 and up. Personally, I find that level range rather higher than I prefer and rather higher than was typical for most games back in the AD&D era. I'd much prefer adventures written for the 3-6 level range myself.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Intimations of Immortality

The second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was an attempt both to clean up the rules of the first edition and to give the game a new look that might appeal to a new generation of gamers. Unsurprisingly, the covers of 2e looked very different than those of 1e. A good case in point is the cover of the Dungeon Master's Guide (again, not the use of the apostrophe in the title).

In my entry two days ago, I noted that I didn't much like the cover of the 1e DMG, especially when compared to the revised cover. The 2e cover I'm fairly ambivalent about. I approve of what it's trying to do, namely, emphasize the role of the DM as creator of worlds. You'll notice that the entire cover has a chaotic, inchoate look to it. It's a swirling vortex of color and light, with flashes and bubbles scattered throughout. The wizard to the right, whose form has a somewhat "malleable" appearance as well, looks as if he's trying to bring order to this mess; he's forging a new reality through the power of his will and his command of magic. Opposing (?) him is a red dragon, who's strangely out of place in my opinion. Not only is it unclear what purpose he serves (other than perhaps brand identification), the dragon is too solid, too well defined. He looks as if he dropped off the cover of a Dragonlance module. He simply doesn't belong in this piece.

I wish there was more I could say about this cover, but I'm finding it hard to do so. The piece simply doesn't do much for me, either for good or for ill. I appreciate what it's trying to evoke, but I'm not sure it achieves it. The illustration hints at why it's cool to the Dungeon Master -- you get to create worlds! -- but fails to deliver the goods effectively. I don't think it's as weak as the 1e cover, particularly since this piece at least has relevance to the book's contents. At the same time, it's certainly not as powerful as the revised 1e cover, which is truly superb. Of course, my recollection of the 2e DMG is that it was a very weak book, strangely thin and devoid of the glorious cornucopia of esoterica found in Gygax's original. Had it not been for the magic item tables and descriptions, it was almost wholly useless to me when I owned it -- a largely forgettable volume.

Much like its cover.

Favorite D&D Adventures

Over on his journal, Paizo publisher Erik Mona has listed his top five favorite D&D adventures of all time. I posted my own list in his comments, but I thought I'd also post them here, along with extended commentary.

  • Tomb of Horrors: I don't think it's possible to better illustrate the old school mantra "player, not character, skill" than with module S1. It's a text book example of this important design principle and a heck of a good adventure to boot. It's also a text book example of how much gaming has changed since the old days. I simply can't imagine any game company producing a module built on similar principles today nor can I imagine most of today's players enjoying it even if one would.
  • The Village of Hommlet: When people ask me what I mean when I talk about "Gygaxian fantasy," I point to this module. Here you have a sleepy little town constructed on an almost-believable, quasi-historical basis, peopled with quirky NPCs, existing under the shadow of a dark past that threatens to be reborn. And, for my money, the ruins of the Moathouse are among the best introductory adventure locales every published.
  • Castle Amber: Any module that uses Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne stories as its inspiration gets a thumbs up in my book. More than that, this module is a terrific evocation of the weird. Running and playing this module is an oddly phantasmagoric experience; the whole thing has the character of a dream. It was a module made for an Erol Otus cover (which it has) and I think it offers a nice counterpoint to more staid fantasy adventures. It's part of the late Tom Moldvay's "pulp fantasy" trilogy (the other two being the also-excellent The Isle of Dread and The Lost City).
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City: I played the heck out of this module back in the day. For some reason, it just grabbed me. I consider it to be a kissing cousin of the aforementioned The Lost City, because it's based in the ruins of a formerly-great capital now fallen into decadence. The whole thing has a terrific pulp fantasy vibe and it introduced the yuan-ti and the bullywugs, two of my favorite non-Gygaxian monsters. I consider this to be David Cook's best work until Planescape.
  • Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: Mixing sci-fi and fantasy is considered a no-no by some nowadays. Part of my continued liking for this module is the fact that it mocks such sensibilities. It's a reminder that "fantasy" was once a much more broad genre than it's become since the advent of D&D. This is also a really fun module too, with its bizarre monsters (vegepygmies, anyone?) and strange-looking technological "treasures." I always had a blast with this adventure (no pun intended).
What are your favorite D&D adventures?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Three Old Schools

I know it's quite fashionable of late to claim that "old school" is either purely subjective or indefinable in the manner of pornography ("I know it when I see it."), but I simply don't buy these claims. Most of the confusion arises, in my experience, from people failing to distinguish two uses of the term "old school" that, while valid in certain contexts, have no bearing on what grognards like me mean when we use the term "old school." These two uses are as follows:

1. "Old School" = "Old": This the most subjective usage of the term. Gamers who began with, say AD&D 2e consider it "old school" because it was released almost 20 years ago, just as I am sure some 3e gamers will call their edition "old school" in a few years (if they're not already doing so). I frankly consider this usage laughable, as it's both narcissistic and, more importantly, utterly devoid of "scholastic" elements. That is, this usage makes old school simply a turn of phrase to mean "not current" and pays no heed whatsoever to the idea that the "old school" games encompass a philosophy or approach to gaming. This "old school" isn't a school at all.

2. "Old School" = "Adhering to Game Canon": This is another popular usage and one with which I have limited sympathy, even if I don't think it's deserving of the name. It holds that "old school" means "consonant with the earliest editions of game X," whether mechanically or (more likely) based on setting elements, etc. Under this definition, a carefully researched 3e book that holds true to details set down in earlier editions about, say, elementals is "old school," whereas 4e isn't since it creates a new canon that rejects and contradicts the earlier one. This usage treats "old school" as brand identification rather than anything scholastic. It's all about ensuring that, if Gygax said demons do X and 3e says demons also do X, then, because Gygax and 3e are in accord, 3e counts as "old school."

Neither of these usages is what I or most grognards mean when they talk about "old school." For us, it is a school of thought we're talking about. It's a philosophy of game design and game play that emphasizes loose rules, the sovereign authority of the referee, and player skill over notions of "balance," "story," or "fun." Granted, all these emphases are fuzzy around the edges and there's room for quibbling over whether, say, RuneQuest qualifies as an old school game or not, but that's a far cry from saying there's no such thing as an old school. Likewise, despite the fuzziness, the old school still possesses enough rigidity to clearly exclude certain games from its honor roll. No one who uses this third and primary definition of "old school" would ever say, for instance, that Ars Magica is an old school game, despite its being over 20 years old. That's because old school does have a very clear meaning in most cases.

Now, I don't object to equivocal uses of the term "old school." After all, I use the term "grognard" to refer to old school roleplayers rather than wargamers, which is its original definition. Nevertheless, I think it's important to realize that the old school to which I most frequently refer and the one that's currently generating renewed interest among some gamers is not primarily characterized either by its age or by its adherence to hoary canon so much as by a spirit that has kinship with the spirit of the early days of the hobby, when rules were suggestions, referees made rulings based on them, and players, not characters, were whose skills were tested in play. That's the old school. The rest is often either simple preference or mere nostalgia.

Second Time's the Charm

I never owned the AD&D books with the new cover illustrations by Jeff Easley. I do own the Monster Manual II, which was released the same year (1983). It also bears an Easley cover and uses the same new trade dress as the other reworked volumes. 1983 is a crucial year in the history of TSR. It's the last year before the advent of Dragonlance, which changed D&D -- and the hobby -- forever and it's the year when the longstanding battle between Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers finally boiled over into all-out war. TSR nearly went bankrupt in 1983 from financial mismanagement and, though it survived the crisis, it was never really the same again. Gary's triumph over the Blumes was short-lived and in fact laid the groundwork for his own ouster in 1986. In short, 1983 is by many definition the End of the Beginning of the hobby's history and, for my money, the ultimate boundary of the original old school.

I've already noted my dislike of the revised Players Handbook cover, which is in every way inferior to Dave Trampier's iconic version of same. The Easley cover of the Dungeon Masters Guide, however, is almost undiluted gold.

I simply love this cover. It strikes exactly the right tone for the DMG. You have a taciturn guy in robes and a cowl, with a gigantic key hung around his neck. His image positively screams "Dungeon Master!" He stands between two gigantic metal doors, complete with heraldry that recalls some of the escutcheons from the World of Greyhawk. Behind him, in the distance, you can see a pile of gold that practically reaches the sky, with rays of light shining down upon it. Immediately behind the Dungeon Master are hordes of monsters of the humanoid variety ready to stop anyone who dares venture into their boss's domain. But of course -- and this is the best part -- ol' DM looks to me as if he is closing the doors in front of him, taunting you, saying, "This cool stuff isn't for you. Begone, peasants!"

That, my friends, is what the DMG cover needs to do: make being the DM cool. One of the distinguishing features of old school games in general and D&D most especially is that the fun one has playing them rests disproportionately on the shoulders of the referee. It's the referee, both by his ability to create scenarios and his skill at adjudicating them, who determines to a great extent whether the players have a good time or not. This isn't to minimize the contributions of the players -- far from it! However, the simple reality is that old school games tend to offer much less mechanical "insulation" against the vicissitudes of bad dice rolls, let alone bad decisions, than do more contemporary ones. But a skilled referee can make even misfortune fun; that's part of the essence of D&D for me: suffering at hands of cruel fate and loving every minute of it.

One of the things I've noticed in talking with people who actually played D&D back in the old days was that many (though not all) of those who had no fun and wound up hating the game also complain about their DMs. I've heard lots of stories about maladjusted martinets who abused their players and twisted the rules in every way they could to lord it over the poor fools who made the mistake to join their campaigns. And yet if I were to regale you with a wider sampling of tales from my old games, you'd almost certainly think I was one of those social retards as well, because I cannot deny that I raked my players over the coals at every opportunity. The difference is that my players loved it (most of the time) and that's because I made it fun for them. I don't think I'm bragging when I say that I was a good DM, even when I was screwing my players over with ill-worded wishes or maiming their characters through the use of a vicious critical hit table. I can say that because I always rewarded cleverness, creativity, and perseverance. I was "tough but fair," as the saying goes, and that's what my players understood a referee to be. After all, I had to have fun playing the game too and a goodly portion of my fun came from trying to "beat" my players, just as a portion of theirs came from trying to "beat" me. RPGs may not have winners or losers in the traditional sense, but that doesn't mean the referee and players aren't adversaries, at least some of the time.

The point of all of this is that, in my opinion, the fun of D&D rests inordinately in the hands of the Dungeon Master. He needs not only to create scenarios and run them, but he also has to learn to roll with the punches the dice -- and his players' choices -- throw at him in order to shepherd the game toward something that's fun for everyone, including himself. That's a very tall order and I know many people blanch at the thought of it. Being a storyteller is one thing -- a far easier thing -- but being an old school referee is much harder. It's not your place to direct the "story." Indeed, the very notion of story is in many ways antithetical to the old school. Rather, it's the referee's job to act as one part analog computer, one part opponent, and one part fellow player, so that the experience that emerges is, with some luck and no small amount of skill, something memorable and enjoyable for everyone involved.

But there are no guarantees, which is why many RPG sessions end up as tedious, disjointed, even painful, affairs. Like life itself, there's no way to ensure that an old school gaming session will result in anything that's, in and of itself, either memorable or even enjoyable. Of course, over time, and with the accumulation of many sessions of play, those tedious, disjointed, and even painful affairs might acquire a significance that transcends their origins. They become necessary steps on a longer journey or pieces of dark glass in a glorious mosaic of many colors. It's for this reason that OD&D extols the campaign and indicates it is the purpose for which the rules have been designed. OD&D also notes, correctly, that "the referee bears the entire burden here." Without a competent and agile referee, old school gaming was frequently a less than enjoyable experience, which is why the history of the hobby has been, in some ways, the story of changing the role and scope of the referee in order to "fix" the problems of the past.

To my mind, what gaming needs more than ever is to make the role of the referee something envied and enjoyed rather than seen as a chore. Jeff Easley's cover here does that, in my opinion. It lends an air of mystery and authority to the Dungeon Master, which is as it should be. It's quite simply a great cover, probably the best of any edition of the DMG.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Contest: Grognard's Challenge #1

I announced earlier that I'd be giving away a few extra copies of OD&D volumes and supplements I'd recently acquired as the prizes in contests I'd run through this blog. Today I'm announcing the first in a series of five contests, the prize for which is the attractive volume pictured to the left: Volume 2 of Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Monsters & Treasure.

The first Grognard's Challenge is a simple but fitting one: create, describe, and provide game stats for either a single new monster or a single new magic item in 100 words or less. Game stats should be for either OD&D or AD&D (or compatible retro-clones/simulacra).

Entries will be judged on the basis of creativity, brevity (shorter better), and old school feel, the last of which is an entirely subjective metric based solely on my own peculiar preferences, most of which regular readers of the blog should know by now. The whole point of this and subsequent contests is to foster an appreciation for old school traditions and philosophies, so bear that in mind. Think pulp fantasy and the early days of the hobby and you'll be on the right track. No one is barred from entering, including friends and colleagues. I will post the winning entry here and explain why I selected it over its competitors, meaning that even were my wife to submit an entry -- not that she will -- it still has to withstand my rather exacting standards. Winners receive a copy of isMonsters & Treasure (in nearly mint condition) and retain ownership of their creation, which they may then do with as they please (I recommend submitting it to Fight On! or another old school product).

The contest begins immediately and ends at midnight (EST) on August 2, 2008. Submissions may be sent to my email address indicated on the right hand side of this blog. Multiple entries are allowed and encouraged, but each one must be sent in a separate email. Although not strictly necessary, I'd appreciate it if you'd make the subject line of your submission something like "Grognard's Challenge #1" as that'll make it easier to keep the emails straight in my inbox.

Any questions about the contest can be asked either in the comments below or by sending me an email at the address to the right.

Good luck!

I Wish I May

Wish: The same spell as found in a Ring of Wishes (DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, MONSTERS & TREASURE, page 33). Using a Wish spell, however, requires so great a conjuration that the user will be unable to do anything further magically for from 2-8 days.
Thus spake OD&D Supplement I, Greyhawk, introducing one of the most powerful and flexible spells in the canon of Dungeons & Dragons. In case you don't have Monsters & Treasures handy, this is what it says about the Ring of Wishes:
As with any wishes, the wishes granted by the ring must be of limited power in order to maintain balance in the game. This requires the utmost discretion on the part of the referee. Typically, greedy characters will request more wishes, for example, as one of their wishes. The referee should then put that character into an endless closed time loop, moving him back to the time he first obtained the ring. Again, a wish for some powerful item could be fulfilled without benefit to the one wishing ("I wish for a Mirror of Life Trapping!", and the referee then places the character inside one which is all his own!). Wishes that unfortunate adventures had never happened should be granted. Clues can be given when wishes for powerful items or treasures are made.
Each version of wish published in subsequent editions of D&D tended to emphasize the first part of the above description (i.e. game balance) and gave short shrift to the later part (i.e. referee discretion). By the time of Third Edition, there are in fact specific parameters on just how much benefit the spell can bring to a character rather than the looser guidelines of previous editions. Fourth Edition, if I recall, has eliminated the spell entirely, which is no surprise.

I mention all this because I recently had a conversation with two friends of mine, recalling how much I loved wishes in my D&D campaigns of old. Their use was generally through magic items, since I never had a magic-user character in my game who reached high enough level to wield such a spell. I threw out wishes quite often in those days, because I considered them to be great fun -- a temptation that few of my players could resist. The reason was simple: everyone knew that it was my job, as referee, to screw them out of their wishes to the utmost of my ability and I was exceedingly good at doing so. You must remember that I was trained by Jesuits, so casuistry comes easily to me and I took ever so much pleasure in twisting the word of PC wishes against them.

And yet almost all of them succumbed eventually. Shawn, the player of Morgan Just, was one of the few who knew better and avoided wishes like the plague they were. You see, the problem was that I didn't always screw my players over. If their wishes were reasonable or served a good purpose, I usually granted them, perhaps with a small catch, but not enough to make them regret having wished. Enough examples of such "successful" wishes and my players would get bolder and greedier and then they'd be where I wanted them. This was a game-within-a-game for us. We enjoyed trying to get the better of one another and my players, bless them, usually appreciated the warped logic by which I would hoist them by their own petard. There were occasionally hard feelings, but not often. Cruel though I could be, I was also a believer in rewarding perseverance. Players who accepted their fates would almost always be given means to escape them, if they should tenacity. As I've said before, that's part of what D&D was all about for us: a series of unfortunate events visited upon your character by referee whim, cruel fate, or your own stupidity -- the stuff from which great adventures are made!

(As an aside, I'll note that I never looked on my twisting of wishes as "wrong" or inappropriate. From my perspective, magic -- even reality-bending magic -- has rules. One of those rules was not to endanger the multiverse by stretching it too far. Consequently, anyone foolish enough to try and do so was a threat to the multiverse and should be eliminated by the most direct means possible. Thus, the twisting of a wish was magic's way of taking cosmic troublemakers out of commission permanently before they did harm to the fabric of reality)

Back Cover

For the benefit of those who don't have ready access to the back cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, here's a scan of it:

A Dissenting View

My series on the various covers of the Players Handbook was well received. More than one reader suggested I extend the series to include the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual as well and I've decided to take up that suggestion today, beginning with the 1e DMG.

The cover is illustrated by David C. Sutherland III and, like the cover of the 1e PHB, is an icon of the early days of the hobby. It's also a cover I don't particularly like. I realize that some would consider such a view heresy, but I'm prepared to stand by my opinion. Before we get to that, though, I'd first like to take some time to examine the cover image itself, if only to lay the groundwork for my critique later in the post.

According to the description on page 2, the cover depicts "an encounter between three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire. The fabled City of Brass can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil." As a kid, I actually found the portion of the wrap-around cover on the back, which depicted the City of Brass itself, much more evocative than the front cover. The gleaming City of Brass, with its spires and minarets, not to mention demon-faced gates, screamed "Adventure!" to me. Looking at that galley floating on a sea of burning oil, I couldn't help but feel the need to include it in my campaign. I wanted to send my friends' characters there and so I did. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that the designers of 4e have often complained that earlier conceptions of the Elemental Planes were inhospitable to adventuring, thus necessitating the changes made in the new edition. I can't help but wonder if they ever looked at the cover of the 1e DMG).

By contrast, the front cover is rather uninspiring to me. You have the figure of the efreet, who looks rather stiff and statue-like, almost robotic. I'll confess that his face unnerved me a bit as a younger person, but otherwise he does not appear very menacing, even to the poor harem girl -- I'm sorry: "adventurer" -- he has in his clutches. The efreet also looks much too substantial for my liking. I'll grant that this is a purely subjective thing, but I've always imagined the efreeti to be creatures of living fire, half-formed into humanoid shape. They crackle and spark and are "fuzzy" around the edges, billowing clouds of black smoke as they interact with their environment. The guy on the cover could just as easily be a demon or devil or some other extraplanar being. Even leaving that aside, there's no question that he doesn't look "alive" enough to be a convincing threat.

Confronting the efreet are three adventurers. I've already mentioned the harem girl and she bugs me. Leaving aside the goofiness of her pose, she just seems too ... ordinary to me. I can't quite explain it. I obviously have no problems with the use of archetypal characters and the Harem Girl is a powerful archetype. I'm also not one to dwell on the portrayal of women in traditional fantasy art, so that's not what's bugging me. I guess I simply expect her to be more interesting, which is to say, more than just a stock character, particularly since she's not doing anything significant in the illustration. I like her companions more, particularly the fighter. Mind you, I'm a sucker for plausible armor and weaponry. The same goes for the magic-user, who seems to have lost his pointy hat in the melee against the efreet. Those two are also stock characters and yet somehow they manage to be more than that. Perhaps it's the little touches, like the missing hat and the shield device, that make them so.

All in all, I just don't like the front cover. Compared to the back portion, it comes across as too static and, worse yet, pro forma. There's not much of a story there, at least for me. Compare it to Trampier's Players Handbook cover and there's a world of difference in my opinion. Even the way Sutherland frames the front, it looks far less inspired than Tramp's. Sutherland's painting puts the archway on the back portion of the wrap-around, which leaves the front in a dark, almost featureless setting, which only serves to make the back portion look even more evocative. My only beef with the back cover is that there's no entrée for your player characters. It's just a landscape -- a marvelous, fantastical one, to be sure -- but it doesn't include even a single person in it. Even the boat on the sea of oil is lacking in occupants.

All of my criticisms to the side, the bigger issue is that I'm not sure the cover suits the content of the Dungeon Masters Guide very well. The DMG was supposed to be the one volume that was the sole purview of the DM. Gary Gygax makes this clear several times throughout the book itself. Thus, the content of the book was supposed to be secret, in the broad sense of the term. A better cover would have reflected this element of its character, making the DMG the gaming equivalent of some forbidden tome of ancient lore. Instead, we get a rather static fight scene whose context is shunted to the back cover rather than at the forefront where it should have been.

It's a pity really, because I like Sutherland's art most of the time and I want to like this piece more than I do. Granted, compared to Trampier's PHB cover, almost anything would look uninspired, but the DMG cover doesn't suffer just by comparison. To my mind, it's a flawed piece and certainly one that doesn't serve its purpose very well. The best I can say of it is that I don't hate it; I even have a certain fondness for it, although it's born mostly of nostalgia. I have nothing against nostalgia, of course. I simply think it's an insufficient basis for judging a piece of art "good," which is why the cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide earns a B- at best (more likely a C+).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fight On!

Issue #2 of Fight On! is now available for sale through This issue looks to be an even better one than the last one. Get thee hence and purchase a copy.

A Propos

Science is at last beginning to perceive that there is sound truth in the popular phrase, "born out of time." Certain natures are attuned to certain phases or epochs of history, and these natures, when cast by chance into an age alien to their reactions and emotions, find difficulty in adapting themselves to their surroundings. It is but another example of nature's inscrutable laws, which sometimes are thrown out of stride by some cosmic friction or rift, and result in havoc to the individual and the mass.
--Robert E. Howard, Foreword to Almuric

Nice to See

Yesterday, I was out of the house briefly and I visited a big chain bookstore downtown to look for some books for my daughter. As I passed through the displays of bestsellers and "new and notable" displays, I saw one entitled, "Where It All Began." The display held a complete set of Paizo's Planet Stories line, as well as some of the Del Rey R.E. Howard collections, and many other books of "vintage fantasy and science fiction" (as the display called them). I have to admit I was positively tickled by the display, not just because it afforded me the opportunity to pick up a copies of Almuric, The Secret of Sinharat, and The Ginger Star, but also because it suggested that someone at the bookstore understood and appreciated the roots of modern fantasy and science fiction enough to recommend these books to others.

Maybe there's hope for the future after all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My Favorite D&D Illustration of All Time

I think it's fair to say that this illustration, by Dave Sutherland, from the AD&D Players Handbook is my favorite one of all time. Entitled, "A Paladin in Hell," I can't begin to tell you how inspired I was by this as a younger person. I have no doubt that my lifelong love affair with paladins, and holy warriors generally, probably began on page 23 of the PHB.

There's a lot to like here. Firstly, there's the paladin himself, decked out out in what looks to be historically accurate late medieval/early modern full plate. There are no spikes or outlandish accouterments here. Remove the devils he's battling and you could drop him into the late 15th century with no problem. (As an aside, it's worth noting that, before his death, Gary Gygax mentioned on several occasions how he had come to see the early Renaissance period as more appropriate to his conception of D&D than the Middle Ages proper) You'll also notice that the paladin is wearing a couple of bags. I love that. I've commented before that I think proper D&D art should show the characters loaded down with gear and it's great to see that even this heroic paladin is carrying supplies with him as he ventures into the Pit to face evil on its home turf. Secondly, look at the paladin's position -- backed up against a precipice and still boldly facing the diabolic horde. That's what a paladin has always been in my view: someone willing to die in defense of Law and Good. And you can see that the paladin is a bad ass. He's already dispatched an ice devil -- no mean feat -- and he's about to do in a barbed devil as we speak. Those devils are the final reason I love this picture. Esthetically, D&D's devils are the perfect amalgamation of medieval conceptions of fallen angels with more outlandish ideas drawn from pop culture. I can't help but like them.

I won't say that "A Paladin in Hell" is the best D&D illustration ever, because it's not. However, it remains my favorite, because it exercised a huge influence over my imagination. Even now, after nearly 30 years, I find it inspiring in a way that few other illustrations are. I'll grant that there are problems with piece, both technically (Sutherland was nowhere near the artist Trampier was) and esthetically, but I don't much care. In terms of raw power, few illustrations have ever held a candle to this one. I am sure I am not alone in this regard.

Coming Up

In addition to whatever posts I put up today and tomorrow, I thought I'd give you a preview of three things I'll be doing over the next week or so.
  • Cover Reviews of All the D&D Books: After much egging on by various people, I've decided to bite the bullet and review the artwork of the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual for every edition of the game from 1e on. The response to those reviews was very positive and I had fun doing them. Plus, I'm still wrestling to articulate just what old school art is to me, so additional entries in the series might shed some light on this thorny question.
  • Regular Features: One of the things I plan to do is provide regular new game content for use with older editions of D&D (and occasionally other games). I'm thinking I'll do this twice a week, probably Monday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. I'll be using Swords & Wizardry rules as the default ones, since they're free, open, and readily compatible with all OD&D-descended rules sets. Expect things like new spells, monsters, magic items, and perhaps a character class or two.
  • A Contest: I recently managed to obtain additional copies of several OD&D books and supplements (Volumes 2 and 3 of OD&D, as well as Greyhawk, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demigods, and Heroes). I'd like to give these away to worthy readers of Grognardia -- but not without effort! I have an idea for a contest, the winners of which will receive these extra books as prizes. Once I finalize the details, I'll post them here.
And that's just the beginning. More soon!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

RIP: N. Robin Crossby (1954-2008)

Today, N. Robin Crossby, the creator of Hârn, died at the age of 54 in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada. His death is the fourth of significance to the hobby to have occurred this year and it's a reminder of just how old roleplaying actually is. I first encountered Hârn through ads in Dragon in the very early 80s, but it wasn't until years later that I ever actually purchased a Hârn product. The level of detail -- and the gorgeous maps -- impressed me and you could tell that this fantastical world was a labor of love by Crossby. Although I never really got into Hârn (for reasons that aren't important here), I always regarded it as a fine example of world creation. I had a few passing dealings with Mr Crossby and he always seemed to be a very polite, thoughtful individual and his creativity was clearly of the highest order. His death today is a great loss not just to fans of Hârn, but to fans of fantasy roleplaying generally.

Here's hoping 2009 comes before we see the loss of any more of the hobby's great ones. We've already lost too many as it is.

The Wilderness

REFEREE's MAP is a wilderness map unknown to the players. It should be for the territory around the dungeon location. When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area and thus be able to select a site upon which to build their castles. (Castle building and its attendant requirements will be covered hereafter.) Exploratory adventures are likely to be the most exciting, and their incorporation intro the campaign is most desirable.
--Reference Sheets, Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

REVIEW: Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer

This review marks something of a divergence from past ones, in that it's not about a "neo-old school" product at all but a thoroughly contemporary one. Consequently, I'd like to offer some explanation of why I've chosen to review the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, Paizo has positioned itself as the heir to the pre-4e traditions of Dungeons & Dragons. Its publisher, Erik Mona, makes no secret of his love for the lore created by Gygax and Arneson and the pulp fantasies that inspired them. To the right of this blog, you'll see I've enshrined a quote from Mr Mona that I think speaks volumes about Paizo's "philosophy" and the reasons why they chose not to sign on to 4e. Secondly, Paizo's house setting, Golarion, is intended as an homage not just to pulp fantasy but also to the World of Greyhawk. Mr Mona rose to prominence in the roleplaying industry through his work on the RPGA's now-defunct Living Greyhawk campaign and has long expressed a deep love for Oerth. Finally, I've wanted for some time to find a good contemporary gaming product whose content and presentation I could critique from my own idiosyncratic old school perspective. The Gazetteer is an especially good one for this, in my opinion, because the philosophy behind it is not so alien to the old school that my review would simply be unrelentingly negative. At the same time, the fact that there are clear differences from my own perspective affords me the opportunity to draw some bright lines that may help others understand my own take on what "old school" is all about.

With that preamble out of the way, let's turn to the product itself. The Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer is a 64-page perfect-bound book, with cover art by Steve Prescott. The front cover art depicts a fight between two figures and a red dragon on a bridge. At least one of the figures I recognize as one of the "iconics" of the Pathfinder Chronicles, while the other one I don't recall ever having seen before. The illustration is decent in my opinion and doesn't fall prey to most of the usual excesses in evidence in contemporary gaming art. That said, I can't say that I have much liking for the concept of "iconics," since I think this shifts the focus away from each player's character. The back cover reproduces a piece of interior art and is a typical "strike a pose" piece devoid of context.

The book begins with a two-page introduction that describes the setting in broad terms and establishes the current situation. The current age of Golarion, which began a little over a century before the present, is known as the Age of Lost Omens, so called because it began with the death of the ascended mortal named Aroden, who had until then guided the destiny of humanity. His death heralded the beginning of a new age, one in which no significant prophecy has yet come to pass and the future of humanity is no longer tied to the actions of a divine patron. As a set-up for a pulp fantasy campaign setting, I think this is superb. The focus on humanity as the fulcrum of the age is very much in keeping with such traditions, as is the notion of destiny unfettered by the whims of the gods. This is promising stuff.

The next 14 pages are devoted to describing the various human cultures of Golarion, as well as their demihuman counterparts. There's also a discussions of languages and the roles played by the various D&D classes within the setting. I found these pages somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I appreciated the diversity of human cultures, a diversity that reminded me of the Hyborian Age in the way it mixed different eras and continents with abandon. No one can go wrong by borrowing a page of two from Howard. There's a small amount of v.3.5/Pathfinder RPG-specific material in these pages in the form of additional/modified class abilities, but they take up little space and can safely be ignored. All in all, the material here provides just enough information without becoming overbearing. The art in this section, while attractive, is uniformly post-Elmore new school with little action and no context.

Four pages are devoted to time-keeping and the planar cosmology of the setting. Of these four pages, nearly three are devoted to a timeline that stretches back some 10,000 years and includes far too many points of detail. From such timelines is canon born and the obsession with such minutiae has been the death knell of many a game setting. Given the nature of the Age of Lost Omens, there was little need or purpose in detailing more than a century or two into the past. The rest is an indulgence that binds the hands of the referee and all but guarantees that future Pathfinder Chronicles will inevitably delve into such matters. Worse still, in my opinion, is the note that the time line of the setting advances in a one-to-one correspondence with time in the real world. I realize that this is in part to accommodate the organized play Pathfinder Society, but the reality is that an advancing timeline is another sign of creeping canon and it worries me.

The bulk of the book is 36 pages detailing the various nations of Golarion. The thumbnail sketch of each nation reminds me strongly of the old World of Greyhawk gazetteer, which is hardly a coincidence, as I noted above. We are given information on each nation's overall alignment, capital city (and population), other notable settlements (also with populations), ruler, languages, and religion. After that, we are given a longer description whose length varies by entry. In general, each nation gets about five paragraphs of information, which is about four paragraphs too long in my opinion. In a gazetteer of this sort, I would much rather have only the barest of bare bones, not only because of space considerations, but also because the sparer the entries, the more room there is for the individual referee to make a nation his own.

That said, the nations of Golarion are a wonderfully diverse lot. I approve heartily of most of them, as they not only fit many beloved pulp fantasy stereotypes but also include a number of nations that, in defying accepted conventions, nicely fit within the broader context out of which OD&D arose. A few examples:
  • Andoran: This Neutral Good nation is basically a fantasy version of the United States of America, complete with a revolution that resulted in a "kingdom without a king." This is in contrast to the Chaotic Neutral land of Galt, which is basically a fantasy version of Revolutionary France. By all rights, neither nation "fits" in a fantasy setting and yet I found them both perfectly acceptable, particularly in a world where humanity's divine patron was no more and the forms of the past mean nothing -- novus ordo saeclorum indeed.
  • Cheliax: Nothing is better than a once-good nation turned to evil and Cheliax is just such a nation. Formerly a stronghold of the worship of Aroden, it has now turned to diabolism in the wake of that god's death. The Chelaxians are bad guys to rival the Stygians.
  • Irrisen: An evil land whose witch-queen is a daughter of Baba Yaga. What's not to love?
  • Numeria: This "savage land of super-science" answers the question "What would have happened if Conan had used alien technology to rule his kingdom?"
  • Osirion: The name alone tickles me -- a fantasy version of ancient Egypt.
There are many, many nations and most are immediately recognizable either as traditional fantasy stereotypes or analogs of real world nations from throughout history. I view this as a good thing, because it's in keeping with the pulp traditions on which D&D is founded. Likewise, it's much easier to create characters and situations when you can immediately understand that Mendev is a crusader state or that the Lands of the Linnorm Kings is where the "Vikings" are from. By and large, I have no complaints about Golarion's nations. They were broadly drawn, yet well realized. I do wish less detail had been given about some of them, of course, but the information given is still limited enough not to be too disruptive.

The last seven pages of the book lists and discusses the gods of Golarion. Like the nations, they're broadly drawn stereotypes that meet most of the usual "requirements" of a fantasy setting. I appreciated the fact that the gods are not "racial" in character and that different nations/races worship the same gods under different names and traditions. I've always found the idea of racial pantheons to be unnecessarily complex in most presentations. At the same time, I'll admit to rankling a bit about yet another presentation of Asmodeus as a god rather than as a devil. I realize that this is an idiosyncratic bugaboo of mine, but I mention it nonetheless.

Also included with the book is a fold-out color map of the portion of Golarion described in the Gazetteer (there is, of course, more to the planet than what is described -- Asian analog nations, if nothing else). The map is at a very high scale, showing only the most high-level details, making it more of a pretty piece of artwork than a functional bit of cartography. One presumes that more detailed, lower-level maps will be included in other Pathfinder products.

In terms of its presentation, I found the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer solid. There were afew editing problems, but the text was clear and easy on the eyes. The art throughout is all full-color and of uniformly good quality. In terms of its presentation, though, it varies quite a lot, with much of it depicting either posed characters or action scenes starring the Pathfinder iconics. There are a few exceptions, but most of these struck me as decidedly lacking in old school vibe. That's to be expected, of course, but it's still a bit disappointing. One of the things I had hoped is that, esthetically, Pathfinder might provide a template for how to use modern media and artists to present a fundamentally old school tableau. This doesn't seem to be the case; Pathfinder is very much in the same artistic continuum as 3e and 4e, highlighting the iconics over "generic" characters and employing too many stilted, "posed" scenes.

At the same time, in terms of content, there is much to recommend about the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetter. The book itself is nearly rules-free, which means that it could be adapted very easily to early editions of D&D. Just as importantly, the content is very much in keeping with pulp fantasy forms and traditions. Golarion is not a "modern" setting in any sense, except that this book was published in 2008. My comparison to the Hyborian Age is not hyperbole; I think Golarion stands solidly in line with the principles that brought us Conan's stomping grounds. The "ugly" aspects of pulp fantasy -- racism, slavery, human sacrifice, tyranny -- are all in evidence in Golarion and there is no attempt to whitewash them. Half-orcs, for example, exist in this setting and the Gazetteer makes no bones about the fact the breed owes its existence to "violence or perversion." This is not an antiseptic, PG-rated world and it's all the better for it.

In short, I like Golarion and I like this product. I think it's a marvelous example of a new school company producing something that's consonant -- at least broadly -- with old school sensibilities. The artwork will certainly offend sensitive old schoolers, but I'd urge them to look beyond the iconics and poses and examine the content, which, for the most part, is quite excellent and usable. I have no doubt, though, that Paizo will develop and detail every nook and cranny of Golarion, turning it into a setting as obsessed with minutiae as any other published today. That's a great shame, as I think Golarion would make for a fine sandbox-style setting and I'm sorely tempted to try and use it as such, ignoring almost everything else that will be published for it and using the Gazetteer as my starting point.

Despite it all, I'm going to keep my eye on the Pathfinder Chronicles. Rules-wise and esthetically, there's not a lot of commonality with the old school, but the content itself is first rate and immediately intelligible to gamers who cut their teeth on the Wilderlands of High Fantasy or the World of Greyhawk. That's a rare thing nowadays and it deserves to be applauded.

Final Score: 3½ out of 5 polearms

The Case of Morgan Just

I remember a lot of characters and adventures from my old D&D campaigns, but none stand out quite as strongly as the 6'4" Lawful Neutral Fighter my childhood friend Shawn created. Originally given the ominous name of Morgan Justice, the character was intended to be, as you might guess, a grim dispenser of rough justice, a fantasy version of Judge Dredd (except that we'd never heard of Judge Dredd) perhaps with a touch of The Stranger, from High Plains Drifter. In play, Morgan Justice eventually became known instead as Morgan the Just or Morgan Just, for short. Far from being a barely human avatar of Law, he was instead a rather jovial guy much given to defending the weak and the innocent. By all rights he should probably have been Lawful Good in alignment, but Shawn insisted that Morgan wasn't actually good, only that much of what the figher did seemed good to outsiders who didn't understand his true reasons for doing so.

Count me among those who didn't understand, but I was willing to cut Shawn some slack, as Morgan was a well played and interesting character. He was one of those rare fighters who really did have a natural 18 Strength, as I saw the 3d6 roll with my own eyes. Later, he also rolled high enough on d100 that I granted him 18/00 Strength as well, since I'd decided that, being a tough guy from the northern wastes, he ought to get a bonus of +25 to his percentile roll. I didn't mind this, because Shawn wasn't a power gaming munchkin and, truth be told, +3 to hit and +6 damage isn't exactly a campaign-breaking bonus. At any rate, Shawn rued the day I allowed this, because, after Morgan had accumulated a girdle of frost giant strength and a hammer of thunderbolts, he was all set to get medieval on the trolls who'd slaughtered his family as a child -- you didn't think he wouldn't have a cheesily melodramatic background, did you? -- I explained that the giant-slaying ability of the hammer only functioned while also wearing gauntlets of ogre power. Simply having 18/00 Strength naturally was not enough, as the power was wholly magical in nature, not merely a function of raw might. This led to a long and tedious series of quests so that Morgan might gain the gauntlets and unlock the hammer's true power. He eventually succeeded -- at great expense to himself and his comrades -- and moaned that he now wore on his hands magic items that conferred him no benefits in and of themselves.

Here's the thing: Shawn just accepted my decision and moved on. He could have argued with me about my ruling on the gauntlets of ogre power being necessary, but he didn't. Back in those days, it was a given that, as the referee, my word was law and that's all there was to it. At the same time, there was an understanding that, if a player really wanted something, as Shawn did, that it was part of my duty to provide him with opportunities to acquire it. Again note: opportunities. There was never any expectation that I'd give Morgan the gauntlets just because he needed them. Indeed, Shawn knew, as every player in my campaign knew, that making it clear to me that your character wanted X, Y, or Z was pretty much a guarantee that you were going to have to sweat blood to get any of them.

And so it was with Morgan. After literally weeks of searching and much expense employing scryers and sages, Morgan discovered that the only location of an unclaimed set of gauntlets of ogre power -- remember that Morgan the Just would never steal -- was in the hoard of a huge, ancient red dragon whose name escapes me at the moment. Morgan and his friends succeeded in slaying the dragon, although at least one PC died, as did many, many henchmen and hirelings. Morgan at last had the item he sought -- only to discover that the now-slain dragon was one of Tiamat's consorts and the Queen of Evil Dragons was none to pleased by Morgan's actions. She didn't take too kindly to Morgan's actions and proceeded to mow through his party, killing another PC and, I think, all the henchmen and hirelings remaining. Morgan himself barely escaped with his life and, thanks to a critical hit table I'd be using for some time, lost his eye in the process. But he had his gauntlets and the giants of the world would soon feel his wrath!

Shawn took the loss of Morgan's eye without complaint. The fighter took to wearing an eye patch for a while, which Shawn thought was cool (as did everyone else). It also gave me the opportunity to introduce the Eye of Vecna into the campaign, as an enticement to Morgan, but of course he didn't fall for it. Another PC did, though, and he slowly became corrupted by the artifact, eventually becoming a major villain of the campaign -- a ranger who turned against his friends and allies and established a "Most Dangerous Game"-style maze in his forest demesne and challenged any who could dare defeat him to do so. He filled the maze with all sorts of monsters and evil henchmen and killed even more PCs before Morgan Just eventually overcame them all and meted out justice on the miscreant. Of course, now the Eye of Vecna had to be destroyed before I found yet more ways to wreak havoc with it in the campaign ...

I could go on -- perhaps I will some day -- but I hope I've made my point clear. Back in those days, I don't ever recall anyone once calling me a "killer DM" or complaining bitterly after I'd killed or maimed their character or taken away some hard-earned loot from them. Back then, this was just how you played D&D: defeats and victories alike were opportunities for further defeats or victories. The end came only when you decided you wanted it to come, for most deaths -- save those in the Tomb of Horrors, for example -- were never final and there were always ways for the clever and persistent player to undo past mistakes and get another shot at their heart's desire.

Maybe my players just trusted me and knew that even my most diabolical schemes were intended to be fun. Or perhaps we were all just masochists who took pleasure in misfortune. I don't know. All I can say for sure is that I used to put my players' characters through the wringer on a regular basis and they seemed to have enjoyed it. Indeed, they would often boast of having "beaten" me, even though they knew this would only embolden me to try harder next time. But maybe times really were different and my players just didn't realize they were playing D&D wrong.

In any event, I'll always remember Shawn and Morgan Just. They both remind me why I still enjoy playing D&D after all these years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Old School Pleasure

I believe I've mentioned on more than one occasion that my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons came in the form of the boxed edition released in 1977 and edited by Eric Holmes. This edition is sometimes called "Holmes Basic," although my copy of the rulebook doesn't use the term "Basic Rules" or anything of the sort. Instead, it's simply Dungeons & Dragons without qualification. My set included a monochrome cover version of module B1-In Search of the Unknown and included chits and a coupon for polyhedral dice from TSR when they became available.

The funny thing about the Holmes edition is that, while it was clearly intended to be an introduction to the forthcoming AD&D rules -- the Players Handbook would be released a year later -- it's not wholly compatible with them. Or rather, the Holmes edition has its own idiosyncrasies not found in either OD&D or in AD&D. Chief among is the use of the fivefold alignment system (Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Chaotic Evil, Lawful Evil) and the fact that, until the release of 4e, it was the only version of D&D where magic missile required an attack roll to hit.

When I first started playing in late 1979, we used the Holmes rules as our starting point, modified with the rules from the three AD&D rulebooks, since they were already out by the time I entered the hobby. When conflicts arose, I generally favored the AD&D tomes over Holmes, but Holmes had the advantage of being nice and short and generally clearer (to my young mind anyway), even if it wasn't written by the Dungeon Master himself.

One of the things I loved about Holmes -- and the thing that hooked me forever -- was the equipment list. And I mean loved. That list sealed my fate forever. You see, it was that list that helped everything fall into place for me. Without it, D&D might appear to be just a fairly complex board game, with characters and monsters just being different types of "pieces." Remember, too, that I had played Dungeon! and that brilliant game does just that -- makes a board game of dungeon delving.

Throw in an equipment list, though, and suddenly (for me at any rate) the essence of D&D is clear: this is a game about outfitting an imaginary expedition into a fantastic underworld filled with mythological beasts and legendary treasures. Why else would their be entries and costs for 50' rope, small boats, sacks of various sizes, iron spikes, and weeks' worth of rations? Take a moment to think about that. Weeks' worth of rations. This isn't some quick smash and grab operation, but rather a carefully planned foray into the unknown. It was like nothing else I'd ever seen or even imagined -- Lewis & Clark setting off into the ruins of Zothique by way of the Hammer horror films. What's not to love?

Over the years, I've met fewer and fewer people who love equipment lists -- indeed many loathe having to choose equipment for their characters. Me, I don't mind so much, although, to be fair, I tend to be the referee rather than a player nowadays. Many games don't even bother with them, preferring to treat necessary equipment as a background assumption rather than as an important part of play. D&D in all its editions seems to have (mostly) stayed true to this tradition, although 4e is the least true to its heritage, with fewer odd bits of "exploratory" equipment and magical food that takes up little space and can feed a grown person for 10 days.

To that I say, "Bah." That equipment list in Holmes fired my imagination in innumerable ways. All the 10' poles, lanterns, different types of mirrors, and the like made me ask questions, both as a player and as a referee. Why exactly was there a silver mirror as well as a steel one? For that matter, what difference did the material from which my cleric's cross was made make? And so on. Buying equipment, planning a dungeon expedition, thinking ahead not just to six hours from now but six days from now -- these are the essence of D&D for me. This is what grabbed me as a 10 year-old in the winter of 1979 and I would miss it if it were gone from my games.


Needless to say, I have been neglectful of this blog over the past two weeks and I offer apologies to my regular readers who've been no doubt anxiously awaiting more grognardly goodness (ha!). I've been distracted by a number of more pressing matters, but some of the haze is beginning to clear and I hope to be back in the saddle again by the end of the week. Quite a lot has happened in the old school gaming world while I was away, so I will almost certainly have much to say on recent events, as well as my usual musings.

In the meantime, to tide you over, I offer you the late David Sutherland's illustration of the succubus from the AD&D Monster Manual (1977). Enjoy!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What's His Story?

Believe it or not, this picture used to really bug me as a younger man and I spent way too many hours thinking about it or arguing about it with my friends. It's a piece of Dave Trampier art that appears on page 93 of the AD&D Players Handbook. Simply as a piece of history, I think it's quite significant. First, it's a reminder that, way back when, giant frogs were in fact considered a real threat to adventurers. I recall the giant frogs outside the moathouse of the Temple of Elemental Evil wreaking terrible havoc on more than one party. The ability to swallow a target whole is a mighty one and giant frogs in my experience often made good use of it.

Second, look at the elf. Yes, that's an elf. See, a lot of people would have you believe that Gary was lying through his teeth when he said that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings had little influence on D&D. They'll point to all sorts of evidence to prove their point, but they rarely look at how elves were depicted in the original three AD&D books. To my mind, they have more to do with fairy tale elves than with the Nordic-inspired demigods-among-men of Middle Earth. I mean, just look at that guy facing off against the giant frog. Aside from the really big nose and ears, he's even got the Hat and the Shoes. That's no Legalas or Elrond there, my friends. Heck, even the Keebler Elves are so non-traditional that they don't wear the Shoes anymore.

But neither of these points is why I was obsessed with this illustration as a youth. Immediately beneath this piece of artwork are the descriptions of two 9th-level magic-user spells, temporal stasis and time stop. Now, if you look at the picture, you'll see that the elf is making the universal "Stop!" motion with his hand. And if you look at the giant frog, you'll see that he does appear to be caught in mid-jump. To me, it was clear that the elf had just cast one of those two spells on the frog. The problem -- aside from the fact that time stop has no somatic component, thus making the hand gesture needless -- was that no elf could possibly cast a 9th-level magic-user spell. So how was he freezing the frog in place like that? Some of my friends argued that he was doing no such thing, but I always made the case that the placement of the illustration suggested otherwise. Throughout the PHB, the illustrations generally related to the text, so why not here? Was he some sort of uber-elf who could cast such high-level spells? Had Tramp not read the AD&D rules or, worse yet, did Gary not care about the lack of "realism" in the book's illustrations?

I still have no definitive answer after all these years, but I still think about that picture.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Taking the day off today to celebrate my 11th wedding anniversary. I may be around later in the evening to post something or reply to comments, but don't count on it.

Regular posting will resume tomorrow.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Black God's Kiss

"He was still staring, as most men stared when they first set eyes upon Jirel of Joiry. She was tall as most men and as savage as the wildest of them, and the fall of Joiry was bitter enough to break her heart as she stood snarling curses up at her tall conqueror. The face above her mail might not have been fair in a woman's head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades. The red hair was short upon her high defiant head, and the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire."

With these words, C. L. Moore's heroine Jirel of Joiry was introduced to the world in "Black God's Kiss," published in Weird Tales 1934. Once again, Paizo Publishing's Planet Stories line fills a void in pulp fantasy. Collected in this volume are all six of Moore's stories of the medieval French swordswoman, the first female protagonist of note in the annals of sword & sorcery. Despite the impression the cover illustration gives, Jirel is no female Conan and would never be caught dead in armor so ludicrous (she is called a "lobster" by an antagonist who does not realize that it is a woman who nearly bested him in battle).

Jirel is the ruler of a fictitious fiefdom ostensibly in France sometime before the modern era but history is such a minor concern in these stories that they might as well be set in the Hyborian Age. She is thus a leader of man, who cares more about her domain and its people than she does about herself. Like Conan's first appearance in "The Phoenix on the Sword," "Black God's Kiss" features Jirel fighting to reclaim the rulership of Joiry by any means necessary. Though a warrior of no mean skill, it's interesting to note how differently she approaches than problem than did the Cimmerian in a similar situation. That different approach is one of many reasons why Moore's short stories are still worth reading almost 75 years later.

"Black God's Kiss" is unquestionably a classic of pulp fantasy and worth the $12.99 cover price alone. The other five stories in the collection are a mixed bag in my opinion, but each offers something for aficionados of the genre. The sixth story, "Quest of the Starstone," was co-written with Henry Kuttner, Moore's husband, and features a meeting between Jirel and Northwest Smith, making it a rather unusual story and another example of the blurry lines between science fiction and fantasy in those days (The story is also reprinted in the Paizo collection Northwest of Earth, which I discussed earlier). All the stories reveal the considerable talents of Moore, whose characters, even supporting ones, show greater depth than one would expect and whose plots were unusual even when originally published.

Paizo continues to do good work with their Planet Stories line. I have not regretted buying a single one and Black God's Kiss is no exception.


Here's a really neat site: PlaGMADA, which stands for "play generated map and document archive." It's a site devoted to archiving the materials gamers have created for use in their own campaigns, from maps to character sheets to handouts. This is great stuff and I may contribute some of my own gaming materials to the archive.

Thanks to Allan Grohe for the pointer.

Not Your Father's PHB

And so we reach the end of my retrospective about the covers of the D&D Players Handbook with this entry. Before diving in to talk specifically about the cover of the 4e version, a prediction: this entry will receive even more comments than my entry on the 2e PHB. Why do I say that? Well, I've looked at the stats for this blog and it's pretty widely read, with traffic coming a bunch of other gaming forums and blogs. When I restrict myself to musing about old school stuff exclusively, the comments are (generally) sober and considered and written by fellow grognards and those who understand the old school way. When I veer off into newer games, especially when I speak critically of them and their approach, I get even more visitors and even more comments, many of them not so sober or considered and often not written by grognards or those who understand our perspective. This happened once before rather spectacularly and I had to restrict comments only to registered users. That hasn't stopped trolling from time to time, but it certainly has slowed the deluge.

Now I'm tackling the brand spanking new 4e PHB and I don't think I'm ruining anyone's anticipation by saying upfront that I dislike its art and graphic design a great deal, not to mention the game itself. Passions regarding 4e are running very high at the moment and, as others have noted, you can scarcely voice a negative opinion about the game without its fans descending upon you to teach you the error of your ways. I would frankly be amazed if I don't get several such fans posting here, but perhaps I flatter myself in thinking anyone cares about my opinion. To such people, let me say now: I don't hate 4e -- and I certainly don't hate 4e fans. I'm actually almost at the point where I don't care much about 4e at all, except insofar as it pertains to my continuing researches into the history and traditions of roleplaying games. Almost.

What I do hate, though, and what I do not wish to see in my comments is the suggestion that, because I don't want to play 4e and think it has little to nothing to do with the game Gygax and Arneson created almost 35 years ago, I'm some kind of mental defective or an old fogey living out my midlife crisis by returning to OD&D. Play those cards and your comments will be deleted and I'll do my level best to ensure you never post here again on any topic. I don't go around to the forums and blogs of 4e fans and make a spectacle of myself, because I believe in common courtesy and respect. I expect the same behavior here. Disagree with me if you wish, but stay on topic and don't resort to insults, invective, or dime store psychologizing when doing so. Capisce?

And now the cover to the 4e Player's Handbook

I don't loathe it the same way I loathe the 2.5e PHB, but that's small praise. Illustrated by Wayne Reynolds, the piece is a good approximation of everything I hate about modern fantasy. First, there are the focus characters themselves. The one on the left is a dragonborn, presumably a fighter, wearing ludicrous (though not spiky -- a blessing) armor and wielding an equally ludicrous sword right out of Final Fantasy or perhaps Exalted. I don't actually have a huge problem with the dragonborn in theory; a draconic PC race seems a natural evolution of D&D tropes. However, I do object to their being on the cover of the PHB, as it suggests to me that WotC wishes to make the race a highlight of 4e rather than one option among many. It's another nail in the coffin of pulp fantasy. The figure on the right is your typical "powerful" female figure, which is geekspeak for "attractive and possibly bisexual woman who for some reason is inexplicably attracted to dorks like me." While her eye liner recalls the female magic-user on the cover of the Moldvay Basic set (and even now I know at least one 4e fan out there is claiming that it's a loving homage to that 1981 cover), her pose reminds me of the barbarian on the 2.5e PHB, which is to say, really absurd.

I give big props to Reynolds for the fact that the scene takes place in an underground location of some sort, complete with stalactites. This is essential in my opinion, so bonus points here. I also like the fact that, besides the two central figures, we also see that they have companions. In the background, shrouded somewhat in mist, you can see their buddies, a dwarf and an elf (or is it an eladrin). D&D is not a game about lone heroes, but adventuring parties. So, again, props to Reynolds for showing this. Of course, if you look at the dwarf and the elfladrin, you notice something. Judging by his gear, the dwarf looks like he's probably a fighter, just like the dragonborn. And the pointy-eared guy? Staff in hand and dressed in a robe -- he must be a wizard, just like Eye Liner Chick. Call me paranoid -- no, don't -- but it looks to me as if the piece is almost saying, "See those lamers back in the shadows? Sure, you can play those guys if you want, but wouldn't you rather be one of the cool and/or sexy kids?"

Dungeons & Dragons again gets a new logo, once more with a dragon as the ampersand, but I don't mind this one. I certainly like it much better than the 3e logo, which succeeded at the difficult task of simultaneously looking too professional and too amateurish at the same time. The new logo has no such ambiguity; it's a slick, professional brand-identifying logo. I feel dirty for liking it, but I do. Whoever designed that logo did a fine job in my opinion. I'm far less happy about the subtitle to the book "Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes." Leaving aside my issue with the inappropriateness of the word "heroes," the very fact that the PHB is admitting to its limited scope rubs me the wrong way. The 4e PHB is clearly intended to have supplements. Sure, most RPGs over the years have had supplements, but, until the late 80s anyway, they at least made some show of being complete from the get-go. We already know the 4e business plan involves new PHBs, DMGs, and Monster Manuals every year, on the model of card game expansions. Call me old fashioned -- wait, don't -- but I don't like to be reminded right upfront that your company plans to milk me with a stream of supplements until you hit the reset button and start it all over again.

The 4e Player's Handbook also has an illustration on the back cover by Rob Alexander. It depicts a floating castle but isn't connected in any way to the front cover illustration. I don't really have much to say about it, except that it's a bit too high fantasy for my tastes, recalling the Dragonlance modules of old. Perhaps that's intentional, given the continued popularity of that setting. In any case, I will say that I do appreciate that there is back cover art at all rather than just promotional text.

Despite all of the foregoing, I'd like to say that I think the 4e cover actually succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: sell the new D&D. My reading of 4e -- yes, I have read it; no, I won't be reviewing it formally -- is that it's an entirely new game, one that's about as strongly connected to OD&D as just about any random fantasy game produced in the last decade is or, in other words, not very much at all. 4e, of course, has the D&D brand name and access to a few bits and bobs of exclusive IP (like beholders and mind flayers and -- paging the estate of A.E. Van Vogt -- displacer beasts), but it simply doesn't feel any more like Gary's game than does Exalted or Final Fantasy or, yes, World of Warcraft. I don't mean that as a criticism exactly. I have come to see that, for the vast majority of fantasy fans nowadays, the traditions of pulp fantasy mean nothing. If they know Conan at all, it's through the execrable Schwarzenegger movies rather than through the works of Howard and Fafhrd is just an unpronounceable name rather than an icon of the genre.

Given that, it makes a certain amount of sense to reinvent the franchise -- D&D Extreme! -- rather than to stay true to hoary old tropes and archetypes. But no reinvention, however good, will ever be D&D to me. It may be good in its own right and indeed may even be better in some sense than its theoretical inspiration; I'm simply in no position to judge one way or the other. I can only say that, for me, D&D has never been just a rules set. To me, D&D is a love letter to pulp fantasy and to the spirit of reckless creativity seen in the wargames hobby of the late 60s and early 70s. It's of a certain time and place, even if that time and place can still be enjoyed today. I'm not of the opinion that all ideas are infinitely malleable and can be "updated" or made more "relevant" without destroying their essences.

is such an idea. For a book dedicated to the memory of the Dungeon Master, I doubt a single polysyllable of High Gygaxian verbiage remains between the covers of the 4e PHB, let alone the spirit that animated them. This is D&D only in the most equivocal, corporate sense. I haven't yet played the game, though I hope to, but I think it unlikely my opinion on this particular point will change. I have no problem with the existence of new fantasy RPGs. Heck, I wrote a couple of supplements for Exalted and I appreciate its take on the genre. But Exalted doesn't claim to be D&D or an inheritor of the Gygaxian mantle. It's a different game and knows it. 4e doesn't seem to realize it's a different game entirely. Reading the PHB, I kept wanting to shake someone and say, "Get your own damned game."

4e's only been out a month. With time, I'm sure it'll become just another fantasy RPG in my mind, but then that's what it is.