Tuesday, September 30, 2008


One thing's for certain: whomever I designate as the god of disease will look like this illustration.

Pantheon, Part I

So, I began my researches into creating my own pantheon by cracking out my copy of Supplement IV to OD&D: Gods, Demigods & Heroes. It's the precursor to Deities & Demigods (Legends & Lore to you whippersnappers) and it benefits from being quite a bit more idiosyncratic than its AD&D counterpart. Tim Kask, in his foreword, notes that the authors -- Rob Kuntz and James Ward -- had undertaken "months of painstaking, arduous research" before writing supplement. I don't doubt that's true, but I am curious about what sources they used, because the interpretations of many mythological figures just seem ... odd compared to the way they're usually described. For example, the Egyptian deity Ptah, who's traditionally associated with the creation of the world and thus with craftsmen, is called, in Supplement IV the "god of outer space." Now, I happen to think that's really cool and I'll likely grab Ptah and use him as a god of travelers -- including space travelers -- but you have to admit that's a somewhat peculiar interpretation of the deity.

Anyway, one of my cardinal principles in my mix and match pantheon is that I won't use major deities from any pantheon without good reason. Instead, I want to stick to also-ran gods, for the simple reason that certain divine beings, like Zeus or Odin, carry with them so much baggage that reinterpreting them for a fantasy setting is harder. It's not impossible, of course, and I'm not unilaterally opposed to accepting them if I have a good idea of how to use them. Still, my intention here is to go with deities that have some resonance without having such strong connotations that they might inadvertently wrench players out of the fantasy world and into the real one.

Egyptian Gods
I have a lot of fondness for the Egyptian gods and they certainly work well in a sword-and-sorcery setting. I've already mention Ptah as a possible god of travelers. Set, of course, is very tempting and might well nab him in some form as one of my big evil gods. Thoth is another deity that tempts me.

Greek Gods
The Greek gods are, of course, classics (no pun intended), but they're also very well known and it's hard to use them straight without generating the wrong vibe. I think Athena is very nifty, but I'd probably call her Asana or Cydonia if I decided to use her. Hephaestus is also cool.

Indian Gods
In general, I think the Indian mythos has the wrong feel for what I'm doing, so I wasn't keen to use any of them. However, I rather like the idea of Visvakarman, who's described in Supplement IV as the "demigod of weapons and science." The possibilities there are simply too good to pass up.

Celtic Gods
I have a fondness for Donn, Oghma, and Dian Cecht, but I'm wary of using the Celtic gods, given how easy it would then be to make the druids serve them. In my vision of things, the druids are the only Neutral "clerics" and they serve impersonal Nature, not any deities.

Norse Gods
Like the Greek gods, they're very well known, so that limits the possibilities. Still, their names have the right feel to them and some of the minor figures, like Uller, could be repurposed for my setting. I think the sea goddess Rán is rather intriguing, especially if I go with the notion that she's malicious and must be propitiated before any maritime journey.

Finnish Gods
The deities of the ancient Finns are pure gold. Not only do they possess lovely, evocative names with the right feel, but they're largely unknown to gamers nowadays. That makes them ideal for swiping. I like, for example, Melatar, goddess of the rudder -- the very idea gives me great ideas. I see her as being perhaps the rebellious daughter of Rán the sea goddess, who taught Men to withstand her mother's terrible fury.

Other Sources
I fully intend to swipe some names and ideas from non-mythological sources, such as pulp fantasies. For example, Tsathoggua and Mordiggian will have a place in my setting, perhaps as demons, if not outright gods.

More thoughts in a future post.

Grognard's Grimoire: Major Chaotic Traits

After long delay, here at last is the my random table of Major Chaotic Traits, to complement the Minor Traits I posted a few weeks ago.

1 +1d6 Hit Dice
2 -1d6 Hit Dice: Creatures whose Hit Dice drop to 0 become Greater Shadows (described in an upcoming Grognard's Grimoire)
3 Creature can command all normal Shadows within 30 feet.
4 Any creature killed by a creature with this trait rises as a Shadow in 1D6 rounds. Creatures who suffer this fate may not be raised or resurrected.
5 Creature gains the ability to cast dimension door at will.
6 Damage inflicted by the creature cannot be healed magically.
7 Magical attacks heal the creature rather than damage it.
8 Takes maximum damage from any spells cast by creatures aligned with Law.
9 Creature regenerates 1d4 hit points per round.
10 Creature immune to all magical damage, but may be harmed by healing magic, which does damage equal to the amount it would normally have healed.
11 Successfully striking the creature deals 1d6 points to the attacker.
12 Creature becomes partially incorporeal and takes no damage from physical attacks 25% of the time.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Old School Dice Question

As I mentioned previously, I managed to obtain some modern old school D20, numbered 0-9 twice, from Chessex. They're very nice dice and I look forward to using them. I just noticed today, though, that these dice don't differentiate between the the two sets of 0-9 numerals and, since they're already inked in the same color, how do I tell them apart in play? I seem to recall that, back in the day, we rolled a D6 along with the D20, with 1-3 meaning that we read the dice straight, whereas 4-6 meant we added 10 to the result. Did anyone else do this? What other methods of reading old school D20 did people use? I'd love to know.

Mix and Match Pantheons

Erlik, Hanuman, Ishtar, Mitra, Set.

Athena, Odin, Seker, Thor, Thoth.

Loviatar, Mielikki, Oghma, Silvanus, Tyr.

Look at these lists. This is how you build a pantheon for a pulp fantasy setting: by stealing liberally from real world mythologies, warping them into what you want, and then adding details to make them better suit your setting. As ever, Robert E. Howard was the trailblazer. The deities of the Hyborian Age were often -- though not always -- based on those from historical cultures, much like the cultures of Hyboria themselves. I mentioned previously that I consider Howard's fictional prehistoric world to be one of the most perfect fantasy settings ever created. Part of it is the way that REH takes names that we either already know (or that sound like ones we already know) and then turns them to serve his own purposes. He gains the benefits of familiarity without any of the drawbacks, in the process creating a setting that manages to transcend pastiche. In my opinion, that's exactly what any good referee wants to do in creating pantheons for his campaign setting.

When I was younger, I found this "mix and match" approach to be unsatisfactory. It seemed "unrealistic" to me and I obsessed over trying to come up with what I saw as believable collections of gods. As I've grown older, I've come to embrace the liberating power of incoherence a bit more. I've also realized that, just because I might swipe a name or a concept from real world mythology, that doesn't mean I'm bound by its specifics. Indeed, I should use the real world referents as touchstones for unleashing my own creativity. That's what Howard did and that's what Gygax did. It's a fine pulp fantasy tradition and I think the random goulash of gods stolen from any source not nailed to the floor is one that should be promoted more widely.

Over the next few days, I'll try to post some of my notes as I create my own pantheon to show you how and why I've made the choices I make. It's my hope that I can illustrate better some of what I'm talking about here, in addition to creating something that I (and perhaps others) might find useful in their own campaigns.

Stay tuned.

REVIEW: City Encounters

City Encounters, written by Matt Finch, is 42-page PDF, and the second release from Mythmere Games to support its OD&D retro-clone, Swords & Wizardry. For $2.95 you get nearly twenty pages worth of random city encounters that are, in the author's words, "strongly slanted toward a swords & sorcery feel, and ... designed to provide adventure possibilities rather than accurate demographics or historical reality." From the attractive black and white cover illustration (also by Finch) to the tables themselves, I was regularly reminded of the best Judges Guild products from days of yore. That is, City Encounters is a product that exists solely to be used in play. It's not intended to be read for its own sake -- though the entries on the encounter tables are often amusing -- but instead used in conjunction with some dice (a D6 and D% to generate numbers from 100 to 699) to help the beleaguered referee determine whom the player characters encounter while traveling through the latest wretched hive of scum and villainy they call home base.

Encounters are divided into "daytime" and "night" encounters, with the latter being somewhat disappointingly short (using only D% and having less than 100 entries). Each enounter includes one or more named NPCs, as well as information on what the NPC is doing (and possibly why), as well as bare bones game statistics. A typical entry is the following:
Drug dealer Shahaan the Shadow (5HD), selling opium paste (1,000gp in inventory), watched by crows controlled by his guild, the mysterious Dream Guild. (25% chance to ask characters to help him rob an incoming cargo of lotus blossoms – owned by the thieves’ guild).
As you can see, Finch packs a lot of flavor into very few words and simply reading the above entry gives me several ideas for adventures either dealing directly with Shahaan or by spinning off elements of his description into something more elaborate. Not all of the entries are necessarily as evocative as this, but all of them give the referee exactly what he needs to form the kernel of an interesting encounter in a swords-and-sorcery city. Having had to populate large random tables myself, I'm frankly amazed that City Encounters includes so many intriguing and downright useful entries; it's a tribute to Matt Finch's fertile imagination and it's hard not to be inspired by it.

Equally useful is the second part of City Encounters: a collection of tables for the random generation of non-player characters. Beginning with tables describing a NPC's personality and attitude, the product then goes on to include others describing spellcasters (clerics and magic users) for a variety of levels. These spellcaster tables are particularly useful because, through a simple dice roll, they give the referee a complete spell list appropriate for the NPC's level, as well as the likelihood of their possessing magical items of various types. I've seen random NPC generation tables before, but few have been as user friendly as these, providing a lot of variety without much complexity. They're the kinds of tables a referee could easily use on the fly at the gaming table, which I think is as much a testment to Swords & Wizardry's old school simplicity as it is to Finch's ingenuity. The product ends with random tables for generating male and female swords-and-sorcery names (including titles and nicknames, such as "the Heretic" and "the Man-Killer").

City Encounters is a terrific little product, filled with great ideas. It's a perfect exemplar of old school sensibilities, but, because of its rules light approach (itself an old school virtue), it could easily be used with new school RPGs without much trouble at all. Considering its price, it's an absolute steal. My only real qualms about it are small. First, as I noted earlier, the night encounters table feels almost vestigial, given its brevity. I hold out hope that one day, either in an expansion of this product or another similar product, we might get a night encounter table that's as varied and imaginative as the daytime encounter table. Second, the daytime encounters, while superb, are almost uniformly with individuals rather than with events. It's a small criticism, to be sure, but I do like to break up my NPC encounters with random happenings, such as a horse-drawn wagon losing a wheel or a chamberpot being dropped on someone's head. Events are every bit as useful as meeting people in the streets in my opinion. Finally, City Encounters feels a bit disjointed and, well, random in places. Though its contents are very good and useful, they lack a certain amount of cohesion, much like the Judges Guild products of old. This too isn't really a criticism and I expect that many old school fans will see this as a selling point rather than a distraction.

Like Eldritch Weirdness, Book One before it, City Encounters is a terrific book. I found it useful, imaginative, and inspiring. It's exactly the kind of gaming product that I think nicely serves to illustrate what makes old school gaming so compelling, even after all these years. I hope that other old school publishers will be similarly inspired by it and create products in the same vein. If they're even half as good as Mythmere's releases have been to date, I'll be one happy gamer.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

Two Updates

I'll have several posts later today, including at least one review. First, though, I wanted to make two quick updates.

1. I've sent out the prizes for all the Grognard's Challenge winners. You should receive them within a week or so. If you do not, please contact me and let me know.

2. Grognard's Grimoire will no longer be a regularly scheduled feature, since I just can't bring myself to write new rules on demand. Instead, I'll post new entries when the spirit moves me. I will, however, be posting the Major Chaotic Traits entry tomorrow and I'm writing up a paladin class for use with Swords & Wizardry, so that will probably see the light of day soon as well.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Kothar

Published in 1969, Barbarian Swordsman is the first book of the Kothar series, written by Gardner F. Fox, best known for his involvement with DC Comics during its Golden and Silver Ages. (According to some, he was responsible for the Green Lantern Oath and the name of Guy Gardner is almost certainly an homage to him). The Kothar stories might be called science fantasy versions of Conan's adventures, taking place on a world called Yarth, which is either a parallel to Earth or indeed Earth many billions of years in the future, when science and magic have become indistinguishable. Astute readers will remember that Yarth has a place in D&D lore, so it's no surprise that Gary Gygax thought highly of the Kothar stories and considered them an influence on the game.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sick and Busy

I'm under the weather and distracted, but regular posting should resume tomorrow, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


In light of the rather unexpected level of response to my post yesterday about the 4e paladin, I realized that I ought to do a post about what I'd have done if I'd have been given total freedom to create a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm a bit busy at the moment and thus unable to write up a comprehensive post just yet, but I did want to offer up one thing I'd do that strikes me as a no-brainer: bring back the Basic and Advanced "brand names."

One of the oddities about D&D naming conventions is that AD&D was created when there was no Basic D&D. Neither OD&D nor the Holmes edition call themselves "Basic." By the time that there was a true Basic D&D, AD&D had been out for several years and the two games, though related, were no longer designed or marketed as being on the same "continuum." There was a family resemblance between the two games, sure, but there was never any formal connection between them, at least as far as TSR was concerned.

As far as the fans were concerned, though, Basic and AD&D were two sources of ideas and adventures and most people who entered the hobby during the period between 1979 and 1984 tended to make little distinction between them. Indeed, I've still never been given a satisfactory answer to exactly why TSR bothered to maintain two separate lines, given the large amount of crossover between the buyers of both.

In the crazy world where I was given total control over D&D, there'd be a Basic D&D game covering levels 1-5 (or thereabouts) that'd come in a box and sell for under $20 in game and toy stores. It'd be aimed at children ages 10 and up (or thereabouts) and would focus primarily on dungeon adventuring. Advanced D&D would be aimed at older kids (14+) and would follow the traditional three-book model. The important part of this plan is that the rules of both Basic and Advanced would be the same, with Basic necessarily being, well, more basic in terms of complexity and presentation, but they'd still be completely compatible with one another. This approach would necessarily mean that the rules would have to be far simpler than either WotC edition, but that's a good thing in my book.

The icing on the cake would be that both versions of the game would be one-shots. That is, there's the boxed set and there are the three books, but that'd be it. There would certainly be adventures and possibly miniatures, but there'd be no supplements or additional rules beyond whatever fans or third parties produced (I'd make the game almost completely open BTW). Every few years, there might be new "editions" with new art and errata integrated into the text, but nothing in the way of changes to the way the game plays, because it's important that when a kid finds his Dad's old copy of the game, he can still play it with his friend who got a shiny new copy for his birthday. That's the way to ensure that the hobby survives and prospers from one generation to the next.

But this is all a pipe dream and further evidence of why I'll never be put in charge of D&D.

Grognard's Challenge #5: The Adze of Wepwawet

Thanks to everyone who sent in their entries for the final of the five Grognard's Challenges. As always, I received a number of excellent submissions, many of which could easily have been the winner. This time, though, I selected an entry by Aaron Somerville, because it nicely combined a mythological feel with an old school mechanical sensibility. It's Egyptian in origin too, which never hurts in winning me over.
This antique instrument appears as a smooth copper adze affixed to a bone haft (learned inspection reveals this to be the foreleg of a bovine). Despite its brittle appearance, this implement cannot be broken. It is too light, however, to make an effective weapon. If this instrument is used to pry open the lips of a reasonably intact, undecayed corpse (works on the freshly dead and the mummified; others at Referee's discretion) then the corpse will visibly breathe and be able to speak. The corpse will possess this power until the next sunset unless destroyed. The dead person will be friendly to the user of the Adze unless mistreated and will answer questions to the best of its ability, though it has no knowledge of mortal affairs after its death unless the Referee decides otherwise. Again at the Referee's discretion, beings destined for particularly transcendent or mysterious afterlives may not be affected by this item. The Adze may be used but once per day, recharging at sunset.
Congratulations to Aaron and to the winners of the other contests. If Aaron could send me his mailing address, I'll get his copy of Gods, Demigods & Heroes sent off to him this weekend, along with the other prizes that I've neglected to send as well. My apologies to everyone who's been so patient with my laxity in schlepping these books to the post office.

There may be other contests in the future, once I have some interesting prizes to offer, but, for the moment, this is the end of the Grognard's Challenges. I hope everyone enjoyed participating as much as I enjoyed reading the entries.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Continuity and Tradition, Part III

Moby Dick is pretty boring anyway, right?
The writers revere Melville's original text, but their graphic novel-style version will change the structure. Gone is the first-person narration by the young seaman Ishmael, who observes how Ahab's obsession with killing the great white whale overwhelms his good judgment as captain.
If you'll excuse me, I need to go show my "reverence" for Robert E. Howard going and burning a few more copies of his books.

Alan Moore, Comics Grognard

I'm not a big reader of comics generally, though I have read and enjoyed certain specific titles over the years. Among them is Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I like rather a lot. Moore is a very fascinating guy and, while he and I don't share much in terms of our overall worldview, I can't help but find him a kindred spirit on some level, because of statements like this:
If you approach comics as a poor relation to film, you are left with a movie that does not move, has no soundtrack and lacks the benefit of having a recognizable movie star in the lead role.
That's from a recent interview with Moore, where he talks about his distaste for the upcoming film version of his Watchmen comic. Reading it, I heard echoes of things I myself have said about the RPG hobby and the way it's been deformed by the demands of trying to turn it into a mass market product with mass market profits. I (obviously) don't agree with everything he says, nor do I think his perspective has universal applicability to this hobby, but some of it does and it's worth reading, if only to realize there are some people out there even more strident than I am when it comes to protecting something they love.


Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, because I certainly hope I am: can a paladin fall in 4e? As I read it, there's no possibility for a paladin to lose his powers as a result of violating his code, which has been a feature of every version of the paladin since 1975. Now, I recognize that I'm rather strongly biased against 4e, so I'm willing to consider the possibility that I'm unconsciously reading the description of the class in the least favorable light. But I don't see any evidence in the text that there's a way to become an ex-paladin through misdeeds. Am I wrong about this?

Retrospective: In Search of the Unknown

The Holmes Basic Set I owned came with module B1 In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr, better known as the creator of Fight in the Skies (aka Dawn Patrol). If I had to choose the one module that had the greatest effect on me as a referee, it's this module, hands down. The reason is quite simple: B1 was written specifically as an "instructional aid for beginning Dungeon Masters" and so it was. I learned a number of really important lessons from using this module -- and use it I did -- chief among them being this: rooms containing pools of unknown liquids are cool.

More seriously, B1 really was an excellent "instructional aid." What it gave you was a two-level dungeon already mapped out for you, along with descriptions of most of the rooms, such as the aforementioned "room of pools." The module also provides a thin backstory about a pair of possibly evil adventurers named Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown who used their orc slaves to construct a fortress they called Quasqueton (presumably because Mike Carr is a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright). They then disappeared while fighting barbarians in the frozen north, leaving behind their fortress and its dungeons for other presumably non-evil adventurers to plunder.

The real genius of the module, though, is that, although each room has a description, none of them contains any monsters or treasures. It's entirely up to the referee, using the D&D rules and assisted by some tables at the back of the module to place monsters and treasures throughout the place. This might seem like a small thing -- and it is -- but the salutary effect it had on me was remarkable. Mike Carr had done all the hard work by designing the maps and describing the rooms, but he left it to each referee to populate the dungeon as they saw fit. From the start, I felt like a "co-creator" of B1 and it filled me with a strange confidence that I might otherwise not have possessed. And of course it also made it possible for me to re-use the module, which I did many times. I played the heck out of it.

The dungeon itself is pretty straightforward, with a handful of memorable locations, such as the room of pools and a garden of giant fungi, that made strong impressions on me as a young man. Some of the descriptions are absolutely priceless, such as this from the chamber of Rogahn's girlfriend: "A small tapestry measuring 3' x 4' hangs on the east wall. It depicts a handsome and robust warrior carrying off a beautiful maiden in a rescue scene set in a burning village, with a horde of ominous-looking enemies viewing from afar. Embroidered in gold cloth at the top of the scene are the words, 'Melissa, the most dearly won and greatest of all my treasures.'" That Rogahn sure was smooth, wasn't he? The descriptions gave me good models for how to describe rooms of my own invention, as I eventually did when I had an additional level to Quasqueton later on. That's what B1 was all about: good modeling.

The module is also noteworthy for having an extensive list of pregenerated characters in the book, all of them with names. And what names! Tassit, Servant of St. Cuthbert. Kracky the Hooded One. Mohag the Wanderer. Sho-Rembo. Ralt Gaither. Glom the Mighty. Luven Lightfinger. Feggener the Quick. They were all terrific and many of them became PCs, if only briefly, in my earliest adventures. When a character died -- and die they did -- I could just ask a player to pick one of the remaining pregens and we were ready to go again in five or ten minutes, after they'd bought equipment. The back of the module also contained expanded rules for finding and employing hirelings, which could be used in conjunction with the pregenerated characters.

All things considered, In Search of the Unknown succeeded in its goals: it taught me how to make my own dungeons. Interestingly, the original version of module B3, Palace of the Silver Princess, followed the same model as B1, since it had lots rooms whose occupants and treasure were intended to be added by the individual referee. The published version of the module follows a more "conventional" format and, I think, suffers for it. I can't recall any other published modules that take the approach of B1 and I think that's a shame. While I'm sure some refinements could be made to its approach, the overall formula is a sound one and could go a long way toward teaching the fundamentals of dungeon design to a new generation of gamers.

Perhaps I have another project to add to my ever-growing list.

In Praise of Vermin

The first D&D character to die in my old campaign was the not very originally named Hercules; he was killed by a fire beetle. This began my love affair with dungeon vermin -- giant rats, centipedes, spiders, and similar creatures. For some reason, they seem right, which is to say, they fit the kind of faux grittiness that I associate with D&D's default style of gameplay. Sure, everyone would much rather go toe to toe with goblins or orcs or whatever, but nothing says "old school" like getting the blood sucked out of you by a giant tick.

Dungeon vermin are, I think, a necessary extension of Gygaxian naturalism. They're "transitional monsters" that mark the dividing line between the mundane ecology outside the dungeon and the fantastical one inside it. I find monstrous vermin to be, frankly, far creepier than stuff like bugbears or minotaurs, because they could be real. They exist in that twilight world between the unlikely and the impossible and, let's face it, you never know what zoologists are going to pull out of the jungles of Indonesia or the rainforests of the Amazon next. There are already some disturbingly large spiders and insects out there and, while the square-cube law prevents them from attaining D&D sizes, that's cold comfort to a guy like me, who's more than a little squeamish when it comes to creepy-crawlies.

Some will no doubt argue that dungeon vermin are not "heroic" but, for me, that's a feature and not a bug (no pun intended). I remain firmly committed to the notion that 1st-level D&D characters are not heroes -- at least not yet. Poor old Hercules did not die a hero's death, but his death is remembered, if only because he'd waded into a combat, club in hand, that he should have avoided. His death was an object lesson in poor planning and the perils of leaping before you look. After all, how dangerous could a bunch of over-sized phosphorescent beetles be, right?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes

Thanks to the OD&D message boards, I came across the website of William C. Dear, the private investigator hired to look into the disappearance of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. The website is surprisingly spare and unimpressive for this day and age, but I suspect Dear gets by on his reputation for being involved in high-profile investigations.

I remember the Egbert case quite clearly, because my father was following the story in the newspapers and magazines at the time. His interest in the story was what got my mother to buy a copy of the Holmes Basic Set, believing (incorrectly) that Dad would want to see the game for himself. Instead, the game sat in the hall linen closet unopened until Christmas. So, strangely, all the negative publicity about D&D turned out to be a catalyst for my becoming involved in the game -- an irony that was probably not lost on TSR, whose sales almost certainly increased due to the notoriety the Egbert case provided, even if they'd much rather have avoided the negative publicity that came with it.

Dear wrote a book called The Dungeon Master that chronicles his involvement in the Egbert case and which was published in 1984. I read it many years ago and found it a very odd document, mostly because Dear's experiences playing D&D (in order to understand what James Egbert might have been thinking) were so alien to my own, both then and now. But then roleplaying has always been a hobby whose participants often play the game in wildly divergent ways -- none moreso than D&D. I should see if I can hunt down a copy and read it again. I wonder if I might have a different reaction to it now than I did previously.

Throw Away the D10s

I finally managed to obtain some old school D20s -- numbered 0-9 twice -- manufactured by Chessex, so they're well made and unlikely to wear down the way my first set of polyhedrals dice did. Now some might rightly wonder why I wanted to obtain these dice in the first place. After all, dice technology has come along way since the days of the dice illustrated to the left. Why would I want to go back to the old ways, when a D20 had to pull triple duty? It's a somewhat complicated question and answering it hits upon a number of points about my own approach to old school gaming.

First, let me say that, despiten appearances, I don't want to go back to the old days. Not really. I still have the first dice I ever owned and could use them if I wanted to. Better yet, I could buy new examples of these same dice, if I really wanted to. I don't, because those old dice were, frankly, terrible. I have absolutely no desire to use them, particularly if I'm able to obtain, as I was, more modern dice that replicate the experience of using the older dice.

But why replicate the experience at all? There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is nostalgia, pure and simple. I'm not usually given to huge bouts of nostalgia. In the case of polyhedral dice, though, I will confess to missing those early days when I first encountered these strange random number generators and was frankly baffled by how to use the D20 at all. As with so much of my early D&D education, I think it was my friend Mike's older brother who explained how you used the dice. For the longest time, I was baffled as to how to generate a "1," since I rolled two D20s and tallied the result, which meant a range from 2-20, not 1-20. My next set of dice, which were translucent, had little plus signs on half the numbers, indicating when to add 10 to the result of the dice roll. I have very fond memories of those early dice and I want to remember them in a concrete way.

The other reason is curiosity. Does not using a D10 make a difference to gameplay? I remember when I first saw a D10 -- when my friend Shawn bought the Moldvay Basic Set -- and I thought it looked "wrong." I knew nothing of regular solids at that point, but, on some level, I intuited that the D10 was a fraud and so it is. This didn't stop us from using it, of course, but I've long held the D10 in mild contempt and still do on some level. In any case, D&D thrived for many years before the advent of the D10 and I have to wonder if its absence had any effect on the way people played "back in the day." I'm not sure that it did nor am I sure, coming as I do from a post-D10 time, if I'll even be able to get into the mindset of gamers who knew nothing of the D10. Still, I want to give it a try and see if there's a noticeable difference.

Some will inevitably see this as fogeyism of the worst kind, but I don't. As I grow older, I have become more firmly convinced that there are many experiences and insights that we're in the process of losing -- or already have lost -- because our society is no longer structured that makes access to them difficult, if not impossible. Others obviously agree, which is why you see things like "Turn Off the TV Week" and the like. The central idea is that, by cutting onself off this or that modern "convenience," we might rediscover simpler things we've lost touch with. In some cases, I'm sure these endeavors do little or nothing. However, I'm sure they have an effect on at least a small percentage of those who participate and it's that kind of effect that I'm hoping for with this little experiment.

Another thing of which I grow ever more convinced is that roleplaying, as an activity, is an old fashioned one. It's from a different time, a different culture, one that was more broadly "literary" and less influenced by visual media. You can see this in the way OD&D and AD&D, for example, reference novels and short stories in their texts, while 3e's rulebooks did not include a bibliography at all and the few supplements that did so had more entries for movies and TV shows than for actual books. I suspect that a lot of the disconnect I feel with many modern RPGs -- D&D most of all -- is that they're products of a very different culture than the one from which the hobby sprang and into which I was initiated in the winter of 1979. I will forever associate D&D with reading certain authors and, while my understanding of "fantasy" has broadened since then, those early experiences remain foundational, just as my early experiences of play do.

And that play included D20s numbered 0-9 twice.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Help Wanted

As I mentioned before, I intend to expand The Cursed Chateau adventure I wrote a few months ago, with an eye toward self-publishing it in support of Swords & Wizardry. To do that, though, I'm going to need some assistance from people who can draw, make maps, and lay out a small book (no more than 32 pages and probably a bit less) -- and who are willing to offer their services for little or no immediate remuneration. The simple reality is that, until I sell a few copies, I won't have much of a budget to work with. I hate that, because I am a firm believer in paying people for those skills I myself don't possess. Artists and cartographers are often under-appreciated and I have no desire to contribute to that. However, I'm not going to go into debt to finance a little old school project, which is why I need to ask for assistance.

So, if you're someone who's got any of the skills I mentioned and is willing to volunteer to help me with this, drop me an email. Ideally, The Cursed Chateau will be successful and I'll make a little money so I'll have a budget to work with in the future, but I can't bank on that and anyone who wants to assist me shouldn't either.


Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Harold Shea

Consistently cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's "Harold Shea" series is largely unknown to most gamers today. It's a pity, because these tales are a great antidote to that kind of fastidiousness that says the modern day (or science fiction) and fantasy should never mix. I'm not sure the stories are still in print, but they were a few years ago, so it's worth seeking them out, if only to read some of the stories that influenced Gygax in his creation of the game.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Truly Gygaxian

But perhaps it was the tension between anarchic and rule-bound play that made Gygax such a potent designer. Whether digital or non-digital, games are constantly walking the fine line of "constrained freedom." Gary Gygax was one of the first designers to walk that line with unabashed confidence. Perhaps that -- more than 20-sided dice, or stacks of rulebooks, or dungeon-crawling elves -- can be considered truly Gygaxian.
This is a quote from a little article I missed in the immediate aftermath of Gary Gygax's death earlier this year. I largely agree with its insight and I think it's key to understanding Gary's unique genius as a designer. I know it's that tension that keeps old school D&D fresh for me after all these years.

Interview: Tim Kask (Part III)

If you could dispel one common misapprehension that gamers today have about the early days of the hobby, what would it be?

I don’t know. What are the perceptions of those “good old days?" To be honest, I seldom paid attention to any of that after our little birthing process; I was far too busy with TSR Periodicals and the magazines.

Oh, I know one. No, it is not true that none of us understood personal hygiene. Many didn’t, but most of us did remember to bathe or shower frequently enough so as to not offend too many people around us. But some of those old cons could get ripe enough. I guess it is from that old perception that the term for a group of gamers, like a murder of crows, a sleuth of bears or a bevy of quail, would be stink; how elegant-a stink of gamers.

Is there anything you miss about the early days of the hobby?

The diversity of products published. BITD, anyone with a little money could put out their own games or rules sets. We had a lot more diversity before the days of the Hasborg.

Do you see new technology, like print-on-demand, making it possible to recreate the good old days when anyone with an idea might publish their own games or rules sets? If not, what's changed to make this less likely?

Who said they were good? Some of the stuff that was self-published was self-published for a good reason; it was dreck. You sent your money and took your chances.

Some few pearls did exist out there, but they were few and far between. One of the best boardgames I ever saw (for a variety of reasons) never got beyond a basement operation that published maybe a couple of thousand copies. The fatal flaw that denied it wider acceptance at the time was the recordkeeping. Today, if it was on PC and did all the recording automatically, it would be a singular game, in my opinion. But it was lost in the sea of dreck.

Having said that much, let me contradict myself a little. I am sure that there are a few designers out there, primarily of campaigns/scenarios/modules/adventures (whatever you wish to call them) that could make a few bucks doing P-O-D. But, as good as they have proven themselves to be, why should they when the established companies are more than willing to publish them and they will make more? I might be able to write a campaign adventure and perhaps sell a few hundred at $5 or even $10 apiece to download PDFs. I might make a thousand or two; if I sold it to one of the established companies with a distribution network, they might sell 20K copies from which I might get $1 each. Of course, I am making the assumption that anyone might buy because I wrote it.

Do you still have the chance to play D&D these days?

The first time I played D&D in over twenty years was for the Tower of Gygax event at GenCon 2008. I am assuming that playing is both DMing and adventuring, I haven't played a PC since the days of playtesting modules at TSR. One of my long-time PCs ended up as an NPC in the Hommlet module. I gave up playing as a PC when I became my group's DM in '74.
Now, if the ToG is repeated next year, I will do it. I have committed to run two, four hour adventures at next year's Lake Geneva Game Convention in June, as part of the "Gary's Virtual Porch" memorial thing they are doing.

Many thanks to Mr Kask for graciously consenting to this interview. I hope that his reminiscences and insights have been useful and interesting -- I know they were for me -- and I'll make every effort to line up some additional interviews to post here in the near future.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Now That's a Wizard

Ah, Boredflak, my old friend. How I have missed you and your Foster Grants. They sure don't make 'em like you anymore.

Interview: Tim Kask (Part II)

Your foreword calls Supplement IV "the last D&D supplement." In a certain sense, you were correct in saying this as there were no more OD&D -- back then, just D&D -- supplements in the offing, but it wasn't the end of "official" game material from TSR. What happened between the time you wrote this in 1976 and the appearance of the Monster Manual a year later?

Since meeting, and becoming fast friends with, Frank Mentzer, I have come to see that he and I shared a position at TSR that was unique; that of Gary’s sounding board, idea-bouncer, collaborator, consultant and friendly goad. We talked D&D nearly every day; bouncing ideas off of each other and examining the rules system as it existed at that time.

From the time we were working on Eldritch Wizardry, and preparing for Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, we knew that we were no longer just adding new stuff but also refining old stuff and changing things a little bit here and there. It was getting pretty confusing, and we had to do something about it. We also had other concerns, chief of which was how to conduct fair tournaments. Before the term came into vogue, we were marketing TSR virally; I was a perfect example. I played the game at a con, bought one and took it back to my group and infected them.

As the nature of the game dictated, it was meant to be only loosely bound by the rules as printed; they were originally meant as suggestions and guidelines. Finding 30 DMs to run a tourney for us was a big task in and of itself; finding 30 that played the game the same was impossible as each one ran his own campaigns as he saw fit.

Gary Gygax thanks you in both the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. What role did you play in the development of these two books or indeed the entire AD&D project?

Continuing in the same vein as the answer to the previous question, we constantly bounced ideas off of each other. There came a time when we started to list all of the revisions and contradictions.

We had other problems to address: level and gold piece inflation being two of them, as well as a too-steep learning curve. In the early days, we sold our game to college age buyers, bright high schoolers and the occasional socially challenged older gamer. As bright as they were in general, many of them had complained of the steep learning curve and seeming contradictions in subsequent supplements. No matter how much I tried to drum home the idea that these were suggestions, examples and guidelines in the Forewords that I wrote in each, people wanted to see them as new rules. And, we were starting to hear from parents that had bought the game as a result of their child’s cajolery, badgering or whining, only to find that it was too complex for their precious darlings to jump right in. On that point, I can certainly testify; had I not confidently announced that my club was going to have a go at this new game I was so enraptured with, I might not have spent three weeks trying to grasp enough of it to begin. And I had the benefit of having played it twice. All of these things Gary and I talked about, and more. It was decided to consult with someone with some background in child psych, and J. Eric Holmes came into the picture.

So Holmes was brought in because of his background in child psychology? What was the rationale behind this?

I can only say this, and it is all secondhand, what Gary told me, what I picked up, etc., as I was NOT part of this. Holmes was brought in to try to enable us to get a handle on a number of different things. Since I got my M. Ed., I understand much more of the rationale behind it. We needed to know such things as : What's too scary for young (9 to 14) kids to handle? We didn't want to cause nightmares. How complex can the rules be for that age to enjoy playing? How do we write "how-to-play" rules for players that young? We were dealing with the problem of the present rules being pretty complex and mystifying to kids a lot older. What kinds of magic were too complex for younger players, or less experienced.

We had come to the point that we knew our new market would not be well read in Fantasy, and would be starting out at a disadvantage compared to the earlier adherents of the game. We needed to know how to overcome that.

Returning to your role in the development of AD&D ...

One Thursday, Gary told me to wrap up whatever I had going on at the moment and free up my days starting on the next Monday. Intrigued, I said sure. When I came in on Monday morning, Gary asked me into his office (we were still in the old grey house and had offices next to each other), then told whoever was answering the phone that neither of us was to be disturbed for anything but the direst emergency, or a call from our wives. He had about six sets of the small books and had put up several extra cork bulletin boards in office. For the next eight or nine days, we re-made D&D.

We tinkered with various bits and pieces, changing and tweaking damages from various weapons and spells (Magic Missile comes to mind). At the end of that period of time, we had two files of papers and cut-up booklets; one was Basic, the other AD&D. Much less was left to interpretation; more was spelled out in charts and tables. We were looking at tourneys. We must have rolled several hundred different confrontations while we tinkered with HP and DAM. We cut up those books and stuck stuff all over the walls. From that came Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. I was like the midwife at the birth.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time

Back in November 2004, Paizo published Dungeon 116, among whose contents was "a list of classic adventures with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook." Called the "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time," the list was intended to showcase the best modules ever published for the game. It's an interesting list for a number of reasons, chief among them being how idiosyncratic it is in its inclusion of modules that, quite frankly, aren't noteworthy in any significant way, never mind worthy of being called one of the "greatest." The list consists entirely of TSR-published modules with one exception, which I also think is important, because it points out how the "official" moniker has so come to dominate not just the way people play the game but also how they remember its past.

Here are my thoughts on the list.

1. Queen of Spiders, 1986 (G1-3, D1-3, Q1)
This is a bit of a cop-out entry. Taken as a whole, I don't think there's much doubt that the Giants/Drow series of modules is probably the most iconic collection of D&D adventures ever published and firmly established a number of Gygaxian elements/motifs/idiosyncrasies as normative for the game as a whole. However, I think it's cheating to lump all the modules together, particularly in the rather hamfisted "supermodule" format, and declare it the greatest D&D adventure of all time. In my opinion, Q1 is very weak, both conceptually and in its presentation, and the G series consists primarily of workmanlike dungeon crawls, albeit with a solid theme and enough backstory to give them greater significance. The D series, on the other hand, are universally excellent and indeed groundbreaking on many levels. I'd have fewer quibbles about naming, say, Vault of the Drow the greatest adventure of all time, even if it's not necessarily what I'd have chosen.

2. Ravenloft, 1983 (I6)
Much as I love the Gothic horror/melodrama atmosphere of this module, I think it's fair to say that Ravenloft has probably exercised the most baleful influence over the development of D&D of any module other than the Dragonlance series, which isn't surprising since Tracy Hickman was involved in both. I loved David Sutherland's three-dimensional maps at the time, but they proved less than ideal to use in play. Likewise, the plot is heavy-handed and railroad-y. And don't get me started on the fetishization of Strahd von Zarovich.

3. Tomb of Horrors, 1978 (S1)
I wrote at length about this yesterday, so you already know my opinion of this module. It's definitely one of the top 5 adventure modules of all time and I'd be suspicious of any list that didn't include it as such.

4. The Temple of Elemental Evil, 1985 (T1-4)
Another cop-out, but a more justifiable one. I'm personally of the opinion that T1 The Village of Hommlet alone deserves to be in any top 10 list of greatest adventures of all time. Coupled with the rest of the material from this supermodule, you can see how much better it is than the material that followed, which represents a valiant effort by Frank Mentzer to put into print both an important part of the Greyhawk campaign's history and a module promised for many years beforehand. I think T1-4 is solid, but it's not top 10 material as its rank here would imply.

5. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, 1980 (S3)
I don't have any quibbles about this module, which I both thoroughly enjoyed and think is indeed a classic on many levels, not least of which being its excellent illustration booklet.

6. The Desert of Desolation, 1987 (I3-5)
Another cop-out compilation but one I'm willing to let pass with less worry, since the modules play less as a series of independent but connected modules and more like a single module broken up into three pieces. It's been a long time since I looked at these and, while I am pretty sure they share the flaws of Tracy Hickman's other works (i.e. a heavy-handed plot), I recall there being a number of very clever old school traps and tricks throughout. Again, I'm not sure these modules are top 10 material, but I don't think them unworthy of some praise.

7. The Keep on the Borderlands, 1979 (B1)
Like The Village of Hommlet, B2 is nearly perfect. I'd rate it higher than 7, but that's a quibble.

8. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, 2001
I could go on at some length about why this is a terrible, terrible module that misunderstands and butchers Greyhawk lore and demonstrates why the 3e Challenge Rating system is an abomination, but why bother? There's simply no justification for including this in a top 30 list, let alone ranking it at number 8.

9. White Plume Mountain, 1979 (S2)
I have great fondness for this module and no qualms about its inclusion in the top 30. I think it's too "game-y" an adventure to make the top 10, though. By that I mean that the whole set-up feels too artificial, as if it exists solely to provide an adventuring locale rather than as a location with its own internal logic independent of the adventurers having to go there.

10. Return to the Tomb of Horrors, 1998
I never owned or read this boxed set, so I can't really comment on its merits.

11. The Gates of Firestorm Peak, 1996
Written primarily to show off the new rules options from the 2.5e Player's Option books, I suspect this module made the list because of its introduction of the Far Realm, the Lovecraftian dimension that WotC era D&D seems so in love with. I'm not sure that alone justifies its inclusion here, as the rest of the module is pretty forgettable.

12. The Forge of Fury, 2000
I never owned this module either and, given that it's the second rather than the first release in WotC's 3e adventure path, I'm a bit baffled as to why it's here.

13. Dwellers of the Forbidden City, 1981 (I1)
As I've said before, this is definitely one of the greatest modules ever. I'd actually rate it higher than 13.

14. Dead Gods, 1997
I'm a fan of Planescape, but I can't say much good about most of the modules produced for the line, particularly the later ones, of which Dead Gods is part. They represent TSR's rather unfortunate flirtation with White Wolf-style metaplot, in the process wreaking havoc on an otherwise well-done, if off-kilter, take on fantasy.

15. Castle Amber, 1981 (X2)
Part of Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," Castle Amber is a favorite of mine.

16. Isle of Dread, 1980 (X1)
Ditto Isle of Dread.

17. Ruins of Undermountain, 1991
I never owned this, so I can't comment on its placement here.

18. The Hidden Shrine of Tamochan, 1980 (C1)
This is an excellent old school module that reminds me a bit of Tomb of Horrors in that it has very few monsters but plenty of tricks and traps. Likewise, the Mesoamerican ambience of the place -- given glorious life by many Erol Otus illustrations -- adds to its charm.

19. Against the Cult of the Reptile God, 1982 (N1)
An under-appreciated module that proves Douglas Niles once had serious design chops.

20. Scourge of the Slave Lords, 1986 (A1-4)
Yet another cop-out, but, again, an understandable one, given that modules A1-4 are a tighter series than the G/D/Q modules. I have a certain fondness for these adventures, but I don't worship them the way some old schoolers do. Part of my problem with them is that I don't find the central premise very compelling and the modules, being written by a variety of authors, are somewhat uneven in quality. In addition, there are moments of heavy-handedness, such as the necessity of the PCs to be captured, that I think militate against the series' real virtues. I don't object to their inclusion in a top 30 list and rank 20 seems about right for them.

21. Dark Tower, 1980 (from Judge’s Guild)
The sole entry in this list that wasn't produced by TSR, I don't have any problem with its presence, since this is a classic module by Paul Jaquays and deserves to be recognized as such. However, I happen to think there are many other Judges Guild modules even more deserving of being here, such as Caverns of Thracia and Tegel Manor (among others). Were I to make my own top 30, you can be sure quite a few JG adventures would bump many of the entries in this somewhat myopic list.

22. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, 1982 (S4)
I have a fondness for module S4, but that's mostly because of its extensive booklet of monsters, magic items, and spells, which made far more of an impact on my campaign than the adventure proper, which is is rather bland.

23. The Forgotten Temple of Tharzidun, 1982 (WG4)
The "sequel" to The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, though, is one for which I have a greater appreciation. The adventure has a creepy, "eldritch" ambience to it that I love and the eponymous locale is suitably bizarre and Lovecraftian.

24. City of the Spider Queen, 2002
No. This adventure exists solely to sell more R.A. Salvatore novels and its heavy-handed plot depends on events in the novels to make any sense.

25. Dragons of Despair, 1984 (DL1)
Though my dislike for Dragonlance is well-known, I do think the first module in the series is well-done and intriguing. Had the series as a whole not been so heavily tied into events in the novels and had there been more support for deviating from the "correct" storyline, I think the DL could have become true classics. As it is, DL1 represents a path not taken, as well as one of the key moments when D&D lost its soul.

26. City of Skulls, 1993 (WGR6)
I never owned any of the Carl Sargent era Greyhawk modules, so I can't comment on this one, which I believe is about the empire of Iuz.

27. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, 1981 (U1)
Like most of the TSR UK modules, this one was excellent, being another great starting module that combines a fascinating little town with adventuring locales and adventure hooks. The rest of the U series is just as good in my opinion and quite possibly deserve a place on this list.

28. The Lost City, 1982 (B4)
The third module of Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," this one is one is sometimes overshadowed by its bigger brothers, which is a shame, because it's a terrific evocation of "Red Nails" and other similar stories.

29. The Assassin’s Knot, 1983 (L2)
Why this is here and not L1 The Secret of Bone Hill is a mystery to me. Oh wait, it's because L2 features a mystery that it got the nod while the often-overlooked L1 did not. I think L2 is a solid module -- practically a mini-campaign, just like L1 -- but I also think that it gets more kudos than it deserves simply because of its murder mystery plot.

30. The Ghost Tower of Inverness, 1980 (C2)
While I have fond memories of this module, like White Plume Mountain it has the feel of being a game module rather than an internally consistent and logical location in its own right.

Interview: Tim Kask (Part I)

Tim Kask, TSR's first Publications Editor, has graciously consented to my asking him a few questions about the history of his involvement with the roleplaying hobby and the role he played in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. Because many of Mr Kask's replies were lengthy, I have broken up his responses into multiple entries that I will post over the course of several days. I hope everyone will enjoy the details and insights these questions bring to light and I'd like to thank Mr Kask once more for his allowing me to interview him.

It's my hope that this interview will be the first of series with individuals associated with the early days of the hobby.

You note in the foreword to Gods, Demigods, & Heroes that your first assignment for TSR was Supplement II: Blackmoor. How did you come to be hired by the company and what was the extent of your duties as its "Publications Editor?"

This is going to be a long answer because you have asked for a lot of background in just a few words.

I first met Gary over the phone in late ’73 or early ’74, when I was a married student with a daughter at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. This came about because I called Directory Assistance (called Information back then) and asked for his number. I had seen the address of Lake Geneva in the back of the Chainmail rules, which were what I was calling him about. To be perfectly honest, I do not remember exactly what about. In any event, the phone was answered by a perfectly polite and friendly gent that did not seem in the least put out by having a stranger call him at home at night. (It was probably a Friday evening, after 9 PM when weekend discounts on Long Distance applied.) We must have talked for at least an hour, and we seemed to hit it off right away. I called a couple more times during the next several months, mostly talking about miniatures and miniatures rules, but also straying into many other areas, including my recent service in the USN in ‘Nam.

Somewhere during the fall and winter of ’73-’74, Gary first mentioned this new game concept he was first working on, then published. He invited/challenged me to come to his game convention in August in Lake Geneva sometime in late May or early June. I worked it out to go up to the Quad Cities (where my wife and I grew up and had family), drop off my family and head up to LG. I was very naïve about GenCon, figuring I’d just find a motel somewhere not too far away and check it out.

Condensed Version of the First GenCon.

I drove up and we met face-to-face. I entered two miniatures tourneys and won them both. Somebody walked down the hall, at the Horticultural Hall where the con was held, calling out for a few players to come join in an “adventure” in that new game Gary had been talking about. (I am not sure, but I think that it was Rob Kuntz, who was just a kid then, while I was 25.) Remembering what Gary had gone on and on about, I signed up.

I don’t remember a lot of details from the beginning of the adventure. I mostly sat quietly in the back trying to figure out what was going on. Somehow or other we ended up pissing somebody off and getting encased in some sort of clear substance like Lucite that allowed us to continue breathing. Next time I figured out what was going on, we were up in front of “Deus ex Machina” and lasered into little cubes the size of big dice. Well! That was different…

A couple of minutes later, I signed up for another adventure, this time as a dwarf. The condensed version of that was that I rescued a dying dwarf king with no heir, was granted the dwarf kingdom and given the Royal Seal. Then it was time to quit playing!

I bought the old brown box set and a set of dice, talked to Gary a bit more where he told me to stay in touch and keep him informed of how it went with my game club when I introduced them to D&D, and headed back to my family. Gary and I had a private conversation where he told me of his plans to some degree and said that when I graduated next summer, there might well be job he could offer a good editor.

When I got back to my game club, I announced that I had played in this really strange great game, and they were all going to have a chance to play real soon. Real soon stretched into about three weeks; I had no idea reading and understanding those three little books would be so tough. Had I not played, however poorly, I would not have had a clue.

I whipped up some dungeon levels, we rolled some characters up that fateful Sat. morning, and my first campaign was under way. About once a month I would call Gary up and we would talk at length about what my group was doing, had done and how we had done it. We talked about lots of other things as well, and discovered we had even more in common than we had known. We both liked several of the same fantasy authors, had similar tastes in military history and even liked a lot of the same movies.

After a couple of months of playing, about Christmas break, I announced that when they all came back after the holiday we would be generating new characters (using an average die for starting levels to recognize the fact that they were not complete greenhorns) and playing in a new campaign setting. I had gotten a copy of Greyhawk by then and wanted to incorporate some of it Thus was born my Ruins of Kwalishar campaign.[That name ought to sound familiar! -JM] I wrote out an elaborate basis for the campaign, and we never looked back until I graduated in Aug. of ’75. My monthly chats with Gary continued and I started tinkering with things as per Gary’s instructions and letting him know how it had worked out, what my players thought, etc. (It was only later that I realized that we had been play-testing for Gary.) I then went to GenCon ’75, met Brian Blume and made plans to move there in a month, which my family and I did. I was hired by Tactical Studies Rules, which a few weeks later was supplanted by TSR Hobbies, Inc.; I was the first full-time employee of both.

First, and foremost, I was hired to be Gary’s editor. Anyone who has read any of Gary’s earliest writings knows that he loved the English language and more than that, loved to challenge his readers. Gary had cut his reading teeth on authors like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Lamb. Those guys could really craft a sentence, but took some reading to get comfortable with. They could not have written for USA Today or People Magazine; they were too tough to read for the casual or less schooled reader. Some of Gary’s writing was like that, almost Victorian in nature. My job was to take his stuff and boil it down a little for the rest of the world, without lessening the craft he put into it. I like to think I did that pretty well. (At Lake Geneva Game Convention III in 2007, Gary told me that of all the editors he had had, he most missed having me edit his writing. I felt honored and touched by that comment.)

As for the rest of what I did, I edited the rest of the stuff we did. I took over The Strategic Review with issue #5, and our plans to eventually produce a real magazine began to take shape. I edited game manuscripts. But where I really began to learn my craft was with Blackmoor, the second D&D supplement.

One day, after I had been there a couple of months, Gary and Brian were waiting for me that morning when I got to Gary’s house (we worked out of his basement) with what looked to be a bushel basket of scrap papers, like someone had cleaned out their desk, and sly smiles on their faces. I should have known something was up by those smiles…

Dropping the basket at my feet, they announced that it contained the next supplement and that I should pitch right in. After stirring it a bit, I asked if they were serious, and they assured me that they were. It took the better part of two days to sort it out, and another day or two to try to make some sense of it. When I reported back about a week later that what I had found was contradictory, confusing, incomplete, partially incomprehensible, lacking huge bits and pieces and mostly gibberish, they laughed and said they knew that. Both of them had already come to the same conclusion that if I was to be the editor, here was my acid test, and that neither one of them certainly wanted to do it. So over the next several weeks, I sorted, filled in, added and deleted. What came out was about 60% my work, 30% Dave Arneson’s and the remainder came from Gary and Rob Kuntz. I was reminded by Gary that the day I brought the finished manuscript in to him and Brian that I threatened to quit if ever I was given another “project” (read “basket case”) such as this one. For the next couple of years that what I did; edit the supplements, edit TSR, edit The Dragon and Little Wars after we spun them off out of TSR, proofread virtually everything we did, continue to be Gary’s editor, and all of my other TSR duties as well.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Thanks to Steve Tompkins at The Cimmerian, I learned a wonderful new word today: "Brundage-bait."


A Tease

I'm in the midst of putting together an interview with Tim Kask, former TSR Publications Editor, and, in doing so, I have learned more than a few things I'd never anywhere else. One of them relates to just why J. Eric Holmes was selected to edit the Basic Rules that are now so indelibly associated with his name.

With luck, the answer to that question and some additional insights into the early days of the hobby will be revealed in the next day or so. Stay tuned!

Retrospective: Tomb of Horrors

While it might be an exaggeration to say that 1978's Tomb of Horrors is the greatest D&D module of all time -- though the case could certainly be made -- I think it is fair to say that no other module is a better Rorschach Test of one's gaming sensibilities. By the time I first encountered module S1 in 1980, it was already legendary as the ultimate "killer dungeon." That alone ensured that I would buy and inflict it on my players, both because I wanted in on the excitement and also because I knew my players would love a good challenge. As it turns out, they liked it well enough that they threw multiple waves of their characters against it until, after weeks of attempts, they succeeded in making it to the end.

But I get ahead of myself.

It's true that Tomb of Horrors might rightly be called a "killer dungeon" or, as one of my friends once put it, "the ultimate screw-job dungeon." The place is filled with all manner of nearly-unavoidable traps, unpleasant tricks, and, of course, the demilich, an undead being so powerful that it's immune to all but a handful of spells. Of course, you have to remember why the module exists at all. The story goes that the diehard core of D&D fans regularly complained to TSR that the modules produced to date had been "too easy." Some people who don't remember those days might have a hard time understanding this, because of the shift that's occurred in the way gamers look at modules. Back then, a dungeon was something to be "beaten." Gamers looked at modules sort of like the way video game players look at new releases -- they wanted to get as many hours of gameplay out of them as possible. So Gary Gygax took this as a challenge to his design skills and the result was Tomb of Horrors.

In short order, gamers began to complain that the module was "too hard" and "unfair" and, on some level, both complaints ring true. Module S1 is too hard for many players and it's almost certainly unfair, but neither complaint makes it a bad or indeed unfun module -- quite the contrary. I could probably speak a lot about this and perhaps I will someday, but it's my contention that one of the things early D&D borrowed most heavily from wargaming was the notion that one could "win" a module, which was conceived of in much the same way a wargamer might look at a scenario. Certainly, you can't "win" a D&D campaign the same way you could win a wargames campaign, but, in a sense, you can "win" a module and this mindset was commonplace in the old days. To be able to say you'd "beaten" this module or that was a point of pride and Tomb of Horrors stacked the deck so thoroughly that many D&D players simply could not beat it, especially if the referee got into the spirit of the thing and was as malicious as possible.

I know I did and, as I am sure I mentioned before, my players loved me for it. They tended to see a dungeon as a test of wills against me and savored every time they bested me. And best me they almost always did, even if it came at great cost. Tomb of Horrors, though, proved different. My players all had heard the same stories I had about how terrible a place it was and how likely it was that their characters would meet certain death within its walls, so they treated the place with respect -- and more than a little fear. They planned and plotted and eventually decided to use some of their "lesser" characters as scouts and canaries in the coal mine. Through the deft use of magic, they made sure that what these poor unfortunate lesser characters learned was relayed back to their other characters, meaning that the next group to enter the Tomb would have a leg up on their predecessors. It was incredibly methodical and elaborate and motivated both by fear and a desire to beat the module -- and me.

Despite all their planning, no one managed to make it all the way through to the end of the Tomb. That is, no one until Morgan Just. Morgan was the biggest badass of my old campaign, a 16th-level Lawful Neutral human Fighter with a goodly selection of magic items played by my cleverest player. He was rarely played, because he'd been formally retired, but my friend Shawn would bring him out for "special occasions." Tomb of Horrors was one such occasion and he didn't fail to disappoint. Building on what he'd learned through the characters who'd somehow managed to escape the Tomb -- often without their clothes and possessions -- he entered it alone, armed with the best "special" adventuring gear he could muster, like sealed clay pots filled with green slime, various items with continual light cast upon them, and an entire bag of holding filled with iron spikes.

Morgan made his way to the lair of Acererak the demilich and only escaped by the sheerest of luck. He had acquired a ring of spellstoring sometime previously and it contained (I believe) the spell command, which caused the demilich's skull to sink back down onto its resting place. This gave Morgan enough time to realize that he didn't really want to face the undead fiend alone and expended the last wish from his luck blade to return to his stronghold far from the Tomb. He did eventually mount another expedition to go back and destroy Acererak -- and reclaim the possessions of the other characters, some of them long deceased -- but it was a hollow victory and everyone knew it. Shawn showed good gamesmanship and took the defeat well, acknowledging that Tomb of Horrors was indeed a tough dungeon, though he never complained about it so much as kicked himself for not being a "better" player.

I really feel the urge to run Module S1 again, but I doubt there's a gamer now who isn't familiar with all its tricks and traps. Perhaps the solution is to write a new adventure in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors and see if I can scratch the same itch. The sad thing is that I've mellowed a lot in my old age and I'm not certain I have the same killer instincts I had when I was a younger person. Still, creating a Tomb of Horrors for the 21st century would be a valuable exercise in my exploration of the old school, so it might be worth adding to my ever-growing list of projects I'd like to do when time permits.


As for me, I see no reason not to have a 25% magic resistance inherent in all creatures native to or long accustomed to dwelling in The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror and in Dungeonland. To my way of thinking, the society here is no more difficult to accept than one in which dragons fly and breathe fire, lightning, or poisonous gas. In a society which magic and heroism of incredible magnitude are commonplace and the fantastic is ordinary, how can one begin to rate degrees of the fantastic? Is a mimic more fantastic than a 15' tall giant? Or are talking flowers more remarkable than a human who can cast a ball of fire?
--Gary Gygax, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (1983)

Intriguingly, this comes from one of the last modules penned by Gary Gygax to be published by TSR. Given that it was written during a time period when TSR was wholeheartedly engrossed in the brandification of D&D, it's somehow reassuring to see that Gygax, who was as responsible for the brandification of the game as anyone, still retained the spirit of the little game he self-published nearly 10 years previously.

Aliens Among Us

I'm not a huge fan of Jeff Dee's art in general -- I find it a bit too "comic book-y" for my taste, but I find it really hard not to love this illustration of a mind flayer from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
This illustration exercised a huge influence over my young imagination. Having seen a mind flayer dressed up like an alien from an episode of Star Trek, I never again found it difficult to conceive of mixing science fiction in with my fantasy. Mind you, the entirety of module S3 was an object lesson in not being bothered by such things. Still, this piece of artwork has long been a favorite of mine. It's hard for me now to think of mind flayers as anything but aliens from another world/dimension.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grognard's Grimoire: Minor Chaotic Traits

In the campaign setting I've been tinkering with recently, I've decided that Chaos will play an important role, being a metaphysical cancer that has not only spawned the demonic realm of the Abyss, but actively works to consume reality itself. Throughout the universe, there are some places where Chaos has worn down the walls of reality to such an extent that a malign radiation seeps through and warps everything that comes into contact with it.

Living things that are exposed briefly to the raw stuff of Chaos may exhibit Minor Chaotic Traits, such as those listed on the table below:

1 +1d4 Hit Dice
2 -1d4 Dice: Creatures whose Hit Dice drop to 0 become Shadows, which is animate Chaos.
3 May only be hit by magical weapons
4 Takes maximum damage from any magical weapons or items specifically aligned with Law
5 May cast darkness (30' radius) at will
6 Gains +1 to hit against Lawful creatures
7 Lawful creatures gain +1 to hit the creature with this trait
8 May cast cause light wounds 1d4 times per day
9 Gains +1 saving throws against spells cast by Lawful creatures
10 Suffers -1 saving throws against spells cast by Lawful creatures
11 Physical appearance changes to that of another creature whose Hit Dice are either higher (1-3) or lower (4-6) than its own.
12 Roll again. If this result comes up a second time, roll on the Major Chaotic Trait table instead.

Coming Up: Major Chaotic Traits

Holmes Basic

As I've mentioned on many occasions, I began playing D&D in late 1979 with the Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes rather than either OD&D, like some of my older contemporaries, or Moldvay, like most of my younger contemporaries. The Holmes Basic Set was published in 1977 and is kind of a strange bird, being at once a revision and representation of OD&D for the mass market, an introduction to the then-unpublished AD&D game, and a unique game in its own right.

While I never played a "pure" Holmes game -- I used a weird mix of Holmes plus AD&D plus house rules/variants I picked up from my friend Mike's metalhead brother -- I still have a lot of fondness for this particular version of D&D. Some of that is simple nostalgia, but some of it is because, having recently reread this 48-page book -- shorter even than Moldvay -- it comes across as the last gasp of pre-fad D&D. That is, it's clearly a product written for people already involved in the wargames/early RPG hobby rather than a true mass market product in the way that Moldvay's revision is. This should come as no surprise, since Holmes was heavily involved in the early fanzine communities that helped propel D&D to the heights of success it would later enjoy. This version of the game is clearer and better written than the little brown books, but I guess what I'm saying is that, despite that, it feels much more continuous with the LBBs than does even AD&D, never mind Moldvay or Mentzer.

I think that continuity is often discounted much too readily by people who don't share or even understand its attraction. One of the things that's drawn me back so powerfully to OD&D and its spin-offs is that continuity. I'm not a first generation gamer; I didn't play OD&D and I wasn't a wargamer. But I knew a lot of people who were and who were involved, sometimes heavily, in the fan communities that sprang up at the dawn of the hobby. They'll always be my spiritual "big brothers," who initiated me into this pastime and showed me the ropes of how to be a referee. I'm forever grateful to them for that and games like the Holmes edition still speak to me of that period just before I got involved in gaming. Even if I didn't prefer the style of play these games espouse -- though I do -- I feel an obligation to honor those who came before and laid the foundation for the nearly 30 years of fun I've had playing D&D.

Holmes Basic is far from perfect, either as an introductory game or as a vehicle for keeping alive the spirit of OD&D. Nevertheless, I find it a good first attempt at a "Basic OD&D" and can't help but think that the retro-clone we're currently missing is something more in line with Holmes, a kind of half-step between the Wild West of OD&D and the mass marketization of Moldvay. There's a big part of me that thinks such a halfstep might, in fact, be the perfect intro RPG, one that marries the "imagine the hell out of it" philosophy of the old days with the better graphic design and presentation of contemporary game publishing. I find myself thinking about such things a lot these days, so perhaps it's another project to add to my pile.

(And for those who are interested, there's an excellent collection of house rules and rules extensions to Holmes Basic available here. With these, that 48-page booklet becomes a game capable of sustaining your campaign till 9th level. How cool is that?)