Friday, October 31, 2008

A Game for Grown-Ups

In honor of Halloween, I've decided to take a brief break from talking about Dungeons & Dragons to discuss another great love of mine, Call of Cthulhu. Along with D&D and Traveller, CoC is part of my Holy Trinity of Roleplaying Games -- the three RPGs I've played the most over the last three decades and the ones that speak most powerfully to my imagination.

There are a lot of reasons why I love this game. You'd probably think one of them was my appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft's writings and you'd be right -- to a point. One of the oddities of my literary education is that, despite having read Howard and been at least vaguely acquainted with Clask Ashton Smith, I never read a word of HPL until after I purchased and began playing CoC. Now, it's true that I knew lots of people, mostly older guys, who kept telling me I ought to read Lovecraft and that it'd appeal to me, but I wasn't really all that knowledgeable about when I bought this game in 1981. Once I began to play, though, I soon became a Lovecraft fanatic, reading all his stories I could lay my hands on, but it was CoC that was my first introduction to the Mythos.

A lot of people -- my wife, for example, can't quite wrap their heads around why I have such a thing for Lovecraft. Grandpa Theobald and I have probably about as diametrically opposed worldviews as you can imagine. Indeed, besides our shared appreciation for the past, I'm not sure there's much he and I would have agreed upon. Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me. It affects me in a way that more "traditional" types of horror simply doesn't, because they operate according to a logic that isn't all that dissimilar to my own, whereas the Old Gent has conjured up something that is completely alien to me and how I conceive of the universe.

I'm on the fence as to whether CoC qualifies as an "old school game." I think it certainly has a lot of old school qualities to it, at least mechanically. The Sanity system, for example, is very old school in my opinion, because it takes part of your character's inner life -- his psychological well-being -- and puts it in a box outside of your control. I don't find skill system to be old school in general, because they have a tendency to dominate play by spawning sub-systems and rules that remove the role of the referee in adjudicating the results of skill rolls. The early editions of CoC didn't do this, with skill descriptions being vague and left to referee interpretation (for the most part). I can live with such skill systems, particularly in games, like this one, where there's no class structure.

But what I really like about Call of Cthulhu is the way that it turns the old school ubiquity of death into the stuff of high drama. Old school games are renowened -- or infamous -- for the ease with which characters can die, often due to purely random occurrences. CoC is very much in that vein; the mortality rate among investigators is quite high in any CoC campaign worth its salt. What sets this game apart from others is that investigators are essentially martyrs. They know -- or at least their players -- know the score: odds are they will die, probably horribly and without fanfare, possibly because they decided to use the tools of the enemy against him, in the process destroying their minds and maybe even their bodies. Yet they do it anyway -- just to give Mankind one more day before the stars become right.

Lovecraft's imaginary worldview isn't necessarily predestinarian; there's a chance humanity might somehow survive in an uncaring universe. After all, the Great Old Ones don't hate human beings or have it in for us. Mostly, we're beneath their notice and so it's likely that, should we get in their way, they'd think no more about squashing us than we would about squashing ants. What investigators do is delay the time when we ever have to test this theory. They may never stop the likely extermination of humanity, but they hold off that reckoning for a little while longer, even though they must sacrifice themselves to do so. That's pretty damned heroic in my book, particularly because they have no idea if what they do matters in the final analysis. There are no guarantees in Call of Cthulhu, just probabilities and slim ones at that.

It's for this reason that Ken Hite, for example, has called CoC the only adult roleplaying game ever made, because it presumes that your characters aren't venal, self-interested rogues interested in lining their pockets and increasing their fame. Instead, they're men and women who labor, almost certainly unknown, to fight against the Dark that threatens to consume us all, in the full knowledge that they may not only fail but lose all that they value in the process of their fight. That's some heavy stuff right there and it's why I still love Call of Cthulhu despite its flaws.

What flaws, you ask? First and foremost, I think CoC is one of the birthplaces of the "adventure path" concept. Now, I happen to think this format generally works very well in this game, given its themes and structure, but many gamers have drawn the wrong conclusions from the way Chaosium has supported Call of Cthulhu. The other big flaw in the game is the way it's adopted a very Derlethian approach to the Mythos. Indeed, the very concept of "the Cthulhu Mythos" isn't Lovecraftian at all. The systematization and categorization of the various alien beings and entities -- the emergence of a Lovecraftian Canon, if you will -- is a mistake and one that reduces Lovecraft's ideas and concepts into mere stats and trivia. Like D&D, the power of CoC lies not in some Canon but in a Methodology and approach that both underlies and transcends that Canon. I think Call of Cthulhu would in fact be a more fun and interetsing game if it took a more explicitly toolbox approach to the Mythos, focusing on the themes that gird the whole rather than the specific implementations of those themes.

In short, I think Call of Cthulhu is really keen, even if I do think plush Cthulhu toys are the Devil's own handicrafts.

Prelude to a Post, Part III

Read the explanation for this illuminating chart at 6d6Fireball.

Prelude to a Post, Part II

A Second Edition is a major undertaking. There are corrections to be made, parts to be meshed, material to be deleted or shifted, and new rules and information to be included in such a work. The first question, then, is when does this undertaking begin? We anticipate starting the preliminary work in mid-1986. The scope of the project is such that it will certainly require two to three years to complete. When it is finished, we will have fewer, but thicker, tomes for your amusement and edification. It is important to add that this task does not preclude later supplements, changes, and yet new editions (a Third, perhaps a Fourth someday). The AD&D game system is vital. It grows, changes, and develops with continuing play and fresh ideas. One day it might attain the point where the rules can be graven in stone, but I don’t see that likelihood for some time.

--Gary Gygax, Dragon, November 1985

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Blast from the Past

So, I was looking at back issues of Dragon thanks to my CD-ROM collection and, while reading issue 105 from January 1986, I come across this fascinating piece of "wisdom" in The Forum, which was a section where they let any gamer with an opinion voice it
The debate about character alignment of late has driven me to give my thoughts on the subject. In the original edition of the D&D® game, all characters were told that “it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take.” To the new hobby of fantasy role-playing, character alignment was an important concept. Not only did it state what the imaginary player character believed, but it also served to help the player to better take on the role of his or her persona.

In later supplements of the original rules set, alignment was taken a step farther. It was used as a means (along with ability scores) to determine whether or not a PC was eligible for one of the more specialized (and often more powerful) subclasses. In this way, alignment was a tool used by both the players and the Dungeon Master to relate to the characters’ beliefs, ways of acting, and to restrict entrance into certain sub-classes.

It has been eleven years since the original D&D game appeared. While many of the ideas found in those little brown booklets and supplements were expanded and revised for inclusion in the AD&D game, alignment was not one of them. Even though the number of possible alignments has been tripled and more detailed descriptions of each ethos given, they are used as little more than tools for the players and Dungeon Master, in much the same way as was done over a decade ago.

My belief is that alignment should be used to restrict entrance into certain character classes and to determine how a player character will act in most circumstances. For example, an assassin, no matter how evil or chaotic he or she may be, would not attack the first group of good and/or neutral adventurers sighted simply because of their conflicting alignments. The assassin character class as written is composed of very intelligent individuals who make a living by killing those individuals who are deemed “troublesome” by the assassin’s employer. Being as intelligent as he is, an assassin would know when a particular job was over his head. Intelligence, not only alignment, should dictate how a character reacts to certain situations. Similarly, paladins do not charge the first demon prince they see, even though such a creature is diametrically opposed in its beliefs and actions.

Thus, alignment has been around with fantasy role-playing games too long simply to be forgotten. It is still an integral part of the game. Alignment, like other aspects of the game, needs only to be restructured in order to once again take its place of importance among the minds of players and their fantasy personae. Remember that all that needs to be done is use your head!

James Maliszewski
Baltimore, Md.
Now you can see why The Forum was eventually abandoned. This guy couldn't have been any more than 17 or 18 years old and his knowledge of the history of D&D is clearly lacking (He seems to think OD&D was released in 1975 -- madness!). And the pseudo-intellectual verbiage is the mark of someone overcompensating for the vapidity of his thought. What a moron.

The Fat Lady Sings

As many feared, the end is nigh for Castle Zagyg from Troll Lord Games.

Damn it.

Prelude to a Post

Fanatical game hobbyists often express the opinion that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will continue as an ever-expanding, always improving game system. TSR and I see it a bit differently. Currently D&D is moving in two directions. There is the “Original” game system and the new ADVANCED D&D® system. New participants can move from the “Basic Set” into either form without undue difficulty — especially as playing aid offerings become more numerous, and that is in process now. Americans have somehow come to equate change with improvement. Somehow the school of continuing evolution has conceived that D&D can go on in a state of flux, each new version “new and improved!” From a standpoint of sales, I beam broadly at the very thought of an unending string of new, improved, super, energized, versions of D&D being hyped to the loyal followers of the gaming hobby in general and role playing fantasy games in particular. As a game designer I do not agree, particularly as a gamer who began with chess. The original could benefit from a careful reorganization and expansion to clarify things, and this might be done at some future time. As all of the ADVANCED D&D system is not written yet, it is a bit early for prognostication, but I envision only minor expansions and some rules amending on a gradual, edition to edition, basis. When you have a fine product, it is time to let well enough alone. I do not believe that hobbyists and casual players should be continually barraged with new rules, new systems, and new drains on their purses. Certainly there will be changes, for the game is not perfect; but I do not believe the game is so imperfect as to require constant improvement.

--Gary Gygax, The Dragon, February 1979

This is Getting Annoying

Could someone please tell me how the heck I can snag a copy of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works that doesn't involve having to pick up the phone to Arkansas and hope that someone at Troll Lords answers my call? Because the game was released at GenCon in early August and it's still not available through regular distribution channels so far as I know. No online game stores carry it; none of my local ones can get it. Even the TLG website continues to list it in their own catalog as "Available for Pre-Order."

I know people have gotten hold of the product. What did you do to get it? Was a phone call what it took? I have nothing against phone orders, but I have to say that, in this day and age, not being able to order easily online is rather inconvenient.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Retrospective: Vault of the Drow

It might be an exaggeration to call Module D3, Vault of the Drow, the greatest D&D adventure of all time. It might even be an exaggeration to say that it's my favorite D&D module of all time. However, I think it could reasonably be argued that it's the greatest Gygaxian naturalist adventure of all time, for what it presents is a vast subterranean locale -- the Drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu -- brought to darkly beautiful life, from the various feuding dark elf noble houses to their monstrous servitors to their pitiful slaves. It's really an amazing piece of work -- even moreso when you consider that it was only 28 pages in length.

What a lot of gamers forget, assuming they ever actually played D3, is that there is absolutely no plot to the module, just as there was no plot to its precursors in the D series. The "plot" of the series, such as it is, mostly occurred in modules G1, G2, and G3, where the evil high priestess of the Elder Elemental God, Eclavdra, was attempting to organize the giants into a vast army with which to subjugate a portion of the surface world, in the process gaining power for herself and her house, Eilservs. Once that plan is defeated, though, all that remains for the PCs is vengeance and exploration of the depths of the earth. Eclavdra -- or her clone -- reappears in Vault of the Drow, but only as the leader of House Eilservs, not as "the big bad evil guy" of the module. No such personage exists in D3, as its 28 pages are devoted primarily to describing Erelhei-Cinlu, its inhabitants, and their activities.

There's a lot to love in this module, though I admit that its hard to erase from my memory the horrible ways in which the drow have been fetishized and bastardized in the years since. It's frankly a testament to Gygax's brilliant imagination that he made chaotic evil elves who (mostly) had a thing for spiders so alluring. And of course, in 1978, when this module was first published, the drow were new and exciting rather than clichéd and dull. I know I found the drow fascinating back in the day, even if I never quite shared the same level of interest that many did (the same goes for elves generally, so maybe I'm weird).

Erelhei-Cinlu itself is like a pulp fantasy come to life, illuminated by the soft purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and filled with buildings built on the presumption its inhabitants could naturally levitate, it's an alien place, where the PCs can't help but feel like fish out of water. Even more unsettling in my experience is that, unless the PCs are actively disturbing the peace of the city (or have ticked off someone of importance), they can wander about the place without being hunted down like dogs. True, it's a chaotic evil city and it's all too easy to wind up on the wrong side of inter-house disputes, but the drow are civilized and their city behaves according to rules, albeit twisted and evil ones.
The tiers and dungeons of Erelhei-Cinlu reek of debauchery and decadence, and the city‘s inhabitants are degenerate and effete. (Those with any promise and ability are brought out of the place to serve the fighting societies, merchant clans or noble houses. The rest are left to wallow in the sinkhole of absolute depravity which is Erelhei-Cinlu.) The most popular places in the city are the gambling dens, bordellos, taverns, drug saloons, and even less savory shops along the two main streets. The back streets and alleyways too boast of brothels, poison shops, bars, and torture parlors. Unspeakable things transpire where the evil and jaded creatures seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge, and sometimes these seekers find they are victims. All visitors are warned that they enter the back streets of the city at their peril.
It's easy to see why the drow made such a profound impression on gamers. What Gygax has done here is present us with an entire evil city to use as our sandbox, pursuing whatever adventures we wished within or without its walls. It's a great example of location-based design and a reminder of what modules were like before the demands of convention play or obsession with "story" changed their nature forever.

When I get around to it, after all my various other projects are put to bed, I'd love to take a whack at designing something like Erelhei-Cinlu. If it's even a tenth as evocative and useful as what Gygax achieved, I'll be beside myself with joy.

REVIEW: Spellcraft & Swordplay

One of the bits of gaming trivia grognards know is that the D&D combat system with which most people nowadays are familiar -- roll high on 1D20 against a number determined by the Armor Class of one's target -- began its life as OD&D's "Alternative Combat System," so called because the assumed standard combat system was that of the miniatures wargame Chainmail. By all accounts, comparatively few players of OD&D used Chainmail's system, instead opting for the alternative and the rest, as they say, is history. But what if it hadn't happened that way? What if the links between Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons hadn't been severed and the latter game developed in a way that was more closely tied to the wargame from which it sprang?

One set of possible answers to these questions forms the basis for the intriguing game Spellcraft & Swordplay by Jason Vey of Elf Lair Games. I hesitate to use the word "retro-clone" to describe S&S, because it's not a restatement of an earlier game so much as the product of an alternate universe. At the same time, the game uses many of the same tools as retro-clones, most notably the Open Game License, to create a fascinating work of speculative game design. S&S shows some clear affinities with retro-clones like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, or Swords & Wizardry, but it's definitely a unique animal, not quite a "true" retro-clone but showing strong genetic similarities to OD&D and its descendants.

Spellcraft & Swordplay is a complete game, 110 pages in length and divided into three internal "books" that closely imitate the three volumes of OD&D. Characters in S&S have the familiar six ability scores of D&D, although modifiers associated with them more closely resemble those of the Moldvay Basic Rules than those of OD&D (or AD&D). Percentile Strength is also present here, but its implementation is unique to S&S. Playable races include Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, with the three demihuman races limited in both their class selection and level advancement more or less as presented in OD&D. The ambiguity of just how Elven "multiclassing" works is preserved in S&S, being left to each referee -- nice to see this term used! -- to decide what he prefers for his own campaign.

There are four basic character classes: Warrior, Wizard, Thief, and Priest. There are also two "elite paths," the Paladin and the Assassin. Rather than being subclasses in the traditional sense, they are instead a collection of additional abilities given to members of the Warrior and Thief classes respectively whose ability scores and other attributes meet the requirements of the paths in question. Some will no doubt balk at this, as neither the Paladin nor Assassin require more experience points to advance in level compared to "normal" members of their class, but the benefits of their extra abilities are weighed against the additional strictures placed on their behavior. It's definitely an old school approach and I applaud it, though I will admit some unease about how it might function in play.

The classes are all roughly as you would expect them to be, given the OD&D influences on S&S. There are a number of interesting wrinkles that derive from Chaimail, however. All classes use D6 Hit Dice and the rate at which they gain them is not uniform, being staggered by pips in addition to whole dice. Likewise, wizard spells require a 2D6 roll in order to function -- all "action" rolls in the game use 2D6, incidentally -- modified by the wizard's Intelligence score modifier. If the number generated is high enough based on the level of the wizard and the level of the spell, the spell is cast immediately. If the number generated is high but not high enough for the spell to be cast immediately, it takes effect the next round after casting. If the number is not high enough for either, the spell fails to function and is erased from the wizard's memory. The implication here is that spells that are cast successfully do not fade from memory but may be used again later, pursuant to the usual rules for casting spells. Addtionally, for every day the wizard goes without re-memorizing his spells, he loses a number of them, starting with his highest level spells. Thus, while memorization is present as per OD&D, it demands slightly less planning than the standard system. I should note that this is close to the magic system presented in Chainmail. The selection of magic spells is very similar to that of OD&D, plus Greyhawk with some additional ideas borrowed from Chainmail (mostly having application in mass combat situations).

Spellcraft & Swordplay includes an ability check system to handle ad hoc actions by the PCs not covered by the rules. I have very mixed feelings about it, particularly because there are specific rules on how to use the ability checks to handle things like perception and social interaction, activities that I generally prefer to leave to player skill rather than dice. Ironically, the game includes optional background skills, which have no system associated with them at all and their implementation is left entirely to the referee's discretion.

Combat is handled much like the man-to-man system in Chainmail, with a character's chance to hit being determined first of all by his choice of weapon and comparing it to the Armor Class of his opponent. As in OD&D, magical armor subtracts from the to hit rolls of attackers rather than being a bonus to their AC, which remains an unchangeable class based on the type of armor rather than a generic target number. For reasons I don't quite understand, S&S uses a different AC system than OD&D, with higher numbers being better. Thus, plate mail and a shield is AC 8 rather than AC 2. Granted, the number is purely arbitrary and retro-clone games often change certain game mechanics to avoid infringing upon the artistic presentation of the games they're restating. Still, it's a bit jarring to see AC 8 as a "high" AC, when one is accustomed to its being a "low" one after three decades of playing D&D.

Like Swords & Wizardry, characters in Spellcraft & Swordplay get only a single saving throw, based on their class and level, but modified when appropriate by ability scores and class-specific situational modifiers. Warriors, for example, get a +2 bonus to any Constitution-based saving throws. As befits a game inspired by Chainmail, there is ample room devoted to movement, the effects of terrain, siege weapons, morale, and other related topics. At the same time, the experience rules are a bit odd, being a mix of old (XP for defeating monsters) and new (XP for good roleplaying), along with the notion that "treasure is its own reward."

The monsters section includes the usual staples of OD&D-descended games, but there are universal rules governing how certain abilities work, meaning that, for example, any creature with the Paralysis ability paralyzes opponents for 1D6 turns unless otherwise specified. Again, I have a very minor quibble about this, as this is a bit too schematized an approach for my tastes. Given the simplicity of the system overall, there's little real need for such mechanical shorthand and, more importantly, I prefer my monsters to be unique, right down to their own unique rules implementations. There are also some rough and ready guidelines for the creation of one's own monsters, but they're very "impressionistic," trusting the referee's judgment and ability to eyeball appropriate abilities. This is another example of the game's schizophrenia, one minute lapsing into 3e-style mechanical universalism and the next minute giving referee fiat free rein. The book concludes with a selection of magic items, most of which should be familiar to D&D players.

Let me be blunt: I really like Spellcraft & Swordplay. As a game, I think it's quite good. As an example of "what if?" logic applied to design, it's even better. There are quite a few ideas in here that I think could -- and should -- be swiped for old school homebrews, in particular the way that magic works. I'm also a fan of one's choice of weapon playing a more important role in determing whether one can do damage to an opponent. Still, there's something off-kilter about the game, as if its author can't quite make up his mind whether he's writing an old school game or a new school game in ur-Gygaxian dress. You can see this in the fact that the book's illustrations alternate between early modern woodcuts and lithographs depicting medieval tales and legends and Larry Elmore clip art of the lowest sort. Jason Vey notes in his introduction that he intended S&S to be a minimalistic rules set that is simultaneously old school and "cinematic." Granted, I don't share Vey's interest in such an approach, but I nevertheless think it's fair to say that the game, as presented, suffers because it's largely an old school one, but it has enough of a foot placed in the new school that it rankles. I have a hard time imagining committed new school gamers finding much to appreciate in S&S, so I'm not sure of the rationale behind this "of two worlds" presentation.

These are quibbles, though. Spellcraft & Swordplay really is an excellent game and I think it has a lot to offer old school gamers, particularly those interested in the prehistory of the hobby. I do hope that, one day, we might see a somewhat more refined version of the game, freed of the new school mechanical incursions and with a more consistent esthetic, but, even as it now is, S&S is well worth the cost. I recommend it very highly.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

S&W Monster Compendium

Somehow I'd forgotten to mention that Mythmere Games has released a MS-Word document entitled Monster Compendium: 0e for use with Swords & Wizardry. Matt Finch has converted a vast array of monsters to S&W's format, including many creatures from 3e D&D, in addition to beasties of his own creation. Weighing in at 60 pages and over 30,000 words, it's an absolutely impressive piece of work and one that I'm sure I'll get much use out of.

At present, the Compendium is intended solely as a tool for referees looking to use some of their favorite monsters with Swords & Wizardry. One day, it might become a polished book available for purchase. In the meantime, if you have some original monsters you'd like to submit, pop on over to the S&W forums and make a post. One day they might see publication in a hardcopy edition of this great bit of work.

Picaro and the "Story" of D&D

I mentioned previously that I believe Dungeons & Dragons has a "story," by which I mean a thematic core. I probably never should have used the word "story," because the word carries with it too many expectations, chief among them being a degree of coherence that I don't believe D&D, on a purely game mechanical level, is capable of attaining or that its creators sought to attain. I'm of the opinion that "story" is, to use a wretched bit of jargon, a meta-game artifact. That is, it's what you get when players, looking back on the events of their characters' adventures, ascribe a meaning and relevance to it all that's simply not inherent to the bare facts of the adventures themselves. It's much the same way that we frame the biography of a famous man so as to highlight the events that contributed to his being or doing the thing for which he became famous. The famous man's life only has a "story" when looked at as a whole and by presuming that the fame he achieved was somehow always "meant to be" from the beginning.

Now, I don't want this post to become a philosophical discourse on fate or teleology. My digression here was to help me assert that D&D, purely as a game, doesn't promote or encourage a story. Story is an optional extra added on top of the game, either by ex post facto pattern-finding (which is, generally, the old school sense of story) or by imposing it on the game beforehand (which is, generally, the newer approach). I think it's important to make this clear, because many gamers assume that all RPGs, by their very nature, including D&D, are "story games." Indeed, many D&D players, primarily those who entered the hobby in the post-Dragonlance era, accept this assumption without question and may have even been drawn into the hobby because they were attracted to the conception of an RPG as "fantasy novel where you're the hero," which is how the hobby was promoted throughout the 80s and how it's largely been designed since the 90s.

With that behind us, let's return to the question at hand: what is the thematic core of D&D, which is to say, what is its organizing principle? The game may not, of itself, tell stories, but, given that gamers almost always find stories in their play, what kinds of stories does D&D support natively? This is where my regular invocation of pulp fantasy rears its head again. I think it's easy to get hung up over the specific elements of this pulp fantasy story versus that one and argue, as many do, that D&D doesn't "model" pulp fantasy very well, because this or that element either doesn't exist in the game or is in fact prohibited by the rules as written. If that's the way you judge D&D, then, yes, I agree that it doesn't do a very good job of being a pulp fantasy game.

I'll return to the modeling issue later, because it's very relevant. For now, though, it's important to realize that there are common elements that undergird all pulp fantasy stories and it's these elements that D&D picked up and built a game around. They're the underlying assumptions that, taken as a whole, (largely) explain why D&D is the way it is and why it has an affinity for certain types of "stories." As I read pulp fantasy, the assumptions D&D takes from it are the following:
  • The protagonists are "rogues," by which I mean outsiders generally of low station (though not necessarily birth) who live on the margins of society.
  • Said society is generally corrupt, or at least venal.
  • Consequently, the protagonists generally pursue personal betterment (whether monetary, secret knowledge, position, etc.) rather than more "noble" goals.
  • Despite this, the protagonists sometimes achieve noble, or at least broadly beneficial, goals in the course of their pursuit of personal betterment.
  • The world is generally humanocentric, with non-humans relegated to the margins, which is why the protagonists often interact with them.
  • Magic is (at best) unreliable and (at worst) downright dangerous (if not morally dubious).
I would also add that pulp fantasy stories are generally episodic in nature, with each one being discrete. Likewise, characters and setting elements tend to be strongly archetypal, even clichéd. Both characters and setting may "grow" and change over time, but such things aren't the point of the stories; they are consequences of them. Thus, pulp fantasies are generally not written to recount the biography of a great man, even though, when taken as a group, many stories may, over time, be read in that way. Of course, there's no necessity that they will or even can be, as a great many pulp fantasies are "just a bunch of stuff that happens."

With the exception of the last two entries in my bulleted list, there's a strong affinity between the pulp fantasy story and the picaresque, which is probably no accident. The picaresque is a clear antecedent of "adventure stories" of all sorts and many pulp writers latched on to the Picaro archetype as an ideal vehicle for telling lurid, sensationalistic tales set in far-away lands. I contend that it's here that we find the thematic core of D&D and that the game was written on the assumption that most characters would come from this mold. I see, for example, few alternative explanations for why characters improve in D&D through the accumulation of wealth.

My feeling is that one's level of dissatisfaction with D&D is closely related to one's dissatisfaction with picaresque stories. If your preference is for something more "epic" than a bunch of rogues -- possibly with hearts of gold -- on the make, then you're likely to see D&D as lacking in some way. And many gamers have from the very beginning. Eventually, whether by nature or nurture I can't say, the vast majority of fantasy gamers wanted something more out of fantasy than Picaro in a wizard's hat, which is why we saw the growth and popularity of things like Dragonlance and many of the myriad campaign settings TSR published during the 2e era. But I contend that, in most cases, D&D is simply a poor fit for these settings, because its thematic core evokes the picaresque rather than the epic. To do the latter, one must change D&D in various ways -- and so its publishers have, either by modifying it on a campaign-by-campaign basis (as was commoner in the past) or by modifying it permanently (as has been done in recent years).

I hope there's something coherent in the above, as I'm still working out some things in my head and may well not have been clear. So, to summarize, in case I was indeed opaque: D&D is a game founded on pulp fantasy, which is a modern development of the picaresque. The game was designed on the assumption that the typical PC would thus be rogueish and possibly venal rather than nakedly heroic. Its rules, while not necessarily good at emulating every particular example of pulp fantasy, are built to support this assumption. While D&D is flexible enough to do other types of fantasy, the farther one gets from pulp fantasy/picaresque roots, the more "broken" the game is likely to seem. To this I'll add that the history of post-Gygax D&D has largely been one of trying to "fix" this seeming brokenness in various ways, which has led us to where we are today -- a game divorced from its roots and of limited appeal to people such as myself who prefer its original one.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Quote of the Day

Daniel Proctor hits the nail on the head:
So for those of you out there who keep asking why WotC won't republish old editions of D&D, I think you have your answer right there. It's not that they have some secret agenda. It's nothing personal against AD&D, OD&D, Basic D&D, etc. If they thought they would make money hand over fist on any of those you can bet anything they'd have published them a long time ago. Again, it's about the $.

The point of all of this? This is why hobby publishing is so important. The biggest goal of hobby publishing is not to make money. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Swords & Wizardry, those of us who produce these games do so because we enjoy the hobby and want to see these rules carry on.

So when Andy says, "Any expectation that the debut of a new game... includes an implicit promise that it'll be supported ad infinitum is simply unreasonable." He's wrong. It isn't unreasonable depending on the publisher's goals.
Add another page to the Hobby Publishing Manifesto.

Mutant Future, Randomness, and Old School Games

For those of you who enjoy listening to gaming-related podcasts, Midnight's Lair recently released a special about old school gaming, with particular attention devoted to Goblinoid Games' Mutant Future.

Check it out!

Birthday Bash

As I mentioned last week, I decided to celebrate my birthday with some friends by cracking out the Moldvay/Cook D&D rules to play an adventure with my friends, my wife, and my 8 year-old daughter. (My six year-old son had better things to do) I chose the Moldvay/Cook rules first, because they're dead simple and straightforward, so even my non-gamer wife could (mostly) understand them and second, because the module I chose to run was Castle Amber. It only seemed fitting that I should use the rules set for which the module was written.

All the characters began at fifth level, received three permanent magic items -- one weapon, one piece of armor/protection, and one miscellaneous item, all randomly rolled -- and were generated with 3D6 rolled in order. This resulted in surprisingly playable characters. Moldvay/Cook de-emphasizes ability scores compared to AD&D, making it very much in line with OD&D in this respect anyway. Ability scores become (mostly) roleplaying cues, which I think are important when you determine your character's class after you roll the dice rather than beforehand. What we wound up with was a party consisting of an elf (played by my daughter) with the unexpectedly odd name of Amber (my daughter didn't know the name of the module when she named the character), a magic-user named Arveene (played by my wife), a cleric named Brother Candor (played by a friend), a fighter named Thugg (played by another friend), a dwarf named Rock (another friend), and a Thief whose name I simply can't recall (another friend).

What was amusing is how quickly these randomly generated characters came to life. Certainly, they were mostly caricatures -- the dwarf had a limited vocabulary and a tendency to attack anything he thought might have gold, for example -- but experience has taught me that caricatures help to establish a character much more strongly than does sublime characterization, if only because very few gamers are actually capable of the latter. Likewise, caricature enables players to "stake a claim" to a particular social niche in the adventuring party, which in turns lets other players establish their own niches. Given enough time, the caricatures soften and accumulated shared experience lends nuances that, to me anyway, feel "real" or at least organic. In any event, I was quite pleased with how these characters interacted with one another and with the challenges I set before them in the module.

Now, Castle Amber is a bit of a funhouse. Much of it, at least initially, makes no sense. Again, this worked to our advantage, I think. Had the adventure been more plot-heavy -- that is, beyond "you must explore this mysterious manor house in order to find a way to escape its curse" -- I suspect the players might have more quickly fallen into line with the plot rather than creating their own. Likewise, throwing this mix of random characters into some outlandish situations, such as a room whose floor was covered with green slime, its ceiling cover by a black pudding, and whose treasure lay in a chest resting on a pillar of gray ooze, let them go wild. Because encounters like this literally make no sense, the only way the players could ground it in something resembling even fantasy "reality" was to play up their characters' reactions to it.

Over the course of the adventure -- about halfway through the module in about three hours of play -- we lost two characters, both to the magical food served in a ghostly banquet. The thief drank the wrong drink and became an insubstantial ghost who joined the other spectral revelers, taking his shiny new magical sword -- won in the slime room -- with him. Thugg the fighter keeled over from toadstool poisoning, but not before uttering the memorable warning, "Don't eat the 'shrooms!" Later, Rock the dwarf, driven mad by gold lust, began felling trees in an indoor forest, because he had seen squirrels who could turn acorns to gold and he hoped to liberate the acorns from the squirrels' nests. This attracted the attention of the Wild Hunt led by a member of the insane Amber family, who demanded the dwarf's head in punishment for his theft. It was at this point that my wife, who is not a gamer let me reiterate, calmly told the Master of the Hunt that, if the dwarf was guilty of theft, so too were the squirrels, since they'd been swiping acorns from the oak trees without asking their permission. The Master was forced, by the logic of his previous speech about "defending Nature from despoilers," to concede this point and so he let the dwarf go if the party promised never to return to the indoor forest. They readily agreed and headed toward a connecting chapel, unsure how they'd escape if the chapel proved to be a dead end.

There were, of course, many other enjoyable moments throughout the evening and I wish we had had longer to play out more of the module. Nevertheless, I found the experience satisfying, particularly because even my daughter and my wife were able to get into the game. Again, I think the funhouse quality of Castle Amber was a plus in this respect. No one felt the need to "perform" as if they were playing a key role in an epic tale of deep import and meaning. Instead, it was clear this was a fun romp for a bunch of somewhat disreputable characters looking to save their skins and make a few gold pieces in the process. Likewise, the sheer goofiness of the place let me ham it up when playing the parts of NPCs; I always find it much easier to play oddball characters than serious ones, which is why I'm known for including them in all my adventures.

All in all, it was a fun night. I'll probably have some further thoughts on the evening at some point, because I learned a few valuable things I think might be of general interest.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Elric

Michael Moorcock's doomed albino sorcerer, Elric VIII of Melniboné, made his first appearance in the novella "The Dreaming City," published in Science Fantasy magazine in June 1961. Moorcock was only 22 years old when he created his "anti-Conan" and the character -- and its take on fantasy -- has been influential ever since. Moorcock provided many with an alternative to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, as well as the prototype for the many antiheroes that came to dominate fantasy in the 60s and 70s.

I don't always agree with everything Moorcock has said, least of all about Tolkien, but the man definitely knows the history of fantasy, so he's earned my respect. I still have very mixed feelings about the Elric stories, but it's impossible to deny their importance. D&D owes a lot to them, so anyone interested in the history of the hobby ought to read at least a couple of them to see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Another Holmes Companion

Most of my regular readers probably are already aware of Meepo's Holmes Companion, but today I learned of the existence of another Holmes Companion and thought I should spread the good word. I've looked it over and there's a lot to like in it, particularly the way that it proceeds as if in an alternate universe where AD&D never happened and the Holmes rules developed according to their own logic.

I have a great fondness for the Holmes edition; it's the edition from which I learned the game and it's probably the last version of Dungeons & Dragons that retains the do-it-yourself ethic of the early days of the hobby. Much as I love both AD&D and Moldvay/Cook, they're both mass market products, with all that implies. Holmes is still very rough around the edges and filled with mysteries and oddments that I find charming even after all these years. I'll almost certainly mine Holmes for some ideas as I work on my own old school products in the months to come.


I've been a bit distracted today, so posting will be light today (and possibly through the weekend). In the meantime, I leave you with this wonderfully evocative piece of art posted by Trent Foster to the Knights & Knaves Alehouse. It's an absolutely terrific illustration of the menace-cloaked-in-beauty that I associate with old school fantasy.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dream World

If anyone has a lot of money to burn and an inexplicable desire to get me something really cool for my birthday next week, my I suggest this?

My Brush with "Fame"

My interview with Tim Kask is cited as a reference in this Wikipedia entry.


The Changing Meaning of "Campaign"

One of the interesting observations I've made in looking at the history of Dungeons & Dragons -- and, by extension, the entire hobby -- is the way that the word "campaign" has changed in meaning. "Campaign" is first used in a RPG context in OD&D and is obviously borrowed from wargames, which in turn borrowed it from the military science term for a connected series of battles. Although OD&D does occasionally make a connection between mass battles and campaigns, this doesn't seem to be the primary meaning of the word, since the text makes reference to Gygax's "Greyhawk campaign"and Arneson's "Blackmoor Campaign" in ways that don't quite make sense if the meaning was focused primarily on military matters. Indeed, I think it's in these particular usages that we can intuit just what is meant by the term in the context of OD&D.

In the Forward [sic] to Volume 1 of OD&D, Gary Gygax notes two things. First,
While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed. (emphasis mine)
Second, he comments on the "longevity" of the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns. Taken together, it seems clear to me that an OD&D campaign is something that is 1. "Larger" than a single "game" (i.e. adventure) 2. Maintains continuity between individual adventures 3. Not tied to a single "story" or focused on the exploits of a single group of characters.

The third item is, I think, key. We know that, in the Greyhawk campaign at least, there were multiple groups of characters, some of whom did not interact with one another regularly, if at all. I am not certain if the same was true in Blackmoor, but I believe it was. I know that it was the case with the Tékumel campaign, with its Monday and Thursday Night Groups. In each case, though, we speak of a single campaign, not multiple ones. That is, we don't speak of the Greyhawk campaigns but instead the Greyhawk campaign, even though the actions of players not necessarily playing in the same groups or on the same nights (let alone the same adventures) had an impact on one another. A "campaign" is thus what might be called nowadays, in video games jargon, a "persistent world." Thus, a campaign could -- and often did -- outlast the lives of any particular PC or series of adventures. A campaign continued on, changing and growing as the years wore on and the actions of myriad characters affected it.

While I'm not certain this is the case, I get the impression that contemporary gamers don't think of a campaign in this way. For them, a campaign is a series of adventures involving the same group of characters (more or less) and that comes to an end when its story is finished. Whereas the older understanding of a campaign was geared more toward sandbox play, the newer one seems built around the notion of a story or at least a "theme." The popularity of the Adventure Path style of play in 3e (though it has antecedents going back to 1e, Dragonlance foremost among them) is, I think, good evidence of this shift in the understanding of a campaign. Listening to gamers speak nowadays, they talk of having played several campaigns, even if all these campaigns are set in the same persistent world. It's a subtle difference, to be sure, and not a universally pernicious one, but I think it's a shift nonetheless.

I'm still not sure what to make of this or even if my intuitions are correct. However, I can't shake the sense that campaigns are different now and viewed differently and that's had a profound impact on the way RPGs are designed and marketed.

A Crazy Idea

My birthday is next week and, as anyone who reaches a certain age knows, there's increasingly less enthusiasm about celebrating the occasion of one's birth as the years wear on. However, I have a longstanding tradition of getting together with friends for dinner to celebrate and I am loath to break with tradition, when possible. So, after some thought, I concluded that, instead of going out for dinner, we'd meet at my place, order in a lot of food, and spend the evening playing a one-shot old school adventure.

I'm pretty keen to do this, because it'll be the first time in years that I'll have a large party of adventurers and I think the one-shot is a lost art form. As I've lamented many times in the past, RPGs have become too focused on story for my tastes. "Campaign" has become synonymous with "story arc" and it's made self-contained one-shot adventures with a bunch of random characters a thing of the past. I miss them and I figured here's my chance to give it a whirl again.

For simplicity's sake, I'm using the Moldvay/Cook rules. They're straightforward, accessible, and everyone knows them, including my nearly 9 year-old daughter, who's expressed an interest in joining in on the fun. I've been spending the last little while randomly generating PCs to use as both starting characters and replacements for the inevitable deaths. It's been a very eye-opening exercise, not least of all because I'm finding that, far from generating poor characters, rolling 3D6 in order is generating very average characters, often with one stand-out ability score -- "stand-out" being 14 or 15 usually, with a rare one being 16+. I can't help but like that. Not only do I see how easy it would be to "get into" these characters, but it makes me realize that a truly high ability score is a rarity that sets that character apart. If your Fighter has a 17 or 18 Strength, he's a veritable Hercules as far as the setting goes, because the odds of his encountering another Fighter equally strong is small. Personally, I find that really cool.

Anyway, I'll be sure to post about how this experiment turns out. I think it's going to be a blast, but we shall see.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Larger than Life

I wonder how much of the shift in the expected power level of D&D characters over the years is a result of the game's not having an integral mass combat system with which to provide additional context. Consider: OD&D arose out of the fantasy supplement for Chainmail. The default combat system for OD&D is the Chainmail combat system. If you're using that system, you can see directly how effective a Fighting Man is supposed to be against masses of armed and armored troops.

The problem is that, by all accounts, most players of OD&D didn't use Chainmail, but instead chose the "Alternative Combat System" that we all now associate with D&D. That system provides a few hints about the level of "realism" it's supposed to model -- such as the Fighting Man's multiple attacks against creature of 1 Hit Die or lower -- but it's much more "abstract," since it wasn't intended to work in conjunction with larger numbers of massed troops. Gygax attempted to rectify this with Swords & Spells in 1976, but it comes across as more of a "pure" miniatures wargame that's compatible with OD&D than as an adjunct to the game itself. AD&D had no mass combat rules at all, till 1985's Battle System, but I suspect it was too little, too late. Like Swords & Spells before it, Battle System was an adjunct to the rules and most players saw no need for it. 3e had no mass combat rules for its entire run and I've seen no evidence that 4e will have one either, but the game is still new enough that anything is possible.

I've long argued that an important part of understanding how OD&D was supposed to feel lies in understanding its endgame -- stronghold construction and domain management -- but my argument is difficult, because D&D, with the exception of the Mentzer boxed sets, has never adequately discussed these topics. Likewise, as I noted earlier, the lack of such rules has also contributed to power creep by not providing context for the rise in level of characters and their relationship to the wider game world. What this suggests to me is that OD&D desperately needs to rectify this situation in some way, although exactly how I'm not certain.

Retrospective: Castle Amber

Released in 1981, Castle Amber is part of what I call Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," consisting of this module, The Isle of Dread, and The Lost City. I'm not sure that the term is original to me; I might have picked it up from the incomparable Philotomy Jurament. In any case, all three of these modules are homages to the pulp fantasy stories that inspired D&D, but Castle Amber is the only one that makes explicit reference to its inspiration, the Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith.

I can't say for certain, but I think Castle Amber is what first introduced me to CAS. I knew of his name, of course, from having read, among other things, Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Moldvay's own Basic Rulebook recommends Smith as well, although more for his Xiccarph stories than anything else. After playing the module, I hunted down what little of Smith's writings as I could find in the local library. I wasn't very successful in my quest and it was years before I read a significant number of CAS stories.

But what makes me remember Castle Amber so fondly is that, even though I wasn't able to read most of Smith's literary corpus until much later, I still "knew" Smith through Moldvay's rather brilliant evocation of his spirit in this adventure. Most of the distinctive Smithian features are here: decadence, ennui, the macabre, black humor -- all stirred together in an unsettling stew. I won't deny that, as kid of 12, I found Castle Amber a tad disturbing. I wasn't scared of it so much as fascinated by it. There was something not quite right about the whole thing, something I couldn't then put my finger on and yet I loved it all the same.

Even now, it's hard to articulate precisely what it is that still fascinated me about Castle Amber. On a superficial level, it's just another "funhouse dungeon," filled with nonsensical and whimsical encounters, like the ogre who believes himself to be a human woman, the troll under the bridge in the indoor forest, and jester who polymorphs opponents into white apes, among others. But what I think sets Castle Amber apart from true funhouse dungeons is two things. First, there is a degree of internal consistency and unity to even the most whimsical encounters; that is, there is a method behind the madness. Second, and more importantly for me, there's very little outright malevolence in the place. There are many evil people inside Castle Amber -- most of the Amber family, for instance -- and their actions are objectively evil according to almost any moral compass and yet, somehow, they come across not so much as evil as bored. On some level, that strikes me as much worse than if they they behaved as they do because they actively wished ill upon their victims. Instead, they're just looking for something to do, something to alleviate their world weariness.

With its Erol Otus cover, Castle Amber has a phantasmagoric, fever-dream quality to it that still holds up after 27 years. The module is far from perfect -- there are a number of pointless D&D-isms that break the frame, for example -- but it remains a good example of an approach to fantasy gaming that has largely been lost, at least among gaming publishers nowadays. Module X2 combines literary allusion, hallucinatory imagery, and deadly whimsy to produce a challenge for all but the most clever players. Even better, it combines a dungeon -- Castle Amber itself -- with the mini-sandbox setting of Averoigne, thus making it a useful teaching tool for referees looking for advice on how to combine the two styles of old school play into a unified whole. And all in 26 pages! How many modern adventure modules can compare?

What is sad is the realization that, in retrospect, 1981 was probably the highwater mark for the old school. While I would argue that we still see a goodly stream of old school material in the two years that follow Castle Amber's publication, it was nevertheless a declining stream. The shift in how modules were designed was obvious by 1983-84 and there's been no turning back. I'm sorely tempted to crack out my copy of Castle Amber and play it again with my gaming group soon. Some of my most cherished gaming memories center around playing it with my friends nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps it's time to make some new memories.


Melan said it so I don't have to:
Would Carcosa have worked with sorcery some degrees less horrid? I think the answer to this question is positive. It could still have been strange and possessed of hidden menace, it could still have come with a hideous price, and been ultimately wrong and fruitless. And that is the real tragedy of Carcosa. The questions it could have asked are not being considered because they are asked so harshly that the only response is the conditional reflex of rejection and moral outrage (or moral outrage over moral outrage!). There is no discussion about the majesty of the rest of Carcosa, the sheer alien beauty of a world bathed in the colours of jale, dolm and ulfire (hues unknown on our planet); no campaign ideas are raised about the very first successful transplantation of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic mysteries into fantasy roleplaying and seeing the Mythos from a yet unknown, genuinely original angle. There are precious few to appreciate the cleverness of mixing swords, sorcery and weird technology, the loving homages to the Wilderlands, Gamma World, Gygaxian fantasy, Tékumel, which nevertheless do not feel like cheap imitation, but rather new and original. The best, most authentic and imaginative old school supplement I have known has been written, where every phrase radiates a mastery of language (who could resist a spell named “The Exoteric Consuming”, words like “ultratelluric” or an NPC named “The Autocrator”?) and a sense of adventure, and what are we discussing? The morality of writing about child rape? Is this what we will take away from Carcosa? That is my suspicion: that it will not go down as Carcosa, the fanmade supplement that rightfully deserved to be called Supplement V. (or outdid the others, even...), but Carcosa, the Child Rape Game. And who will want to buy, read and play that? People being transgressive for the sake of being transgressive? And even if that is an appreciative target audience, is it really the best one to have?

In the end, I think Carcosa is a lesser work for these reasons. It did not need to be sanitised, like so much of the boring escapist fantasy that surrounds us. It need not have had that embarrassingly cutified degeneration of the domesticated Cthulhu Mythos we can buy in the forms of plush figures and cute green slippers. But in some cases, less is more. With a little restraint, Carcosa would have been the greatest evocation of a sort of primal, original, authentic fantasy that makes you say ‘Hell yes!’; the sort you just can’t buy in stores anymore. Some of it – most of it – is still that. But precious few will see those parts.

Some lines are not meant to be crossed, and there are sometimes good reasons for that.
I really have nothing to add.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

D&D as a Myth Cycle

There are more amusing faux book covers here, one of my favorite being:

Shocked though I'm sure you all are, I don't have much liking for Marion Zimmer Bradley's re-telling of the Matter of Britain. But that's not what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, I'm going to put forward a position that I hope will make clear my own perspective on the role of "tradition" in D&D.

The legend of King Arthur is, to put it bluntly, a mess. They're a mass of conflicting tales from a variety of different sources that have, over the years and largely through the overwhelming influence of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, acquired a kind of incoherent coherence. That is, though there are many strands, both cultural and literary, within the legend of King Arthur, those strands have nevertheless coalesced around some central themes, events, and characterizations in a way that makes it possible to say with some degree of certainty that the legend of King Arthur is about certain things, includes certain events, and has a cast of characters with recognizable personalities and features. In short, despite its origins, it's not at all unreasonable to talk about "the legend of King Arthur" and expect that most educated people in the Western world will know the rough outlines of what you mean by it.

One of the many reasons why the legend of King Arthur can be told and retold again and again is that, aside from its timeless themes, it contains so many cultural and literary strands within it that any given storyteller can choose to emphasize this one over that one in order to keep the legend "fresh" and engaging to a variety of audiences. Not all of these new takes on the legend work, of course, but that's not because of the weakness of the source material. In my opinion, it's because the only way to retell the legend of King Arthur is to do so in ways that are consonant with its thematic core. Betray that core and what you're left with isn't a retelling of an immortal tale but the creation of a merely derivative one.

I recall reading somewhere that Professor Tolkien hoped that, one day, Middle-earth might become the focus of its own legend cycle, with other storytellers picking up what he had done and using it to create additional tales so as to establish a proper English mythology (Tolkien famously deemed King Arthur unsuitable both because of its Continental, specifically French, influences and the way it mixes magic and Christianity). H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos already is something similar: his alien gods and blasphemous books are commonplace in contemporary fantasy and horror. I've often felt that both Star Wars and Star Trek work better when viewed as myth cycles, with each new series, movie, or book viewed as a retelling of the same basic story rather than as an addition to the overall story. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, Star Trek novels have no continuity between them, except whatever their authors might choose to accept, thereby freeing each author to use as much or as little of the "myth cycle" as suits their dramatic purposes.

A myth cycle isn't a "story" precisely, though it may include many very specific events within it. The legend of Arthur, for example, includes a number of events common to most of its tellings. However, the myth cycle can't be reduced to a series of events or even a collection of characters, because all of these can be altered or outright ommitted, especially if the myth cycle is large and convoluted enough. So, a myth cycle's foundation is its thematic core -- what it's about; that's its "story." The truth of this is pretty plain when you look at, for example, many putative stories of the Cthulhu Mythos. The work of August Derleth contains innumerable references to the gods, monsters, tomes, and characters of HPL's work, but its themes are so different and, in many ways, contrary to those of his predecessor that I don't think they can reasonably be deemed "Cthulhu Mythos stories" except in the most analogical sense.

The key, of course, is locating the thematic core of a myth cycle. Once you've done that, it's possible to recognize the derivative works for what they are. I realize, of course, that my position will be controversial, since it explicitly excludes revisionism from being part of the myth cycle. I don't think this is an unreasonable position, but I know that not everyone will accept it. Nevertheless, the point remains that myth cycles have a coherence to them that transcends the welter of specific things associated with the myth cycle. That's why you can tell a perfectly good Arthurian story in which certain characters or events never appear. It's also the reason why most of us, if reading a story that purports to be part of the myth cycle, can intuit whether it really belongs to it or not. I contend we all have a sense of the thematic core of most myth cycles with which we're quite familiar and can thus tell whether the author is working within the tradition or not.

D&D, being a game rather than a series of tales, can't really be viewed as a myth cycle in quite the same way. Certainly, there's the Gygaxian Canon, but I long ago came to the conclusion that it's a mistake to conflate D&D with the Gygaxian Canon. I find most of the wailing and gnashing of teeth -- "Save the Great Wheel!" and all that -- about the changes to the Canon in the new edition to be missing the forest for the trees. Despite this, I think there is a central "story" to D&D, which is to say a thematic core, and it's from this core that all things that wish to call themselves "Dungeons & Dragons" must draw. What is that thematic core? I hope I can be forgiven for saving my answer to that question for a later post, but, rest assured, I'll be discussing it at some length over the next day or two.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Truth in Advertising

This and other amusingly accurate faux books covers can be found here. Thanks to my friend Kevin for the link.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: The Face in the Frost

While the influence of both The Dying Earth series and the Harold Shea stories is widely acknowledged as important inspirations on the creation of the D&D magic system, much less frequently mentioned is John Bellairs' 1969 historical fantasy The Face in the Frost. This book adds the detail of wizards studying their spells in advance of casting them. I couldn't find a large image of the original 1969 cover, so instead I present the cover from the 1981 reprint.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Some Words about Pulp Fantasy

I don't think it's a self-important exaggeration to say that I'm one of the foremost proponents of the notion that D&D, especially OD&D, can best be understood in light of the pulp fantasy literature that inspired Gygax and Arneson. As I have delved deeper into the history (and pre-history) of the hobby, I grow ever more convinced of the truth of this notion. Indeed, I believe that, as popular tastes in fantasy have grown more distant from from the pulp conception of the genre, D&D has become a caricature, the end result being a new edition that is so divorced from its roots as to be of little interest to me.

But D&D isn't the only thing that has become a caricature. I would argue that the conception of "pulp fantasy" many hold is similarly rootless and thus of little interest to me. Chief among the caricature being foisted on pulp fantasy is the idea that the genre's protagonists weren't heroes. I think such a position is only tenable if you equate "hero" with a spotless white knight who not only knows what is right but always does it without fail. Pulp fantasy doesn't have many such characters -- though they do exist -- but the genre nevertheless doesn't lack for heroes.

Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, even Elric are all heroes. That they are often greedy, self-interested, and prone to violence doesn't disqualify them from hero status in my opinion, because, when push comes to shove, they are all, however fitfully, on the side of the angels. They all possess moral codes, lines they will not cross, even in pursuit of their sometimes prominent vices. That these characters are all flawed, inconsistent, and conflicted doesn't mean they aren't heroes; what it means is that they're human and to be human is often to stumble and fall while striving for the Good.

Somewhere between the time these characters were created and the present day, the thread of a grand conversation was lost. Somehow, instead of being seen as flawed heroes, they came to be seen instead as antiheroes. Somehow antiheroism then became elevated to a quintessential element of pulp fantasy; it is not. To see Conan primarily as a brute who indulged his every appetite with glorious abandon is to forget that we are introduced to the character as the first just king Aquilonia has seen in generations, who strives to govern this foreign land honorably despite the machinations of its nobles and the fickleness of its populace. Conan is certainly flawed and, at times, deeply antiheroic, but he remains a hero, precisely because he abides by a rough code that regularly compels him to do what is right even at great cost to himself.

What does any of this have to do with D&D? Quite simply: being a game inspired by pulp fantasy does not mean that it's a game without heroes -- just the opposite. Pulp fantasy is a genre of flawed heroes certainly, but flawed heroes do not cease to be heroes because they aren't spotless. The attraction pulp fantasy holds for me is that its protagonists seem real; I can identify with them, because, like me, they make mistakes, give in to their worst vices, and selfishly confuse what is easy with what is good. Yet, each of them proves that, when stripped to their core, they will stand up for what is right.

Every one remembers that Conan famously abhorred civilized ways, but the truth of it is that he abhorred the way men used civilization as a cloak to hide their baser natures. Conan did not revel in barbarism so much as acknowledge its basic honesty when compared to "civilized" men whose morality was little more than a veneer. To reduce Conan to Arnie's "what is good in life" quote is not only to misread Conan, but also to contribute to the caricature of pulp fantasy that has driven many people away from it. Many proponents of the genre have done it a grave disservice in their exaltation of brutality and amorality. Such things exist in pulp fantasy, to be sure, but they are not its defining characteristics nor are they things that pulp fantasy authors admired and promoted.

To cite a non-pulp fantasy example: Lancelot may be a far more interesting character than Galahad, but that doesn't mean adultery is laudable or a defining characteristic of an Arthurian hero. Lancelot's betrayal of his king and his disregard for Christian morality are not what make him admirable. To see them as such is to get it backwards and to misread one of the central themes of the Arthurian legends. In like fashion, I don't expect D&D characters to be sinless paragons, but they should still be admirable; they should still be recognizably heroes. I fail to see the point in playing an evil character in a roleplaying game and I certainly don't think RPGs ought to be seen to treat evil as laudable or even "necessary."

I could probably go on, but I'm leaving it at this. I trust my point is reasonably clear and I sincerely hope no one will get the mistaken impression that, because of my advocacy of pulp fantasy as the lens through which D&D must be understood that I support the reduction of a rather nuanced genre to a catchphrase of velvet Boris Vallejo painting. I love and respect the greats of pulp fantasy too much to do that, just as I love and respect D&D. The last thing I want is for either to be caricatured, because it doesn't take long before a caricature -- especially a lurid one -- to become the reality.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Alignment Thoughts

I'm putting this here partially to remind myself of it later and partially to get some feedback for further refinement.

The way I'm envisaging it right now, there are three forces at work in the cosmos: Nature, which simply is (and is thus Neutrality); Law, which seeks to control/subdue Nature to one degree or another; Chaos, which seeks to undermine/destroy Nature.

Neutrality is made up both of creatures who simply go about their daily existence without regard to why and creatures who have chosen, for philosophical reasons, to uphold/protect "the Balance" that Nature represents, said Balance being often impersonal and even amoral.

Law is made up of those who favor Order, whether that order be civilization, hierarchy, or outright domination. There are thus "ethical" distinctions between adherents of Law, some being Good, some being Neutral, and some being Evil. Regardless of such distinctions, all Lawful aligned creatures seek to impose structure on Nature and oppose the entropic character of Chaos.

Chaos is made up of those who revel in destruction, whether it be outright destruction or gradual corruption. Despite different approaches, there are no ethical distinctions between Chaotic beings, since all wish to bring Nature crashing down because they see even its disinterested "order" as too restrictive and stifling. Only destroying Nature will bring ultimate freedom -- the freedom of total annihilation.

So, this gives me the following alignments for my campaign:

Neutral (Balance)
Lawful (Good)
Lawful (Evil)

I still need to work out how these various alignments relate to one another for the purposes of spells, etc. but I am starting to like this setup a great deal, because it's a nice middle course between the wargam-ish "pick a side" mentality of straight OD&D and the overly schematized to the point of incoherence of AD&D.

More Swords & Wizardry Goodness

Hot on the heals of the release of the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules comes Tomb of the Iron God, an introductory adventure by Matt Finch, available in both PDF and print formats. Designed for levels 1-2, this is, in the author's own words, "a high quality meat-and-potatoes dungeon," which strikes me as a very positive thing. I'll be posting a formal review of the thing once I've had a chance to digest it fully, but my quick read of it so far is that it reminds me of the early B-series modules from TSR, particularly In Search of the Unknown.

On the subject of reviews: I will continue to review any products I receive that I personally have not had a hand in producing. Though I worked with Matt Finch on the Core Rules and will be editing Knockspell, I'm not going to say I like a product that I don't simply because Mythmere Games produced it. Fortunately, I've been favorably impressed with all of Mythmere's products to date, so it's never been an issue. However, I wanted to make this clear now, in case anyone was concerned that my perspective -- I won't say "objectivity," since my reviews glory in their subjectiveness -- might somehow be skewed because of my working relationship with Matt on various S&W projects.

Of Ancient Empires

Every campaign needs Atlantis. Or Rome. Better yet, why not combine the two? That's what I did in creating Hyperborean Thule, but let's back up a little bit.

One of the many things people complain about in D&D is the way that its magic is so codified, with spells assigned to levels. Indeed, the very concept of spell levels strikes many as a metagame concept that's found its way into the implied setting. I think it's a fair criticism, but it doesn't bother me anymore than do level titles (which I love, by the way). Looking at both of these things without any preconceptions, the first idea that suggests itself to me is that there must have been some ancient civilization that was really into systematizing and organizing things and both the arrangement of spells and level titles are watered-down holdovers from these old systems, like the way that late Roman military ranks morphed into noble titles over the centuries or how the dress of Imperial Roman courtiers was adopted and adapted by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

So, in my campaign setting, the Thulians are my "Romans" whose civilization laid the groundwork for the world that came after them. Actually, the Thulians are a bunch of different archetypes. Besides being the Romans when it comes to systematization, they're also the Atlanteans, a mighty civilization whose command of both magic and technology was rivaled that of the Eld, whom they overthrew and from whom they learned a thing or two. The Thulians are also my "good guys gone bad." Originally a remote barbaric tribe from an island to the north -- Hyperborean Thule -- they eventually became the nucleus of a revolt that cast off the Eldritch yoke and held back Chaos for centuries before finally becoming corrupted by it. The Thulians in turn fell prey to revolts, as well as the punishment of the gods, who sank Thule beneath the waves rather than see it become a toehold of the Abyss in the world.

Before the end, though, the Thulians did all the things you'd expect magical Romans to do: built roads, founded cities, researched spells, created artifacts, established laws, collected the gods into a single pantheon, and so on and so forth. This gives me an excuse for any systematic elements of my setting -- I can claim Thulian antecedents -- while the distance in time between the sinking of Thule and the present gives me lots of leeway to change anything I want.

Plus, let's face it: with all the ruins lying around in a typical D&D world, you need magical Romans to explain their existence. The Thulians are mine.

Thank You

I wanted to say a quick thank you to all of you have in recent days made a donation to me because of my work on this blog. As I said before, I do this because I love doing it and will do so as long as I continue to enjoy it -- which means for a very long time indeed -- but it's nevertheless gratifying when my readers show their appreciation through donations. I certainly never expected to make a living off Grognardia (and doubt I ever will); anything I receive because of my writing here is a terrific bonus to lively discussion and shared memories it has engendered.

Thank you, all.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I'm likely going to be offline much of today, since I'm in the process of upgrading my computer. Regular posts will resume once I have my new system up and running and have worked out all the inevitable snags that come when a technological illiterate such as myself undertakes such a project.

Wish me luck.

Update: Nearly done with digging myself out from under the upgrade process. It'll still be a few days before I'm fully back to where I was before, but I should be able to post and receive mail as usual soon.

Kard és Mágia

The prolific and imaginative Melan (aka Gabor Lux), author of The Garden of al-Astorion and The House of Rogat Demazien, in addition to being a member of the design team responsible for Necromancer Games' Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set, has released his own old school RPG for your enjoyment. Entitled Kard és Mágia -- Sword and Magic, if my rudimentary skills in Hungarian are correct -- the game is, in Melan's words, "not a 'simulacrum game,' but rather a mixture of d20 light, old school concepts and weird fantasy." In addition to its rules, Kard és Mágia is already supported by five adventure modules, which, if his past work is any indication, ought to be terrific evocations of a style of fantasy rarely seen in RPGs.

I wish I could say more about the game, but my reading comprehension of Magyar is extremely limited. Perhaps one day we can look forward to a translation into a language I do understand. Even so, it's terrific to see yet another old school-inspired game appearing on the scene and I hope it is well received.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Megadungeon: Dwimmermount

As I worked on the bits and pieces of my pulp fantasy campaign setting, I realized that I needed a megadungeon of my own. I used to be somewhat contemptuous of the notion that old school fantasy gaming required such a thing, but I've slowly come round to the belief that I was wrong to be so dismissive. I still believe that a campaign that revolves entirely around a single megadungeon is probably going to be too narrowly focused for my idiosyncratic tastes. Yet, I also believe that a megadungeon is an important component in establishing the proper vibe of old school play. Neither Greyhawk nor Blackmoor was solely about delving into the dungeons beneath their eponymous castles, but it's hard to imagine either campaign without the megadungeons from which they derived.

Thus was born Dwimmermount. Once I accepted that I needed a megadungeon, I knew I needed a proper megadungeon, which is to say, one that was a suitable potpourri of danger, discovery, and whimsy. To achieve the right mix, I came up with the idea of a mountain that set atop a node of primal Chaos. When the Eld invaded, the mountain called to them and they responded by establishing a fortress there to plumb the mountain's depths and harness the raw Chaos that seemed to roil up from beneath its roots. Over the centuries they occupied it, the Eld mined deep into the mountain -- and beneath it -- in the process creating many chambers and expanding the natural cave systems of the place.

Later, after the Thulians overthrew the Red Elves, they occupied the fortress, dubbing it Dwimmermount, a pidgin word incorporating the Eldritch word "dwimmer," meaning both "magic" and "chaos." The Thulians continued the work of the Eld, adding to the vast complex within and beneath the mountain, gaining deep insights into the workings of magic -- and being slowly driven mad by the raw Chaos that permeated the place. Some of the Thulians and the servants, like the Eld before them, were forever changed by spending so much time in Dwimmermount, leading them to delve into things that only accelerated these changes, to the detriment of all.

Like the Eld before them, the Thulians fell to their own hubris and Dwimmermount was shunned by most civilized men, who rightly saw it as a lair of madness and corruption. Yet, there are some who brave its dangers nonetheless, seeking out the magic of the Eld and Thulians alike, as well as the treasures they dredged up from the depths. Few who do so who return and fewer still return with their minds and bodies intact.

That's the rough sketch of the thing. The idea is that Dwimmermount isn't an entirely natural place, so I have an excuse for lots of weirdness when I need it. Likewise, it's not completely artificial either. One of the problems I always had with many old school megadungeons is that they're supposed to have been built by some mad wizard or other, but they always came across as simply too loony even for that explanation to work. And because there were (at least) two different groups, with slightly different agendas, who occupied Dwimmermount over the centuries, I have some leeway in varying the look, feel, and contents of the levels and chambers. In short, Dwimmermount is meant to give the illusion of naturalism to what will be a semi-funhouse dungeon (but only semi; I have my limits).

More on this as it gets developed.