Sunday, November 30, 2008

OSRIC 2.0 Released

Again, I'm late to the party, but if you're one of a handful of my readers who don't check out other blogs and forums, you might not know that OSRIC 2.0 has been released. This is a free 400-page PDF, complete with some excellent old school art and a proper layout, that restates the classic Gygaxian rules set for players, referees, and publishers alike. It's frankly an amazing thing to see this finally come to fruition at last. It's clearly a labor of love by Editor-in-Chief Stuart Marshall and his legions of dedicated assistants. This certainly is the most ambitious retro-clone project yet undertaken, both in its scope and in the boldness of its approach. It will be very interesting to see what happens next, particularly how many more publishers decide to support the game with new products.

In any case, I'd like to quote Marshall's afterword to OSRIC in full, because it nicely encapsulates not just the philosophy behind Gygaxian fantasy roleplaying, but the whole old school style of play:
First, play OSRIC fast. Part of the beauty of this system is, with a little knowledge and practice, you can run a battle between ten player characters with a dozen hirelings and henchmen and a handful of summoned monsters on one side, and thirty ogres with a shaman and two dozen worgs on the other, and you can resolve it in thirty minutes flat. It helps to roll dice in handfuls, but the big things that make that possible are the simplicity of the combat rules and morale. Don’t forget morale, it’s important—it’s for skipping over the boring bits. The moment it becomes obvious to intelligent monsters that they’ll lose a fight, they will run or surrender

And this brings me to the second thing, which is, please do skip over the boring bits. Fudge things to make them faster And if they can’t be fudged, then the GM and players should share jobs fairly—if the party’s using detailed encumbrance rules, then the GM shouldn’t have to do all the bean-counting. After all, the GM is busy doing GM-like things, such as drinking the beer that’s so vital to his or her concentration or laughing cruelly at the players’ latest mistake, and so has no time to do math

The third thing is, in OSRIC generating a player character is fast. If you die, it’s a quick and easy job to roll a new character and get straight back into the action. Which means that dying isn’t so much of a pain in the neck as it might be with other systems

Assume you will lose some player characters from time to time and plan accordingly. Once you’re past the first few levels, most players should accumulate a few henchmen who can replace their main character if the main character dies (or is petrifi ed, disintegrated, converted to green slime, swallowed whole by some huge monster, falls into a sphere of annihilation, or… well, OSRIC’s a dangerous world, lots of things can happen).

If you die and fail your resurrection chance, deal with it with good grace. Sure—nobody likes to lose a character, but don’t take it too seriously. This is a game. In OSRIC, you aren’t entitled to be the hero. You might just get to be the hero, but don’t expect it as a right

And there’s a fourth thing: Make sure everyone round the table gets a chance to have their say, but don’t tolerate dithering. If your GM asks you, “What do you do now?” then you’d better answer at once or expect to lose your opportunity.

The fifth and last thing is, your GM isn’t called a “storyteller” for a reason. He or she isn’t telling you a story with you cast as the protagonist (If you want that, try one of White Wolf’s games ). The GM creates a world—you create a character who wants something. It’s up to you to go out and get it. Story is the result of the game, not a process within it.

Have fun!
Have fun indeed.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Nostalgia Project

A frequent jibe against old school gaming is that it's all about "nostalgia," by which the critic generally means that it's all an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with bygone youth. I used to dismiss such taunts out of hand; now I recognize some truth in them. I do think, in the case of many old school RPGs, particularly Dungeons & Dragons (but also Traveller), my fondness for them has a great deal to do with an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with youth. Where I think the critics are wrong is that they feel to see that it's not my youth I'm trying to recapture, but that of the creators of these games.

Had Gary Gygax lived till July, he'd have celebrated his 70th birthday. Think about that for a moment. The man was born in 1938, making him older than my own parents. His childhood and teen years were in the 1940s and 1950s. The books he read, the movies he saw, the experiences he had took place in a very different context than the one in which I grew up. Dungeons & Dragons reflects that difference. As I noted in an earlier post on the matter, D&D was "old fashioned" in its approach to fantasy even in 1974. Gygax was drawing primarily on sources that were 20-30 years old at the time OD&D was released. Yes, there were newer sources of inspiration as well, but most of these were themselves influenced by the older sources Gygax favored -- a consequence of the pulp fantasy reprint revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note too that, even if one wishes to give Tolkien more credit for influence than I think is deserved, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were themselves old fashioned even when they were first published in the 1930s and 1950s respectively. D&D is nothing if not a snapshot into the youthful influences and obsessions of its creator.

Part of the appeal of old school D&D for me is that, because it's inspired by the feelings of someone else's youth, it has a degree of "alienness" to that it wouldn't have had it been inspired by feelings from my own youth. Yes, I read a lot of the same books as Gary Gygax, but (for the most part), I read them because of D&D, not the other way around. I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Cugel or Dwayanu until I got into the hobby. When I did, I read their adventures with great relish, my pleasure amplified in no small part because they didn't seem like anything I'd ever read before. There's a reason for that and it's that "fantasy" had long since moved on from the days when Gygax's influences were writing. What I knew to be fantasy was quite different. Not only did this new fantasy not feel like D&D to me, but they also seemed much too familiar, almost certainly due to temporal proximity. Nevertheless, the relative antiquity of Gygax's sources gave them a magical air that contributed greatly -- and still does -- to my fascination with them, a fascination that only grows as I get older.

What's becoming increasingly clear to me is that, far from chasing the Zeitgeist, Dungeons & Dragons was always a "retro" project out of step with what was au courant at the time of its birth. That's part of its appeal to me and the shift away from that retro sensibility is one of several factors that has alienated me from later editions of the game. I really do think this is an important insight. I offer not to condemn games and their players who prefer something more "up to date," but to explain that there is a component to old school D&D that is more than just about light rules, sandbox play, and a sovereign referee. Likewise, I offer it to dispel the self-serving myth that D&D, from its inception, did as the Romans do. Certainly Gygax was never afraid to try and ride the coattails of existing trends -- hence the Tolkien references -- but that's a very different thing than saying that OD&D was born out of a studied attempt to emulate whatever was popular in fantasy in the mid-70s. I don't think that's a tenable position at all and, given that, it's something we can then use as a signpost for determining when the conception of D&D shifted away from its original one.

Lou Zocchi Explains It All

The man not only knows his dice, he also knows that the singular of "dice" (meaning random number generators) is "dice." It's a pet peeve of mine, I'll grant, but it's still good to see that I'm not the only English-speaker left in the world who keeps alive the Old Morphological Ways.



Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Retrospective: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Based loosely on a tournament scenario from Origins II in 1976 that combined elements from Metamorphosis Alpha and a portion of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, 1980's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is presented as "an exciting insertion into your campaign and as a primer on how to combine 'science' into your fantasy roleplaying." Gamers have been arguing about it ever since. That's because the decision to include overt science fiction elements into what is ostensibly a fantasy adventure scenario is a contentious one. One of the fault lines that rumbles beneath the surface of the hobby is the lack of distinction between fantasy, horror, and science fiction, three now-separate genres that had, prior to the 70s (if not later), peacefully co-existed as part of an indistinguishable mass of literature. Early D&D arose in such an environment and is pretty comfortable with such "genre bending," because early gamers (mostly) saw it as part of a long tradition, going at least as far back as classics like 1933's "The Tower of the Elephant" by Robert E. Howard. Gamers who grew up later or who were never immersed in the world of early "fantasy" fandom tend to cavil at such easy mixing of elements, which they see as breaking with fantasy conventions.

I am certainly sympathetic to those who don't want chocolate in their peanut butter when it comes to fantasy gaming. I occupy a weird middle place in this dispute, because, while I had plenty of contact with the remnants of the old days of fantasy fandom, I wasn't part of it myself. Instinctively, I'm part of the camp that sees sci-fi and fantasy as two separate genres of imaginative fiction. I'm also hyper-rationalist and prefer that my settings "make sense," which is to say, that I can explain how and why everything works the way it does, even if my explanations resort to the fantastic to do so. Having spaceships and lasers in a setting with gods and magic takes some heavy lifting to explain; it can be done but it's often more work than I prefer to undertake, so I avoid it.

Nowadays, though, I have come round, perhaps not to a full bore appreciation of "gonzo" settings, but a better understanding of the hows and whys of what some might see as genre mixing. It's very hard, if you have any knowledge of the history of the RPG hobby and the fandoms from which it sprang, to get worked up about robots and aliens in Greyhawk. They've always been there, just as they've always been a part of weird fiction. The boxes we now use to categorize -- and market! -- our creative products are purely artificial, the result primarily of bean counters looking for ways to sell their wares more effectively. "Genre" nowadays is often more an exercise in brand building than literary theory and modules like S3 are throwbacks to the days before such a mindset was commonplace.

The module itself is effectively a dungeon crawl, but in a dungeon of steel and plastic rather than stone and mud. The crashed spaceship is large and filled with a wide variety of environments, making it a terrific set-up for encounters of many sorts. These encounters include many memorable new monsters, like the froghemoth and vegepygmies, and gives us hints into a possible interpretation of the illithids that I think works far better than anything we saw subsequently. The "magic items" of the module are technological artifacts whose use is potentially dangerous, thanks to a series of charts Gamma World fans should recognize. I'm also fond of the illustrations of these artifacts, very few of which look anything like you might expect, which gives them a genuinely alien and high-tech feel to them. Indeed, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may be one of the most lavishly illustrated modules ever, since it came with a booklet containing 63 separate pieces of artwork, many by Erol Otus, who, as an artist, was probably destined to contribute to a product like this.

Like most modules of the period, there's only the thinnest outline of a plot and little in the way of context or explanation about the spaceship and its origins. Referees are thus left to their own devices to provide these things. Back in the day, I never did so, but I think S3 could, if the referee is willing, be the catalyst for some very fascinating and potentially setting-changing events. Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign -- almost certainly an inspiration for this module -- provides one example of how this might proceed and Paizo's Golarion includes a country called Numeria that answers much-debated question of what might have happened if Conan or Kull had had access to lasers and robots. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may not be to everyone's tastes, especially nowadays, but it's nonetheless an excellent romp and a time capsule from an age before the demandsd of marketing narrowed our sense of what was and was not "fantasy." I re-read S3 every few months to remind myself of this; it's a practice I recommend highly if you're able to do so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

REVIEW: Original Edition Characters

Labyrinth Lord, written by Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games, is, as everyone who reads this blog undoubtedly knows, one of the primary retro-clone games currently available. It's explicitly modeled after the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert rules written by Tom Moldvay, David Cook, and Steve Marsh. Like all retro-clones, LL necessarily introduces some mechanical wrinkles that cause it to deviate from the original game rules but (it is hoped) in so slight a fashion as to be unnoticeable in play. On this score, I feel that LL succeeds admirably; it really is a terrific approximation of the Moldvay/Cook rules and, given that its entire text is both completely open and available free to download, the game offers a tremendous opportunity to keep the spirit of "Red Box fantasy" alive and well with new products.

The release of Original Edition Characters, though, suggests that Proctor has something even more ambitious in mind for Labyrinth Lord. Available either as a PDF or a printed book, this 66-page product is self-described as "a player's handbook of Original Edition character options." Of course, by "Original Edition," Proctor means OD&D, as should be apparent from the excellent cover art by Steve Zieser, which recalls the box art from the fourth and later printings of that game. Original Edition Characters is thus an "emulator" for LL, one that enables you to play in a style more closely approximating OD&D than the default Moldvay/Cook vibe of this retro-clone.

In practical terms, this primarily means changes to the way character classes work (including the elimination of the Thief and the demihuman classes), as well as the way ability scores function. The changes to LL are instituted elegantly and while they don't always reflect absolute fidelity to OD&D -- Fighting Men, for example, get 1D8 hit points per level rather than the variable number of D6s + bonuses of the little brown books -- the end result is something that, on a functional level, feels very much like OD&D, albeit one with a bit more clarity of presentation.

That's probably a good thing, since Original Edition Characters is intended as a "player's handbook." That is, it's geared toward being a handy reference for players as they create their characters. Referees will find it essential as well, but the product is written in a way to give players everything they need to play. I think this is an amazing thing, given both the brevity of the product -- the bulk of its 66 pages is taken up with spell descriptions -- and its low cost. I've long been of the opinion that what the hobby needs is a simple, inexpensive intro game that isn't a "crippleware" product that's an elaborate advertisement for a more complex, expensive game that's the "real thing." Original Edition Characters is a good example of the kind of thing I'd like to see more of.

If this product has a flaw, it's that it cleaves a little too closely to the baseline Labyrinth Lord rules, particularly when it comes to spells and their effects. It's true that the list of spells in Original Edition Characters is closer to that of the three little brown books (plus supplements -- magic missile is included, for example), but the descriptions of these spells, so far as I could see, are not at all different from those in Labyrinth Lord. Now, on one level, this is a good thing, both because it helps unify the LL "brand" and because it avoids confusing players and referees already familiar with the baseline LL rules who might simply assume spells work identically. The problem is that, at least according to some interpretations of OD&D, part of its appeal is attempting to make sense of its often-unclear spell effects. OD&D is a text that demands its reader engage it, because it's well nigh unplayable with such engagement. Original Edition Characters makes fewer such demands than say Swords & Wizardry, owing to its retention of LL's clarity, but then I suspect that's part of the point.

Despite this possible criticism, I think one of the most important things about Original Edition Characters is that it reminds us that, whether your favored version of the game is OD&D, OD&D + Supplements, Holmes, AD&D, Moldvay/Cook, or even Mentzer, these games all have far more in common with one another than they do with their wayward descendants. It's something I need to be reminded of from time to time myself, so I'm grateful to Dan Proctor for having done so. What he's done here is show that, with a few mechanical tweaks and the right frame of mind, you can easily switch between modes of play to reflect one of several distinct "eras" of old school play. Given that the foreword makes reference to an upcoming LL product called Advanced Edition Characters, we'll eventually see how far this approach can be taken and just what it will mean for the old school revival.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

Addendum to Appendix N

Thanks to Allan Grohe, who pointed me to a statement by Gary Gygax, where he talked about how he might have changed Appendix N's reading list if he'd written it in 2007 rather than 1979:
The fact is that I wouldn't change the list much, other than to add a couple of novels such as Lanier's second Hiero yarn, Piers Anthony's Split Infinity series, and the Disc World books.

I would never add other media forms to a reading list. If someone is interested in comic books and.or graphic novels, they're on their own.
I find this a very interesting answer for several reasons. Firstly, I think it significant that Gary, late in his life, still felt that the selections in Appendix N, which was made up primarily of books written before 1970, was representative of D&D's inspirations. This jibes well with my own intuition that D&D, particularly in its Gygaxian form, is something of a nostalgia project. By that I mean only that many of the fantasy/science fiction sources from which it drew were "old fashioned" even in 1974. Those sources had wider currency then, because of the pulp reprint explosion of the late 60s and early 70s. Likewise, those reprints inspired many then-contemporary writers to pen their own tales in the same vein, which further fed the somewhat "antique" approach to fantasy that Gygax favored and promoted. I personally connect D&D very strongly with these "archaic" approaches to fantasy, which feel to me far more alien and fantastic than modern, post-D&D fantasy.

Secondly, it's noteworthy that Gary didn't mention Glen Cook's Black Company series, one of the few bits of post-70s fantasy writing I recall his ever endorsing as being in the same spirit of D&D. He may simply have forgotten them, but, if so, that too is perhaps telling. Thirdly, the reference to Discworld might, on first glance, seem an oddity, but remember that Gary was an accomplished punster. He no doubt took great pleasure in Terry Pratchett's similar facility in that form of humor, which I have long argued is an important part of the Gygaxian feel.

Lots of food for thought in just a few words. Thanks, Allan!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Dungeons & Hobbits

It's an understatement to say that Gary Gygax was disingenuous in acknowledging the debt Dungeons & Dragons owed to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth tales. This point is not seriously in dispute, I think, by anyone, least of all me. Gary repeatedly, perhaps most famously in issue number 95 of Dragon (March 1985), claimed that the good professor's influence was "minimal." This claim seems, at first glance, very much at odds with reality, given that the early printings of OD&D included references to hobbits, ents, and Nazg├╗l, as well as many explicit mentions of Tolkien by name. In addition, I would argue quite forcefully that the two biggest and generally unacknowledged Tolkien inspirations to be found in D&D -- and, by extension, all fantasy since 1974 -- is the notion first of a "multiracial" world and second of the adventuring party. Neither one of these has any significant antecedents in the pulp fantasies of Appendix N, most of which depict human-only worlds in which lone adventurers (perhaps with a single companion) engage in feats of derring-do. If Tolkien had an influence that Gygax didn't cop to, it's in these two related areas that I see it most powerfully.

I think it's a mistake, as some have argued, to look for signs of Tolkien's influence in specific monsters, spells, or magic items. Gary was an omnivorous borrower of interesting ideas and he never denied cribbing some from Middle-Earth. But, given that, by my lights, Gygax very much misunderstood The Lord of the Rings -- which he described as "an allegory of the struggle of the
little common working folk of England against the threat of Hitler’'s Nazi evil" -- I can't take seriously the notion that D&D owes more to Tolkien than the two ideas I noted earlier. I think it's quite credible that Gygax was not lying when he says that including hobbits and ents and so forth was "a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current “craze” for Tolkien’'s literature."

The underlying ethos of D&D has absolutely nothing in common with that of The Lord of the Rings, unless one wishes to claim that the fact that they are both "fantasies" is sufficient to make such a claim. I think it's patently obvious that your typical D&D party, whose membership and very form certainly does derive from Tolkien, has far less in common with the Fellowship than with Conan or Elric or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. D&D, as it existed in its Gygaxian form, was a game of shady ne'er-do-wells on the make. Money, fame, and power are the goals of most adventurers, as they were for their pulp fantasy forebears. The worldview that animates D&D is not that of a Catholic academic engaged in an intricate act of sub-creation (and not "allegory," as Gygax mistakenly claims).

I'm frankly baffled as to how anyone, least of all anyone familiar with both Tolkien and Gygax, could seriously argue that there's any philosophical descent of one from the other. I readily concede -- and I think Gygax did too, when pressed on the matter -- that D&D took plenty of ideas from Middle-Earth, but then it borrowed equally heavily from dozens of other sources, including Greek mythology, fairy tales, Disney films, science fiction, and TV shows current at the time. In every case, these borrowings were bent and twisted to serve a pulp fantasy ethos that permeates the entire game. Again, I'd be willing to concede that, as time went on, that pulp fantasy ethos became less pronounced, even in Gygax's own later work on the game, but that does not change the fact, at its inception, the game was not about heroes engaged in an epic quest to save the world from evil so much as assorted malcontents looking for ways to keep their money bags full and their lives free from the tedium of ordinary life.

Philosophically, D&D owes far more to the pulps -- not just fantasy but also Westerns, detective fiction, and sci-fi -- than it does Tolkien. For polemical purposes, it's great to be able to argue that Gygax denied Tolkien had any influence on D&D and laugh and point as he tries to explain away the presence of hobbits and mithril. But I think it's a misrepresentation of Gygax's claim to argue in such a fashion. I don't believe his point was that he didn't find any inspiration in Tolkien's works, because he clearly did, but most of that inspiration was superficial, on par with including minotaurs, centaurs, and titans in the game. To me, this is obvious and not just because I'm a Gygax partisan. I genuinely feel that D&D only makes sense with pulp fantasy as its foundation, even if some of the structures built on top of it have their origins elsewhere.

GenCon for Sale

There aren't a lot of details yet, so I won't speculate on what it means or indeed if it means anything at all, but GenCon is up for sale and a purchase offer by an organization called the "GenCon Acquistions Group" is pending.

Interesting times.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Changeling Earth


Gary Gygax specifically cites Fred Saberhagen's 1973 novel Changeling Earth as an influence on AD&D. I find that somewhat odd, given that the novel is in fact the third part of a trilogy (called "The Empire of the East"). It's been years since I read any volume of the series, so I can't quite recall if there's something notable about Changeling Earth that sets it apart from its predecessors in the series or that makes it an obvious inspiration for AD&D. In any case, the "Empire of the East" trilogy is a fun read, a post-apocalyptic swords-and-sorcery romp that mixes magic and technology in a delightful way. If you can find copies of the books, they're well worth reading, not least of which because Saberhagen's prose is in many ways the antithesis of the interminably overwrought verbiage that is so common in fantasy these days.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

REVIEW: The Random Esoteric Creature Generator (Goodman Games Edition)

It's a strange thing to be in the position to review the same book twice, but that's exactly the position that James Raggi's The Random Esoteric Creature Generator puts me in. I reviewed the original, self-published version of this terrific little product back in May. Since then, Goodman Games has opted to publish its own version of the book, as part of its line of system-neutral products intended for use with an edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Goodman is clearly hedging its bets on the question of supporting 4e with this line and I can't say I blame them. The terms of the GSL as they stand today simply aren't a solid basis for a long-term business plan. And, as I've noted many times in this blog, there is a sizable minority of the buying public for whom 4e was a bridge too far, the final straw that has sent them looking around for alternatives.

Whether that minority will itself prove a sturdier basis for a business plan is likewise in question, which is why I expect Goodman Games, one of the great success stories of the 3e/D20 era. sees system-less offerings like this one as an experiment. If publishing books like The Random Esoteric Creature Generator (henceforth RECG) is a good example of the kinds of experiments in which Goodman Games intends to engage, I am a very happy man. Like the inspired Points of Light before it, the RECG is a terrific example of old school design principles offered up for the consideration of contemporary gamers who probably have no idea to what "Appendix D" refers or why it's important -- nor should they. Much as I love the history of this hobby and its details and much as I consider knowledge of such things important, ultimately, they're immaterial to the health of the hobby in its traditional form. What does matter is that concepts and spirit of the old school continue to animate a new generation of designers and gamers. If the RECG is any indication, we need not worry that the Old Ways have been forgotten.

The text of Goodman's version of this book is virtually identical to that of the self-published version I previously reviewed. There are changes here and there, but they're small and hardly worth discussing. In essentials, everything I wrote back in May applies to this new edition. I still very much like the RECG and believe it to be a superb aid to the referee looking to add spice to his ongoing campaign. Indeed, I have to give a great deal of credit to Goodman Games for putting James Raggi's unique voice before the public eye. Too many gaming products today are written in a bland, technical manual-esque style that makes one question whether they were written by human beings at all. The RECG, especially in its final pages -- entitled "Putting It All Together" -- is a quirky, eccentric work, filled with equal parts whimsy and insight. I don't agree with every iota of its advice, but that's frankly a good thing. Like the best old school products, this one demands that one engage its text by re-considering one's prejudices and presumptions. Even if one decides that Raggi's perspective is somehow flawed on this or that issue, one can't help but be gratified that a gaming product published in 2008 made one think about such matters. Goodman must really be congratulated on this score.

Where the new edition of the RECG differs from its predecessor is in its graphic design and presentation. While the original was a digest-sized 28-page booklet filled with the artwork of a single artist, Goodman's version is a typical 8½ x 11 volume with a softcover and illustrated by several different artists. The differences here are quite striking and I must admit that I find it hard to choose which approach I prefer, because Goodman did an excellent job in finding a new "look" for this product that is appropriate to its content. I've often been critical of Goodman's 3e Dungeon Crawl Classics modules, because I felt they aped the look of the old TSR D&D modules to the point of parody. The RECG, though, gets its own unique appearance, its cover looking a bit like a worn leather notebook in the center of which is a color illustration by Doug Kovacs showing an armored fighter engaged in battle against a wormy creature that's trampling a hapless wizard beneath it. The majority of the interior art -- black and white, of course -- is by Brad McDevitt and is quite well done. McDevitt's pictures showcase a wide variety of bizarre creatures, highlighting the freaks and oddities the RECG is designed to create. Other pieces of artwork were done by David Griffith and William McAusland, the latter particularly standing out for a series of illustrations that recall work by Dave Sutherland from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

All in all, I like the presentation of the RECG, but I will admit that some of the charm of the original self-published version, rough though it was, has been lost. On the other hand, I think the new style is better suited to what contemporary gamers expect out of a gaming product. Given that this new style harkens back to the past without being a slave to it, I cannot complain too much, if at all. More to the point, if the new presentation is effective in attracting those who might otherwise be turned off by the more do-it-yourself look of other old school products, it was worth it to have made the change.

The Goodman Games edition of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator is every bit as good as the original version and benefits slightly from having had an independent editor and developer. The result is a product that is probably more accessible to newcomers, while still retaining the unique voice of the original. I am encouraged by its publication, because it means that the old school revival is being noticed by the mainstream of the hobby and, more importantly, is being presented on its own terms rather than bent and twisted to serve some other agenda. I will definitely be keeping my eye on future releases from Goodman in its system-less line. If future ones are as good as the RECG and Points of Light, I will be pleased. I'll be even more pleased if other publishers take note of what Goodman has done here and follow suit. This could signal the start of something big.

Final Score:
4½ out of 5 polearms

Friday, November 21, 2008

Travellercon


While this blog is primarily focused on Dungeons & Dragons and related games, you don't get much more old school than Traveller. It's part of my Holy Trinity of classic RPGs and, having done my first published work for the game back in the early 90s, I got a kick out of knowing there's a Traveller convention next October not too far from where I grew up. Very cool.

Haunted House

Over at Monsters and Manuals, Noisms boggles at the "irrational hatred" of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which he sees as a form of "intellectual perversity." I largely agree with him that most of the scorn heaped upon 2e has very little to do with its rules, which are, by my lights, insufficiently different from those of 1e to matter to most players. Likewise, 2e is supremely backward compatible; with a few exceptions, nearly everything in 1e products can be used with 2e without much difficulty. So, quibbles aside, from a purely mechanical standpoint, 2e isn't an objectively bad game. I happen to prefer some of the baroque curlicues of 1e, but not enough that I could logically argue their superiority over the simplifications that replaced them.

That said, I still don't find 2e to my liking. Taking only the core rulebooks -- the entirety of the 2e line is another matter and one, I think, much more objectively worthy of derision -- I find myself thinking thoughts similar to those I have about Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. 2e is an extremely clear, well-designed game that adopted a broader but blander palette of "colors" in the pursuit of mass market sales and popularity. This resulted not in a bad game but in one that feels "hollow," like the house of a deceased personage of importance that, while still an impressive piece of architecture in its own right -- and one probably more accessible to outsiders now that the old guy is safely in the grave -- is devoid of its animating principle.

Of course, that's exactly what 2e was: Gygax-less AD&D. The extent to which one dislikes 2e, I suspect, has a lot to do with how much Gygax one likes in one's D&D. Me, I prefer heaping helpings of it, as I've said elsewhere. But if you found the Dungeon Master a bit annoying, his purple prose embarrassing, and disliked seeing his eccentricities elevated to Holy Writ, you probably see 2e as a "better" version of 1e. I find the notion of a "better AD&D" tautologous; we already have the best AD&D possible and it's the one I have sitting on a shelf right above my computer as I write this entry. However, not everyone feels that way. For a variety of reasons, some valid, some vapid, 1e isn't and never will be the best possible version of AD&D for all players. It's an opinion I find hard to credit myself, but I do understand the sentiment that animates it, because it's probably not unlike the sentiment I feel when I boggle at some of the dislike for AD&D's excesses I hear OD&Ders complain about.

Gary Gygax casts a very long shadow over the came he co-created. For good or for ill, his presence lingers even still. I think it next to impossible to understand the history of this hobby without understanding Gary and the influence he wielded. So many of the debates and controversies that still plague the hobby are echoes of those in which Gygax was involved in the past. His thoughts, opinions, and decisions are still very much alive. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." In a similar fashion, the RPG tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Gygax.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: Judges Guild's Bob & Bill: A Cautionary Tale

Bill Owen was the co-founder of the legendary Judges Guild, along with the late Bob Bledsaw. Together, the two friends blazed a trail in the RPG industry that still shines brightly over thirty years later. Judges Guild was the first third party company ever licensed by TSR to produce support products for Dungeons & Dragons, which it did from 1976 to 1982. During that time, JG published over 200 different products, many of which are rightly regarded even today as the best ever written. Mr Owen has now written a 36-page "memoir" of his time with Judges Guild and of his friendship with Bob Bledsaw. Available directly from him, this little book is a treasure trove of information for those interested in the history of the hobby, particularly its wild and wooly early days.

Mr Owen's reminsicences begin in 1965, when he first played the Avalon Hill wargame Afrika Korps with his older brother and embarked on a lifelong love of such games. His story is probably not too different from that of many kids growing up in the late 60s, who would eventually go on to become the core of the hobby. These are the original grognards, the guys who earned the right to that noble moniker far more than I. I was never a wargamer myself, but I knew many of them as a younger person. Nevertheless, there's a huge gap in my knowledge of the prehistory of RPGs and Mr Owen's stories go some way toward filling it in. That's not say that the information presented here is exhaustive, because it occupies only a few pages of a fairly short work. Still, what impressed me was the way that Mr Owen provided context to the environment out of which OD&D would grow.

Of course, it's the information about the early days of D&D and Mr Owen's involvement with Judges Guild from 1976-1978 that is the main attraction here; he doesn't disappoint. I could probably list dozens of marvelous anecdotes Mr Owen relates about the foundation of the Guild, his interactions with fans, and more, but I doubt I'd do them justice. They simply must be read in his own conversational style to be apreciated. Two of the things that quickly come through the text are Mr Owen's love of gaming and his abiding affection for Bob Bledsaw. It's these twin sentiments that make this more than a simple memoir and something to be savored. I found myself going back and rereading many sections after the fact, such as his recollections of GenCon 1977 -- held at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, if you can believe. This isn't an academic tome; it's not a collection of names and dates nor is there a great deal of analysis (there is some). That might not be to everyone's liking, but I found it endearing and one of the primary attractions of this book. It's often too easy to forget that gaming is a social activity enjoyed by friends, a mistake Mr Owen's memoir doesn't make.

You will note that the book has a subtitle -- "A Cautionary Tale." That's because Mr Owen makes digressions throughout in which he discusses the ups and downs of running a small business generally and a gaming business in particular. He offers a number of insights and bits of useful advice that'll be of immediate interest to anyone who's ever considered taking the plunge and entering the games biz. More than that, though, his digressions shed light on the profoundly amateur nature of the hobby in the early days, something more than a few of us in the old school community have commented upon. The do-it-yourself nature of the early days wasn't limited to the gaming table; the early industryhad a similar character.

What really makes this book something special, though, are the old photographs. It's richly illustrated, with multiple color and black and white photographs on every page. I absolutely adore this kind of thing and found myself mesmerized by photos of the original hand-drawn map of Tegel Manor and similar artifacts. If you possess a sensitive stomach, some of the 1970s fashions found in these pictures might be arresting. Even so, it's hard not to wax enthusiastically for those bygone days when the hobby was born. It was an amazing time and, while I am still old enough to remember much of what Mr Owen recounts in this book, I often nevertheless found myself wishing I was older and had entered the hobby sooner.

If Judges Guild's Bob & Bill has a flaw, it's that it's too short and that some of its few pages are taken up by events after Mr Owen left Judges Guild in 1978. Granted, the post-JG information is useful in providing additional context and in fleshing out the continuing friendship between the author and Bob Bledsaw. Still, I would have liked a lengthier treatment of the Judges Guild years. Perhaps it's something Mr Owen could take up in the future; I have a feeling he has a lot of great information to share with us.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms

Fight On! Issue 3 Released

In case there's one of my readers who doesn't already know this, the Fall 2008 issue of Fight On! has just been released. You can order a print copy here.

The issue is dedicated to the memory of Bob Bledsaw and weighs in at an astounding 148 pages -- the magazine continues to grow with each new issue. If you haven't yet taken a look at it, I'd recommend doing so now.

Check out its table of contents:

Dedication to Bob Bledsaw………………………...….....1
Bogbears! (David Bowman)………………….…………..3
Special Maneuvers in Combat (Calithena)………………..4
A Magician’s Miscellany (Jeff Rients)…………...………...6
The Wild North: Wilderlands Map 19 (Rob Conley)……..7
The Devil’s in the Details (Kesher)……………………..24
Introducing TARGA…………………………………....25
Knights & Knaves (Lee Barber)………………………...26
Khas Fara (Jason Morningstar)……………….………....28
County of Haghill and Environs (James Mishler)…….....32
Education of a Magic-User (Douglas Cox)………….…..44
Dagnabbit! (John Miskimen)……………………..…..…45
Not So Smart Adventurers (Tim Shorts)……………..…45
Ready Ref Sheets (Davenport, Rients, & Somerville)…....46
Tables for Fables (Age of Fable)………………………..48
Dungeon Detritus (David “Greyharp” Macauley)………49
The Darkness Beneath: Spawning Grounds of the
Crab-Men (David Bowman)…………………………….51
Judges Guild Links on the Internet (Jeff Rients)……...…65
Tribute to the Invincible Overlord (Bill Webb)………....65
The Origin of the Flying Turkey (Bob Bledsaw II)……...67
My Time with Bob & the Guild (Bill Owen)………...….67
Monsters for Mutant Future (Max Davenport)…………69
The Least Demons (Baz Blatt)………………………….71
Oceanian Legends (Del L. Beaudry)………………….…77
Barony of Serovan (Andrew Reyes)……………………..79
Fomalhaut (Gabor Lux)………………………………...80
Proclamations of the Fomalhaut Oracle (Gabor Lux)..…90
Inferno – The Fifth Circle (Geoffrey O. Dale)……….....93
The Wilderness Architect (Victor Raymond)…………..117
New Games for the Old School (Jeff Rients)…….……128
Sharks in the Night (Sean Still & Del Beaudry)…….....131
Running a Great Con Game (Jeff Wilcox)………….…141
Artifacts, Adjuncts, and Oddments (various)………….145

Index of Illustrations & Cartography: front cover by Sean “Len Cain” Elliott; back cover by Victor Raymond, James Mishler, and Len Cain. Fight On! and TARGA logos by Jeff Rients. Bob Bledsaw photo by Mark Holmer. In-terior art, logos, and cartography by Steve Zieser (3,6,9,13, 43,48,50,56,141), Otherworld Miniatures (5,28), Robert S. Conley (11,57), Vincent Baker (16), Kesher (24), Lee Bar-ber (27,63), Jason Morningstar (28,29), Walter Heubach (31), Jeff Rients (32), Patrick Farley (33,70), James Mishler (35,38), Douglas Cox (44), John Miskimen (45,72,76), Tim Shorts (45), Judges Guild (46), Age of Fable (48), David Bowman (53), Peter Seckler (54), Bob Bledsaw II and I (67), Daniel Proctor (69), Anthony Stiller (69), Gabor Lux (80,81,85,90,91), Gustav Dore (93,96,107,108,112,113, 124), Geoffrey O. Dale (94,95,99,105,107), Jeff Wilcox (97), Kevin Mayle (103,116), Olivier Legrand (128), S. John Ross (130), and Matthew Hoover (146). We also used public domain art from karenswhimsy.com (4,21,58,64,92, 121), wikimedia commons (14,18,136), and wpclipart.com (19,39,118,127,131).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Retrospective: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

Over 25 years later, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun still creeps me out.

I'm not entirely sure why, but I suspect, even moreso than its quasi-Lovecraftian theme -- a dark, imprisoned god -- it's the artwork that does it for me. The module is entirely illustrated by an artist otherwise unknown to me, Karen Nelson. This level of artistic unity was unusual in TSR modules, which tended to use several artists. Here, though, the consistent look contributes greatly to the feel of the thing. I find the cover image perfect: its unisex, featureless humanoid surrounded by writhing tentacles/serpents/arms being a superb evocation of the kind of "unfocused" uneasiness I feel about the module.

I say "unfocused" because, as I said, I can't quite put my finger on why module WG4 makes me feel so unsettled. Simply reading the text itself, there's really nothing truly disturbing there. There are no images of graphic violence or even of psychological disturbance. Indeed, on many levels, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is merely a workmanlike Gygaxian dungeon crawl. But I think it's probably a mistake to look for any one thing as the source of the module's strange feel. I think what sets it apart is that cumulative effect of many little details.

I've already noted the artwork, which I found to be (largely) atmospheric. The color of the module itself -- a sickly lavender -- is unique among TSR modules of the day. Tharizdun's colors are black and purple, if I recall, and these hues appear throughout the module itself. Now, black as an "evil" color is somewhat cliched, so much so that it doesn't really have any effect upon me anymore. But purple? Purple is a royal color and second only after pink in the hearts of little girls. How could purple be "evil?" Take a look at the cover of WG4 and you can see. It's a sickly shade -- the color of decay, entropy, and insanity.

The module is a quasi-sequel to The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, another excellent Gygaxian dungeoncrawl and one with a similar theme: exploring the former haunt of an ancient evil. Whereas "ancient" in the case of Tsojcanth means several centuries before the present, WG4 takes it to mean millennia beforehand. There's a creepiness that comes from thinking about an evil from the time before time. I think that's another part of what makes this module work for me: Tharizdun the imprisoned god may seem like a Lovecraftian concept -- and it is -- but Gygax didn't share HPL's worldview. He was, as I've said elsewhere, a pretty traditional fellow when it came to moral matters and so Tharizdun, while ancient and thus unspeakably evil is nevertheless evil. That is to say, he's genuinely malevolent; Tharizdun actively wishes to bring ruin upon the entirety of the multiverse. He isn't beyond good and evil -- he is Evil.

Then there are the gnomes. No, I don't find gnomes disturbing, but I do find the use of the gnomes as the framing device for the module to contribute to WG4's creepiness. See, Gygaxian gnomes have more in common with garden gnomes than with the post-Dragonlance mess we call "gnomes" nowadays. They're these unassuming woodland guys who hang out with badgers and moles and are renowned for their trickster natures. Take that image and juxtapose it against an ancient temple dedicated to an avatar of Ultimate Evil and you have to admit that it's jarring. Equally jarring are all the Fiend Folio monsters that make their appearance here. Gygax is known to have disliked the FF and I don't blame him; it's a much more uneven work than his own Monster Manual and even its best monsters can only be called "quirky." And yet here they are in WG4, probably the only time, say, norkers ever appeared in my campaign. This gives the whole thing an "otherworldly" feel to me, as if it takes place somewhere other than the typical Gygaxian World of Greyhawk.

I can't say, as some might, that The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is a good module for its actual content. I don't dislike it, mind you, but I also don't think it's all that remarkable. What is remarkable, though, is the feelings it still conjures up in me after all these years. It's a very effective mood piece and one I'd love to be able to emulate some day in my own work.

Grognardia Live

If you read this blog regularly, you obviously find "listening" to me and my crazy thoughts enjoyable on some level. Now, thanks to WalkerP and Midnight's Lair, you can actually listen to me. Issue 5 of their podcast is now online and features 45 minutes of my dulcet tones, answering a variety of questions about old school gaming.

I had a great time doing this podcast, only the second I've ever done -- and the first on the old school. I think there's a lot to be said for the format. It's particularly well-suited to my own rambling ways, for one thing, but, even more importantly, it conveys emotion and inflection in a way that's very hard to do in writing. Hearing someone's voice conveys so much more meaning than does simply reading their words on a page (virtual or otherwise). While I don't say much on the podcast that I've not said many times on this blog, I do think hearing me say them makes my meaning clearer.

Anyway, thanks to WalkerP for giving me the opportunity to appear on the podcast. It was fun and I hope everyone will give it a listen when they have the chance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ich bin ein Gygaxian

One of the great things about this blog is that it's given me the opportunity to "think out loud" in the presence of hundreds of people, many of whom have then asked me questions, pointed out flaws in my thinking, and -- occasionally -- told me that I was on to something of value. One area of my thought that's been greatly clarified as a result of discussions engendered by my posts is the overwhelming influence Gary Gygax has had over both my conception of Dungeons & Dragons specifically and fantasy roleplaying games generally. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise; this blog was birthed in the immediate aftermath of Gary's death and it is, in many ways, a fan letter to the man I'm not ashamed to say I idolized as a younger man.

And, like any idol worth its salt, people enjoy casting it down -- I know I have on more than one occasion. I went through a phase in the late 80s and early 90s when I rather strongly rejected the Gygaxian conception of both D&D and fantasy RPGs and even mocked his purple prose and bombast. It all feels so adolescent now -- because it was -- but I suspect it was a necessary part of my eventual coming to terms with just how much this one man and his writings have influenced me. So much of who I am today, from the books I've read to the things I eventually took up to study in college and graduate school, are the direct result of my having played D&D -- and not just D&D but AD&D, the most Gygaxian version of the game.

Which brings me to my intended point. While I retain an intense love for OD&D in its pristine little brown books form, the fact is that, for me, AD&D will always be what I think of when I think of "Dungeons & Dragons." Certainly, I'm none too fond of thieves. Neither am I keen on AD&D's initiative rules. I'm sure I could probably nitpick my way through the game and point out dozens of instances where I dislike the way AD&D does this or that and that I don't use in play. Yet, for all of that, I can't deny that AD&D remains my One True Love. It's the version of the game I've played the most and about which I have the fondest memories.

Another thing this blog has clarified for me is that, while AD&D and its general approach may be my preferred version of the game, I've learned immeasurably from studying OD&D and its way of doing things. I remain as skeptical as ever of the deep meaning many see in OD&D's lacunae, but I nevertheless appreciate the do-it-yourself sensibility the game necessarily engenders in any who wrestles with its text. AD&D can be played in such a fashion too -- I largely did, even as a kid -- but I won't deny that it's a large cobblestone on the road to perdition, at least as TSR (and Gygax) often promoted it and as many players understood it.

This realization has little to no effect on the future development of this blog, as I intend it to remain as catholic as ever in its old school tastes. Still, self-knowledge is always a good thing, even in someone of my age. Knowing now some of the subconscious influences and inspirations for my thoughts is valuable to me and I expect that future posts here will benefit greatly from this knowledge.

Young Minds, Fresh Ideas

So I saw the second teaser trailer for the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie and -- predictably, I know -- I wasn't much impressed. I'll grant that I liked seeing the old uniforms again, including the skirts for women. I also rather liked the "retro-future" look of the Enterprise's interiors. Other than that, though, I didn't see much that gave me hope that this would be even a passably good SF film, never mind a passably good Star Trek film. That's a shame, because it's been a very long time since we had a passably good Star Trek film and I could go for one right about now.

I actually believe that Star Trek is probably due for a reboot. From what I've seen, though, the upcoming movie doesn't look to be that reboot. Granted, I hold to the heretical belief that a reboot should simply be about paring down a concept to its essentials and starting over. I don't see it as an opportunity to indulge in change for change's sake. The key to a successful reboot, in my opinion, is understanding what it is that makes the thing you're working with so compelling and then running with that -- in new directions if need be, certainly, but also in the same direction as the original if the original direction was in fact a good one.

I think one of the reasons why they have been so few truly successful reboots is that what people forget is that the target audience for any reboot is not, despite wishes to the contrary, some vast, untapped pool of consumers who aren't already familiar with the originals and are just dying to become fans of your new, totally cool, and unspeakably awesome reimagining of a classic. No, your target audience is fans of the original who acknowledge that the old girl could do with a little dressing up. Now, maybe this is the ultimate problem of why reboots almost invariably stink. When you're creating something that's got to appeal to the jaded tastes of the hardcore, who will hate almost any changes you make anyway, you've already conceded defeat. Of course, one might also argue -- not necessarily contradictorily, I might add -- that trying to reach out to that mythical "untapped" consumer is a powerful temptation that all too often leads to a willingness to tinker with core concepts that are the key to the long-term appeal of the thing you're rebooting.

It's a difficult position to be in and I certainly don't envy anyone put in the position of having to make a reboot. But my question is this: why reboot at all? If you have a good idea or a good story, why not just let it be what it is without attaching it to an existing one? I don't actually believe there is nothing new under the sun. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I don't hate every bit of creativity shown since 1983. There have been many, many really great and original ideas over the course of my life and the best of them stand out because they're not just riffing off existing material. They're genuinely original. We need more of that, not less.

Personally, if I were going to do a Star Trek reboot, I wouldn't even use Star Trek. I think the core concepts of the original series are solid even 40 years later. However, so much cruft has accreted to those core concepts over the years that it's hard to dispense with them without doing violence to the Gestalt. So, rather than hamhandedly screwing it up, I'd just do my own Star Trek-like thing and there'd be no worries about canon. I could "update" anything I wished and have the creative freedom necessary to do whatever I felt the story I wanted to tell required. Granted, this approach doesn't give me immediate name recognition or access to an existing fanbase, but neither does it wed me to all the lunacy associated with such things. More to the point, if an idea is good -- genuinely good -- I firmly believe it can stand on its own merits; it doesn't need to be thinly tied to an existing franchise.

I realize I'm crazy in taking the whole "fresh ideas" approach literally. I'd never be able to get a job in Hollywood thinking like this. Or the RPG industry, come to think of it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cover to Cover

If you haven't been reading Sham's Grog 'n Blog and you're a fan of OD&D, you should be. Its author, along with Philotomy, is one of the most insightful commentators on the three little brown books out there in the ether; he's inspired me more times than I can count. Of late, Sham has turned his sights on reading OD&D cover to cover and discussing his thoughts as he does so. He's currently up to Part 7 of the series and still has a long way to go!

Check it out.

Weapon vs AC

Particularly in the wake of Third Edition's conflation of the concept of Armor Class with a target number (or Difficulty Class, to use 3e terminology) needed "to hit" an opponent in combat, it's fashionable in many quarters to claim that the OD&D/AD&D approach is somehow inexplicable, or at least anti-intuitive. While I'll grant that the 3e approach is simple -- no charts are necessary to derive the "to hit" number -- I think its simplicity comes at the expense of coherence. What many people forget is that, prior to 3e, Armor Class really was (at least in intention) a class. That is, the AC numbers were designators for different types of armor, each of which had different strengths and weaknesses against different types of weapons. The infamous "weapon vs. AC" tables of Greyhawk and AD&D were intended to make this more plain for the "alternative combat system" of the three little brown books. In Chainmail, whose man-to-man combat system OD&D uses, the connection is quite explicit, with a character's chance "to hit" dependent on the type of weapon he is wielding and the type of armor his opponent is wearing.

You'll note that, in the preceding paragraph, I put "to hit" in quotation marks throughout. There's a reason for that. Remember that, in both OD&D and AD&D, a combat round lasts 1 minute. Even in the case of combatants with multiple attacks per round (like monsters or high-level fighters), it strains credibility to imagine that each attack roll represents a melee action taking up to 60 seconds to execute. In the real world, that's ridiculously slow, even in the case of men encased in plate armor and wielding "slow" weapons. But both games use a very abstract combat system and each attack roll doesn't represent a single attack at all, but a series of attacks over the course of up to 60 seconds, including parries, feints, and other defensive actions intended to make it harder for one's opponent to score a hit.

But what is a "hit?" It has long seemed to me, given the abstract nature of combat, that a "hit" can only be a blow that lands either hard enough or in a vulnerable enough spot that it deals damage to one's opponent. In the course of a melee round, an attacker undoubtedly lands many blows against his opponent, but only those represented by a high enough "to hit" roll deal damage sufficient to subtract hit points from his total.

For this to be workable, even given the abstraction inherent in the system, you need to take into account the peculiarities of weapons against certain types of armor. If you don't, then it becomes harder (to my mind anyway) to figure out just what is happening and what Armor Class is supposed to mean. The Dexterity bonus to AC throws a wrench in the works. I can accept the idea of someone who is nimble being harder "to hit" in combat; that makes sense. However, his nimbleness does not affect his Armor Class, which is a constant. Instead, his Dexterity bonus should serve as a negative modifier on his opponent's chance "to hit." This may seem a small thing, but I think it's important, because otherwise Armor Class acquires some incoherence, particularly if continue to use the weapons vs AC table.

Of course, many people don't -- and never did -- use the weapons vs AC table, seeing it as an unnecessary complication. On some levels, I agree; I often ignored it for large combats back in the day. At the same time, I very much like the feel of fighters choosing their weapons based on the type of defense their opponents possessed. This gives a fighter a reason to carry multiple weapons and it rewards players who consider the benefits of doing so. I approve of that and think the game should encourage it. The only trick, I suspect, is finding a simple way to present the "to hit" numbers based on AC that can then be used in conjunction with the class-based attack matrices. Conquer that "pedagogical" issue and I think most people wouldn't find the weapon vs AC concept quite so off-putting.

But don't get me started on negative AC ...

Crom!

Old news, I know, but I'm posting it anyway in case any of my readers haven't heard the latest: the Conan movie project seems to be alive and well again and Brett Ratner's name is now attached to it as director. Rattner is the music video director who's probably best known for being the Joel Schumacher of the X-Men movies franchise. And now he's set his sights on Howard's iconic character ...

I'm going to try very hard to keep an open mind about this, given that the movie's current script was supposedly written by guys who'd actually read REH rather than simply relying on the execrable Schwarzenegger films from the 80s as their sole source of information about the character. That said, the article I linked too also noted that said script is now being "polished" to incorporate some of Rattner's own ideas. What are the odds that Rattner is a regular reader of The Cimmerian? Not good, I know.

Bleh.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: The Blue Star

The Blue Star is an alternate universe novel written by Fletcher Pratt in 1952. The cover to the left is of the Ballantine paperback edition, published in 1969, back during the heyday of pulp fantasy reprints aimed at a new generation of readers. It's no surprise to me that Dungeons & Dragons arose at the time that it did, as many were exposed to writers and stories for the first time that they were too young to have read previously. Regardless of what one thinks of Lin Carter's original contributions to the fields of fantasy and horror, there's no question that we all owe him a debt of gratitude for his role in promoting otherwise forgotten authors and tales in the late 60s and early 70s.

The Blue Star takes place in a world where magic works and gunpowder doesn't, resulting in a setting vaguely reminiscent of 18th century central Europe. Its protagonist is Rodvard Bergelin, an inconsequential government clerk who becomes embroiled in a vast plot to overthrow the current regime and create a new society in its place. It's another interesting piece of work by Pratt, both because of his eye for details and because Gary Gygax mentions it by name as an inspiration for D&D.

I grow ever more convinced that most gamers -- and designers -- are ignorant of the powerful influence of alternate universe and Lost World literature on the game and that their ignorance has been one of the engines for pushing the game in directions very different than those that at least Gygax intended for his creation. This is a topic I'm thinking a lot about and will be returning to in a future post, but I need some more time to consider the implications of the thesis I'm developing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Further Update

All is well, but I'm going to continue my break from posting through the weekend to catch up on some other work and generally just relax. I'm closing on 400 posts since I began the blog in late March/early April, so I think a couple more days without posts won't be a huge loss. I'll resume on Monday, as usual; I'll try to respond to emails and comments then. Likewise, I have several more reviews to post, in addition to my usual entries.

Have a good weekend and I'll see you all on Monday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Possibly Scarce ...

... today and/or tomorrow. Nothing to worry about, but I'm a bit busy with other work and various distractions. I know I have a backlog of comments and email to reply to, so I apologize for my tardiness. It's amazing how much work this blog actually generates and, every so often, I need to take a breather and today is such a time.

And thanks again to everyone who continues to donate to the blog. I very much appreciate every one of them, no matter how small; they remind me that, despite the occasional annoyances and frustrations, people are reading and enjoying what I do here and that fills me with much contentment.

Back tomorrow, if not sooner.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Assistance (Again)

Anybody out there in the ether able to (quickly) create an B&W "ad" for this blog that doesn't use the image from the from PHB I have in my lovely masthead? Ideally, it'd include the name, subtitle, and address of the blog, along with some sort of image I could freely reproduce without infringing on anyone's copyright.

Thanks.

Retrospective: Palace of the Silver Princess

I never even knew of the existence the orange-covered version of module B3, Palace of the Silver Princess until many years after the fact. Yet more years would pass before I ever set eyes upon it, thanks to the strange generosity of Wizards of the Coast. For me, the green-covered version depicted to the left was the only version of this classic 1981 module. Unlike many of the modules I have thus far included in my retrospectives, I would never argue that B3 is anything special. Indeed, unlike many old schoolers, I do not consider either version of Palace of the Silver Princess one of my favorite modules. The green version, for which Tom Moldvay claims cover credit for his revisions, is an early example of trying to add "story" to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward site-based adventure. The original orange version looks a little too much like In Search of the Unknown, although that may in fact be a virtue I have yet to fully appreciate.

Others have done a good job of amassing the details, such as we know them, surrounding why there are two versions of the module, so I won't be dwelling on them in this entry. Rather, I want to talk briefly about why, despite all its flaws, I still have a soft spot for B3. You see, Palace of the Silver Princess was the first module I played in which both my friend Mike's metalhead brother and his father were co-DMs. For my 12 year-old self, this was an impossibly cool moment. I've mentioned Mike's older brother before. He was a textbook example of a "killer DM" and took great pleasure in torturing our hapless characters in his intricately imagined deathdrap dungeons. Mike's Dad, on the other hand, was a wargamer; he had huge boxes of the kind normally used to sort screws, except his were filled with cardboard counters. He also painted miniatures, which made him even more cool to us kids. When Mike invited us over after dinner to play D&D with his brother and his father, we could hardly refuse.

I don't actually remember many specific details from that evening. I am certain that Mike's many characters died in succession, at least once to green slime. I also remember quite clearly that these deaths were solely due to Mike's own foolhardiness, not any maliciousness on the part of our Dungeon Masters, who were scrupulous in their adjudication of the rules. They were the kinds of guys for whom the term "referee" was meant to be used. They were "tough but fair" and you know that, if you died, it was your own damned fault, or at least just bad luck. Neither Mike's brother or father went out of their way to kill our characters, even if they did sometimes take a certain amount of perverse glee out of our deaths. We never held it against them, of course; death was part of what it meant to play D&D and we accepted that. Getting a character to survive till 2nd level was an accomplishment and one we bore with pride.

Palace of the Silver Princess is a largely nonsensical module. I am reluctant to call it a "funhouse," because its design lacks the whimsy I associate with such modules. In addition, there's just enough of a suggestion of a plot that I remember being left scratching my head as to why everything was arranged in the dungeon as it was. Had it just been purely irrational in design, I doubt I'd have exerted much effort in trying to figure it out its presumed "mysteries." I'm not sure that, to this day, I really know what B3 was supposed to be about. I dimly recall something about a curse by an evil wizard or somesuch. There's a vaguely Sleeping Beauty-esque quality to the thing, I suppose, but it's a bit vague and difficult to use to gain much insight into its design.

Still, I had a lot of fun that night 27 years ago. Three "generations" of gamers gathered around a table that night -- an old school wargamer, a player of OD&D, and a bunch of kids who got into the hobby through Holmes. All of us sat around and played a module written for yet another iteration of the rules and we enjoyed ourselves in spite of the general weakness of the adventure. I won't go so far as to say that's my definition of gaming heaven, but it comes pretty close to it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11/11

REVIEW: 2008 Wilderlands Jam

2008 Wilderlands Jam is a limited edition 48-page supplement for Adventure Games Publishing's "Wilderlands of High Adventure" setting. Originally released at GenCon this past summer, a number of copies are still available for sale for $12.00. Like all previous AGP releases, Jam is written for use with Troll Lord's Castles & Crusades system, but the vast majority of the material in its pages are easily convertible to most D&D-derived games, regardless of edition. Unlike previous AGP releases, however, this one includes no art beyond three hex maps. The book instead consists primarily of three-column pages of dense text. Truth be told, I didn't particularly miss the art, but I did find the print quality of this book noticeably poorer than in other AGP products. Although it doesn't harm legibility overly much for me, I wouldn't be surprised if it make the book less readable to those whose eyesight is worse than my own.

2008 Wilderlands Jam consists of four parts of varying length. Three of them are not new, having appeared in other forms before this product, while the fourth is an excerpt from an upcoming product. The first part, entitled "Warrior-Mages of the Wilderlands," is the shortest (at 6 pages) and is still available as a free PDF from the AGP website. This part introduces a new C&C character class called, as one might expect, the Warrior-Mage. The Warrior-Mage exists for players who wish to create characters that immediately combine fighting prowess with spellcasting without the need to multiclass. The result is a class that's less puissant at arms than a Fighter (a lower Base to Hit and Hit Dice, for example) but just as magically adept as a Wizard. Of course, the class is very slow to advance, needing nearly 5000 XP to reach level 2, so there is a price to be paid for such versitility.

Where the Warrior-Mage stands out, though, is in the various "traditions" Mishler describes. These traditions are different culturally-based "schools" of Warrior-Mage training, each with its little twists on the core abilities of the class. Each tradition includes a focus weapon used for the casting of spells (and the various bonuses associated with it), a list of weapon and armor restrictions, and some special abilities that enable the Warrior-Mage to use his spells in creative ways. Three sample traditions are described and Mishler provides a list of special abilities from which to construct one's own traditions or to use models when creating new special abilities. Rounding out this part, there are also descriptions of fourteen new spells unique to the Warrior-Mage.

I like the idea of the Warrior-Mage. I've often felt that D&D suffered a bit for never including a baseline class that included both fighting and magical abilities, particularly given the way elves are portrayed in a lot of fantasy literature. I've also been of the opinion that multiclassing has often been much too clunky in its implementation to succeed in combining aspects of multiple class archetypes. That said, I'm not completely happy with the Warrior-Mage, which is a fairly complex class once you take into consideration all its special abilities. Some, particularly those more inclined toward the 3e and later approaches to class design, might not have any problems with this, but I found myself wishing the class could have been presented more simply than it was. I am also baffled by the use of seven-sided dice for Hit Dice, which strikes me as needlessly quirky.

The second part, "Sorcerers of the Wilderlands," is 10 pages long. It too was previously released as a free PDF. I very much enjoyed this section of Jam for several reasons. First, its take on "sorcery" -- dark pacts with Demon Lords -- is a good example of how I prefer the handling of such dubious activities in a RPG. This part includes lists of "petty," "lesser," and "greater" evils which a sorcerer must commit in order to enter into and/or maintain a dark pact. However, beyond noting that this or that act constitutes a "greater evil" as opposed to a "lesser evil," very little detail is given, thereby allowing each referee to expand upon it or not as they wish. Second, there's simply no question that anyone entering into a dark pact with a demon lord has committed an objectively evil act. In addition, entering into a dark pact starts a character down the road to damnation, becoming Chaotic Evil in alignment and a thrall to demonic powers from which escape is well nigh impossible. Had Carcosa shown a similar lack of ambiguity, I would have had far fewer problems with it.

The third thing I really appreciated about this part of 2008 Wilderlands Jam was its mechanical open-endedness. Although guidelines are given for the kinds of things a demon lord might grant as a result of a dark pact -- familiars, spell-like abilities, wealth, etc. -- as well as guidelines for what he asks in return, they remain just that: guidelines. The referee is free to mix and match pact requirements and benefits as he wishes, allowing him to tailor them to suit the demon lord and the character involved. This flexibility also gives wide scope for creating NPC sorcerers whose special pact-granted abilities might be quite unexpected, such as a Fighter who can cast certain spells or a Cleric with a demonic familiar.

This part also includes information on sorcerous summonings, curses, and spells. Sorcerous spells are special evil spells learned either through a dark pact or through scrolls/spell books. These spells have a chance to backfire if cast by individuals who haven't entered into a dark pact in order to learn them, with the result typically being the caster becoming the spell's target. These spells all have a wonderfully swords-and-sorcery feel to them; Mishler clearly has a knack for that style of fantasy and it comes through strongly in the text. I'll reiterate that I think he took the right tack in his presentation of the material, staying firmly on the "vague-but-suggestive" side of things. "Sorcerers of the Wilderlands" also includes two new monsters and a single new treasure.

The third part, "Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I," takes up 17 pages of Jam and is identical (so far as I could tell -- if there are differences, I did not notice them) to the previously released PDF product that I reviewed here.

The fourth and final part, "Valley of the Dead Queens Preview," occupies 10 pages and is an excerpt from AGP's upcoming Southern Reaches Gazetteer. The preview describes three hexes in some detail, noting their geographical features, monster lairs, settlements, and other points of interest, tied together with a brief background detailing a fallen kingdom of priestess-queens who once rules the area. If one loves sandbox style campaigning, this part of Jam is for you. Mishler manages to cram a lot of terrific ideas into a comparatively small amount of space; it's not hard to be inspired after reading his entries. Otherwise banal locations are infused with a healthy dose of possibility, which is key to the success of sandbox play. If I have a complaint about this part of the book, it's that some of the entries are longer and more detailed than I think is necessary. The original Judges Guild products were masters of verbal economy and, while Mishler is good on this score, I think he could still stand to take a page or two more from his illustrious predcessors.

2008 Wilderlands Jam is difficult product to review. Only one-quarter of its text is actually new and that distinction won't last once the Southern Reaches Gazetteer is released. Of course, most of the material in the book is excellent. If you haven't read any of its contents already, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend buying it. Likewise, if you're like me and you prefer print products to PDF ones, it's also a worthwhile purchase. I can't deny that it's somewhat pricey, given its length and the fact that 16 of its 48 pages are available for free online already. However, I've come to accept that the market for old school material is limited and thus prices will inevitably be higher per page than on more "mainstream" RPG material. If you understand this as well, 2008 Wilderlands Jam may be just what you're looking for.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust


WizKids, pioneer in the field of collectible miniatures games, is closing its doors, effective immediately. I don't think this is really a surprise, coming as it does, hot on the heels of the news that WotC was canceling the D&D minis game. As I suspected when Steve Jackson Games announced the changing of Pyramid's format, the hobby games industry is headed for some rough times. This won't be the last announcement of this sort we hear, mark my words.

The Moral Structure of D&D

Good and Evil: Basically stated, the tenets of good are human rights, or in the case of AD&D, creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil, on the other hand, does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant.

--Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1979)
I'd been intending to talk briefly about the underlying morality of Dungeons & Dragons, because I'd mentioned it as part of critique of Carcosa in Part 4 of my review. There I said that D&D is "built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure." I fully expected that that line would raise hackles in some quarters and so it did. Geoffrey McKinney objects, saying:
I must admit to seeing no such things, whether in the D&D game or in its supplements. What is there in the OD&D game + supplements to prevent the PCs from being chaotic worshippers of Set, slaying and tormenting innocents, etc? What is there in a WWII miniatures wargame preventing players from playing the Axis powers? What is there in either case preventing such players from succeeding in their aims? I see no strictures on chaotic characters in D&D. Each type of playing piece has its own strengths and weaknesses, but I do not see that the game is weighted one way or the other. Neither do I see strictures or even admonitions to ensure that Law prevails over Chaos. Indeed, I think such things would cause the game to be less fun.
I find this a strange objection, because my point was not that D&D in any way prevents a player from creating and portraying an evil character; that's clearly not the case. When I said that the game is built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure, I had in mind quotes like the one from the DMG above. That quote makes it clear that moral relativism has no place in D&D. Good and evil are very clearly defined and certain actions, such as treating creatures as means rather than ends, are always and without question evil.

The consequence of these objective definitions of good and evil is not that players are -- or even should be -- limited in their choice of alignment for their characters. Rather, it's that the text of the game itself does not support the notion that evil actions are in any way right, correct, or otherwise commendable -- quite the contrary! This is important for two reasons. First, it's useful as a reminder to players that, for example, torturing orc captives isn't appropriate behavior for supposedly good characters. Second, it's useful for when outsiders come along and read the books and erroneously think the game promotes murder and mayhem (among other things).

My concern with Carcosa is that its alignment system provides no means in-game to be able to say that the followers of Chaos, the servants of the Great Old Ones, are in fact evil and thus morally reprehensible. One might be able to infer this, given the likely reaction most people have to the idea of human sacrifice, but that inference is undercut, as I noted in my review, by the book's statement that all behaviors, "including the most noble and altruistic," can be found among adherents of all alignments. If true, if being Chaotically-aligned, which is defined in Carcosa as being a servant of the Great Old Ones, is in no way objectively wrong, then one could then reasonably suppose that the actions of Chaotics, up to and including human sacrifice, are not wrong, merely undesirable to the human sacrificed.

That may not seem like an important to thing to some and I grant that. However, I think it does put Carcosa at odds with the moral structure implicit in OD&D and explicit in AD&D, where moral evil is the realm of inhuman monsters and those men and women who choose to make themselves similarly inhuman by their actions.