Friday, May 29, 2009

Harryhausen's War of the Worlds

I'm still too fuzzy-headed to do any serious posting -- perhaps after the weekend -- but, to tide you over till then, I thought I'd post a video clip I'd never seen before. It's a test animation Ray Harryhausen did in 1949 for a War of the Worlds film that was ultimately never made. Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Live (Sorta)

I am in the midst of recovering a rather severe sinus infection that kept me laid up in bed for the past three days and is only now, thanks to heavy doses of antibiotics, starting to subside. I'm no longer in much discomfort, but I am fuzzy-headed and physically drained. Once I am fully healed, I'll return to my usual breakneck posting pace. Until then, expect the blog to uncharacteristically quiet.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dwimmermount, Session 12

After a two-week hiatus because scheduling conflicts, we resumed the Dwimmermount campaign yesterday. At the conclusion of the previous session, the characters had to flee Adamas for fear of being charged with the death of an alchemist in their employ. This meant they had no choice but to rush headlong back into Dwimmermount, since, oddly, it was a safer place for them than the city-state, at least in the short term. Once inside, they continued their exploration of the sub-level they'd been mapping the last time they were inside the mountain fortress. In doing so, they discovered a ventillation shaft designed to allow fresh air from the surface to enter the dungeon (and the giant bats that were nesting in said shaft). They also encountered creatures that they called "big kobolds,"slightly tougher little guys than the ones they'd seen on Level 1. These creatures were engaged in the creation of strange whorls of paint on the walls of one room in the dungeon. After they were defeated, the PCs examined the paint to discover that it appeared to be mixed with small amounts of azoth, which caused the paint to dry quickly and leave behind peculiar vein-like patterns on the walls.

Pressing on, the characters first found a room containing a statue they assumed was related to the mythology of Turms Termax. In a rare display of impetuousness, the elf Dordagdonar entered the room alone and began looking for secret doors, failing to notice the green slime on the ceiling, which promptly dropped on his head. Fortunately, the application of fire by Brother Candor and Vladimir destroyed the slime but not without leaving a scar on the elf's face, which he declared forever marred his beauty and would deprive him of the company of other elves, who would judge him "hideous."

Slimes, molds, and fungi seemed to be a theme for the dungeon as they pressed onward into the dungeon, where they encountered a room whose surfaces were almost entirely covered with weird growths. Fearing what would happen if they ventured in too far, Vladimir decided to take his torch with him and clear a path from one archway to another. He figured he could burn away some of the growths, bit by bit, and avoid their potential danger. What he didn't count on was the fact that, in setting fire to them, he'd cause them to release noxious spores into the air, which he inhaled. A failed saving throw later and the intrepid dwarf was dead.

Through the clever use of a grappling hook, the party recovered Vladimir's body. Brother Candor decided that they could pool their limited funds to have the dwarf raised from the dead at the Temple of Tyche in Adamas. Unfortunately, that meant return to the city-state where they were wanted men. After some thought, they found a farm on the way between Muntburg and Adamas, where they paid the farmer for the temporary use of his cart. They then cleaned his stalls of manure, piling it into the cart and on top of Vladimir's corpse. They also applied a healthy dose of the excrement to themselves so that they could enter Adamas "disguised" as manure collectors. The plan worked well enough and Vladimir was restored to life. However, the priests of Tyche cautioned Candor about ever again returning to the temple, since he could bring the law down upon them. Meanwhile, Dordagdonar had an iron mask fashioned for himself to hide his "disfigurement."

With Vladimir once more among their company, the party returned to Dwimmermount. There they encountered some animated skeletons, which served as guards to a large chamber that looked like a desecrated temple to Turms Termax. Overseeing the temple was a strange lich-like being, dressed in the rotting robes of a priest of the god of magic. He was preaching to an invisible congregation, denouncing the church of Turms as a sham and immortality as a false hope that leads only to a living death. He took no notice of the PCs, who did not interact with him out of fear of what would happen.

Moving onward, the characters found a room where the floor stones had been overturned to reveal bare earth. Upon entering, giant ants burrowed up from below the earth and attacked them. The ants' poison claimed two hirelings, Wulfhere and Brandis, and, while Dordagdonar's use of a web spell helped defeat the giant insects, the party was now low on muscle. Brother Candor reluctantly decided to return to Adamas and face the music, hoping that he could use the head of Jasper -- which was kept preserved in formaldehyde -- could set the record straight. The priests of Tyche agreed to accompany him to talk with the constabulary and to cast speak with dead on the poreserved head, which did in fact exonerate him of murder. However, Candor was still fined for desecrating a corpse and he was told that the constabulary would be keeping an eye on him, since he was a "known troublemaker." With that, the PCs decided they needed to find new hirelings and to seek out more information about Saidon the Archivist, the priest of Typhon whom Jasper the alchemist had spoken to shortly before his death.

As usual, a superb session, filled with lots of action, mysteries, and roleplaying. I am very pleased with how the campaign is unfolding.

Elf Lair Games Has a Blog

I realize I'm a few days behind with this news, but Elf Lair Games now has a blog. In case you're not aware of it, the company publishes the awesome Spellcraft & Swordplay, an old school fantasy game that cleaves more closely to OD&D's Chainmail roots than do most retro-clones. I wrote a review of the game last Fall and will probably write another of the revised edition over the next week or so. I'm very impressed with the approach that Jason Vey took with the game and look forward to seeing how the game grows and develops.

Planet Stories Changes

This is a press release issued by Paizo about some changes to the format, frequency, and subscription of its excellent Planet Stories line of pulp reprints:

We've just implemented some changes to the Planet Stories imprint and to Planet Stories subscriptions that we believe will significantly increase the quality of the books in general and enhance the value of your subscription.

Starting with June's Robots Have No Tails, by Henry Kuttner, Planet Stories subscribers will enjoy a 30% discount on new Planet Stories volumes (up from 20%). Additionally, subscribers will be able to order older Planet Stories books at a substantial 15% discount off the cover price as an added benefit of subscribing. We hope this new discount structure makes it easier for collectors to pick up volumes they may have missed from earlier in our series.

Also in June, Planet Stories will shift to a roughly bimonthly publication schedule, with six volumes scheduled per year into the future. We're worried we may be producing Planet Stories books faster than subscribers are able to read them, so we want to slow things down a bit and give each book a chance to make a strong impact on the marketplace and in the minds of our faithful readers. We hope to increase the frequency in the future, but doing so will require significantly more subscribers than we have now and better penetration into local and national bookstores. We believe these changes will come with time, and reducing the frequency in the meantime gives us an opportunity to ensure that Planet Stories has the best possible foundation in the years to come during a very challenging period for the book publishing industry.

The biggest change to the line will become apparent when we send out Robots Have No Tails in the upcoming weeks: We've completely revised the Planet Stories format to pack in more story for your buck and to include illustrations that harken back to the pulp era from which many of our stories are drawn. In the case of this summer's The Ship of Ishtar, by A. Merritt, we've even negotiated rights to publish illustrations by noted pulp illustrator (and the best man at the wedding of C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner) VIRGIL FINLAY!

Those of you familiar with Finlay's marvelous work will no doubt be jumping up and down with excitement. Those of you who have not encountered his work are in for a real treat. Other Planet Stories volumes will contain interior illustrations (many original to the Planet Stories line) as well, and we hope to set a new standard of design excellence with the series. We've posted sample page layouts on the Robots Have No Tails product page to give you a taste of what's in store in the very near future.

The very best way that you can help to ensure a bright future for Planet Stories is to subscribe, and to evangelize the line to your science fiction and fantasy-reading friends. We hope to double the number of Planet Stories subscribers in the next year, and we're going to need all the help you can provide in order to achieve that goal.

We're more excited about the Planet Stories line than we've ever been. In many ways, we're finally publishing these stories in a format that does them justice and best matches our original plans for the line. We hope you love what's in store, and that you continue to support Planet Stories.

It means the (strange adventures on other) worlds to us.


Erik Mona
Paizo Publishing, LLC

Pulp Fantasy Library: At the Earth's Core

Edgar Rice Burroughs is best known for his "Tarzan" and "Barsoom" novels, but they're far from the only successes he had as a writer. He also wrote another series of novels, beginning with 1914's At the Earth's Core. The novel tells the story of a man who discovers a subterranean realm known as Pellucidar, which exists at the interior of the world. There he encounters prehistoric beasts, such as dinosaurs, as well as primitive humans who have been enslaved by a race of intelligent flying reptiles known as Mahars.

Like John Carter, the arrival of the novel's protagonist, David Innes, signals the dawn of a new era. Moved by the plight of the humans -- and enraptured by the lovely Dian the Beautiful -- Innes leads them in a revolt against the Mahars and helps them to win their freedom. Along the way, he also wins the love of Dian, who'd previously rebuffed him, due to his misunderstanding the culture of the humans of Pellucidar. Unfortunately, in their attempt to return to the surface, Innes loses Dian and vows to return to find her once more, thus setting up for the novel's immediate sequel, as well as five more, one of which was published posthumously.

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World predates At the Earth's Core by two years, firmly establishing the literary genre that shares its name (although several other books from the 19th century predate it and are arguably the first in the genre). Pellucidar was clearly influenced by its predecessor, but is written in a much more breezy and adventuresome style, as one would expect from the creator of Tarzan. For me, it's a much better model for pulp fantasy games than is Doyle's work, which has a vaguely "serious" tone to it, which probably explains why Gygax includes Burroughs in Appendix N and not Doyle.

As an aside, the young H.P. Lovecraft was very fond of Burroughs' stories, including the Pellucidar series, though he distanced himself from them in later life, calling Burroughs a hack. Nevertheless, some claim they hear echoes of Burroughs in the name "shoggoth," which is remarkably like that of "sagoth," the ape-like race that serves the Mahar. I'm not certain how much to make of such claims but it's interesting nonetheless.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Take a gander at this frankly awesome cover of an upcoming supplement to White Wolf's game of anime-inspired ass-kicking, Exalted. Yes, you heard right: I think it's awesome.

I have no interest in playing Exalted (though I did in the past and in fact contributed to two supplements for its first edition -- shocking!), but I can nevertheless appreciate this loving nod to the greatest RPG cover ever made. It's extremely well done and, in some ways, a terrific primer on the inadequacy of being able to "hum the tune" without also "knowing the words." To its credit, Exalted is unambiguous about its new school-ness, which is why I still have a fondness for it, despite its being mechanically and esthetically far removed from my own interests and preferences.

More Than a Feeling

In my experience, there are two common dismissals of the old school movement. The first is semantic, claiming that the term "old school" is so devoid of a commonly accepted understanding that it's meaningless. The intention behind this dismissal is to prevent discussion by undermining the common meanings of terminology. Needless to say, I don't think much of this point of view, because, while I'll concede that lots of people do in fact use "old school" in a wide variety of ways, that doesn't in itself say anything about the meaningfulness of the term as it's generally used among players of these games. It's a rhetorical trick, not an actual argument.

The second dismissal claims that old school is "a feeling" and can be divorced both from particular games and particular mechanical designs. The intention behind this dismissal is to claim that one can play any game in an old school fashion, regardless of its vintage or rules. It's an attempt to divorce the animating principles of the early hobby from its mechanical foundations. This is a somewhat more sophisticated dismissal, but, ultimately, it's still a rhetorical trick rather an argument. It's an appeal to an ill-defined "spirit" of the old school as a means of undermining attachment to any particular old school game.

That's precisely why I've never bought into the notion that the old school is just a feeling: it makes rational discussion impossible. If the old school is just a feeling, then it's purely subjective and beyond our capacity to argue for. It's a mere fancy rather than the product of serious thought. Now, I don't' want to argue that the old school isn't a feeling, because, on some level, there definitely is an "emotional" component to it -- but that's not all that it is and I don't think it does the old school movement any good to tacitly accept the idea that "old school-ness" is primarily felt rather than apprehended.

There is in theology a term that seems apropos: indifferentism. Indifferentism is the notion that all religions are equally good and valid provided that one practices them with proper intentions. To my mind, the idea that the old school is primarily a feeling is a kind of ludic indifferentism. No doubt many proponents of old school-as-feeling do so out of a genuine desire to avoid One True Wayism, which is certainly laudable. The problem is that, by arguing for a primarily emotional understanding of the old school, one quickly reduces all arguments to arbitrary preferences. That I consider, say, Swords & Wizardry a game truer to the old school than Exalted or 4e is nothing more than my personal feeling on the matter, a feeling that's impossible to articulate rationally and that others can feel free to dismiss without having to understand just what I mean when I say this. Likewise, when a player of such games claims he's doing so "in an old school style," I have no recourse but to accept him at his word and move on, because no argument could possibly be offered to disprove his feeling that he's playing an old school game.

Let me stress again that I am most emphatically not arguing against the notion that feelings and intuitions have a role in coming to an understanding about what the old school is and is not. However, I feel "I'll know it when I see it" is inadequate and contributes to the absolute subjectification of the term "old school." Consequently, I think it's vital, particularly now that more and more people are looking at old school games with new eyes, that this community shy away from speaking primarily in terms of "feelings," since that path leads to the chaos of indifferentism.

If one actually believes, as I do, that games like OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so forth offer something unique that no game published in the last 20 years can match, then we ought not to rest our case too heavily on nebulous quasi-emotional impressions. I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school that there's very little need to invoke feelings at all. More to the point, to resort to feelings is basically to concede the argument before one has even begun, which only contributes further to the mistaken notion that one's liking for an old game system is nothing but nostalgia for one's lost youth. In some cases, that may be true, but it needn't be the case and the continued success of the old school renaissance depends greatly on promoting the unique qualities of older games in a clear and rational fashion.

Otherwise, we really are just a bunch of middle-aged guys clinging to the past.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Songs of the Dying Earth

This August will see the release of the much-awaited Songs of the Dying Earth published by Subterranean Press. The book collects stories written in honor of Jack Vance and includes work by a number of the leading lights of contemporary SF and fantasy, such as Dan Simmons, Robert Silverberg, Glenn Cook, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, and John C. Wright.

I have to say I'm really looking forward to the release of this volume. My fondness for The Dying Earth is very great, as it was for Gygax, and I consider it, along with the Big Three, to be one of the strongest influences over my personal interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons, as anyone who's encountered my eccentric NPCs can attest. It'll be especially interesting to see if any author other than Vance is capable of capturing the fantastic far future Earth he created in 1950.

Thanks to Hill Cantons for reminding me about this.

In Praise of Jim Holloway

Of all the artists who made their debut during the Golden Age of D&D -- his first TSR work was in 1981 -- I think it's Jim Holloway who catches the most undeserved flak. Perhaps it's because he's so closely associated with West End's Paranoia, the darkly humorous science fiction RPG, for which he provided the illustrations. As much as the text itself, Holloway's artwork defined what that game was about and, for many gamers of a certain vintage, it also defined Holloway himself as a "jokey" artist -- highly inappropriate for old school D&D.

I myself think that impression is mistaken. There's no doubt that, especially after he'd done his Paranoia illustrations, Holloway's art tended to include more humorous elements than they had before, but those elements were always present; it's just that Paranoia afforded him the opportunity to cut loose in a way he hadn't before. Of course, that's no defense of the man in the eyes of many, whose conception of D&D leaves no room for humor, even the gallows humor Holloway frequently incorporated into his artwork.

I've always found such criticisms to be odd, since old school D&D, with its fragile PCs and mechanical randomness, is in my experience of playing it filled with moments of black humor, not to mention outright slapstick. Far from being contrary to the old school spirit, I find Holloway's illustrations to look like "photographs" from many an adventure I've run, with the party tripping over themselves in flight from a deadly monster or finding themselves in a sticky situation that'd be funny if it didn't spell their likely doom.

And while his style is very different, Holloway comes closest in my opinion to capturing the grubbiness of the adventuring life that Dave Trampier illustrated so well. Holloway's people aren't nakedly beautiful and heroic like those of Elmore or the other "fantastic realist" artists of the Silver Age. More often than not, they're lumpy-faced, gap-toothed ruffians with five o'clock shadow and distinctly unheroic demeanors. They're not runway models at the Ren Faire, that's for sure, but that's frankly the appeal of Holloway's art. He nicely evokes the dingy, hardscrabble existence an old school D&D character lives if he has a referee who clings to the Old Ways without apology.

Far from being contrary to the old school spirit, much of Holloway's art is a superb exemplar of it, as his recent contribution to Knockspell shows quite well, I think. I hope he'll get the chance to do more old school products in the coming weeks and months. Holloway's work provides a nice counterpoint, both esthetically and thematically, to over the top style so in favor in much of contemporary fantasy gaming, making it one of several artistic guideposts for what old school gaming is about. Goodness knows we could use some more of that.

Friday, May 22, 2009


I am very busy today, both with various writing projects and a sick six year-old, so posting today will likely be non-existent.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Boxed Sets

In the mail today I received my long-awaited three-volume collector's edition of Jason Vey's awesome Chainmail-inspired old school game, Spellcraft & Swordplay. As you can see from the photograph to the right, the collector's edition came as a boxed set that mimics the appearance of the OD&D white box, although it includes a couple of extras, such as dice and pre-printed character sheets, that were never included with its illustrious predecessor. As I've said innumerable times on this blog, I'm actually rather negative about aping the look and feel of stuff from the 1970s. My feeling remains that, as nostalgic as I am about the old stuff I grew up with, I think it's a mistake to use those products of yore as esthetic models for contemporary old school products. I'm not talking about the art so much as the graphic design and layout, which I generally think has been improved with the passing of the years. Ultimately, I think it'll prove a costly mistake for the old school movement if it ties itself too closely to a narrow set of presentation choices that ossified around 1981.

So I was a bit perplexed as to why the S&S collector's edition didn't set off the same alarm bells in my head that other old school products do. Part of it is that I got a kick out of finally acquiring a brand new White Box, one I didn't get second-hand. It was almost as if my nearly-40 year-old self was magically transported back to 1974 and I got to be one of the early adopters of this crazy new game from the Midwest. I can't really call it nostalgia, since I was five years old when OD&D was released, but, whatever one terms it, I felt an emotional rush of opening the crisp new box and pulling out its three little brown books and reading them. I should add that, having had the chance to look over this edition (whose text is identical to the revised edition), nearly all the quibbles I had about the original release, which I reviewed last Fall, were swept away. If I weren't already playing Swords & Wizardry, I might well consider adopting S&S as my game of choice instead. Even so, there's a lot here I may adopt anyway, since one of the joys of old school gaming is the easy compatibility of all these variants.

The other part -- the bigger part, I think -- of why I so fell in love with this package is that it came in nice, compact, little box. Everything I need to play the game is right in there and, while there are some expansions to S&S available, I don't need them. More to the point, the game contained within the box is straightforward and to the point, just how I prefer my games to be. Boxed sets have more or less disappeared from the RPG scene, with a few notable exceptions, and with that disappearance so too has succinctness. A box sets a physical limit on just how much verbiage a designer can churn out for a game and I think the loss of boxed sets has had a generally negative impact on game design, creating an environment in which completeness is largely a myth or, at best, a temporary state of affairs until the next hardcover volume is released in a month.

You know why AD&D was released as a series of hardcover books? To accommodate the desires of Random House, who wanted to distribute Dungeons & Dragons in the US and Canada, but which balked at trying to sell tiny boxed games to retailers. Thus was born a format that made it easier to sit on a retailer's shelf and the door was opened, however slightly, to where we are today. I miss those boxed sets of old. I'd love to see them come back, but I know why they won't, both in practical and economic terms. I think it's a pity, as the joy I experienced this morning showed. Plus, I think a lot of good would come of putting RPGs back in boxes; it might help to remind people that these are games. Crazy, I know.

Three Threads

I make no secret of my deep abiding love for the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. I consider each of them, in their own ways, literarily significant authors whose works transcend the limited venues in which their writings first appeared. But my purpose in this entry isn't to laud their lasting value as writers. Instead, I want to briefly touch upon the things each brings to bear when considering "pulp fantasy D&D," which is to say, an interpretation of the game that eschews both the high fantasy of Tolkien and (especially) his imitators and the "cinematic" approach so in fashion these days.

Robert E. Howard: It's easy to discern the influence the creator of Conan might have over Dungeons & Dragons. Howard is the only one of the Big Three mentioned by name in OD&D, which places him among a select few authors (along with Burroughs, De Camp, Leiber, and Pratt) whose acknowledged influence is there from the very beginning. REH brings not only a certain "blood and thunder" mindset to the game, but, more importantly, an emphasis on broadly adventure broadly defined. He's a reminder that D&D is, at its base, a game of action and exploration, about overcoming challenges and profiting -- and dying -- from doing so.

That's absolutely essential to any notion of what a pulp fantasy D&D needs to be and Howard offers that in spades, not just in his Conan stories but in all of his major story cycles. That's not to suggest that the game can't be more than that by any means, but it's nevertheless vital that we not lose sight of the fact that any "meaning" D&D has is an emergent property that arises through play rather than being some a priori property of it.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Old Gent isn't mentioned in OD&D, but he does make an appearance in Appendix N, making him a natural fit for a pulp fantasy D&D. HPL brings a lot to the table, first and foremost a counterpoint to exaggerated devotion to Howard. In Lovecraft's worldview, human beings are small and insignificant, beneath the notice the true lords of the universe. Left to its own, Lovecraftianism tends toward bleakness and that's not a good feel for a pulp fantasy D&D. but neither is excessive confidence in the capacity of the average man to achieve anything of lasting worth.

More than that, Lovecraft acknowledges that there's a wider world beyond the petty concerns of mortal men. His awesome cosmicism is, I think, an important element often overlooked. He makes plain the idea that there is more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy and, worse yet, those things are utterly alien and, in many cases, functionally malign. Lovecraftian entities make terrific opponents and his cosmicism, ironically, helps buttress a powerful humanism when placed within a larger pulp fantasy context.

Clark Ashton Smith: The Bard of Auburn isn't mentioned in either OD&D or AD&D explicitly and, by most accounts, his direct influence over Gygax and Arneson was minimal. I think that's a shame, because what CAS brings to the table is something D&D desperately needs and has always needed: a sense of exoticism and mysticism. By this I mean that all too often even D&D's most outré elements quickly become banal, reduced to a series of game stats that fail to convey the eldritch beauty of the Other Side or the exhilirating danger posed by meddling with the forces of magic.

Despite this, Smith grounds his fantasies in reality. By that I don't mean to say that he was a Gygaxian naturalist avant le fait. Rather, it's that his descriptions are luxuriously sensual and bodily. Unlike Lovecraft, very few things in Smith's writings are "ineffable" or otherwise defy description. The result is a strange literary alchemy that doesn't reduce magic to a formula while simultaneously investing it with reality. That's something D&D could benefit from immensely.

These then are three threads from which I've been trying to weave my Dwimmermount campaign. They're all the three threads about which I'll be talking more in the coming weeks, with lots of examples of just what I mean and how others can do the same in their own adventures and campaigns.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I never fully understood the label of "escapist" till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' and gave the obvious answer: jailers.
--C.S. Lewis,"On Science Fiction" (1955)

Retrospective: Player Character Record Sheets

Much as I love elegant simplicity of OD&D and its retro-clone, Swords & Wizardry, I have to admit that one of the greatest attractions of AD&D for me was its seeming complexity to outsiders. And few things concretized that attraction more than the Player Character Record Sheets first released in 1979 and later reprinted with a different colored cover in 1981. Both printings had the terrific Erol Otus artwork, but I'm pretty sure I owned the 1981 printing you see pictured to the left.

If you ever owned these record sheets back in the day, I suspect you'll understand precisely what I mean. These sheets were gloriously cramped, with every nook and cranny filled with lines, boxes, and other areas intended to contain vital information about your AD&D character. "Vital," of course, is a relative word, since, along with things like hit points, armor class (including shieldless and rear AC), and known/prepared spells, there was also room for the percentage of his wealth your cleric tithes to his church, the name of your magic-user's familiar, and what disguises your assassin regularly uses. Now, some may argue that this is precisely why AD&D was such a miserable, tedious, newbie-unfriendly game and I certainly see their point. At the same time, this is precisely why AD&D held such an attraction for me and my friends. Mastering all these minutiae was like being initiated into a secret society and we felt a perverse pride in doing so. I think people often overlook just how appealing esoterica can be.

To this day, I still contend these are the greatest character sheets ever made for any iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, possibly for any RPG. They were eminently usable rather than just being pretty -- though their non-photocopyable goldenrod color did hold a certain charm. The three-hole punching of the sheets pretty much ensured that everyone in my gaming group had a D-ring binder for each of their characters, so they could include the sheet along with other important bits of paper under a single cover, resulting in a kind of "mini-biography" of each PC. You could tell by looking at these binders what adventures a given character had undertaken, how much XP and treasure he'd gained, and lots of other small details from which amusing anecdotes could be spun later. This was true even -- or perhaps especially -- of dead characters, whose sheet and papers were typically removed from a binder and stuck inside a separate folder that served us as our Hall of the Glorious Dead (even though many PCs met their deaths in less than glorious fashions).

If anyone wants to bask in the reflected light of these awesome character sheets, the amazing Mad Irishman has lovingly recreated them as customizable PDFs. They're well worth a look.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Pulp Literature

The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
--G.K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls," The Defendant (1901)

On Choosing a Tradition

Some of the most fascinating people I've ever met are religious converts. I find the idea of someone raised in one faith (or no faith at all) who makes a conscious decision to adopt another one -- almost always a fairly demanding one, I might add -- very intriguing. I think it takes a lot of courage to do something like that, not to mention a willingness to challenge one's own preconceptions and long-held notions. Regardless of whether I agree with the convert's specific decision, they've earned my respect by being serious about questions that a lot of people never even think about, let alone think about deeply enough to change their own outlook and behavior.

From my dealings with religious converts, I know that they often encounter hostility from people who don't understand and/or approve of their decision and suspicion from those whose religion they've now adopted. That's why I say I respect converts; it can't be easy to have people you've known all your life think you've gone "God crazy" or, worse yet, to have lifelong members of your new faith suspect your motives and imply that you're not a "real" X because you weren't born into the fold.

Now, I don't want this entry to become an excuse to talk about religion specifically and I ask anyone who comments on it to bear that in mind. I brought it up at all, because I often get emails from people who either think I've gone mad for having returned to my gaming roots over the last couple of years or who believe, because I wasn't there in 1974 and "only" started gaming in 1979 that I'm a poseur and this whole blog is just a big put-on. I find it bizarre honestly, but, for the first time in my life, I think I finally understand what it must be like to be a religious convert, even though I'm actually closer to what, in a religious context, is known as a "revert," that is, someone who returns to the religion of their birth after some time away from it.

For myself, my feeling remains the same: these are games we're talking about and, I hope, playing. That my tastes and interests have moved back toward those I had when I first entered the hobby is not, in fact, a sign of either insanity or deception. Neither is it evidence that I'm trying to suck up to that world renowned bunch of jet setters, the "true" grognards, you know, the guys who introduced me into the hobby 30 years ago.

At the end of the day, all that matters is that I'm having fun with my friends, which is the true measure of any hobby. I don't begrudge anyone who doesn't enjoy the old school stuff, but I do ask that no one question whether I am in fact enjoying it. Contrarian though I may be, even I lack the stubbornness necessary write over 700 blog posts just to show I'm not one of the great unwashed who'll never understand the deep wells of meaning contained within OD&D's lacunae. And if anyone does think that, I humbly suggest they know even less about human psychology generally than they do of me.

The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, very aptly described Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." There seems to be a lot of such Puritanism in the online gaming world these days. I know I've occasionally indulged in it, which is why you'll find that I rarely if ever talk about non-old school games on this blog anymore. I never talked much about them in the past either (fewer than 3% of my posts talk about any edition of D&D after 1e, for example), but I've made a concerted effort to avoid doing so in the interests of focusing on what I like to play and why. I certainly don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for this stuff, but I just don't get why anyone should doubt my sincerity. Mind you, the Internet is filled with things I just don't get, so perhaps I'm in good company.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Out of Space and Time

As others have noted, the writings of Clark Ashton Smith were not in fact included in Gygax's Appendix N. Indeed, as I recall, Gary never read a word of Smith until Rob Kuntz suggested he do so and this was after the publication of OD&D (Someone like Allan Grohe can correct me if I'm wrong about this). I personally find this odd, because, in my case, I discovered CAS at about the same time I discovered H.P. Lovecraft (1981 -- the year both Castle Amber and the first edition of Call of Cthulhu were released) and the two authors have always exerted equal amounts of influence over my adventures and campaigns.

Yet, for whatever reason, Smith seems to be the least well known of the Big Three of Weird Tales. It can't be because his writings weren't widely available. Arkham House, August Derleth's publishing house, which he founded in 1939 specifically to bring HPL's writings to a wider audience, produced a Smith anthology in 1942, before even a second volume of Lovecraft. Entitled Out of Space and Time, its contents were personally selected by Smith as his best and included some of his most famous short stories, most of which are set in his signature settings of Averoigne, Hyperborea, Poseidonis, and Zothique.

Averoigne and Zothique are by far and away my favorite of Smith's settings. Both have a decaying, decadent air to them that I find strangely attractive in their repulsiveness. Far moreso than Lovecraft, whose writings simply state that the history of the Earth is long, far longer than mere men can comprehend, Smith's writings allow us to feel that longevity. The result is not despair at mankind's insignificance in the cosmic scheme so much as a crushing sense of intellectual boredom, an overpowering ennui that reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun -- it's all been done before and probably better.

These are feelings I have in my darker moments and that certainly explains my fondness for Smith and the influence he's had over my worlds of the imagination. I often wonder what D&D might have been like had Gygax been more familiar with Smith's writings than he was. Along with the better known, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, I feel each of these authors offers a unique but complementary perspective on the broad genre of "pulp fantasy." There's plenty of both Howard and Lovecraft in D&D, but barely any Smith at all -- a pity.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Swords & Wizardry #1

As of May 15, Swords & Wizardry occupies the first place for the latest sales competition. I think that's pretty significant, if only because it suggests the March victory by Fight On! magazine wasn't a fluke. Obviously, the old school community remains a niche market, but, far from being a haven for tight-fisted old grumps who haven't bought any new gaming products since 1984, it's pretty clear to me that grognards will shell out for good products that genuinely speaks to their preferences. Little wonder then that there are several existing game companies that are planning to launch old school product lines over the next few months.

The old school renaissance continues apace. Fight on!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Interview with Lawrence Schick

Between 1979 and 1981, Lawrence Schick was employed by TSR Hobbies, during which time he was involved in numerous projects for both Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, such as Star Frontiers, which he co-designed with David Cook. I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few question about his time with TSR and more generally about his involvement in the game industry.

1. How did you first become involved in roleplaying?

In college at Kent State University in Ohio; my friend Tom Moldvay came back from a science fiction convention with a Xeroxed copy of the D&D white box rules – albeit missing a few key pages (as we later discovered). Though we didn’t have anyone to teach us how to play, we grasped the idea immediately, and very quickly began making up our own supplemental rules.

2. You're the author of White Plume Mountain, which remains one of the most famous of all AD&D modules ever produced, both because of its many unique puzzles and traps, as well as the presence of magic sword Blackrazor. What were your inspirations in creating this adventure?

White Plume Mountain was written as a sample document to persuade TSR to hire me as a game designer. I just plundered all the dungeons I’d designed over the previous four years, took out the best bits, and cobbled it all together. It worked; TSR hired me, bought the scenario, and published it as a module without changing a word. I’m a little embarrassed to this day by Blackrazor, inasmuch as it’s such a blatant rip-off of Elric’s Stormbringer; I would not have put it into the scenario if I ever thought it might be published.

3. Gary Gygax thanks you by name for your contributions to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Do you recall what you contributed to this book?

When I started work at TSR in January of 1979 Gygax handed me this huge, sprawling, unorganized manuscript and said, “Here’s the Dungeon Masters Guide – edit this.” So I did. There were a few things he wanted to include that he didn’t particularly want to write; for those parts he told me what he wanted, and I wrote them. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the original DMG at hand – I lost all my D&D stuff in my recent divorce – but I recall writing the Example of Play, some of the advice for Dungeon Masters, and a number of other bits here and there. But it was all under Gary’s direction, and he certainly deserves all the credit.

4. I believe that you were involved in the organization of D&D tournaments for TSR in the early days. Is that correct and, if so, did you see tournament play as an important part of the growth and development of the game?

The early TSR management consisted almost entirely of hardcore gamers who loved tournaments for their own sake and insisted that they be part of every convention TSR sponsored or participated in. So despite the fact that tournaments appealed to a very small percentage of D&D players, and designing for and managing tournaments drained development resources that could have been spent on publishing more or better products, we did lots of them. When I was head of the studio mid-’79 to mid-’81 I tried to make sure that any tournament scenarios we wrote could be repurposed as modules, but they’re two different animals, so we weren’t always successful. The A1-4 series of AD&D modules, for example, were originally written for a big tournament.

I enjoyed tournaments as much as anyone, but I did not, in fact, regard them as “an important part of the growth and development of the game.” I thought they were a distraction from what we should really have been doing, which was figuring out how to reach a broader audience. Eventually TSR came around to this idea, and created the RPGA to handle tournaments and suchlike hardcore community-building work.

5. It's interesting that you called tournaments "a distraction," because that's a view shared by many fans of older editions of D&D. Are there any particular approaches or projects that, in retrospect, you wish had been undertaken, because they would have done a better job of reaching out to a broader audience?

A more professional approach to publishing, instead of rampant cronyism and callous exploitation of the D&D fan base, would have enabled TSR to reach beyond the niche and find a broader audience. D&D would have been able to co-opt computer RPGs and collectible card games, instead of being steam-rollered by them. Ultimately Gygax and the Blumes were unable to transition effectively to the mass market, and thus lost control of their product and brand. I mean, I was only 24-25 years old in those days, and even then I could see where they were going wrong. They were done in by greed and arrogance.

6. You left the roleplaying world professionally many years ago. Are you still involved in the hobby?

My role-playing résumé is long and varied, and continues to this day. Here are the highlights:
- 1979-1981: Game designer for TSR.
- 1980s: occasional scenarios for game publishers (a DC Heroes for Mayfair, a Traveller for GDW), plus articles in RPG magazines.
- 1987-1993: Game designer for MicroProse software, eventually Producer of Role-Playing Games for them, including BloodNet, an Adventure/RPG.
- 1991: Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games published by Prometheus Press.
- 1990-1994 (sideline): Leader of Cruel Hoax Productions, a troupe of six who wrote and produced live-action role-playing games (LARPs) for 50-100 players. Invented Romance rules for LARPs.
- 1995-1999: General Manager and then Executive Director of all games for America Online (AOL); pioneered programming of casual games for a mass audience, while simultaneously pushing early MMO RPGs for hardcore gamers, which included (among many others) the original Neverwinter Nights and Ultima Online.
- 2007-2009: Joined Big Huge Games in Maryland to work with old friends Ken Rolston (Oblivion) and Brian Reynolds (Colonization; Rise of Nations) on a triple-A single-player RPG for Xbox and PS3; did system design and lead narrative design for their (now-canceled) game Ascendant.
- 2009: I have accepted an offer from ZeniMax Online Studio to be their Lead Content Designer on an unannounced MMO RPG, and will be starting there in two weeks.

7. Do you still get the opportunity to play traditional tabletop RPGs?

Sometimes at conventions. I play tabletop RPGs, miniatures games, and LARPs several times a year. But mostly I play console and PC RPGs, because that's what I make, and I need to stay current.

Friday, May 15, 2009

REVIEW: Knockspell #2

As a general rule, I avoid reviewing any products with which I have even a slight association, but I am going to make an exception in the case of issue 2 of Knockspell magazine. I do so because I think it's both a noteworthy product in its own right, as well as another milestone in the development of the old school renaissance. That said, do bear in mind that I contributed two short articles to this issue and weigh my words here accordingly. Although I believe I can offer a fair review of this issue, the possibility of undue bias nevertheless exists and I'd be remiss not to mention it.

Issue 1 of Knockspell was an excellent kick-off for this magazine devoted primarily to supporting Mythmere Games' Swords & Wizardry. Issue 2 builds on the virtues of its immediate predecessor by expanding its page count (t0 86 pages, up from 61) and improving on its presentation. In addition, this issue sees the announcement that Knockspell will now be the "official" magazine for OSRIC, as well as for S&W, although Matt Finch states in his Editor's Note that he doesn't "like the word 'official.' Don’t look for any offi cial rules or official anything else to be coming out of this magazine, but you can expect to see more 1e material starting to show up in these pages as we continue to expand the magazine’s scope." Such a statement is nothing new in the old school community, of course, but it's always good to see this philosophical point restated, as it's at the core of the Old Ways it hopes to revive.

As I noted above, the presentation of this issue is a vast improvement over that of the first one. That's almost certainly due to Jeff Preston's coming on board as art director for Knockspell. Everything looks a great deal more polished than it did in issue 1 but without losing that hobbyist quality that's so essential to the appeal of endeavors like this. The interior illustrations are terrific, with many old hands like James Holloway and Liz Danforth joining the best of the new generation of old school artists. The color cover by Peter Fitzpatrick, depicting an adventurer being lowered down into a forgotten ruin, is inspiring and nicely sets the tone for this issue, a good portion of which is devoted to the thief character class.

Given how much material is packed within its 86 pages, it'd be impossible to comment on it all in any reasonably-sized blog post. Therefore, here are some of the issue's highlights in my opinion:
  • Allan Grohe's discussion of "dungeon dressing," using the example of doors and how they can be used in different ways.
  • Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone's expansion of his superb essay on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld."
  • Four alternate thief classes for Swords & Wizardry, two each for the Core Rules and White Box versions of the game, plus an additional one in an interesting article task resolution in S&W.
  • Another fine Fomalhaut adventure by Gabor Lux.
  • Interviews with Stuart Marshall, Chris Gonnerman, Dan Proctor, and Matt Finch, where they each talk about the retro-clone games they've created.
  • Michael Curtis offers up an amazing article on "Dungeon Oddities" that has already inspired me as I continue to work on my Dwimmermount megadungeon.
  • Spell Complexity rules inspired by the fantasy supplement to Chainmail.
  • An Arnesonian magic system.
  • Many new magic items and creatures.
This list doesn't do issue 2 justice, as there are many more articles, both large and small, to be found within its pages. What's remarkable, I think, is not just the diversity of articles, but their quality. There wasn't a single article that left me wondering, "How did that get in here?" Furthermore, each one gave me something to think about, even the additional thief classes, which is high praise given that I've already written a thief class of my own (and which appears in this issue).

Issue 2 of Knockspell really does exemplify Mythmere Games' tagline "Imagine the Hell Out of It." For $10.15, you get an impressive amount of imagination, to be used as-is or to inspire your own creativity. I'm not exaggerating to say that this issue reminded me of Dragon during its Golden Age height. What we have here is a hobbyist periodical that manages to walk that fine line between amateur and professional that I consider the "sweet spot" for old school products. This isn't something thrown together in a slapdash fashion nor is it a slick and soulless cash grab. It is, I think, a textbook example of just what hobbyists can do nowadays, given the technology currently available.

Knockspell #2
thus sets a very high bar for its future issues and for future old school products in general -- something about which I doubt anyone can complain.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
7 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking a terrific collection of articles to inspire your old school fantasy adventures and campaigns.
Don't Buy This If: You've already got all the inspiration you need. Discount

If you're thinking of buying any Swords & Wizardry products this month, you can get a 10% discount on their cost, if you use the coupon code "MAYCONTEST10" when you place your order. It's a nice little bonus, especially if you place larger orders.

BHP Site is Live

The Brave Halfling Publishing website is now live. The new site is your one-stop shop for purchasing BHP products, posting on their forums, and contacting the people behind the company. Check it out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Spire of Iron and Crystal

The Spire of Iron and Crystal is the second adventure module by Matt Finch released by Mythmere Games for use with Swords & Wizardry. Unlike its predecessor, the introductory Tomb of the Iron God, this module is intended for use with characters of somewhat higher level (5-8). Also unlike its predecessor, which drew solely on traditional swords-and-sorcery ideas and imagery, The Spire of Iron and Crystal has a slightly more science fantasy feel to it, which contributes greatly to the delightfully peculiar ambience the book exudes, from its superb cover by Peter Mullen to the interior art by Jeff Preston and author Matt Finch himself.

Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that the main attraction of this adventure, above and beyond its obvious use in challenging a party of 4-6 S&W players, is its eerie, not-quite-right atmosphere. There's an unnaturalness to the module's locale that comes through very powerfully in reading the text. I was reminded a bit of having read The Vault of the Drow, with its depiction of the "dark fairyland" of Erelhei-Cinlu, which I consider a masterpiece of High Gygaxian prose. The difference, though, is that, like a good weird tale from days gone by, The Spire of Iron and Crystal conveys that unnaturalness slowly, bit by bit, making it impossible to point to a single passage or section of the text that encapsulates the overall feeling I came away with after having read it.

That makes it difficult to explain, even in a lengthy review, precisely why I liked the module so much. On the face of it, The Spire of Iron and Crystal is much like dozens of other modules over the last 30+ years: the characters head off to investigate a mysterious location reputed to hold dangers and fortune and from which no others have ever returned successfully. The location in question is the eponymous Spire of Iron and Crystal, "four massive, egg-shaped crystals are mounted into a twisting, ornate structure of rounded metal girders, one crystal at the top and the other three mounted lower down." As one might expect, the Spire's four levels are inhabited, but these inhabitants are (mostly) creatures unlike any the characters have ever encountered before. Consequently, the module includes nine new monsters, including the korog, a prehuman race of subterranean beings that built the Spire.

The Spire of Iron and Crystal is a "pure" adventuring locale. Although there is a brief backstory about the korog and the original purpose of the Spire, very little of that comes into play unless the referee wishes it to do so. There are no essential encounters, boxed text describing your character's feelings about this eldritch place, or dramatic speeches by the Big Bad Evil Guy. What you get instead is an extremely well presented dungeon filled with weird magic and technology, clever traps, deadly monsters, and commensurate rewards. Yes, there's some great potential here for expansion. I can easily see using this module as the kick-off of an extended campaign involving the korog and their underground civilization, but, as written, the module makes no demand that the referee or the players be interested in such things. The Spire of Iron and Crystal is thus a fine modern example of the location-based approach to adventure design that gave birth to some of the best modules in D&D history.

Retailing for $9.95, this is an excellent mid-level adventure module for referees looking for a slightly more outré locale into which to throw the characters in their campaign. I suspect it will prove a very difficult challenge for many players. Finch pulled out all the stops in writing this one, creating both a truly memorable environment and filling it with obstacles to test even experienced players. If I have a complaint about The Spire of Iron and Crystal, it's that it feels a little cramped. I kept expecting there to be more than its four levels (most of which have only 15-20 rooms), but that probably speaks more to how much I enjoyed it than to any deficiencies in the text itself. And, as I said, the module gives more than enough hooks on which to hang many more follow-up adventures -- high praise for any module, especially one as unique and evocative as this one.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If:
If you're looking for a well-done mid-level fantasy adventure that offers plenty of room for expansion
Don't Buy This If: You don't like location-based adventures or dislike the presence of even mild science fantasy elements in your fantasy games

Miscellaneum of Cinder On Sale

Jeff Rients has now released for sale his Miscellaneum of Cinder, a "36-page booklet of vaguely useful dice charts for games involving mythic underworlds and legendary fire-breathing lizards." At only $1 for the PDF and $5.50 for the print-on-demand hardcopy, you can't go wrong, especially if you're a fan of Jeff's Cinder campaign setting or retro-stupid gaming.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

REVIEW: Dungeonslayers

Dungeonslayers is a free 20-page "old-fashioned roleplaying game" by Christian Kennig. Originally written in German, I presume that some of its linguistic oddities, such as its sub-title, are the result a less than perfect translation into English. Don't misunderstand me: the translation is solid and perfectly intelligible, but there are infelicities here and there in the text that are jarring, such as when the game describes its focus as "slaying monsters and looting dungeons in a primitive and old-fashioned way." From context, I presume the author meant that Dungeonslayers is an old school game that harkens back to the early days of the hobby rather than implying, as the words "primitive" and "old-fashioned" do, that it's an unsophisticated and outmoded RPG. Such are the hazards of translating from one language to another.

I mention the translation at all, because, for its length, Dungeonslayers is in fact a very good game -- simple without being simplistic, focused without being narrow, and very much in keeping with the spirit of old school gaming, even if its mechanics owe more to 3e than to OD&D. In this respect, Dungeonslayers reminded me a bit of Microlite20, another excellent minimalist RPG that pares down the bloat of the D20 rules to a more manageable level (and that serves as the basis for the terrific Microlite74 rules). That said, Dungeonslayers is most emphatically a modern game; it's rules are not old school so much as designed to emulate the freewheeling style of old school games. For that reason, I suspect it's probably more of interest to gamers who either aren't interested in going "back to the source" or who never played such games in the first place.

As in D&D, players create a character by first choosing a race (dwarf, elf, and human are given as examples), each of which grants some small benefit, such as nightvision or a bonus talent point, in addition to a +1 bonus to a single ability. There are three available character classes (fighter, scout, and spellcaster), with the spellcaster itself being divided into three sub-classes (black mage, healer, and wizard). The classes feel somewhat vestigial compared to OD&D, since their main differences (aside from the fact that only spellcasters can learn spells) is the rate at which abilities improve, what talents one can learn, and a +1 bonus to a single ability. All classes require the same amount of XP to gain a level and the rules provide for advancement up to level 20. All classes likewise gain learning points (by which they can raise abilities and hit points) and talent points at the same rate, so the game is designed with at least some concern for balance between the various options available to players.

There are three attributes (body, agility, and mind), underneath of which are there are two abilities. Players are given 18 points to assign to their character's attributes, but there is an upper limit of 10 and only even numbered values may be chosen. To generate ability scores, a player divides the appropriate attribute by two and distributes that number of points among the two abilities, with 0 being an acceptable option. Thus, a character with 4 Body may have Strength 0 and Toughness 2. Characters have numerous combat values, such as Hit Points, Defense, and Dodge, whose values are determined by combining together attributes and abilities in various ways. Talents are a bit like feats from 3e but much more modest in scope, with most offering fairly small benefits to characters under very specific circumstances, such as +1 bonus to stealth checks or +1 bonus on all healing and protective spells.

Checks are at the heart of Dungeonslayers mechanics, a check being a single D20 roll under a check value that typically consists of adding an attribute and an ability together, modified by the situation. Though not a fan of universal mechanics in general, I didn't find this one as irksome, mostly because there's no exahustive list of standard actions and the formulae for implementing them. Instead, referees are free to combine any attribute with any ability as he deems fit to determine the chance of success. Certainly there are examples in the rules for many actions but each referee could easily ignore them and determine successes according to his own sense of which attribute and ability seem most appropriate for a given action. Combat is quick and easy and consists an attack roll to hit and deal damage and a defense roll to reduce any damage suffered. Magic is interesting and low-key with a clear Vancian pedigree. Spellcasters can have only one active spell at a time, but they can cast it as many times as they are able to do so, based on the spell's "cooldown" -- an unfortunate invasion of computer game terminology into Dungeonslayers. Changing from one active spell to another is not automatic and could, in the heat of battle, prove difficult.

Dungeonslayers has a brief game mastering section that discusses the creation of dungeons, awarding XP, and adjudicating various hazards, such as traps and random encounters. There's also a short bestiary and listing of magic items, along with a 15-room dungeon adventure called "Lord of the Rats." Rounding out the PDF is a 2-page character sheet.

All in all, Dungeonslayers is a nicely presented and simple game in a vein not unlike that of the venerable Tunnels & Trolls, which is to say, a game whose enjoyment depends on a combination of rational game mechanics combined with having players and a referee willing to "fill in the gaps" with their imaginations. Dungeonslayers is also a game that cries out for house rules and supplements (easily done since it's released for free under the Creative Commons License), because, though complete as written, it's still a very sketchy game. Regular play will undoubtedly result in new options, expanded rules, and personal interpretations to accommodate the quirks of each group of players. Personally, I see that as a good thing and an indication that, while the engine that drives it isn't a vintage model, it can still take you to many of the same places as the classics of the past.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If: You're looking for a set of simple, minimalist rules for running fantasy adventures (or just looking for ideas to add to one you're already using)
Don't Get This If: You prefer "crunchier" rules systems or already have a set of minimalist rules you're happy with

Knockspell #2 Now On Sale

News from Matt Finch of Mythmere Games:

issue #2 is now on sale at the Swords & Wizardry storefront. This issue contains dungeon design advice from both Allan Grohe and Philotomy Jurament, an adventure by Gabor Lux, and all kinds of other articles from jousting to monsters and all points in between! The art in this issue is phenomenal: artists include Jim Holloway, Liz Danforth, and others. The cover piece is "Dungeoneer," by Peter Fitzpatrick. Games covered include 0e, 1e, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and other retro-clones. 86 pages. Note: the pdf isn't up as of 5/13, but will be up shortly.

DURING MAY the prices of Knockspell #2, Spire of Iron and Crystal (module), The S&W/0e Monster Book, and Eldritch Weirdness Compilation Books Three to One are all reduced, because we're in the middle of another lulu sales competition.

Table of Contents:
3 Editor’s Note, Matt Finch
4 Art Director’s Note, Jeff Preston
4 From Kuroth’s Quill, Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
8 The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
14 The Trouble with Thieves, James Maliszewski
16 WhiteBox Thief (1): The Treasure Seeker, Rob Ragas
17 WhiteBox Thief (2): The “Standard” Thief, Salvatore Macri
18 Core Rules Thief (1): The Skillful Shadow, Salvatore Macri
20 Core Rules Thief (2), James Maliszewski
21 Thieves and Tasks, Akrasia
24 Isles on an Emerald Sea 2, Gabor Lux
31 Retro-Clones: Interviews with the Authors
36 Jousting (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
37 Dungeon Oddities, Michael Curtis
45 The Zocchi Experience, Matt Finch
46 The Claws of Ssur-Sparih, James Carl Boney
47 Random City Lair Generator, Sean Wills
48 Random Thieves Guild Generator, Robert Lionheart
51 The Fantasy Marketplace: Looking at Merchants Differently, Michael Shorten
55 Spell Complexity (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
57 Thoughts on Arnesonian Alchemy in the Original Dungeon Game, Jason Vasche
60 When is a Spell Book Much More than a Spell Book?, Brendan Falconer
62 Random Pits & Occupants, Mike Davison
63 Magic Swords & Treasure Maps, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
67 Leprechauns, David (“Sham”) Bowman
69 Why White Box?, Jim Adams
71 Surviving Old-School Dungeons, Sean Ahmed
72 Three Sorcerous Creations, James Carl Boney
77 Magic Items
78 Review: On the Road of Knives, Matt Finch
79 Masterminds & Minions, bat
82 The Bestiary
86 Classified Ads

Retrospective: Monster Cards

Until comparatively recently, I'd never met anyone else who'd seen, let alone owned the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Cards. Released in four sets of 20 cards in 1982, they were apparently not widely released, thereby explaining their relative uncommonness. I owned all four sets, because I owned everything TSR released for D&D back then and because I genuinely believed I'd get a lot of use out of these cards -- except that I didn't.

Each monster card is roughly the same size as a large index card. On the front side is a full-color illustration of the monster in question and on the reverse are abbreviated Monster Manual stats and some descriptive text. Each set included 17 standard AD&D monsters and three new ones. Several monsters made their debut in these cards, but I can recall only one -- the thri-kreen -- that stands out as having become a new classic, unless you count obliviax moss or the galeb duhr as "new classics." And of course the thri-kreen itself is, in one of those ironies that often afflicts overly litigious corporations, a knock-off of Arduin's phraints. The real interest of the cards, though, is the new art in a wide variety of styles, from the phantasmagorical Erol Otus to the comic book stylings of Jeff Dee. Some of the illustrations are better than others, of course -- I particularly dislike Jim Roslof's kobolds, for example -- but I have long felt that one of the great strengths of the Golden Age was its esthetic diversity, which stands in contrast to later ages, which seem to have trade that diversity for better overall art direction.

I presume the intention behind the cards was that the referee could use them in play as a handy reference without having to consult the Monster Manual for stats. That's certainly how I'd assumed I'd use them. The problem is that, even in 1982, AD&D monsters were still simple enough mechanically that there was little to no need for such reference tools. Most monsters could have their stats written on a single line of two-column text and the rest required two at most. Likewise, monster abilities were simple enough that, so long as you'd used a monster before, you could pretty easily remember how they worked. It wasn't a matter of "rules mastery" or having a photographic memory so much as the fact that AD&D, at its root, was still a simple game. You really could keep it all in your head without the need for constant page flipping and chart scanning.

This meant the monster cards were, ultimately, attractive but impractical curiosities. I suspect that TSR hoped more gamers would see them as essential than did so, which might explain why there were no more sets after the initial four releases. The new monsters were all eventually published elsewhere (in the Monster Manual II), but, with the exception of the thri-kreen, none has had a lasting influence over the subsequent development of D&D -- little wonder then that so few people remember these products.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dwimmermount and the Gods

One of the things I decided early on about my Dwimmermount campaign was that the actual existence or non-existence of the gods would be a matter of debate, even within the setting. The mere existence of clerics offers no help on this score, since clerics are just magic-users by another name. The traditional OD&D spell list is likewise of no assistance, since commune, contact other plane, and even speak with dead are all sufficiently vague in their effects as to raise almost as many questions as they answer. Certainly none make it clear that there are gods, only that there are intelligent entities beyond the mortal realm in which the player characters operate.

Indeed, in the world of Dwimmermount, demons, who are exemplars of Chaos, boast that humanity's hope in the gods -- and humanity's alone, for no other race worships gods -- is utterly misplaced, for there are no gods. Of course, demons have a vested interest in convincing humans to abandon their faith in the gods, so many, if not most, assume them to be lying. Of course, the demons' insistence on this point is troubling, since there really aren't any other examples of "extra-planar" entities to contradict them. I have no angels or devils in my campaign world and elementals care nothing for the affairs of men. Consequently, there's no easy way for anyone to confirm or deny the existence of the gods.

That doesn't prevent there being religions, of course. To date, three religions have played roles in the campaign. The first is that of Tyche, or Lady Luck (or even The Lady), as she is known. Her faith honors boldness of action and the acceptance of the reality that one can do all the "right" things in life and still suffer in spite of -- or even because of -- it all. There are no stories of Tyche ever walking the earth or doing great deeds on behalf of men. It's quite possible that "she" is nothing more than a personification of a philosophy about the nature of fate, free will, and destiny. Turms Termax was once a mortal man, or so the legends say. There are many stories of his former existence, including relics and sites associated with them, but since his apotheosis, he has not seen fit to return to the world in any form. Typhon, the Lawful (Evil) god of rulership, order, and civilization is much like Tyche: devoid of any stories of his actions on earth. His priests are among the foremost defenders of civilization against the depredations of Chaos and it's possible "Typhon" is just a focus for the devotion rather than an actually existent being.

Or not. The point is that I've made a concerted effort to ensure there is some mystery about the nature of the nature and existence of the gods. I think this lends a stronger swords-and-sorcery feel to the setting and it gives me lots more scope to describe a world in which "faith" is religion bears some resemblance to its real world counterpart. Likewise, by muddying the waters about the gods, it makes the nature of alignment much clearer: it's a statement of what and for whom one fights rather than being a shorthand for one's personality traits and moral philosophy. So far this arrangement has served me well and I look forward to seeing where it takes the campaign in the future.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Traveller In The New Yorker

Allan Grohe pointed me toward an article in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. Part of the "Annals of Innovation" series, the current article is entitled "How David Beats Goliath" and discusses how underdogs often beat the odds by behaving in unexpected and seemingly irrational ways. The article offers many differnt examples to advance its thesis, but the one that caught Allan's eye and mine was the discussion of Doug Lenat and the computer program Eurisko, which he used to win the 1981 and 1982 Trillion Credit Squadron tournaments sponsored by Game Designers Workshop.

For myself, I find it endlessly satisfying that, because of Lenat and Eurisko, Traveller will forever be linked to the history of the development of artificial intelligence. Not too bad for a roleplaying game set in a far future whose computers are described as significantly less impressive than most desktop computers currently available.

REVIEW: Old School Encounters Reference

In my recent review, I lamented the fact that there were so few products in print that were of utility equal to that of Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets. In saying so I reveal the poor state of my memory, because I should have remembered Scot "Kellri" Hoover's fourth installment in his "Classic Dungeon Designer Notebook" series, Old School Encounters Reference. Like much of the best old school material released these days, CDDN #4 is available for free, which is all the more remarkable, as it is probably the most useful 160 pages in old school gaming. Indeed, what Kellri has assembled in this PDF is not only a worthy successor to the Ready Ref Sheets, but also one of the best "introductions" to what old school gaming is all about ever written. I think it's the perfect companion for Matt Finch's superb A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, providing as it does heaping helping "practical Zen moments" in the form of pages upon pages of tables, charts, and other reference material.

CDDN #4 boasts of "contain[ing] everything the Dungeon Master needs for designing encounters for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventures," but that doesn't really do it justice. For one thing, the Old School Encounters Reference is useful not just for designing adventures, but also for world building in general, as I'll explain. For another, its contents are eminently usable not just for AD&D, but for any game of Gygaxo-Arnseonian heritage. I'd even venture to guess that referees of games even farther removed from the D&D family tree could benefit from this PDF, since a goodly portion of its charts and tables are not tied to game mechanics of any kind.

The Old School Encounters Reference is divided into eight sections: Men, Humanoids & Demihumans, The Underworld, The Wilderness, Settlements & Civilization, Treasures, The Campaign, and Forms & Appendices. Each section begins with a pertinent quote from Gary Gygax or a pulp fantasy author. Though dense with information, the layout is clear and easy to use. That in itself is a marvel, considering how often professionally produced charts and tables prove to be confusing and impractical in their presentation. Just as marvelous is the extensiveness of all the tables, presenting more options than most referees will likely ever use. This is the heart and soul not only of products like this but also old school gaming in general -- the willingness to employ a vast palette of alternatives, a veritable smörgåsbord of ideas both mundane and bizarre, the random combination of which can produce gloriously unexpected results.

There is simply so much information in the Old School Encounters Reference, that it'd be impossible to describe them all. Here are but a few of the highlights of each section:
  • Men: Dozens of pregenerated NPCs of every class, pregenerated henchmen/hirelings, NPC details and motivations, pregenerated NPC adventuring parties, spellbook contents for magic-users from 1st to 18th+ level.
  • Humanoids & Demihumans: Humanoid ability scores, tribal spellcasters, humanoid and demihuman group generattion.
  • The Underworld: Wandering monster charts, doors & locks table, ruin table, tricks & traps (including special/magical effects), animated statues, quests & geas results.
  • The Wilderness: Random terrain generation, weather generation, wilderness encounter tables, encounters at sea, hunting & foraging tables, random herbs.
  • Settlements & Civilization: Inn & tavern rumors, markets & bazaars, shrines & temples, random structures, underworld guilds.
  • Treasures: Treasure assortments for levels 1-9, treasure assortments by type, treasure maps, quick & weird magic items.
  • The Campaign: Adventure locations, adventure names, adventure antagonists, exotic places, random gods.
  • Forms & Appendices: Bibliography, dice ranges, record sheets and logs.
I've been using the Old School Encounters Reference in my Dwimmermount campaign since the beginning and it really is the perfect way to jog my imagination and inspire me, not to mention eliminate some of the tedium of generating NPCs and treasures. It's a near-perfect companion for any old school D&D referee and I'm frankly amazed that some enterprising publisher hasn't offered Kellri a contract to publish it. Of course, I think the PDF serves the old school community far better than any published product would do, since it's readily available and accessible so long as you can get online.

If the Ready Ref Sheets are a treasure trove, the Old School Encounters Reference is a dragon's hoard. It's one of the few old school projects of recent vintage that I'd deem as a "must have," both for what it includes and for what it is -- an umatched example of creativity by someone who doesn't just get what the old school is all about on some abstracted, airy-fairy philosophical level but who knows what it's like to play these games and what's needed to do so successfully. The Old School Encounters Reference is like looking into a veteran referee's binder of notes without the need for having to decipher his bad handwriting. It's simply amazing and, if you don't already have a copy on your hard drive, you need to get one now.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
10 out of 10

Get This If: You play or referee old school D&D, love random rolls, and/or wish to see the essence of old school gaming distilled into table form.

Don't Get This If: You don't believe in the oracular power of dice.