Monday, August 31, 2009
When I was a younger man, I had no trouble getting hold of books by Howard or Merritt or Leiber, so I devoured those and promptly forgot about St. Clair and her 1969 novel The Shadow People. It wasn't until years later that I actually came across a copy of it in a used book store and picked it up on a whim. I dimly recalled the name and figured it might be worth reading if Gary considered it an inspiration on AD&D.
I'm glad I did so, because, whatever its shortcomings as a novel, it's one that (I think) gives some insight into the origin of everyone's favorite dark elves, the drow. The Shadow People is about human beings stumbling upon the dark fairy world that exist just behind the walls of certain places in the world, where twisted, emaciated elves lay in wait, plotting the downfall of the world above. Addicted to hallucinogenic fungi, their plots often go awry thanks to their penchant for treachery against their own kind, a trait that has probably saved humanity far more than outright heroics against the dark elves.
It's hard not to see the drow in St. Clair's dark elves, but perhaps I'm simply projecting them backward in time. After all, part of the drow's appeal is how archetypal they are. They draw so brilliantly on centuries of myths and legends about dark elves while having their own unique spin that they seem exactly as our subconscious would imagine them to be. St. Clair's dark elves have similar qualities, though they are a bit more explicitly mythical than are the drow, right down to their use of the hallucinogenic fungi to lure human beings into their own surreal kingdom.
I can certainly see why Gygax found the book so attractive. He had a great love for creepy fairy realms, something that reached its fullest flower in his post-D&D games, Mythus and Lejendary Adventure. The Shadow People is well written and enjoyable as a story in its own right, but I found it particularly useful for its presentation of another take on dark elves. I found myself with plenty of great ideas to swipe for my Dwimmermount campaign and I suspect I won't be the only referee mining St. Clair's novel in this way.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
People of Pembrooktonshire describes 137 of the eponymous town's 2000 inhabitants. These descriptions are almost entirely free of game mechanics and those that are included are sufficiently generic that they could easily be ignored or adapted to one's favorite game system. In some respects, that's definitely a boon, but I will admit that I was mildly disappointed that Raggi made no effort to place these NPCs within the game context of D&D and its clones/simulacra, especially since the supplement is supposed to be written for them. D&D has long been notorious for its difficulty in describing "ordinary people" and how such people might interact with a world in which leveled adventurers possessed of great power also exist. A number of approaches and "solutions" have been offered over the years, but none of them are completely satisfactory. It would thus have been nice to see Raggi's take on the question.
The NPCs described in People of Pembrooktonshire are a varied lot. Each is given a name and an occupation, along with a description whose length ranges from one to six (or more) paragraphs, depending on their importance. Raggi did a very good job in distinguishing each NPC from the others -- perhaps too good a job. Of the 137 people described, very few of them could truly be called "ordinary," as most have some secret, personality quirk, or oddity associated with them. While this makes them memorable, it also gives the impression that Pembrooktonshire is a very strange place. My reference to Twin Peaks in the review of Three Brides is not too far off the mark. Granted, as described in that module, Pembrooktonshire is a very strange place, so perhaps it's not surprising that three local cows are actually polymorphed doppelgangers or that one of its residents is building a large ship, Noah style, in anticipation of a flood he believes will destroy the landlocked town. For myself, a handful of such NPCs would have been appreciated, a much needed leaven when detailing a staid, out-of-the-way little settlement, but over a hundred such eccentrics and weirdos? I found it a bit much.
And that's the true frustration I have with People of Pembrooktonshire: taken in small pieces, it's excellent, but, as a whole, I found it difficult to take. Nearly all of the NPCs, in and of themselves, are interesting and quite a number of them are sheer genius. Taken in aggregate, though, they make Pembrooktonshire seem like a madhouse run by its inmates. Now, that may well be the point, but, if so, I think it limits the utility of this supplement. Played as written, I'm not sure Pembrooktonshire "works" for me, even given the peculiar backstory detailed in Three Brides. It's rather more surreal than I appreciate, which may say more about my own psychology than about the supplement's defects, but there it is.
Ironically, I think People of Pembrooktonshire is generally better written than Three Brides. Raggi's authorial voice is more consistent throughout and his mordant humor and wit come through much more clearly here. I appreciated the many in-jokes, puns, and allusions hidden in the NPC descriptions. There are very few typographical or grammatical issues in the book, although I noticed two NPCs with identical names and nearly identical backgrounds that nevertheless seem to be two different people entirely. I also found the implied social structure and culture of Pembrooktonshire much more "modern" than I expect many gamers like for their fantasy, but that's more a matter of taste than anything.
People of Pembrooktonshire is thus a good, if narrowly focused, product whose idiosyncrasies might justifiably limit its appeal. It feel somewhat like an experiment -- is it possible to create 137 distinct NPCs for a single locale? -- and I think, on that level, it's a success, albeit one that shows the dangers inherent in seeking such variety. As a gaming supplement, I am less convinced of its success. Its contents are certainly eccentric and its general tone doesn't really match any of the most common styles of fantasy roleplaying in vogue either within the old school community or without it. Again, that may be taken as a positive for many and I don't mean to suggest it's a bad thing. I mean only to say that People of Pembrooktonshire is a bold and original product but both its boldness and originality are sufficiently off-kilter as to be off-putting.
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10
Buy This If: You prefer your sleepy, isolated towns to be populated by eccentrics and people with something to hide.
Don't Buy This If: You think the inhabitants of The Village of Hommlet are exactly what you want in fantasy townsfolk.
Friday, August 28, 2009
What I need is a single page that includes twelve blank tables, each of which has twelve rows on it. This page needs to be readable by Open Office, my word processing program. I simply cannot get the program to produce this and it's undoubtedly because I am simply an idiot when it comes to tech-related matters.
For bonus points it'd be great if the tables were themselves numbered and divided into two columns. What I plan to do with the tables is use them to create 144 different possibilities by rolling two twelve-sided dice, the result of the first roll indicating which table to check and the the result of the second indicating which row on that table to check.
If someone could do this for me, I'd be in their debt. Thanks in advance.
Number Appearing: 1d4+1
% in Lair: 20%
Armor Class: 5
Move: 10, 30 (flying)
Hit Dice: 6
Attacks: 1 bite (2d4), 1 sting (1d4+poison)
Hoard Class: Nil
The letow is a man-sized flying insect native to worlds/times/dimensions where the local gravity is lighter and the atmosphere thinner. The creature possesses a nasty bite and a worse sting. Anyone stung by a letow must make a saving throw vs. poison at -2 or die. Unsurprisingly, letow poison is highly prized for its lethality, particularly among assassins and other unsavory sorts, who pay handsomely for it. Anyone who slays a letow must must wash himself with alcohol or a similar cleanser in order to remove the insect's pheromones from his body. Failure to do so has a 25% chance per turn of attracting another 1d4+1 letow, who can detect the pheromones up to 1 mile away.
- Though ability scores can be increased through training, there are limits to high how they can be increased, said limits based on the results of the initial random rolls for the initial scores.
- Some ability scores simply cannot be improved through training, such as SIZ and INT. CHA is variable based on the success or failure of one's previous adventures, since successful adventurers are more likely to be perceived as good leaders than those who fail.
- Beginning characters start with very few skills and most at fairly low percentages. You can get higher skills only be spending starting cash to train or, more likely, accepting credit from various guilds and organizations to acquire the training.
In any case, I'm enjoying my latest bit of gaming archeology. Much like OD&D, which I never played back in the day, I missed out on several Chaosium classics the first time around. So it's a real joy to "discover" them now. Reading them more than two decades after the fact is a pretty enlightening experience and I suspect that, in some ways, I probably can appreciate them more now than I could ever have done when they were newly released.
More on this in future posts.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
I never owned this game back in the day, though I wanted it very badly. I think I only ever saw it once in the stores, while I was on vacation in North Carolina. Rather than pick it up, I bought the D&D Companion Rules instead and, much as I loved that particular boxed set, I think I'd have been better off if I'd grabbed Ringworld instead.
I can't help but feel that I missed out on a lot of Chaosium-fueled gaming goodness in my formative years. Few companies can compare to Chaosium creatively. I don't think they produced a single genuinely bad game, even if they produced several that weren't to my liking. And I have long considered two Chaosium efforts -- Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon -- to be among the best RPGs ever written, nearly perfect from the start. There aren't many game companies with a similar track record of excellence, certainly not the TSR by whose Gospel I lived as an impressioble youth.
Better late than never, I guess.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
These nasty fellows have all seen combat in my Dwimmermount campaign. I'm sorry to say that, despite their fearsome appearances, they didn't prove much of a match for the adventurers they faced. Perhaps their brethren deeper in the dungeon will learn something from their mistakes.
Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is thus an early example of the "adventure path" model so in vogue these days. The early adventures are (largely) playable independently of the others, but the later ones all assume the Investigators have completed the previous ones in order to make sense, unlike, for example, the Giant-Drow series, whose individual modules are all, well, modular. Of course, the explicit linking of seven adventures into "a global campaign to save mankind" is precisely what made this product so revolutionary in its day. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was a complete, pre-scripted campaign in about 60 pages, giving the Keeper everything he needed to keep his players' busy for months. It's not hard to see why it was so well received by gamers and critics alike.
I know I loved it. I've probably used Shadows of Yog-Sothoth as the basis for a Call of Cthulhu campaign more times than I care to remember. This is partly the result of its being a complete campaign under two covers and partly because the campaign it offers is a terrific, globe-trotting romp from Boston to Scotland to Easter Island, filled with memorable antagonists, such as the immortal sorcerer Carl Stanford (whose name is a reference to CoC's creator Sandy Petersen, whose full name is Carl Sanford Joslyn Petersen). Along the way the Investigators get to take on a plethora of Mythos opponents, including not just Nyarlathotep but even Great Cthulhu himself. It's a heady mixture of elements that I found irresistible back in the day and pretty well defined my sense of what Call of Cthulhu was like as a game.
Nowadays, I don't think as highly of it. The individual adventures feel more than a little railroad-y in places and the overall feel of the thing has, in my opinion, more in common with pulp adventures than with H.P. Lovecraft's brooding cosmicism. Of course, for some, that's precisely the appeal and neither criticism is a fatal one. In my experience, most gamers prefer a large dollop of pulp in their CoC games and the scenarios are short and loosely written enough that their railroad tracks can easily be modified or removed entirely without doing much harm either to them or to the overall direction of the campaign.
Still, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is an early effort and it shows. It's a "classic" product more in the sense that it came early enough in the history of Call of Cthulhu to provide a template that other products would follow and improve upon rather than being a product that still retains its power nearly three decades later. I have many fond memories of playing through it, but I don't have any desire to return to it now -- a good example of where my memories of a thing are better than the thing itself.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Number Appearing: 2d4
% in Lair: 25%
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 7
Attacks: 4 claws (1d6+2), 1 bite (2d6)
Hoard Class: VII
The cattha is a ten-legged, carnivorous feline native to the highlands of alien worlds. Like many other alien creatures, the cattha is largely hairless, although its head sports a mane of thick, wiry hairs. This deadly predator is both exceptionally strong and quick, using its natural agility and speed to pounce on its prey before it even realizes it is in danger. Catthas are rarely encountered alone, as they form hunting parties of two or more in order to increase their chances of finding food for their voracious appetites.
You have to remember that, when I felt this way, I was young and it was at the height of roleplaying's never-to-be-repeated faddish popularity. Back then, it really was easy to find a gaming group for just about any game you wanted to play. Between the pick-up games in game stores, the game days in public libraries, and RPG clubs in schools, it was amazingly easy to find other gamers who shared your particular tastes, whatever they might have been. Goodness knows I was introduced to a lot of games in those days through these avenues, so why couldn't "those T&T weirdos" find some others to play with?
As I discovered, Tunnels & Trolls wasn't the only game to have solitaire adventures. RuneQuest had them too and I had seen RQ players with my own eyes, so I knew they existed in large enough numbers to support campaigns, whereas I never met a T&T player in the flesh until years later. Granted, I thought RQ players were weirdos too -- like I said, I was young -- but RuneQuest always struck me as having a fairly large following. So, what was the appeal of all these solitaire adventures?
You have to remember that, although I did read them, I was never a huge fan of Choose Your Own Adventure-style books. I owned a few of the Fighting Fantasy books, of course, but they always seemed somehow "deficient" to me -- a poor substitute for actually sitting around a table with my friends and roleplaying "properly." On some level, I still feel that way, which is why I've similarly been unenthused about computer roleplaying games, even when they're really well done, like Planescape: Torment or Knights of the Old Republic. Obviously, not everyone feels this way -- nor did they back in the day -- but I have to admit to continued bafflement at the appeal of it all.
I do own several T&T solitaires, which I recently bought as part of my researches into that venerable game. I plan on playing them soon, since I've been meaning to do so for some time. Once I have, I'll be sure to make a post or two about the experience, since this is largely terra incognita for me and some may find my thoughts as I explore this area of gaming interesting (or at least amusing).
Monday, August 24, 2009
Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game. Thus, they gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells. They may use magic armor and still act as Magic-Users.Gamers are still debating exactly what this means. Greyhawk didn't make the situation any clearer, as it now enabled elves to "work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category." In retrospect, I see this as an early statement of what would become AD&D's multiclassing rules, which are quite different than the way OD&D describes elves' ability to function as either a Fighting-Man or Magic-User on an adventure-by-adventure basis.
By contrast, Tom Moldvay's Basic Rulebook is quite clear on the topic:
[Elves] can be dangerous opponents, able to fight with any weapon and use magic spells as well, but prefer to spend their time feasting and frollicking in wooded glades ... Elves have the advantages of both fighters and magic-users. They may use shields and can wear any type of armor, and may fight with any kind of weapon. They can also cast spells like a magic-user, and use the same spell list.As a balancing factor, they generally require about twice the amount of experience to gain levels as does a fighter of the same level. It's really an elegant solution to the problems in understanding the text of OD&D on the topic.
Of course, once I was exposed to AD&D, I felt D&D's race-as-class solution was anything but elegant. In fact, I recall finding it downright ludicrous: "All elves are fighter/magic-users. That's silly," I would say. I had no problem with elven fighter/magic-users, of course. What I objected to was what I perceived to be a lack of meaningful options when it came to playing an elf (or a dwarf or a halfling, for that matter). Back then, race-as-classs was evidence that "Basic D&D," as I called all non-Advanced versions of the game, was "a kid's game," lacking in the sophistication and depth I associated with AD&D.
I don't think that anymore. In my Dwimmermount game, there's a single elf character, Dordagdonar. Initially, I used the Swords & Wizardry version of the "elven adventurer," which is one interpretation of the OD&D rules. We quickly found the switching back and forth between fighting-man and magic-user to be unwieldy in play and so opted for an interpretation that's actually pretty close to Moldvay's, although I retained OD&D's strictures about spellcasting in armor, which is why Dordagdonar still wears leather +1 rather than heavier armor.
Aside from mechanical simplicity, what I really like about race-as-class, at least in the case of elves, is that it helps emphasize their differences from humanity. Moldvay elves are much more strongly archetypal and feel more folkloric to me than do AD&D's elves. Indeed, they remind me of Poul Anderson's elves and that's never a bad thing in my book. Moldvay's dwarves and halflings somehow don't quite generate the same degree of fascination for me, perhaps because I don't have a solid conception of what their archetype is. As I've said before, I'm ambivalent about halflings in D&D generally and dwarves generally seem to be treated as caricatures rather than archetypes.
Still, none of this has any real impact on the notion of class-as-race so much as the specific implementation of them in Moldvay's rulebook. I like the elf more and more as I use it. I find it very effective at conveying a difference between elves and humans, something that's important to me when portraying elves. They shouldn't just feel like short humans with pointy ears; they should follow their own rules.
Of these pastiches, 1976's Mahars of Pellucidar was perhaps the most successful, in that a sequel to it was eventually published in 1980, although a widely-held rumor claims that the Burroughs estate tried to block the sequel's appearance for unspecified reasons. Mahars of Pellucidar tells the story of Christopher West, a friend of Dr Kinsley, a brilliant scientist who has (conveniently) developed a device that can both function as a teleporter and see locations up to 200 miles beneath the surface of the Earth. West sees a beautiful woman about to be sacrificed and, armed with only a penknife and a fire axe, jumps into the teleporter to save her. He succeeds in his immediate goal, finding himself in the subterranean realm of Pellucidar, whose Stone Age natives dub him "Red Axe" because of the strange weapon he wields. From them, he learns that the reptilian Mahars lord it over the humans and West vows to aid them in ending their tyranny.
Mahars of Pellucidar, even by the standards of pastiche, isn't a great book. It's certainly fun, in a Saturday afternoon cliffhanger kind of way, but it lacks most of what made Burroughs's original tales so enjoyable. It's also an odd story in that, while set in Pellucidar and including the Mahars first mentioned in At the Earth's Core, it's otherwise largely divorced from the original story. In addition, there are some subtle differences and errors -- Burroughs stated that Pellucidar was 500 miles beneath the Earth's surface, not 200, as Holmes has it -- that make the book feel off, as if it were not merely a pastiche but a knock-off, if one can understand the distinction. That feeling probably isn't helped by the fact that its cover was illustrated by Boris Vallejo, who's made a good living by frequently being confused with Frank Frazetta.
If you can find a copy, Mahars of Pellucidar is still worth a read. It's not great literature by any means, but there's an uncomplicated enthusiasm to the text that should serve as a tonic to the overwrought seriousness of too many fantasy series published in the last 20 years -- and unlike them, it's a quick read too.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
1. How did you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?
I had tried to come up with my own system, working from boardgames and The Golden Bough and did not get very far. One day I sat down next to Sandy Petersen in a class at BYU, saw his D&D rule books, and started asking questions.
2. It's interesting that you tried to construct your own roleplaying game before you'd actually seen the D&D rulebooks. Do you recall why you tried to do this? Had you heard of D&D beforehand?
It was 1969 or so, I was just starting High School, had never played miniatures, but I had encountered some Avalon Hill/SPI boardgames (and subscribed to Strategy & Tactics for years). D&D wouldn't come out until 1974, and I wanted to play a game. I had a mythos. I wanted a game, but did not get very far (I was trying to make unit counters work in the place of miniatures, which I had never seen).
3. You were given special thanks in Supplements II and III to OD&D. What were your contributions to those two books?
I did the underwater encounters, monsters and some other material in Blackmoor and a character class I designed was taken apart and turned into the psionic powers in Eldritch Wizardry.
4. So the introduction of psionics into D&D is your fault then?
Kind of, I wanted a character class, but the editor decided that the abilities belonged available to everyone, except for elves (I was 5'2" at the time and built like a wrestler, because I was a wrestler, and had more sympathy with dwarves than elves, in case you are curious).
5. How did you come to be hired at TSR and what were your responsibilities at the company?
Gary wanted me to visit, so I worked a summer. I did Judges Guild product reviews, wrote the Expert Rulebook and did the minigame Saga.
6. So how did you meet Gary Gygax in the first place?
Correspondence. Then face to face years later when I spent a summer working at TSR. We got together at Dragoncon in Fort Worth and introduced each other to our wives even later.
7. Speaking of the Expert Rulebook, what was your role in bringing that particular product to publication?
They had already decided to do it and Tom Moldvay had finished the book that went before it. I was supposed to pull things together and get it written.
8. Were you more of a developer/editor than a designer then or did you and David Cook work together closely in the writing of the rulebook?
We were in the same room at TSR, but it wasn't seen as that difficult, though everyone felt free to kibitz and make comments, even the artist (no one liked the idea of hairy rhinos being intelligent) ...
9. You contributed to Monsters of Myth, showing us a little of your campaign world's unique characteristics, including its take on Chaos, which had a distinctly Lovecraftian quality to it. Would you consider yourself a big fan of Lovecraft and, if so, how have his writings influenced your gaming?
I like Cthulhloid menaces, though I'm not always a believer in their not being able to be beaten. My home brew game was the originator for Call of Cthulhu according to Sandy [Petersen --JDM], but it provided as much to that game as a pair of dice would have, Sandy did everything of significance from his own work.
10. Speaking of Lovecraft, is there any chance you're related to Captain Obed Marsh of Innsmouth, Massachusetts?
All the Marsh families in the United States before WWII are related to each other as descendants of John Marsh of the William and Mary Company (he was a bondservant with that group).
11. Do you still roleplay and, if so, what games do you play nowadays?
I play over at Sandy Petersen's from time to time, not as often as I would like.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The first one I thought about doing were the great white apes, which do make an appearance of sorts in the Moldvay edition of D&D. Moldvay's white apes aren't the impressive 15-foot tall terrors of Burroughs and they possess only two, rather than four, arms. Of course, Third Edition did introduce a creature that matches the Barsoomian ape more closely: the girallon. Since it's already Open Game Content, it seemed simpler to adapt it than to create the creature anew, which is what I've done here.
The entirety of this monster is hereby designated as Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Number Appearing: 1d4+4
% in Lair: 10%
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 9
Attacks: 4 claws (1d4+2), 1 bite (1d8+1)
Hoard Class: XX
The girallon is a fifteen-foot-tall albino ape-like creature, lacking hair on its body, except for its head, which also possesses a large, fanged mouth. A girallon has six limbs, the middle set of which can be used either as arms or as legs, depending on the circumstances. These creatures are strong and dexterous and possess remarkable intelligence, with some of them even able to craft crude weapons and other implements. Girallons typically live in small family groups led by a dominant male. Fortunately, girallons are rarely encountered, as they prefer to dwell in out of the way places, particularly the subterranean ruins of past civilizations. Girallons possess infravision of up to 60 feet.
Barker, Clive: The Hellbound Heart, Imagica, Weaveworld
Blackwood, Algernon: “The Willows,” “The Wendigo,” et al.
Brackett, Leigh: The Sword of Rhiannon, Skaith series, et al.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Pellucidar, Mars, and Venus series
Campbell, Ramsey: Ryre the Swordsman series, et al.
Dunsany, Lord: The King of Elfland’s Daughter, et al.
Farmer, Philip José: World of Tiers series, et al.
Carter, Lin: ed. The Year’s Best Fantasy, Flashing Swords
Feist, Raymond: Riftwar saga, et al.
Gygax, Gary: Gord the Rogue series, et al.
Kuttner, Henry: Elak of Atlantis, The Dark World
Homer: The Odyssey
Howard, Robert E.: Conan series, et al.
Hugo, Victor: Les Miserables
King, Stephen: Dark Tower series
Leiber, Fritz: Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series, et al.
Lovecraft, H. P.: Cthulhu Mythos tales, et al.
Machen, Arthur: “The White People,” et al.
Martin, George R. R.: Song of Ice and Fire series
Merritt, A.: The Ship of Ishtar, The Moon Pool, et al.
Miéville, China: Bas-Lag series
Moorcock, Michael: Elric series, et al.
Moore, C. L.: Black God’s Kiss
Offutt, Andrew J.: ed. Swords Against Darkness
One Thousand and One Nights (traditional)
Poe, Edgar Allan: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” et al.
Saberhagen, Fred: Changeling Earth, et al.
Saunders, Charles: Imaro series, et al.
Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, et al.
Simmons, Dan: Hyperion series, The Terror, et al.
Smith, Clark Ashton: Averoigne and Zothique tales, et al.
Stoker, Bram: Dracula, Lair of the White Worm, et al.
Tolkien, J. R. R.: Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit
Vance, Jack: Dying Earth series, et al.
Wagner, Karl Edward: Kane series, ed. Echoes of Valor
Wells, H. G.: The Time Machine, et al.
Wellman, Manly Wade: John the Balladeer series, et al.
Zelazny, Roger: Amber series, et al.
It's a good list, to be sure, certainly not identical to my own, but then why would it be? I find it hard to quibble about any list that includes Howard, Kuttner, Leiber, Merritt, and Wagner. And Smith finally earns his much-deserved spot, which makes me happy. There are a few authors there I don't much care for, but that's true of Appendix N as well, if I'm honest.
Would that Pathfinder weren't a 600-page behemoth and I'd probably be happier still.
As the module's sub-title suggestions, this product is in fact three semi-linked adventures sharing common elements, chief among them being the deaths of women either newly married or about to be so. Each adventure also takes place in and around the town of Pembrooktonshire, a sleepy mountain town where things are not quite what they seem. Raggi has clearly invested a lot of imagination in bringing the adventure locale to life and Pembrooktonshire is, in many ways, as much a character as any of the individual personalities that inhabit it. The place has a creepy, Twin Peaks-ish quality to it that I personally found compelling, but these qualities probably limit the module's utility for those who prefer their fantasy settings more staid and vanilla. Moreover, Pembrooktonshire doesn't really feel very medieval at all, having a more early modern feel to it -- not that that's a bad thing, but it's another way that it might prove less useful to many referees. Like its predecessor, Death Frost Doom, Three Brides is definitely an acquired taste, having far more in common with classic early 20th century weird tales than the heroic fantasies in vogue these days.
Each of the adventures can be played separately, although there are a few temporal connections between them that dictate the order in which they must be used. The first adventure, "Small Town Murder," is a fairly straightforward murder mystery in which a local bride is killed on her wedding day, throwing Pembrooktonshire into an uproar -- just as the player characters arrive in the isolated town. This adventure impressed me with its compact yet thorough presentation. Each significant locale and NPC is given a write-up, along with the information the PCs might glean from them as they investigate the murder. Among the NPCs, the Knight of Science stands out as truly inspired -- a "rationalist" Templar/inquisitor whose self-righteousness would make a traditional paladin blush. "Small Town Murder" has a default resolution, but the adventure is written loosely enough to allow for others. Raggi even provides plenty of alternatives to help referees in making the adventure their own.
The second scenario, "The Great Games," isn't so much an adventure as a situation. Every ten years in Pembrooktonshire, engaged couples participate in the Great Games, in which the would-be bridegrooms undertake dangerous feats of strength. The fiancée of the first one to die in the Games is then selected as the "Spirit Bride" and led away into the mountains in order to appease the spirits and ensure another decade of peace and prosperity for the town. Naturally, there's more going on here than the people of Pembrooktonshire realize and the PCs have the chance to delve into the mystery of the Great Games to learn the truth for themselves. This scenario is the most atmospheric of the three; it reminded me of The Wicker Man and in a good way. It's by far the most unnerving and atmospheric of the three scenarios, but it's also the one in which the PCs have the least freedom of action. "The Great Games" radiates helplessness, as the characters are more observers than participants, watching a dark pagan survival unfold before the eyes and being utterly unable to stop it from happening. That helplessness may be part of the point of the scenario, but I am sure not every adventuring group will appreciate it.
The third scenario, "A Lonely House on a Lonely Hill," also is not an adventure in the traditional sense. It's more of a wilderness encounter in the mountains surrounding Pembrooktonshire, although there are several leads to the encounter that the referee can use to entice the PCs into exploring it. The shortest of the three scenarios, it's also the least atmospheric, drawing on situations and imagery that have far more in common with traditional D&D lore than on the weird tales vibe to which the rest of the module pays homage. To be fair, the D&D lore in question is founded in European folk lore, but, given the unique style of the rest of Three Brides, "A Lonely House" was a bit of a let-down for me. I can see what Raggi was attempting to do here -- provide a thematic capstone to the whole module without resorting to Ravenloft-style boxed text melodrama -- and I applaud him for that, but, in this case, I think his reach exceeded his grasp. Three Brides thus ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
The module's unique style is, in part, created by the excellent artwork of Laura Jalo, who also illustrated Death Frost Doom. Her black and white illustrations are otherworldly and brooding, perfectly evoking the text and greatly enhancing my enjoyment of it. The text itself is similarly excellent, marred only by a handful of errors and odd word choices by Raggi. In general, there's a studied, almost clinical style to the writing that contributes greatly to its effectiveness when it describes the peculiar, passionate, and just plain weird events in and around Pembrooktonshire. Occasionally, though, Raggi will slip into colloquialisms that, while not always inappropriate, nevertheless don't jibe with the rest of the text. There are also some ponderous sentences that make it difficult to discern his meaning. Nevertheless, Raggi effects a strong, clear authorial voice throughout and it does much to elevate this module in my estimation. Whatever their blemishes, these scenarios are ones only James Raggi could write.
Taken together, Three Brides didn't quite make the same impression on me that Death Frost Doom did. Perhaps that's because I was more or less expecting the unique take on fantasy that I got this time around, whereas Death Frost Doom was more of a genuine revelation. Even so, Three Brides is another fine work of the imagination, one informed by both the literary origins of our hobby and earlier adventure modules but bound by neither. It's a bold, original product that shows off the true potential of the old school renaissance to use the wisdom of the past as a springboard for new ventures that avoid the mistakes of the past. Consequently, the module's flaws at least have the virtue of being new ones.
Here's to many more new mistakes from James Raggi in the future.
Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking for moody, evocative -- and weird -- low-level adventures.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your low-level adventures to concern killing humanoids living in caves.
Friday, August 21, 2009
These PDFs vary in length from 8 to 12 pages and each present three new monsters in the expanded format Mishler first used in Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I, which should appeal to those of a Gygaxian naturalist bent. There are, unfortunately, no illustrations included with any of these PDFs; they're pure text. And while the text is well written, several of the monsters described are outré enough that an illustration would have been helpful. I also noticed that this series of PDFs, unlike the aforementioned Monsters & Treasures, is not explicitly associated with the Wilderlands of High Adventure setting, making the products more generic and a little less flavorful in my opinion. Mishler is one of those guys who clearly gets the Wilderlands and its surrealist qualities and the lack of such details makes these PDFs a little less appealing overall, at least for me.
Monstrous Menaces #1 is the shortest of the three at 8 pages. The monsters it describes are:
- Gharlidh: Subterranean humanoids with an incapacitating keen. I can't say they made a huge impression upon me.
- Grulnosc: Acidic giant snails. I found them less interesting for themselves than for the uses to which their carcasses can be put.
- Rocktopus: Who doesn't love evil, intelligent, land-dwelling octopi?
- Blade Dancer: No, not the ridiculously over-powered kit from The Complete Book of Elves, but humanoid constructs made from bladed weapons.
- Goblin: The bulk of this PDF is taken up with an extensive description of goblin society and culture. If one likes fantasy sociology, it's quite well done.
- Tharghûl: A form of undead that rules over ghouls and ghasts. I'll admit that I've been a sucker for this concept ever since I read references to the King of Ghouls in the Monster Manual.
- Akhlat: Chimerical sphinx-like creatures. I could have really used an illustration to get a better sense of what they looked like.
- Oogloog: Intelligent oozes from outer space. I was reminded -- happily -- of the old Judges Guild adventure "Night of the Walking Wet" by these guys.
- Woodwose: A "wild man" that borrows from legends of sasquatch, the yeti, and similar creatures.
That said, I would have preferred fewer monsters like the gharlidh or woodwose, neither of which filled a clear gap in the existing fantasy menagerie, and more like the rocktopus and oogloog. I know all too well that monster creation is a very hit or miss affair, with more misses being produced than hits, so I can't fault Mishler here. I suppose it's more that, having seen his best work, I wish all of it were of the same quality. As they are now, the Monstrous Menace series is somewhat uneven, a flaw offset to some degree by its bright spots and its price. They're well worth the price if you're looking for ideas to pillage and it's probably in that context that they deserve the most praise.
Presentation: 5 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10
Buy This If: You want to swipe a few ideas for new monsters.
Don't Buy This If: You're expecting new monsters unlike any you've ever seen before.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
We want to publish new and innovative OGL products with an Old School approach (defined for the moment as rules-light, very dependent on DM quality, heavy on innovation & enjoyment), addressing many different OGL-based game systems, including BFRP, Savage Worlds (Pinnacle), Hackmaster (Kenzer), Castles & Crusades (Troll Lords), and Pathfinder (Paizo).If you wanted to alleviate my concerns about the wisdom of "getting the band back together," this is precisely the way not to do it. I realize that Mr Mentzer's post was, essentially, speaking off the cuff and so shouldn't be expected to be flawless, but attributing OSRIC to Ronin Arts suggests a lack of awareness about even the most basic history of the old school revival. Similarly, the scattershot approach -- "addressing many different OGL-based game systems" -- is, if handled poorly, a recipe for disaster, especially since many of the games cited are very different from one another, both mechanically and esthetically (not to mention the fact that several of them aren't in fact "OGL-based" at all). Any definition of "Old School approach" that encompasses both Savage Worlds and Pathfinder is, I fear, so broad as to be meaningless.
We would like to include OSRIC (Ronin Arts), Labyrinth Lord (Goblinoid) and RuneQuest (Mongoose) but haven't talked with them yet about permissions. The first two are very probable; we'll see about Mongoose.
Mr Mentzer is also looking for investors, stating that "Realistically we'll need at least a quarter mil" to get this company off the ground. That's a lot of money and it reminds me of an old joke about the RPG biz: "What the best way to get a million dollars by founding a RPG company? Start with two million." Far be it from me to criticize anyone for wanting to build a well-capitalized new company dedicated to producing old school materials, but, when you consider how much the old school renaissance has achieved over the last few years, and on nothing more than a shoestring budget, one wonders what Mr Mentzer has in mind here. Obviously, he and his partners have high hopes for creating something long-lasting and influential and, if he can raise $250K for a venture like this, I'll be most impressed. That suggests that this little revival has stronger legs than most of us realize.
I hope I can be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical about all of this, though. Much as I respect the contributions Mentzer, Ward, and Kask have made to the hobby over the years, I'm not sure how much they really understand the current resurgence in interest in old school gaming. That's not to say they can't be brought up to speed fairly quickly, but Mr Mentzer's initial post, which lumps together a whole bunch of games under a very broad rubric, doesn't immediately inspire confidence in me. Likewise, "reunion tours" in this hobby are often disastrous, as anyone who remembers various post-TSR projects by its ex-employees can attest.
My attitude might change as more substantial information is released. I certainly want something like this to succeed, as it'd be a good indication that the old school movement is more than just a fad amongst a small sub-set of weirdos on the Internet. Right now, though, I'm greeting this simply as "interesting." Whether it'll be change-the-hobby interesting or car-crash interesting is something we'll have to wait some time to discover.
Of course, had Lovecraft lived longer than he did, I suspect contemporary fantasy's trajectory would also have been different. Influential though he is, Lovecraft is still very much a "back room" influence on most modern fantasy. That is, lots of writers of fantasy make use of Lovecraftian themes and elements, but very few of them employ anything like his cosmicism -- the belief that Man and his works are, in the great scheme of things, insignificant. That's hardly a good foundation for heroic fantasy in most people's eyes (though I disagree), which is why many gamers are content to call tentacled monsters "Lovecraftian" and not give a second thought to just what that adjective means.
There's nothing wrong with that approach, of course, and I'm as guilty of it as most. Partly that's because I don't share HPL's philosophy and partly that's because I can't deny the appeal of the Lovecraft "brand" even when it's utterly divorced from the worldview that gave birth to it. Still, I've often pondered what fantasy might look like today if Lovecraft rather than Tolkien -- or even Howard -- had had a greater direct influence over its development. Some of my thoughts on this question have informed my work on Shadow, Sword & Spell, the pulp fantasy RPG Richard Iorio and I have been writing. Others I've used as I developed Dwimmermount or worked on projects like The Cursed Chateau. In each case, I've tried to use Lovecraft's unsentimental attitude toward humanity as a basis for recasting heroism as more than just slaying dragons and seizing their treasure. That's not to say that such actions aren't heroic, but rather that they're not the only kind of heroism. Carrying on and doing the right thing after staring cold, hard reality in the face is heroism too and it's the kind that's all the rarer in a Lovecraftian world, since cosmicism often engenders despair.
As readers of this blog know well, I do share Lovecraft's love for the past, which is why I make a point of observing memorials to the individuals whose ideas have proven influential in this hobby. HPL is definitely one of the foremost members of the pantheon and we all owe him a huge debt. Here's hoping that more of us will grapple with his ideas and not just the means by which he conveyed those ideas. Amused though he might have been by it, I think Ech-Pi-El deserves to be remembered for more than just tentacles.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In any case, my son was in a particularly ambitious frame of mind this past weekend and assembled the dungeon pictured above. As you can see, his design skills are very primitive -- that's a railroad-y dungeon if I ever saw one. Likewise, he made no attempt to create a plausible dungeon ecology, perhaps opting for a more "mythic underworld" approach, although, in play, it felt more like a funhouse.
Yes, that's right: in play. My son, as it turned out, was intent on showing off his chops as a referee by running my wife, my daughter, and myself through a scenario he called, "The Evil of the Dungeon." Our goal was to take our group of adventurers into the depths to rescue some miniatures not shown in the photograph. To do this, we had to defeat numerous monsters and traps by getting a certain score or higher on a variable number of D6. Every time we fought, my son would tell us how many dice we rolled and what number we needed to get, scaled for the difficulty of the monster in question. Sometimes, a monster required multiple hits to go down, which I suppose was only fair, since none of our adventurers died on a single hit either.
From what I can tell, my son was basing his game's rules on a combination of what he's observed at our weekly sessions and the rules from the Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game, the only rule-based RPG he's ever played, most of his other roleplaying experiences being free-form superhero LARPs. What was especially interesting to me was both the complexity even this simple game had -- variable difficulty for defeating opponents, for example -- and how much it reminded me of the tales of the earliest Blackmoor adventures before the introduction of hit points or levels. You could almost see the wheel being reinvented before your eyes and I have to admit it was fascinating. What will be even more fascinating is whether he ever follows up on what he did this past weekend and develops it further.
That's generally not the case in sword-and-planet literature, where an alien noble -- or alien princess, at any rate -- is an adventuring archetype. John Carter's love, the incomparable Dejah Thoris, doesn't just lounge around the palace in Helium. She sometimes accompanied Carter on his travels across Barsoom and, while prone to finding herself in distress, she's no pushover. The Alien Noble class is thus my stab at creating a class that's both genuinely useful in standard adventures while still having features distinctive of its social status.
The entirety of this class is hereby designated as Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Requirements: CHA 9
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: None
The Alien Noble is a member of the aristocracy of the civilized -- and often decadent -- realms of another world/time/dimension. Born to power and used to the deference of those of lower station, Alien Nobles exert wide influence within their native (and allied) cultures. Firstly, they may employ double the maximum number of retainers normally allowed by their CHA score. Secondly, and more impressively, they may use their positions to make "requests" of those under their authority. The base chance that a request will be heeded is equal to the Alien Noble's (CHA x 2) + (Level x 3) as a percentage. Such requests can range from the mundane ("Bring us some refreshments") to the unusual ("Bring us the head of the Sky Pirate King"), with the referee assessing bonuses or penalties based on the difficulty of the request. An Alien Noble may make request as often as he wishes, but too many requests will likely generate negative feelings toward the Noble and decrease the likelihood of success. Likewise, this ability functions only when among those who recognize the Noble's position. Among savages or enemies, the ability generally has no effect.
Alien Nobles fight as clerics and save as fighters of equal level. They may wear any type of armor or use any type of weapons. They begin play with more starting funds than other classes: 3D6 x 100 gold pieces.
Alien Noble Level Progression
Hit Dice (1d6)
+1 hp only*
+2 hp only*
+3 hp only*
+4 hp only*
+5 hp only*
+6 hp only*
+7 hp only*
+8 hp only*
+9 hp only*
+10 hp only*
+11 hp only*
I like the idea of wargaming and I often feel like I ought to be kicked out of the old school clubhouse for not having played a lot of ASL or Third Reich back in the day. This applies equally to miniatures wargaming, which I find even more attractive than hex and chit wargaming, but, despite my best efforts to muster some enthusiasm for these foundations of our hobby, I just can't do it. Something about the reality of wargaming is at odds with my expectations about it, which is why I've never managed to get into anything more wargame-like than Axis & Allies and even that pushed the limits of my mental endurance.
On the other hand, I was a huge fan of the mini-games produced by a number of companies in the early 80s. Not all of these little games could be described as wargames, but some of them were and I found them to be just the right level of complexity for my feeble mind to grasp. TSR published a number of these and I devoured them as a kid. My favorite was Revolt on Antares, which was a science fiction game designed by Tom Moldvay. Two to four players took on the roles of various factions to take control of the planet Imhirrhos in the Antares system. It was a very simple game but not so simple that it didn't provide plenty of replay value and replay it I did. Other games in the series included Vampyre, a horror survival game based on Dracula, Saga, based on Norse mythology, and They've Invaded Pleasantville, about an alien invasion of Middle America.
What I most enjoyed about all these games was that their rules were short and easy to learn and thus easy to modify through house rules. I remember that my friends and I created additional chits for use in some of the games, as well as expansions to the tables of random events. These games weren't intimidating to us the way that "real" wargames were and so we allowed our imaginations free rein when it came to altering them. They were great "time filler" games for when we were waiting to start roleplaying or when we didn't have enough time to run an RPG adventure, since most of the games lasted 45 minutes to an hour, which is about the right length for me then and now.
I think I gave away my copies of these games long ago and I regret that now. I'd love to re-acquire them without spending ridiculous amounts of money, especially Revolt on Antares. These may not have been classics of game design, but I enjoyed playing them. In my book, that's the true measure of a game's goodness and these were some good games indeed.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The room they entered immediately after we started contained a locked strongbox guarded by three shadows. Brother Candor was unhappy to learn that, in OD&D, shadows aren't undead -- they're raw Chaos given malevolent intelligence as I explained them -- and so can't be turned. They're also immune to normal weapons and most of the party still lacks magic items. This meant that only a few of the characters (and henchmen/hirelings) were able to engage the shadows in combat. The strength-draining ability of the creatures also reminded me that we hadn't established an exact ability scores of some of the NPCs, which we rectified on the fly, as needed.
The shadows, as it turned out, were guarding what was probably the biggest stash of loot on the sub-level, necessitating that the party return to the surface and then make the three-day journey to Adamas to get gems/jewelry appraised and to unload some of their haul. While there, they also stocked up on various supplies and tried to find ways to dispose of their excess coinage. As I've mentioned before, I only give XP for gold that's spent. The intention is to keep the character poor but living high on the hog, in true Howardian/Leiberian fashion. The problem my players have discovered is that, after a certain point, it's very hard to find things to spend their money on. Since the highest level character -- Brother Candor -- only just turned 5th-level, strongholds aren't really an option. Or are they? Dordagdonar's player stated outright that he intends to find a secluded vale near Dwimmermount and begin to build a home for himself and, he hopes, other elves fed up with with having to live with "ephemerals." Interestingly, the other players were quite enthusiastic about this plan and we've decided that our next session will be a wilderness adventure, seeking out such a vale in the area around Dwimmermount.
With that decided, they returned to Dwimmermount for further explorations. The section they were exploring was, as they'd noticed previously, one that had been shut off from the rest of the dungeon -- from the inside. Consequently, most of the rooms were empty, except for a strange phosphorescent fungi that they avoided, for fear that it might be deadly. They did find a room that contained a chute down to a black pit, but none dared venture downward at this time. A room with a couple of giant spiders did cause them some concern, but they eventually dealt with the foul arachnids handily. Several more rooms were discovered and their dangers, such as stirges, were avoided in the interests of journeying downward to the next level.
The next level -- roughly the fourth, by most reckonings -- seemed subtly different than the rest of Dwimmermount. There was less evidence of regular traffic and the architecture looked both older and creepier. The first room they entered had a statue of a robed figure with a stern face, holding a upward-pointing sword in one hand and an open book in the other. Brother Candor thought it might be another aspect of Turms Termax, the Thulian god of magic to whom much of the dungeon is dedicated, but he had no proof of his theory. The same room contained the mummified head of a frog-like creature -- like those seen earlier in the dungeon -- which bellowed a warning to the PCs, when they approached it, claiming that death awaited those who ventured any farther.
Naturally, the characters ignored the severed frogman's head and sallied forth into a maze-like series of corridors. Brother Candor was suspicious and used find traps to avoid a couple of pit traps placed within these corridors. He also began to think that, in future, he would take speak with animals as his 3rd-level spell, since he figured he could use it to communicate with the rats the characters have started to bring with them as lures and "trap finders" when the spell isn't available. A well placed web spell cast by Iriadessa allowed the party to quickly dispatch a group of frogmen they encountered along the way, before they decided to retreat and head back to Muntburg, with the goal of preparing to seek out a vale for Dordagdonar's eventual stronghold.
This was a very satisfying session and one that saw the players start to think a bit more about their characters' futures, at least in general terms. They also began to ask questions about the world outside of Dwimmermount, Muntburg, and Adamas. I was pleased by this, not because I'm tiring of the dungeon -- I'm not -- but because it gave me a chance to use a slightly larger canvas than I've used in the last five months of weekly play. I don't anticipate any world-spanning adventures any time (if at all), but I've laid the groundwork for expanding the scope of the campaign should the players ever wish to pursue it. Next session should be interesting, since it'll be our first fully-fledged wilderness adventure and I am intensely curious to see what happens.