Thursday, April 29, 2010


Today, I discovered that a French idiom for "it's raining cats and dogs" is « il pleut des hallebardes, » which literally means "it's raining halberds."

Somewhere, Gary Gygax is smiling.

Gloranthan Humanocentrism?

I've been devouring the Gloranthan Classics volumes I received yesterday with great pleasure. Reading them is a joy and, unlike my re-immersion in old school D&D, no one can rationally claim the positive feelings they're generating in me are based on nostalgia, as I had only a very limited exposure to RuneQuest in my youth. Reading them, among the many things that stands out is how human-focused published Glorantha appears to be. Most of the NPCs and sample PCs are humans, for example, and human concerns seem to drive most of the adventures. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, one of the things I "knew" about RQ even though I didn't play it was that the rules allowed you "to play anything." And of course there were the dreaded ducks, the very idea of which kept me away form RuneQuest longer than they ought to have. But if published products are any indication, non-human PCs don't seem to have been very common. Second, being a skill-based system, there are no level limits or mechanical disincentives to playing a non-human. Yes, there are Charisma penalties when interacting with members of other races, but they apply equally to humans in a non-human environment. Yet, talking to people who did play RQ extensively back in the day, hardly anyone ever chose to play non-humans. I find this especially odd, given both the variety of non-humans in Glorantha and the depth with which Chaosium invested many of them, enabling them to transcend stereotypes.

In the end, Glorantha, at least as it was published back in the second edition era, reminds me a lot of the way classical science fiction treated alien beings. Sure, there are lots of aliens out there, many of them quite different than human beings, and they often figure prominently in stories. However, they're rarely protagonists and, if they are, they're a lone example of their kind in a tale that's dominated by human beings. That's how Glorantha strikes me at the moment. It may well be a caricature of the truth or merely an artifact of the products Chaosium was able to publish back in the day, but that's how things seem nonetheless.

I certainly don't object to it and, honestly, I find it a nice change of pace from D&D, which, despite the intentions of at least Gary Gygax, became annoyingly less humanocentric as the years wore on. Speaking as an admirer of pulp fantasy stories, these old Gloranthan products strike me as often more in line with their sensibilities than does Dungeons & Dragons. Whereas non-humans in Glorantha are clearly alien "others," elves, dwarves, and halflings in D&D are (generally) just "guys at the office." They may look a little different and have special abilities you don't, but, fundamentally, they're no different than you or I -- little wonder, then, that so few D&D players ever batted an eye about choosing to be an elf over a human, especially once the game's already-weak disincentives for doing so were eliminated.

RQ Help

I don't expect my entreaty to yield any results, but I'm going to ask anyway, because I'm constantly amazed by the stuff my readers have managed to assist me with in the past.

As you know, I got three out of the four Moon Design "Gloranthan Classics" volumes. I'm missing only Pavis & Big Rubble, which, I gather, is very hard to obtain. That said, I want a copy. I've been searching all the usual online venues for such things and no luck so far.

So, on the off-chance that someone who reads this blog finds a copy and for some reason doesn't want it for themselves, I'd be grateful for any pointers anyone might have about snagging one for my collection. Given that I am unlikely to run a RuneQuest campaign anytime soon, there's no hurry, but I do want to get Volume I of the series for myself at some point and I'm prepared for the likely high price tag it'll carry.

Thanks as always.

Lovecraftian Serendipity

I am regularly amused by how, just as I am about to make a post about this or that subject, someone else does so. I am sure other bloggers experience this as well. In many cases, this phenomenon is perfectly understandable, because all the posts in question are in response to some bit of news of interest to our common readers.

Had Miguel Martins's post at The Cimmerian only been about the latest trailer to the upcoming black and white film adaptation of HPL's The Whisperer in Darkness (by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society), I'd probably not have given it much thought. After all, the new trailer was just released, so it makes sense that aficionados of pulp authors would all take notice and start chattering about it. That's what we do.

What's odd is that, just two days ago, I re-watched my copy of the Historical Society's earlier film, the silent movie version of The Call of Cthulhu, inspired in part by the comments to my post on August Derleth and optimism in the face of the Mythos. I'd watched the movie a couple of times when I first bought it shortly after its release and was impressed by it, but I hadn't seen it since. In doing so, I found myself not only deeply impressed by it as a film in its own right but also by how it is quite likely the best (the only?) direct cinematic adaptation of a story written by H.P. Lovecraft, which is a real feather in the cap for the Historical Society as well as yet another black mark against Hollywood.

This in turn got me to thinking not just about the paucity of faithful Lovecraft adaptations but about the even shabbier way that Robert E. Howard has been treated in film. Like Martins, I can't help but be amazed, in a dark sort of way, at the fact that, to date, no one has managed to produce a film based on a Howard story as faithful as what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society did with The Call of Cthulhu. All the more amazing is that, in the same year when a new Conan movie is currently being filmed in Bulgaria, the Historical Society is scheduled to release yet another adaptation of Lovecraft, which, if the trailer is any indication, will beat the tar out of Hollywood's Conan when it comes to fidelity to its source material. How the heck is this even possible?

Anyway, enjoy the trailer to The Whisperer in Darkness and imagine a world in which a Robert E. Howard Historical Society produced an adaptation of, well, any Howard story that was even half as faithful to its origins as this fan-made film looks like it'll be.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Love Packages

Look at what I just got in the mail today:

This is in addition to the latest installments in Paizo's Planet Stories line, which arrived on Monday. Looks like I have some reading ahead of me!

Treasure in RuneQuest and D&D

One of the pleasures of immersing myself in the RuneQuest rulebook (its Chaosium second edition anyway) is seeing the many ways in which it, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, is still very much part of the same gaming culture as Dungeons & Dragons. Consider the following passage, which begins Chapter IX: Treasure Hoards:
The only reason anyone would go out and fight any of the monsters depicted in the previous chapter is reward. Some monsters may be terrorizing the countryside, and a desperate citizenry will pay to have a pest exterminator come in. Others may be natural enemies with whom one is feuding, and still others may have come hunting the characters! But the main reason to fight monsters is the probability that they have been gathering loot, just as you have.
It's paragraphs like this that make it hard for me to credit any notion that RuneQuest is not, at its core, very similar to D&D -- but, then, given the origins of its rules system in the Perrin Conventions, is this really a surprise? I don't mean to downplay RQ's genuine differences, both mechanical and philosophical. However, I don't think they're as great as some would have it nor do I think that, at least in its original second edition, the game cannot be called "old school" by any useful definition of the term.

That said, shortly after the paragraph quoted above comes another paragraph that does, I think, highlight a real difference between the two seminal fantasy RPGs:
A hoard should reflect the relative toughness and numbers of its guardians. The following list tries to do this by giving a treasure factor for a monster, based on individual capacities.
Treasure factors are tied to a table, ranging from 1 to 100, divided into groups of 10, with each higher group have a greater chance of treasure (and more of it). Monsters gain treasure factors based on their hit points, chances to hit, damage done, armor, spells, and so on. Thus, the more mechanically powerful a monster, the greater the odds of its having nice loot.

D&D, meanwhile, uses a treasure type system, which divides a table into 26 lines (one for each letter of the alphabet), with each having a different chance of treasure of varying sizes and compositions. These types are then assigned to monsters by non-mechanical criteria -- an example of Gygaxian naturalism at work. Thus, the reason any given monster has any given treasure is because it "makes sense" according to some in-game logic rather than purely mechanical considerations.

As one might expect, I actually prefer the D&D approach in this case. The notion that more powerful monsters ought to have more and better treasure, as implied by RQ's treasure factor system, doesn't hold much weight for me. Indeed, I think treasure factors cross a line in my imagination, one that divided the game mechanics from the world they're meant to simulate. There certainly are problems with the treasure type system but I think, on balance, they do a better job of creating and presenting a coherent world than do treasure factors.

Paradoxically, I'm increasingly coming to dislike D&D magic items, or at least the way they're usually presented and used. They're generally too mechanical and un-special, compared to their RuneQuest counterparts. Indeed, the RQ rulebook notes that "We feel that each treasure should be unique, a carefully crafted reward for the intrepid Adventurer who has managed to overcome monsters and avoid traps to reach the final goal." It's a viewpoint I find myself increasingly sharing, especially now that, in my Dwimmermount campaign, there are multiple examples of the same magic item among the Fortune's Fools.

In future, I plan to be a lot more circumspect, perhaps even going so far as to adopt Jeff Rients's suggestion (a link to which I can no longer find) that each magic item in the D&D rulebook is unique -- if you find a sword +1, you find the sword +1 and no one else will ever possess one unless they pry it out of your cold, dead hands. Maybe that's too strong a correction to D&D's long-standing tendency to reduce magic items to collections of game mechanics devoid of any mystery, but I don't think the approach presented in the rules works as well as I'd like it to.

In any case, more food for thought arising from my continued forays into RuneQuest.

Retrospective: Trollpak

Even though I never played much RuneQuest during its heyday in the 80s, there were two things I knew for certain about its setting, Glorantha. First, the setting included anthropomorphic ducks as a playable race, a "sin" that I am ashamed to admit prevented me from taking the game seriously for a long time. Older and wiser -- and with a better sense of humor -- I actually rather like the ducks and can't imagine Glorantha without them. Second, Glorantha's trolls were nothing like the trolls I knew from D&D and fantasy literature; they were weird. Of course, most of the nonhuman races of Glorantha are "weird" and that's part of their charm, but, callow youth that I was, I saw this as yet more evidence that Glorantha was not worth my time.

Truth be told, it probably wasn't, at least not at that stage of my initiation into the hobby. Nowadays, though, I find myself feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for RuneQuest and Glorantha -- the nostalgia for something I never directly experienced in my personal past. There must be a term for this odd feeling, probably a German one, but, regardless, I've been feeling it a lot lately and never more strongly than when I recently reread 1982's Trollpak, written by Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen. As its title implies and its subtitle -- "Troll facts, secrets, and adventures for RuneQuest" -- makes explicit, Trollpak was a boxed set detailing the race commonly called trolls but who call themselves the Uz.

Trollpak contained of four books, a map, and many handouts, all presented with the kind of care and attention that was typical of Chaosium boxed sets in the early to mid-1980s. The first book, "Uz Lore," presents an overview of the history, mythology, and anatomy of trolls. The second book, "Book of Uz," included all the rules and information needed to create and play troll characters, whether as PCs or NPCs. It includes details on family life, religion, insects (which play a big role in troll culture), and a glossary of troll words and terms. The third book, "Into Uzdom," is a book of scenarios that take advantage of the new information presented in the first two books. Some scenarios are written with troll PCs in mind, while others present the trolls as antagonists with whom PCs of other races must interact. Also included are rules for playing trollball, an ancient -- and violent -- sport among the Uz that uses cursed trollkin as the "ball." The fourth and final book, "Munchrooms," is also an adventure, but a unique one in that it is designed to be played two ways, one with the PCs as trolls and another with the PCs as non-trolls.

Normally, I'm rather averse to delving too deeply into an "evil" fantasy race, as it almost always presages the sudden discovery that the race in question is not in fact evil but merely misunderstood. Call me racist and imperialistic but I like being able to kill orcs with impunity, knowing that they're the spawn of Chaos, bubbling up from black pools beneath the earth and having no purpose other than to kill men and bring down civilization. Fortunately, Trollpak does not turn the trolls into nice guys. They're still creatures tied to the rune of Darkness and enemies of men and elves alike, whose cults are decidedly unsavory. What Trollpak does do is present the trolls as more than one-dimensional beings whose behavior and motives make no sense. They're presented as, for all intents and purposes, aliens. That they are nevertheless intelligible and usable is a testament to just how remarkable this product is.

Rereading Trollpak has, as I said, only increased my sense that I missed out horribly by not having been more into RuneQuest in my younger days. It's also reminded me that, at the time, this boxed set was often described as being "overwhelming" in its detail and it's true that it is lengthy compared to previous treatments of almost any fantasy race in a RPG. However, compared to the products based on such topics we've seen in the years since, Trollpak is comparatively spartan in its detail and still leaves many aspects of troll life and society undescribed (or only cursorily so). That is, it doesn't feel constraining at all but acts as a spur to my own ideas about trolls and how to use them in a Glorantha campaign.

It's still probably more detailed than I personally need -- the extensive histories, for example, seem particularly unnecessary -- but Trollpak doesn't leave me with a sense of either self-indulgence on the part of its writers or pointless padding to meet a page count quota, flaws inherent in a lot of RPG products that have been written since 1982. Instead, Trollpak evinces the enthusiasm of its writers for the mythic world of Glorantha and its fantastical inhabitants. There's a palpable sense of joy here, the joy of "discovering" an alien race and sharing it with others. Given that, I'm willing to cut it a great deal of slack and note that, if more gaming products were as obviously joyous, I'd probably be willing to extend the same courtesy to them as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Words Fail Me (Again)

Courtesy of The Bronze Age of Blogs come yet more examples of the fine work Marvel did with Robert E. Howard's characters during the 1970s.

I give you Conan and Kull stickers ...

New Banner

I think I need a new banner for the blog. Much as I love my current one -- how could I not, given that it includes a snippet of the greatest piece of D&D art of all time? -- the fact remains that I don't own it, so I probably should remove it. Problem is I'm not sure what to replace it with. I have a lot of artists at my disposal, but what would I tell them to illustrate? What image could I suggest to them that would be as good as what I currently have? It's a conundrum.

Anyone have any serious ideas they want to pitch to me?

REVIEW: Knockspell Issue 4

In an age when Dragon, the original RPG magazine, is no longer available in printed form, it's remarkable to note that the old school renaissance has not one but two regular print periodicals. Of the two, Knockspell, produced by Mythmere Games and published by Black Blade Publishing, is probably closest to Dragon in terms of its content and presentation -- and grows ever moreso with each new issue. Issue 4 was just released and I very impressed by just how professional it has become. Nearly everything, from the artwork to the layout to the editing is top notch and there's a unity to this issue, a sense of cohesiveness and planning that's undeniably appealing.

Issue 4 kicks off with another delightful installment of Allan Grohe's "From Kuroth's Quill" column, the second part of a piece on the use and theory of gates in campaign dungeons. In addition to providing thoughts (and random tables) on what happens when adventurers try to destroy a gate, the article also provides many magic-user spells pertaining to gates. As a referee who recently made a gate an important part of his ongoing megadungeon-based campaign, I found Grohe's column particularly useful.

Joshua Jervais's "Beneath the Crossroads" is the first adventure included in this issue and the first to include rats, an ongoing theme in this issue. Suitable for a party of 1st and 2nd level characters, the adventure presents a small dungeon connected to a cult of a rat god. It's a well-done and evocative little scenario that can easily be dropped into an ongoing campaign. Jeff Talanian also provides a rat-based adventure, entitled "Rats in the Walls." Also for low-level characters, it has a strong pulp fantasy feel to it without being unsuitable for inclusion in most fantasy campaigns. Slightly less immediately useful is the third installment of Gabor Lux's terrific series "Isles on an Emerald Sea," which describe locales from his science fantasy Fomalhaut campaign. As with its predecessors in the series, this article is inspiring but would take some work to adapt to more traditional fantasy campaigns, given its "weird" elements.

Matt Finch's "Megadungeon Tactics: Mission-Based Adventuring" is a useful discussion of how to approach a megadungeon as a player (and, by extension, as a referee). What's remarkable is that, while the article is clearly aimed at players whose experiences of dungeon adventuring are not of an old school variety, Finch nevertheless manages to pack quite a few nuggets of wisdom of interest even to old dungeoneering hands. Meanwhile, Marcelo Paschoalin provides a solid overview of the options and difficulties confronting online rolelpaying games. Michael Curtis (whose Dungeon Alphabet is reviewed later in this issue) shows us how to mine the Greek historian Herodotus for sandbox campaign ideas in "Stealing the Histories." Al Krombach offers up some excellent advice on how to use the mechanical looseness of old school games like Swords & Wizardry in "Free-Form Rules as a Referee's Toolbox," which I found quite engaging.

What old school magazine would be complete without articles filled with random tables? Issue 4 gives us Robert Lionheart's useful "Random Tavern Generator" and "Weird Weather and Other Unexplainable Phenomena" (by several authors). It also includes Scot Hoover's astounding "Artifact Types and Attributes," which is a system for creating artifacts and relics that clearly draws inspiration from Eldritch Wizardry and the Dungeon Masters Guide, while being wholly original (and Open Game Content). Rounding out the issue are new magic items, a reworking of the spell slot system, and an interview with artist Christopher Burdett.

In sum, it's an impressive issue, one with a lot to offer old school fantasy fans. As I noted, Knockspell is increasingly professional in every respect. To some, this is unreservedly a good thing, as it puts the lie to the notion that the old school renaissance cannot compare to the improvements in presentation made since the days of yore. To others, though, I have little doubt that Knockspell might feel a little too "polished" and lacking in the rough edges many old schoolers love. Personally, I think there's more than enough room for both approaches and the fact that Knockspell is now appearing on game store shelves pretty much demands that it put its best foot forward, which is unequivocally does. Knockspell Issue 4 is thus well worth a look, whether in print or PDF form.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a collection of ideas and resources for use in your old school fantasy campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer to come up with your own ideas rather than using those of others.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Goblinoid Games Re-Releases Starships & Spacemen

As aficionados of Star Trek roleplaying games would tell you, Leonard H. Kanterman's Starships & Spacemen, originally released by FGU, was an early attempt to produce an RPG based on Gene Roddenberry's future. Not literally, of course, as S&S used its own setting, but the influence of the 1960s TV show was obvious, from the logical Taurans -- and their evil twins the war-like Videni -- to the conquest-minded Zangids.

Today, Dan Proctor, creator of Labyrinth Lord, announced that Goblinoid Games had purchased Starships & Spacemen and would be making a PDF version of the original rules available for $4.95. This will be followed, in the near future, by a revised second edition of S&S that's compatible with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, as well as supplements and adventure modules usable with either the revised or original rules system.

From my perspective, this is pretty amazing news. S&S is one of the oldest SF RPGs and one that I remember hearing about but never had the chance to see when I first entered the hobby. As a big fan of SF RPGs, Star Trek, and Goblinoid Games, this is terrific news and I can't wait to see what the future has in store.

Tell Me More of MRQ

I broke down last week and, on the advice of many who kindly posted their thoughts here, bought a copy of Mongoose's RuneQuest II core rulebook (how I loathe that term). I'm overall favorably impressed with it -- I'll write up a formal review sometime this week, I imagine -- and I'm now turning my eyes toward some of the supplementary books produced for it.

In particular, I'm curious about the Second Age book, since, for the most part, my interest right now is very Glorantha-centric. Is it any good, both in terms of content and in terms of its playability as an alternate setting for the game? Deeply immersed in Third Age Glorantha as I am these days, I find it hard to imagine a better setting for a RuneQuest campaign, but I am nevertheless intrigued by the notion of playing during a time when the God Learners and Wyrms Friends were kicking around.

So, what say you?

Pulp Fantasy Library: Queen of the Black Coast

While I won't go so far as to say that "Queen of the Black Coast," which first appeared in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (and received a Margaret Brundage cover to boot), is the most famous story of Conan ever written, it is certainly one of the most memorable. It's also probably one of the most influential in terms of its effect on later presentations of the character of Conan and the Hyborian Age he inhabits -- for good and for ill.

The tale begins with Conan, fleeing a judge in Argos who threatened him with imprisonment if he did not betray the whereabouts of a friend. To escape, the Cimmerian forces the captain of a sea vessel bound for the coasts of Cush to take him on as a marine -- "I pay my way with steel!" Conan roars. The captain, Tito, "was a good judge of men" and recognized the value of the barbarian warrior, particularly since the Cushite coast was rife with pirates, whose handiwork they soon recognize as they come across smoking, ruined villages whose inhabitants have been put to the sword. It is then that Tito first speaks to Conan of Belît.
"Who is Belît?"

"The wildest she-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs a-wrong, it was her butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day see her dangling from the yard-arm! She is called the queen of the black coast. She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom."
As one expects, Belît and her pirate ship, the Tigress, soon make an appearance and Conan, true to his word, does his best to defend Tito and his crew, who, despite his efforts, "were cut down to a man." As the sole survivor, Belît takes a keen interest in the barbarian.
"You are no soft Hyborian!" she exclaimed, "You are fierce and hard as a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were never softened by life amid city walls."

"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," he answered.

To the people of the exotic climes, the north was a mazy half-mythical realm, peopled with ferocious blue-eyed giants who occasionally descended from their icy fastnesses with torch and sword. Their raids had never taken them as far south as Shem, and this daughter of Shem made no distinction between Æsir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the unerring instinct of the elemental feminine, she knew she had found her lover, and his race meany naught, save as it invested him with the glamor of far lands.

"And I am Belît," she cried, as one might say, "I am queen!"

"Look at me, Conan!" She threw wide her arms. "I am Belît, queen of the black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love! Go with me to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am queen by fire and steel and slaughter -- be thou my king!"
How one reacts to this stretch of prose will, I think, presage much about how one takes the entirety of the story. For some, it will no doubt reek of much of what they find objectionable in both Howard's writing generally and the Conan stories specifically.

I can certainly understand this perspective, though I don't completely share it, in part because it's important to note that each of the story's five sections begins with an excerpt from a fictitious poem called "The Song of Belît." The poem would seem to be the work of someone writing well after the fact and turning the story of Conan and Belît into the stuff of a legendary romance. Indeed, as I read it, the entire story should be viewed similarly, which is to say, as an epic retelling of a story well-known in the generations after Conan's time. That seems to me to be a good way to explain the strangely formal, occasionally stilted dialog and exposition of this tale, which stands in contrast to the way many other Conan yarns are presented. I'll admit that I may be rationalizing here, but I've read enough of Howard's writing that I think a good case can be made for my interpretation.

Regardless, "Queen of the Black Coast" is a powerful story. That power derives from the depiction of the relationship between Conan and Belît, which lasts for three years. It's a strangely compelling portrait, showing more than a mere partnership of individuals united in a common goal but yet hardly a conventional union of hearts. The interplay between the two characters is fascinating and it's in this that we get an elucidation of Conan's inner life, something often overlooked or caricatured in later media.
"... What do you believe, Conan?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he trusts them too deeply. I seek not death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let the teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
Would that more portrayals of the Cimmerian took this passage to heart and ran with it, rather than putting nonsense like "What is best in life?" into his mouth. Unfortunately, it's not this aspect of "Queen of the Black Coast" that is remembered. Rather, it is the epic quality of the tale that lingers in many minds. I have little doubt that the later reworking of Howard's texts to create a linear "saga" was in part aided and abetted by a superficial reading of this story. Meanwhile, Belît's own response to Conan is just as memorable, but, unlike it, I suspect that later interpreters make far more of it than they ought.
"There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria" -- she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish embrace -- "my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you -- aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!"
I don't mean to deny the emotional punch Belît's oath packs, as it's every bit as affecting as Conan's own statement of what he believes. But I think it does a disservice to both the story and to Howard to interpret this passage in a way that reduces Belît to "Conan's one true love." I'm not sure that, even light of the aforementioned oath, that interpretation holds much water, but, even if it did, there's more to Belît than her feelings for Conan. For one, she's a thinker rather than a fighter -- hardly the warrior woman Marvel comics made her out to be. For another, she had a life before she met Conan and the brief hints given of it in the story are suggestive. Like the story named after her, Belît is rarely forgotten by readers but is just as rarely viewed in her full complexity.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Flail Snails Wish They Were This Awesome

A Frog God Rises

The latest bit of news making the rounds is that Bill Webb of Necromancer Games has formed a new company, called Frog God Games, that will be publishing the The Slumbering Tsar Saga (now for Paizo's Pathfinder RPG) in its entirety as a series of 14 monthly electronic releases. Once all 14 installments are produced, they'll be bundled together as a hardcover book of nearly 600 pages. The first chapter will be available on May 15 for the introductory price of $2.99, but subsequent chapters will cost $9.99 each. You can prepay for the entire series (including the book) for $120.00, which is a small savings over buying each chapter separately. Non-subscribers will be able to buy the book at its release for $150.00.

I have fond memories of Necromancer Games, who produced some of the best products of the D20 era, including the awesome Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set and City State of the Invincible Overlord hardcover. And while I ceased playing D&D III years ago, I was sad when Necromancer more or less shut down operations amidst the chaos surrounding the latest edition's release. So, it's good to see a successor to Necromancer arise from the ashes to pick up where it left off. But there's no way I'd ever consider picking up The Slumbering Tsar Saga. The buy-in is way more than I could ever justify, even if I were playing Pathfinder, which I'm not, and, at nearly 600 pages, that's way more adventure than I would ever need. Having run a seat-of-the-pants old school campaign for a year and a half now, I can't imagine ever again seeing any value in monstrously large adventure tomes, even very well done ones, which I'm sure this one will be.

Still, I wish Frog God every success in this and future endeavors. Necromancer Games did some great work and I'm sure Frog God will follow in its footsteps.

Lights in the Darkness

August Derleth catches a lot of flak among Lovecraftian purists and, I think, understandably so. It was largely Derleth, after all, who took HPL's disparate extra-terrene entities and welded them together into what we today call the Cthulhu Mythos (despite Derleth's own stated preference for the "Mythology of Hastur"), a creation that was every bit as alien to Lovecraft's own conception of them as they were to life on Earth. It was Derleth too who layered onto the Mythos a Manichean worldview that pitted the "good" Elder Gods against the "evil" Great Old Ones (as well as a Christian-derived notion of the Old Ones having "fallen" in their primordial rebellion against the Elder Gods). Consequently, Derleth's name is muttered as a curse by those who prefer their cosmic horror undiluted with pedestrian notions like hope or faith in the future.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, because, while preparing to review Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, I re-watched video interviews with both Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen, in which both game designers reflected on the creation of Call of Cthulhu. Stafford noted that one of the very few changes made to Petersen's original manuscript was the addition of a way to regain Sanity after having lost it in order to prevent them game from becoming too depressing to play. Meanwhile, Petersen, when asked why Call of Cthulhu has remained so popular after all these years replied that it's because of the game's "optimism."

Now, "optimism" is not a word one normally associates with a game like Call of Cthulhu, where most characters are likely to end up dead or insane. However, Petersen explains himself by noting that Call of Cthulhu allows us to play ordinary people who, through their actions, manage to hold off Armageddon for just one more day. I definitely think there's something to this perspective, as it's one I largely share. On the face of it, Call of Cthulhu ought to be a bleak, nihilistic game and it could easily have been so. But, in my experience, Call of Cthulhu is in fact one of the most unambiguously heroic RPGs ever written -- a game where people little different than you or I risk loss of life and sanity to give mankind another small chance at survival.

Second, I bring this up because I was recently reading a collection of Robert E. Howard's "Mythos fiction" last week. The particular volume I own was edited and introduced by Robert M. Price. I often don't think much of Price's interpretations of Lovecraft (or indeed of many things), but I was intrigued by something he wrote in his introduction to the story "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth."
Howard's tales of heroic adventure, whether Sword-and-Sorcery or Lost Race stories, sometimes make reference to the Cthulhu Mythos, even though they are not really "about" the Mythos. This is because Howard's fiction proceeded from the dark inner cosmos of his own mind and the fictive universe in which he set his tales are an externalization of that inner Sheol. His heroes, even when victorious, as they almost always are, are not merely bottling up the anomalous inkspill of evil which has momentarily put a crimp in a pleasant picnic-world of reality. No, Conan's victories, or Solomon Kane's, are like that of the most pessimistic Lovecraftian anti-hero in that they are but temporary reprieves from the ineluctable fall of universal darkness. Contrary to the anti-Derlethian stereotype, a good-versus-evil plot is by no means incompatible with Lovecraftian nihilistic cosmicism. [italics mine]
Leaving aside Price's comments about Howard, it's his last sentence that really struck me square in the face. Thinking about it, I believe Price is correct; there is nothing inherently incompatible about a "happy ending" of sorts in a Lovecraftian-inspired tale. Looking even to HPL's own stories, you'll find that some, such as "The Dunwich Horror" and even "The Call of Cthulhu," conclude on comparatively positive notes, the "inkspill of evil," to borrow Price's evocative phrase, being blotted for the time being. That perspective is at the root of the optimism Sandy Petersen sees as key to Call of Cthulhu's lasting success -- its ability to present confrontations with a dark and uncaring cosmos that paradoxically confirms the enduring value of human heroism and self-sacrifice.

There's little question that Derleth was heavy-handed in his lightening of Lovecraft's cosmic horror, often to the point of parody. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that, without the framework provided by Derleth's approach, a RPG treatment of Lovecraft's work probably would have been the depressing affair Greg Stafford mentioned in his interview and certainly not the mainstay of the hobby it became. I think the same is true of RPGs based on other genres. I've never been a big fan of "dark" stories unleavened by even a glimmer of hope. Bleakness for its own sake holds no appeal and I instinctively shy away from media, including RPGs, that seem to revel in it. In fact, it's an instinct that, ironically, only seems to grow stronger as I get older.

The rediscovery of the pulp fantasy roots of Dungeons & Dragons -- and therefore the hobby -- has increased interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction, which many people, mistakenly in my view, see as necessarily bleak. As with cosmic horror, though, there's no necessity for it. From my perspective, S&S is distinguished more by its personal focus than any putative bleakness, which is to say, the struggles of individuals in a world of magic and monsters rather than the epic contests of nations, peoples, or worlds. Indeed, much sword-and-sorcery fiction is surprisingly optimistic, even upbeat, rather than bleak. There is often an attention to realism (or at least verisimilitude) in S&S fiction, but that hardly entails bleakness unless one already views reality in unrelentingly negative terms. Conan's gigantic melancholies were, after all, counterbalanced by his gigantic mirth and so too can sword-and-sorcery fiction -- or roleplaying games that looks to them for inspiration.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tarzan Rebooted

Deuce Richardson at The Cimmerian has made an interesting post about an upcoming relaunch of the character of Tarzan the Ape-Man through a series of new novels that updates him and his adventures to the 21st century. Needless to say, I'm skeptical of the wisdom of this, but I'm almost always skeptical of such things. While I am fond of Tarzan, hearing about this doesn't quite make my blood boil in the same way as when I hear about the likely ignominies to be visited upon Robert E. Howard's characters.

But it might work. Who knows? At the very least, I hope that Burroughs people demonstrate better guardianship over one of ERB's iconic characters than Conan Properties has often shown for the Cimmerian.

REVIEW: Lovecraftian Tales from the Table

Last Fall, Paul Maclean, one of the major contributors to the excellent website sent me a copy of a DVD-ROM entitled Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, which he thought I might enjoy, given my regularly avowed love of Call of Cthulhu. Owing to my busy schedule, I wasn't able to review the DVD immediately after receiving it. I know that sounds like a dodge and on some level, it is. In my defense, though, properly reviewing Lovecraftian Tales from the Table is a time-consuming process, as it consists of over a hundred hours of MP3s and video clips, in addition to many megabytes of PDFs and other remarkable extras, about which I'll talk later in this post. Finding the time to sample even a small portion of the material packed onto this inexpensive (£4.99 - less than $8 US at current exchange rates) was difficult and I felt an obligation to do more than simply sample the DVD's contents. Having now had the chance to take in the bulk of it, I can review it at last.

Though I refer to this product as Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, it is in fact called The Bradford Players present Lovecraftian Tales form the Table, containing as it does the recorded game sessions of a group of UK roleplayers from Bradford in West Yorkshire as they play two lengthy Call of Cthulhu campaigns, Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express. Listening to others as they play a RPG is always an odd experience for me. I'm simultaneously enthralled by hearing how others run their sessions and slightly embarrassed, as if I'm eavesdropping on the private conversations of others. It's an odd sensation and perhaps I'm peculiar in feeling it.

Regardless, the Bradford Players are a vibrant and engaging group of roleplayers. What comes through while listening to them is both their enthusiasm for Call of Cthulhu and their, for lack of a better word, ordinariness. I mean that as a genuine compliment. Too often I think gamers don't really believe that "normal" people play roleplaying games, but the Bradford Players put the lie to that notion. Likewise, the recordings reveal the Players having fun while playing. The sessions are not somber, serious events devoid of joy -- or out-of-character asides -- and, from my perspective, that's very appealing. I know that my own weekly gaming sessions are often unfocused and filled with bizarre digressions, so hearing the Bradford Players as they played through two classic campaigns reinforced my sense that this entertainment we call roleplaying involves more than pretending to be someone else in an imaginary world and that the socializing that inevitably goes along with it is just as important.

Along with the recordings of the Bradford Players, there are many excellent extras, such as video interviews with Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen, and Ramsey Campbell, and many others associated with either Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft, or both. There's a quickstart version of CoC, character sheets, handouts from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the complete "Freeport Trilogy" from Green Ronin (and Cults of Freeport too), plus music, artwork, "best of" episodes from Yog Radio broadcasts, and much more. If DVD-ROMs possessed gills -- evidence of their Deep One ancestry perhaps? -- this one could fairly be said to be packed to them. Lovecraftian Tales contains lots of interest to fans of Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraft, but, honestly, I think the audio recordings of actual sessions will be of interest to gamers of all sorts, if only to see how others engage in this hobby we all share.

Considering that I've been regularly listening to Lovecraftian Tales from the Table on my computer while I write, I highly recommend this unique product. More than anything, it bubbles with enthusiasm and is a powerful example of what makes roleplaying a pastime to which many of us have devoted innumerable hours.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You enjoy listening to others while they play a RPG campaign. (Mind you, it's worth it for the extras alone)
Don't Buy This If: You don't enjoy "actual play" recordings or have no interest in Call of Cthulhu or Lovecraft.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Praise of BRP

When I purchased my first Chaosium RPG -- Call of Cthulhu -- back in 1981, included in that first edition boxed set was a little 16-page pamphlet called Basic Role-Playing (or BRP, as it's become known since). At first, I was rather baffled by its presence, since the box already included a much larger Call of Cthulhu rulebook, which I assumed included all of the rules needed to play. As it turned out, it didn't, or rather, the rules in the larger book built upon concepts introduced in Basic Role-Playing. Thus, to more easily understand Call of Cthulhu's rulebook, one more or less needed to understand BRP.

Young kid that I was, I thought this a rather odd way to present rules, but, in retrospect, the wisdom of Chaosium's approach was borne out. For one, reading and internalizing 16 pages (of which only about half consisted of actual rules) took no time at all, thereby creating a solid foundation on which to add further complexities. For another, it nicely emphasized what rules were the important ones, the ones on which everything else depended. The BRP booklet thus admirably served double duty as both an introduction to all the games derived from it and as a treatise on rules economy.

It's this last aspect of that 16-page booklet that's stuck with me all these years. In an age in which even "light" games are typically many times larger than BRP was in 1980, it's difficult not to admire the way that Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis distilled Steve Perrin's original rules design into its essential components. Re-reading it recently reminded me just how few rules are necessary to run a roleplaying game if those rules are well chosen and presented. There's little question in my mind that BRP is both, which probably explains why it's remained more or less the same in its more than 30 years of existence and has powered some of the most well regarded RPGs in the history of the hobby.

Quite an impressive feat for such a tiny ruleset!

The Mystery of the Shadow

Does anyone have any insight into why the shadow, introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk, and whose original description specifically notes that they "are not 'Undead' per se" came to be numbered among the undead in the AD&D Monster Manual? Holmes muddies the waters a bit by transforming Greyhawk's clearer language into "Shadows are not turned by clerics," but he nevertheless doesn't call them "undead creatures" as the Monster Manual does. Interestingly, Moldvay is quite explicit about the fact that shadow are not undead, thus bringing it more in line with OD&D's conception of the monster.

In my Dwimmermount campaign, shadows are not undead but malevolent manifestations of Chaos found in areas tainted by it. Still, I find it more than a little odd that Gygax reversed himself so radically on this question. It's a minor point, admittedly, but it bugs me nonetheless and I wish I'd thought to ask him the question back when I was corresponding with him.

Spells Through the Ages

Unsurprisingly, I'm a big fan of looking carefully at the text of D&D's various editions in order to mine them for meaning. Several years ago, before I'd fully returned to old school D&D, I spent some time examining the presentation of spells and monsters in every edition from OD&D to 3e in order to see what had changed and what remained the same over the decades. I was actually quite surprised to see just how many elements were constant across the editions, even as the context of those elements changed greatly.

When it comes to analyzing texts across editions to tease out obscure meanings, there are few better than Dan "Delta" Collins. His Book of Spells is a superb distillation of the magic-user spells of OD&D, restoring them to pristine clarity free from later glosses and accretions. Together with his friend Paul, Dan is kicking off a new series of posts called "Spells Through the Ages," which will thoroughly examine the spells of OD&D with an eye toward what's stayed the same, what's changed, and what this means for how the spell is used in the game.

It's something I'm very much looking forward to reading, since the series has already turned its gaze upon a particular spell -- silence -- that's proven very troublesome to me over the years and in recent sessions of the Dwimmermount campaign. I imagine others will find the series equally useful. Even when I disagree with the conclusions Dan comes to, I nevertheless derive much food for thought from his reasons for drawing them.

Retrospective: James Bond 007

Though TSR's Top Secret was my first love when it came to espionage RPGs, I think Victory Games's James Bond 007 was probably my true love. I exaggerate slightly, of course, because, when it comes down to it, the Bond franchise is no more about espionage than Dungeons & Dragons is about the Middle Ages. That's what I liked about this roleplaying game, released in 1983 by Victory Games, a subsidiary of Avalon Hill formed a year earlier and staffed largely by ex-SPI personnel: it knew what it was and made no bones about it -- and what it was was an action-adventure game inspired by Ian Fleming's sophisticated pulp fiction (and its spin-offs).

That self-awareness might not seem like a big deal nowadays but, in 1983, it was noteworthy. Whereas the aforementioned Top Secret was a conceptual jumble intended to encompass everything from John Le Carré to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond 007 was a piece of precision game design intended to bring the flamboyant world of Britain's greatest secret agent to life. Written by Gerard Christopher Klug, whose primary design credit prior to this was "co-development" of SPI's SF RPG, Universe, the game employed a percentile-based "quality results table" to adjudicate most actions in the game. Not unlike the color-coded charts in games like later games, such as Marvel Super Heroes, the table determined not only the success of actions but also, as its name suggests, the quality of those successes on a scale of 1 (Excellent) to 4 (Acceptable). This scale elegantly enabled many actions, such as combat, to be handled with a single die roll. The chance of success -- and thus its quality -- can be modified through the use an Ease Factor assigned by the GM.

Character creation is a straightforward point-buy system designed to ensure that even rookie characters are quite competent, as you'd expect for secret agents in the James Bond universe. Points are spent on five characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence), Skills (from a narrow but appropriate list), and Physical Appearance (including Height and Weight). Weaknesses of various sorts give additional generation points with which to purchase any of the above. Optionally, characters may have prior professions, which give them "Fields of Experience," which are non-mechanical "skills." That is, they represent areas of knowledge on which a character may draw without the need for a roll to determine success. They're a surprisingly elegant aspect of the game that nicely models the ability of Bond to come up with useful information in the course of a mission.

What's interesting about James Bond 007 is that it never loses sight of its purpose. Rather than cover a wide variety of topics in limited detail in order to provide breadth, it instead goes into much great detail about a small range of topics you'd expect of any game inspired by James Bond. Thus, there's an entire chapter devoted to chases of all sorts, just as there are chapters devoted gambling/casinos and interaction with NPCs, particularly seduction and torture. The result is a game that, while very focused, nevertheless doesn't feel cramped. In fact, it feels strangely liberating, as the rules quite clearly give the GM a fully-functional mechanical toolbox for emulating Bond films and novels.

Building on this, the Basic Rules of James Bond 007 provides an extensive GM section -- nearly half of the book's 162 pages are given over to the GM. Besides the usual advice, there's a great section on building memorable NPCs, complete with random tables for generating their stats and a random encounter system designed to simultaneously flesh out a mission and provide unexpected turns of events. It's surprisingly old school in its general approach and something I appreciate even more now than I did back when I played the game. Other portions of the GM section detail weaponry and gadgets, MI6, important NPCs from the films/novels, an enemy organization called TAROT to replace SPECTRE (which, for legal reasons, the game could not use), and information on numerous Bond-related world cities. There was even an introductory solitaire adventure to enable players and GMs alike to become familiar with the rules -- and all under one cover.

James Bond 007 was not only a good game, one that perfectly emulated its source material without the imposition of a mechanical straitjacket, but also a very successful one. During its brief time on the stage (1983-1987), it sold tens of thousands of copies, making it likely the most popular espionage-related RPG ever published. Support for the game was primarily in the form of adventures -- another connection to old school principles -- with a handful of sourcebooks, such as the Q Manual and Thrilling Locations, both of which could readily be used as inspiration for other modern day games. The adventures were a mixed bag, using the movies as starting points but in fact deviating from them quite radically in some cases. Even the worst ones, though, felt distinctly "Bondian" rather than generic, much the game itself.

Long out of print, Berin "Uncle Bear" Kinsman, has retro-cloned the rules under the name Double Zero and a full release of the game is coming late this summer. I certainly look forward to it, as James Bond 007 was a terrific example of early 80s game design and a true classic. Despite my fondness for Top Secret, I doubt I'd ever consider playing it again, whereas I'd happily play James Bond 007 in a heartbeat. For its genre, no one's ever done it better.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gygax on Hobby vs. Business

Thanks to my friend Anthony, I was able to obtain a copy of an interview with Gary Gygax from issue #1 of a fanzine called Gryphon (whose fourth issue, ironically, Jeff Rients is currently seeking -- talk about serendipity). The issue dates from Summer 1980 and is pretty wide ranging. The reviewer, Rudy Kraft (who did a lot of work with Chaosium in the early days), at one point asks Gary if there's anything he'd like to say that he hasn't had the chance to. He responds:
Just a comment that it is an honor to be asked to give this sort of interview. I hope that what you have got answers people's questions, and helps them understand what it is like [in] changing from a pure hobbyist to a business man. Because that is what you must do if you are going to run a gaming company. Today you can't run a growing company without devoting your time and your efforts to business rather than playing games. It's sad but true that the idea that you can merge your hobby with your business or your avocation with your vocation and come out with some sort of happy marriage isn't really feasible. You end up working at something which pertains to what you like but not actually playing the games. It does take real attention to normal business affairs to keep a company going. Even the game designers have noticed that they must look at things other than "how does the game play?" in order to come up with a successful design.
Even leaving aside whether Gygax was correct in saying that you can't merge your hobby with your business, it's sad to see him imply that he'd worked on things he hadn't actually played. I consider that a recipe for uninspired, soulless game products, but, considering Gary's record in producing awesome material, perhaps I'm mistaken. Still, it's one of those things I hate seeing written nonetheless, especially from one of the founders of the hobby.

Renaissance and Renascence

One of the frustratingly wonderful aspects of the English language is its seemingly infinite capacity to increase its vocabulary by borrowing words from other tongues. English's rapaciousness for new words is in fact so great that it often swallows up cognates, pressing them each into service without regard for their linguistic kinship. A good example of this process can be seen in the words "renaissance" and "renascence." The latter word is nowadays somewhat obscure, having been largely overshadowed by the former, even though both mean "rebirth." In addition, renaissance has come to be strongly associated with the historical cultural movement begun in Italy in the 14th century and spreading throughout Europe over the course of the next few centuries. This association is so strong that many uses of the word "renaissance" seem to be analogies with the historical capital-R renaissance, thereby implying that the word is a proper noun rather than a common one.

I mention this for the obvious reason that the word "renaissance" as used in "old school renaissance" is often as often as controversial as the term "old school." From what I can tell, many gamers, like many people, look to the Renaissance for their primary understanding of the word and not merely to the Renaissance itself but to the 19th century's conception of it as the origin of the "modern" world. The word thus carries with it connotations of "progress" and moving away from the ignorance of "the Dark Ages." If that is one's understanding of a renaissance, then it's perfectly reasonable to wonder why the old school renaissance seems so hidebound and backward-looking rather than enlightened and experimental.

Of course, the reality is that the Renaissance wasn't a single, monolithic event but rather a series of interrelated ones, spread over many countries and times, united primarily by the foundational role played by a re-evaluation of the arts and sciences of classical antiquity. In some places and times, classical learning served as a spur to develop new arts and sciences, while in others it led to a reversal of changes that had been going on since the fall of Rome. If, for example, you've ever wondered by the English word "doubt" has a silent b, blame fastidious lexicographers who wanted to bring the word more in line with its classical Latin roots. For every genuine advance over medieval learning, there were also outright rejections of such advances, preferring instead the purity of an idealized classical past. Sound familiar?

That's why I've never had a problem with applying the word "renaissance" to the current revival of interest in old school RPGs. The historical Renaissance (and its immediate antecedents in the 9th and 12th centuries) wasn't an unadulterated rejection of the past and all its follies, the first step of the March of Progress on a journey culminating in the glorious perfection of Today. Rather, it was a time of great ferment, as men -- once again -- grappled with the knowledge and insights of their ancestors. For some, it's true, what they saw was evidence that they had surpassed previous generations but others saw evidence of the opposite, that they had fallen so far from the heights of their forefathers that only be imitating them might they hope to raise themselves up from the muck.

And of course those are both extreme views. Most people saw things somewhere in between and proceeded accordingly. My point is simply that, far from being inappropriate, I think what's going on now with regard to old school gaming is indeed a renaissance; it's a rediscovery of the past and it's up to each of us to decide what lessons to learn from it. Like the historical Renaissance, there's no one size fits all solution and to expect such is to misunderstand the nature of cultural revivals. The "problem" in the way that the old school renaissance is perceived is, I think, too narrow a notion of what a renaissance is -- or perhaps too strong an association of the word with a particular interpretation of a particular past historical event.

Had the word "renascence" been used by the old school movement instead, we might avoid the connotations of the word "renaissance," but we'd probably spend no less time trying to explain its meaning than we do now, so very little would have been gained. Consequently, I think it's important to point out from time to time that what's going on in the old school movement is perfectly consonant with the notion of a renaissance, which can just as easily entail a rejection of the present for the excellence of the past as it can by being inspired by the past to create a better future. If history is any guide, both approaches are part and parcel with all renaissances, so why should we expect the OSR to be any different?

REVIEW: The Hidden Serpent

The Hidden Serpent is a new release from Faster Monkey Games, the company that produced the excellently quirky Wheel of Evil. Like its predecessor, it's a PDF adventure module for Labyrinth Lord but is easily adaptable to any class-and-level based fantasy game (and probably quite a few fantasy RPGs that use other mechanics). The product consists of a 20-page adventure, two maps, four handouts (or, rather, two versions -- one color and one B&W -- of two handouts), and full-color front and back covers. At $6, it's well within the price range we've come to expect for old school adventure modules these days.

The Hidden Serpent is intended for a party of 4-6 characters of levels 2-4. Guidelines are provided for making it less lethal to characters of lower level, although the Author's Note at the start approvingly quotes Frank Mentzer's observation that "characters die frequently." Consequently, even after toning down some of the module's tougher elements, The Hidden Serpent is still quite challenging. It's billed as "a tribute to a classic dungeon crawl" and anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about TSR era Dungeons & Dragons will quickly recognize that "classic dungeon crawl" as Mike Carr's superb In Search of the Unknown.

The module's action takes place within the fortress known as Quazkyton, the abode of evil mercenaries Zeglin and Rogar, neither of whom has been seen in some time. In their absence, Quazkyton has fallen into chaos and disrepair, providing an opportunity for adventurers to explore and loot the place before Zeglin and Rogar return (assuming they ever do). The Hidden Serpent differs from its inspiration in providing additional context for the abandoned fortress, describing even the wilderness around it. Beyond that, though, it's a delightfully straightforward site-based adventure that, while looking to module B1 for ideas is not merely a rehash of it. Indeed, relying too heavily on one's knowledge of In Search of the Unknown to provide a leg-up here is likely a recipe for disaster -- a clever way to make metagaming literally hazardous rather than merely annoying.

Quazkyton is a solid dungeon complex, containing a good mix of tricks, traps, and monsters. Its two levels are slightly smaller than Carr's original but it's still large enough to serve as an adventure locale for several sessions of regular play. Admirers of B1 will see that author Jeff Sparks has not merely aped In Search of the Unknown, instead using it as a springboard for his own ideas, many of which stand up quite well in comparison. In fact, one could look on The Hidden Serpent as an example of how one referee chose to adapt and build upon the foundation provided by B1 and is now sharing it for the benefit of others. Despite that, there's still plenty of scope in this module for individual referees to make it their own as well, which I consider to be the hallmark of a good adventure module.

The Hidden Serpent is well written, edited, and presented. While art is sparse, there's just enough to attractively break up the two-column text. Also included with the adventure are two new monsters for use with Labyrinth Lord, though both derive from monsters presented in the Advanced Edition Companion. If I have any qualms about The Hidden Serpent, it's its use of italicized read-aloud text for its descriptions. However, these sections do no more than present what the characters see, hear, and smell when entering an area; they do not assume any actions by the PCs or ascribe mental states to them in reaction to what they sense. Consequently, I wasn't overly bothered by their presence and indeed they may serve as tutorials for referees unaccustomed to describing the contents of a dungeon room.

All in all, The Hidden Serpent is well worth a look, if only because it's a low-level module that doesn't take The Keep on the Borderlands as its model. That it's also an excellent low-level dungeon in its own right only makes it all the more remarkable.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a well-presented low-level dungeon.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in dungeons or have no need of a module in this level range.

More Magick and Monsters

You may recall that I made mention of a fictional RPG called Magick and Monsters from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books that my daughter (and my wife) are reading. Well, Magick and Monsters makes a reappearance in the fourth book in the series, Dog Days, although this time it's in the form of fantasy novels based on the game.

As an avowed hater -- Me? A hater? It's a shock to you all, I know -- of gaming novels, I highly approve of the humor in Dog Days. With the fifth Wimpy Kid book due in September, I find myself hoping that we'll see more references to Magick and Monsters.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Joy of Print

Because of Lulu's ridiculous shipping costs to Canada (which, to be fair, are increasingly less ridiculous as the years drag on), I generally don't buy every issue of Fight On! as soon as it's released. Instead, I content myself with my PDF contributor's copies until I can order several issues at a time and thus make the shipping cost more justifiable. This morning I received issues 7 and 8 in the mail and I have to say what a joy it is to hold them in my hands.

Fight On! continues to impress me with the diversity and creativity of its articles each quarter, but the fact that it's in print is a big part of its appeal. I'm one of those horrible Luddites who finds electronic "books" poor substitutes for something I can actually touch. For me, there's something wonderful about being able to take my thumb and quickly flip through a magazine, scanning the pages for a particular article or illustration, along the way noticing something else entirely -- and getting sidetracked in the process. Of course, I generally prefer things to be "embodied" rather than virtual whenever possible, which is probably why, despite being a stupidly prolific blogger, I find face-to-face conversations vastly more satisfying than what passes for discourse on forums and in comment boxes.

I'm glad magazines like Fight On! and Knockspell exist. In my formative years as a gamer, I loved getting my copy of Dragon each month (and, much later, GDW's Challenge) and these old school magazines come close to evoking similar feelings in me. I recognize the advantages of PDFs and similar formats, but, for me anyway, print is almost always my preference, even with the extra expense and issue of storage. But then I'm probably weird that way.

Two Years Gone

Robert E. Bledsaw (May 18, 1942 - April 19, 2008)

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Coming of the White Worm

I've remarked before that Clark Ashton Smith's weird tales are something of an acquired taste, lacking the more immediate appeal of the stories penned by his contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Their florid vocabulary, poetic diction, and mordant humor are not to everyone's liking -- a judgment as true in his own day as now.

Smith often had a difficult time selling his stories to Weird Tales, the premier pulp magazine of the time, resulting in many of his efforts appearing in more obscure publications. Such was the case with his Hyperborean yarn "The Coming of the White Worm," which first saw print in the April 1941 issue of Stirring Science Stories, nearly eight years after he'd finished writing it and after its having been rejected by Weird Tales as "too poetic."

There's no doubt that "The Coming of the White Worm," which presents itself as an English translation of a French manuscript (written by Gaspard du Nord of "The Colossus of Ylourgne"), which is itself a translation of Chapter IX of The Book of Eibon, is a challenging text. CAS pulls out all the stops, layering archaisms upon lyricism to present the tale of Evagh the warlock, who finds himself the captive of a monstrous white worm named Rlim Shaikorth, who makes his dwelling upon a mobile iceberg known as Yikilth. Evagh is not the worm's only captive; he soon discovers that many other sorcerers have also been kidnapped and brought to serve him for initially unknown purposes.

In due course, Rlim Shaikorth reveals himself to Evagh and the warlock is horrified by his appearance. Nevertheless, the gigantic white creature explains his reasons for bringing Evagh to his lair:
"Behold, O Evagh," said the voice. "I have preserved thee from the doom of thy fellow-men, and have made thee as they that inhabit the bourn of coldness, and they that inhale the airless void. Wisdom ineffable shall be thine, and master beyond the conquest of mortals, if thou wilt but worship me and become my thrall. With me thou shalt voyage amid the kingdoms of the north, and shalt pass among the green southern islands, and see the white falling of death upon them in the light from Yikilth. Our coming shall bring eternal frost on their gardens, and shall set upon their people's flesh the seal of that gulf whose rigour paleth one by one the most ardent stars, and putteth rime at the core of suns. All this shalt thou witness, being as one of the lords of death, supernal and immortal; and in the end thou shalt return with me to that world beyond the utmost pole, in which is mine abiding empire. For I am he whose coming even the gods may not oppose."
The aforementioned dialog is typical of the story and probably goes some way toward explaining why Weird Tales rejected it. (In fact, the version of the story published in 1941 eliminates some of the text's archaisms and obscure vocabulary; it was only in 1989 that an unabridged version of the story finally saw the light of day)

As one might expect, Evagh is skeptical of Rlim Shaikorth's claims, no matter how attractive his offer of immortality in the face of the coming end of Hyperborea and the world of which it is a part. He sets out to discover the truth about the white worm, despite the dangers such an undertaking poses to himself. The result is a memorable, doom-laden story that plays well to Smith's strengths as a writer. "The Coming of the White Worm" certainly is poetic, like all of Smith's best stories, but it is not for that reason inaccessible. Indeed, I actually think its poetic cadences give it the air of a "dark fairy tale" into which one can more easily be caught up than straightforward exposition.

It's worth noting that "The Coming of the White Worm" includes frequent references to the Old Ones, which are, of course, originally Lovecraft's creations. Smith apparently considered this story to be one of his contributions to HPL's evolving pseudo-mythology, although, in his hands, that mythology has a very different feel -- less "cosmic" and more "atavistic," which is to say, rooted in dim intuitions all men possess but which their rational minds reject. This feel is not so much unsettling, as Lovecraft's tales frequently are, but strangely liberating, calling to mind thoughts and images one lacks the words to describe:
Frorely burned the sun above Mhu Thulan from a welkin clear and wannish as ice. At eve the aurora was hung from zenith to earth, like an arras in a high chamber of gods. Wan and rare were the poppies and small the anemones in the cliff-sequestered vales lying behind the house of Evagh; and the fruits in his walled garden were pale of rind and green at the core.
There's a lot of great images and ideas to mine in this story for gaming, especially if one's tastes tend toward the weird and apocalyptic. I am told that Expeditious Retreat Press's OSRIC module The Conqueror Worm is inspired by "The Coming of the White Worm." Given that it's written by Alphonso Warden, who also wrote the brilliant The People of the Pit, I am not the least bit surprised. I may have to check it out.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Referee as Player

In his comment to my post about RuneQuest, Rob Conley said the following:
It['s] fun to play around with a system [that] has the elements of GURPS I like (skills, detailed combat, etc) but feels closer to the roots of the hobby (random rolls, death looms, etc).
Rob's inclusion of random rolls among "the roots of the hobby" triggered a realization in my mind: all other issues aside, what I really most enjoy about old school games is their implicit recognition of the fact that the referee is a player too.

Let me explain. Much as I enjoy mechanically simple games, mechanical simplicity isn't necessarily a make or break thing for me when it comes to enjoying a game. Certainly I have a lot less tolerance for complex games than I used to, but I wouldn't reject a mechanically complex game out of hand, if I felt that complexity gave me something I couldn't get through simpler rules. And the main something that could grab my interest these days is, for want of a better word, surprise.

As I see it, a good part of the enjoyment in being a player in a RPG campaign stems from ignorance. You don't know the details of the adventures the referee has planned; you may not even know much about the wider setting in which those adventures are based. In many old school games, you don't even know what sort of character you'll be playing until you roll some dice and see. Over time and through play, all these instances of ignorance are lessened to some degree and the process of doing so leads to much fun.

The referee isn't quite so lucky. He creates the campaign setting and adventures set therein. He's by nature a keeper of secrets and so possesses something akin to omniscience -- at least from the players' point of view. Consequently, the scope for his being surprised is much more limited. It's always there, of course, because it's impossible to predict what players will do, but, even then, there are (generally) limits to the unexpected mayhem they can wreak. After all, the referee establishes most of the conditions under which the players make their decisions in the first place and so already has a leg up on planning to deal with consequences.

That's why, these days, I like games with a lot of randomness -- the baleful "swinginess" that so many modern game designs are trying to eliminate as "un-fun." Such randomness may be irksome to players, but it's essential in my opinion for the enjoyment of referees, as it presents a factor that's wholly out of their control. This is also why I also shy away from "story" in adventures, preferring instead something much looser. As a referee, I often find it frustrating enough knowing all the details of a dungeon level beforehand, but throw in a plot with pre-determined scenes or events and I start to feel as I'm not playing a game anymore, or at least not the same game as my players.

Perhaps I'm not. Perhaps one of the trade-offs in being a referee is you don't get the chance to be as surprised as the rest of the players. I'm not convinced that's true, though. My Dwimmermount campaign has gone off in a number of directions I didn't expect and all because I purposefully limited my "omniscience" and allowed the campaign to take on a life of its own, where random rolls and on-the-spot decisions in response to them played as big a role as careful forethought on my part. The result has been, in all honesty, one of the most enjoyable RPG campaigns I've ever run and the first in a long time where I've felt that, as referee, I was every bit as much of a player as the rest of the people sitting round my dining room table.

I certainly wouldn't claim that any of this stuff is inherent to old school play. After all, I've played in plenty of campaigns where this wasn't the case. Likewise, I don't think more modern game designs make it impossible to run a campaign like the one I'm running right now. However, I do think that older designs make it much easier to do so, as they were created in an environment in which "gamey-ness" -- such as randomness and player skill in responding to it -- was a given rather than merely one option among many. These are games from a "pre-theoretical" world, when designers still largely saw RPGs as contiguous with their precursors rather than divergent from them, if that makes sense.

This has turned into something a fair bit more rambling and incoherent a post than I'd intended but that's the nature of thinking out loud, I suppose. I guess all I'm really saying is that I like playing games whose mechanical underpinnings afford the referee a greater scope to be a player of the game rather than its "master" (never mind "storyteller," "narrator," or anything of that sort). I think the shift away from that, which you can see even in late OD&D, is one I don't find especially congenial and that I've happily cast off over the last year and a bit. Thank goodness.