Tuesday, August 31, 2010

David Wesely Interview

Reader Ed Heil pointed me toward a recorded interview with David Wesely over at Theory from the Closet. If you're interested in the history -- or, more precisely, prehistory -- of the hobby, you'll probably find it fascinating.

A Random Musing

For whatever reason, lots of gamers bristle at the idea of rolling 3D6 in order for their characters' ability scores. Me, I like it, even prefer it, because it's a good way to a) generate a character that's unexpected and b) generate a character who's likely to have one or more areas of obvious deficiency.

With that in mind, I wonder what might happen if instead of rolling 3D6 in order, a player could roll 18D6 and then allocate whole dice to whatever ability scores they wished. No score could exceed 18 and no score could be below 3 but, provided those rules are kept in mind, a player would be free to put however many dice he wished into determining any ability score. So, if a player really wanted a Strength 18 fighting man, he could allocate the sum of 5 of his 18D6 to achieve that end. Barring some really good dice rolls, this will likely mean that the fighter character will have below average scores in other abilities, but that's the price one pays.

Has anyone ever used a system like this? I've never done it myself, so there may well be some consequences for doing so that I'm not aware of. Theoretically, though, it seems like a good way to combine the most of the best features of 3D6 in order with player choice, the latter of which seems to be the biggest beef many gamers have with the standard OD&D method of rolling ability scores.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mound

I must admit that I have a fondness for H.P. Lovecraft's "revision" stories. These are tales that originally appeared under someone else's name, but the bulk of whose text was in fact written and perhaps conceived by Lovecraft. Amateurs often approached HPL for assistance in getting a story (or stories) polished for submission. Lovecraft usually did this quite willingly, as he was both keen to lend a hand to aspiring writers and because he was regularly in need of funds to support himself, owing both the difficulty he had in selling his own work and how slowly he was paid for the work he did succeed in selling.

Of course, Lovecraft being Lovecraft, he frequently rewrote nearly the entirety of the story he was merely supposed to revise. The result is something that should, in most respects, be considered a Lovecraft story. However, because he took seriously the notion that he was revising someone else's work, HPL did he best to retain as much of his client's ideas as possible, even when, in the final analysis, only the barest skeleton of non-Lovecraftian material can be seen in the revision. Thus, there's generally enough non-Lovecraftian concepts in these revisions to set them apart from the "pure" Lovecraft corpus, which is why some fans turn their nose up at them and treat them as "lesser" works.

I don't feel that way, since, as in the case of "The Mound," the story in question is massive in length -- over 25,000 words -- and filled with terrific Lovecraftian ideas. Written for a client by the name of Zealia Bishop, who lived in Kansas City, "The Mound" was begun sometime in 1929 and completed by 1930, but it did not see print until 1940, several years after Lovecraft's death. Even when it did appear in Weird Tales, it was a much abridged version, which probably contributed to the ill fame in which the story was held for many years. The full, original version of "The Mound" did not see print until 1989, in an Arkham House publication edited by S.T. Joshi and my reading of it a few years afterward convinced me that it is, in fact, a remarkable piece of work, one that ought to stand in the higher ranks of Lovecraft's fiction.

Certainly "The Mound" is no "The Call of Cthulhu" or "At the Mountains of Madness," but it's nevertheless a superb piece of work. It tells of the story of a member of Coronado's 16th century exploration of what is now Oklahoma, named Panfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez. Zamacona had heard tales of an underground realm supposedly filled with great wealth and hires an Indian guide to take him to the entrance to this legendary place. The Indian guides the Spaniard to a huge mound but will go no further, speaking ill of its subterranean inhabitants. Undeterred, Zamacona enters the mound alone, eventually discovering an ancient civilization called K'n-yan.

K'n-yan is inhabited by human-appearing extraterrestrial beings who display amazing mental powers, such as telepathy and dematerialization. Despite these powers, Zamacona finds, to his disappointment, that these beings have fallen into decadence, being unable to operate many of their most impressive pieces of technology, having long since forgotten their principles. Likewise, their morals, once quite sophisticated and subtle, have descended into near-barbarism, with blood sports and other similar entertainments replacing their once-lofty cultural pursuits. Zamacona finds K'n-yan fascinating but, as a 16th century Spaniard, he has no desire to remain there forever. Unfortunately for him, its inhabitants have other ideas ...

"The Mound" is definitely not what one would call a "thrill a minute" story, but then probably no Lovecraft story could be called such with a straight face. It is, in many ways, largely an extensive travelog of an imaginary place, a subterranean world that is both awe-inspiring and horrifying. Lovecraft gives free rein when he describes K'n-yan, which he presents neither as a utopia nor as a nightmare realm. It's clear that some aspects of its society were derived from Lovecraft's own ideals -- its elevation of the rational and the esthetic, for example -- but other aspects were derived from his own fears, particularly his feeling that any civilization not properly guided by its ruling class would inevitably descend into demagoguery and decay.

Perhaps it's for that reason that I like "The Mound" so much: Lovecraft seems a little less prone to idealizing his own preferences here. There's a certain degree of subtlety and nuance in his picture of K'n-yan's decay that I find strangely compelling. Indeed, I prefer his portrayal of these subterranean aliens to his portrayal of the elder things of Antarctica or the Great Race, both of whom lived in more unqualified Lovecraftian utopias. Perhaps I overstate my case here, but I can only say that Lovecraft's writing in "The Mound" comes across as differently than it does in many of his more well-known pieces. That difference may be why many judge it a lesser work and maybe they're even right to do so. But, for me, it's a fascinating example of world building and a reminder that, first and foremost, Lovecraft was a fantasist, not a horror writer, and his ability to create unique and memorable fantasy worlds is a good part of why I still read him.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

RIP Charles S. Roberts (1930-2010)

Via Greyhawk Grognard, I've learned that legendary wargame designer and founder of The Avalon Hill Game Company, Charles S. Roberts, died on August 20 at the age of 80.

As I've made quite clear on numerous occasions, I'm not a wargamer. I've played a few over the years and even enjoyed several of them, but I lack the particular virtues needed of a good wargamer, whether miniature or hex-and-chit. Still, I have a lot of fondness and respect for true grognards, some of whom were among my earliest mentors in the hobby. And of course, growing up in Baltimore, I likewise retain a strong connection to Avalon Hill.

So, word of Roberts's death brings with it more than a little sadness.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"We Always Ignored That Rule"

It will come as a surprise to no one that I have some pet peeves when it comes to discussing the history of RPG rules, particularly the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. One of the biggest ones usually manifests itself like this: I'll start talking about a certain rule, say weapon vs. armor class adjustment, and I'll express some bafflement as to how the rule was supposed to work or why it was presented in the fashion it was. In reply, my interlocutor will say simply, "We always ignored that rule," as if that answers my questions.

Now, I expect that, in any given RPG, there are large numbers of rules that get ignored, for a wide variety of reasons, from ignorance to laziness to outright disagreement about the utility of the rule in question. I don't have any problem with this fact, speaking as someone who's ignored more than his fair share of RPG rules over the years. My beef is more with the notion that, because a given rule is easily ignorable and likely was ignored by a lot of gamers that it's not worth discussing or trying to figure out why it was included in the game and what the designer hoped to achieve by doing so.

A related peeve of mine pertains to the so-called "Rule Zero." I have no clue where this term first originated, but I suspect it's a fairly recent coinage. According to popular usage, it refers to the supreme authority of the referee to change anything he wishes in his campaign, including the game rules. Now, I don't have any particular problem with Rule Zero as such; I question why it's necessary to codify it at all, let alone in such a goofy way (I am unhappily reminded of Asimov's "Zeroth" Law of Robotics). What bugs me about it is the way that it too is often used to short circuit discussions of odd rules in RPGs. Say I want to talk about the rather low demihuman level limits in OD&D and what its implications for the implied setting of the game and my interlocutor replies, "Well, the LBBs were only intended as a framework to be changed as the referee desires, so I don't think you can draw any conclusions from the way the rules were written." I think it's possible to admit the first clause of that reply without conceding to the second; otherwise, one wonders why any rules were needed at all.

I enjoy delving into the whys and wherefores of game rules. I hold the possibly ridiculous notion that rules aren't included in a game "just because." They're all there for a reason, even -- perhaps especially -- bad rules. Understanding why they're there is not only interesting in its own right, but it also provides firmer ground on which to modify or reject existing rules. That's why I can get worked up when I hear, "We always ignored that rule" or "The referee can change it, so why worry about it?" Call it a weakness of mine, but there it is.

OD&D Combat Charts

Unless I've translated it incorrectly, the table below summarizes the OD&D alternative combat chart into something that works with a "Target 20" combat algorithm.


Fighting Man

Cleric and Thief


Attack Bonus






















It's interesting to consider how different this progression is than the one adopted in AD&D, which notably beefs up the attack capabilities of both the fighter and the cleric, while weakening those of the thief. Truth be told, I've always had issues with the "chunkiness" of the attack bonus progression in all versions of D&D, but I've never cared enough to go with something more "rational" and indeed, having extensively played D&D III, which is relentlessly rational on this score, I've long since abandoned any notion that rationality of this type is an unqualified good. Still, tinkering with the combat charts has a long tradition in the hobby; I'm sure I'll get the urge to do so again in the future.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

REVIEW: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (Part II)

From reading other reviews of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (hereafter WF) and from stray comments about it, I think people are most impressed with the Referee Book (which I'll review in Part III). I agree that the Referee Book is good, but, for my money, my favorite component of WF is actually the Magic Book. This 52-page book covers everything you need to know about magic and playing spellcasters in the game and manages to do so succinctly but without losing an ounce of flavor. Indeed, one of the more remarkable achievements of the Magic Book is that shows just how easy it is, with a little thought and imagination, to turn D&D's rather bland magic system into something colorful and evocative of the weird tale.

The book begins with an overview of clerical magic, including how to prepare and cast spells. This is fairly standard stuff but it's good to see it spelled out clearly nonetheless. This section also includes rules for creation scrolls and holy water, as well as how to research a new spell. These rules are simple and straightforward and, I think, strike a nice balance between the vagueness of OD&D and the tedious specificity of later editions. There's also an overview of magic-user magic as well and covers much the same ground, along with rules for creating potions, staffs, and wands. Again, the rules are simple and straightforward, making the creation of these items easy enough that a character might conceivably consider doing so and yet not so easy as to make them commonplace. Raggi has found a healthy medium here and I may well swipe some of his rules for use in my own campaign.

Where the Magic Book really shines, though, is in its spell descriptions. The bulk of the Magic Book consists of individual spell descriptions of all seven levels of clerical spells and all nine levels of magic-user spells. These descriptions are much lengthier than those found in OD&D or Swords & Wizardry, though not because of additional rules. Raggi's spells are (generally) just as mechanically simple as their OD&D counterparts. What's different, though, is that he's fleshed out each spell with some compelling details. Take, for example, a favorite of mine, contact other plane:
The stars are repositories of all knowledge. By means of this spell, the Magic-User enters in communion with the star of his choice to receive wisdom and information. The caster asks questions of the star, and the star answers. The stars resent such intrusions and give only brief answers to questions, and they often lie.
The description also includes a chart of possible stars to consult to replace OD&D's rather uninspired "3rd plane," "4th plane," etc. Included amongst these stars are some familiar to regular readers of various old school blogs -- Fomalhaut, Algol, the Hyades Cluster. In WF, contact other plane still works more or less exactly as it does in OD&D, but it's presented in a way that's much more interesting and evocative.

Indeed, I'd go so far to argue that the bulk of WF's implied setting can be found in these spell descriptions, most of which are really well done. Here are a few more examples to give you a better sense of what Raggi has done:
  • conjure elemental summons a spirit from the nether realms to inhabit one of the four elements.
  • dark vision gives the ability to see 60' in the dark (as per infravision) but transforms the caster's eyes into "demonic pits of utter black."
  • hold person "unleashes millions of thread-thin spectral worms on the target(s)," which burrow into his brain and keep him from moving.
Not all of the spells in the Magic Book are flavorful and I think that's a good thing. If every spell had dark and creepy effects, I think it'd be overkill, undermining the uniqueness of the spell's that do have such effects. Nevertheless, I find what Raggi has done here praiseworthy. Simply by providing a new description of old standbys, he's managed to make them feel fresh and new, in the process painting a picture of what he means by "weird fantasy." It's very effective in my opinion.

On the downside, if you're not interested in the picture that Raggi's painting, you'll find the Magic Book less useful. Of course, if you really aren't interested, you probably wouldn't be buying WF and certainly would have little use for the Magic Book, which, underneath all its chrome, is really just a compilation of the standard D&D spells. Well, not all of them. Noticeably absent are spells like raise dead, reincarnation, restoration, wish -- all those powerful spells that make death, level drain, and other nasty afflictions a little less nasty. WF is definitely not a game that coddles its players and that's quite clear in the Magic Book.

In any case, no one should expect anything revolutionary from the Magic Book. It's a great book, but its virtues are in its presentation, not its mechanical originality. This is where Raggi gets to show off his ability to spin gold from straw and, more often than not, he succeeds. Even if one doesn't like the particular sheen of his gold, one can't help but admire his talent and be inspired by it. Magic in my own Dwimmermount campaign is, in general, pretty bland and matter-of-fact and that's by choice; I think it works well within the setting I've constructed. I can't deny, though, that, after reading the Magic Book, I did reconsider my choice, if only for a moment. I suspect I won't be the only referee out there who'll do so after reading the Magic Book.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for an imaginative presentation of the classic D&D magic system and spells.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your spells less flavorful or would rather inject your own flavor into them.

Kerfuffle de la Semaine

I suppose it will come as no surprise that I've gotten a lot of emails asking me my opinion about the somewhat unexpected controversy -- unexpected by me anyway -- surrounding the recent announcement of the merger between Mythmere Games and Frog God Games. Experience has taught me to be grateful when this blog is not at the center of one of these periodic outbreaks of grumbling, but I can't deny that, having read my fair share of blog and forum posts over the last couple of days, I do have a few words to say on the subject. I don't really have the energy to compose a coherent essay, so instead I'm simply going to present some random bullet points, in no particular order.
  • This is one of those times where it's difficult to take sides, because, truthfully, I really can see the merits of each position. I know that sounds like a cop-out (and I'm frequently accused of being too pacific -- except by those who think I'm an intemperate Puritan, but that's a topic for another day), but I really mean that.
  • I don't believe for a second that the now-removed section of Frog God's "About Us" was intended as a slam against anyone in the OSR, let alone the entire hobbyist movement. That said, I do think it was a foolish thing to include on a game company's website, both because of the possibility of its causing inadvertent offense (which it did) and because it comes across as petty and, frankly, unprofessional, the latter quality being ironically the very thing Frog God was claiming to possess in distinction to their competition.
  • I also perfectly understand why the move caused some anxiety in various quarters. The way it was rolled out, right down to the talk of a "merger," made it seem as if Frog God was coming in and "poaching" Swords & Wizardry after lots of amateurs poured their hearts and souls into supporting and promoting it, all the while getting the cold shoulder from larger companies, including Frog God's predecessor, Necromancer Games. Again, I don't think Frog God meant to give this impression, but the fact is they did and it could've been avoided if the roll-out of this announcement had been better handled all around.
  • One of the things people often overlook is that, for many old schoolers, not being noticed by larger companies is a feature not a bug of the OSR. They prefer to exist on the margins, outside the notice of the Big Boys (not that Frog God can reasonably be called a "Big Boy," but that's not the point). They've seen how "old school" is slowly morphing into a nebulous bit of marketing speak designed to feed consumerism amongst nostalgia-besotted gamers (witness WotC's upcoming "Red Box" release of D&D IV) and they rightly, I think, worry that this move is another manifestation of that. And given that Frog God is not only changing S&W in terms of content -- the "Complete Rules" vs. the "Core Rules" -- but esthetics, I can't say I blame them.
  • Equally overlooked is the fact that there are other old schoolers who've never really gotten over the fall of tabletop RPGs out of the mainstream. They're as committed to the Old Ways as any of us, but they also long for the days when you could go into Toys 'R Us or a major department store and see a boxed version of D&D on the shelves. For these old schoolers, attracting the notice of a better funded, connected, and "professional" company is an unequivocally good thing, because if it leads to even a fraction of an increase in the popularity of the hobby in the world beyond our little echo chamber, there's hope for the future.
  • Also overlooked is the reality of what Frog God is doing. According to this page, the initial printing of S&W will consist of only 300 copies -- 100 limited edition hardcovers and 200 softcover ones. That's less than half the number of products that Jim Raggi published in the first print run of his Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing boxed set and about the same for most "small press" companies, probably even less. So, while S&W has a new publisher, it's not as if the game is suddenly going to be much more available than it was before or than other retro-clones are, such as Labyrinth Lord. This shift seems to me to be more about workloads for those involved and not so much about S&W "going mainstream."
  • That said, I don't like or approve of the change in the look of the game. The new cover, posted above, while technically very proficient, lacks the quirky brilliance of Peter Mullen's original. It's just another run-of-the-mill D20 era cover slapped on to a game that really deserves its own unique graphical look. I can understand why, for "branding" purposes, Frog God wanted a new cover, but why something so indistinguishable from hundreds of other early 2000s D20 products? Brave Halfling altered the look of White Box for their version and did a good job of it, I think. I am, as I say again and again, not a fan of aping the graphic design of TSR circa 1978 and I've taken a lot of flak for that position. By the same token, why should Swords & Wizardry's "Complete Rules" look like a generic high-end D20 product from 2005?
And that's about all I can think to say about the matter right now. I think, ultimately, this merger isn't going to amount to much, except that we might start to see more regular releases of S&W products and that's a good thing. The real test will be whether those releases are good ones and in keeping what we've already seen. In the end, that's all that matters.

[A Potentially More Controversial Postscript: I will never cease to be amazed by others' amazement that someone should become emotional and even irrational about news like this. We're dealing with fandom, after all, and all of us are, to varying degrees, strongly emotionally invested in this hobby. If we weren't, we wouldn't spend so much of our free time discussing it with one another. I'm not a very emotional person myself, but I have my moments of enthusiasm, even mania, and they occasionally lead me astray, but so what? I'd frankly be more concerned by a lack of such a response, because it's then that I'll know the flame has finally gone out of this hobby.]

Hordes of the Things -- for Free!

Reader Peter Byrne has pointed out that the 2nd edition of Phil Barker's -- not the same man as the creator of Empire of the Petal Throne, I should quickly point out -- fantasy miniatures wargame Hordes of the Things is available for free download at the website of the Wargames Research Group. It's a very simple set of rules (only 40 pages long) and pretty generic, so it can easily be adapted to any fantasy setting.

Take a look!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Old School RQ in PDF

Good news for everyone who's keen to get hold of Moon Design's excellent "Gloranthan Classics" series. All four volumes of the series are now available as PDFs from Issaries on RPGNow. They sell for $20.00 apiece or you can get all four for $60.00, which is a good savings. They're expensive, yes, and they're not a replacement for honest-to-goodness hardcopies, but they're excellent products that are otherwise hard to find. I'd recommend getting them if you have the money to do so and have any interest in Chaosium era RuneQuest.

Retrospective: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

I've always been a D&D man; I make no bones about it. Despite having played and written for numerous other fantasy RPGs, some of which I like very much, my heart will always belong to Gygax and Arneson's creation. Consequently, when Games Workshop released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in 1986, I didn't pay it much mind. I was already familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Battle, both from having seen it on sale in various hobby shops and from articles about it in White Dwarf (not to mention advertisements in Dragon), but I didn't play the game nor was I particularly interested in doing so. I greeted the arrival of WFRP in much the same way.

In retrospect, this was probably a mistake on my part, something that, while I can't say I regret, I do feel as if I allowed my tendency toward D&D-centric prejudices to get the better of me. In my defense, I can only say that I knew a number of gamers who were very enthusiastic about WFRP -- too enthusiastic for my taste. Again, I recognize this as a fault in myself; I get turned off by fans mooning over the latest and greatest and tend to assume the worst about it, sight unseen. Likewise, many of these Warhammer fans were filled with that middle class American self-loathing that inevitably leads to the elevation of anything European as inherently better simply by virtue of its not being American and that doesn't do much to win me over either. So, for many years after the fact I didn't think much of WFRP and what little I thought of it was negative and wholly ignorant of the game itself.

It wasn't until sometime in the 90s that I actually bothered to, you know, actually read WFRP that I realized I'd been foolishly denying myself the appreciation of a very good game and indeed a very old school game, though, at the time, I doubt I'd have described it in those terms. I call WFRP "old school" for a lot of reasons, but, chief among them, I think, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. A lot of its fans clearly take it too seriously, especially here in Naggaroth, but, if you read the original rulebook, you can see that its authors have a good, if dry and often dark, sense of humor about the game and the world in which it takes place. That's to its credit and it's one of the things that I appreciated back in the 90s, when too many gamers treated their games as serious business.

There's more to the "old school-ness" of WFRP, though, than its penchant for puns and hiding jokes in bad translations into foreign languages, particularly German. Its character creation system is a thing of beauty, at once a terrific evocation of "a grim world of perilous adventure" and a subtle commentary on social role -- and life expectancy -- of adventurers. It's second only to Traveller in my affections as being an amusing game-within-a-game and, let's face it, any RPG where being a rat catcher is actually useful wins big points in my book. WFRP is a definitely a game where character death is to be expected, similar in many ways to Call of Cthulhu. It makes no bones about this and experience has taught me that a good -- or at least amusing -- death for one's character in WFRP is something to be savored, if not outright hoped for.

There's a lot more I could say, such as highlighting the game's willingness to mix and match fantasy and science fiction, its setting's ability (again, much like Call of Cthulhu) to evoke genuine heroism in characters, or the charm of "high end amateur" production values, but, ultimately, these aren't why I mention Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay today. I mention it because it's a great game that I overlooked for too long for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the game itself. It's a sin to which I am particularly prone, as I said, and I can at least take some pride in the fact that I did eventually come around to read and appreciate WFRP. Of course, it's now long out of print and its current edition, like the current edition of my own favorite fantasy RPG, doesn't seem to have most of the things I so liked in the original.

Someone needs to retro-clone this thing ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Father and Son

A little artistic sneak peak of the Dwimmermount-related dwarf PDF I'm working on, courtesy of Steve Zieser.

REVIEW: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (Part I)

I generally try to avoid doing multi-part reviews, but, sometime, there are products that demand such an extensive treatment. James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (hereafter WF) is such a product, which is why I'll be devoting five days to discuss it, one to each of its integral books -- I've already covered its intro adventures here and here -- and a final day to discuss other components of the boxed Deluxe Edition and to sum up my feelings about the entire thing. I will be providing ratings for each book of the game, as well as for the complete product, since there are likely to be some people who are interested in only the Rules Book or only the Magic Book. In a similar fashion, I'll be discussing the physical and esthetic qualities of each book separately in each post.

I start with the 48-pages Rules Book rather than the Tutorial Book, mostly because I thought it a better book overall and wanted to start positively but also because I think discussion of the Tutorial Book makes more sense once the rules of WF are better understood. The Rules Book's layout consists of two columns of dense text, broken up with black and white artwork by a variety of artists. I was pleased to see Laura Jalo's artwork in the Rules Book, though there's too little of it for my tastes. Newcomer Amos Orion Sterns is a welcome addition; many of his pieces are excellent. Cynthia Sheppard's cover is very striking, though a little stiff. All in all, the Rule Book looks good and is easy to read. I noticed few editorial or typographical errors in the text, which is another point in its favor.

WF uses 3d6 roll in order for ability score generation, but the abilities are listed in alphabetical order rather than something more traditional. It's a defensible decision, particularly as Raggi has dispensed with any notion of Prime Requisites or XP bonuses based on high Prime Requisites. Still, it's a bit jarring to see Charisma top the list of abilities. WF uses a standard set of modifiers for abilities that's identical to that in Moldvay/Cook (or Labyrinth Lord). Interestingly, Raggi has made Intelligence and Wisdom mirrors of one another in terms of the mechanical utility, with the former affecting magic-user spells and the latter affecting cleric spells.

There are seven character classes in WF, four human and three demihuman. The cleric is much like his OD&D counterpart, except that he gets a spell at 1st level and turning is no longer an inherent ability but instead a spell. Fighters are likewise as in OD&D. Unlike OD&D, they are the only characters whose ability to engage in combat improves with level. All other classes fight as well at 1st level as they do at 15th. It's a bold design decision on Raggi's part and one that certainly makes fighters much more formidable, but it's also sufficiently divergent from D&D tradition that many may not approve it (I'm not sure that I do, for example). Magic-users are more or less the same as in OD&D. Specialists (aka thieves), on the other hand, are quite different than their OD&D counterparts and are better for it. Aside from the name, which I strongly dislike, I consider the specialist the best implementation of this class I've yet to see and will likely adopt it in Dwimmermount campaign. The class is so brilliant because its special abilities -- climbing, searching, finding traps, etc. -- use the same mechanics as other classes when attempting those same actions. The difference is that the specialist is better at these activities, increasing his chance of success as he advances in level while other classes cannot. This is the approach I've long preferred and one that I feel is much more in line with the way the pre-thief OD&D rules worked.

The demihuman classes are dwarf, elf, and halfling. They're not notably different from their OD&D counterparts other than the fact that their racial abilities are tied into the same "skill" system as the specialist. I have to admit that, on one level, I half-expected Raggi to drop demihumans from WF entirely. I won't say they "don't fit" the game, but they do feel mildly out of place nevertheless, not that I'm complaining about their inclusion. It's worth noting here that nearly all 1st-level characters start with 1d6 hit points + Constitution bonus, even if at 2nd level they use a different hit die. This puts all 1st-level characters, PC or NPC, on an equal footing and ensures that even a 1st-level fighter is potentially quite vulnerable.

WF retains five saving throws, which I appreciate, the lack of such being one of my primary beef's with Swords & Wizardry, although Raggi has simplified and rationalized them somewhat. There are three alignments, as in OD&D, but WF assumes that most non-supernatural beings are Neutral, with the exception of elves and magic-users, who must be Chaotic, owing to their use of magic. WF's equipment list is extensive, with lots of specific gear, vehicles, services, food, and lodging in its pages. Interestingly, weapons are mostly schematized, according to the categories of small, minor, medium, and great. I can appreciate the desire not to distinguish overly much between, say, varieties of maces or axes but something doesn't completely sit well with me about this approach, even if that something is likely purely irrational on my part.

WF provides a large but easy to use section detailing the rules for "adventuring." Everything from opening doors to gaining XP (by defeating monsters and recovering treasure, of course!) to dealing with traps is covered, along with some unusual topics like foraging, sleep deprivation, and tinkering. WF's encumbrance rules are elegant and I'll likely be swiping them for my own campaign. Rather than keeping track of specific weights, WF instead tallies the number of items, adding points for wearing certain types of armor, carrying oversized items, and so forth in order to determine a character's "encumbrance points" and thus his movement rate. It's probably not the most realistic system but experience has taught me that undue realism results in encumbrance simply being ignored entirely, which is even less realistic than what Raggi has provided here.

There's a surprisingly extensive set of rules (3 pages) dealing with maritime adventures. Rules for retainers are even longer (4 pages) and there's also a section about "property and finance." Taken together, you can see that WF is very much in line with OD&D, arguably even going farther than its predecessor by providing clear, complete rules for these important activities. Combat is well covered, with elements such as reactions and morale given appropriate coverage. WF also introduces a few simple attack and defense strategies (such as "press" and "defensive fighting") in order to make combat less of an I-roll-you-roll sequence. Disappointingly, WF uses ascending armor class but more perplexing is that its version of it is different than any others of its kind, with an unarmored character possessing AC 12. There are rules for a wide variety of common combat circumstances, but these rules are far from exhaustive, so there's plenty of scope for house rules. Concluding the book is a keyed character record sheet in order to make it easy to understand how to fill it out.

The WF Rules Book is an impressive package -- a cleanly written, well presented set of rules that are at once very familiar and yet fresh. Consequently, WF feels doesn't really feel as it's a "new" game but, at the same time, it also doesn't feel like a rehash of stuff we've seen a dozen times before. In this age of a retro-clone-a-minute, that's an impressive achievement. Even if you don't intend to use WF in its entirety, as I do not, there's enough here, such as the specialist and the encumbrance rules to cite but two examples, that one might be interested in picking it up for ideas to adapt to other rules sets. And, of course, as a rules set in its own right, WF is remarkable as well, far moreso than I'd expected. It's well worth a look, even if you already have a set of old school rules you like.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for an original yet familiar take on old school class-and-level fantasy.
Don't Buy This If: You've got no interest in seeing yet another iteration of the OD&D rules, no matter how clever or well-presented.

Big Swords & Wizardry News

According to a post here, Mythmere Games will be "merging" with Frog God Games.
August 24, 2010 - Poulsbo WA

Frog God Games, the successor to Necromancer Games, is pleased to announce that effective immediately, Mythmere Games, headed by award-winning author Matt Finch, will be joining up with the Frog God Publishing team to produce even more of the true old-school gaming resources that Necromancer Games and Frog God Games have always been known for.

Matt explained one of the reasons for the agreement as “"There is a large and active community of gamers playing various out-of-print editions of fantasy role-playing games. This alliance is going to be a big leap forward in terms of providing new resources and adventures to those of us who prefer an older-school type of game. It doesn't matter if you're an old-school grognard, a brand-new player, or an experienced gamer trying out this whole 'old-school' thing the internet keeps talking about. You're going to like this".

As a result of this merger, Frog God Games will be publishing the Complete version of the old school, ENnie Award-winning Swords & Wizardry™ fantasy role-playing game, which will be released in November.

“This merger is very much in line with my philosophy on game design, I play an old school game at my table, and have always written and produced books of that genre”, said Bill Webb, CEO of Frog God Games. Frog God Games and its predecessor, Necromancer Games both are known for producing d20 and Pathfinder adventures and sourcebooks with a distinctive “old school” feel. Necromancer, where Bill was partnered with Clark Peterson, produced over 50 books between 1999 and 2007, including Wilderlands of High Fantasy™ (under license to Judges Guild), Gary Gygax’s Necropolis™ and Rappan Athuk, Dungeon of Graves™.

Frog God Games is currently producing adventures to support the Pathfinder™ role-playing system. According to Bill, “This brings together the best of both worlds for me; our material is distinctly old school feel, regardless of the game system. By supporting both formats, I see an opportunity to provide high quality and exciting material to a larger audience. It’s a win for the gaming community.”

Frog God Games will now produce game supplements for both the Swords and Wizardry™ game and for the Pathfinder Game™ (published by Paizo Publishing of Bellevue WA).Swords & Wizardry builds and supports free-form role-playing games.That is to say, games where “light” rules create a framework instead of trying to cover every detail, every rule, and every situation. Over 30 books are currently in production for release in 2010 and 2011.

Matt explained , “There are a lot of gamers out there who are using out-of-print rules quite happily, or who have a vague feeling that they lost some of the game's spirit over the years and don't know how it happened. And then there's the thriving community of old-school gamers on the internet, who have been powering forward for years. I think this new development is going to take us to critical mass. With an old-school game like Swords & Wizardry breaking into the mainstream, with all the power of Frog God Games behind it, I believe that all these three gamer-communities are about to connect. This is when the thunder starts to roll.”.

The Swords & Wizardry game “clones” the original rules of the fantasy role-playing game that started it all back in 1974, when it was published by Gary Gygax and DaveArneson. Part of the reason for the merger was to expand distribution and enhance production quality by involvement of a larger company. Matt described this as, “a step that has been developing for years, as the old-school community has grown larger and larger, supported by more and more gamers, and, increasingly, even by publishers. And this is the point where it all reaches critical mass, I think. Frog God Games has the resources and the high profile to introduce this particular style of gaming back into the mainstream."
This is certainly big news, although I'll admit to not knowing just what this will mean in the final analysis beyond the appearance of yet another version of Swords & Wizardry by yet another publisher. Even so, I can hardly complain about this and hope it means great things for both S&W and the old school renaissance.

Monday, August 23, 2010

REVIEW: Weird New World

Weird New World is the second adventure module included in James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Intended for characters of levels 4-7, it's an adventure intended, like Tower of the Stargazer, to serve as an introduction and model for novice players and referees, this time not of a dungeon but of a wilderness area. Consequently, Weird New World is much less straightforward, being more of a "framework," to use Raggi's words, rather than a completely ready-to-run scenario. It's in this that I think both the module's virtues and vices can be found.

Weird New World is a 28-page staplebound booklet. Thankfully, it returns to the "classic" Raggi layout: two columns of dense text with most illustrations filling an entire page. The interior black and white artwork is by Kevin Mayle and is quite moody and effective. Mayle's cover piece is a little less so but I think that has more to do with its being in color than any technical flaws on the part of the artist. The cover itself is detachable and unfolds to reveal a large hex map of the northern region where Weird New World takes place. There are also two smaller maps of locations keyed on the hex map. All of these maps are clear and useful, the hex map especially so, as it shows not only terrain features but also climatic zones. I should also note that I found the module's title on the cover a little difficult to read, because of its placement. It's a small point, admittedly, but worth mentioning nonetheless.

Because Weird New World is a wilderness module, it lacks even the thin plot that many such products possess. That's a perfectly reasonable approach and certainly a traditional one. I have no complaints about this myself, but, as an introductory scenario intended for beginning players and referees, I'm not sure it was the best one. Consider that The Isle of Dread, a similarly introductory wilderness adventure module, provided some structure for its contents. For that matter, so did the recently-reviewed A Trick on the Tain, which also coincidentally takes places in the frozen north. As an experienced referee, I don't need such structure but I imagine that novices would and it's for them that Weird New World was written.

That criticism aside, the module is nevertheless full of cleverness and imagination. Great emphasis has been placed on the effects of weather, with simple rules and guidelines for determining weather conditions and their severity. Similar care is shown to random encounters, which highlight not only the dangers of the far north but also its oddities, such as desperate whales trapped in the ice, uncharted islands, shipwrecks, and even living aurorae. Raggi once again demonstrates his inventiveness, providing plenty of fuel for exciting events as the characters explore the boreal wilderness of Weird New World.

The keyed encounter areas of which there are 40 are a mixed bag. Many of them are well done, providing just enough information and ideas to let the referee develop them further as he sees fit. Others are fleshed out in greater detail, right down to maps with individual encounter areas of their own. Others still consist of just a paragraph or two of suggestive prose. Taken together, Raggi succeeds in presenting a stark, unforgiving environment, filled with danger and mystery. However, there are occasions where I think the weirdness of certain areas, most notably one of the two fully-detailed ones, is overdone and to no good purpose. Raggi is justly praised for his ability to conjure up "dread of outer, unknown forces," in the phrase of Lovecraft, and Weird New World is full of such moments. What it lacks, though, is a strong enough counterbalance of normalcy, places and people where things genuinely are what they seem.

The weirdness in Weird New World is thus overpowering at times and, while some will no doubt argue, perhaps Raggi himself chief among them, that that's the whole point of the module, I'm not convinced that this had to be so. Indeed, I think the module might have been better if its weirdness were less extensive and inexorable. As presented here, the weird is so ubiquitous that it could become tedious -- "Ho-hum, another abandoned shrine/castle/cave/ship that fills our souls with unease and threatens our bodies with death." I don't mean to be flippant; Weird New World is a good wilderness adventure and one that's got lots of little touches of which I approve wholeheartedly, like the ancient dwarven oil rigs and the frozen stonehenge. Any one of these things things could easily have served as the basis for an adventure in itself and that speaks volumes about Raggi's ability to elicit creativity in others, but, taken together, I found all the weirdness overwhelming at times, but I admit that's a personal criticism and not necessarily a knock against the module itself.

A more damning criticism, I think, is that it fails as an introductory module. Unlike Tower of the Stargazer, there's very little in the way of referee advice or suggestions. Newcomers might therefore be unsure of what to do with such an open-ended and structureless module as this, especially when most of the encounter areas demand extensive elaboration by the referee before they can be easily used in play. Were Weird New World not written with the novice in mind, I don't this would be a problem and I'd probably be cheering at Raggi's willingness to offer up such an "unfinished" module for our delectation. So I find myself in the difficult position of saying that Weird New World is a good, if flawed, wilderness adventure module that I like a great deal, even as I must also admit that one of its biggest flaws is that its intended audience will probably find it difficult to use.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for an unusual wilderness module that demands you build upon the author's own work in order to use it fully.
Don't Buy This If: You don't like wilderness modules and/or prefer that your modules be more "ready to run."

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Rendezvous in Averoigne

First published in the April/May 1931 issue of Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith's "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" is probably one of the author's most widely reprinted -- and thus read -- stories. There are likely many specific reasons why this is so, but I suspect that they all boil down to a single one: accessibility. Unlike many of Smith's other efforts, even within the Averoigne cycle, this story of the troubadour Gérard de l'Automne and his lady-love Fleurette is extremely accessible to the casual reader. Its fairy tale medieval setting, its cast of characters, its antagonists, and indeed its general subject matter are all well within the bounds of mainstream fantasy or historical romance literature.

Consequently, a lot of Smith fans, who are drawn to him for evocations of the weird and extra-terrene, find "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" boring, or at least a lesser effort. Personally, I think that's a mistake as, despite its conventionality, it's one of Smith's best prose works, an opinion CAS himself shared in a 1930 letter to H.P. Lovecraft. It's easy to see why; Smith's descriptive passages are truly moving, such as this one setting the scene for the woodland tryst of Gérard and Fleurette:
The grass and tress had assumed the fresh enamel of a medieval May; the turf was figured with little blossoms of azure and white and yellow, like an ornate broidery; and there was a pebbly stream that murmured beside he way, as if the voices of undines were parleying deliciously beneath its waters. The sun-lulled air was laden with a wafture of youth and romance; and the longing the welled from the heart of Gérard seemed to mingle mystically with the balsams of the wood.
As you can see, Smith is still very much himself here, crafting passages of verbal beauty, but he also seems more restrained, toning down his penchant for archaisms and unduly exotic words without undermining his literary alchemy.

That aside, this is a Clark Ashton Smith story. The wood where Gérard and Fleurette agree to meet
possessed an ill-repute among the peasantry. Somewhere in in this wood, there was the ruinous and haunted Château des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb within which the Sieur Hugh du Malinbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years. Of these and their phantoms, there were grisly tales; and there were stories of loupgarous and goblins, of fays and devils and vampires that infested Averoigne. But to these tales Gérard had given little heed, considering it improbable that such creatures could fare about in open daylight.
At first, it seems as if Gérard is correct, for, as he travels on his way to meet Fleurette, he instead finds a mysterious woman accosted by "three ruffians of exceptionally brutal and evil aspect." Entering the fray to defend, he discovers too that the ruffians are in fact an illusion and they, like the woman they were attacking, disappear as he gets close to them, leaving Gérard to feel that "there was something after all in the legends he had heard."

Confused by this turn of events and worried that he will miss his rendezvous with Fleurette, Gérard tries to return to his original path, but instead learns that he is lost in the wood, which was "a maze of bafflement and eeriness." Frightened and tired, he finds himself moving in circles, returning again and again to a tarn on whose shores he finds a many-turreted castle.
There was no sign of life about the castle; and no banners flew above its turrets or its donjon. But Gérard knew, as surely as if a voice had spoken aloud to warn him, that here was the fountain-head of the sorcery by which he had been beguiled.
It'll come as no surprise to anyone that Gérard eventually finds himself with no choice but to approach the castle and enter it, in the process learning the truth about his present circumstances and about the fate of Fleurette. What he finds there and how he deals with it form the bulk of "A Rendezvous in Averoigne," which is, I think, both an excellent tale in its own right but also an excellent reminder that not all weird tales need be dark or vicious, even if they deal with dark and vicious things.

It's an important reminder in my opinion, especially given the renewed interest in pulp fantasies in gaming circles. Much as I think this older tradition of fantasy has something unique to offer contemporary readers (and gamers), I think it'd be a mistake to see amoral grimness as that offering. Just as often there's happiness, even joy, and that's as much a part of the pulp fantasy heritage as anything else. We forget that at our peril.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

For Jeff

Here's my contribution to your open call for minor artifacts and relics, along with an illustration by Virgil Finlay to set the mood:

The Silver Suit of filzArn
by James Maliszewski

In ages past, Sir Evad filzArn sought out the hidden places of the world, venturing where few dared -- and even fewer returned. At some point in his travels, Sir Evad found the famed Silver Suit for which he became well-known. Its origin is unknown, but legends claim that it was brought from another world, a claim that goes some way toward explaining its unusual nature.

Made of a reflective, flexible substance that grows or shrinks to the size of its wearer, the Silver Suit nevertheless offers remarkable protection, functioning as plate mail +3. The Suit also functions as a ring of fire resistance and confers the ability to breathe in airless environments, provided that its helmet is worn.

The Silver Suit is also reputed to possess the following powers and effects:

2 x I ___ ___
1 x II ___ ___
1 x IV ___

The Purple Wyrm?

As others have already noted, D&D's purple worm began its existence as a rare species of dragon in Chainmail.
Finally, the Purple, or Mottled, Dragon is a rare, flightless worm with a venomous sting in its tail.
No other details are given for this Purple Dragon. Of course, Volume 2 of OD&D, which contains the illustration accompanying this post, provides the first write-up of this creature, under the name by which it became staple of the game.
These huge and hungry monsters lurk nearly everywhere just beneath the surface of the land. Some reach a length of 50 feet and a girth of nearly 10 feet diameter. There is a poisonous sting at its tail, but its mouth is its most fearsome weapon, for it is so large as to be able to swallow up to ogre-sized opponents in one gulp.
Other than its color, the main element that carried over from Chainmail is the worm's poisonous sting. Interestingly, the AD&D Monster Manual includes an aquatic variant of this creature, called the mottled worm, which recalls its first appearance in Chainmail.

I'm a big fan of re-imagining classic monsters in ways that aren't arbitrary but rather reflective of their complex histories/origins. The purple worm, which I've yet to have any reason to use in my Dwimmermount campaign so far, strikes me as a good candidate for such a re-imagining. While I've avoided detailing any more of the campaign setting than I need for my immediate purposes, I have to admit that I have been giving some thought to the role of dragons, if only because it seems a shame, in a game called Dungeons & Dragons, not to use these creatures at some point. So, the thought has crossed my mind that purple worms (purple wyrms?) are in fact related to dragons, if not actually a subspecies of them. That'd necessitate making them less worm-like and more reptilian in appearance, but that's still in line with OD&D's general description of them, while also being an homage to Chainmail.

I like that.

Holmes Photo

I was poking around on my computer, looking for an old document and I discovered a photograph of the late Dr. J. Eric Holmes I'd found somewhere on the web. I wish I could remember the source; I suspect it might have been on ERBZine or another site related to Burroughs, since it looks like the kind of photograph you'd see at the back of a novel. Regardless of its source, I was happy to find it, since there aren't a lot of good photographs of Dr. Holmes that I've seen and fewer still that reveal something of his thoughtfulness and intelligence.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

REVIEW: Tower of the Stargazer

Tower of the Stargazer is a 16-page adventure module "for beginning players, characters, and referees" written by James Raggi and included with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, although it's available separately in both print and PDF formats. The module consists a small staple-bound booklet and a detachable cover on which maps have been printed. The interior black and white artwork, by Dean Clayton, is good but, to my mind, not as evocative as that of Laura Jalo, whose illustrations have appeared in most of Raggi's earlier products and whose moody style I so strongly associate with his weird fantasy offerings. The color cover is by old school favorite Peter Mullen and is a solid effort, though, again, somehow not quite as evocative as Jalo's covers, such as that of Death Frost Doom, which remains a favorite of mine. The module's layout is more "cluttered" than the clean two-column designs of earlier Raggi products. A heavy black border around each page, the use of grayed boxed text throughout, and, on several pages, watermarked images all contributed to a less enjoyable reading experience than I've come to expect from Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases.

Those esthetic criticisms aside, Tower of the Stargazer is an excellent adventure module, ideally suited for beginners, including the beginning referee. The module takes the clichéd premise of an abandoned wizard's tower and turns it into something genuinely original, playing on one's expectations to present an adventuring locale that's challenging to both the beginners for whom it was written and the old hands who are, let's face it, very likely to be the largest segment of its purchasers. That alone is a remarkable achievement. Most introductory modules are judged on how much fun they might be to true neophytes, which is as it should be. On that scale, Tower of the Stargazer already stands proud, but how many introductory modules can legitimately claim to hold the interest of experienced players, as I believe this one likely will?

There are many reasons why I think this adventure will be of interest to long-time players and referees but its chief one is a feature intended for the benefit of tyros. I noted above that the module makes heavy use of grayed boxed text. This is where Raggi speaks directly to the referee, explaining the reasoning behind his having designed and presented the adventure the way he did. In the process, he puts forth a philosophy of both old school refereeing and how to evoke the weird and mysterious effectively. Not all of the advice is gold and some of it I disagree with, in principle and from experience, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I also learned a few things from Raggi's boxed discussions. I find it hard to imagine that I'm the only player/referee of long years who will find insights in these pages.

Even if one doesn't find Raggi's asides insightful, the fact remains that the module's eponymous locale is a fascinating place. Consisting of just 26 rooms spread over five above-ground and two subterranean levels, the Tower is nevertheless jam-packed with cleverness. Most of its rooms are devoid of monsters but few are devoid of interest. There are lots of imaginative -- and frustrating -- tricks and traps throughout, as well as terrific little details that, while not necessarily serving any immediate purpose, help to make the Tower feel "real." A few of these details also point toward follow-up adventures or expansions for the referee, although, as an introductory module, Tower of the Stargazer is mostly self-contained and thus easily used in any fantasy campaign setting.

Introductory adventures are not difficult to write, but they are difficult to write well. Most such adventures simply ape either The Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet and expect that, because they depict a different isolated rural locale being menaced by a different set of evil humanoids, they've somehow done something original. Fortunately, Tower of the Stargazer doesn't follow in their footsteps, preferring instead to present an intriguing locale in great detail, along with some advice and suggestions to the referee before turning him loose to do with that locale as he and his players please. To my mind, it's a great approach and one that's come to define James Raggi's adventures, of which this one is yet another excellent example.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a great low-level adventure.
Don't Buy This If: You don't want/need low-level adventures.

Lovecraftian Inspirations

There's a lot one could say on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, but the difficulty comes in finding something to say that others -- or oneself -- haven't already said on similar occasions in the past. In some sense, that's a testament to the huge debt we all owe the Old Gent: almost anything we say about him has already been said many times before, probably more eloquently and more originally than anything we can possibly say ourselves.

And yet I don't think that should stop us from making the effort, no matter how tritely or banally we might do so. I'm a firm believer in honoring the achievements of one's forebears, particularly those forebears on whom one's present efforts depend heavily. That's clearly the case with H.P. Lovecraft, without whose writings, I am quite convinced, this hobby we enjoy would be very different, not least of all because, like us, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps -- to take up pens or sit at typewriters (or computers) and give free rein to their imaginations. Among those writers who count HPL as an important influence is Fritz Leiber, whose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser began their existence in a story ("The Adept's Gambit"), an early version of which Lovecraft himself read and critiqued. Imagine how just this little hobby of ours might have changed if Leiber had never taken up writing or had never created the Twain?

Ultimately, I think this is Lovecraft's greatest contribution to posterity -- his inspiration to others. Whatever his other virtues, HPL was a great friend, colleague, and mentor to his fellow writers, a trait he first developed during his days as an amateur journalist, where he made the acquaintance of many people who would become his lifelong comrades and where he found his Muse as a writer of weird fiction. It's in his tireless support and encouragement of others to create, as he did, that I find Lovecraft at his most admirable and it's here that I most hope to emulate him.

In remembering Lovecraft's time as an amateur journalist, I was reminded of an address he gave in 1921, entitled "What Amateurdom and I Have Done for Each Other," in which he discusses his joining the United Amateur Press Association and his activities since. I'm reminded of it, because HPL closes with a couple of paragraphs that, except for their specific details, could just as easily apply to my own feelings about my involvement in the online old school community. He wrote:
What Amateur Journalism has brought me is a circle of persons among whom I am not altogether alien -- persons who possess scholastic leanings, yet who are not as a body so arrogant with achievement that a struggler is frowned upon. In daily life one meets few of these -- one's accidental friends are either frankly unliterary or hopelessly "arrived" and academic. The more completely one is absorbed in his aspirations, the more one needs a circle of intellectual kin; so that amateurdom has an unique and perpetual function to fulfill. Today, whatever genuine friends I have are amateur journalists, sympathetic scholars, and writers I should never have known but for the United Amateur Press Association. They alone have furnished me with the incentive to explore broader and newer fields of thought, to ascertain what particular labours are best suited to me, and to give to my writings the care and finish demanded of all work destined for perusal by others than the author.

After all, these remarks form a confession rather than a statement, for they are the record of a most unequal exchange whereby I am the gainer. What I have given Amateur Journalism is regrettably little; what Amateur Journalism has given me is -- life itself.
I know exactly how Lovecraft felt, even if, in retrospect, it's clear that HPL gave to the world even more than he took from it. As a recipient of his inspirational largess, I can only say, "Thank you, Mr Lovecraft. For everything."

A Haunting Image

This image keeps "haunting" me.

Earlier this year, I had a dream in which L. Sprague de Camp came unexpectedly to my house looking just like this. Last night, I was attending the wedding reception of a former colleague of my wife and I was seated at a table with a charming gentleman who looked eerily like the young and beardless De Camp seen here -- sans the horned helm, of course. I hope I didn't stare too much at the poor fellow, but it really was odd how much he looked like De Camp.

Ah well.

I'm busy digging myself out from under more emails and comments -- that's what I get for taking one day off a week -- so it'll be a while before I have any substantive posts today, but, rest assured, they will come. At the very least, I have a post about HPL that I didn't make yesterday and possibly the first part of my multi-part review of Jim Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG releases, starting with Tower of the Stargazer.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Open Friday: Happy Birthday, HPL

Today is H.P. Lovecraft's 120th birthday. Originally, I was going to make an exception to my usual practice of being offline Friday to post something on this occasion, but, as it turns out, I'm actually going to be out of the house most the day anyway, so that's not possible. So, until I get the chance tomorrow to say something lengthier, I'll leave you all with these questions: what do think is the single most influential idea that gaming has borrowed from Lovecraft and do you think this idea has been borrowed faithfully or has it been warped beyond something that the Old Gent, if he were alive today, would recognize?

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Lesson Learned from Archie Comics

My daughter is nearly eleven years-old. About a month ago, we were visiting my in-laws and, while there, my mother-in-law gave her a comic book she'd found around the house and that she thought my daughter might like. It was an Archie-related title and my daughter really enjoyed it, so much so that she's been picking up additional titles whenever we're out and, since these things are available literally everywhere, she's amassed quite the collection in short order.

After my daughter had finished the first book, the one my mother-in-law gave her, she started talking excitedly about it and spoke to my wife and I as if she didn't think we'd know what Archie comics were since they were "old." We had a good chuckle about this and explained to her that Archie comics have been around a very long time (the first appearance of Archie Andrews was in 1941 -- nearly 70 years ago) and that most adults read them at one time or another in their lives.

My daughter was a bit surprised by this, since the issue her grandmother had given her was "so old." In point of fact, the issue in question was published sometime in the mid-90s, which I guess is old if you were only born in 2000. As it turns out, though, my daughter didn't think the comic was "so old" because it had been published more than a decade ago; she thought it was old because it didn't look like any of the comics she'd seen on the newsstands or in bookstores nowadays. Regardless, she wasn't criticizing the comic for its appearance or its content. As I said, she loved it, as evidenced by her desire to purchase many more. It was purely a comment about its appearance and she lacked the esthetic vocabulary necessary to articulate her reaction more precisely.

What's interesting is that my daughter, my wife, and I were able to meaningfully converse with one another about Archie comics, despite the fact that my daughter only just discovered them, my wife hadn't read them in years, and everything I knew about them I mostly picked up by osmosis, having been around girls who read them when I was a kid. Looking through the new issues my daughter's been buying, I noticed that each issue contains quite a few reprints of much older comics, but, because the art style of Archie has remained more or less the same over the decades (with a few slight changes here and there, owing to popular fashions), stories published in 1960 don't look that different than stories published in 2010. More importantly, the content of those stories is virtually unchanged: Betty Cooper is still sweet, Veronica Lodge is still spoiled, and Archie Andrews is still inexplicably a babe magnet.

I have no idea if Archie Comics is a successful publisher. On some level, they must be since they're still in business after all these years, but my definition of "successful" is probably not a good gauge of these things. Still, it's interesting to consider, in light of my discussion yesterday, the possibility of a world where RPGs -- or indeed any kind of pop entertainment -- didn't warp and twist unrecognizably with the passing of the years so that children and parents (and even grandparents) could discuss them without having to explain an absurd level of changes and alterations to one another ("Oh, no, Batman's not Bruce Wayne anymore; Bruce is dead."). It's a wonderfully refreshing thing and, while the Eternal Now of Riverdale isn't necessarily a model to be emulated in all creative endeavors, it's nevertheless a solid option and one that I find increasingly attractive. Go figure.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thoughts Occasioned by Traveller

(Rob Conley's comment about the terseness of The Spinward Marches and how a little more detail might have improved it as a tool for sandbox play got me to thinking about my issues with most published settings.)

A cursory reading of my posts on this topic would suggest that I hate detailed settings and prefer those that are more "skeletonic" in nature. That's simply not the case, as I adore Tékumel, which can hardly be called un-detailed, let alone skeletonic. In point of fact, what I actually dislike about many published settings is not so much their detail but their tendency to add ever-increasing levels of specific detail over time, details upon which later supplements come to depend for their very existence.

Let me cite a few examples of what I mean, using the history of Traveller for my basis. When I first started playing the game, probably in 1980 or thereabouts, my campaign was set in the Spinward Marches, using Supplement 3 as its basis. The thin information it gave me was a good starting point and the fleshing out of the sector that GDW did through its adventures and supplements was slight enough that it did little violence to my own presentation of it. Then, the Fifth Frontier War happened. GDW felt that it needed to "shake up" the staid Marches by having another war break out between the Imperium and the Zhodani. The War was covered in The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society and through a wargame, among other means.

When the war concluded, there were consequences. The map of the Spinward Marches changed and the political fallout from the War had repercussions in adventures and supplements. In short, the War changed the setting, in ways both subtle and (occasionally) profound. Now, of course, one could choose to ignore the War and its canonical outcome, but, if one did, then GDW products set in the Marches after its conclusion become increasingly less usable, or at least demand a lot more modification to suit one's own private vision of the sector. But I'm all in favor of referee modification, aren't I? Why is this a problem? Well, it's not in any absolute sense, but the more a setting expects that I hew to an evolving history that occurs independently of my own campaign's history, the less point I see in using it at all.

Sadly, GDW never seemed to learn their lesson on this score. They repeated the mistake again and again. In the late 80s, they threw the entire Imperium into a civil war (oddly called "The Rebellion") that ultimately laid low interstellar civilization first in a period of decline called "The Hard Times" and finally in an even more bleak one that more or less rebooted the entire setting. Without debating the merits of these particular decisions, what I find most objectionable about GDW's approach is that Traveller's setting changed from a wide open one whose presentation was piecemeal and open-ended to one that more or less bound you to its official development. Again, sure, you could just ignore a lot of what they were producing and use it as you saw fit, but, from my perspective, if you're going to do that, you might as well create your own setting.

To put it another way, when I started my Traveller campaign in the Marches, I could easily portray the Imperium as a distant, decadent, and thoroughly corrupt institution, like Hollywood's imagination of the late Roman Empire. The rulebook and the early supplements didn't contradict this portrayal and neither did they contradict alternate ones, making it possible for each referee to present the setting as they felt best. Over time, though, this changed and it became more and more clear that the Imperium wasn't decadent or thoroughly corrupt and was indeed better described as noble, if somewhat flawed. Likewise, the earliest presentations of the Zhodani were outright villainous and some sources even call them "barbarians," which only strengthened my late Roman interpretation of the setting. Later, though, the Zhodani were portrayed more sympathetically.

My point here is not to argue against any particular thing GDW did to the official Traveller setting. In the end, this isn't about Traveller at all, but about the tendency for game companies to develop their RPG settings in ways that both demand you buy every one of their products to stay "current" and that encourage an obsession with setting "history" that occurs independent of player action. This also isn't about the level of detail, because, as I said, I can enjoy lots of detail in certain contexts, even if it's not my preferred approach. If one looks at Hârn, you'll find an incredibly detailed setting, filled with more information and minutiae than most gamers could ever use. What you won't find, though, is an evolving history that requires one keep up with all the latest releases to be able to enjoy those published down the road. Hârn is what you might call a "steady state" setting, forever stuck in an eternal Now -- until, that is, you get the ball rolling in your campaign and nothing Columbia Games publishes will ever tell you what's going to happen after that starting point.

I guess, in the end, what bugs me about too many gaming settings is the assumption that they exist independently of being used in one's own campaign. Some likely will see this as a positive thing, since it implies a living "reality" to these places, but, for me anyway, it's a big turn-off. I don't like game companies dropping world-changing events into official settings, no matter how cool they might be in the abstract, because experiences teaches me that these events almost always make it harder for me to use future products unless I decide to go ahead and use these events in my own campaign. This isn't an old school vs. new school thing; rather, it's a situation created by the need to sell more setting supplements. I have no beef with companies wanting to sell products. I simply think there are better ways to do so without turning their official settings into novels or movies whose events are decided by someone other than me and my players.

Retrospective: The Spinward Marches

When I think of my "perfect" SF RPG setting, GDW's Third Imperium setting for Traveller almost always comes immediately to mind. There's a good reason for that. Despite the immense amount of detail that it eventually spawned, its core conception -- an interstellar empire so large that authority remains distant, thereby creating the necessity for individual action -- is eminently gameable. Indeed, it's probably the best way to create an interstellar sandbox setting ripe with opportunities for the player characters to seek their fortunes in whatever fashion they see fit.

And it all began modestly in a little 42-page supplement called The Spinward Marches and first published in 1979. (This isn't technically true, as details of the Third Imperium setting had appeared before the release of this supplement, but this was many Traveller players' first introduction to it -- no surprise given that it had over 40,000 copies over 14 print runs) This product describes the 16 subsectors of the Spinward Marches sector, consisting of over 400 worlds, more than half of which are Imperial worlds, the rest being divided amongst the Imperium's main rival, the Zhodani Consulate, various smaller states, and independent worlds.

Each subsector gets a two-page write-up, with one page providing a brief overview of the subsector and a list of its worlds and their game statistics, and another page presenting a map of the subsector and the express boat routes between them. It's an incredibly bare bones approach, leaving lots of room for individual referees to flesh out the Spinward Marches as they see fit, within the bounds of the basic data provided. Of course, Traveller's world descriptions are famously vague, with lots of leeway for individual interpretation of, for example, government types and other similar information. What The Spinward Marches is then is a largely blank canvas on which a referee can paint his own picture. Some elements of that picture have already been drawn in outline, but the specific shades and hues, as well as the fine details, are left entirely up to the referee to decide.

As a gaming product, The Spinward Marches has few peers in the realm of setting design. It's an incredibly open-ended, flexible supplement that can be used in a wide variety of ways. Moreover, it contains so many worlds that one could, quite literally, use it for many years without ever exhausting all of its possibilities. That was certainly true of my old Traveller campaigns, which generally took place over only three or four subsectors -- barely a quarter of its contents. If The Spinward Marches has a flaw, I'm not sure what it is, beyond that fact that several world names get repeated among its 439 planets. Certainly there's not a lot of detail here, but that's by design. Part of the fun for the Traveller referee has always been finding new and devious ways to interpret the alphanumeric world descriptions in ways to make the characters' lives "interesting" (in the Chinese curse sense) and this supplement removes a great amount of the tedium of having to randomly generate those descriptions oneself, since, in 1979, almost no one had a home computer to generate them automatically.

Though I'm no longer as obsessive about Traveller as I once was, I still retain much fondness for the game and products like The Spinward Marches are a big part of why. Its supplements were, by and large, truly optional and intended as aids to creativity rather than replacements for them. Likewise, the default setting of the game was remarkably broad and demanded that it be individualized by each referee in order to be fully usable. I can't help but love that, which probably explains why I'm reflexively skeptical of settings that provide lots of detail. The Spinward Marches proved you didn't need a lot of details to make good use of it -- in fact, it was better that way.