Thursday, September 30, 2010

REVIEW: Skull Mountain

I think it goes without saying that, among gamers of a certain vintage, the words "Skull Mountain" immediately conjure images of the dungeon cross-section included toward the end of the Holmes "Blue Book" edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As a kid, I know I was enormously fascinated by this suggestive illustration, with its seven levels (not counting sub-levels), the Pit, and mysterious Domed City. For a long time, I planned on using Skull Mountain as a basis for a megadungeon of my own invention, since Holmes gives us no details beyond that cross-section. Unfortunately, I judged the project too big and never did pursue it. I briefly contemplated taking up the project again and, while I didn't do so, there's no question that my conception of Dwimmermount is at least partially influenced by Skull Mountain.

Recently, Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games decided to venture where I did not, offering his own version of Skull Mountain as an adventure for Labyrinth Lord characters of levels 4-6. This 36-page PDF sells for $6.00, which is a more than fair price for what you get. Skull Mountain has close to 20 maps of the dungeon's various levels and areas, as well as new items and illustrated handouts (with artwork by the inimitable Steve Zieser). As with all Faster Monkey releases to date, Skull Mountain uses a very attractive and easy-on-the-eyes two-column layout, with small illustrations throughout to break up the text. The text itself is engagingly written with a minimum of editorial errors. The module's cover is a nice piece by Andy Taylor that sets the mood for the whole adventure.

Skull Mountain itself, as depicted in this product, is a lot smaller than I'd always imagined it to be. For whatever reason, I long assumed Skull Mountain was a proper megadungeon rather than what some refer to as a "lair" dungeon. I'll grant that that assumption on my part was based on nothing but my youthful imagination rather than anything directly stated in the Blue Book. Consequently, my disappointment at how self-contained Sparks's version of Skull Mountain is says nothing about the quality of the module he wrote, but I don't think I'll be the only gamer of long years who will feel this way. Consequently, the biggest "flaw" in Skull Mountain is the power of memory. When presenting one's own take on an iconic D&D setting, it's inevitable that it will compare unfavorably with the ideas others had about the place and "how it ought to be."

That's unfortunate in most case, but especially so here, since the version of Skull Mountain this module presents is very well done and interesting. Yes, it is much smaller than I was expecting and it takes a very different approach than I'd have done, but that may well be for the best. I'm still not yet convinced that a true megadungeon can be presented in a commercial product anyway, so any expectation that Skull Mountain would be such a thing was likely misplaced. Furthermore, my experience is that most gamers want a "complete" adventure when they buy a module. By that, I don't think they necessarily want a pre-scripted story, but they do prefer that the module does most of the "heavy lifting" for them in terms of stocking a location with opponents, traps, mysteries, and treasures to be won.

Skull Mountain
certainly does all of that and does so with great aplomb. As presented here, there's an intriguing backstory behind Skull Mountain, an explanation for both its creation and its present circumstances. Sparks also takes good advantage of the dungeon's volcanic environment, presenting a place that feels "right" and that ought to challenge and pique the interest of players. The inhabitants of Skull Mountain make sense in a Gygaxian naturalistic sort of way, but they're not boring. In fact, I found Skull Mountain refreshingly plausible as a lair, which I think is important for self-contained dungeons such as this. Whereas a sprawling megadungeon can get away with a certain amount of whimsy and oddity, owing to its nature, a lair needs to make sense, at least within the context of a fantasy world. Skull Mountain certainly does make sense and it's a credit to Sparks that he understood this.

In the end, I think Skull Mountain is a solid product and ought to please a lot of Labyrinth Lord and other old school gamers, especially those that don't have any expectations about this legendary dungeon locale. I'll admit that I still find it difficult to look on a dungeon as small as this as the Skull Mountain, but, as I said, that's my problem and says nothing about this module, which is a very good example of a large but self-contained lair that referees can drop into an ongoing campaign for a few night's worth of exploration and adventure.

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

Get This If:
You're looking for a clever and well presented single-use dungeon in an unusual location.
Don't Get This If: You prefer larger, more open-ended dungeons or have no interest in pre-made adventure modules.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Unsolicited Advice

With the news that yet another game company has decided to produce an introductory version of their flagship game, I found myself reflecting on the one thing I think is essential to any introductory (or "basic") game, namely, it should be a simplified sub-set of the game to which it is an introduction rather than a different game that's kinda-sorta-almost like it. In my opinion, an introductory game can be simple but it must also be completely compatible with the "full" game. So, a character created using the introductory rules should be a fully viable character under the full rules, even if the character creation options made available in the introductory game are more limited. Likewise, the rules of the introduction can eliminate certain complexities present in the full game but they ought not to be different enough in order to confuse new players when they finally acquire the full game.

Part of the difficulty in create genuinely introductory versions of existing games nowadays is that a lot of contemporary RPGs are simply too complex mechanically to easily pare down into something that could reasonably be called basic. I don't think there's anything wrong with rules complexity. Indeed, I suspect that many gamers, after they've played a game for a long enough time, crave a certain degree of rules complexity, since it can be a way to reinvigorate one's interest in a game one has already played extensively. That's why, for all the grousing I do about AD&D compared to OD&D, my feeling remains that AD&D is not so complex a game that it can't be pared down into something simpler that is nevertheless a good reflection of what the full game is like.

Of course, in my ideal world, Dungeons & Dragons would have, at some point, exist as a three-tiered RPG:
  • Basic: A simple, straightforward and complete dungeon-focused game.
  • Expert: An expansion to Basic that expands the scope of the game, adding wilderness and "otherworldly" exploration rules, as well as more stuff in general. Together, Basic and Expert give you everything you need to play almost any kind of fantasy campaign, from dungeon delving to wilderness exploration to mass combats to domain rulership.
  • Advanced: Another expansion that adds further detail for those who desire it but is wholly optional and modular, adding to but not replacing the rules in Basic and Expert. Advanced books are geared toward a "hardcore," experienced audience who crave novelty and depth
Now, even though the three tiers I present are aimed specifically at D&D, I think the general principles behind them are broadly applicable to most RPGs. In short, complexity is fine so long as it's "back loaded." Indeed a certain amount of this kind of complexity is probably necessary to keep some people engaged, but it cannot come at the cost of incompatibility with the basic/core game rules, which should be as simple, straightforward, and complete -- that last one can't be stressed enough.

That's where the real trick lies, from what I can see. Too many "intro" games are little more than elaborate advertisements for the "real" game and that strikes me as counterproductive in the long run. So, Paizo, if you really want to make a good intro version of Pathfinder, make sure it's actually compatible with your core rulebook. Simplify it by all means. Eliminate a lot of options. But, for the love of Gygax, don't make people who buy it have to rebuild their characters when they move on to the big rulebook. Better yet, make that if they move on to the big rulebook. Find a way to do that and I'll be mightily impressed (and not just because you'll be listening to me).

Thank You for Your Concern but ...

I must confess that I found a lot of the comments to yesterday's Dwimmermount session report a bit odd. Even one of my players, who reads the blog, mentioned this to me last night and it's rare that he has anything to say specifically about the comments to one of my posts.

When I wrote the post, I consciously chose to talk about my mental state while playing the game -- my lack of enthusiasm, my tiredness, etc. -- because, too often, session reports focus solely on the events that happened to the characters in the game and say little or nothing about the people who are playing the game. Similarly, a lot of session reports come off as "perfect," which is to say, they downplay or wholly eliminate any mention of the ups and downs that are, in my experience anyway, part and parcel with tabletop roleplaying. So, I thought I'd talk a little about these matters in my session report; I assumed people would find them interesting and even comforting. I suspect that a lot of gamers have sessions now and again where things just don't "click" and my last session was one of those.

But the campaign as a whole is clicking and that's really what's important to me. That was really my point. I'll never understand the expectation that every single session has to be jam-packed with Fun™. I think that's unrealistic and I think judging the success or failure of a campaign on the success or failure of any given session (or even collection of sessions) makes about as much sense as judging a person's life on a couple of weeks, months, or even years out of the whole span of their existence. For me, the campaign is more important than individual sessions. I fully expect that some sessions, maybe even many sessions, will not be thrill-a-minute roller coaster rides of awesomeness. For one, that level of excitement is impossible to maintain for long. For another, any activity involving human beings is at least occasionally going to founder on their idiosyncrasies. That's just the way it is.

And I accept that. One of the reasons why I feel so alienated from much of the contemporary hobby is that I often don't feel as if that kind of acceptance is commonplace. There seems to be this idea that if a gamer isn't firing on all cylinders for every minute of every session, then something is wrong, with a wide variety of solutions being offered. Speaking as the referee of this game, who is close friends with all his regular players and in contact with them outside the game, I can assure you that nothing is wrong. The campaign has been going on solidly for the equivalent of two years of biweekly sessions and shows no signs of stopping. No one is unhappy, dissatisfied, or bored, or at least not enough that anyone has shown any serious signs of wanting to stop the game and try something new. If they had, believe me, it'd be obvious. As my players could tell you, over the last 10 years, plenty of campaigns have ended, often within a handful of sessions, if people aren't enjoying themselves. Indeed, we spent a good portion of one recent get-together extolling the virtues of another game we all liked and, despite that, there has been no groundswell of support for picking up that game and playing it.

I know I'm an old fuddy-duddy because I question the expectation that every moment of one's life should be somehow exciting, but there it is. If my nearly-41 years of life has taught me anything -- the jury's still out on that one -- it's that human beings are blessed with the ability to forget not just the painful stuff but also the boring stuff. In looking back on my time in high school, for example, I don't recall every single dull class I spent reading Victorian poetry or puzzling out algebra equations. Instead, I recall the great classes, the ones that first acquainted me with new ideas I came to cherish, the ones that inspired me to learn more. And so it is with everything in life. Years from now, when I look back on this Dwimmermount campaign (and I will), I won't remember that I was tired and unfocused in Session 52, but I will recall when the party first entered the dungeon and nearly died to kobolds, when Vladidmir the dwarf did die to yellow mold spores, when they first encountered the Red Elves, when the traveled to the pocket dimension of the Iron God, and lots more. This is one of the best campaigns I've ever had and a few dull sessions now and again isn't going to change that.

Retrospective: Night's Dark Terror

Most of my retrospective posts focus on games or game products produced between 1974 and 1983, the period I call the Golden Age of D&D, because it's the period when the game was still expanding outward rather than inward. It's also closely associated with my early involvement in the hobby, when I paid a lot more attention to the games and game products released than I did in later years. Consequently, if I remember a product published after 1983, it must be memorable in some way, whether good or bad.

1986's Night's Dark Terror is pretty solidly in the former category. Written by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher, this "Special Basic/Expert Transition Module for Levels 2-4" was one of the last products of TSR UK, whose legacy is still a matter of debate amongst fans on this side of the Atlantic. The module thus combines dungeoneering with wilderness travel and a thin structure in order to provide the PCs with purpose as they adventure throughout the uncharted reaches of the Dymrak Forest of northeastern Karameikos. The module book itself is 56-pages long, contains extensive maps, and 120 die-cut counters for use in adjudicating the siege of a trading outpost by humanoid raiders. Even if its contents hadn't been excellent, Night's Dark Terror is an impressive artifact in its own right.

But, as I stated above, module B10 is indeed excellent, something all the more remarkable given the date of its publication. If one were to examine TSR's output in 1986, there are few standouts among its adventure modules. Between the large number of Dragonlance offerings, the "super-module" compilations, and a large number of licensed properties, such as the Red Sonja modules, one cannot really call 1986 a banner year for the company. More importantly, module design had, by 1986, begun to seriously embrace the principles of the Hickman Revolution, making Night's Dark Terror, with its rambling, (largely) unfocused presentation seem like even more of a throwback than it was.

For the most part, module B10 is a location-based adventure. The characters travel from place to place as they wish, either purely for their own reasons or to follow up on clues and hooks they've encountered earlier. There are times when NPCs or circumstances somewhat heavy-handedly point, "This way to adventure!" -- such as the capture of an NPC's brother by goblins and dogged pursuit by agents of a powerful slaver whose headquarters is nearby -- and these do weaken the module somewhat. However, in its authors' defense, I should point out that they take pains throughout the text to state that "There is no set order in which [fixed encounters] take place," meaning that it is up to the referee to determine how and when to use them rather than sticking to a rigid structure or timeline independent of player decisions.

Night's Dark Terror is a solid Silver Age module, filled with Gygaxian naturalistic details, such as weather and moon phase charts, designed to enhance verisimilitude and facilitate certain encounters (such as the presence of lycanthropes, for example). Indeed, it's filled with details of all sorts, providing the referee with dozens of random and fixed encounters to use as the PCs wander throughout the uncharted wilderness. While far from a true Judges Guild-style hexcrawl, Night's Dark Terror nevertheless provides a mini-sandbox setting that has great utility even after the antagonists and threats that it details have been defeated. There are plenty of unexplained elements, unresolved conflicts, and mysteries in its pages that an enterprising referee could easily use it for many, many sessions without exhausting its possibilities.

It's often said that the "basic" D&D line had a great deal more going for it throughout the Silver and Bronze Ages, when compared to AD&D, at least as far as its modules and supplementary material go. I'm not yet convinced that's true as a blanket statement, but I do believe there are some forgotten gems in the line, Night's Dark Terror being a prime example. It's a pity that the model it puts forth was not more widely embraced and employed by TSR (or the hobby generally), but that's no reason for the old school renaissance not to do so. In fact, I'd love to see a new module written in this style. Something to do after I finish Dwimmermount perhaps?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dwimmermount, Session 52

I have to admit that, lately, I've been finding it a little bit harder to get into the right frame of mind for my weekly Dwimmermount sessions. A big part of it is that my mind has shifted into sci-fi overdrive as I work on the revision to the Thousand Suns rulebook. I've been spending a lot of time doing that, staying up late on some nights, and I've been more tired than usual and that too makes it hard to shift my thoughts back to fantasy. Now, as you probably know by now, I'm a big believer in barreling through lulls in enthusiasm for a particular campaign. In my opinion, a successful campaign is founded greatly on perseverance in the face of gamer ADD, which I consider a scourge on the hobby that's greatly warped our sense of what a campaign is and ought to be.

This week's session also had an internal issue that kept me from getting right back into the swing of things. At the end of the last session, the party holed up in a room hidden behind a secret door in order to make camp and sleep so as to recover spells, etc. That makes good sense and I applaud my players for their decision to do this. Otherwise, their characters were likely to wind up as dead as Dordagdonar's henchmen, Angrboda, whose preserved body Murn the dwarf crossbowman is still lugging around. Brother Candor has nine more days in which to use his scroll of raise dead on her if he ever intends to do so (He hasn't so far because of the weakened state in which that would leave her).

Anyway, resting means that the players get to spend a lot of time deciding which spells to memorize for the next day and, because they were doing so from inside a dungeon level without any obvious means of escape, they decided to take even more time than usual determining their spell selections. Given this, I decided to use this as an opportunity to correct the spellcasting characters' spell slot charts. Since the campaign began using Swords & Wizardry, shifted to OD&D, then shifted a hybrid of OD&D plus Labyrinth Lord, there was some confusion as to how many spells per level each PC received. I decided now was the time to firmly establish that and I did so by going back to the LBB figures (which, I should add again, are faithfully reproduced in Original Edition Characters for Labyrinth Lord -- it's the only clone product I know of that does this for OD&D).

Once that was done, actual play started, but sufficient time had been spent in dealing with spell selection and the new spell slot numbers that some momentum was lost and I never really got focused on the game. Still, some exploration was achieved -- a fair bit, actually -- but most of it will probably only seem valuable in retrospect. The PCs encountered a wandering gelatinous cube, which they quickly dispatched, inside of which were some largely worthless gems, though, as Gaztea remarked ruefully, these gems were the most treasure they'd found in a long time. The party then decided to move in a different direction on the level than they'd gone previously, in hopes of further expanding their map of the House of Portals. This led to the discovery of yet another room whose contents had been obviously removed, judging by the marks on the floor and walls. Dordagdonar began to wonder why so much furniture had been removed and why.

Further into the dungeon, the characters found a circular room, with a set of circular stairs leading up. Inside the room were two statues, one of a man clad in armor -- very similar in appearance to the one they encountered in the sanctuary earlier -- and a beautiful woman wearing a nondescript robe. The stairs led into another circular room about 40 feet above, but egress from that room was blocked by two closed portcullises. Brother Candor wasn't bothered by this, as he noted that Dordagdonar had knock memorized and could thus open one of the gates if needed. In OD&D, this is a plausible interpretation of the spell's description, but in AD&D, it's explicitly forbidden. I can't fathom why this might be the case, but I wonder if it had anything to do with lifting gates being the role of the high Strength fighter.

Beyond the circular room was a long hallway filled with alcoves that held frighteningly lifelike statues of four-armed ape-like creatures, each of which held a nasty weapon. The floor of the room was covered by the tattered remains of a fancy carpet and there was a set of very large double doors at the end of the hallway. The characters chose not to move forward, fearing that the statues would come to life -- this seems to be a commonplace in Dwimmermount -- and decided it'd be best to scout in different directions to see what they could find. This scouting led to a different circular room in which the characters at first thought they saw someone (or something) but that was shown to be empty when they cautiously entered. The characters continued to see shapes out of the corners of their eyes, but, when they turned, they saw nothing and the wand of enemy detection revealed no immediate dangers. They also heard low, whispered voices whose words they could not make out, but, again, there was no evidence that anyone was in the room with them.

The room also held a large, semi-transparent black globe that floated in the center of the room without any obvious means of support. In the center of the globe they could see a faint white light. The globe moved ever so slightly up and down, as if it were bouncing but it was nevertheless quite well secured to its place in the room and nothing the characters did in its vicinity caused it to move more vigorously or to stop slowly bouncing. The party took pains not to touch it, since they hadn't yet decided whether it was dangerous or not.

And that's where things sort of petered out for the evening. As I said, it was a less productive session than I'd have liked and I take a good part of the blame for that, but, as much as I believe in pushing through rough patches in enthusiasm, it's not as if one can simply manufacture it by doing so. In the grand scheme of things, a few mediocre sessions are inevitable, so I'm not too worried about another one. Still, after the fun we had in the previous week, it was a little disappointing that the most recent session didn't carry that momentum forward.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Golden Age is Now

Reader Jay Dugger pointed me toward this essay, "The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now," by Eric S. Raymond, thinking I'd find it both interesting in its own right and in its possible applicability to the old school renaissance. Now, as I've said ad nauseam: I'm not a wargamer and never have been. I've played wargames in the past, even enjoyed them, and I've often thought I ought to make more time to delve into our hobby's forebear, if only to get a better grounding in its relationship to what came after. Consequently, it's hard for me to judge the truth of Raymond's suggestion that hex wargaming nowadays is "better than ever." I can only say that, from the perspective of an outsider, wargaming, much like tabletop roleplaying, certainly doesn't seem to be in a golden age, if by "golden age" one means "broad appeal." Nearly everyone I know who still plays hex wargames does so because they started playing back in the 70s or 80s, the years that, perhaps not coincidentally, were also the heyday of the tabletop RPG.

Of course, Raymond is using "golden age" in a different way, namely as a signifier of a time of great diversity and change, when wargames design has finally shaken off the "blitz of corroborative detail" that led to monstrously complex and/or barely playable games. Again, as an outsider, I can't really speak to the truth of Raymond's specific observations. I can only say that, reading his essay, he comes across as someone who's a bit more uncritical of the notion of "progress" in game design than I am. For example, he simply states, as if it were an incontrovertible fact, that "the average quality of presentation in games has improved spectacularly since the 1970s." I'd agree that presentation has changed a lot since the 1970s, but "improved?" That's a matter of perspective, I think, particularly if, like me, you believe older styles and methods aren't always straightforwardly superseded by those that come later.

In the end, I find Raymond's essay interesting and I think he raises a number of good points that are well worth considering when thinking about the future of old school roleplaying. However, I think it's a bit of a stretch to go from "I enjoy many of the wargames produced today using contemporary designs" to "wargames today are better than ever." My gut feeling remains that game design -- like a great many types of design, really -- is highly faddish and, while innovation isn't unknown, it's not as clear-cut as its boosters would like us to believe. A well designed wargame (or RPG) from 1980 is just as playable today as it was three decades ago. However, one's perception of what constitutes "good design" can often change, sometimes to the point where one can come to believe that something one formerly judged good is not in fact so, as anyone who's spent time arguing about character classes, demihuman level limits, or descending armor class can tell you.

This isn't to suggest that innovation is impossible or that it's never occurred, but I firmly believe that unambiguous examples of innovation in RPG design are rarer than those who criticize earlier designs might wish to admit. A lot depends on what one is used to and what one expects. For example, Raymond's assertion that table lookups slow play and encourage "tediousness" is, I think, tendentious. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who dislikes tables and finds other methods easier for them, but, again, I think it's a mistake to go from that observation to universalizing its impact on overall design. I've played many chart-heavy RPGs for years and, after a while, one can become quite adept at using them. Indeed, for me, tables and charts are frequently easier to use than other methods, particularly those that involve even relatively simple mathematical calculations. I am notoriously innumerate and so derive little benefit from game designs that eschew tables on the false assumption that having the players perform simple math is a "better" design.

In short, I think the notion of "progress" is a very slippery one and so, while I am intrigued by what Raymond suggests in his essay, I can't quite embrace it. I hope that doesn't sound dismissive, because I certainly don't mean it to be. I'm just skeptical of some of the assumptions that appear to be underlying Raymond's position and that skepticism prevents me from seeing its applicability to the old school renaissance. But I need to think more on the matter.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

I'm generally of the opinion that D&D's primary inspirations were literary rather than cinematic. Nevertheless, there are a handful of films that can genuinely claim to have been inspirations for the game and, though released in 1973, I think a good argument can be made that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one of those movies -- or, if it isn't, it's very much in line with the kind of fantasy films we know Arneson and Gygax watched and enjoyed. Like its 1958 predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the adventures of the renowned sailor from Basrah, Sinbad, after he comes across a golden tablet dropped onto the deck of his ship by a small, winged creature that is flying overhead.

Though he has no idea what the tablet is or why the creature was carrying it, Sinbad nevertheless takes it up and wears it as an amulet, an act that leads to his having portentous dreams of a man dressed in black and a beautiful girl. While he dreams, an unnatural storm throws Sinbad's ship off course and he awakens to find that he and his men are off the coast of a country called Marabia. Going ashore, he is accosted by the very man in black he saw in his dream, who orders Sinbad to turn over the tablet to him. Naturally suspecting danger, the sailor flees from the man in black and makes his way to a nearby city, where he meets its ruling Vizier, who has been expecting his arrival. The Vizier wears a golden mask in order to hide his disfigured face from onlookers.

The Vizier explains that the tablet is but one part of a three-part map that leads to the fabled "Fountain of Destiny" found in the lost continent of Lemuria. Anyone who finds the Fountain will be gifted with eternal youth, a shield of invisibility, and a crown of great wealth. The Vizier possesses one piece himself, as does Sinbad. The third is hidden away and, along with the two pieces already abroad, is the goal of the man in black, the evil sorcerer Koura, who is responsible for the Vizier's disfigurement (and whose flying homunculus dropped the first tablet accidentally while traveling to deliver it to him).

To prevent Koura's quest, Sinbad, along with his men, the Vizier, and several others, including the freed slave girl Margiana (played memorably by model-turned-actress Caroline Munro), undertakes a mission to find the last piece of the map, pursued by Koura and his minions. Along the way, Sinbad must contend with a wooden masthead brought to life by Koura's magic, an animated six-armed statue of Kali -- likely the inspiration for the Type V demon of Eldritch Wizardry, if there ever was one -- a cyclopean centaur, and a griffin, as well as Koura himself (played with great zest by a scenery-chewing Tom Baker). The result is a terrifically fun film that's one of Ray Harryhausen's best efforts.

Like all films of the genre, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad probably doesn't stand up to intense dramatic scrutiny. The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out human beings and their motivations are similarly constrained, but I don't think that hurts the movie at all. Indeed, I think that, because it's clear that what we're getting is a kind of "storybook fantasy" filled with valiant heroes, treacherous villains, exotic vistas, and dangerous beasts, it's easier to let go and just enjoy it for its own sake. That's not to say there aren't moments of solid acting -- besides the aforementioned Tom Baker, Douglas Wilmer is quite affecting as the scarred but noble Vizier -- but this isn't a film about character development or depth of plot. First and foremost, it's a Dynarama spectacle and, on that score, it's one of the great fantasy films of of all time. It's definitely worth a couple hours of your time if you've never seen it or haven't seen it in some time. I think it's a valuable window on the kind of fantasy that inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Sci-Fi Goulash

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question "Why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games?" I got a number of thoughtful replies, but the one that still sticks in my mind is this one, which references Jeff Rients's even earlier post on the "genre of D&D." In that post, Jeff described D&D as "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula." The reason that description rings true is that Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by an older understanding of "fantasy," one I typically call "pulp fantasy," since you saw a lot of this stuff in the pulp magazines and in the work of authors who got their start there.

Pulp fantasy is a very expansive notion of fantasy that encompasses everything from Burroughs's Barsoom and Amtor tales to The Wizard of Oz to Howard's swords-and-sorcery to, yes, Tolkien's Middle-earth -- and more. The genius of D&D is just how broad its notion of "fantasy" is and perhaps the way in which subsequent iterations of the game have deviated most from its origins is the way that their conceptions of fantasy have contracted, becoming ever more self-referential and staid rather than embracing the bold lunacy that enabled Dungeons & Dragons to become, almost literally, the vehicle for any type of fantasy adventures its players could imagine.

There's never really been a science fiction game that's successfully adopted a similar approach to its subject matter, unless one counts Encounter Critical and, perhaps unfortunately , EC is a game a lot of us can't imagine playing straight. (Yes, that means I am a bad person: you have my permission to say so) Actually, I lie. FGU's Space Opera undertook this Herculean task and I think, all things considered, it didn't do a half-bad job. Most of the complaints about Space Opera are (rightly) directed at its rules system, not its kitchen sink setting where the United Federation of Planets, whose Navy is Roddenberry's Starfleet and whose Army is Heinlein's Mobile Infantry, squares off against a Galactic-Empire-meets-the-Third-Reich, in a galaxy inhabited by Vulcans, Kzinti, Lensmen/Jedi, Bugs, and just about any other sci-fi species/culture imagined between 1930 and the late 70s.

Though I no longer own any Space Opera materials -- how I wish I did! -- I remember well the conflicted feelings of awe and disgust I felt when I first read them. On the one hand, the game really was a solid attempt to create a "mega-setting" where Luke Skywalker could team up with Captain Kirk to fight Cylons on Arrakis, but, on the other, my narrow little mind, so obsessed with verisimilitude, just couldn't accept the idea of such a setting. I am sure I was not the only one who thought this way. The desire to have "everything make sense" is strong in a lot of gamers, especially those with sci-fi proclivities. Rather than deny this or suggest that one ought to simply "get over it," I'd prefer to think that all that's really needed is a better mega-setting, one whose "seams" don't show as much as they do in the Space Opera setting, whose borrowings (and outright thefts) from a variety of sci-fi media never managed to achieve that weird Gestalt that D&D did.

I honestly have no idea where I'm going with this. I've been thinking a lot about science fiction lately, especially science fiction roleplaying games, and what I've noticed is that they're getting ever more narrow and specific in their focus. Admittedly, this is true of just about all RPGs (and all entertainment, for that matter), but the problem somehow seems to me more acute in the area of science fiction roleplaying. It's pretty clear why this is so. The question now is: can it be addressed?

OD&D Cloning

After my recent lament for a close clone of OD&D, I was remiss in not drawing everyone's attention to John Laviolette's excellent "Clone Project" series of posts, in which he presents a very insightful analysis of OD&D's underlying mechanics. There's some excellent food for thought in there, particularly for anyone interested, as I am, in seeing a close clone of OD&D made available to gamers, old and new. I've been catching up on some of John's posts that I'd missed and it's pretty clear to me he's on to something.

Morning Amusement

Courtesy of the ever-awesome Space: 1970 blog, I bring you Star Wars Hawaii 5-0 style:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Open Friday: Game Purchases

A common complaint about old school gamers is that we're, as a whole, cheap, disinterested in anything that wasn't published 25+ years ago, and don't really game much anyway. So, here's my question for today: what was the last gaming purchase you made that you actually used? The answer doesn't have to be an old school product, though, obviously, I'm much more interested in hearing about which old school items are getting bought and used.

I'm not fully offline today, as I usually am on Fridays. I have too many emails and comments to deal with from earlier this week, as well as some work that requires being online, so I can't unplug completely.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Convenient Explanations

Based on the comments and emails stemming from my latest Dwimmermount session recap, people seem really taken with my unabashedly Burroughsian portrayal of the Eld, the Red Elves of Areon. I must confess that, while I regularly extol the virtues of not planning too far ahead and making stuff up on the fly, I have been thinking about the Eld for quite some time now -- over two years, judging by the date of the post linked above. They have their origins in the fact that the LBBs are filled with references to Barsoom, which led me to believe that the tales of John Carter had a great deal more influence over OD&D than is generally acknowledged. So, as I was thinking about starting up an OD&D campaign of my own, I decided to find a place for "Barsoom," or at least a pastiche of it (Amtor's there too, as some perspicacious readers have already noted).

Since the PCs haven't yet stepped foot on the Red Planet, I have only very vague notions of what the place is like, but one thing I do know is that many of D&D's weirder monsters have their origins on Areon. A few examples:
  • Carrion Crawler: The larval form of a weird moth-like creature native to Areon, whom the Eld regard as pests.
  • Displacer Beast: A predator from the Red Planet, kept as pets and guard animals by many Eldritch aristocrats.
  • Doppelganger: Shapeshifters with some strange relationship to the Eld, who routinely employ them as spies and assassins.
  • Rust Monster: An Areonese (?) beastie used by the Eld as living azoth detectors; that they also destroy ferrous metals, including enchanted examples of such, is just a bonus.
As I've said before, I prefer to use only a very limited subset of the available stable of D&D monsters in most sessions in the interests of presenting something vaguely like a plausible ecology. But I can't deny that I miss the weirdo creatures and that's why I long ago established that, in the past, there was regular travel and commerce between the campaign setting and several other worlds, like Areon and Kythirea. These other worlds thus provide me with convenient explanations for where all this freakish stuff comes from. Plus, by varying the array of creatures on each world, they all feel different while still tapping into the same D&D "vibe."

Friendship and RPGs

I think it's fair to say that one of Gary Gygax's most widely derided editorials appeared in issue 67 (November 1982) of Dragon. Entitled "Poker, Chess, and the AD&D System," it's generally understood to be Gary's strongest statement against adding to or subtracting from what's between the covers of the various AD&D rulebooks. For example, he says:
The AD&D game system does not allow the injection of extraneous material. That is clearly stated in the rule books. It is thus a simple matter: Either one plays the AD&D game, or one plays something else, just as one either plays poker according to Hoyle, or one plays (Western) chess by tournament rules, or one does not. Since the game is the sole property of TSR and its designer, what is official and what is not has meaning if one plays the game. Serious players will only accept official material, for they play the game rather than playing at it, as do those who enjoy “house rules” poker, or who push pawns around the chess board. No power on earth can dictate that gamers not add spurious rules and material to either the D&D or AD&D game systems, but likewise no claim to playing either game can then be made. Such games are not D&D or AD&D games — they are something else, classifiable only under the generic “FRPG” catch-all. To be succinct, whether you play either game or not is your business, but in order to state that you play either, it is obviously necessary to play them with the official rules, as written. Thus, when you get information in these pages which bears the “official” stamp, that means it can immediately be used in game play.
A lot of interesting discussion could be had from mining just this one paragraph, but that's not my purpose here. I wanted only to present a single illustrative example of the kind of rhetoric that was quite commonplace at the tail end of the Golden Age, although, if one looks carefully, one can find similar statements going all the way back to the inception of the entire AD&D project.

Now, as regular readers will know, I don't think much of the attitude embodied in the above quote, but, having spent a long time reflecting on it, I think passages like this need to be viewed within a larger context. Gygax gave an especially clear expression of that context in the preface to his Dungeon Masters Guide, which also, not coincidentally, is looked upon with similar disdain by gamers of a certain philosophical bent. He says:
Returning again to the framework aspect of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, what is aimed at is a "universe" into which similar campaigns and parallel worlds can be placed. With certain uniformity of systems and "laws," players will be able to move from one campaign to another and know at least the elemental principles which govern the new milieu, for all milieux will have certain (but not necessarily the same) laws in common. Character races and classes will be nearly the same. Character ability scores will have the identical meaning -- or nearly so. Magic spells will function in a certain manner regardless of which world the player is functioning in. Magic devices will certainly vary, but their principles will be similar. This uniformity will help not only players, it will enable DMs to carry on a meaningful dialogue and exchange of useful information. It might also eventually lead to grand tournaments wherein persons from any part of the U.S., or the world for that matter, can compete for accolades.
Again, there's a lot in this paragraph that one could use as a touchstone for discussion, but, for my present purposes, the important point is this: Gary is here talking about the advantages of uniformity for the player. What he's imagining is a situation in which a player can go from campaign to campaign all across the world and know, when he sits down at the table, that the DM will be using the exact same rules as the ones he used back home, just like you can go anywhere in the world and start playing Western chess with a total stranger and be reasonably assured that you're both playing by the same rules.

I think, understood in this context, Gygax's frequent intemperate eruptions about "uniformity" and "official" rules make a bit more sense, even if I still think they're ultimately absurd. The reality is that, both before and after the arrival of AD&D, not only players but characters moved easily from campaign to campaign. "Drop-ins" were very much a part of the early hobby. Heck, such things were still pretty common when I first entered the hobby, five years after the appearance of OD&D. What I remember was that, since each campaign was different, operating under different rules interpretations and assumptions, "visiting" with your character often meant having to make some adjustments to his stats and equipment. That was the way of things and no one really seemed to expect otherwise.

But, of course, then, as now, I rarely played D&D -- or any roleplaying game -- with total strangers. Now, maybe I'm weird in this regard, but I don't think I am. I suspect most gamers play with people they consider friends, with whom they'd spend time even if they weren't roleplaying together. Except for the occasionally "game day" every few months, I never "dropped in" on a campaign with whom I didn't already have some friendly connection. So, if the referee of that campaign ran D&D differently than I did, I trusted he'd make plain all those differences and not try to take advantage of my ignorance of the "local laws." And I returned the favor when friends from other campaigns dropped in on mine.

Truth be told, that's how I deal with my own players too. I mean, we're friends and, while I do derive a lot of fun by tricking and confusing them in the campaign, it's no different than the fun I derive from friendly, animated "debate" or some other social activity predicated on fundamental trust. When I look at the corporate development of D&D, what I see is an ever-larger series of hedges against the fact that gamers won't be playing in an atmosphere of trust, that they won't be playing the game with friends. That's why I am baffled by the elevation of "don't be a dick" to the level of wisdom in gaming circles these days. That, for example, Raggi felt the need to include this advice as "Rule One" in his Referee Book speaks volumes about the assumptions of the contemporary gaming scene.

Maybe I've just been spoiled all these years, gaming with friends and people I trust implicitly, I don't know. That's why, even though I think I have a better sense of what Gary was probably getting at in his various editorials, I still don't really "get" it on a gut level. Advocating an "according to Hoyle" approach to Dungeons & Dragons seems to me a solution in search of a problem or, more cynically, a way to fix a "problem" that also conveniently keeps gamers dependent on TSR -- and its products. I think player mobility in a vacuum is an imaginary issue. In my experience, outside of conventions, players just don't wander about and randomly alight on an existing gaming group to whom they have no prior friendly connection.

And that's what this is all about, in the end: friendship. Gaming is for me an outgrowth of friendship, a social activity in which I engage with people for whom I have an affection and whom I trust enough to "open up" in the way that roleplaying can sometimes require. In such an environment, there's no need for officially-mandated uniformity. I just don't believe that's any different now than it was nearly 30 years ago when Gary Gygax penned that editorial.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Grande Age of Hyboria

Joseph put me on to this fascinating new blog that's devoted to miniatures wargaming in an alternate future of Conan's world, one that's reminiscent of the Napoleonic Age of our early 19th century. The blog hasn't been updated in almost a month, so I hope it's not stillborn. Check it out if you've ever wondered what Aquilonian Line Infantry or the Poitainian Guard might look like in this unusual take on Robert E. Howard's creation.

I Want an OD&D Clone

I know I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: in my ongoing Dwimmermount campaign, I'm using Labyrinth Lord as the base for my ruleset, but I am modifying it by using bits of both Original Edition Characters and Advanced Edition Companion to bring it closer to the LBB + Supplements flavor of D&D I prefer these days. It works pretty well, all things considered, but, even so, I still find there are things I need to house rule in order to bring it closer to what I want out of the game. That's not a knock against Labyrinth Lord by any means. It's a very good game and I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Original Edition Characters is probably the closest we've yet seen among the clones to a "pure" re-statement of the original rules.

I still think it'd be nice, though, if there were a stand-alone volume that (perhaps with a single supplemental volume) gave me OD&D without any contemporary accretions, so far as that's legally possible. To a certain extent, simply taking Labyrinth Lord, swapping in the material from Original Edition Characters and making a few other changes here and there (like ditching certain spells -- know alignment, I'm looking at you) gets you about 80% of the way there, maybe more. But I can't point my players or other interested parties toward a single book or PDF that gives them all the goods. OEC isn't a complete game but rather a supplement to LL and, while I appreciate the reasons for that, I think it'd be very helpful to have a complete-in-one-volume OD&D clone. It'd be really useful too for newcomers interested in the origins of the game, so we can all point them toward this clone and say, "OD&D was like this."

In the course of working on Dwimmermount, I've been slowly producing a document, one that uses Labyrinth Lord as a base and then makes changes to bring it as close to OD&D as I can under the terms of the OGL. When I'm done with it, I'll pretty it up a bit and make it freely available as a text file. Maybe some day I'll even give it a proper layout, some art, and sell the thing, but that's not my immediate plan. I already own the LBBs + Supplements, so there's no need on my end for such a clone, but I don't imagine every gamer out there interested in giving the original game a whirl owns them all. So, I think there's utility in such a project, even if it's limited to a few weirdos like me.

That Crazy Tagge Family

Several commenters rightly pointed out that I'm probably being selective in the way I've been portraying the Marvel Star Wars comics versus the Gold Key Star Trek ones. There's definitely more than a grain of truth to this. I still contend that, overall, the Gold Key Trek comics are, apart from their artwork, almost universally awful (and de-inspirational, if that's a word) while the Star Wars ones feel fresh and original, there's simply no question that there was a lot of silliness in the Marvel comics too.

Good cases in point are pretty much every scheme Baron Orman Tagge came up with in his quest to both defeat the Rebel Alliance and make Darth Vader look like a fool. I love the character of Baron Tagge and I have very fond memories for the issues in which he and his family figure prominently, but, if one were to be objective, you'd have to admit that it's no wonder the Baron never succeeded. His schemes were bizarre, even within the context of the much more loosey-goosey Star Wars universe.

For example, there's building a base with a giant turbine inside a gas giant:

The gas giant in question was "Yavin Prime," around which Yavin IV rotated. Apparently, after the defeat of the Death Star, the Rebels remained on the same moon rather than bugging the hell out of there. More strangely, the Empire, its Death Star having been defeated, just shrugged its collective shoulders and decided, "They're obviously too powerful to stop" and never went back with a huge star fleet to bombard the place from orbit. So, Baron Tagge decides to destroy the Rebel base by building his own base inside Yavin Prime, protected by this giant turbine that creates a safe pocket within its atmosphere but one the Rebels can't find or enter, thereby giving him free rein to attack Yavin with small squads of TIE fighters. Sure, why not? It's certainly no crazier than the Empire just ignoring Yavin IV entirely.

Then there was "Omega Frost," a mad science device that froze everything and which Tagge tested out on Tattooine (note the Imperial troop transport toy product placement in this issue):

He also tested it out in space, as you can see here:

Yes, that is really goofy. There's really no way around that.

Eventually, thanks to Tagge's crazy schemes, his family acquired a well-deserved reputation for being nuts and Darth Vader decides to take full advantage of this by using the Baron's little sister, who was living in seclusion as an intergalactic nun to preserve her innocence -- no, I'm not making this up -- as a trap to lure Luke Skywalker to his doom. You can draw whatever conclusions from that that you wish.

Vader's scheme doesn't work any better than Tagge's did, but at least he does manage to get the Baron killed in the process, so it's not a total loss. And while I do appreciate the fact that the Marvel writers at least had the gumption to kill off their new villains rather than fall in love with them and contrive new ways to keep them alive and coming back for more beyond all reason (unlike some writers I could name), the fact remains that, for all their good qualities, the Tagge family weren't exactly playing with a full deck. Giant turbines? Freeze rays? It's not exactly awe-inspiring stuff, is it?

Retrospective: Behind Enemy Lines

As I've admitted on numerous occasions, I'm not a wargamer and never have been; I simply lack the mindset and dedication needed to become one. But I am interested in military history and always have been. When I was a child, I enjoyed reading books about historical conflicts and I watched more World War II films than I can probably remember. Consequently, I probably would have loved FASA's 1982 roleplaying game, Behind Enemy Lines -- if I'd ever had a chance to see a copy.

Prior to the launch of BattleTech in 1984, FASA was a very different company -- a smaller, more hobbyist company whose products, while not as slick as what, say, TSR was producing at the time, had a lot of heart. I still consider many of their licensed Traveller products from around this period to be among the best ever produced for the game and I still look to them for inspiration. Unfortunately, smaller also meant "poorly distributed" and so I missed out on some of early FASA's more obscure products, such as Behind Enemy Lines.

It wasn't until comparatively recently that I got my hands on a copy of the game and its two supplements and I'm glad I did. Written and largely conceived by William H. Keith, one half of the Keith Brothers of Traveller fame, Behind Enemy Lines probably wouldn't fly as an RPG today (even though, ironically, it's actually still available as a PDF). Though very much a roleplaying game and not a wargame, it's nevertheless laser-focused on its subject matter. Players assume the roles of US infantrymen during the Second World War and undertake what are essentially special operations missions against Axis forces. Their characters' skills and characteristics are limited solely to those of obvious and immediate use in such missions. There are thus no skills for social interaction of any kind (beyond Leadership), including speaking foreign languages, nor are there any "academic" skills. "Weapons Handling" is a basic characteristic, while Intelligence or some variation thereof is non-existent. Behind Enemy Lines is very much a single-minded game and its mind is on commando missions during World War II.

Within its limited scope, however, Behind Enemy Lines really delivers, however. Many important subjects, from sighting to weather to artillery fire to demolitions and more are called out and given an appropriate level of rules detail, which is to say, treated more comprehensively than many RPGs do but not so much as to make using these rules a chore. Even more interesting to me is that one of its three integral books (Behind Enemy Lines was released as a three-book boxed set, along with maps and counters) consists of 48 pages of event tables. These tables are essentially the World War II equivalent of "wandering monsters," providing the referee with the guts of adventures, as the characters sneak their way across occupied territory on their way to complete a mission. The tables are remarkable in their specificity: you get tables for different terrain types, as well as lookout posts, fortifications, railroads, farmhouses, etc. Armed with these tables, a referee could easily create obstacles on the fly and there are enough of them that'd be some time before he ran out of entries.

If Behind Enemy Lines has a serious flaw, it's, as I said, its laser-focus on its subject matter. This is not a game about roleplaying during World War II, despite its subtitle. It is a game primarily about playing out a very precise sub-set of military missions during the Second World War. Within that scope, it's a well presented and researched game and I think it'd comparatively easy for a referee to run it satisfactorily just with the materials included in the box. But if one's interest is broader or even just as specific about another aspect of World War II, I'm not sure that Behind Enemy Lines would be of much use.

There's evidence that FASA intended to expanded the game beyond its original focus, but they never got the chance, probably due to its unpopularity. I've never met anyone who actually played the game back in the day, but, as I also said, I never even saw the game until quite recently. My guess is that, like many games in the first decade of the hobby, Behind Enemy Lines was a labor of love, a pet project by its designers that simply never found an audience. I don't exactly mourn for the game's lack of success, because, truth be told, even with my interest in military history, it's not the kind of game I'd be likely to play. At the same time, I do mourn, at least a little bit, for the days when game companies would release a game just because someone at the company was in love with a particular idea and wanted to run with it. That kind of passion is always valuable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dwimmermount, Session 51

Session 51 began with the Fortune's Fools still trapped within the level of Dwimmermount known as the House of Portals. Knowing that a demon and a party of Eld were somewhere nearby, the party elected to be careful in their explorations. They wanted to find a way out of the level -- they badly need to re-supply -- or at least away from the Eld, whom they feared would overpower them in a straight up fight, particularly if the demon were with them. Consequently, the party moved slowly and cautiously, listening at each door, looking for any signs of recent movement, checking for traps, and generally being paranoid.

Looking at their map, there were several obvious avenues of further exploration. One led them to a room containing a large curtain covering one wall. Behind the curtain was an altar and a statue of a granite statue of a male figure in armor, wielding a maul. The altar was also made of granite and had no markings on it nor did it show any signs of having been used for blood sacrifice of any kind. On top of it was a ceramic jar, inside of which was a rusty reddish dust. Dordagdonar smelled it and found that it had an "earthy" scent. He then taste a bit of it and declared that it was in fact dirt, albeit of a strange coloration.

Moving on, the party came upon a room inside of which they heard growling animal-like noises. They entered and came across a beast known to all D&D players but which I'd not yet introduced into the campaign: the displacer beast. Overall, I've use a fairly small sub-set of the monsters available in OD&D + Supplements. My general feeling is that a campaign setting feels more "real," or at least coherent, if there aren't dozens of different intelligent races besides mankind and so many different kinds of bestial threats wandering the world that one wonders how the average non-adventurer survives. But I love monsters nonetheless and, when opportunities arise to use them, I take them. I'd decided, at just that moment -- I was stocking the dungeon as the players proceeded -- that displacer beasts were from Areon, the home of the Eld, and that the Red Elves used them as guards and pets. Like the demon, the Eld brought this creature with them as they explored Dwimmermount.

The displacer beast proved tougher than expected but not so tough that the PCs couldn't defeat it. From there, the party pressed further on, finding several more rooms, some of which showed both evidence of recent activity and had bits of reddish dust scattered about -- just like the dust in the ceramic jar near the statue. Following the trail of dust, the characters made their way down several corridors and discovered a room from which voices were emanating. Assuming that they were the Eld, they made an effort to surprise them by bursting into the room -- and succeeded. The Red Elves found themselves caught off-guard, which gave the PCs enough time to use a wand of paralyzation, which took out one of the three Eld. Another was caught in a hold person spell, leaving only one mobile and able to attack. This one, a warrior by the looks of it, did not break morale and continued to fight, dealing some damage to the party before being slain.

Then, came the inevitable interrogation. My players dislike questioning NPCs, because they're never sure of what questions to ask and because they're naturally predisposed to avoid being too cruel to their prisoners in order to get them to spill their guts. Regardless, the chief Eld, who wore attire that seemingly marked him as a magic-user (he carried a staff too), was strangely willing to speak to them. He identified himself as "Jallak, servant of Phytos Kan, archon of Morkoja" -- whatever that meant and the characters didn't inquire.

Jallak explained, in response to the questions that the PCs did ask, that he and his compatriots had been sent to Dwimmermount via a portal on Areon to see if the citadel was indeed again accessible to outsiders. You may remember that the dungeon had, long ago, been first an Eldritch base and then a Thulian fortress. During the fall of the Thulian Empire, its last commandant sealed it behind a magical barrier to prevent anyone from entering it and so it remained until just shortly before the campaign began. Now that the barrier had been lowered, quite a few power groups had taken an interest in it -- the cult of Turms Termax, Cyrus the vampire, agents of Adamas, representatives of a Thulian successor state to the south, and, now, the Eld. As Dordagdonar moaned, "For a fortress abandoned for centuries, this place sure sees a lot of visitors."

Jallak provided little other information except to point out that he'd seen a party of humans elsewhere on this level, which the PCs surmised were Termaxians, though they had no proof. He also alluded to the fact that Areon has long been without a ready source of azoth and that the entire reason the Eld had invaded so long ago was to acquire more for themselves. Indeed, Dwimmermount was originally a "refinery" of azoth, something the PCs suspected based on what they'd seen elsewhere. If Jallak is to be believed, the lower levels of the dungeon consist of magical devices intended to collect and process azoth for use by the Eld.

The party then took the weapons, armor, and equipment of the two surviving Eld and marched them into the portal room and sent them through it, back to their home world. To do this, Jallak threw a handful of the reddish sand through the "swirly Photoshop magic" of the portal, which then revealed a rusty red rocky desert. Jallak and his guard passed through it without incident and the portal shut down. At this stage, in need of rest and the re-memorization of spells, the party sought out a safe room in which to sleep. Before finding one that met their requirements, they came across a room filled with large containers, one of which they opened. Inside was what looked like swamp water. Broth Candor surmised that perhaps it, like the reddish dust, could be used to key the portal to a particular locale somewhere in the universe, but the theory was not tested before the session ended.

A good session that introduced some new elements to the campaign. A cornerstone of the way I run campaigns is to constantly throw out new characters, places, mysteries, and so forth, hoping that at least one or two of them might get seized upon by the players. I have only the vaguest ideas to carry me through. I mean, if the PCs went through the portal to Areon, I don't know precisely what they'd find there. I've got a lifetimes-worth of sword-and-planet material to draw inspiration from, of course, but that's not the same as having a lot of NPCs statted up or locations mapped out beforehand, so I'd have to wing it and see how it all unfolded.

But then that's my favorite part of gaming.

Some Things Don't Age Well

After my recent Marvel Star Wars lovefest -- and it's still ongoing, so expect a few more posts on it in the future, at least -- I was reminded of another comic I read and loved as a kid: the Gold Key Star Trek comics. These were apparently the first licensed Trek comics and were published between 1967 (while the show was still on the air) and 1978 (just before the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). I never owned the individual issues but instead had a couple of paperback volumes that collected many issues together under a single cover.

As I think I've said too many times, I became a Star Trek fan at a young age; I must have been four or five when I saw episodes in syndication on a Washington, DC independent TV station. So, these comics really grabbed me and, if you look at the illustration above, you might be able to see why. Despite the really goofy plots of many of them -- or, rather, most of them -- there was something to them that I found compelling.

At the time, I couldn't have told you what it was, but, re-reading them now, I'm pretty sure I know: these comics emphasized Star Trek as a descendant of earlier "serious" sci-fi, which, of course, it was. Just look at that "landing party" gear the crew are wearing there, complete with backpacks and canteens. That's like something out of Forbidden Planet (a movie I loved then, as I do now). Now take a look at this depiction of the transporters from the comics:

Maybe I'm crazy but I love the 50s sci-fi look of the thing, with big emitters on either side and the much flashier dematerialization effect. And the comic books are filled with this stuff. I simply adored the imagery, even if it was often at odds with what we saw in the series. (The reason for that, apparently, is that its earliest artists were working only from stills of the show, never having actually seen it themselves).

Yet, somehow, it all worked for me and I kept reading and re-reading these damned things, whose stories were invariably the worst kind of grade-Z space opera drek. Here's just one example of what I mean and it pretty nicely sums up everything that was wrong with the Gold Key comics:

Yes, I realize that, even now, several of you are preparing to write comments about how absolutely awesome it is to see Spock and Scotty decked out as retro-future space pirate swabbies, puffy pants and all, but I can't agree with you. Whereas I think the Marvel comics did a great job of extending the implied universe of the first film, the same cannot be said of the Gold Key comics. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of really silly stuff in The Original Series, but, in most cases, an effort is made to provide a "plausible" justification for why Abe Lincoln and Genghis Khan are fighting or why Apollo is grabbing the Enterprise out of flight.

These comics, on the other hand, don't bother with such trifling matters. Space pirates dress like Blackbeard's men, because, well, that's what kids expect of pirates. No further explanation is needed, let alone provided. Now, maybe this is just a case where I really have become a bitter old prune without a sense of whimsy, but I don't think so. The Gold Key Trek comics are just bad. I love the artwork but the writing -- and the imagination behind it -- is sub-par, or, to be more charitable, inappropriate to the kind of sci-fi Star Trek was channeling.

I'm glad I'm having the chance to look at these again, but don't expect a flurry of posts from me extolling their virtues as inspiration for re-imagining Star Trek. The artwork is inspirational, but I'm not sure I can look past the stories, which are just shameful.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Power of IP

A friend of mine pointed me toward this interesting article by Phil Athans, formerly a fiction editor at TSR and WotC (and I remember him back in the days when he was a mere freelancer writing for Traveller). The article discusses the development of the intellectual properties of two D&D settings, The Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, using interviews with both Ed Greenwood and Tracy Hickman. Whatever your feelings about these settings, there's a lot of food for thought in the article, including quotes like this one:
It is true that the story was the foundation of Dragonlance and came out of the personal desire of both my wife [Laura Hickman] and myself to use role playing games as a medium of storytelling. You have to remember that at the time adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety. We wanted to introduce meaning into gaming through story.
Now there's something to talk about.

I Leveled Up!

At least according to this chart. A guru, huh?

Get Lamp

Reader Zachary Grant recently reminded me of the documentary film, Get Lamp. Created by Jason Scott, who is the webmaster of, an archive of online materials from the mid-80s, Get Lamp is about the history and development of text adventures, a once-important genre of computer games that have long since been forgotten. I played a lot of those games when I was younger and consider them an adjunct to old school roleplaying games, since they share many of the same design and esthetic principles. Indeed, there are worse ways to wrap your head around the old school mindset than to fire up a copy of the original Zork.

I haven't seen Get Lamp and, given the expense of the DVD, I'm not likely to do so in the near future. Still, I can't deny that it looks very intriguing. Text adventures grew up side by side with table roleplaying. Understanding them and their history is, I think, every bit as important to understanding the hobby as understanding miniatures wargaming, perhaps even moreso, given the continued influence computer and video games have on tabletop gaming.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Xeethra

I make no secret of the fact that, especially as I get older, Clark Ashton Smith is, hands-down, my favorite of Weird Tales's "Big Three" pulp fantasy writers. One of the reasons this is so is that Smith understands and weaves beautiful stories around the twin themes of memory and loss, as he does in his December 1934 tale, "Xeethra." Set, appropriately enough, in the dying future continent of Zothique, "Xeethra" is the story of a young goatherd of the same name, who, while "tending the black and piebald goats of his uncle Pornos," stumbles upon "the mysterious yawning of a cavern."
Hesitating, he tried to remember certain legends that Pornos had once told him: legends that concerned such hidden caverns as the one on which he had stumbled. But it seemed that the tales had faded now from his mind, leaving only a dim sense of things that were perilous, forbidden and magical. He thought that the cavern was the portal of some undiscovered world—and the portal had opened to permit his entrance. Being of a nature both venturesome and visionary, he was undeterred by the fears that others might have felt in his place. Overpowered by a great curiosity, he soon entered the cave, carrying for a torch a dry, resinous bough that had fallen from the tree in the cliff.
Within the cave was
a fertile plain that lapsed illimitably into golden distance under the measureless arch of a golden vault. Far off, through the misty radiance, there was a dim towering of unidentifiable masses that might have been spires and domes and ramparts. A level meadow lay at his feet, covered with close-grown curling sward that had the greenness of verdigris; and the sward, at intervals, was studded with strange blossoms appearing to turn and move like living eyes. Near at hand, beyond the meadow, was an orchard-like grove of tall, amply spreading trees amid whose lush leafage he descried the burning of numberless dark-red fruits. The plain, to all seeming, was empty of human life; and no birds flew in the fiery air or perched on the laden boughs. There was no sound other than the sighing of leaves: a sound like the hissing of many small hidden serpents.
Xeethra partakes of one of those dark red fruits and is overcome with strange feelings and memories, soon forgetting who he was, soon coming to believe that he was "King Amero, who had newly come to the throne, [and] would rule as his fathers had ruled over all the kingdom of Calyz by the orient sea." Xeethra's uncle soon discovers the youth's affliction and bemoans his fate:
"Ill was this day, for you have wandered among enchantments. Verily, there in no tarn such as you have described amid the hills; nor, at this season, has any herder found such pasturage. These things were illusions, designed to lead you astray; and the cave, I wot, was no honest cave but an entrance into hell. I have heard my fathers tell that the gardens of Thasaidon, king of the seven underworlds, lie near to the earth's surface in this region; and caves have opened ere this, like a portal, and the sons of men, trespassing unaware on the gardens, have been tempted by the fruit and eaten it. But madness comes thereof and much sorrow and long damnation: for the Demon, they say, forgetting not one stolen apple, will exact his price in the end. Woe! woe! the goat-milk will be soured for a whole moon by the grass of such wizard pasture; and, after all the food and care you have cost me, I must find another stripling to ward the flocks."
Of course, in his delusions, Xeethra pays no heed to any of this, denying that he knows the old man and desires nothing more than to return to Shathair, capital city of "his" kingdom of Calyz in the far east. Indeed, Xeethra/Amero sets off to do just that and the rest of the story tells of what he finds and the consequences for the young goatherd as he does so.

In "Xeethra," memory is literally a curse, a malediction inflicted by the dark god Thasaidon upon a young goatherd who trespassed on his sacred precincts. Yet, what makes this story so powerful and moving is that we all understand how memory can also metaphorically be a curse, something that prolongs pain and causes us to wallow in the past rather than moving forward into the future. It's something I understand much better now than I did as a younger man, which probably explains why I now rate "Xeethra" much higher as a story than I once did. Regardless, "Xeethra" is pleasure to read; it has the air of a fable or fairy tale, albeit a particularly melancholy one and is probably one of the best entries in the entire cycle of Zothique.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Visualizing Star Wars

One of the problems with conjuring up a vision of Star Wars that follows a different path than the one George Lucas laid down for it is that, whatever his other faults may be, Lucas excels at creating compelling images. I love the look of the prequel films, for example, and often suffer through them simply because they have some great visuals. So, trying to imagine a different Star Wars, one that might have been, requires at least partially shaking off those visuals and that's a tall order -- but not an impossible one.

When I was a kid, one of my most beloved books -- so beloved that I eventually split its binding from reading it so much -- was The Art of Star Wars, which included pages upon pages of concept art for the film. A lot of this concept art was done by Ralph Mcquarrie and I remember being intrigued by what at the time seemed like really weird versions of things we saw in the films, like this early interpretation of R2-D2 and C-3PO:

There's a definite Metropolis vibe to C-3P0 that I like. He looks a lot more like a human being than the movie's version and, for some reason, this pleases me. At the very least, it gives a different notion on what a 'droid might be.

Then there's this illustration of some stormtroopers preparing to face the heroes:

There's a lot to love here, particularly the shields. I mean, sure, it is cool to see lightsabers as standard issue weaponry, but I really dig the shields they're carrying. It makes no sense, of course, but it looks awesome to me and it's one of those nonsensical esthetic choices that helps to ground the film in a fairy tale reality rather than anything more realistic.

Speaking of lightsabers, here's Vader facing off against a similarly armed opponent:

I love the fact that the other guy is wearing goggles and a breathing mask. That kind of stuff screams space opera.

And here's a group shot of the protagonists from a very version of the screenplay:

I distinctly remember that the Star Wars Fan Club sold a poster of this image in its early days. I never got it then, because, well, I was young and stupid and didn't see any point to a poster that had characters on it who weren't "real." Now, I kick myself for not having gotten one, because I find it really evocative. I get a clear "Star Wars vibe" from it, but it looks sufficiently unlike the actual film that I find it a lot easier to use it as a springboard for letting my mind wander so as to come up with new approaches to the basic ideas Lucas was playing with when he created his space fantasy.

And, yes, before anyone mentions this, I am aware that Hasbro released action figures based on the Mcquarrie concept art (a pity their subsidiary WotC couldn't be similarly broad-minded when it comes to D&D). If I had the money to spare, I'd probably try to acquire a few of these -- the stormtrooper at the very least. I don't usually indulge in such geekly man-child purchases, but I can't deny that these things really hit a sweet spot with me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Long Shadow of AD&D

In yesterday's Open Friday question, I asked people to cite the cover image that immediately springs to mind when they think of "Dungeons & Dragons." I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to respond. I found the comments really interesting, if only because I discovered that, for a great many old schoolers, the Erol Otus cover of the Basic Rules is hands-down the most iconic representation of Dungeons & Dragons. After that, it was a close race between Tramp's Players Handbook cover and Elmore's "red box" cover. The Holmes cover did well too, though it was cited less often than any of the other three already mentioned. Interesting too was that there were a very large number of commenters who chose none of these four popular options, instead citing other cover images.

Now, as everyone knows, I was introduced into the hobby through the Holmes "blue book," which is an edited and pared down version of OD&D, even though, for marketing reasons, it sometimes presents itself as if it were an introduction to AD&D (it's not). Despite that, my friends and I eventually "moved on" from Holmes to AD&D anyway, as it seemed to be the only way to go. In 1980, which was our first full year of roleplaying, getting the AD&D Players Handbook was the only pathway to levels above 3 that was readily available to us. The Moldvay/Cook/Marsh sets were still a year in the future and, though we knew of the existence of the LBBs and supplements, for some reason none of us ever considered the possibility of using them in conjunction with Holmes. Plus, the PHB was a 128-page hardcover book selling for (I think) $12.00 , while Greyhawk or Blackmoor was half that length, softcover, and $5.00 -- hardly worth it in our opinions.

And so it was that we all became AD&D players. Or, rather, we became users of AD&D books to play Dungeons & Dragons. I honestly don't think we ever played AD&D using all of the rules it presented. I'm not talking about stuff like weapon speed factors (which we never used) or weapon vs. AC adjustments (which we sometimes). I'm not even talking about psionics, bards, unarmed combat, weapon proficiencies, or any of a dozen other rules that, in my experience, lots of gamers ignored, then and now. I'm talking about really basic stuff like initiative (has anyone ever used AD&D's version?), armor types (I still have trouble with "unarmored" being AC 10, not AC 9), and damage vs. different-sized opponents. AD&D's peculiar (to us, anyway) divergences from Holmes were honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Yet, if someone had asked us back then, we would have unanimously claimed to be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, especially once Moldvay/Cook/Marsh was released, which we tended to look down on as "kiddie D&D," even as we bought them and the adventure modules associated with them. In our adolescent minds, AD&D was "a man's game," so to speak and we proudly carried about our Gygaxian tomes, even though we regularly ignored the man's actual words when it came to running our games. I don't imagine we were the only ones who did so. Indeed, as the years pass, I have become ever more convinced that very few people ever played AD&D as written, instead simply using Gary's books as source material to flavor games that were, in their essentials, far closer to the LBBs, Holmes, or Moldvay than what's presented in the three volumes released between 1977 and 1979.

I'd hazard a guess that more people entered the hobby through some "basic" version of D&D than directly through AD&D and yet it was AD&D that was the favored son at TSR. Some of this, I am sure, had to do with the disputes between Gygax and Arneson over OD&D, but that doesn't explain it all. As a younger person, when I thought of "D&D," I always thought of AD&D, an association I still haven't shaken to this day. It's not for nothing that I have an image from Dave Trampier's PHB cover on the masthead of this blog, for example. But, when I returned to old school gaming in late 2007, I never seriously considered playing AD&D despite my fondness for it. I found that I like a lot of the Gygaxian flavor of the game, but I preferred OD&D's presumed association with flexibility and open-endedness.

I don't think it can be denied, though, that, even amongst people who don't prefer AD&D over other versions of the game, it remains their mental "default" for imagining "Dungeons & Dragons." Why is it, for example, that we call WotC's current version "Fourth Edition?" That implies that AD&D is "First Edition" and that is what most people call it, including myself. Yet, in truth, AD&D isn't the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons and, to its credit, never claimed to be. The term "First Edition" arose only after the game's revision in 1989. Prior to its release in 2000, you might remember that there were references to "AD&D Third Edition." Even though WotC ultimately dropped the word "advanced" from the title, the company still called its new version "3e" or some variation thereof. The third edition of what? AD&D, of course.

Now, I actually think the name "Third Edition" is an accurate one. For all the ways in which D&D III differs from its TSR ancestors, it still retains a lot of ideas and even verbiage that can be traced directly back to Gygax's manuals (take a look at many of the spell and monster descriptions, if you doubt this). D&D IV, so far as I can detect, can make the claim far more tenuously (especially when it comes to verbiage), but WotC still promotes it as "Fourth Edition." Again, fourth edition of what? The game implicitly presents itself as a successor to Gary Gygax's Advanced D&D, not any other version of the game, even though it's now employing imagery not derived from it.

AD&D casts a long shadow over the subsequent history of Dungeons & Dragons. Every version of the game that has been released in its wake, from Moldvay/Cook/Marsh down to WotC's latest offering, is, to varying degrees, influenced by or reacting against it. It's a testament to its enduring power that, more than three decades on, AD&D remains as iconic as it does. I'm far from certain that that's a wholly good thing (I'm pretty sure it isn't), but there's no denying it. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is the proverbial elephant in the old school living room; it simply can't be ignored.