Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Beasts. Men & Gods

For some time now, Matteo over at Chateau des Sortilèges has been attempting to convince Bill Underwood to re-release his 1980 fantasy game Beasts, Men & Gods. His efforts have born fruit and, as of now, you can purchase a copy of the 158-page second revised edition here for $19.95. An extensive preview of the book can be found here.

As you can see, if you look at the preview, this is a seriously old school RPG. The layout and artwork have not been updated since it last appeared in print, which, frankly, gives it a much greater appeal. I'll probably grab a copy at some point in the future, because I'd never even heard of this game before, let alone read it and I love new opportunities to expand my knowledge of the first decade of the hobby.

 Here's hoping we start to see more old school games currently unavailable reappear like Beasts, Men & Gods. And many thanks to Matteo for making it happen.

On the Horizon

In addition to the Thousand Suns revision I've been working on for what seems like forever (with a late summer release date looking more likely), two other projects have been occupying my time. Both ought to see daylight before Thousand Suns.

First, there's Petty Gods. There's still a few pieces of artwork left to be done, but the big delay at the moment is awaiting word on whether or not I have permission to include an article written by an important figure of the early hobby as a kind of framing device/introduction to the whole work. If I can't, that's no big deal and certainly won't hurt the final version, since it was only by chance that the opportunity to include it was even viewed as a possibility. Regardless, June will be devoted to getting Petty Gods out the door at last, with or without the article.

Second, there's what I think will be known as the Dwimmermount Codex series. Originally, I wanted to present a single volume with multiple levels of my Dwimmermount megadungeon. Later, people started asking me for more information on the world outside the dungeon. Later still, people wanted my OD&D/Labyrinth Lord house rules. I toyed with several different ways to present all this stuff and ultimately decided to go the route of multiple small (32-64 digest-sized page) PDFs/booklets released on a monthly/bimonthly basis. Each volume would present some of my house rules, plus new monsters, spells, treasures, magic items, and a level of the dungeon, a quarter of the city-state of Adamas, or a wilderness area.

I'm nearly done the first volume and it includes the following:
  • Wisdom-related rules
  • Clerics, Druids, and Cultists
  • Dwarves and Gnomes
  • New Cleric, Druid, and Gnome spells
  • Saving throw rules
  • New monsters
  • New magic items
  • Details on the gods of Dwimmermount
  • Level 1 of the Dungeon (The Path of Mavors), which consists of just shy of 70 rooms.
With luck, I'll finish this in a couple of days. Then I just need to scrounge up some art and lay the thing out and I'll make it available for sale. I don't know how long it'll be in its final form, so that'll determine the price, but I can't imagine it'll be more than a few dollars for the PDF and a bit more for the printed copy, should anyone want that. It'd be nice to make a little profit off this project, but I'm also a big believer in keeping RPG products as inexpensive as possible, especially since the best ones are idea mines rather than completely usable "out of the box" and the Dwimmermount Codex volumes certainly follow that model.

To clarify: I use Labyrinth Lord as my rules base and riff off them in my modifications. If you have the LL rulebook, you need nothing else to use what I've written and, honestly, you don't even need that, since the material is easily adaptable to any TSR era version of D&D and its clones. I personally use Labyrinth Lord for reasons I've discussed elsewhere, but that doesn't mean you have to in order to get any use out of what I've written.

I'll have more information in a couple of days once I've finished the last tweaks to the text.

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part VIII)

(It's always fascinating to notice that huge drop-off in interest whenever I do posts focused on a specific game that isn't Dungeons & Dragons. That's about as clear an indicator as any that, when it comes to this hobby, there's D&D and there's everything else.)

Gamma World does not use a saving throw system. Instead, its two most common hazards, poison and radiation, are handled through the use of matrices very similar to the one used for determining the success of mental combat. Poison and radiation are rated from 3 to 18 and compared against a character's Constitution score. This yields one of three results: "-," which indicates no effect; a number, which indicates the number of D6 in damage the character takes, or "D," which indicates death. In the case of radiation, there's a 20% chance that "D" indicates not death but a mutational defect that manifests one week later.

There are antidotes for poison but none for radiation. Antidotes are rated from 3 to 18 and is only 100% effective against poison of the same rating. There's a base 50% chance of effectiveness for other ratings, plus or minus 10%, depending on whether the antidote you're using is above or below (respectively) the rating of the poison you're trying to cure. Intriguingly, the rules state that
Because of the large number of poisonous creatures in GAMMA WORLD, most inhabitants will wear light body armor of some sort
This suggests that armor prevents, or at least impedes, poisoning, but, if so, there are no specific rules in the game to reflect this.

A common -- and cogent -- criticism of Gamma World is that, for a game set in the 25th century, there sure are a lot of 20th century items lying around. The game does address this criticism somewhat. In the beginning of the section on "artifacts and equipment," it's stated that, in addition to many military items, the PCs should also encounter
a healthy mix of 24th century [sic] version of such items as: toasters, typewriters, lawn mowers, powered hand tools, erector sets, portable radios and TVs, smoke detectors, hair dryers, eyeglasses, cigarette lighters, and so on.
I give credit to the designers for providing an explanation, even if it's not a particularly good one. I suppose, in charity, one can only reiterate that Gamma World is not only a product of its time but also a product of the time before it was written. The future it postulates is the kind that might have been envisaged in a sci-fi pulp back in the 40s or 50s and would likely have seemed implausible even in 1978. There's a retro quality to the entire game that, while not to everyone's taste, seems to have been deliberate. That said, I never cared for it much as a kid and I suspect it's this quality, as much as anything else, that contributes strongly to the sense many gamers have that Gamma World is not a "serious" RPG. It's worth noting that this quality was toned down somewhat in the second edition.

There's a random table to determine what artifacts are found by the characters. Fully 60% of them are military in nature and, of those, more than 80% are weapons of one sort or another (the rest being armor). The remaining 40% consist of vehicles, robots, medical equipment, and miscellaneous devices. I'll discuss specific artifacts and pieces of equipment in my next post, since they deserve some closer scrutiny. For now, I want to focus on the rules for artifact use and operation. First, every artifact's condition must be determined, with a range from "obviously broken" to "perfect." 75% of all artifacts found have a less than 50% chance to function, while fully one-third of all artifacts belong to the "obviously broken" category and do not work at all. This suggests that functioning artifacts were, according to the rules, intended to be rare, which is a perfectly valid perspective. Unfortunately, most modules written for the game did not support this perspective and were instead filled with a great many, perfectly usable artifacts. Indeed, it was unusual to see an artifact's condition even noted in most modules.

Determining the operation of new artifacts required the use of one of three complexity charts that consisted of a series of circles, squares, and arrows to indicate how difficult it was to figure out an artifact's use. A D10 was rolled, modified by Intelligence and certain mutations, to track a character's progress in ascertaining an artifact's operation, with the goal of reaching the square marked "S" (presumably for "success") and avoiding the skull and crossbones symbol, which meant the character had accidentally harmed himself or one of his comrades. Each roll of the dice represented 10 minutes of puzzling out an artifact, so 6 such rolls took 1 hour. Consequently, unless a character was very lucky or smart (or both), it would take some time to be able to use a new artifact. It was nearly impossible, for example, to learn how to use even a simple high-tech weapon in less than an hour and odds were it would take even longer. A character certainly couldn't just pick up a Mark V Blaster, for instance, and start using it against rampaging mutants.

I always liked the artifact complexity charts in principle, but their use was somewhat tedious, because of the timeframe involved and because they lacked much in the way of color or flavor. Except for success or harm to oneself, it was just a series of dice rolls. Now, maybe that's just a failing on my part and, in the hands of a more talented referee, these charts could be made more exciting, I don't know. I can only note that the second edition did away with the tables entirely, although I didn't find its system much more interesting. This is one of those areas where I fear that the theory behind the mechanics seems more clever than it actually is and, while I very much like the idea that artifacts should be difficult to operate and potentially dangerous, Gamma World never really delivered on that idea. Of course, this may simply be one of those areas where it's best that each referee come up with his own method of handling it rather than resorting to these charts. Were I ever to run Gamma World again, that's probably what I'd do.

The Ads of Dragon: Trollpak

When it comes to memorable RPG ads from the Golden Age, this one, from issue #65 (September 1982) of Dragon has got to be a top contender:
I've talked about Chaosium's Trollpak before -- twice, actually -- and my feelings about it, but, back in '82, before I had much direct experience with RuneQuest, ads like this one made me question my baseless prejudice against the game. I wondered what the heck this supplement was that it included an illustration of a dissected troll in its pages. It was certainly unlike anything I'd ever seen for D&D -- or any other RPG for that matter!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Helms in Old School D&D

I have an inordinate fondness for the crusader-style great helm, such as the one pictured to the right from some weird and awesome Holmes era D&D ads. Like fungi, the presence of helmets like this in D&D artwork is another signpost that we're dealing with the old school. I've noted many times before that there's recognizably historical armors in the artwork of guys like Trampier and (especially) Sutherland and that, as time went on, you see fewer and fewer examples of it in TSR game products. Whether that's good or bad isn't to the present point, which is that my earliest D&D memories are inextricably bound up with the assumption that fighting men would likely be wearing something like this on their heads.

The problem, alas, is that, with its abstract combat system D&D has never had good rules for helmets, despite their presence on the equipment list. I'm aware of AD&D's rules on the subject but never used them back in the day because I thought they'd slow down combat too much. And every other attempt to make helmets matter in D&D that I've seen has been similarly poor. It's not a big deal, all things considered, but, given that I like helmets esthetically, it'd be nice if there were rules I could use that made them more just a fashion statement. Anybody have any to share?

Pulp Fantasy Library: No Night Without Stars

One look at this cover and you can tell that Andre Norton's post-apocalyptic novel, No Night Without Stars, was published in the 1970s -- 1975, to be exact. Though not set in the same world as her earlier Star Man's Son, Norton deals with many of the same situations and themes as that novel, such as outcast protagonists and the search for knowledge from the world before. Also like Star Man's Son, No Night Without Stars is fundamentally optimistic, as evidenced by its title, which is a paraphrase of something a character says toward the end of the novel.
... we have tried long to live upon the remnants of the Before Time, ever looking backward. But why should we? There is no night without a star, so the blackness of our night can be lighted by our own efforts. We are ourselves, not the Before Ones. Therefore, we must learn for ourselves, not try to revive what was known by those we might not even want to call kin were we to meet them.
Where No Night Without Stars differs from its predecessor, I think, can be seen in the text quote above too. It'd be an exaggeration to say that this is an "angry" novel; I'm not sure Andre Norton had it within her to write in that way. Nevertheless, there's a much greater sense in No Night Without Stars that the path forward for post-apocalyptic humanity lies not in rebuilding the past or in cleaving to the social structures created in the wake of Armageddon, but in challenging them and seeking something genuinely new.

This should come as no surprise, since the novel tells the story of Sander, an apprentice smith generally regarded by his people, rather unsubtly called "the Mob," as being of little worth. Their estimation of his abilities comes from the fact that Sander dreams of mastering "the Old Learning," so that he might work metal in ways superior to that of his benighted kin. Rather than abandon this dream, Sander chooses self-exile -- "go-forth rights" -- to travel outside the boundaries of Jak's Mob into distant lands where he believed he might find the secrets that he sought. Along the way, he meets a mysterious woman named Fanyi, who claims to talk with spirits. Like him, Fanyi seeks the knowledge of "the Before Men," although for very different reasons. She agrees to accompany him and form a temporary partnership for mutual gain, but, of course, events soon take on a life of their own.

No Night Without Stars isn't one of Norton's best stories. I certainly prefer Star Man's Son to it in most respects, but it's still a quick, enjoyable read. Compared to most contemporary sci-fi, it's extremely short and straightforward, providing the reader with very digressions or sub-plots. Likewise, the novel's setting is largely undeveloped, giving us only the briefest glimpses of its features and inhabitants, let alone its history. I can't say this bothered me particularly, since, as ought to be well known by now, I find such thing too often become excuses for authorial self-indulgence, but I won't deny that I'd have appreciated at least a little more detail in No Night Without Stars. As it is, it feels more like a sketch than a complete novel, which likely affected my final estimation of it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Now, that's a wizard!

Some more goodness from the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album -- a magic-user who really looks the part. He's even got bags and sacks in which to carry stuff, like all real adventurers do.

Fungus Among Us

It's been a damp and rainy Spring thus far, which has led to a bumper crop of mushrooms sprouting all over the neighborhood, as my son as been keen to point out. Seeing them, I found myself remembering the first D&D module I ever owned, In Search of the Unknown, whose original and revised covers both depict adventures exploring a garden of giant fungi.

Perhaps it's because the first piece above, by David Sutherland, is one of the first D&D illustrations I ever saw, it's been forever seared into my imagination and it's exercised a powerful influence over me. And while I'd still argue that the single image that sums up "Dungeons & Dragons" to me is the cover of the AD&D Players Handbook, I can't deny that a close second is the cover of module B1.

An interesting side effect of this association in my imagination is that I also strongly associate mushrooms and other fungi with D&D, an association made all the stronger because of their regular presence in a lot of old school artwork. And of course the game itself includes so many mycoid monsters, the shrieker, violet fungi, and yellow mold being the three most iconic, never mind all the new ones introduced by Gygax as he worked up The Temple of Elemental Evil for publication.

I'm sure that, in reality, old school D&D didn't include nearly as much fungal imagery as I imagine, but the fact that it seems to have done so is, I think, significant. Mushrooms speak to me of an older literary conception of fantasy, harkening back to 19th century tales like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Journey to the Center of the Earth. That's no surprise, of course, considering the influence such stories had on Gygax, Arneson, and other early designers. So, when I see mushrooms in contemporary fantasy art, as I do in Steve Zieser's Labyrinth Lord illustrations, it's like a code that tells me these people share the same conception of D&D that I do.

With that, I leave you with a handful of images of mushrooms and fungi from old school D&D modules, particularly from the fungus-filled In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cultists of Dwimmermount

This is my latest take on the idea of anti-clerics. I never got the chance to use it extensively in the Dwimmermount campaign, but, when I did, I didn't encounter any problems with it.
Requirements: Chaotic alignment
Prime Requisite: Wisdom
Maximum Level: None
As noted above, all clerics must be Lawful in alignment. This is because all the gods, regardless of their spheres of influence, support and protect the civilization of Man. There are, however, some Men who regard neither the gods nor the civilization to which they give aid to be worthy of their own devotion. Such Men have instead thrown in their lot with Chaos, as embodied as the various demon lords and princes of the Great Void and are known as cultists.

Cultists might be called “anti-clerics,” as they possess all the cleric's abilities but with one significant difference: they can only cast the reverse of any cleric spell listed in Labyrinth Lord “reversible.” That means, for example, that a cultist cannot cast cure light wounds but only cause light wounds . Many cultists infiltrate Lawful religions, passing themselves off as clerics and working from within to sow dissent and distrust. Others form secret societies dedicated to demons and attract like-minded individuals to join their evil cause. All live to bring about the destruction of Man, his civilization, and even his gods.

Cultists have no ability to turn the undead, as clerics do. Instead they may attempt to command them, using the turning undead table. If successful, the cultist may command a total number of hit dice of undead equal the number of retainers he may possess based on his Charisma score. This ability has no effect on the cultist's being able to attract retainers, however. These undead remain under the cultist's command for a number of days equal to the cultist's level. Command can, at the cultist's discretion, be reestablished after these days have elapsed, but a new roll may required to do so. A “D” on the turning undead table means that, not only can the undead be commanded automatically, but they also serve indefinitely.

While under the cultist's command, intelligent undead use the Monster Reaction Table to determine their willingness to obey commands that are potentially self-destructive. If this results in a “Hostile” result, the undead breaks free of the cultist's power and attacks him. The same result occurs if an attempt to command an undead fails.

Cultists (but not clerics) have access to the 3rd-level spell animate dead.

Open Friday: Alt History Pet Peeves

I love alternate histories as much as the next guy, but there are two things I see too often in a lot of them that I could really do without:
  1. "Corrective" Histories: This is where a person or event from our world doesn't happen in the alternate history, except that they reappear in some new guise. So, for example, Hitler is never born or is killed or something, thereby Nazism never arises in Germany -- except that it does, usually under a different name and led by someone else, perhaps even in an ironically different place. Sure, things have technically changed but the course of history is largely the same.
  2. Forgetting To Undo Changes: This is where the writer is either just sloppy or ignorant and forgets that, if he eliminates some person or event from the real world, it might undo a lot of very basic facts that people simply accept without thinking about them. Imagine, for example, a world where there's no French Revolution. Maybe then there's eventually a constitutional monarchy in France even in the 21st century. But guess what? That alternate France is unlikely to use the revolutionary tricolor for its flag, since there was no Revolution. It's little details like this that frankly bug me more than the big ones.
For today's question: what are your alt history pet peeves? What shticks and tropes drive you bonkers when it comes to imagining a world whose history turned out differently than ours?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

REVIEW: LotFP WFRP Grindhouse Edition

Let's cut to the chase: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition is a very good old school fantasy RPG with a very long name. Last summer, I wrote a lengthy five-part review of the Deluxe Edition of the game. Rather than repeat myself -- a first for me, I'm sure -- I recommend that anyone hasn't read my earlier review do so before proceeding with this one, which will concentrate on where the Grindhouse Edition differs from its predecessor, both for good and for ill, as well as on my further thoughts about LotFP WFRP. I'll endeavor to keep this review as grounded in specifics as I can, but, by necessity, there will be a certain amount of "philosophizing" in what follows, since I think the publication of this game marks a turning point in our little section of the hobby.

Taken purely as a physical artifact, the Grindhouse Edition (hereafter GE) is an improvement over last summer's Deluxe Edition. Gone are the four staple-bound booklets, replaced with three perfect-bound ones. GE's three books cover the same ground -- Tutorial, Rules, Magic, and Referee -- as the earlier versions but Rules and Magic have been combined into a single 168-page volume that contains everything a player would need to play the game. That's potentially a shrewd move, if publisher James Raggi ever decides to sell the Rules and Magic book separately from the boxed set, something I'd personally recommend, given the 32.50€ (about $45.00 US) plus shipping cost of GE, which is more than twice that of the softcover editions of, for example, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry, the two old school fantasy games with which GE can be most reasonably compared.

On the other hand, GE is most definitely a slicker, dare I say, more "professional" package than either of those games, which is meant neither as a compliment to GE nor a criticism of Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry. What I mean is that GE is, at least superficially, much closer to the kinds of gaming products we've seen put out by game companies with more than one employee over the last decade or so. It's cleanly laid out, well edited, and nicely organized (though I could have done without the long s we see in its interior titles). It's also copiously illustrated throughout by a wide variety of illustrators, none of whose work looks amateurish or, to use the favored euphemism of our community, "hobbyist."

Of course, even a cursory look at the artwork of GE quickly makes it clear why I said that it was only superficially closer to the RPG products we see outside the old school renaissance. True to its name, GE is filled with lurid, violent, and often bizarre artwork, some of which borders on the prurient and the puerile. This is clearly a deliberate choice on the part of Jim Raggi, reflective of his own tastes and it definitely does give GE its own unique look and feel, in much the same way that, say, Labyrinth Lord's exclusive use of Steve Zieser for its revised edition did. And, as I discussed earlier, it's pretty clear that Raggi believes that at least part of the hobby's early popularity was due to its notoriety as "dangerous," something he hopes to evoke through the visceral esthetic to which he's attached LotFP WFRP.

In a similar vein, GE carries an "Ages 18+ Explicit Content" warning on the back of its box. Again, I'm pretty sure that this is at least partly an attempt to harken back to days before roleplaying came to be viewed as a harmless, "kiddie" game, when it was still primarily an adult pastime. I certainly don't begrudge Raggi his decision to go this route and perhaps he's on to something, since GE has a print run of 2000 copies, compared to the Deluxe Edition's 600. Unless I'm woefully uninformed, that's a pretty sizable print run for any RPG these days, never mind a deliberately old school one. If Raggi actually sells through that many copies, it's an unambiguous triumph and a vindication of the approach he's adopted.

Like the Deluxe Edition, GE's Tutorial book is lengthy and takes obvious inspiration from the 1983 edition of the D&D Basic Rules, right down to the inclusion of not one but two choose-your-own-adventure style introductory adventures. My feelings about such adventures aside, I can't deny that I found them jarring in a game carrying an explicit content warning. Granted, that's a prejudice on my part; there's no reason why an adult coming to the game wouldn't find adventures of that sort helpful. The same might also be said of the other basic topics covered in the Tutorial book, including the example of play that takes up more than 20 pages of its 96. For myself, I continue to question the utility of a Tutorial volume as extensive as this one in a game aiming for an adult audience and find it remains my least favorite part of LotFP WFRP by far.

The Rules and Magic book, on the other hand, is even better than before, which is saying something. Just about everything in the original versions has been further polished and refined. There are little tweaks here and there, as well as some new additions, but, at base, the rules haven't changed noticeably from the Deluxe Edition; they're just more clearly and attractively presented. I'd be hard pressed to cite any specific changes from last summer's release rules-wise, so that ought to tell you how compatible GE is with its predecessor. The same can be said of magic. Raggi's rewriting of standard D&D spells remains one of my favorite things about LotFP WFRP and it's once again used to good effect here, with (I believe) the inclusion of a few more spells. I should note that the artwork in the Rules and Magic book very strongly reinforces the fact that Raggi, like Gygax, prefers the Early Modern period to the medieval. There's a strong 16th-17th century vibe in the illustrations that called to mind both Howard's Solomon Kane yarns and the Old World of Warhammer. I am certain this was intentional.

The Referee book is, I think, improved over its Deluxe Edition predecessor. For one, there are now some example magic items included, so as to provide models for neophytes in the creation of their own. Likewise, to make up for the loss of the two adventures included in the Deluxe Edition, there's a well-done scenario called "A Stranger Storm" could easily be used to kick off a campaign. Like all of Raggi's adventures, it's moody and potentially deadly but, moreso than some, I think it better illustrates the kind of setting he imagines for LotFP WFRP. Of course, there are still no fully statted examples of monsters in the game, nor is there a mini-Random Esoteric Creature Generator included in this book. I fully understand that Raggi does not approve of "generic" monsters and feels they weaken the game's evocation of the weird, but, even so, I don't think it's unreasonable to provide more tools to aid referees in this regard, especially in a game that exerts so much effort elsewhere in holding the hands of newcomers.

Esthetic considerations aside, my biggest continued gripe about Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is that it wants to be a game that might appeal equally to tyros and to experienced players but doesn't quite strike the right balance to do so in terms of its content. At times, the tone and subject matter feel very unduly pedagogical, while at others it seems as if Raggi assumes beginners should be able to understand things, like monster creation, that even some old hands have difficulty with. Now, I'm deeply sympathetic to Raggi's situation here and I don't think any of the decisions he made are catastrophic, nor can I think of a RPG in print today that succeeds where he fails. But GE is a very good product, a terrifically accessible and complete old school fantasy game, so it galls me all the more that it leaves a man stranded at third when, with a bit more refinement, it could have brought him home.

Ultimately, GE impressed me most because it shows that it is possible to create an affordable and complete boxed RPG in today's market. Likewise, it's also possible to create one that favorably compares to the products of larger companies without having to compromise one's creative vision. Whether one likes it or not, GE is the game that Jim Raggi wanted to create and I can't help but applaud him for having done so. His vision is not my vision, though, nor do I suspect it will be that of all old school gamers, but that's not a bad thing. The one thing that GE is not is bland; it's chock full of flavor. In addition, I think it definitely raises the bar when it comes to production values within the old school renaissance. One can reasonably argue with how Raggi chose to present his game, but one cannot deny that he executed that presentation very well -- so well, in fact, that I'm surprised that GE's release hasn't triggered more discussion about the importance (or not) of high production values in old school renaissance releases. I hope it does, because I think it's a discussion well worth having.

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

Buy This If: You either don't already own the Deluxe Edition or are looking for a well-presented and complete old school fantasy RPG.
Don't Buy This If: You either already own the Deluxe Edition or have no need for yet another old school fantasy RPG, no matter how well-presented or complete.

Medieval Secret Societies

For reasons I will explain in due course, I'm trying to come up with a solid list of historical or semi-historical groups from the European Middle Ages (specifically no later than the  mid-13th century) that might reasonably be called "secret societies." So, I'm thinking of groups like the Assassins or the Knights Templar, though, in a pinch, I'd probably be willing to accept purely fictitious groups like the Priory of Zion, since it's well enough established in nutcase conspiracy lore that to exclude it might almost require an explanation in itself.

Toss your suggestions into the comments and we'll see what we can come up with. Thanks!

EDIT: To clarify, I am not looking for groups that actually were conspiratorial secret societies in the Middle Ages. I am looking for groups that could be called such if one were of a mind to do so, as in, say, an over-the-top historical fantasy setting with demons and vampires and the like. The only historical accuracy I care about is whether a given organization actually existed or could have existed in the period, not whether they really worshiped a brazen head or were plotting the overthrow of Capetian dynasty.

The Ads of Dragon: Grav-Ball

Today's ad comes to us from issue #64 (August 1982) and it features (yet another) game I never owned but by which I was very intrigued: FASA's Grav-Ball.
Grav-Ball was a two-player science fiction miniatures game about a futuristic sport called, naturally, grav-ball. The very idea of it exerted a powerful influence over my young imagination, which is why, to this day, whenever I play a sci-fi game, I almost always include mentions of this as a professional sport. In fact, in one of my Traveller campaigns of old, a PC was a professional grav-ball player turned adventurer after his career ended.

This ad also stirs up fond memories of FASA, a gaming company now long gone. Like GDW, they were my go-to company for science fiction RPGs, producing both some of the best support materials ever made for Traveller and my beloved Star Trek.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hosadus and Alrethus

In the comments to my earlier post today, several commenters mentioned module X10, Red Arrow, Black Shield, which deals with a "world war" in the Known World instigated by Hosadus, the Black Master of Hule. I'll talk at greater length about X10 in a future retrospective, but, for now, I wanted to post two scans of artwork included in the module. These pieces both depict Hosadus, first in person, and then on what appears to be a propaganda poster behind his second-in-command, the wizard Alrethus.
Both of these illustrations bear out my earlier feeling that Hule was modeled on revolutionary Iran, with Hosadus playing the role of the Ayatollah Khomeini. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, module X10 was published in 1985, so it's not as if it's hot on the heels of the 1979-1981 Hostage Crisis. Secondly, Red Arrow, Black Shield is notable for having almost no original art in it at all. These two pieces are among the only original illustrations in its 64 pages, the rest being either recycled from earlier products (like the cover, which clearly depicts draconians from the Dragonlance series) or what appears to be public domain images. Again, that says a lot about the state of things at TSR at the time. Finally, I think this may be the only time in the history of TSR up to that point when a fictional character was so clearly shown as being based on a real world individual and negatively so. This puts the infamous TSR Code of Ethics of later years into an interesting light, since, as I recall, at least one version of it forbade the very thing X10 seems to have done.

Retrospective: Temple of Death

David Cook's 1983 Dungeons & Dragons module, Temple of Death, is the sequel to or, perhaps more accurately, the second part of an adventure begun in Master of the Desert Nomads. Like its predecessor, it presents a mix of wilderness and "dungeon" challenges and, also like its predecessor, it's not wholly satisfying taken solely on its own merits. That's why I prefer to think of these two modules as two parts of a greater whole. The whole is not without its problems, but I think there's enough good about it that I retain a fondness for modules X4 and X5, the last Expert-level modules for which I can say that without significant qualifications.

Both Temple of Death and Master of Desert Nomads are products of the "new," more mainstream TSR Hobbies, as evidenced by the change in trade dress, corporate logo, and artwork style from earlier entries in the X series. Of particular note is the growing tendency of modules and rulebooks to be illustrated by one or maybe two artists in order to give it a "unified" appearance. While I can see the logic in such an approach, it can be risky, especially if the artist chosen is not one you personally favor. Such is the case in module X5, whose artist is Timothy Truman, whose artwork I've never held in particularly high regard, even less so in the fantasy genre. Even had I liked Truman's work, there's a sameness that comes from having only one artistic vision that I think weakens the product.

Temple of Death sees the characters make their way through the tunnels of the Great Pass into a series of valleys that lead to the land of Hule, where the evil Master rules. Cook really pulls out the stops when it comes to the encounters of the Great Pass. There's a mechanical dragon, a palace of hallucinogenic fungi, and a moon pool, among others. Many of these encounters could spark mini-campaigns in themselves, particularly the moon pool, which, on nights of the full moon, generates a ladder to the Moon itself. It's terrific stuff and reminder (as if we needed one) that David Cook's imagination is steeped in the lore of pulp fantasy.

Hule itself has always read to me like a fantasy version of Khomeini's Iran, with the Master substituting for the Ayatollah. It's an evil theocracy, where clerics rule over all, though we're not given much information about what this theocracy believes or why. It's a common problem in the D&D line: religion is treated as a potential source of controversy, so it's generally ignored, despite the presence of clerics. Now, granted, Temple of Death, as its title ought to make clear, was never intended to be anything more than a fantasy adventure, so I've never been too broken up about what it glosses over. Still, I think it's an opportunity missed. Moreso than Master of the Desert Nomads, the action of module X5 takes place within a "dungeon" location, the eponymous temple from which the Master rules. It's a large, heavily-fortified complex filled with a variety of evil spellcasters, guards, and monsters. Surviving to face the Master should prove a difficult endeavor for a party of characters level 6-10, especially since the Master has several tricks up his sleeve to ensure that, even in defeat, he might still carry the day.

As a kid, I liked Temple of Death better than its predecessor by a wide margin and, while I still think I prefer it of the two, I don't think it's the hands-down superior choice that I once did. Part of it comes from the fact that I think Temple of Death's reach exceeds its grasp. The characters must enter an evil theocratic nation, find its leader, and slay him -- all in the span of 32 pages. That's a tall order for any module and I don't think Cook succeeded in fulfilling the promise module X5 seemed to hold before I'd read it. In addition, there are still worrisome instances of heavy-handed NPCs to nudge the PCs in the right direction and ensure that events go "as planned." I've certainly seen worse examples of this shtick, but that does little to exonerate Temple of Death's use of it. In the end, I think there's still a lot to recommend this module, though I'd rework a great deal of it if I ever chose to run it today.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

REVIEW: Red Tide

I've come to realize that I take PDFs far less seriously than I take printed books. That's probably why I'm far more quick to read and review printed products sent to me than those in electronic form. That's not necessarily a comment on the quality of the products in question by any means, since I only own the product I'm about to review, Sine Nomine's Red Tide, in PDF form, but it is a comment on my own idiosyncrasies.

Until last weekend, when one of the players in my Thousand Suns playtest group brought a printed copy of Red Tide over my house, I'd barely looked at the PDF author Kevin Crawford so kindly sent to me some weeks ago. When I did, I soon realized that I'd been foolish not to do so, for Red Tide is, in many ways, to fantasy what Stars Without Number is to science fiction. The analogy isn't perfect, since, to start, Red Tide isn't a complete game but rather a setting supplement to Labyrinth Lord, but it's nevertheless a good one, since, like Crawford's earlier effort, Red Tide is, ultimately, a toolkit for running a sandbox campaign.

Red Tide takes its name from a magical catastrophe that overtook the world, a wall of crimson mist issuing forth from the sea and consuming all in its wake. Its arrival was foreseen years before by a wizard named Lammach, who prepared to save a portion of the Ninefold Celestial Empire by taking it in a vast fleet to safety somewhere. That somewhere proved to be an archipelago in the far-off Western Sea known as the Sunset Isles. There, Lammach and the survivors of the Empire and other nation destroyed by the Tide began the process of rebuilding their shattered civilizations.

Of course, things aren't that simple. Though the Sunset Isles are largely protected from the Red Tide because of the presence of veins of a mysterious stone called "godbone," that doesn't prevent it from occasionally extending its tendrils and leaving behind Tidespawn monstrosities to wreak havoc. Likewise, when the refugees arrived, the Isles were already inhabited by tribes of intelligent beings that, were it not for their strange skin colors and fearsome manner of dress, might easily pass for human beings. Calling themselves the Shou, one human culture calls them by various names -- bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs. The Shou hate humans and see them as invaders and, under the leadership of their witch-priestesses, they've waged many wars against them.

Red Tide is 171 pages, divided into 11 chapters and an index. The first two chapters provide an overview of the setting and its history in just enough detail to understand the setting but not so much as to be tedious. The third chapter described the various peoples of the Sunset Isles, both the refugees and the native Shou. What I find particularly interesting is that the Ninefold Celestial Empire is a fantastic China analog ruled by mages. But the Empire was vast and had subjects of many cultures and they, too, are represented among the survivors of the Red Tide. Likewise, other cultures, such as the Viking-like Skandr and the demihuman dwarves and elves, also escaped the world's end and can be found living cheek by jowl with the Imperials. This provides a good in-game excuse for an adventuring party consisting of both European and Asian character types, with fantasy non-humans thrown in for good measure. It also lends the Isles a cosmopolitan flavor without either being patronizing or inaccessible.

The fourth and fifth chapters provide overviews of the Sunset Isles -- maps, wilderness encounter tables, places of interest, societies, cultures, governments, and religions. Though more detailed than the history sections earlier by necessity, Crawford continues to maintain a good balance between providing too much and too little information. When purchasing a campaign setting, one expects some of the "hard work" to already be done for you, but there can be too much of a good thing and Red Tide never comes close to that particular vice.

The sixth chapter is a useful one on the role of adventurers on the Sunset Isles. It's a valuable look at all the standard Labyrinth Lord classes to help players and referees alike integrate them into the setting. In some cases, there are mild tweaks to the standard rules, such as granting halflings a +4 bonus to saving throws against fear, as well as a handful of new classes, like Shou witches and the Vowed, which is a nicely done version of the monk for Labyrinth Lord. There are also elven scions, which are elven souls reborn in human bodies. Unlike normal elves, they don't cast spells but instead possess "wyrds," which are a new type of magic power, described in the seventh chapter, along with new spells for all classes and magic items. The eighth chapter gives us a bestiary of original monsters.

The real meat of Red Tide and what will likely make it of interest even to gamers disinterested in its setting comes in the ninth chapter. Here, Crawford offers up a wide variety of tables for use in sandbox play. Everything from courts to borderland sites to city sites to ruins are given careful treatment, each with unique tables that not give the referee the ability to describe a locale with a handful of dice rolls but also to create adventure hooks and NPCs associated with it. Readers familiar with Star Without Number will see a number of similarities in this chapter, but I should make it clear that this is no simple port from one game to another. What appears in this chapter is almost entirely new and tailored both to fantasy and to the Sunset Isles setting. There are also special sections on NPC groups, like "outlaws" or "tide cultists," with quick stats for ease of use and a table of "twists" that give each encounter with them the potential to be memorable. All in all, it's a great chapter and probably worth the $7.99 price of the PDF alone.

The tenth chapter lays bare the "secrets of the mist," which is to say, all the hidden aspects of the game setting. I really appreciate this, because Crawford holds nothing back, explaining, for example, what the Red Tide is and why it has come. This gives the referee a leg up in evaluating what details of the published setting he might wish to change and what the effects of doing so might be. Likewise, it ensures that future supplements (should there be any) won't contain any setting-shattering surprises that might catch him off-guard.

The eleventh and final chapter is a collection of "resources" that, again, should be familiar to readers of Stars Without Number. There are random tables of names for each culture (both personal and place names), quick NPC creation, room dressing, and generic maps that can be used either as-is or as part of a clever-presented geomorphic system. Armed with these resources, it'd be very easy to create entire locations on the fly, which is exactly what's needed in a sandbox campaign.

If Red Tide has a flaw, it's that it's a bit more specific than was Stars Without Number. That is, it presents a detailed setting for sandbox play and, while its tables and resources can most assuredly be used in other contexts without too much trouble, they probably work best if used in conjunction with the Sunset Isles. I don't personally think that's a big deal, since the Isles are very well done and interesting. I think they'll be of particular interest to gamers who like to mix and match between the myths and legends of East and West in their fantasy campaigns. Likewise, Crawford's takes on staples of D&D-style fantasy, such as elves or goblinoid races, are different enough without being wholly alien that I think they could be inspirational even to those who don't want to use the whole Red Tide setting.

Ultimately, though, Red Tide's specificity is a small quibble. With this product, Kevin Crawford has once again demonstrated that he's a man to watch in old school gaming these days. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're in the market for a well done East-meets-West post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with traditional elements or if you're looking for a variety of useful tools for sandbox play.
Don't Buy This If: You don't want a new fantasy setting or if you're not interested in sandbox-style play.

The Ads of Dragon: 20 Plus

As every gamer knows (or ought to know), the D10 is a late addition to the menagerie of dice. Until its appearance, we made do with D20 numbered 0-9 twice. I'm pretty sure I didn't lay eyes on a D10 until I got a copy of the Moldvay-edited Basic Rules, though it's possible I saw one before then. At any rate, by the time this ad appeared in issue #63 of Dragon (July 1982), D10s were well established in the hobby.
So it's fascinating that Gamescience was not only still selling "percentile D20s" in 1982 but was in fact touting its ability to serve as a D10, D20, and D100 (and D2, which is even weirder). Mind you, I owned several games, like FASA's Star Trek, that included Gamescience 20 Plus dice in their boxes, but those were pretty much the only occasions where I saw them being used instead of D10s. Though I nowadays prefer percentile D20s, I didn't back in the day and I'll be the first to admit that my current love of them almost entirely an affectation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

La Marca del Este Setting Artwork

The good gentlemen behind the old school Spanish fantasy RPG, Aventuras en La Marca del Este, were kind enough to share with me the cover to their upcoming setting product.
That's an amazing piece of fantastic realist art by Antonio José Manzanedo that, frankly, is some of the best gaming art I've seen in many a year. I love the landscape in the background, but what I love even more is the fact that these two adventurers not only wear reasonable (for fantasy) armor but that they're bringing a packhorse and a dog with them -- old school indeed! They're also not "posing for the camera," which is something that I really, really appreciate. And I won't deny that seeing a woman who actually looks like she could handle herself in combat rather than on the fashion runway is another big plus.

It makes me wonder once more: why can't North American RPGs look this good?

DCC RPG and Character Death in Old School Gaming

The first adventure included in the upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Adventure Starter is called "The Portal Under the Stairs" by Joseph Goodman. Its introduction includes the following words:
This adventure is designed for 15-20 0-level characters or 8-10 1st-level characters. Remember that players should have 2-3 characters each, so they can continue enjoying the fun of play even if some of their PCs die off. In playtest groups of 15 0-level PCs, 7 or 8 typically survive. The author has playtested this adventure with groups of up to 28 PCs and experienced one complete TPK and several sessions with only a handful of survivors.
When I first read that, I was floored. "15-20 0-level characters?" My first thought was that it couldn't possibly be serious. My second thought was that it made a HackMaster-esque mockery of old school games' lethality. But as I thought about it, the more it started to make sense to me, especially in light of my own experiences playing D&D back in the day. Nowadays, it's commonplace to reduce all discussion of character mortality in old school gaming into one of two extremes. Either old school campaigns were non-stop killfests of characters without any depth or, well, character or they were in fact finely crafted epics of song and story little different than the trendiest indie RPGs of the 21st century. As usual, the reality, at least as I remember it, lies somewhere in between.

In days of yore, characters did die in droves and few of us gave it a second thought. You played D&D for three hours and were slain by an elf? Ah well, time to roll up a new character. What's often forgotten, though, is that it was primarily low-level characters who died in droves. Certainly it's true that even high-level PCs in OD&D and AD&D were significantly less mechanically "robust" than are their contemporary descendants, so they could die, but it was, as I recall, pretty rare for them to do so and even rarer for them to remain so permanently. No, what has, over time, become exaggerated into this notion that old school gaming was an abattoir is based on the fact that low-level characters were pushovers and it took a combination of skill, luck, and referee kindliness to get them beyond that point. 

In reflecting back on my old D&D campaigns, most (though not all) the character deaths I can still remember, occurred when the character in question was somewhere between 1st and 3rd level. There was the ill-named Hercules, who was slain by the minotaur in The Keep on the Borderlands and there was Father Miles, paralyzed and then consumed by ghouls in the Moathouse outside The Village of Hommlet. I could go on, conjuring up the names and circumstances of long-dead PCs who never had a chance to gel beyond being "a 1st-level fighter" or "a 2nd-level cleric," but I think the point is clear: in old school gaming, there's no guarantee that any newly-created character will make it beyond 3rd-level and indeed the odds are somewhat stacked against that possibility. But characters did (and do) make it beyond 3rd level if luck is on their side. And the fact that they did so while many of their companions did not is, in my experience, an important part of the old school experience and a major element in the transformation of "a 3rd-level fighter" into "Morgan Just, Scion of the Snow Barbarians and Bane of Trollkind." That Morgan Just would never again be in serious danger of death doesn't matter; that he once was and overcame it is the significant thing.

That's where I think the DCC RPG has the right of it. By making it clear from the outset that a player needs 2-3 characters at the start of a new campaign sets the proper tone. It gives the referee leave to let the dice fall where they may and it warns players not to expect that any given character will ever become more than a bloody smear on the floor of some godforsaken dungeon. Because of this, I imagine that any PC that manages to survive to 3rd level or higher will feel much more fun to play, even if he's not necessarily the character one would have chosen in advance to make it that far. He'll feel real, like someone with actual experiences and a genuine past -- a past filled with the corpses of his fellow adventurers who weren't so lucky. I actually think that's pretty cool and about as fine an evocation of old school gaming in a modern context as any I can imagine.

Otherworld Miniatures Early Summer Sale

From now until midnight BST June 6, 2011, Otherworld Miniatures is once again holding an early summer sale. All miniatures in the online store, including those not yet released, have been reduced in price by 20%. Orders of £75 receive free worldwide shipping. In addition, there is a special bonus for customers who currently hold voucher credit from the Voucher Purchase Programme. If you decide to hold on to your credit for later in the year, and use some good old-fashioned cash for a purchase, you will receive a pack of four unreleased Large Spiders (these are different sculpts to the current WE11a pack). If you do this, please drop Richard Scott at Otherworld a note to ask for the spiders.

I can't speak highly enough of Otherworld Miniatures, which really capture that elusive old school vibe while being thoroughly modern miniatures in terms of detail and scale. I've used them extensively in my Dwimmermount campaign and simply adore them. Finances permitting, I'll definitely be acquiring more minis from Otherworld and I highly recommend them to anyone running an old school D&D campaign. They really have no equal.

The End of MRQ II

A couple of people sent me emails directing me to this announcement that Mongoose Publishing and Issaries "have mutually decided to part ways," which means an end to RuneQuest II and further supplements detailing Glorantha's Second Age. The announcement is quick to point out, though, that the end of RuneQuest II does not mean the end of the rules system behind it, which will be rebranded as Wayfarer and continue to be used for all the games that currently rely on RuneQuest II. Furthermore, the Wayfarer rulebook, when released, will be 100% compatible with the RuneQuest II rules, so there's no need to "upgrade" if you don't want to do so.

I can't say I'm particularly broken up about this news, since I was never particularly invested in MRQII, let alone the Second Age of Glorantha, the latter of which I frankly found dull. No explanation is given for just why Mongoose and Issaries parted ways, so we can only speculate. One possibility are that Mongoose discovered that the MRQII rules were successful while Second Age Glorantha was not and therefore it was no longer worth paying licensing fees to Issaries for the rights to the RuneQuest name and the Gloranthan content. Another plausible explanation (though a less likely one in my opinion) is that Greg Stafford felt that MRQII distracted gamers from HeroQuest, his preferred -- and controversial -- presentation of Glorantha.

As I stated in my review, MRQII is a solid updating of Perrin and Turney's original rules, albeit a bit on the "crunchy" side for my tastes these days, especially when compared to OpenQuest. I doubt Mongoose will suffer much from this change and indeed may reap greater benefits from it, since Wayfarer will be fully generic, which may attract the interest of gamers put off by the perceived connection between MRQ II and Glorantha. What we don't yet know is whether Wayfarer is going to use the OGL, though my gut tells me it won't, since MRQ II did not. If I'm correct, that'd be a pity, since I genuinely think Wayfarer might gain greater traction by being open.

As an aside, it's worth noting that there already is a fantasy RPG in print called Wayfarers, which I reviewed way back in 2009. Granted, Wayfarers has a terminal "s" in its title and isn't very well known, but it's still in print in several formats and has a small but devoted community of players. I imagine Mongoose is simply unaware of the existence of Wayfarers or, if they are, don't think there could be any confusion. Still, given that Wayfarer doesn't exactly screen "Fantasy RPG!" to me, I wonder if it's such a good idea to go with that moniker.

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part VIII)

Of all the things that Gamma World does right, perhaps the most significant is the addition of cryptic alliances. Described as "secret or semi-secret organizations," cryptic alliances are, I contend, a remarkable design innovation that is generally unsung. For what cryptic alliances do is provide, without the need for game mechanical support, an easy -- and flavorful -- means for players, through their characters, to become actively involved in the development of the game world. All the cryptic alliances have ideologies and agendas and joining one (or more) of them immediately embroils the PCs in their machinations, whether they like it or not.

Now, it's true that the rulebook does not specifically mention the possibility of joining cryptic alliances, so I suppose it's possible that some referees didn't allow for it, but I did. It seemed obvious to me that the joining -- or opposing -- the cryptic alliances was one of the major elements of campaign play in Gamma World, a supposition supported by the second edition of the game, which was very explicit on this point. In my campaigns of yore, I vividly recall characters who joined the Knights of Genetic Purity, the Restorationists, and the Ranks of the Fit, and I'm sure there were others I've since forgotten. In each case, the campaigns quickly acquired a sense of direction and, occasionally, urgency that they'd lacked before, when the PCs were rootless wanderers rooting around in ruins of the Ancients for high-tech artifacts.

I've bemoaned the loss of D&D's endgame previously, but the simple truth is that that loss is self-inflicted to a great extent, because D&D has done a consistently poor job of providing any structure for its endgame. Gamma World is no better when it comes to mechanical support, but it's my contention that the introduction of cryptic alliances does something much more needed by showing not just what high-level characters do but also why. I mean, it's all well and good to say that high-level D&D characters settle down and rule baronies or even -- *shudder* -- become gods, but why?

Cryptic alliances offers answers to such questions. If you're a Knight of Genetic Purity, you've got a long-term goal: to cleanse the world of mutants. If you're a Restorationist, your goal is to rebuild a newer and better society from the ashes of the old. How your character goes about doing that is left wide open, maybe too open for some, but, for my money, the fact that Gamma World provides any structure whatsoever for what a high-level campaign might look like is a point in its favor. For that matter, this structure is equally applicable to low-level campaigns and its open-endedness makes it very easy to use, regardless of who the PCs are.

The legitimate gripe about the cryptic alliances is that, of the thirteen provided, a goodly number of them are either inappropriate or impractical for the characters to join. Likewise, many of those that could be joined are primarily militaristic in their goals, which limits the types of campaigns that could be structured around them. Still, I can't help but be impressed with cryptic alliances as a concept. I think most RPGs would benefit from the existence of in-game organizations that provide the PCs with goals and belief systems to latch on to and they're equally useful to referees. That's why I'm all the more surprised that it wasn't until Paranoia that we really began to see the promise of the cryptic alliance concept fulfilled and it would still be many more years before it became a pillar of roleplaying design.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Gather, Darkness!

Serialized in the May, June, and July 1943 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, Fritz Leiber's "Gather, Darkness!" might well be called the antithesis of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz were it not for the fact that it appeared more than a decade earlier. Like Miller's novel, "Gather, Darkness!" takes place several centuries after a nuclear holocaust, with learning and scholarship preserved by a powerful religious institution. Unlike Miller's Catholic Church, Leiber's Hierarchy is thoroughly venal and corrupt and uses its stranglehold on knowledge to rule tyrannically over the post-apocalyptic world. Indeed, the religion of "the Great God" seems largely to be a sham, a useful lie created by scientists to bring order in the aftermath of civilization's downfall. Consequently, it's strongly implied that all the story's instances of "magic" or "miracles" are in fact the result of advanced technology utilized by the Hierarchy in order to gull the common folk into uncritical acceptance of its claims to a divine mandate.

The protagonist of "Gather, Darkness!" is Armon Jarles, a young priest, who's begun to have doubts about the Hierarchy's claims.
Brother Jarles, priest of the First and Outermost Circle, novice in the Hierarchy, swallowed hard against his churning anger; bent every effort to make his face a mask—not only to the commoners, for that was something every member of the Hierarchy was taught to do, but to his brother priests as well.

Any priest who hated the Hierarchy as he did during these frightening spasms of rage must be mad.

But priests could not go mad—at least, not without the Hierarchy knowing of it, as it knew of everything else.

A misfit then? But a priest was fitted to his job with infinite precision and foresight, the very outlines of his personality measured as if with an atomic probe. A priest could not hate his work.

No, he must be mad. And the Hierarchy must be concealing the fact from him for its own inscrutable purposes.

Or else—everything to the contrary—he was right.
The conflict within the young priest quickly comes to a head when he witnesses an older priest, Brother Chulian, first attempt to force a young woman (who also happens to be an old love of Jarles) to serve in the Sanctuary against her will and then, when she obstinately refuses this honor, accuses her of being a witch. Casting off his robes of office, including the high-tech "halo" that illuminated his head, Jarles addresses the people of the Hierarchy's capital city.
“Commoners of Megatheopolis!”

That checked the beginnings of a panicky flight. Eyes turned to stare at him stupidly. They had not yet begun to comprehend what had happened. But when a priest spoke, one listened.

“You have been taught that ignorance is good. I tell you it is evil!

“You have been taught that to think is evil. I tell you it is good!

“You have been told that it is your destiny to toil night and day, until your backs ache to breaking and your hands blister under the calluses. I tell you it is the destiny of all men to look for easier ways!

“You have let the priests rule your lives. I tell you that you must rule yourselves!

“You believe that the priests have supernatural powers. I tell you they have no powers you could not wield yourselves!

“You believe that the priests are chosen to serve the Great God and transmit his commands. But—if there is a god anywhere—each one of you, in his ignorant heart, knows more of him than the mightiest archpriest.

“You have been told that the Great God rules the universe—earth and sky. I tell you the Great God is a fake!”
With those words, Brother Jarles becomes a heretic and a wanted man. He flees Megatheopolis, with the knowledge of the Hierarchy, falls in with a rebel movement known as "the Witchcraft," just as the priests had hoped. Though the Witchcraft opposes the Hierarchy and espouses many views with which Jarles can agree, he also sees that, at base, their main point of disagreement with the servants of the Great God is that they are the world's tyrants and not the Witchcraft itself. Just like the Hierarchy, the Witchcraft uses technology to trick and deceive and their beliefs are little more than a mask for their lust for power.

I have to admit that I don't quite know how I feel about "Gather, Darkness!" On the one hand, the story seems to be a solid, if somewhat clichéd, critique of the dangers inherent in any powerful organization, particularly one composed of individuals who believe themselves to "know better" than the average person. On the other hand, much of it comes off as rather shallow, even puerile, especially its facile portrayal of religion and religious faith. But, even at his worst, Leiber is a terrific stylist, whose dialog is engaging and whose wit enjoyable. Both are in evidence in "Gather, Darkness!" as is a fast-paced plot that never once wastes time with useless exposition or indulgent world-building. It's a quick read and a fun one. Whether it's more than that each reader must decide for himself.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Willingham Gamma World Adventurers

This weekend may is shaping up to be a busy one, so posting may be lighter than usual, but, to tide you over, I leave you with this piece of Gamma World art by Bill Willingham, which appeared in issue #4 of Polyhedron. I'm not usually a big fan of Willingham's artwork, especially for fantasy, but I can't deny that this piece has a certain something.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Because It Isn't Said Enough ...

Kelvin Green is awesome.
©2011 Kelvin Green

Open Friday: Funhouse Dungeons

A "funhouse dungeon" is one where questions of ecology, naturalism, or even logic take a backseat to presenting a good -- and fun -- challenge to the players whose characters are exploring it. Good examples of published funhouse dungeons are White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness for those unfamiliar with the concept. Outside the old school community, I think it's fair to say that funhouse dungeons have fallen decidedly out of favor and, even among old schoolers, opinion is divided regarding them.

So, I'm curious: how do you feel about funhouse dungeons? Do you use them in your campaign or are they reserved for one-shots? Or do you never use them at all? Me, I'm not a huge fan of them, but I have used and enjoyed them. Dwimmermount isn't a funhouse dungeon by any means; there are, however, parts of it that have a funhouse vibe to them. I think that's my preferred approach: using funhouse dungeons to break up the mood of unrelenting seriousness to which I can sometimes fall prey. They're a reminder to me that fantasy gaming should, first and foremost, be, well, fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Free RPG Day Adventure Starter

Thanks to Joseph Goodman, I recently received an advance copy of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Adventure Starter that'll be released to the public on Free RPG Day next month. The Adventure Starter consists of two adventures, one for 0-1st level characters and another for 5th level characters. Though very short, the adventures are quite interesting and have a nice pulp fantasy vibe to them. You can tell that Goodman and his collaborators have really been immersing themselves in the literary forebears of D&D as preparation for writing the DCC RPG.

I'll probably do a lengthier "review" of this product later. For now, I'll only say that, the more I see of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, the more intrigued I am. I'm starting to think that may prove to be a bigger success than people are expecting. Neither a true clone nor really "3e lite," as some have suggested, the DCC RPG is most definitely its own game with its own sensibility. This fact, coupled with its little quirks, like the Zocchi dice, and what I am sure will be solid adventure support from Goodman, ought to distinguish it from any of its competitors.

A year ago, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about the DCC RPG. Now, I'm actually looking forward to its release. Heck, I'd love to play it, which is about as ringing an endorsement as I can give a game that's not even been released yet.

The Ads of Dragon: Crush, Crumble & Chomp

I don't think I ever saw a personal computer outside of a science museum prior to my 1981-82 school year, when a new kid joined my class and brought his father's TRS-80 Model III for an extended visit to the classroom. The new kid and I became good friends, owing to our mutual love of science fiction and D&D. I wasted many an hour playing the Star Trek text game on that "Trash-80" over my new friend's house. So, while I didn't own a personal computer myself (though, as I recall, we called them "microcomputers" back then), I had actually used one, at least for playing video games.

In 1982, there weren't a lot of video games, but, of those that existed, the most interesting ones (to me anyway) were produced by a company called Epyx and, for a time, they seemed to advertise in every issue of Dragon. Take, for example, issue #62 (June 1982):
Crush, Crumble & Chomp was a game where you took on the role of one of several movie monsters and wrought havoc on cities like New York or (of course) Tokyo. It's basically an electronic version of the classic SPI game The Creature That Ate Sheboygan -- or at least that's what it looked liked to me at the time. As is a theme in this series, I never actually owned or knew anyone who owned Crush, Crumble & Chomp but I always wanted to. In 1982, it was a clever, if possibly derivative, concept for a game.

Looking back, it's possible derivativeness is what interests me. I don't know that the designers of Crush, Crumble & Chomp had in fact played The Creature That Ate Sheboygan, but the fact that it seemed plausible to me speaks volumes about how different the world was back then. In those days, I could readily believe that a computer game designer was a roleplayer or wargamer and looked to those hobbies for inspirations. Nowadays, I usually feel the reverse.

Seeking Suggestions

What would be a good term to describe the scientific study of psi powers in a slightly retro sci-fi setting where those who possess such powers are called "espers?" I like the term "parapsychology," but, alas, it's been hijacked by those who study a wide variety of occult phenomena, so I need something different and preferably Campbellian (as in John W.).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part VII)

When traveling overland, the referee rolls 1D6 once every 12 hours to determine if an encounter occurs. A result of "6" indicates an encounter with some type of creature or being, as determined on a separate 1D20 table appropriate to the terrain. How such creatures/beings react to the PCs is left to a combination of the reaction table and referee adjudication. In fact, it's worth noting that the text in this section of the rulebook makes no reference to the reaction table whatsoever. Whether that's a mere oversight or indicative of the fact that the game had multiple authors and poor editing I cannot say.

I will admit now that I have always loved Gamma World's menagerie of creatures, which I consider to be every bit as interesting as D&D's own, perhaps moreso as they're almost all wholly original creations. The rulebook provides very little in the way of mechanical information about each creature, with their names, number appearing, armor class, movement, and hit dice being the only standard information offered. While this makes for compact entries, it can also be frustrating at times. For example, knowing what mutations a creature possesses at a glance would be helpful, as would knowing how many physical attacks it gets and the damage dealt. Likewise, Gamma World is much more mechanically dependent than D&D on ability scores, particularly Mental Strength and Constitution, most creatures have no such information in their entries. It's in this area where the second edition excels, in my opinion.

Another possible flaw, depending on how you view it, is that, of the nearly 50 creatures described, only one -- the yexil -- is given an illustration anywhere near its entry. A handful of others, like hissers and hoops, are given illustrations elsewhere. I think this is potentially an issue primarily because some of the creatures in Gamma World are bizarre enough in appearance that the lack of an illustration makes it hard to imagine what they look like. When you couple this with the fact that most creatures have names that don't in any way call to mind what they are I think it could become an issue for some. Of course, it was never an issue for me personally, but I readily admit I'm a weird obsessive about such things and can, even now, tell you what a parn is and how it differs from a zarn.

Overall, I like Gamma World's selection of basic creatures. I think it covers most of the obvious bases, providing a good mix of humanoid and animal mutants, both malevolent and benign, as well as mutated plants of various sorts. I'll admit to being especially fond of androids, perhaps because they played a big role in one of my old campaigns. I also like badders (evil badger men), centisteeds (16-legged horses mutants), hoops (rabbit men), orlens (2-headed, 4-armed mutant humanoids), sep (land sharks), and serfs (which I always played like the mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes). But, truth be told, I don't have a problem with any of Gamma World's creatures, though there do seem to be an inordinately large number of fish and water-based creatures for my taste.

Interestingly, I always found it much easier to create new creatures for Gamma World than I ever did for D&D. A big reason for this is that Gamma World provided a large list of mutations I could add to a real world animal, plant, or human being and -- Voilà! -- a "new" monster. In truth, D&D monsters are not harder to create, but, for whatever reason, those lists of mutations was a huge boon to my imagination and I used the heck out of them, proving once again that randomness is awesome.

Retrospective: Master of the Desert Nomads

For reasons I've never quite understood, David Cook is a divisive figure in old school circles. To some, his shepherding of the second edition of AD&D overshadows everything else he did while at TSR. Regardless of one's feelings toward 2e (and my own, if I ever articulated them in depth, would probably earn me anathematization -- that's a joke BTW), I don't think it fair to make it the sole criterion by which to judge Cook's contributions to the hobby. For myself, I tend to think of him primarily as an adventure designer, both for his Dwellers of the Forbidden City, perhaps my favorite adventure of all time, and his "Desert Nomads" series, the first part of which I'd like to discuss today.

Module X4, Master of the Desert Nomads, was published in 1983 and, while theoretically stand-alone, it's really an extended introduction to module X5, The Temple of Death. That's either a boon or a bane depending on one's point of view. As a younger person, I definitely felt it was a good thing, since it gave Cook ample time to flesh out the wilderness of the Great Waste, from which the eponymous desert nomads have launched their attacks against civilized lands. X4 thus tends toward being, no pun intended, a sandbox module without much in the way of direction for either the players or the referee. It's a classic example of a location-based adventure and I loved it for its open-endedness, a virtue I appreciate even more nowadays.

Master of the Desert Nomads isn't a pure sandbox, though, as it does provide a weak framing device: the PCs are recruited as part of an army to take the fight to the desert nomads on their home turf, but they arrive too late to the staging area and must hurry on their own to catch up with the army as it prepares to fight the nomads led by the mysterious "Master" (or "Black Master," as he's sometimes called). With that established, the PCs are thrown on their own devices to find the army, along the way encountering monsters, NPCs, and hazards of various sorts, some of which give them clues about the nature of the Master and his evil plans. Their journeys culminate in the discovery of an ancient abbey, where things are not what they seem. The abbey is the main non-wilderness portion of the module and it remains a favorite of mine.

Re-reading X4, I will admit that it's neither as good as Dwellers of the Forbidden City nor even as good as I remembered its being. Though published only two years after Dwellers, there's a definite shift in the module's presentation, with more examples of heavy-handed NPCs who push the characters to and fro and injunctions to the referee to help the players if they get into trouble. I don't think these things irreparably harm the module, as they feel more like pro forma asides than integral to its content, but I won't deny that I was disappointed to see them nonetheless. On the other hand, Master of the Desert Nomads has a delightfully pulpy feel to it, particularly so in the abbey, which reminds me of something out of a Clark Ashton Smith tale. Likewise, the Great Waste is a fun, fantasy wilderness for adventuring -- no Gygaxian naturalism here.

For all that, I still like Master of the Desert Nomads, though not as much as its companion module, which I'll discuss next week. It rather nicely comports with my style of play circa 1983, which was heavily influenced by Cook's own Expert Rules, which is where D&D told me what it was about. Were I running a campaign with characters in the 8th-10th level range, I might well dust off these two modules and throw them at my players. I suspect we'd all have a very good time with them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two RPGs That Never Were

I've talked about D&D vaporware in the past, but, in re-reading Dragon as part of my "The Ads of Dragon" series, I was reminded of two TSR RPGs that were announced and never released. The first is Proton Fire, which was a robot-related sci-fi game originally scheduled to appear sometime in 1985. There was even an article by Mike Breault in the Ares Section of Dragon describing it. I can't say that, then or now, I was particularly aggrieved when I later learned that it wouldn't be coming out. (Actually, it was first re-assigned as a supplement to Star Frontiers and then cancelled outright) The basic premise of the PCs as robots and humans in the employ of "the University" fighting against "the Corporation" in a single star system 100 light years from Earth didn't strike me as particularly compelling. Indeed, Proton Fire -- what an awful name -- struck me as someone's pet project sneaked onto the release schedule amidst the chaos of the Blumes vs. Gygax battle royale.

Another abandoned TSR RPG came a few years later in 1991. I remember seeing the image above in a catalog of upcoming releases. I also remember thinking that it was TSR's hamfisted attempt to cash in on the popularity of the newly-released Vampire: The Masquerade, which, in retrospect, should have alerted me to the fact that TSR was in big trouble. No longer were other companies aping its products; now, it was aping theirs. The other thing that's obvious, looking at the image above, is how hastily put together it was. Not only is the R.I.P. logo spectacularly bad, but two of the three names on the cover are misspelled. Granted, it's a mock-up, so such things are to be expected. Yet, even 20 years later -- it really has been that long -- R.I.P. gives off a halfhearted vibe to me, as if no one involved really believed in the product.

I often wonder what became of the manuscripts for these games, assuming they were ever completed. If they exist in any form, I suppose they're probably the property of Wizards of the Coast now and will never see the light of day. That's too bad, not because I think either Proton Fire or R.I.P. were ever likely to have been good games, but because, like most creative endeavors, games tell stories about the people who created them and about the times in which they were created and I like those stories.