Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mail Call

Mail service having resumed this week after a two-week strike, I've been receiving a number of packages that had been trapped in limbo. One of them was the Black Blade edition of OSRIC, which, so far as I know, is nearly identical, content-wise, to its predecessor, but is much more sturdily bound and contains more artwork.

Here's a shot of the cover.
Looking at its spine, you can see this one is one thick (386 pages) and solid tome.
And here's just one of the new pieces of art included in the book (by Brian "Glad" Thomas).
All in all, it's an impressive package, all the moreso because it sells for a mere $26.00. I'm not much of an AD&D guy these days, but I can't deny that, reading through this today, I felt some of the same electricity I feel when I first opened up my Players Handbook way back when. I'll be talking more about this edition of OSRIC in the days to come; it really is a remarkable piece of work.

REVIEW: Blackmarsh

I'm usually down on gaming products that explicitly imitate -- or "ape" in my preferred phrase -- the graphic design of the older products they're meant to recall. That's why, for example, I have little love for the covers of all the adventure modules being produced today that are reminiscent of those produced by TSR in the Golden Age. I've come to accept that my opinion on this score is probably in the minority, but I nevertheless wish that more contemporary old school products broke free of the esthetic choices made by TSR circa 1978-1982 and blazed their own trails. While I don't think "nostalgia" is a dirty word, I do think the old school renaissance would be well served by stepping out of the long shadow cast by TSR, many of whose decisions, even those that bore good fruit, were rooted in a combination of inexperience and expedience far more often than in some coherent "vision." While I think it's great to look at the past for inspiration, the last thing we need is to be forever plowing the same creative fields as our illustrious predecessors.

So, by all rights, I really ought to dislike the cover of Rob Conley's Blackmarsh campaign setting, which obviously reminds one of the cover to the original The World of Greyhawk folio -- but I don't. If anything, the cover makes me even more fond of Blackmarsh than I otherwise would have been (and I already liked it a great deal). That's because Blackmarsh is probably closer in spirit to 1980 The World of Greyhawk gazetteer than any campaign setting product released in the last few years. Yes, there are plenty of differences in content, tone, and presentation, but, like that folio of old, Blackmarsh does a lot with a little, making a surprisingly tasty meal out of nothing but bare bones and leaving one with the impression that many more equally tasty meals could be had with its ingredients.

In that respect, Blackmarsh might more rightly be said to be the child of the original The World of Greyhawk folio and Judges Guild's various Wilderlands products, with some DNA from Blackmoor as well. In the span of 16 pages, Blackmarsh presents an area of 95 by 135 miles in area, called (naturally) Blackmarsh, after the strange swamps that dot the landscape of this region. Those 16 pages provide a basic overview of the setting and its particulars, in addition to maps, rumors, and brief descriptions of noteworthy 5-mile hexes. Those descriptions make up the bulk of Blackmarsh and clearly point to the Judges Guild "hexcrawl" heritage of this product, though there are enough settlements and dungeon locales scattered about the region to support other traditional elements of campaign play.

The region of Blackmarsh is characterized by two things. First is "The Mountain That Fell," an asteroid that struck the area long ago, shattering the landscape and scattering a substance called "viz" that is valuable as a reagent in many magical effects, including spellcasting. The second is its isolation from the centers of civilization, as the region's former rulers, the Bright Empire, retreated to the south several centuries ago, leaving Blackmarsh to fend for itself. If you recognize the name "the Bright Empire," that's because it's from one of Conley's earlier efforts, Points of Light, though there's no necessity that you own that product to use Blackmarsh. Taken together, these two characteristics of the region create a wide-open sandbox environment lacking in a centralized authority and rife with adventuring opportunities -- the perfect place to start a new campaign.

Blackmarsh is largely devoid of game statistics beyond very basic ones (level, class, hit dice, etc.), making it readily usable with almost any fantasy game system, even though it's specifically noted as being compatible with Brave Halfling's soon-to-be-released Delving Deeper. Indeed, a copy of Blackmarsh is included in the boxed set of Delving Deeper as an example of what a campaign setting might look like. I think this is a sound idea and is in many ways worth a great deal more than pages of advice to the referee on how to design a campaign setting, especially in a game geared to beginners. This is doubly true when the advice one is attempting to impart runs counter to so much of what is seen elsewhere in the hobby. A straightforward, unpretentious sandbox setting like Blackmarsh can concretely demonstrate the old school way of campaigning far better than several chapters on the subject.

This isn't to say that Blackmarsh is or should be the last word on the subject. There's still plenty of room for other takes on the old school campaign setting and I sincerely hope we'll see them. Furthermore, Blackmarsh isn't flawless. There are some editorial snafus here and there, like mistaken hex references, that weaken its presentation. Likewise, there seems to be a tension in its hex descriptions between those that present purely factual information -- "The leeward side of this island is choked with groves of thorny bushes and hedges." -- and those that present action in media res -- "A mother black dragon (old, HD 8) and her child (young, HD 7) have slaughtered a herd of deer and are in a meadow consuming the carcasses." I personally prefer the former and find the latter a clumsy way to present an adventure hook.

That said, Blackmarsh is presented as wholly Open Game Content. Anyone who wishes to uses its maps, locations, or background is free to do so for any purpose. In fact, the book includes the following commendable note:
It is the author's intention that the Blackmarsh setting is open content and free to use for commercial and non-commercial projects.
That's frankly the kind of attitude I can't help but applaud. If we see others take up and run with some of what Rob Conley has put on offer here, Blackmarsh will have proven its value above and beyond what you can read in its 16 pages.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a bare bones sandbox setting to use or to loot for ideas for your fantasy roleplaying game campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest whatsoever in using a setting of someone else's creation.

The Ads of Dragon: Star Frontiers

I've mentioned before that one of the many lessons one learns being a parent is that even comparatively young children wish nothing to do with activities they believe to be "for little kids." This behavior is particularly acute after the age of 10. Consequently, the ad below, appearing in issue #74 (June 1983), was one that was all but guaranteed to leave a negative impression on my friends and myself.
Star Frontiers already had a reputation for being "un-serious" in the gaming circles in which I moved. There was also a widespread perception that, compared to games like Traveller or Space Opera, it was a "kiddie" game. I think that perception was unfair, but I can hardly fault anyone who had it, as TSR seemed determined to portray the game in this light. Ads like this did Star Frontiers no favors in my experience.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Retrospective: Rise and Decline of the Third Reich

It was the Spring of 1986 and I was sitting in the back row of my Grade 11 history of music class. Sitting next to me was the only other guy I knew in high school who was still involved in roleplaying and wargaming, which, I think, tells a story of its own about the hobby. Rather than paying attention to our teacher as we ought to have been, we were poring over the rulebook to the 1974 Avalon Hill wargame, The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Eventually, our lack of attention was noticed by the teacher, who kindly asked us to "put that history book away."

I've said before -- many times by now -- that I was never much of a wargamer, but I wanted to be, at least of the hex-and-chit variety. I'd played a number of such games over the years and many of the people who introduced me to the hobby were wargamers. I, however, simply lacked the stuff from which wargamers are made, not that that ever stopped me from continuing to try, typically in vain, to turn myself into one. So it was that, one Spring day a quarter of a century ago, I decided that I'd take a swing at the biggest, baddest wargame I knew at the time -- Third Reich. In my addled adolescent mind, if I could play Third Reich, I could play any wargame.

Alas, I couldn't play Third Reich and never did, despite the best efforts of my friend in the back row. Over the course of many weeks, I tried desperately to understand the rules to John Prados's Charles S. Roberts Award-winning game but to little avail. There was simply too much to keep track of and too many nuances of play that eluded me. It's a pity, too, because, from what little I could understand, Third Reich is exactly the kind of wargame that I'd enjoy. You see, I'm not actually all that interested in battles or military operations as such. Rather, what enthuses me is what might be called "grand strategy," which is to say, the politics and economics behind wars and Rise and Decline of the Third Reich seemed to share my enthusiasm. Its primary mechanics, after all, were based around resource points and victory or defeat depended just as much, if not more, on decisions about the production and allocation of resource points as they did on specific military engagements.

Despite this seeming concord between my own interests and those of Third Reich, I simply couldn't wrap my head around the rules and, after several false starts, eventually gave up. I never managed to play a single game and that failure marked the last time I made a serious effort to get into hex-and-chit wargaming. Consequently, Third Reich holds a strange and bittersweet fascination for me, being both "the one that got away" and the game that once and for all killed any illusions I had of joining that fellowship of gamers older and more exclusive than that of roleplayers. There are times, even now, when I think I ought to acquire a copy and again pick up that gauntlet from 25 years ago, but why? Even if the rules now made sense to me, I lack both the time and the fellow players(s) with whom to indulge in a game of this sort. No, I'm not a wargamer and never have been and it was Rise and Decline of the Third Reich that sealed my acknowledgment of this fact.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part XII)

The main text of Gamma World concludes with an example of play -- one of my favorite parts of the rulebook. This example starts with world design, following a hypothetical referee (named Omar, which I thought odd at the time) as he prepares his campaign map. I've reproduced it below, because I think the map is quite interesting.
I can't tell you how influential this map was on my young imagination. I made many such maps (right down to the 1 hex = 1 kilometer scale) in imitation of this one and, even now, I find it hard not to think of such maps whenever I think of Gamma World. Dungeons & Dragons always conjures up images of graph paper in my imagination, but Gamma World I associate with hex paper.

The rulebook stresses that the referee should not only know in advance just what might be found in all the important hexes but that he should also, when necessary, have sub-maps pertaining to them. The military base in the northwest quadrant of the map, for example, is given a map in the rulebook, since it's likely to be an early site for exploration by the PCs. Areas farther afield can be mapper and detailed later, but they should be detailed, since a key feature of a Gamma World campaign is its wide open nature. The PCs can, literally, go wherever they want across the ruined continent of North America, so the referee needs to be ready for every contingency.

A section on "Starting the Campaign" firmly establishes the idea that the PCs are inexperienced youths hoping to earn recognition as adults by leaving their primitive village to explore a nearby ruin of the Ancients. I won't say that every Gamma World campaign I've ever seen has used this set-up, but a great many of them have. In my experience, this is the default position that most players have come to expect, much in the same way that the default position of a beginning D&D campaign is that the PCs are inexperienced would-be adventurers seeking to prove their mettle by exploring a nearby underworld. I've often toyed with other starts to a Gamma World campaign, such as the PCs being part of a society that's managed to retain some higher technology, but I've never actually done so.

Like many old school rulebooks, Gamma World provides us with a transcript of play involving five PCs and the referee. That in itself is noteworthy, since it suggests that, even by 1978, the typical number of players had shrunk considerably since the early days of the hobby. Nevertheless, that party of five still has a "caller" who acts as the go-between for the players as they interact with the referee. There is no separate "mapper," this being part of the caller's job, though it's noted that the two roles could have been split. Precise mapping of the adventure locale seems important, with some of the initial dialog spent on getting the measurements of the rooms and corridors correct. Likewise, the players are paranoid, posting guards outside rooms and making clear to the referee that they're merely looking at but not touching things that they find.

The remainder of the dialog consists of the players discovering and learning how to operate a laser pistol and accidentally setting off an alarm that has alerted the robotoids of the ruin that someone has breached its defenses. There is no combat or use of mutations; indeed, it's unclear how many, if any, of the PCs are mutants of any sort. Compared to the examples of play shown in, say, the Holmes or Moldvay rulebooks, it's fairly unexciting, though it does teach the need for care when exploring a ruin of the Ancients.

REVIEW: Anomalous Subsurface Environment

Our hobby was born in the dungeon. More specifically, it was born in what has come to be called "the megadungeon" or "the campaign dungeon" -- a vast, unclearable locale that serves as a "tent pole" for the entire campaign. While some gamers sneer at the megadungeon, believing it limited, artificial, and supportive of only a narrow range of play, the old school renaissance has wholeheartedly embraced it, in the process demonstrating that there are still depths left to plumb in the mythic underworlds of yore.

Patrick Wetmore's terrifically named Anomalous Subsurface Environment is proof positive of this contention. This 88-page adventure module (available in both PDF and print versions, $13.49 and $17.57 respectively) presents the first level of a megadungeon that is quite unlike any other published to date. The closest comparison I can make is to Dave Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" from Supplement II, in that the Anoamlous Subsurface Environment (hereafter ASE) is a dungeon where gonzo super-science exists cheek by jowl with more traditional D&D elements. That's because this module takes place in a "dinosaur- and wizard-infested future of the Earth" rather than in a vanilla fantasyland. That's both an advantage and a drawback, as I'll discuss shortly.

Written for Labyrinth Lord, this product is really more than a mere dungeon module. Slightly less than half of its pages are devoted to the Denethix Campaign Setting, where the ASE is located. This setting is several thousand years in our future, after some type of catastrophe "ushered in an age of magic and barbarism." Think The Dying Earth crossed with Thundarr the Barbarian and you're probably not too far off the mark, though Denethix is more than a mere pastiche of its literary antecedents, with plenty of original ideas and surprises for even the most jaded players. I was particularly impressed with its presentation of the gods and religion, which simultaneously remains true to the assumptions of D&D and brings something genuinely new to the table. (That it mirrors certain as-yet unrevealed elements of my own Dwimmermount campaign might explain why I think so highly of it)

The setting material focuses on the Land of One Thousand Towers, so called because the landscape is dotted with the towers of wizards and the spires of ruined cities from the forgotten past. An important city within the Land is Denethix, formerly just another wizard-ruled despotate that is slowly -- and inexplicably -- becoming a more pleasant place. Naturally, Denethix is presented as a base for the PCs from which to launch their expeditions into the nearby wilderness and dungeons (including the ASE). What pleased me most about the setting material, aside from its creativity, was how remarkably useful it all is. Yes, there is some background, but it's brief and exists primarily to provide context to play. Likewise, the descriptions of locations are geared toward the kinds of things a referee would find helpful. Thus, we get lots of random tables and adventure hooks rather than pages of historical and cultural information that serve no immediate purpose.

The first level of the ASE itself consists of over 100 rooms, in addition to its 32-room gatehouse. That's a huge amount of real estate, especially when you consider the diversity of what those rooms contain. Wetmore nicely sums up the ASE by saying:
The Anomalous Subsurface Environment has no mastermind behind it, and no Big Bad Evil Guy waiting at its bottom for the players to confront to Save The Day. It does have a history, though; it has inhabitants with their own goals and desires, and it is full of mysteries for the players to discover and figure out.
That's a very solid encapsulation of the philosophy behind old school dungeon design, too, come to think of it and one's reaction to it might serve as a good litmus test for how one might feel about this module. Anomalous Subsurface Environment offers no plot or story, instead providing a sprawling locale in which the referee and players can create their own stories, as they explore its chambers, interact with its inhabitants, and grapple with its enigmas. Speaking for myself, this is exactly what I want out of an adventure module, but then I'm looking for something that I can adapt to my own campaign rather than play straight "out of the box."

If there's a flaw to Anomalous Subsurface Environment it's that, because of its gonzo science fantasy content, it might be of limited to interest to those who prefer their dungeons more traditional in tone. I can't really fault anyone with such a preference, but I hope no one will fault me for absolutely adoring what Patrick Wetmore has done here. The ASE is still recognizably a D&D-style dungeon; all the elements you expect to find are here. What's different, though, is both the justification for the dungeon and some of its contents. Thus, you'll find robots and laser pistols in addition to giant spiders and goblins. Of course, those goblins may still have 1-1 HD but their nature and goals have been warped by the Denethix Campaign Setting. In practical terms, what Anomalous Subsurface Environment provides is a "re-imagining" of D&D staples that does not fundamentally alter the play of the game except esthetically. Again, I think that's great, but others many not share my enthusiasm.

Before concluding, I should point out what an attractive volume Anomalous Subsurface Environment is. The text is clear and well-written without the usual editorial mistakes one associates with amateur products. The cartography is similarly clear; it's not "pretty" or exciting to look at it, but I suspect that, at the table, the maps would be easy to use. The interior artwork, on the other hand, is terrific, particularly the work by Brian "Glad" Thomas. I own a hardcopy and it's a sturdy perfect-bound book about whose physical qualities I have nothing but good to say.

In the end, Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a great adventure module for Labyrinth Lord and other old school fantasy RPGs. It's quirkier than most, making it a little harder to simply drop it into an existing campaign, but not so hard that it would prove a Herculean task. Moreover, the content is clever enough that any extra effort spent on retooling it would be well worth it. Even with only one level to its name so far, I'd say that the ASE deserves to be counted amongst Stonhell and the Castle of the Mad Archmage as one of the finest OSR-derived megadungeons, which is about the highest praise I can lavish upon it.

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

Buy This If:
You're looking for a science fantasy spin on the classic megadungeon or don't mind reworking one for use in a more traditional fantasy setting.
Don't Buy This If: You can't stand science fantasy or don't want to have to rework an adventure module to remove references to such.

The Ads of Dragon: Hârn

Issue #73 (May 1983) contained the following advertisement:
Is this the first time Hârn appeared in the pages of Dragon? I think it is. Even if it's not, it's the first advertisement I remember seeing and the one that pretty well encapsulated my thoughts on it. While most gamers who speak highly of the late N. Robin Crossby's fantasy world do so on the basis of its depth and "realism," for me, it was always the setting's maps that appealed to me. That little snippet of Melderyn we see in the ad captivated me more than anything else in it and I bought Hârn solely for its maps.

Even after all these years, I still consider Hârn's maps among the finest ever made for a fantasy roleplaying product. I've never actually used Hârn as a campaign setting, however. I find it a little off-putting in many ways and a little too closely tied to Anglo-Saxon/Northern European history and culture for my tastes. On the other hand, I've long admired the fact that all Hârnic materials are set in an "eternal present" whose timeline never advances outside of events in one's own campaign. To me, that's the ideal model for any campaign setting -- which makes it an even greater pity that I've never used Hârn or any of its support materials in play.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part XI)

Gamma World doesn't have levels as such, but it might as well. Every so many thousand experience points (starting at 3000 and roughly doubling at every step after that), a player gets to make a 1d10 roll on a table to determine the bonus his character gains from experience. 60% of the time, the bonus is a +1 to specific ability score (but no score can exceed 18), 20% of the time, the bonus is +1 to hit in physical combat, and 20% of the time, the bonus is +1 per die inflicted by non-energy weapons.

Experience points are awarded first for defeating enemies at a rate of 1 XP per hit point of the defeated enemies. Even compared to OD&D Supplement I's revised XP charts, that's a very small amount. Secondly, XP is awarded for finding artifacts, at rates listed in the rulebook. The XP amounts vary according to the type of artifact, with grenades, for example, awarding only a couple of hundred XP, while a high-tech rifle might award a couple of thousand. It's worth noting that XP is also given for the worth in gold pieces of valuable non-artifact items. As you can see, finding artifacts (and other items of value) is thus the ticket to advancement in the game, much as treasure is in OD&D. Thirdly, the referee may award XP "for outstanding actions." Just what constitutes an outstanding action or what an appropriate XP award for it might be is not stated.

XP is awarded on both an individual or group basis. Combat XP is divided equally amongst all combatants, provided they all participated equally. Characters who don't do so or who sneak away in the midst of battle ought to be awarded less (or no) experience. XP from artifacts or items of value, however, are awarded to individuals. In general, such XP seems to go to the character who figured out how to operate the artifact and can therefore use it.

All in all, Gamma World's experience point award system is very reminiscent of those in old school D&D but (once again) pointing the way toward the more "story-oriented" approach that would be adopted more broadly later on. On the other hand, "level" advancement means comparatively less than in D&D, with its benefits being random and potentially non-existent depending on how one rolls. I've sometimes found myself imagining what D&D might have been like if advancement were similarly unpredictable.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Birthgrave

Allow me the indulgence of quoting myself before discussing Tanith Lee's 1975 novel, The Birthgrave:
In my experience, Tanith Lee is an author about whom few have any ambivalence: you either love her writing or you hate it. For myself, I love it, although I'll admit that I cannot take it in large doses, as it's exceedingly rich -- "florid," some might call it -- and I find it very easy to get lost in it without any real comprehension of what I'm reading.
I wrote those words nearly two years ago in reference to a different novel, but I think they still apply here. Despite being her debut novel, The Birthgrave reads very much like Lee's later works -- full of mesmerizing dialog and sumptuous description. Had the adjective "dream-like" not been rendered near-meaningless through over-use, I might employ it here, since there is an oneiric quality to this novel, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its subject matter.

The Birthgrave is told in the first-person, from the perspective of a woman who is initially nameless and awakens inside a rumbling volcano after a lengthy slumber with no recollection of who she is and with flashes of a past she does not understand.
"To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman."
The novel's unnamed protagonist then sets to discover who she is, beginning a journey that, on the surface, mirrors many a sword-and-sorcery tale. One of the things that's interesting about The Birthgrave, though, is the way that Lee co-opts and then subverts many of the conventions of blood-and-thunder pulp fantasy but without making the reader feel cheated. That is, I did not feel as if I'd been lied to -- promised a sword-and-sorcery story and then given something else entirely.

That's because The Birthgrave very much is a sword-and-sorcery novel. Everything one expects in the genre, whether it's mysterious lost races, decadent civilizations, or dark magic are on display here and compellingly so. Likewise, the protagonist's quest is a personal one -- intensely so. It's perhaps in that respect that The Birthgrave deviates a bit from its predecessors. A great deal more verbiage is devoted to the protagonist's inner life than is typical in the genre, though I would argue that that is by necessity given that the central struggle of the novel is her desire to learn who she is. But, as she learns more about both her past and her present, we also learn just how closely Lee has studied the genre and used that study to her advantage.

If I seem more vague than usual in describing the specifics of The Birthgrave it is largely because I do not wish to spoil too much of its plot. I will only say that, in addition to being a superb stylist, Tanith Lee is also very adept at critiquing the genre in which she's working without in the process undermining that genre, a feat at which Michael Moorcock and others often fail in my opinion. The Birthgrave is thus an enjoyable book, for its setting as well as its story and I recommend it highly. It's probably not for everyone, but, even if it's not to your taste, I think it's time well spent nonetheless. Lee is a master fantasist who deserves to be more widely read and discussed.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dungeonographer in Action

I've said before that I am a terrible mapper. By that, I mean both that I'm not very adept at drawing maps nor at designing them, though I have gotten better at the latter. As to the former, Dungeonographer seems like it might be able to solve that problem. Below is a rendition of the dungeon from "The Ruined Monastery," which appeared in issue #1 of Fight On! three years ago. I was able to whip it up in fairly short order and without much difficulty, neither of which I'd have expected, given past attempts to use dungeon mapping software.

All in all, I'm pretty pleased. I'll probably try my hand at something more complex in the next few days.

Heraldic Silliness

I took the plunge and acquired a number of the great programs from Inkwell Ideas. In addition to both Hexographer and Dungeongrapher, I got the Coat of Arms Design Studio. It's a fun and very easy-to-use program. After only a short time noodling around with it, I was able to produce this coat of arms for the city-state of Adamas in my Dwimmermount campaign -- no great work of art, perhaps, but far better than I ever could have accomplished on my own. And like all the Inkwell Ideas programs, it's not hard to add new icons and images if you don't like the ones that come with it.
That's Latinulo, not Latin, in case you're wondering.

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part X)

(I hadn't forgotten about this series, but I've been busy through much of the month with other projects and it fell by the wayside)

One of the thing I found very odd about Gamma World as a kid was that the currency from before the End -- the domar -- was still recognized and valued in the post-apocalyptic world, even if it was worth one-fifth that of gold. Like most modern currency, the domar, as described, has no inherent value, since it was made of some kind of indestructible plastic. Without the power a government to back it, what value would it have, especially 150 years after that government had ceased to exist. Consequently, we tended to treat domars more as curiosities, of interest to historians and the Restorationists rather than of broad use when trying to make purchases in most settlements.

Healing in Gamma World is slow -- 1 hit point per day of inactivity and rest -- but not as slow as in OD&D, where it's 1 hit point every other day of inactivity and rest. Of course, Gamma World characters tend to have more hit points that most OD&D characters, which may explain the difference. There are also various medical devices and medicines that increase the speed and efficacy of healing and these, too, have an impact.

I've already discussed the inheritance rules here.

Gamma World postulates the existence of a "common tongue" in post-apocalyptic North America, which seems reasonable enough, although the rationale behind its existence is odd:
Because so many of the mutants of GAMMA WORLD use telepathy, and so few Pure Strain Humans are left, a common language has evolved among all speaking beings and creatures.
I suppose the text means to say that a common tongue came about out of necessity, but it's phrased oddly. Regardless, computers may or may not be able to recognize or learn this new common tongue, as the referee decides. In my own games, I don't think I ever used language barriers when dealing with computers but I frequently used concept barriers, because the computers came from a highly technological world whose assumptions were very different from those of the PCs.

A distinctive feature of Gamma World is the presence of so many robots in the rulebook. Nearly three whole pages of the rulebook are devoted to the topic, which is a sizable amount, given its brevity. It's another way that the game emphasizes that its apocalypse takes place in the future rather than the present day. In describing robots, there are a couple of interesting rules conceptions worth noting. First, Gamma World retains a strong concept of armor class as strongly connected to the materials from which a type of armor is made. For example, duralloy typically provides an AC of 2 or 1, though a robot constructed from a combination of duralloy, plastic, and/or glass may have a lesser AC due the presence of those other, weaker materials. Likewise, hit points are directly related to bulk, with robots gaining 6 hit points (1 Hit Die) per cubic meter of size. Furthermore, every time a robot loses one-quarter of its total hit points, it also loses one-quarter of its functionality. The latter's a particularly interesting conception that could serve as a springboard for anyone looking to add "death spiral" mechanics in D&D.

In Gamma World, there are generally three types of robots: bots, robotoids, and borgs. Bots and robotoids are similar in that they both are programmed for limited and specific action, there difference being largely in appearance. Robotoids are humanoids, while bots are not. Borgs, on the other hand, are artificial intelligences. They possess inorganic brains that function like those of humans, right down to being susceptible to mental attacks and the ability to degenerate into insanity. There are also larger -- building-sized -- A.I.s that function more or less like borgs do, except that they lack "bodies" and thus function primarily through lesser robots that they control.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

AH Artifacts

The campaign map I've been busy producing with Hexographer is, as I'm sure most people know, based on the map from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival game. Over the course of play, I've changed details from the original to suit the direction of the campaign, but its basic appearance is still recognizably that of Outdoor Survival.

Anyway, when I cracked open my ancient copy of Outdoor Survival, I found a copy of interesting Avalon Hill artifacts: a fold-up order form and a registration card. Both are actually quite fascinating windows on both the world and the hobby of 30 years ago.
This first one is just purely nostalgia for me. Though I was never much of a wargamer and though I only ever owned a handful of AH games, I still get a charge out of seeing that address. When I was a younger man, I found it inordinately gratifying that one of the major companies of my hobby was located in my hometown. Looking back, I kick myself that I didn't better avail myself of this fact.
This is the other side of the registration card. It's mostly pretty boring, but what I find fascinating is section 4, where it asks where you purchased the game you're registering. Just look at some of those options: Department Store, Stationery Store, Gift/Card Store. Back in the old days, you really could go to many card stores and expect to see RPGs and boxed wargames on the shelves. Growing up, I remember going to a large card/bookstore called Greetings & Readings (then located in Towson, Maryland) and getting a lot of RPG stuff there that I couldn't find anywhere else, like the Grenadier Gamma World miniatures. Also of interest is the reference to "Military Outlet." As I've said before, we can't underestimate the huge role military personnel played on the early hobby.
The front portion of the order form is interesting primarily as a time capsule from the world before the Internet. Also of interest is the "Elite Club," a lifetime 10% discount on mail order purchases if you spent $120 or more on a single order.
The backside has a similar time capsule feel to it. Unlike the registration card, which is from a later time, after the foundation of Victory Games, this form uses AH's formal name, The Avalon Hill Game Company. I've always thought the use of the definite article lent a certain dignity to it.

Ah, memories!

First Photos of The Hobbit

Over at /Film, they've posted the first stills released from Peter Jackson's upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Here's actor Martin Freeman as Bilbo, with the dwarves in the background:
I have little doubt that The Hobbit will be a gorgeous movie, just like the adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (despite my quibbles about some of its esthetic choices). I'm also pretty sure that, despite whatever ham-fisted deviations from the text Jackson and his screenwriters insert into it, the film will still be far more faithful to Tolkien than any movie claiming association with the literary creations of Robert E. Howard -- unless there's a sub-plot about Bilbo's family being slaughtered by goblins and how he agrees to accompany the dwarves in order to avenge them that I haven't heard about.

Playing with Hexographer

I spent a few hours playing around with the free version of Hexographer and produced the following rough map of the area explored in the Dwimmermount campaign.
I'm still learning my way around Hexographer, so I've undoubtedly made quite a number of beginner's errors, but I'm fairly pleased with my effort nonetheless. It's a very useful little program, especially for guys like me who can't draw worth a damn. I may have to shell out for the pro version, because this is the first mapping program I've ever felt comfortable using.

The Ads of Dragon: Crypts of Chaos

Like a lot of kids back in the late 70s, I owned an Atari "video computer system," which is what this early game console was called before being re-branded the Atari 2600 sometime in the early 80s. I have a lot of fond memories of the VCS, despite its limitations, but one game I don't remember particularly positively is this one, advertised in issue #72 (April 1983):
Crypts of Chaos was an early example of a "3-D" dungeon crawl game, clearly designed to capitalize on the D&D fad of the day. Produced by 20th Century Fox, it wasn't an "official" Atari game, which, with the exception of the games made by Activision, pretty much ensured it would be awful -- and Crypts of Chaos was. Even by the graphical standards of the day, it was ugly, confusing, and difficult to play. The eponymous Crypts were (literally) a maze of corridors and rooms and, as I recall, players were advised to make a map of the place as they explored it to avoid getting lost. Seriously. Along the way, you'd encounter badly-pixelated monsters who might have treasure that would be of use in trying to survive through the unending slog of this game.

In general, I'm a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to looking back on the games of the past, but not in this case. Video game technology was limited in 1983, it's true, but there were plenty of people making excellent games for the Atari, like Activision's Pitfall (released in 1982) and Imagic's Atlantis (also released in '82), among others. Crypts of Chaos is simply awful and I have little doubt that seeing this ad in Dragon was a big part of why I dared to purchase it at all. Stupid weakness of will!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Retrospective: Flashing Blades

I often call Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) "the producer of the greatest RPGs I never played." That's not entirely accurate, of course, as I did play several of FGU's games back in the day, but I never played them very long, in part because their rules were often unnecessarily detailed and complex. Even so, FGU's games possessed a strange allure, in part, I think, because they always seemed so serious. While nowadays I laud lightheartedness and sing the praises of approaching our hobby with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as a younger man I was much given to fits of serious-mindedness when it came to roleplaying, sometimes to the chagrin of my friends who just wanted to explore a dungeon or fight some aliens on a distant planet. So, perhaps it's just as well that I never succeeded in refereeing Space Opera or Aftermath.

That said, I nevertheless get wistful for certain FGU games, as regular readers of this blog know. Recently, I was reminded of another one that I'd forgotten, possibly because it was published comparatively "late" (1984) and because it doesn't feel like a FGU game. At only 50 pages in length, Mark Pettigrew's Flashing Blades is a tight, focused little game of swashbuckling adventure in 17th century France. It is a "complete" RPG in the sense that its rulebook covers all the topics its designer felt were important to its subject matter, but it is not "complete" in the sense of "comprehensive," like so many of FGU's other games. Thus, you'll find extensive rules for dueling and social advancement, for example, but very little in the way of rules to support (let alone encourage) play outside of the streets and courts of Paris. That's not to say there's no allusions to a wider world -- quite the contrary -- but Flashing Blades is very much a game, in its own words, of "duels, brawls, heroic actions, indiscretions, gambling, wenching, carousing, and numerous other boisterous activities" and its rulebook reflects this.

Despite its different (and narrower) focus, Flashing Blades nevertheless follows the broad template laid down by Dungeons & Dragons a decade before its release. Characters have six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Wit, Charm, Luck), which are all generated by rolling 3D6 in order, though, if the scores total less than 54, a player is permitted to add the difference to the results of his rolls. There are also bonuses to physical attributes based on height and build (both of which are determined randomly). Though not called classes, there are four "backgrounds" from which to choose. Two are for commoners (Rogue and Soldier) and two are for those of higher status (Gentleman and Nobleman).

These backgrounds determine a character's likely starting skills, though it is possible for a character to learn skills from outside his background at greater cost. The non-combat skill system is quite simple, basically being a roll-under attribute check on 1D20, with ad hoc modifiers as assessed by the referee. Martial skills receive more detail, including determining how and where a character received his training, so that someone who learned to fight on the streets ("School of Hard Knocks") is distinct from someone who learned at a Fencing School. Characters are also encouraged to have advantages and secrets, the latter being the name in Flashing Blades for a disadvantage. The game suggests that the referee make frequent use of secrets as an impetus for adventure, as well as to be liberal in allowing players to make full use of their character's advantages.

Combat receives a great deal of attention, particularly sword combat, which only makes sense given the game's focus. Now, I have never actually had the opportunity to play Flashing Blades, so anyone who has can correct me if I am mistaken on this front, but it does not appear that the combat rules, though extensive, are difficult to grasp. Yes, there are a lot of potential modifiers and elements, especially once you consider movement, parries, and counter attacks, but the mechanics seem simple enough that I imagine, with practice, they should be fairly easy to employ at the table. Equal, if not greater, attention is given to social advancement. When not dueling or carousing, characters can try their hand at improving their lot in life as a soldier, courtier, clergyman, merchant, banker, and several other vocations.

Other than rules for experience and some basic historical and social information about 17th century France, these are all the topics Flashing Blades covers in its rulebook. As I said, it's a very focused game and doesn't stray much into topics beyond that focus. Indeed, it could reasonably argued that many even many topics within that focus aren't covered in any depth, such as many types of social interaction. In many ways, Flashing Blades is like a less "game-y" version of En Garde! but it's still very limited, demanding a lot of both players and referees if they play it for any length of time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does place Flashing Blades firmly into the do-it-yourself camp of RPGs and thus very much out of step with contemporary trends and tastes within the hobby.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Apropos of Nothing ...

... and without any applicability whatsoever to the kinds of discussions we usually have on this blog, I present you with an amusing graphic regarding the development of first-person shooter shooter video games. Thanks to Peter Byrne for pointing it out to me.

The Ads of Dragon: Call of Cthulhu

Though Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu was first released in 1981, for some reason, it's this ad, from issue #71 of Dragon (March 1983), that I particularly associate with its early days:
I've always found it funny that, despite both the protestations of its designer and the plaudits of its hardcore fans, Call of Cthulhu has always owed as much to August Derleth as it does to H.P. Lovecraft. You can see its powerful Derlethian influence in this advertisement, which paints Call of Cthulhu as a RPG about "brave men and women [who] stand between the world as we know it and the unutterable evil of the Old Ones." Coupled with the ad's title -- "Adventurama" -- there's an undeniable pulp vibe to the whole thing, more Indiana Jones than the cosmic nihilism that purists like to claim for the game. I've never had a problem with this myself; I doubt a "pure" Lovecraft game would be very palatable to most gamers, then or now.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More Dwimmermount Art

Yet another great piece by the ever-awesome Kelvin Green.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The People of the Black Circle

"The People of the Black Circle" is both one of the longest and best regarded of Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Cimmerian. Published in three parts between September and November 1934, it takes place in and around the realm of Vendhya, where Conan has established himself as a chieftain among the Afghuli hillmen, hoping to forge them into a horde he might use to gain wealth and power. Meanwhile, a plot by the Black Seers of Yimsha has slain Bunda Chand, the king of Vendhya, throwing the region into chaos and precipitating a series of events that places Conan into the thick of things, as ever.

There's a lot to like in "The People of the Black Circle," from its complex, interwoven plots to its characters to its setting. They all, in my opinion, mark this story as Howard at his best. If you read other reviews or retrospectives on this story, you'll see that everyone seems to have their favorite element and I find it hard to disagree with most of them. Take, for example, the settings of Vendhya and Afghulistan. They've got a terrifically exotic flavor to them that helps to distinguish "The People of the Black Circle" from other Conan yarns and yet they aren't so exotic that they become the focus of what is, at base, a fun adventure tale that pits the Cimmerian against multiple memorable enemies.

For me, though, the central appeal of this story is the relationships between two couples: Conan and the Devi Yasmina, sister of the murdered king, and the apprentice wizard Khemsa and Yasmina's handmaiden Gitara. These two couples both drive the plot and provide much of the story's dialog, particularly (as one would expect) Conan and Yasmina. Early on, Yasmina vows revenge against the Black Seers for her brother's death, but soon finds herself kidnapped by Conan, who hopes to ransom her in exchange for seven of his own men held captive by Vendhyan authorities. Of course, the Vendhyans send soldiers to rescue Yasmina from Conan, who does not realize that two other groups are also seeking the Devi -- Kerim Shah, an agent of the rival kingdom of Turan and the young sorcerer Khemsa, goaded into this action by Gitara, who believes it the first step on their glorious future together.

Conan and Yasmina make an interesting pair. Often bickering and testing one another's resolve, they would seem to be a perfect example of a Hollywood-style "odd couple" destined to fall in love with one another despite -- or because of -- their differences. And while there clearly is a growing affection between the two characters, neither one allows their feelings to stand in the way of their own destinies: Conan to one day become a king by his own hand and Yasmina to avenge her brother's death and restore order to Vendhya. I consider their parting at the end of the story one of the best such scenes in all of Conan's appearances and good evidence that Howard's portrayal of both female characters and of Conan was far more nuanced and sophisticated than many give him credit for. Similarly, Khemsa comes across as a very different kind of wizard than those usually seen in Howard's fiction, being motivated by genuine love for Gitara, even to the point of foolhardiness. He's quite the change from fiends like Xaltotun or Thoth-Amon, who scarcely share any motivations with ordinary human beings.

In the end, what I like best about "The People of the Black Circle" is that it's long and complex and yet isn't an epic. That is, it's just another episode in the life of Conan as he attempts to make a place for himself in the Hyborian Age. In short, it's an adventure and a very good one at that. I find it the perfect antidote to the trends in post-Tolkien fantasy that try to invest every event with greater significance beyond the immediate.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tale of Two Movies

To the left, you can see the recently-released teaser poster for Disney's John Carter of Mars film to be released next year. I'm not super-keen on the poster, but it's only a teaser, so I don't expect much from it. However, I am expecting a lot from the movie itself, which I'll admit I was initially skeptical about. Truth be told, I'm still a little bit skeptical about it, but I've seen enough evidence that suggests writer/director Andrew Stanton has tried to make a faithful adaptation of Burroughs's seminal sword-and-planet tales that I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Just take a gander at the IMDB listing of the cast of characters for a moment. What you see there is a listing consisting nearly completely of characters who actually appear in Barsoom tales written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, unless I am mistaken not a single named character of significance in the film is an invention of Stanton or his co-writers. Compare this to the similar listing of the cast of characters in the upcoming Conan the Barbarian, where, aside from the titular Cimmerian, none of the characters has any basis in the source material.

Let's go further. Among the characters listed in the cast of John Carter of Mars are several Apaches. Readers of A Princess of Mars may recall that Carter is attacked by Apaches while prospecting for gold in Arizona. It was this attack that led to Carter to seek refuge in the cave where falls unconscious and then wakes up on Barsoom. Apaches? Prospecting? Doesn't that suggest this movie takes place in the past? Why, yes, it does! Strangely, A Princess of Mars also takes place in the past, the late 1860s, to be precise. After all, as Burroughs describes him, "Captain Jack" is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War -- just as he is in the film! Shocking!

You'll also see that among the characters in the film is someone called "Edgar Rice Burroughs." Hmm, how odd. Now, as I recall, A Princess of Mars is presented as a true account left to Burroughs by his Uncle Jack to be published in the future. Could it be that the movie retains this narrative structure in some fashion? Why, what a crazy thought? A movie based on a book that actually takes into account not just the characters and story of its source material but even its framing device? That's madness! I mean, if John Carter of Mars does this, the next thing you know people might start expecting it of other films based on books and where might that lead?

Now, it may be that John Carter of Mars deviates in many ways, both large and small, from A Princess of Mars and I'll no doubt grouse about those changes, for such is my nature. But I must give credit where credit is due: Andrew Stanton has faith in his source material -- faith that it is not just good as a book but good as the basis for a movie that modern audiences might enjoy. Is it too much to expect that, one day, Robert E. Howard might get a writer or director who has as much faith in his stories?

Conan Red Band Trailer

The "red band" trailer for the upcoming Conan the Barbarian film has been released. Here it is, in case you haven't seen it.

I can't say my hopes for the movie are much improved. Aside from the fact that it's nice to see Ron Perlman and that the actors consistently pronounce Conan's name correctly, there's not much to like here. Momoa's line delivery actually appears worse than it did in previous trailers (not that the dialog is one easily invested with depth anyway). I'm not too keen on all the balletic fight scenes; I'd much prefer a more brutal take on Hyborian Age combat. Likewise, all the CGI blood and explosions don't impress me. Which reminds me: what's with all the explosions anyway? They strike me as very out of place in a movie like this one.

Ah well.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Open Friday: As a Hobby, Are We Too Obsessed with "the Industry?"

When I was a kid, I just played roleplaying games. Yes, I knew the names of Gary Gygax and a few other game designers and, sure, I had a degree of loyalty to certain game companies, like TSR and GDW, but I didn't know much about the arcane world alluded to in various Dragon editorials complaining about GAMA or whatever. That was all completely outside my realm, much in the same way that I didn't really care about why the 1981 baseball strike happened, only that it prevented me from watching the Orioles on TV or attending one of their home games.

As I got older and especially after I started writing professionally, I started to pay a lot more attention to "the industry," believing it to be important for various reasons I can't remember. What I do remember is that I never landed a job or found more pleasure in writing because of my obsession with the ins and outs of the industry. If anything, I found my enjoyment lessened and a big part of my abandoning it was based on my knowing too much about it.

One of the things I've tried to do on this blog is to avoid such "inside baseball" discussions and instead focus on the games I like and actually play. I haven't always succeeded -- old habits die hard, after all -- but a quick scan of the more than 2200 posts I've written since 2008 should reveal that I don't spend a lot of time talking about gaming companies, let alone gaming personalities, neither of which has much of an impact on what what happens at my game table with my friends, which is the only reason I'm involved in this hobby in the first place.

So, with that extended preamble out of the way, here's the question: do you agree with me? Do we, as old school fans, spend too much time talking about what game companies or game writers are doing and why and not enough time just, you know, playing? I'm pretty sure that we do; it's been my contention for a long time that we don't talk enough about the games we're playing or have played and devote unnecessary energy to meta-discussions that have little or no effect on our enjoyment of this hobby. Am I right in thinking this?

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I'm a bit busy today with non-gamey responsibilities, but I did want to pop in quickly to say that today I received a copy of Patrick Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Environment, the first level of a gonzo megadungeon and it's amazing. I've been reading it in between my other activities and I'm finding it hard to put down.

Since I haven't read the whole thing in any depth, I'll save my hyperbolic comments till I can write a formal review later. I will say, though, based on what I've read so far, that it doesn't just present a very well-done megadungeon level but that, even more impressively, also a very well-done fantasy setting. There are a lot of superb ideas in this module, some of which eerily parallel things I've been doing in my Dwimmermount campaign and that I've never revealed, even to my players. Whether this is a case of great minds thinking alike or fools never differing, I'll leave to others to decide.

Regardless, this is a fun product and well worth your purchase. More on it later.

MRQII Becomes Legend

Several readers pointed me toward some news concerning the fate of Mongoose Publishing's RuneQuest II, the bulk of which I reproduce below:

First up, we have been chatting to those nice chaps at Ye Olde Gaming Companye and found out that they were not only prepping a new version for their Wayfarers RPG but that they were in need of distribution. Being familiar with their game and seeing they were obviously such nice chaps, we immediatly offered to print and distribute their game!
The Wayfarers RPG will be released by Mongoose in December this year, likely in the second week. We will be following it up with the first supplement in January, World of Twylos. Look for them in all good game stores.
Naturally, having a game called Wayfarers and another called Wayfarer released within a couple of months of each other does not make a great deal of sense! We discussed this with the chaps at Ye Olde Gaming Companye and, having no axe to grind, agreed we would change the name of our game.
Henceforth, the core RuneQuest II rules will be known as Legend.
First off, we have to stress that Legend will be 100% compatible with your current RQII books. If you have an RQII book now, you will be able to use it with Legend. If you buy a Legend book, you will be able to use it with your RQII books. So it is written, so it shall be.
We have had a few requests about tweaking the core RQII rules or adding some bits and pieces to them, and we are considering this. However, _if_ we add or change anything to RQII (and _if_ we do, it will be minor) then we will post any such changes, in their entirety, on our weeb site for free download. We are not looking at doing this lightly but where a tweak will make for a better game, we will have to consider it.
Second, All Legend books will be in 'digest' format, literally half the footprint of the current RQII line. The maximum price for these books will be $19.99, and a few will be less than that.
Finally, we have decided to proceed with an 'open' licence for Legend. This will allow anyone to publish pretty much anything they like using the RQII/Legend mechanics.
However, we are going to make it easier to operate and be a part of. There will be no registration required and no complicated contracts or agreements. You will simply abide by a few very easy rules (such as not copying the front cover designs of our books), put a Legend Compatible logo on the front, and you will be good to go! There will be no SRD - instead, you may freely use anything that appears in the core book range - from the schedule above, this will include the main rulebook, Monsters of Legend, Arms of Legend and Vikings of Legend. And yes, when they appear (likely in summer 2012), Samurai and Pirates of Legend too!
So, if you want to construct your own Viking saga, for example, you can do so using Vikings of Legend as the foundation, and then publish it alongside our core book. We recommend sticking to the digest format, but there is absolutely no requirement to do so.

The Ads of Dragon: Star Trek: The Role Playing Game

Issue #70 (February 1983) contains a particularly memorable advertisement for me personally.
I knew -- and loved -- FASA because of their excellent support for GDW's Traveller. I was also a huge fan of Star Trek. So the news that there would not only be a Star Trek RPG but that FASA would produce it was like a dream come true for me. I played the heck out of this game and can still relate the events of many an adventure in vivid detail. If asked about my favorite roleplaying games, my standard response is that I actually have three -- D&D, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu, in that order. But, truth be told, I suspect Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game probably deserves to be in that august company. What a great game.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giving the (re)Boot to Fuzzy Nation

Curmudgeon that I am, I'm not the target audience for "reboots" of pre-existing media, which is good, since my assessment of them, with few exceptions, veers between vainglorious hubris and Philistine brand-building, with enough unoriginality to cover both ends of my critical appraisal. In days of yore, when someone felt that someone else had an idea worth swiping, that's what they did -- swiped it and then reworked it into something they felt was better, or at least different enough to justify its existence. This is the process that got us Flash Gordon, after all, and, later, Star Wars. But that was back before our culture started to view creative works primarily as a source of marketable "intellectual property" rather than simply as works of art. Call me an old fogey, because I miss those days.

So, when I heard that John Scalzi, a writer about whom I know little -- yes, yes, we've already established that I'm out of touch -- had written a reboot of H. Beam Piper's 1962 Hugo-nominated science fiction classic, Little Fuzzy, I can't say that I was pleased. Piper is one of my favorite SF authors of all time. His Terro-Human future history series, of which Little Fuzzy is a part, exercised a profound influence over Traveller and on me. My own SF RPG, Thousand Suns, is explicitly dedicated to his memory and much of Piper's ideas and terminology can be found in its pages.

There is even a supplement to Thousand Suns, entitled Transmissions from Piper, that collects several of Piper's short stories under one cover, along with game statistics for some of what appears in them. Transmissions from Piper was possible because most of Piper's literary output, including Little Fuzzy, is now in the public domain. If someone wished to do so, they could create a game, movie, or TV show using Piper's material free of charge, much in the same way they could do the same with, say, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Similarly, they could produce new books utilizing the settings and characters Piper created.

At first, that's what I'd thought Scalzi had done with his book, Fuzzy Nation, released last month. I thought it was a continuation of the Fuzzy series by a contemporary SF author. We've already had several of those previously, none of them very good in my opinion, but their existence never bothered me because they told new stories in Piper's world rather than attempting to retell the original. Similarly irksome is that Fuzzy Nation is frequently described as an "authorized" reboot, Scalzi having secured the blessing of "the Piper estate." Now, I don't know about you, but when I hear the words "the Piper estate," I assume it refers to some living, breathing human being(s) with a connection to the living, breathing human being who penned these stories, but that's not the case at all. "The Piper estate" is Penguin Books, a corporation that, unless I am mistaken, has allowed Piper's works to fall out of print -- great custodians of the man's legacy they are!

Needless to say, I went into reading Fuzzy Nation with a bad attitude, so I was almost certainly predisposed to dislike it. What I found, though, was not a book I disliked, let alone hated, so much as one whose very existence seemed pointless. Fuzzy Nation takes slightly more than twice as many pages to tell roughly the same story that Piper did and less charmingly. Just take a look at the two covers I've reproduced along with this post. In the original, the protagonist, Jack Holloway is a septuagenarian loner who spends much of his time meditating on his physical decline, while Scalzi transforms Holloway into a by-the-numbers thirtysomething rogue with a messy past, including, conveniently, an ex-girlfriend who works for the corporation whose agents are the novel's antagonists.

I could no doubt make great hay over this change and what it says about us as a culture, but I'd rather make two additional and, I think, more damning comments about Fuzzy Nation compared to its illustrious predecessor. Little Fuzzy is, ultimately, an exploration of the nature of sentience and what it is that separates us, the readers, from mere animals. The question of whether the "fuzzies" that Holloway discovers on the planet Zarathustra are in fact sentient or merely very clever animals is the central conflict of Piper's novel and he handles it with surprising depth and insight. Scalzi's reboot deals with the same question and, while capably handled, it nevertheless lacked a certain something present in the original.

That something, or rather somethings, was the characters. First and foremost, Scalzi's fuzzies (or "fuzzys," as he inexplicably spells their plural) are fewer in number and much less fully realized. They come across more as plot devices than actual characters, whereas Piper was able to flesh them out to such an extent that one can easily tell Ko-Ko from Goldilocks from Cinderella and so on. In a similar vein, nearly all the characters, including Holloway, are portrayed as self-serving jerks, except for the ones who go beyond self-serving and seem just to be evil (i.e. nearly everyone who works for the Zarathustra Corporation). I am certain that Scalzi felt that he needed to portray the characters in this way in order to make them more "believable" and "realistic," but, truth be told, it made them seem more like stereotypes from Central Casting than real people. Part of what makes Piper's original story work so well is that even the antagonists who deny that the fuzzies are sentient have their good points. That makes the conflict of the novel richer and much less easily divisible into "good guys" and "bad guys," even if it's obvious we're supposed to sympathize with the pro-sentience side of the argument.

In the end, Fuzzy Nation doesn't really bring anything to the table that Little Fuzzy didn't except greater length, shallower characters, and profanity. In short, it's a typical product of the 21st century media machine. It's not bad in its own right, but it is a pale shadow of the book it's rebooting. Other than the fact that Scalzi's name (presumably) carries more weight with contemporary SF readers than does Piper's, I can't figure out why this book was ever published. Even more baffling is why Scalzi bothered to write it, as he could just as easily -- and likely to better result -- have written a new novel dealing with similar themes to those of Little Fuzzy.

Appendix N, 1981 Edition

At the end of What is Dungeons & Dragons?, the authors have appended a bibliography, since, in their words
One of the best sources of ideas for D&D is Fantasy literature. Obviously, any list of this sort must be subjective, but all the authors here should prove useful for D.M.s and enjoyable for players.
I've lamented before that it was once commonplace for an RPG to include a bibliography of inspirational literature, but that this practice eventually fell by the wayside. If contemporary games do bother to include such a bibliography, too often it's overwhelmingly a filmography or, worse yet, a ludography (as if this hobby weren't inbred enough already).So, I was delighted to see that the young fellows who wrote What is Dungeons & Dragons? made an effort to highlight authors "whose works are relevant to D&D."

Here are their choices, which are interesting both because of how they match Gygax's own choices in the Dungeon Masters Guide and because of how they differ
  • Asprin, Bob: He's singled out for both the Myth series (about which my feelings are mixed) and the Thieves' World anthologies.
  • Bradley, Marion Zimmer: I was never a fan of Bradley, but I know her Darkover books in particular were influential with some.
  • Burroughs, Edgar Rice.
  • Cabell, James Branch: I am mildly embarrassed to admit I have never read a word of Cabell that I can remember.
  • Carter, Lin: Carter was a hack but he was often an enjoyable one, by and large.
  • Davidson, Avram: I'm impressed to see him included on this list, even if the book misspells his name as "Aram."
  • DeCamp, L. Sprague: Were it not for his involvement in the denigration of Howard's legacy, I suspect I'd be a much bigger fan of DeCamp, who wrote a number of excellent fantasies, especially his collaborations with Fletcher Pratt.
  • Donaldson, Stephen: Until I saw his name on this list, I had no idea that Lord Foul's Bane had been written as early as it was (1977). 
  • Dunsany, Lord.
  • Eddison, E.R.: The Worm Ouroboros presents what may well be the first fully-realized fantasy world in English fiction.
  • Farmer, Philip José.
  • Herbert, Frank: He's here for Dune, which, on the face of it, is an odd choice, but perhaps not.
  • Howard, Robert E.: REH is listed solely for Conan, which is fair enough, though disappointing.
  • Lee, Tanith.
  • LeGuin, Ursula K.: I still can't say whether I like LeGuin's work or not, but there's no doubt that she is influential.
  • Leiber, Fritz: This is a gimme; Leiber is probably the single writer most influential on D&D.
  • Lewis, C.S.: I think Lewis's influence on gaming -- and fantasy in general -- is often overlooked.
  • Lovecraft, H.P. 
  • McCaffrey, Anne: While my feelings about LeGuin are mixed, I can pretty safely say I don't like McCaffrey's stuff.
  • MacDonald, George: Like Cabell, I've never read a word of MacDonald.
  • MacIntyre, Vonda: Dreamsnake is an interesting post-apocalyptic novel. I'm surprised it was included on this list.
  • McKillip, Patricia: I will admit that explicitly Celtic-derived fantasy makes me break out in hives, so I was no fan of The Riddle-Master of Hed.
  • Merritt, A.
  • Moorcock, Michael.
  • Norton, André.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.
  • Vance, Jack.
  • White, T.H.
  • Zelazny, Roger.
This list isn't too far removed from Gygax's own. The most notable absence from the list is Poul Anderson, which is, in my opinion, a great oversight. Likewise, the 1981 list above includes many more contemporary authors, whereas Gygax's was much more "old fashioned," even in 1979. There are also many more British authors on the 1981 list, which is only to be expected given its provenance.

Retrospective: Freedom in the Galaxy

I've spoken many times of the fact that wargames and I have had a very tempestuous relationship over the years. I've always wanted to enjoy them, but, with very few exceptions, that desire has never been realized. I consider this a great failing on my part and a telling gap in my own attempts to understand our hobby and its complex web of connections to its older sibling. Despite this, several wargames have had an impact on me, even when I never got the chance to play them. An example of such a game is Freedom in the Galaxy.

Originally published in 1979 by SPI, Freedom in the Galaxy (subtitled "The Star Rebellions, 5764 AD"), it was later picked up by Avalon Hill and re-released in 1981, which is the edition I saw. If there are any changes between the two releases, I have no idea; someone more knowledgeable than I can specify them in the comments below. Its designers were Howard Barasch and John H. Butterfield, the latter of whom was known to me as the creator the starship combat system used in Universe.

If you look at the cover of the game's box, it's not hard to see why this game held such an interest to me. Freedom in the Galaxy quite clearly riffed off of themes and situations from Star Wars and its imitators. The idea of a two-player simulation of a rebellion against an evil galactic empire is actually quite compelling, even though I thought then, as I do now, that the game would have been even cooler if the game had included more factions than just the rebels and imperials. Of course, the actual coolness of Freedom in the Galaxy in play something at which I can only guess, as it had a hefty rulebook and very complex rules -- certainly not what my 12 year-old self was expecting based on the cover illustration!

And that's a shame, because, having looked at the game again in recent years, there are actually some very interesting ideas in it. For example, the rebel player's goal is to foment unrest throughout the Empire, in the process shifting the loyalty of worlds and races to his cause. If he plans his strategy properly, he can initiate a "domino effect" whereby not just one world but many will follow his flag, providing him with the military units he lacks earlier in the game. On the contrary, the imperial player needs to find ways to make shows of strength in order to keep planets in line, including well-timed atrocities (like blowing up entire planets), but not tightening his grip so tightly that star systems slip through his fingers, so to speak. Both sides thus require different approaches to succeed and there are enough random factors in the game that playing it sounds like it might be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, an average game is supposed to take 20 hours to complete and I can believe it. As I noted above, the rulebook is complex, with combat (both ground and space), movement, resources, loyalty, missions, and other topics all demanding a great deal of attention, or at least more attention than I could ever muster. Instead, I found myself staring at its fascinating map of the empire and its provinces and the many "characters" the game includes. These characters are noteworthy rebels and imperials with special abilities that might help their side in significant ways. Think Darth Vader or Han Solo and you've got the general idea.

That was the real shame about Freedom in the Galaxy from my point of view. The game has such delightfully suggestive chrome that it pained me mightily that it was pressed into the service of such a terribly complicated military simulation that I'd never play, even if I ever did manage to wrap my mind around its rules (which I never did). Even now, I think about how wonderful it would be either to simplify Freedom in the Galaxy or to simply create my own pulpy, space operatic wargame manqué, because I honestly think either approach would be more worthwhile than trying to play this monstrosity as it was intended to be played.

Lest anyone think I'm being too harsh, I should point out that I nevertheless did derive a lot of enjoyment out of Freedom in the Galaxy. I often lifted some of its setting details for my various Traveller campaigns and I'd do it again. Heck, I seem to recall someone round these parts (Jeff Rients perhaps?) suggesting that someone ought to do to Freedom in the Galaxy what Arneson and Gygax did to Chainmail by creating a new RPG out of it. I think that's a superb idea and had I the time -- and a copy of the game, my own having disappeared years ago -- I might take up that gauntlet. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

OSRCon Dwimmermount Sessions

Since I've been asked about this, I thought I should make a post here in order to clarify a couple of things about my two Dwimmermount sessions at August's OSRCon here in Toronto.

First, the rules will be my idiosyncratic LBBs + supplements mix. Any rules peculiarities will be explained beforehand and, if I'm diligent, I'll even type them up on a handy reference sheet.

Second, the two sessions take place on different levels of the Dwimmermount megadungeon. The Friday session is on level one, the Path of Mavors, and the Saturday session is one of the third levels, the House of Portals.

Third, I'll provide pre-generated PCs for all involved, including retainers. Those involved in the Friday session will be fresh 1st-level characters, while those involved in the Saturday session will be more experienced characters with 5000 XP each.

I'm still debating whether it would be worth it to lug all my miniatures and Hirst Arts blocks down to the con to use at the table or not. A big factor, too, is that I'm not sure I have minis for all the monsters on those two levels, which rather undermines the spectacle of the thing. I have some time to think about it, though.

DCC RPG Character Generator

Take a gander at this awesome online character generator for DCC RPG, which not only creates a party of four 0-level characters for you, but also produces an attractive PDF with all their stats on a single page.

Now go forth and spread nihilism!

Character Generation circa 1981

Here's a lengthy excerpt from the wonderful book, What is Dungeons & Dragons?, that I received in the mail yesterday:
The attributes (often called characteristics) are, in general, determined randomly by rolling dice. The standard method is to roll three normal (six-sided) dice and add up the scores on all three. This will give a number between 3 and 18 which will, for example, be the character's Strength. Similarly three d6s are rolled and totalled for the character's Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity and so on.

This method, however, tends to produce characters with many or all of their attributes at about average (10 or 11), and many players find the game is more exciting when they have characters who excel in one or more attributes. To this end there are several alternative methods of character generation. The first is to roll four six-sided dice and to discard the lowest score. For example, if the scores on the dice were 6, 5, 4, 2 then the player would discard the 2, as in this case it would be the lowest roll, and then add up the total of the rest, giving a final value of 14 for this attribute. The next method is to roll attributes for twelve separate characters and then to choose the set of attributes from any one particular character. This has the advantage that the player can elect, for example, to have a character with a high Strength if he wishes to play a 'Strong' character. It also does not tend towards the production of 'Super-Characters', that is those who have 18 in every attribute. These are not nearly as much fun to play as characters which have one or two low attributes. A character with low Intelligence can often provide great amusement, whereas a character with all attributes high, having less challenges to face, will often become simply tedious. One other method often used does fall into this unfortunate tendency to produce Super-Characters. In this method three d6s are rolled six times for each characteristic and the best score taken.
Apparently Messrs. Butterfield, Parker, and Honigmann didn't think much of the DMG's alternative ability score generation methods either. Good for them.

The Ads of Dragon: The Traveller Book

Issue #69 (January 1983) brings us to an ad for which I have particularly fond memories:
For me, Traveller was the only serious competitor to D&D for my affections and The Traveller Book is one of my favorite iterations of it. This terrific rulebook had all the rules needed to play under a single 160-page hardcover, along with some sample adventures and basic details of the official Third Imperium setting. I can't shake the feeling that The Traveller Book was marketed to AD&D fanatics like myself, who instinctively associated RPGs with hardcover volumes. True or not, I loved this book and still consider it a great way to introduce oneself to Traveller.

Monday, June 13, 2011

In the Mail

A reader in Australia, Michael Anderson, very kindly sent me a couple of RPG-related books I'm unlikely ever to have seen.
The first, Fantasy Gaming, is of recent vintage -- 2007 -- and published in the UK. It's written by "renowned gaming expert" Martin Hackett and is, according to the acknowledgments, "the culmination of over thirty years of creativity and design, going back to my first complete system in 1973." If true, that's quite the claim, since it would make the game system presented in this book a contemporary of D&D. I haven't yet had a chance to do more than glance through Fantasy Gaming, but I'm rather looking forward to it, since it seems to be a complete RPG/wargame hybrid filled with quirky little sub-systems and other oddities.

The second, What is Dungeons & Dragons?, was "written by three Etonian schoolboys who are experts in the game" and was first published in 1982. There's even a picture of authors John Butterfield, Philip Parker, and David Honigmann, on the back cover.
I find this photo absolutely charming and a delightful reminder that, during the height of its popularity, playing D&D wasn't something to be hidden or ashamed of. These three young men could easily have been my friends and I, except that none of us had the wherewithal to produce an introduction to the hobby like these fellows did. I've already dived into What is Dungeons & Dragons? and it's a remarkably well-written and occasionally insightful book, not to mention a window on what the hobby was like during its Golden Age. I'll almost certainly be quoting from it and discussing its contents in the weeks to come.

Thanks so much, Michael!