Sunday, July 31, 2011

Referee Screen Help

OSRCon is less than two weeks away now and I'll be running two sessions of Dwimmermount. I've been spending my copious spare time (ha!) getting things ready for the con, like having a goodly supply of pre-generated characters and hirelings. I'm also trying to decide whether or not I should try and lug my dungeon tiles and minis down to the con; I can see pros and cons to both sides of this question.

One of the other things I'm pondering is the use of a referee's screen. In general, I don't use them nowadays, but I can definitely see its having some utility at the convention. The problem is that I don't currently have a OD&D/Labyrinth Lord screen that I like and don't know where I'd obtain one. Yes, there is the Advanced Labyrinth Lord Screen, which is awesome. However, I'm not using the Advanced Edition Companion, so it's not quite what I'm looking for, though, it'd serve in a pinch. Of course, I've also never turned some PDF pages into a screen capable of standing up, so there are still issues to resolve regardless.

With that in mind, if anyone has any advice on this score, I'd appreciate hearing it, especially when it comes to creating a screen for myself, since that's likely what I'll have to do in order to get panels that include all the information I find most useful in play (such as some charts from the Ready Ref Sheets).

Thanks in advance.

Oubliette Issue #6 Available for Free

Issue #6 of the terrific old school fanzine, Oubliette, is available free in PDF form at RPGNow until the end of August 2011. This issue is 47 pages in length and includes the following:

• Tales from Hell - Kobold Skool
• Monster Club #9 - Animate Dead Special: Skeleton Lord
• Petty Gods Preview - A Sneak Peek at this Exciting OSR Community Publication
• Newland - A Fantasy Campaign Setting
• Shame of the Shaman - A Labyrinth Lord Adventure for 3rd to 4th Level Characters
• Whips in Labyrinth Lord
• Monster Club #10 - Dungeon Random Encounter Tables: Levels 1-3
• Goblin Quest
• Found Familiar - The Raven
• What's in the Oubliette? - Reviews of Alestorm, Quickshade, Game of Thrones and Ironwood Gorge
• Mouse Watch - The Raven Ryder
• The Song of Sithakk - Part 6 of our Serialized Story
• Plus Bonus Material: Business Card-sized Labyrinth Lord Character Sheets and Customizable Dungeon Encounter Tables

Though written using the Labyrinth Lord rules, its contents are all easily convertible to any version of old school D&D. I've reviewed the first four issues on this blog and they're all excellent and, above all, useful, filled with great adventures, imaginative rules variants, and other articles of interest to players and referees alike. And I adore the art. If you've never had a chance to read an issue, take this opportunity to download the latest issue for free and see what you've been missing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tékumel Foundation News

Victor Raymond asked me to pass along this news to the wider world. I'd known about it for some time beforehand and looked forward to being able to share it, because it's, frankly, really amazing:


July 27, 2011
Minneapolis, MN


The Tékumel Foundation is proud to announce that on Saturday, June 11th, 2011 Professor Barker's Tékumel materials and wargaming supplies were moved from his home to secure, climate-controlled storage. This project was long and carefully planned and carried out with the blessing and encouragement of Professor Barker and his wife Ambereen and the assistance of dedicated volunteers, some of whom flew in from out of state.

The Tékumel Foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Professor M.A.R. Barker and building an archive of Tékumel memorabilia and documents. Foundation members assisted by Lady Anka’a and various Tékumel fans catalogued, photographed, carefully boxed and transported these materials to a secure climate-controlled storage area in less than 10 hours. Items secured include Professor Barker’s globe of Tékumel, the scale model Temple of Vimúhla first displayed at GenCon IX in 1976, private maps, papers and other interesting and diverse items including unpublished material – exactly how much or what is still to be determined.

There is still much work to be done. Paper items need to be digitally scanned to secure storage; items may need to be repaired and/or restored. Items not directly connected to Tékumel must be organized, including wargaming materials, fanzines of the 1950’s, and games that at various times had been sent to Professor Barker for review.  Fortunately, the Tékumel Foundation has people with the necessary skills to assist with this enormous project.  It is hoped Professor Barker’s papers will yield new material for Tékumel, and we are optimistic that there is “good new stuff” to be published.

Photos are available in the photos section of this group depicting some of items placed in storage to help preserve the legacy of Tékumel. Enjoy!

For more information, please contact the Tékumel Foundation –
Here are the photographs mentioned in the press release.
 This is an incomplete globe of Tékumel, showing the locations of all known lands.
This is the globe from another angle.
This is a 25mm scale Temple of Vimúhla, of which you may have seen black and white photos from an early issue of Dragon.
Here's the same Temple from another angle.
And, finally, here's a hex map of the largely unknown southern continent of Tékumel, the one from which it is assumed many player characters in the original Empire of the Petal Throne come.

As I said above, this is amazing news and I'm very happy to share it. Victor has been keeping me regularly updated on the doings of the Tékumel Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Professor Barker's gaming-related writings and other artifacts for posterity. Given the remarkable nature of some of the items now in its possession, like those pictured above, I cannot express how grateful I am for the dedication of the Foundation and its members. These irreplaceable items will now be protected for the future rather than being lost to the elements or falling into the hands of those who would not share them with others.

It's a pity that similar archives don't (or won't) exist for other founders of the hobby, such as Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, but here's hoping that the example of the Tékumel Foundation might inspire others to consider such a possibility in the years to come.

The Ads of Dragon: Fantasy Games Unlimited

I've highlighted ads for Fantasy Games Unlimited RPGs before, but this one, from issue #82 (February 1984) is particularly memorable in my opinion:
I've long felt that FGU had a knack for creating compelling advertisements and this one, for their five biggest RPGs, was definitely attention-grabbing. I played several of these games at various times and, with the exception of Aftermath, still own versions of them all, but none of them ever won my heart the way that other companies' products did. Still, I can't deny that ads like this one make wish I were playing one of them right now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The World's Hardest Gary Gygax Quiz

Paul over at the Blog of Holding has put together what he calls "the World's Hardest Gary Gygax Quiz" in honor of Gary's 73rd birthday today. I'm not sure it really is the world's hardest quiz on the subject, but, seeing as I only got it 90% right and was stumped by the bonus question, it's still not easy. Head on over to have some fun!

James Maliszewski took the Hardest Gary Gygax Quiz in the World and got 90%!

You are a Gary Gygax Lord. Wow, you know a lot about Gary Gygax! My guess is that you are one of those Old School Renaissance guys, or else your last name is Gygax. Seriously, I didn't think anyone would do this well on this quiz.

Paladin Code: You completed this quiz without using Google.

Gygax Memorial Fund

Tavis Allison has asked me, on the anniversary of Gary Gygax's birth, to draw attention to the existence of the Gygax Memorial Fund, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose goal is the construction of a monument in honor of one of the founding fathers of our shared hobby. The Fund has already been granted parkland in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for this purpose. What remains now is to raise the funds necessary for the monument itself, whose estimated cost is $500,000.

The Gygax Memorial Fund is hosting an exhibit at Gen Con this August 4th-7th to raise awareness of its mission. At the Old School Renaissance Group booth (#1541), Gary's widow, Gail Gygax, will be talking about conversations she had with her husband before his death about how he wanted to be remembered, the resulting vision for the statue, and the goals of the Memorial Fund.

At the booth, the Fund will be taking contributions and offering donor rewards including T-shirts with the Gygax Memorial logo -  Argent, a Bar Azure, Three Lozenges Gules  - and a book called Cheers, Gary, which selects the best of his correspondence with fans at the EN World Q&A threads and whose cover is illustrated by Erol Otus. Editor Paul Hughes will also be at the booth with Gail signing copies of Cheers, Gary and discussing plans for another volume based on the Dragonsfoot Q&A.
This is a very worthwhile cause, so please spread word of it to anyone you know whose lives were positively affected by Gary. He was a giant in whose shadow we all stand.

Retrospective: Gary Gygax

Had Gary Gygax lived, today would have been his 73rd birthday. For that reason, I'm posting below links to some previous retrospectives of his works that I've written over the last few years. I hope this will remind us how much Gary bequeathed to us above and beyond the fact that we have this hobby at all.

Boot Hill

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks 

Isle of the Ape

Keep on the Borderlands

Legion of Gold

Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure 

Saga of Old City

The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

The Temple of Elemental Evil

The World of Greyhawk

Tomb of Horrors

Vault of the Drow

Happy birthday, Gary, and thanks for everything!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

REVIEW: Weird West Roleplaying Game Basic Rulebook

After science fiction, I'm hard pressed to decide whether I like fantasy or Westerns more. Certainly I talk a great deal more about fantasy on this blog than I do about Westerns, but that's more an acknowledgment of how large fantasy looms in our hobby than it is a reflection of my personal tastes. That said, my direct experience with Western-themed RPGs is quite limited, with TSR's Boot Hill being the only one I played successfully for any length of time. Despite this, I've long been on the lookout for a good Western RPG and have even been toying around with one of my own over the past year (Saloons & Shootists is its working title). So, when Stuart Robertson released a Western RPG of his own, I took notice.

Called Weird West, Robertson describes it as a "streamlined and fast playing adventure roleplaying game for weird western worlds of cowboys, kung-fu, magic and otherworldly malevolence." Now, I'm sure some of you are already disappointed to read this description. "Not another occult Western game," you may be saying. Here's the thing: it's dead simple to remove the supernatural elements from Weird West, since, in the 8-page Basic Rulebook they're actually quite few. Do so and what you're left with is a nifty little game system that, frankly, could easily serve as the basis for a wide variety of roleplaying campaigns, regardless of when or where they're set. Before I expand on that thought, let's talk more specifically about what you get in $1 PDF.

First off, it's worth noting that Weird West comes in two formats, both of which you get when you purchase the game. One is a traditional 8½" x 11" booklet; the other is a much smaller (4.25" x 2.75") folded "pocket mod." I'm a big fan of small rulebooks, both in terms of page count and physical size, so I was very pleased to see the pocket mod version. Of the game's 8 single-column pages, only two are actually taken up with rules. The first page is its title page, with a superbly evocative illustration by Robertson that, to my mind, recalls Mike Mignola's work. The last page is a Fighting Chart that cross-references a character's Fighting attribute against his target's Defense. For the chart averse, let me say now that it's the only significant chart in the game and, with the pocketmod, there's really no excuse for everyone, player and referee alike, not to have the chart readily at hand while playing Weird West.

Weird West characters have four attributes: Fighting, Grit, Magic, and Skill. Players have 4 points to allocate amongst these attributes as they wish, with 0 being an acceptable score for any attribute except Grit, which governs a character's Stamina (as hit points are called here). It's worth noting that "Magic" governs any unusual ability, not just those that are explicitly supernatural. For example, the abilities "Fastest Gun in the West" or "Horse Whisperer" are both governed by Magic. Such abilities, even the more overt ones, are still fairly limited by the standards of most RPGs, meaning that Weird West falls more on the "low magic" end of the spectrum, though, given its open-ended nature, it'd be very easy to add more impressive and potent abilities to the game if one so desired.

Weird West is a class and level-based, though its classes (called "paths") primarily determine which attributes a character increases over time and at what rate. Thus, an "adventurer" gains 1 point in Fighting and Skill every two levels, while a "magician" gains 1 point of Magic every level and 1 point in Fighting and Skill every three levels. Characters gain levels at whatever rate the referee decides, whether that be at the conclusion of every session, every adventure, or more rarely. Roles also determine which dice are used to determine Stamina and the maximum damage dealt through the use of weapons.

Combat is handled simply through the use of a 1D20 roll against a target number derived from the aforementioned Fighting Chart. Damage is deducted from a target's Stamina pool. Once a target reaches 0 Stamina, a roll is made on another small chart to determine what happens, with results ranging from "Stunned -- lose next action" to "Death." "Difficult tasks," which is to say, tasks where failure has consequences, are resolved through a 1D6 roll, with 5+ indicating success. This target number is modified upwards or downwards based on any relevant attributes. The rulebook provides many examples of common tasks to aid the referee in determining their difficulty.

Weird West is a simple, straightforward game whose old school pedigree is obvious in its flexibility and open-endedness. Though it's accurate to call it "complete," since everything you need to play is included in its 8 pages, I have little doubt that, over the course of a campaign -- or even a single adventure -- situations will arise that are not explicitly covered in the rules. Fortunately, the rules of Weird West are intuitive enough that it shouldn't be difficult to expand them into new areas. Just reading the rules, I found myself thinking idly about how easy it would be to create expanded rules for gambling and brawling. That's a testament to the solid and inviting design of this game.

I also found myself realizing just how few rules are actually needed in order to create a complete RPG. Nowadays, we tend to expect RPGs, even self-avowedly "lite" ones to be dozens of pages long at least. Weird West happily eschews such notions, focusing instead on fundamental systems that are both easy to use and to build upon. Ultimately, that's the real appeal of Weird West: it's a game that encourages tinkering but doesn't require it. As is, it's more than adequate for fast, pulpy Wild West adventures but it still leaves ample room for expansion for players and referees who like that sort of thing. It's more than worth its $1 price tag and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for it.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a simple, intuitive system for Western adventures that you can easily add to and expand upon without any trouble.
Don't Buy This If: If you're either not interested in Westerns or prefer your RPGs to be more complex and exhaustive in their rules.

The Ads of Dragon: Dragonlance

Issue #81 (January 1984) included this cryptic advertisement:
I had no idea what this ad was for or what it meant, but I sure was intrigued!

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Re-Reading The Lord of the Rings

As I mentioned on Friday, I regularly re-read The Lord of the Rings, as it's one of those books that repays multiple readings. Originally, I hadn't planned on re-reading it anytime soon, since I'd been on a science fiction kick in the weeks prior, but I changed my mind when my 11 year-old daughter asked if I might read it to her before bedtime. My daughter is a voracious reader on her own, but it's been a longstanding tradition in our house to read to our children before they go to bed. As she's gotten older, the books we've been reading have gotten longer and more sophisticated and, honestly, I'm grateful that my daughter, though coming ever closer to being a teenager, hasn't yet outgrown her enjoyment of having my wife or I read to her each night. So, when she asked that I start reading The Fellowship of the Ring to her, a chapter at a time, I leapt at the opportunity.

In re-reading Tolkien, I've noticed a couple of things I never noticed before. The first is that The Lord of the Rings is quite amenable to being read aloud. I'd never done this before, so this is a bit of a revelation to me. But as I read it to my daughter, I've been regularly surprised at how natural it sounds in speech. I say "surprised," because, though I love Tolkien, when reading him to myself, there are often passages that seem more stilted and formal than I like. This has often led me to mistakenly believe that, as a stylist, Tolkien isn't that great. Now, it may be true that, compared to many authors, he isn't, but my experience reading him aloud makes me think that he's better than he's often given credit for. This is particularly true of his dialog, which not only sounds better than it reads but is also quite moving at times. I found myself wishing we'd heard more of it in the film adaptations.

The other thing I noticed is that Middle-earth is both more and less magical a place than I often imagined its being. The Lord of the Rings is regularly called, by myself as well as others, a "high fantasy," a term used, at least in part, to distinguish it from swords-and-sorcery stories such as those written by Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber. Part of what supposedly distinguishes high fantasy from S&S is that high fantasy takes place in a more magical and less "real" world, whereas swords-and-sorcery is "gritty" and "down to earth." There's some truth to this distinction, but what I've discovered in my re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring is that Middle-earth is, without even excepting the existence of hobbits and elves and Black Riders, a fairly mundane place. I don't mean it's a boring place, just that it's a well constructed world filled with animals, plants, and people doing everyday things. If I were being cheeky, I might even say that Middle-earth was a Gygaxian naturalistic world. At the same time, it's hard for me to read Tolkien's lengthy descriptions of, say, the Old Forest or even the Bree-land and not find then magical -- not hocus-pocus magical but "naturally" magical, if that makes sense. By devoting so many words to describing the physical environs of the novel's setting, Tolkien invested them with an understated kind of magic that too many fantasy worlds lack.

I'm glad I'm having this chance to revisit Middle-earth, as it's made a few things clearer in my mind than they once were. Of course, it's also made me regret all the more that the characters we saw in the film adaptation of the novel were so different than their literary counterparts. Merry and Pippin, for instance, are much more interesting and admirable characters and, almost from the first, Aragorn exudes true kingliness. I also miss Frodo's being older, if only because it highlights the parallelism between his and Bilbo's earlier adventures, something I'm pretty sure Tolkien intended. In any event, I'll likely have more to say on this topic as I get further in my readings with my daughter over the weeks and months to come.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pawn of Prophecy

I readily admit that I'm not a big fan of post-Tolkien fantasy and books like David Eddings's Pawn of Prophecy are a big part of why I feel this way. It's not this 1982 novel is uniquely bad. Much like The Sword of Shannara, I'm not even sure it's fair to say that the first volume of the five-part "Belgardiad" series is actually bad at all; in my opinion, a better word would be "mediocre." Like Brooks, Eddings took a lot of his cues from The Lord of the Rings, borrowings surface elements of Tolkien's tale to craft what is for me Exhibit A in why nearly every fantasy book I read nowadays was written prior to 1975.  

Pawn of Prophecy is a by-the-numbers epic fantasy that tells the story of a young orphaned boy named Garion raised on a farm by his aunt Pol. Garion's early years, though comparatively idyllic, are nevertheless laden with portent, as Garion often experiences visions of what may be the future, though interpreting them is difficult for him. Likewise, Garion hears a "dry voice" in his head that advises him on the best course of action. Eddings thus makes it clear early on that Garion is no ordinary peasant boy but it is in fact destined for great things over the course of the series.

The nature of Garion's destiny begins to become clearer when a mysterious storyteller arrives at Aunt Pol's farm. The storyteller, whom Garion has seen in his visions beforehand and whom he dubs "Mister Wolf," informs Garion that his life is in danger from the same man who slew his parents and that, to save himself, he must flee the farm immediately. Aunt Pol joins him, as does a local blacksmith named Durnik. As it turns out, the companions are doing more than merely fleeing a threat to Garion's life. Mister Wolf is also interested in finding out what happened to a magical artifact that was recently stolen that, it is hinted, -- wait for it -- pertains to Garion's destiny. The rest of the novel consists of Garion, Mister Wolf, and Aunt Pol traveling the world on this quest, in the process acquiring new information and companions to aid them.

Pawn of Prophecy is pretty unsatisfying on its own, since it's very explicitly part one of a five-part epic. It's also terribly clichéd, filled with all the characters, events, and ideas that one has come to expect from post-Tolkien high fantasy. Yet, I find it very difficult to dislike Pawn of Prophecy. Eddings was not a great writer by any means, but he's readable, especially if you're young and have little experience of either the fantasy genre or more talented authors. And, oddly, the very fact that he incorporates so many fantasy tropes and archetypes into this series makes it cohere better than it really ought to.

Let me stress that, like the Shannara series, I don't count myself a fan of David Eddings books. They're derivative and repetitive and don't really bring anything new to the table. I find it hard to view them as anything more than juvenile literature, which, given that nearly everyone I've ever met who read them did so when they were young, is probably the case. I think there's both a place and a need for derivative literature aimed at juveniles and, judging by the popularity of Pawn of Prophecy and its sequels, I'm guessing I'm not the only one who feels this way -- just don't try to argue that David Eddings (or Terry Brooks, for that matter) produced a "classic" to rival Tolkien or Wolfe.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

PDF Help Requested

As some of you know, next month I'll be running two Dwimmermount sessions at OSRCon here in Toronto. In between getting the first Dwimmermount Codex, Petty Gods, and Thousand Suns ready for publication over the next couple of months (which is why posts have been fewer than usual this month -- sorry), I've also been preparing for the con by making sure I have a surfeit of pregenerated characters for people to use. Ideally, I'd like to have these characters printed up on the nifty Dwimmermount record sheet Lester B. Portly, Esq. did for me last year.

As I get older, my handwriting turns ever more into an illegible scrawl, so I'd prefer it if I could turn the PDF I have of the record sheet into an editable one. That'd both save my hand the pain of writing out so many sheets and save the players the trouble of deciphering my chicken scratch. Alas, the PDF I have isn't editable and I lack both the knowledge and tools needed to make it so. Now, if anyone out there in the ether does know how to do this, I'd appreciate a hand in fixing this situation. Just drop me a line and I'll get you whatever you need to make this happen.

Thanks in advance!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Open Friday: Re-reading

Recently, my daughter asked me to read The Lord of the Rings to her before she goes to bed each night. As it turned out, this was a serendipitous request, as I was planning to begin re-reading it myself, as I try to do every year or two. The Lord of the Rings is one of those books I feel the need to return to often; my appreciation and enjoyment of it increases with every re-reading. The same is true of many of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, H. Beam Piper, and Poul Anderson.

This made me wonder: what are the books or authors you return to again and again and find that you enjoy more each time that you read them?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin

Issue #80 (December 1983) brings us this intriguing ad for an D&D video game cartridge for Mattel's Intellivision:
I never owned an Intellivision, but my best friend at the time did and we shared a love for all things D&D, so he -- or, rather, his parents -- purchased a copy of Treasure of Tarmin when it came out. The game is very similar, in broad terms, to the earlier Crypts of Chaos produced for the Atari VCS. It's a first-person perspective dungeon crawl, with the goal of amassing treasure as you wander through a maze filled with deadly monsters. Unlike Crypts of Chaos, it's a lot more colorful and thus easier to navigate, but it's not much more sophisticated in terms of gameplay, at least as far as I recall.

At the time, what really irked me about Treasure of Tarmin was that, despite its being called a D&D game -- indeed an Advanced D&D game -- was how little it actually had to do with my favorite RPG. Most of the monsters are pretty generic, consisting of giant insects, dragons, and a few random undead. Likewise, the game didn't use any rules derived from D&D, not even hit points. Instead, your character has two pools of points, called "war" and "spiritual" and, no, I don't remember what each of them did. There were no classes, races, or ability scores, let alone spells or magic items associated with D&D. In short, it was a "Dungeons & Dragons" game in name only.

That annoyed me in 1983 and I don't feel much more well inclined toward it now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Retrospective: Ley Sector

I regularly bemoan the fact that GDW allowed the Third Imperium to become not merely an example setting for their SF RPG Traveller but the setting for it. I continue to feel that, by doing this, it so firmly yoked Traveller's ruleset to a single setting that it subtly discouraged players of the game from making up their own settings and instead to rely on GDW and its licensees for more setting information to use in their campaigns. One such licensee was Judges Guild, which produced several Traveller adventures and sector supplements, one of which was Ley Sector, published in 1980 by an unknown author (there is no writer credited anywhere in the text).

Ley Sector consists of a 32-page guidebook and a large poster map showing all 16 of its subsectors, consisting of 411 planets. Each subsector takes up a single page, following the format established in GDW's The Spinward Marches the previous year. Each subsector is given very little information beyond the names and locations of its worlds, along with the familiar alphanumeric string used by Traveller to designate a world's starport, population, government, etc. In a few cases, there are two or three sentences that provide a little bit or historical or cultural information about the region, but that's the extent of it. There are also a number of encounter tables covering space, worlds, planetary settlements, as well as animals, rumors, and news.

Taken together, Ley Sector is very thin gruel if you're expecting more than a bare bones treatment of a divided sector on the frontiers of the Third Imperium. At the time, I was expecting something more than that and was somewhat disappointed in this product, as I was with most of the other Judges Guild Traveller books. Like Ley Sector, they tended to be very loose, open-ended products, providing the basic details for the referee to incorporate into his home campaign as he wished. Nowadays, that's exactly what I want out of a gaming product, but, back in the early 80s, it wasn't. I wanted more than just a collection of randomly generated worlds given names and placed on a big map.

I started playing Traveller because I wanted a science fiction RPG from which to create my own setting but I kept playing Traveller because I fell in love with the Third Imperium setting. I very quickly became obsessed with its minutiae and had no interest in adventures or products that were too self-contained and modular. Instead, I expected reams of detail on the history, society, and culture of humaniti and other sophont races. What I wanted was more of what Traveller called "library data," not sketchy building blocks from which to build my own adventures and settings. And that's what Ley Sector offers. Sure, it's ostensibly set within GDW's official setting but its points of connection are so few that there's no reason it need be. Indeed, it's almost as if Judges Guild intended it to be easily usable by Traveller referees regardless of whether they used the Third Imperium for their home campaign or not. How weird is that?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Asgard Miniatures

This ad below, which appeared in issue #79 (November 1983), is actually the second page of a two-page advertisement for Asgard Miniatures, which were a line of minis sold by The Armory.
I included it because of the list of stores where Asgard Miniatures were sold. Looking over the Maryland entries, I see Strategy & Fantasy World, which later became The Compleat Strategist. That's the store where I bought many, many RPGs in my early days. I also see The Ship Shop, where I worked for a semester when I first started college -- my one and only experience on the retail end of the hobby.

So, anyone else see any game stores from their days of yore on the list?

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Bit of Petty Gods News

Though I have been quiet on the matter, rest assured that Petty Gods is slowly winding its way toward release. I spent a lot of time in June getting the entries ready, as well as making sure I had all the art needed. There are still some holes to plug, as well as some further tweaking on the entries, not to mention the creation of some supplementary material I think would make good additions to the overall book. You'll be able to see a preview of the book in issue #6 of the fanzine Oubliette, which comes out in a few weeks.

One of the reasons I've been moving slowly on Petty Gods, aside from being distracted by the Dwimmermount Codex and the revision of Thousand Suns, is that I was awaiting word on a possible inclusion from a very special contributor. Happily, I am now able to tell you that, in addition to a foreword by Paul Jaquays, Petty Gods will include the entirety of Professor M.A.R. Barker's 1980 essay, "How to Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit." It's a terrific article, filled with lots of great ideas and not a few insights. It's long been one of my favorite of Professor Barker's writings and I'm honored that he's granted me permission to include it in Petty Gods. Many thanks to Victor Raymond for making this happen.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Lord Foul's Bane

Along with The Sword of Shannara, another book I first encountered because of my friend's mother's membership in the Science Fiction Book Club was Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, the first novel in "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever." Both books were first published in 1977 but could not be more unlike one another in my opinion. Whereas Brooks's book inaugurated the tendency of many contemporary fantasy authors to ape Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to varying degrees, Donaldson's inaugurated an opposite tendency: to reject Tolkien's world, or at least the worldview communicated through it.

Interestingly, Lord Foul's Bane takes much from older approaches to fantasy. Its focus character, Thomas Covenant, is a man from "the real world" who, by means of a car accident that leaves him in a coma, finds himself inexplicably transported to another reality known only as "the Land." In our world, Covenant is a writer who contracted leprosy, which costs him not only two fingers on his right hand, but also his family, his career and indeed his connection to other human beings, as he becomes increasingly bitter and reclusive. Covenant's mysterious journey to the Land is reminiscent in many ways of other dreaming heroes, such as Burroughs's John Carter and Lovecraft's Randolph Carter, among others, which leads one to wonder, as Covenant himself does, whether the Land is a real place or merely a figment of his imagination.

Once in the Land, Covenant discovers that he has been summoned by means of a potent magical artifact called the Staff of Law by a being known as Drool Rockworm. Drool is a "cavewight," a pathetic evil creature who intends to use the Staff to bring doom to the Land. However, another evil being, who calls himself Lord Foul the Despiser, tells Covenant that, if Drool is stopped, the Land can be saved -- for a time. Ultimately, Foul explains, nothing can stop him from destroying the Land, but that destruction is some decades hence. He then tasks Covenant with delivering this information to the Council of Lords located in a place called Revelstone and sends him elsewhere in the Land to begin his journey.

After being transported, Covenant encounters a young woman named Lena, who, upon seeing his loss of two fingers, believes him to be the second coming of an ancient hero called Berek Halfhand. This notion is reinforced by the fact that Covenant where's a wedding band of white gold, that metal being seen as mystically significant in the Land. Lena heals Covenant of his injuries through the use of a magical earth called hurtloam, which cures his leprosy. This turn of events only further convinces Covenant that the Land is not real but rather a delusion of some sort.

It's at this point in the book where Lord Foul's Bane takes a turn that many readers, quite understandably, find too difficult to bear. As a consequence of the curing of his leprosy and of his growing certainty that the Land cannot be real, Covenant rapes Lena. This act firmly cements Covenant's status as an antihero unlike most in mainstream fantasy and has spelled the end of untold readers' attempts to make it through this book. Before the rape, Covenant was already a miserable, self-centered, and unlikeable character. His violence against Lena, who not only had helped him but also trusted him, turns him into a nigh-villain and it is difficult to see him in a heroic light. That was clearly Donaldson's intention, but I can't say that makes it an easier to take.

The remainder of Lord Foul's Bane is, in my opinion, a fairly mediocre book set in a very interesting world. The Land is a fascinating place, full of intriguing people and places, even if it does suffer a bit in the nomenclature department. Donaldson seems overly fond of either obvious names (the aforementioned Drool and Lord Foul) or goofy compounds (like Foamfollower) that don't really do a service to the setting he's constructed. Likewise, Thomas Covenant is so relentlessly off-putting that it makes it difficult to keep reading the book. Even when he's not being a jerk, he's self-pitying and self-absorbed, to the point where it's almost impossible to care about him as a protagonist, a situation that does improve somewhat in later books in the series, but I can hardly blame anyone who never made it that far. Even given its limited virtues, I'm not sure I can honestly say that someone who hasn't read this book has missed out on anything, except perhaps one of the wellsprings of contemporary "edgy" fantasy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thorin Oakenshield

Here's our first look at Thorin from Peter Jackson's upcoming The Hobbit.
So much for the theory that the King Under the Mountain would be an archetypal Nordic-style dwarf.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Balin and Dwalin

This image was released yesterday, but I was on my Friday sabbatical -- sorry about the lack of an "Open Friday" post as I was busy -- and I didn't see it until today.
These guys aren't too bad, though, again, Dwalin looks to have a very short beard, unless I'm just not seeing something right. That leaves just Thorin to reveal and let's be honest: he's the only dwarf whose appearance means that much in the end. I hope he looks more like Balin and Dwalin than like Fili and Kili.

An Embarrassment of Riches

According to this announcement, we're getting another version of RuneQuest, the sixth edition, in 2012. This edition is being written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash, the gentlemen who gave the world Mongoose's RuneQuest II. As you may remember, RuneQuest II, under the name Legend, will continue to be published by Mongoose and the FAQ on Whitaker and Nash's website states that there is "a very high degree of compatibility between the two games." There will be differences, but, from what I can tell, those differences seem more about coverage of content than game mechanics.

So, if I find myself in the ironic position of many an outsider to the old school D&D world asking the question, "Do we really need another version of RuneQuest, especially when this new one is designed by the same people as the previous -- and still available -- version and is largely identical to it?" I sincerely have no idea. My suspicion is that this sixth edition is a consequence of the severing of the ties between Issaries, the owner of the RuneQuest name, and Mongoose. In the announcement linked above, Issaries president Greg Stafford talks about RuneQuest being a "highly respected brand" with a "good name" and reputation. That suggests one possible motivation for this move. Likewise, I understand that Whitaker and Nash ceased working with Mongoose on RuneQuest II after a certain point, despite their products being considered among the best for the line. This new arrangement may simply allow them to pick up where they left off without interference.

Not being primarily a player of RuneQuest or indeed BRP generally, I'm not sure what to make of all this. It's definitely interesting and, were I a player of RQ, I'd likely find this latest news equal parts encouraging and baffling. Regardless, this is probably one of the most exciting times to be a player of BRP-derived games since the early 90s.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

John Carter Trailer

For those who haven't seen it, here's the trailer for the John Carter movie. All in all, it's excellent in my opinion. I really like the inclusion of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character, which, like Carter's civil war origins, provides a vital frame for understanding the story.

Naturally, I have some minor quibbles but nothing on par with my feelings about The Hobbit or Conan the Barbarian. As always, the real proof is in the movie itself, but I get a very good vibe from just this short taste of what's to come.

John Carter Website Launches

The official website for the 2012 film John Carter launched today. You can see it here. There's next to nothing there as yet, but a trailer of some sort is scheduled to be released at 10 AM Pacific time today, so that might give us something to actually discuss. Despite my initial concerns last year, I'm feeling a great deal more positive about John Carter than I am about either The Hobbit or Conan the Barbarian. John Carter looks like it'll be very faithful to the source material, right down to Carter's origins as a Civil War veteran. That alone speaks volumes about how seriously writer/director Andrew Stanton takes his job in adapting this classic of science fiction.

I'll certainly have more to say once I've seen the trailer.

The Ads of Dragon: Ravenloft

Issue #78 came out in October 1983 and contained the following ad obviously that used the month's association with Halloween to its advantage:
My qualms about Ravenloft to the contrary, it's a very well-done advertisement, even if it shows that extent to which D&D in 1983 was casting off its origins. At the time, though, I didn't much care and I was very excited about this upcoming release. Whatever one's feelings about the module -- and the change it heralded -- you've got to give the marketing at TSR some credit in crafting something that grabbed one's attention.

Bombur, Bofur, and Bifur

What's with Bofur's hat? For that matter, why do we keep getting short-bearded dwarves?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Retrospective: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Released in 1982, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is the first entry in Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, about which I've spoken before. I was a big fan of these books in my early teen years, in part because they allowed me to "play" on occasions where I was unable to get together with my friends as I usually did. Ultimately, though, what kept me reading them was that they were extremely well done, both in terms of the fantastic world they presented and the challenge they presented. Achieving victory in the better Fighting Fantasy books was a difficult proposition, even assuming you rolled well against the many opponents and obstacles you'd have to face in the course of your adventure -- and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was definitely one of the better books in the series.

The basic premise of the book is simple. The reader is an adventurer on a quest for a treasure hidden deep within the caverns and dungeons of Firetop Mountain. The mountain is populated by all manner of fearsome beasts, living and undead. It's also the home of the Warlock, too, a dark magician who's none too eager to have the treasure stolen from him. To that end, it's well guarded within a chest possessing a double lock. Finding the two keys needed to open the lock is thus as important as finding the location of the treasure itself. Naturally, the keys are guarded by some of the deadliest creatures in Firetop Mountain and there are numerous false keys scattered about as well, making it hard to determine whether one has truly found those needed to complete the quest.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, were it a printed adventure module, would most assuredly be called "old school." Not only is the place very deadly, with several opportunities for instant death (forget "save or die"), but the structure of some of its puzzles (like figuring out which keys are the real ones) more or less necessitate meta-gaming. That is, you might have to fail several times in your quest and then start over, using the knowledge gained from previous attempts to succeed on your next try. Personally, I never minded this, as it kept me interested in the book, determined to "beat" it, but some might find it "immersion breaking." The same might be said of the dungeons and caverns of Firetop Mountain, which definitely veer more toward the "funhouse" end of the spectrum than they do toward anything more naturalistic.

I owned the American version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which featured the Richard Corben cover pictured here. The interior illustrations, though, were those of Russ Nicholson, just as in the UK original. I cannot tell you how profoundly the illustrations in this book affected me as a young person. I was familiar with Nicholson's work from the Fiend Folio, of course, but, for some reason, perhaps my ambivalent opinion of that manual of monsters, his work on Fighting Fantasy made a much stronger impression. The combination of the artwork, the world it conveyed, and the real difficulty in concluding the book successfully -- oh, how I loathed the maze section -- all combined to hook me on Fighting Fantasy. I picked every other volume I could get my hands on and was so enamored of the format that I even tried my hand at other gamebooks, some of which I'll talk about in the days to come.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dwarven Variation

Here are a few still from the 1977 Rankin/Bass cartoon adaptation of The Hobbit, which illustrate the way some of the dwarves were portrayed.
Fili and Kili
Nori and Ori
Dori and Nori
Oin and Gloin
I am not a booster of this version of The Hobbit, which has many, many flaws, both as an adaptation and as a work in its own right. However, it's interesting to see how the animators dealt with the question of how to differentiate the dwarves visually from one another. I'm not sure they succeeded as well as they ought to have, but I think they did well enough, especially given how little Tolkien himself differentiated between many of them. Of particular note are Fili and Kili at the top of this post, who, I think, nicely convey being younger than their companions while still being recognizably dwarvish. (I also note that, as in the book, they are both blond and have long noses)

Uh ... no

This photo is supposed to depict Fili and Kili from The Hobbit. I say "supposed to" for the obvious reason that, last time I checked, Fili and Kili were dwarves.
I don't know what these guys are, but they're certainly not dwarves.

The Ads of Dragon: Science Fiction Book Club

I mentioned in yesterday's post about The Sword of Shannara that my first encounter with the book was through a friend's mother, who was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. Serendipitously, the next issue #77 of Dragon (September 1983) in my queue for this feature included an advertisement from SFBC.
That the Book Club advertised in Dragon at all is probably noteworthy, a testament to just how high the magazine's circulation was even at the end of the Golden Age. More interesting to me are the titles highlighted in the ad, which serve as a window into what mass market SF and fantasy was like in those days. In addition to Anderson, Asimov, Heinlein, and Herbert, you'll see Terry Brooks, a comic adaptation of the movie Creepshow -- the term "graphic novel" not yet having been invented -- and the delightfully idiosyncratic Fantasy Wargaming. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a book like that would be included in an ad targeted at Dragon audiences, yet I am. Fantasy Wargaming is, at best, a footnote in the history of the hobby. To see it sold through a mass market mail order book club like the SFBC is remarkable. Oh, how times have changed!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sword of Shannara

Though published in 1977, I know I didn't encounter Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara until some years later, when it appeared in the house of a friend of mine. His mother was a member of the Book of the Month Club or something similar and this novel was a selection one month. Consequently, it was lying around the house when we got together to game and I often found myself idly reading it while my friends sat around waiting for the rest of our group to arrive to play. My first thought, back then, was "This is just like The Lord of the Rings but with different names."

I eventually borrowed a copy from the library and read the whole book, which didn't do much to change my initial impression. Back then, though, being "just like The Lord of the Rings but with different names" wasn't actually a criticism. Indeed, it was probably a point in the book's favor -- which probably explains why it was so wildly successful. Indeed, The Sword of Shannara appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, a remarkable feat back in the 1970s, when paperback fantasy novels weren't the publishing force they've become in the years since, due in no small part to the success of Terry Brooks.

The Sword of Shannara begins by introducing the reader to the half-elven child Shea, who's been raised by the Ohmsford family alongside a foster brother named Flick. Shea's idyllic existence is interrupted by the arrival of Allanon, a druid, who informs him of his heritage, specifically that he is a descendant of the elven king, Jerle Shannara, and thus the rightful wielder of the eponymous Sword of Shannara. Shea must use this magical weapon to fight the Warlock Lord, who threatens the Four Lands with evil. Pursued by Skull Bearers -- former druids turned creatures of darkness -- Shea and Flick flee their home, starting an epic quest that inevitably leads them to the confrontation Allanon described. Along the way, they acquire a number of companions, many of which have obvious analogs among the characters of The Lord of the Rings.

Looking back on The Sword of Shannara, I don't think anyone can deny that it received its greatest inspiration from Tolkien's masterpiece. There are many points of correspondence between The Lord of the Rings and Brooks's debut novel. At the same time, there are also plenty of points of divergence, points that, in my opinion, make The Sword of Shannara "the first D&D novel." By this I mean that, while the origin of this story lies with Tolkien, Brooks took the raw ideas he swiped and went off with them in directions that Tolkien never would have -- but a gamer might. Thus, Allanon is no angelic servitor in mortal guise but rather a druid (and one with a melodramatic backstory at that). Shea, a supposed Frodo analog, is in fact a person of great importance, descended from the wielders of a magical artifact, rather than being a common hobbit. Brooks's Four Lands resound with embellishments like this, the kinds of things that naturally occur when gamers sit around and kibitz about their favorite books and movies and ask each other, "Wouldn't it have been cooler if ..."

That may seem like a criticism, but I don't mean it to be. Certainly I don't count myself a fan of The Sword of Shannara or its sequels and spin-off series. I wasn't particularly impressed with it the first time I read it and time has done little to improve my opinion of it. However, my dislike has little to do with its derivativeness from Tolkien and more to do with my disinterest in the story it tells. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: as a culture, we're often more obsessed with novelty than I think we ought to be. I don't see any shame in recasting an existing story, adding one's own ideas and removing others. The mere fact that Brooks borrowed so much from Tolkien says little about the quality of The Sword of Shannara. From my perspective, I don't begrudge him one whit. There's a certain honesty to good pastiche, an implicit acknowledgment of the debt owed to one's inspiration combined with an admission that what one is producing isn't the original. That's a kind of honesty I could stand to see more of.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

More Dwarves

Here's a still featuring brothers Óin and Glóin (father of Gimli) from the upcoming The Hobbit films.
Feel free to comment away about your impressions of the costuming, makeup, etc. However, after the nonsense accompanying my last post about The Hobbit movies, I'm going to ruthlessly delete any comments that deride or impute motives to others who have a differing opinion on the matter. You have been warned.

The Weeper Reminds Us

"You're never too old ... for evil."

Ah, The Brave and the Bold. I miss you already –– and there are still more episodes to come.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Open Friday: Favorite Unloved D&D Monsters

The other day Tim Hutchings of PlaGMaDA sent me a scan of a weird little picture from issue 16 (March 1984) of the Australian fanzine The Devil's Advocate, which depicted the tirapheg from the Fiend Folio. Here it is:
Now, I'm not a fan of the tirapheg (or indeed most monsters from the FF), but this illustration suggests that someone was. I suspect the same is true of many other generally unloved monsters. So, today's question is this: are there any D&D monsters you really like that you know most other gamers do not? Me, I've always loved the modrons from the Monster Manual II, but I get the impression that, even among old schoolers, they're reviled as uninspired and silly. What are some of your favorites?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Meet Dori, Nori, and Ori

Here's our first look at three of the Dwarves from the upcoming film version of The Hobbit:
I don't have my copy of the book handy, so I'm not able to comment on how closely these guys match up to whatever description Tolkien provides, if any. My gut reaction, though, is a positive one. These three look a lot more "dwarf-y" to me than Gimli did in The Lord of the Rings and, provided there are no more dwarf-tossing jokes in The Hobbit, go some way toward redressing the wrong done to Durin's folk previously. Mind you, I've never had much of a problem with the way Middle-earth looked in Jackson's movies; it was their tone that annoyed me at times. So, I see this photo as a definite positive, but the proof, as always, will be in the script.

The Ads of Dragon: Fair Shake

That gamers have a lot of superstitions regarding dice is an understatement. Over the course of the three decades I've been involved in this hobby, I've seen a lot of weird dice-related rituals, from only using a "lucky" die to rolling dice in a particular way to "ensure" a propitious result. So, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise to see this ad in issue #76 (August 1983) for a "dice device" called the Fair Shake:
Given the expense and the complication, I have a hard time imagining that any gamer except the truly gadget-obsessed would buy something like this. I remember being quite baffled by this ad, wondering why anyone would pay $12.95 plus $2.00 for shipping and handling for something that doesn't do anything that you can't do more easily with your own hands -- but then gamers often buy all sorts of crazy stuff that doesn't make any sense to me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How Star Wars -- and Roy Thomas -- Saved Marvel Comics

I'm not a big comics reader and never have been. I read a handful of comics when I was a boy -- Dr. Strange, Star Wars, Micronauts -- and I continue to read them when someone else suggests I take a look at a particular issue or series. Even so, I have a longstanding amateur's fascination with comics as a medium and as an industry, so I'm quite keen to learn more about both. My friend and business partner, Richard Iorio, pointed me toward yesterday's entry on Jim Shooter's blog, where the former Marvel editor-in-chief spins the tale of how, in the mid-70s, Marvel was floundering and the combination of Roy Thomas and the Star Wars license helped to save the company.

It's an interesting read, especially if, like me, you have a fondness for the Marvel Star Wars comics.

Perpetually Under Construction

I spent some of the past weekend playing around a bit more with Hexographer in order to finish off the last few sections of the initial starting area for the Dwimmermount campaign. The area is (obviously) based on the Outdoor Survival map, with some tweaks here and there. It represents most of the ideas I had when I started the campaign, though, in all honesty, very little of what you see on the map are more than names.

Throughout the course of the campaign (still sadly on hiatus owing to scheduling issues), the PCs didn't venture farther into the world than south of Yethlyreom (labeled "Temple of the Moon" on the map) or farther north than the southernmost edge of the Evensong Woods. Most of the action in the game took place in either Dwimmermount proper, nearby Muntburg, or Adamas, with a few visits to Yethlyreom. So, the farther you get from those areas, the less detail you're likely to see on the map.
 I'd be reluctant to say the above was an "accurate" map of my campaign setting, mostly because it's pretty sketchy even after 2+ years of regular play. It's probably truer to say that it's a snapshot of what I, as the referee, know about the world outside of Dwimmermount right now. In actual play, though, some of what I think I know might change, whether by being expanded upon, modified, or outright contradicted. Until something on this map has definitively appeared in play, it's all just conjecture as far as I'm concerned.
As a younger man, I could never have tolerated such an approach to campaign setting design. I needed to know, now, what was beyond that mountain range or across that sea -- and not because I actually worried that the PCs might somehow wind up there in the next session and I didn't want to be caught flatfooted. No, I saw setting design as an end in itself and so I'd spend hours upon hours trying to flesh out every last nook and cranny of these worlds I'd created. Increasingly, I don't see the point in that kind of exercise, but then I'm also neither 14 with infinite time on my hands nor do I see myself as a Tolkien-in-the-making.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I don't think there's anything wrong with alternate approaches to world design; they're simply not for me. Of all the lessons I've learned since coming back to old school gaming, it's keeping the focus on actual play that has had the greatest impact on me. If I'm not likely to need something for the next session or two, I generally don't bother with it. Plus, I get a thrill out of seeing what pours of my subconscious when I have to invent something right then and there in order to keep playing. It's not to everyone's taste, but I love it.

Retrospective: Starfleet Battles

I've talked many times about my love of Star Trek, which is one of my formative experiences with science fiction in any form. I used to watch reruns of the Original Series on Saturday afternoons with my aunt and that forever made me a fan of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. When I entered the hobby in late 1979, there was not yet a Star Trek roleplaying game (or, rather, there was, but I had never seen it). However, there was a wargame set in what appeared to me to be the Star Trek universe called Starfleet Battles and it intrigued me greatly.

The earliest version of Starfleet Battles was released in 1979 and was designed by Stephen V. Cole. It was sold in a zip-lock bag by Task Force Games, making it a "microgame" similar to Ogre or Car Wars. A boxed "Designer's Edition" came out in 1980 and was a much more impressive -- and complex -- game than the original. I owned the Designer's Edition, but I never played it, whereas I actually did play the microgame version several times at local gamer gatherings at public libraries and similar locales, even though I never owned it myself. If anyone knows me, this fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the differences between the two versions of the game.

The 1979 version wasn't intimidating to my 10 year-old self; I picked up its rules quickly and had a lot of fun engaging in starship battles between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. That's not to say that the original Starfleet Battles was simple, but it was still simpler than the game it would become as early as the Designer's Edition published just a year later. Its movement system, for example, required some getting used to, since it was impulse-based. Likewise, keeping track of a starship's energy allocation could be tricky, even with the forms that came with the game. I suspect, though, that my abiding love for Star Trek is what enabled me to barrel through the game's nuances in order to be able to play it, a love I did not possess for, say, World War II. Without such affection, I doubt I'd be able to say, in truth, that I'd ever played Starfleet Battles.

The other thing that drew me to this wargame and held my attention was the fact that it appeared at a time when there was little else to sate the appetite of a Star Trek fan who wanted more. Hard though it is to imagine in 2011, Star Trek was not a juggernaut of global marketing in the late 70s. We had only the Original Series, the Animated Series, and a handful of books and fanzines to draw upon. One of those books was the Starfleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph, who'd also produced a series of blueprints to many of the starships seen in the Original Series. I owned the Technical Manual and adored it, so the fact that Starfleet Battles drew heavily from it was, to me, proof that this wargame was a gift from heaven for a young fan like myself.

Others better versed in history can explain the full details, but, as I understand it, Task Force Games produced Starfleet Battles under a liberal and open-ended license that gave them full access to the Star Trek universe as it existed at the time of its 1979 publication. This means that the Original and Animated Series are both fair game, as are books like the Technical Manual, but nothing in the subsequent films or spin-off series is available. Consequently, Starfleet Battles is said to take place in "the Starfleet Universe," which is a kind of alternate Star Trek universe. Inevitably, this alternate universe, as the setting for a series of wargames, is rather militaristic in overall feel. As a kid, this never bothered me much and, even now, I can't say I find it particularly problematic, but some Trek fans intensely dislike it and see it as a "betrayal" of Roddenberry's vision of the future.

As I said, I owned the 1980 boxed set but never actually played it, in part because its rules were longer and more complex, but also because, in terms of presentation, they just felt a lot more intimidating. Though the microgame version of the game was every bit the wargame that its successor was, it somehow felt more inviting to me and so I was willing to learn how to play it. The 1980 edition instead just gathered dust on my shelf. Eventually, I raided its collection of counters for additional starship markers to use with FASA's RPG. In the years since, I haven't had any particular desire to go back and try to play Starfleet Battles, though the recent news that there may be a RPG version of Starfleet Battles using the Mongoose Traveller rules has made me think about pulling the game off the shelf and giving it another look. A pity I can't find a copy of the 1979 rules; I might actually try to play that version.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

That Time of Year

Today is my fourteenth wedding anniversary, so I'll (mostly) be taking the day off from writing. Regular posting should resume tomorrow.

See you then.

The Ads of Dragon: James Bond 007

Aside from just being a generally awesome issue, #75 (July 1983) also included this terrific ad for Victory Games's then-upcoming James Bond 007 roleplaying game.
As RPG ads go, this one is definitely up there in my memory. When I saw it, I immediately knew I wanted to get this game and play it, which, of course, I did to great success several months later. Nearly 30 years later, James Bond 007 remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time, in large part because its designers and writers really got the world of James Bond and tailored their game to provide it to players and referees alike.

What an amazing game.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Last Hieroglyph

Published in the April 1935 issue of Weird Tales, "The Last Hieroglyph" was originally intended to "form the concluding item of [Clark Ashton Smith's] Zothique series," according to a letter he wrote to R.H. Barlow. As it turns out, Smith wrote several more stories set in the last continent of his far future Earth, but it's easy to see why he might well have imagined that this tale would be the last. It tells the story of Nushain, an astrologer who had set up shop in Ummaos, the capital city of Xylac, after magistrates of other realms "had banished him as a common charlatan; or elsewise, in due time, his consultants had discovered the error of his predictions and fallen away from him." Nushain is thus portrayed as a bad astrologer, so bad in fact that, when "he found himself ... at a loss regarding the significance of some heavenly conjunction or opposition after poring over his books," he looked to his canine companion, Ansarath, and drew "profound auguries from the variable motions of the dog's mangy tail or his actions in searching for fleas."

All of the foregoing is but a set-up for what follows, which, as a story, is quite lacking. It was for this reason that the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, rejected "The Last Hieroglyph" not once but twice before finally accepting it. In his second rejection letter, he explained that
Beautiful though many of its passages are, yet there is so little plot, and the motivation seems so inadequate, that I am afraid it would disappoint many of our readers who expect almost perfection itself from you.
Wright was a common target of Smith's ire (as he was of Lovecraft's) for being frustratingly critical of his work, but, in truth, Wright's criticisms were often fair ones, as I think they were in this case. That said, even with its weaknesses, "The Last Hieroglyph" is nevertheless an intriguing bit of fiction, since it advances a metaphysical theory of creation wherein all reality is but a reflection of the writing held within the book of the hidden god Vergama.
"In my book," said the cowled figure, "the characters of all things are written and preserved. All visible forms, in the beginning, were but symbols written by me; and at last they shall exist only as the writing of my book. For a season, they issue forth, taking to themselves that which is known as substance ..."
Reading this, it's not difficult to imagine that Smith saw himself as Vergama, for surely all the characters and worlds that he created have their origins in symbols written by him and exist only as the writing of his book. If so, it's a feeling that I suspect anyone who's ever created anything of lasting value understands well. It's this, I think, that makes "The Last Hieroglyph" such an interesting and memorable story, despite its technical deficiencies.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

H. Beam Piper's Guide to Life

He spends the somber midnight hours patrolling through the Altoona shops, watching out for trespassers and possible fires.

At 7 A.M., he goes home to the third-floor apartment he shares with his aged mother, and gets into pajamas and drinks a glass of black Jamaica rum––"not Porto Rico––I'm very bigoted on the subject of rum," he says.

"Then I light up my pipe with Serene tobacco––been smoking that brand the last thirty years––and either go over what I wrote the previous day or plan out what I'll write that afternoon. I usually go to bed around 8:30 A.M."

"I wake up about 3:30 or 5 P.M., depending on how much sleep I've been doing without the past few days. I have breakfast, which consists of a bottle of 7-Up and a pot of coffee––black, of course. Then I get to the typewriter, and work two to four hours, which gives me time to have dinner and report to work at 11 P.M."
That's an excerpt from a 1953 article about H. Beam Piper, perhaps my favorite science fiction author (and a huge influence on my own Thousand Suns). The article appeared in The Pennsy, which was an in-house periodical for employees of The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, for which Piper worked as a night watchman. The article included the following two photographs, both of which I think are just awesome:

In addition to being a night watchman for the PRR and a writer, Piper was an avid collector of weapons, owning 80 antique pistols and 50 bladed weapons of various sorts, such as the 450 year-old French sword shown in the photo above.

Piper was a true original. They don't make writers like him anymore.