Friday, September 30, 2011

Open Friday: Gaming Disappointments

I mentioned in my post yesterday about how disappointed I was when I finally got a copy of Unearthed Arcana in my hands. I'm not sure that was my biggest gaming disappointment, but it certainly is among my most memorable. So, for today's question, I'd like to ask you about your biggest gaming disappointments. What was the product that you most looked forward to owning and that, upon getting it, you came to regret purchasing? My only stipulation is that you keep your comments to the product itself and its contents, not the writers/designers or company that published it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Unearthed Arcana

I have particularly strong memories associated with issue #100 of Dragon (August 1985). Firstly, it was one of the last issues I received as a subscriber. I'd continue to buy issues of the magazine singly till about 1987 or thereabouts, but I often missed them, sometimes for many many months. Consequently, I found myself less plugged into what was happening at TSR and indeed the wider community of the hobby. Secondly, issue #100 came out at the same time as the last "game day" I attended at a local library. These game days had been a staple of my gaming experience since the early '80s. They were where I met other gamers and got exposed to RPGs I might otherwise not have played. After 1985, they just ended and so, too, did my connection to game groups other than my own. Thirdly, this issue appeared just as I was about to start Grade 10, thus coinciding with the break-up of my original game group and the general decline in my regular play of D&D (or any RPG, as it turned out) till the mid-90s.

Finally, there was Unearthed Arcana, an advertisement for which appeared in issue #100:
Unearthed Arcana was a book I'd been expecting for years. I'd read and enjoyed Gary Gygax's "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" columns and often incorporated the new rules he presented there into my campaign. Not all of the rules, of course, but some of them, especially the new spells. So, when UA finally appeared, I was very excited and grabbed the first copy I could find (from a B. Dalton Bookseller, as I recall). Somehow, when all of Gary's new rules were collected together under one cover, they lost the shine seemed to have when presented individually. Taken together, I found myself starting to dislike even those rules additions I'd previously liked. It made no sense and yet that's how I felt.

Unearthed Arcana was thus a huge disappointment to me. It marked the first time that I actively disliked an AD&D hardcover, a feeling made all the stronger by the book's poor editing and poor binding. It was an "emperor's clothes" moment and, in one book, D&D, TSR, and Gary Gygax were lessened in my eyes. It seems silly to say that, in retrospect, but it was true nonetheless. At 14, I was a huge fanboy of all three of them and Unearthed Arcana made me realize how foolish such an attitude was. I continued to buy TSR books after that, of course, but never with the same fervor and certainly with a lot more cynicism about their quality.

So, issue #100 seems a good place to stop this particular series of posts. I could continue, but, since I read Dragon less and less after this milestone issue, I'd also have a lot less to cogent commentary to offer about the ads I'd choose to highlight. Instead, I'm starting a new Dragon-related series next week in place of this one. Look for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Appreciation of Tramp

Reader Josh Munn pointed me toward this appreciation of the art by David Trampier over at TOR.COM by Saladin Ahmed. Seeing as I consider Tramp to be one of the best illustrators D&D ever got, I find it hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in the essay. Head on over and give it a read.

Retrospective: Escape from New York the Game

Our hobby has a long history of creating games and other products intended as tie-ins for media properties. I don't have anything against tie-ins per se but experience has taught me that the vast majority of tie-ins are ill-conceived in one way or another. A good example of this is TSR's 1981 boardgame Escape from New York, designed by David Cook and Harold Johnson. Escape from New York (hereafter EFNY) is a good example not because it's a bad game -- it's actually rather cleverly done -- but because it was tied to an R-rated movie.

You'll see that the cover proclaims that the game is "For 2 to 4 Adults, Ages 10 and Up," but, as you may recall, that's a marketing ploy intended to appeal to kids who want to feel older. Here, you're talking about selling a game whose target audience would most likely never have seen the movie on which it was based. I know I didn't see the film until it was released on video cassette when I was a teenager and I doubt I was alone in this regard. Perhaps there were lots of adults who, after seeing the movie, longed for a boardgame based on it, but that seems unlikely to me. Instead, EFNY looks to be an example of a company thinking that the mere fact of licensing a Hollywood property is enough to justify the time and effort put into it. I find myself reminded of Kenner's 18-inch alien action figure, which, unsurprisingly, sold poorly, since almost no kids had seen 1979's Alien.

What's unfortunate is that EFNY is actually a pretty fun little game. I acquired a copy many, many years later when a local toy store was going out of business and was selling off its remaining stock. One of the items they had on sale for next to nothing was an old, unopened copy of this game and I bought it both as a curiosity and because I adored the movie. The mirrors the film broadly in that the goal of the players, each of whom takes on the role of an agent sent by the US government into the Manhattan Island maximum security prison, is to find the missing president or the audio tape he was carrying and to escape alive. Each player begins the game with several equipment cards -- weapons, homing devices, a glider, and a flare gun -- that can be used as aids in their quest. Likewise, the cards pull double duty as hit points of a sort. Whenever a player loses a fight with enemies encountered in the city, he loses a random piece of equipment. When all the cards are gone, the character is killed and the player eliminated.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game were its movement rules. The game map was divided up into areas of different color. Each color represented a movement cost to pass through it. Each turn, a player rolled 2D6 to determine how many movement points he had and then planned his movement accordingly. As the character moved throughout the city, he ran into potential allies or enemies, in addition to acquiring clues that pointed to the location of the president or the audio tape. Each clue card has several possible locations and, once a player acquired two cards that listed the same location, he could make his way there to claim his prize. Of course, other players could do the same and the "true" location of these prizes was determined by whatever player got to where his cards directed him first. To add a further wrinkle to gameplay, characters could ambush one another and steal their possessions.

Escape from New York is a neat little game and enjoyed playing it with my friends. I haven't played it in years, though, so it's possible my memories of its virtues are mistaken. I'm still baffled as to why it was ever made, though. Of all the tie-ins TSR could have been producing in 1981, why this one?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

OSRIC Players Reference Available

As impressive as the current release of OSRIC is -- especially in its Black Blade Publishing version -- it's probably a little too impressive to be used as a player's reference book. At nearly 400 pages, OSRIC includes a lot of material intended for use by the referee rather than by players. That's where the OSRIC Players Reference comes in. It strips OSRIC down to the 140 pages that players require to generate characters and to play the game at the table.

You can get the PDF version of the book for free at the link above. Alternately, you can get a print version from in either a regular or pocket size. Both are inexpensively priced and for use with the current version of the hobby's first retro-clone. If you're using OSRIC at your table, the Players Reference is definitely worth taking a look at.

The Ads of Dragon: Sandman

Issue #99 (July 1985) of Dragon had an advertisement for a game that I will long remember:
Sandman may not be the strangest game ever published in the annals of the hobby, but it's probably the strangest game I ever purchased. As you might guess based on the ad's description of Sandman as a "game of dramatic entertainment," Sandman presented itself as something different from the average roleplaying game. Each player took on the role of an amnesiac traveler in a surreal world with which they weren't familiar, so there was no need for character generation or world information, which theoretically made it suitable for complete novices. The idea was that the players would learn about the game's weird setting and their characters through play over the course of many adventures, four of which were included in the initial Map of Halaal boxed set.

Had the game line continued, there'd have been several more boxed sets, each of which provided more clues about the nature of the characters, the setting, and the titular Sandman, a mysterious being who seems to know who the characters are and may or may not be responsible for their presence in the game's bizarre world. Discovering the identity of the Sandman was also the goal of a contest offering a $10,000 prize to the winner. So far as I know, no one ever won the prize, but that might have more to do with the fact that Pacesetter went out of business sometime in 1986 or thereabouts.

As I said, I owned Sandman and was very intrigued by its basic premise, but I never actually played it. Part of it was that I found the adventures very railroad-y, a flaw that I fear was inherent in the nature of the game, given its premise. Likewise, there was no way a referee could create his own adventures, since he knew almost as little as the players about the setting, the characters, or the Sandman. This meant continued play depended on buying future Sandman boxed sets, a notion that didn't sit well with me, even before I discovered that no more boxed sets would be forthcoming. In the end, Sandman had the germs of some good ideas, but its execution left much to be desired and so it remains a curiosity of the hobby rather than a well-loved classic.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Martian Odyssey

One of the intriguingly unexplored areas of D&D's prehistory is the extent to which science fiction ideas influenced the imaginations of both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Certainly we can all point to the presence of spaceships in Blackmoor and Greyhawk as evidence that SF had an influence, but were there any specific stories or authors whose influence is noteworthy. In the case of Gary Gygax, one such author was undoubtedly Stanley Weinbaum.

Gygax includes Weinbaum in Appendix N (and its equivalent in Mythus) and regularly mentioned him in the various Q&A threads as an author "very key to my thinking." That's probably because of Weinbaum's posthumously published novel, The Black Flame, which mixed science and magic in a post-apocalyptic setting. But Weinbaum made his name with his short story, "A Martian Odyssey," which first appeared in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. The story was incredibly influential and often anthologized, so it seems likely that Gary would have read it. Even if he didn't, I suspect another founding father of the hobby did, as I shall discuss shortly.

"A Martian Odyssey" tells the story of a chemist by the name of Dick Jarvis, who, in the 21st century is one of four crew members aboard a rocket ship called the Ares. The vessel is, as its moniker suggests, sent to explore Mars, landing in the Mare Cimmerium (I can't help but wonder if the selection of this locale was a nod to Robert E. Howard or merely coincidental). Alone, Jarvis uses an auxiliary rocket to explore the region to the south of the landing site. When his rocket suffers a malfunction, Jarvis crash lands and decides to hike his way back to the Ares rather than wait for rescue. While on his trek northward, he encounters a strange bird-like creature being attacked by another tentacled beast:
"I wasn't going to interfere, naturally; if both creatures were dangerous, I'd have one less to worry about. 
"But the bird-like thing was putting up a good battle, dealing vicious blows with an eighteen-inch beak, between screeches. And besides, I caught a glimpse or two of what was on the end of those arms!" Jarvis shuddered. "But the clincher was when I noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed. Anyway, it clinched my decision. I pulled out my automatic and fired into what I could see of its antagonist.
"There was a flurry of tentacles and a spurt of black corruption, and then the thing, with a disgusting sucking noise, pulled itself and its arms into a hole in the ground. The other let out a series of clacks, staggered around on legs about as thick as golf sticks, and turned suddenly to face me. I held my weapon ready, and the two of us stared at each other.
"The Martian wasn't a bird, really. It wasn't even bird-like, except just at first glance. It had a beak all right, and a few feathery appendages, but the beak wasn't really a beak. It was somewhat flexible; I could see the tip bend slowly from side to side; it was almost like a cross between a beak and a trunk. It had four-toed feet, and four fingered things—hands, you'd have to call them, and a little roundish body, and a long neck ending in a tiny head—and that beak. It stood an inch or so taller than I, and—well, Putz saw it!"
The engineer nodded. "Ja! I saw!"
Jarvis continued. "So—we stared at each other. Finally the creature went into a series of clackings and twitterings and held out its hands toward me, empty. I took that as a gesture of friendship."
"Perhaps," suggested Harrison, "it looked at that nose of yours and thought you were its brother!"
As Jarvis soon discovered, the bird-like creature is in fact an intelligent being named Tweel -- "At least, Tweel is as near as I can pronounce it without sputtering. He called it something like 'Trrrweerrlll.'" Tweel chooses to accompany Jarvis on his journey toward the Ares, along the way picking up just enough English to converse:
"Then, for variety, Tweel would display his smattering of English words. He'd point to an outcropping and say 'rock,' and point to a pebble and say it again; or he'd touch my arm and say 'Tick,' and then repeat it. He seemed terrifically amused that the same word meant the same thing twice in succession, or that the same word could apply to two different objects. It set me wondering if perhaps his language wasn't like the primitive speech of some earth people—you know, Captain, like the Negritoes, for instance, who haven't any generic words. No word for food or water or man—words for good food and bad food, or rain water and sea water, or strong man and weak man—but no names for general classes. They're too primitive to understand that rain water and sea water are just different aspects of the same thing. But that wasn't the case with Tweel; it was just that we were somehow mysteriously different—our minds were alien to each other. And yet—we liked each other!"
"Looney, that's all," remarked Harrison. "That's why you two were so fond of each other."
"Well, I like you!" countered Jarvis wickedly. "Anyway," he resumed, "don't get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel. In fact, I'm not so sure but that he couldn't teach our highly praised human intelligence a trick or two. Oh, he wasn't an intellectual superman, I guess; but don't overlook the point that he managed to understand a little of my mental workings, and I never even got a glimmering of his."
Part of Weinbaum's appeal, then and now, was that his aliens were both, well, alien and sympathetic. They're weren't just bug-eyed monsters lusting after our women. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and peculiar in their thought processes. In this respect, they were more real than most of their contemporaries or predecessors and, while such depth is commonplace nowadays, it wasn't in 1934. In short, Weinbaum was a pioneer in creating believable, unusual alien beings.

The remainder of "A Martian Odyssey" consists of the journeys of Jarvis and Tweel and the friendship that is forged between these inhabitants of two worlds. I won't say any more about what happens to them or what they encounter, because it'd spoil a good story well told. However, I will mention that, at one point in their journeys, the duo encounter another set of alien beings described thusly:
"Man, talk about fantastic beings! It looked rather like a barrel trotting along on four legs with four other arms or tentacles. It had no head, just body and members and a row of eyes completely around it. The top end of the barrel-body was a diaphragm stretched as tight as a drum head, and that was all.
Does that not sound more than a little like the Ahoggyá of Tékumel? Perhaps I am reading too much into this description; if so, it wouldn't be the first time. But given how heavily involved Professor Barker was in early SF fandom (publishing a fanzine in 1950, for example), I don't think it's a stretch to think that he might have been influenced by a classic of the genre when it came time to imagine one of the weirder alien beings of his own SF setting. Regardless, "A Martian Odyssey" is a fun read and well worth tracking down if you've never read it before.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Case You're Wondering ...

... yes, posting and correspondence have both been a lot lighter this month than is usual and for that I apologize. The reason for that is that the revised rulebook for Thousand Suns is in final layout and I've been going over it very carefully so that it's as close to perfect as possible. I know that the moment the book is printed and in my hands, I'll turn to a random page and find a typo or a dropped word or some rules error, but I'm still making every effort to ensure that's not the case.

With luck, it'll only be another week or so before this project is put to bed and I can return to my usual schedule. In the meantime, enjoy this piece of artwork from the revised rulebook:
©2011 Mike Vilardi

If You Want to Feel Really Old ...

... consider the fact that today is Mark Hamill's 60th birthday.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hobbit Birthdays

Quite a few people emailed me today to remind me that today, September 22, is the date Tolkien chose for the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Since I'm still in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to my daughter -- we're just about to be introduced to Théoden -- and enjoying it immensely, I appreciate being reminded of this. My thanks to all who did so.

(As an aside, I thought I'd mention that, as is my wont, I like to include illustrations to accompany my posts, especially short, insubstantial ones like this one. Unfortunately, it's exceedingly difficult these days to find illustrations of Bilbo and/or Frodo -- never mind both of them together -- that don't come from Peter Jackson's movies. Talk about colonizing the imagination!)

The Ads of Dragon: Music for Adventure Gaming

I am not, I readily admit, a very musical person, which no doubt explains my bafflement at the ubiquity of digital audio players in the world outside my home. Unsurprisingly, I've also never quite understood talk about "gaming music," as if what every RPG session was more noise to distract people from what was happening at the table. But, as is often the case, I must be in the minority here, because, for almost as long as I can remember, many of my fellow gamers have been searching for "background music" to play during their adventures. Someone obviously recognized this desire and so produced this advertisement in issue #98 (June 1985) of Dragon:
There are many interesting things about this ad, perhaps most notably that Lotus Records thought Dragon might be a good place to sell belly dancing music. That's right: Ramal LaMarr is (or was -- I'm not sure if he's still alive) a composer of "Middle Eastern" music frequently used by belly dancers, both professional and amateur. Here's the original cover of "Album I" referenced in the ad:
As you can see, the guy in the horned headgear from the ad also appears on the cover of the album. I haven't been able to track down the cover of the second album, but if anyone can do so, I'd be very interested in seeing it.

As much as the Toys "R" Us ad from a couple of days ago, this ad says a lot, I think, about how big a market RPGs still represented in the mid-1980s. Why else would a record company attempt to pass off belly dancing music as "music for adventure gaming" and in the pages of Dragon no less? They must have figured they'd get enough sales from gullible gamers that it'd justify the money spent on the ad. Regardless, it's a very strange advertisement, certainly one of the odder ones I remember from Dragon, even if it is from close to the end of the days when I still subscribed to the magazine (a topic to which I'll return next week).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Retrospective: Inferno

I've talked about my love of Dante in the past, which is why it's odd that I hadn't yet done a retrospective on the 1980 Judges Guild module Inferno. Written by Geoffrey O. Dale, the module is, in the author's own words, "based primarily upon the poem 'Inferno' by Dante" and offers up the first four of Hell's nine circles for use as a location for D&D adventures. The fifth circle was recently published in the pages of Fight On! magazine and there has been talk of the other circles appearing in the future, thereby completing a project begun more than three decades ago.

Inferno is most definitely a location-based module, as there is no "plot" or "story" laid out in its pages. Instead, Dale presents Hell as a place to characters who read cursed scrolls or who are victims geas or quest spells cast by irritated high-level NPCs. He also offers it as a "power base to the evil immortals in the campaign." Hell is thus a powerfully malign "wilderness" to explore, filled with foes, treasures, and even "dungeons" -- after all, what is Hell but Creation's most famous dungeon?

For what it is, Inferno is actually pretty well done. It hews closely to Dante in many places, even when this contradicts the conception of devils already in place in AD&D by 1980. At the same time, it's also odd when Dale decides to throw parts of D&D's own mythology into the mix, such as Tiamat's having a lair on the first level of Hell. The result is a strange melange that's neither truly Dante nor wholly compatible with "standard" AD&D (unlike, say, Ed Greenwood's articles on the same subject in the pages of Dragon). It's quite compelling nonetheless and I find it easy to be drawn in by Dale's presentation of Hell as a playground for D&D adventurers, even if part of me recoils at the liberties this module takes with its literary source material in places.

Ultimately, though, what sits least well with me about Inferno is that, like so much of Dungeons & Dragons -- and indeed fantasy generally -- it "steals a lot of bases" in its cosmology. That is, Inferno presents us a gaming version of an elaborate medieval imagination of Hell and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity. Now, I understand why this is the case, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. D&D has long suffered as a result of Gygax and Arneson's personal scruples regarding the depiction of Christianity in the game. Much of the time, this isn't a huge problem and can easily be handwaved away. That's just not the case when you're dealing with Dante's Inferno, a work of art that simply doesn't make much sense if it's ripped from its proper context, as it is here. Consequently, Inferno feels very odd to me, like a modern production of a medieval passion play where great effort was made to downplay anything specifically religious and instead focusing primarily on the fantastic and -- especially -- the grotesque.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Toys "R" Us

Issue #97 (May 1985) contained an advertisement that, as is often the case, nicely illustrates a difference between the hobby of a quarter-century ago and the present:
I've remarked many times before that, in my youth, RPGs could be found just about everywhere, including department stores. Toy stores, like Toys "R" Us, not only carried roleplaying games but also hex-and-chit wargames, as well as miniatures and paints. Even as late as 1985, by which point the hobby was probably already declining, it wasn't unusual to see ads like this one -- and not just in the pages of Dragon either. I distinctly recall seeing this ad (or one very like it) in a local newspaper. Also of interest are the prices listed. The Mentzer-edited Basic Set sold for $8.96, which is less than $20 in today's money. That's a pretty good deal; I can't think of the last time a non-crippleware RPG cost so little.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Shambleau

Pulp fantasies are often criticized for, among other things, their purple prose and, while it's true that more than a few of them are overwrought in this area, I can't help but think that this quality sometimes lends them a certain power. Take, for example, the beginning to C.L. Moore's debut story, "Shambleau," which first appeared in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales:
Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which comes echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues -- heard Venus's people call their wet world "Sha-ardol" in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars's guttural "Lakkdiz" from the harsh tongues of Mars's dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own. There have been too many myths and legends for us to doubt it.
That's probably one of my favorite openings of any pulp fantasy and certainly one of Moore's best. It not only sets the stage for this terrific and frightful tale but it's simply evocative in its own right. Moore's future world was conceived more than three decades before Man has stepped foot on the Moon, so it's not surprising that her conception of an inhabitable -- and inhabited -- solar system might seem quaint to 21st century readers. And, yet, for all their scientific implausibility, there's something very compelling in her sci-fi yarns, something mythic, as stated in the excerpt quoted above.

Of course, Moore's SF stories, "Shambleau" not least among them, are helped by her protagonist, Northwest Smith, who, I am convinced, is one of the principal inspirations for Han Solo. Smith is a dark-haired smuggler who travels the solar system in his seemingly unremarkable but surprisingly fast spaceship, the Maid, accompanied by a Venusian named Yarol. Like Solo, Smith is a cynical and self-serving rogue, yet he's got a good heart and usually ends up doing the right thing in spite of his natural inclinations. He's a fun character and makes it easy to overlook the implausibilities of Moore's fictional future history.

The presents story takes place on Mars, where Smith comes across a mob about to violently vent its anger on a "sweetly made" girl whom they taunt with the mysterious name of "Shambleau." The smuggler, "though he had not the reputation of a chivalrous man," decides to intervene, stepping in front of them, drawing an arc in the slag pavement with his heatgun, and daring anyone to cross it. Smith is baffled by the mob's behavior.
"What do you want with her?" he demanded.

"She's Shambleau, I tell you! Damn your hide, man, we never let those things live! Kick her out here!"

The repeated name had no meaning to him, but Smith's innate stubbornness rose defiantly as the crowd surged forward to the very edge of the arc, their clamor growing louder. "Shambleau! Kick her out here! Give us Shambleau! Shambleau!"

Smith dropped his indolent pose like a cloak and planted his feet wide, swinging up his gun threateningly. "Keep back!" he yelled. "She's mine! Keep back!"
These words seem to get a reaction out of the mob, who were at once puzzled and disdainful at Smith's declaration.
"It's -- his!" and the pressed melted away, gone silent, too, and the look of contempt spread from face to face. 
The ex-Patrolman spat on the slag-paved street and turned his back indifferently. "Keep her, then," he advised briefly over one shoulder. "But don't let her out again in this town."
I do not think I am spoiling the short story by revealing here that the woman whom Smith saved is not all that she appears to be. Indeed, Smith soon finds himself in unexpected danger thanks to his defense of the object of the mob's ire. Beyond that, I won't say any more, because it'd spoil a suspenseful, strangely sensual, pulp adventure. If you've never read "Shambleau" before, you ought to do so. It's one of Moore's best tales and is a fine introduction both to her as a writer and to Northwest Smith and the universe he inhabits. The first time I read it I was hooked and quickly devoured the dozen or so other stories in which Smith appears. I'd be amazed if other weren't similarly entranced.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Open Friday: Creating D&D Player Characters

I recently began playing in a D&D campaign for the first time in I don't know how long, so, naturally, I had to create a PC for myself. I had no preconceptions about what type of character I wanted to play, so I rolled 3D6 in order six times. That is, I rolled up six different potential player characters and then looked them over. From among these six, I choose the set that looked the most interesting to me -- "interesting" encompassing both utility in play and in terms of roleplaying potential. In this case, I wound up choosing the following set of ability scores: Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 12, Con 14, Cha 10. Such a character could either have been a mediocre fighting man or a mildly above-average cleric; I opted for the latter. I decided that he was a well-meaning but not thoughtful cleric, strongly devoted to his faith and intent to seeing it spread through word and deed.

And that's most of what I knew about my new character before I started playing him. Since he might not survive to see 2nd level (never mind higher), I figured it most practical to let his personality and other details evolve through play. Plus, that gave me a lot more leeway to make things up as I went along, which is always fun.

So, my question for today is this: how do you go about creating a new, 1st-level D&D character?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I've commented on the snarky reviews in SPI's Ares before, but I've been re-reading my collection of them and came across some more amusingly harsh comments I wanted to share. Here's Eric Goldberg on the cover of RuneQuest from issue #3 (July 1980):
RQ costs about as much as the three parts of "The Fantasy Trip" combined, with slightly less component value. A little over 100 pages are contained inside a soft cover. The second edition is distinguished by a color cover and is worth the higher cost than that of the original edition. The first cover is absolutely priceless; it depicts a somnolent young girl dressed for a Marquis de Sade Costume Ball proferring [sic] an oversized tortilla to a ravenous, deformed gila monster -- all done in brown crayon.
Here's another one by Goldberg, from the same issue, about Tunnels & Trolls:
Stripped of annoying distractions, T&T is a pleasant puff-piece. The production values have increased from amateur status to a nearly professional standard. The rules have been ordered, and can be understood in no more than two readings. The package includes pregenerated characters and an adventure for beginners. The game will be passed over by all but the completist; there are better buys on the market now. Still, T&T was a nice try by those fun people at the airborne herbivore.
AD&D fares little better. Again, by Goldberg and in the same issue:
The design has many flaws, which have become apparent as it has aged and are magnified by TSR's intransigence when it comes to changing a system or rule in response to valid criticism from players. The presentation of the package is amazingly poor. The original rules rate as one of the worst of all time, including fractured English, garbled text, contradictory rules, a re-invention of mythology, and passing references to crucial rules. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was meant to remedy this situation. Actually, in place of previous rules maladies, the gaming public received an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text. Given the choice between stringing together rules in AD&D and discovering the proverbial needle in the haystack, the adroit gamer would make for the farmhouse.
I post these comments not just because I find them funny, but also as a reminder that gamers have always been contentious and sarcastic, particularly about games they don't play. So, while a lot has changed in the hobby since 1980, other things are still very much the same.

The Ads of Dragon: Pendragon

One of the interesting phenomena I have observed is that, while the first edition of a game is often badly edited, unclear, and even incomplete, it's also often the most evocative edition, perhaps owing to the "rawness" that is the source of its flaws. This is certainly the case with the new RPG advertised in issue #96 (April 1985).
I played the heck out of the first edition of Pendragon and still consider it my favorite edition of the game. A big part of it, I think, is that it wasn't yet the bloated, unfocused game it would eventually become in later editions (though, in fairness, the 2005 edition goes some way toward recapturing the straightforwardness of the original). And one cannot understate the effect that Lisa Free's glorious artwork, which, in my opinion, suited the Arthurian world like few others. In any event, I have fond memories of this particular ad, since it reminds me of many excellent campaigns with my friends back in my high school days.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Retrospective: Big Rubble

Big Rubble is a companion piece to Pavis, a boxed set extensively detailing the ruins of old Pavis -- 25 square kilometers contained within the walls of a formerly great city. Like its predecessor, Big Rubble was written by Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin and published in 1983. Also like its predecessor, it includes three books and a map. Big Rubble differs from Pavis in that it's much more adventure-oriented. That is, the player and GM guides are much shorter in length, while the scenario book is much longer. This is to be expected, since Big Rubble details the closest thing that old school Glorantha had to a megadungeon. Even so, all three books contain a fair bit of background and cultural details, in keeping with the tendency of RuneQuest products from the era.

The "Common Knowledge for Players" book is the shortest of Big Rubble's integral volumes and provides players with basic details of Old Pavis and the surrounding area. One of its longer sections is devoted to the cult of Yelorna the Starbringer, which is influential in the region. Amusingly, there are several Lunar Empire-issued government forms included in this book, such as the "Freelance Adventurer Registration Form." I adore little props like this, both because they're simply fun, but also because they provide a practical primer in the Lunar mindset, which is vital when adventuring in Prax. The "Guide for the Gamemaster" is longer and devotes most of its pages to describing the Big Rubble itself. The book highlights the most important areas of the ruins and their likely inhabitants, as well as discussing how to get in and out of the ruins. Of equal utility are the encounter tables and pre-statted collections of NPCs, such as Lunar patrols and Chaos gangs. Special encounters with unique NPCs are likewise provided.

As I noted above, it's the scenario book that is the heart and soul of Big Rubble, offering nine different adventures for use by the GM. These adventures vary greatly in length and scope, with some being quite extensive (and a bit railroad-y), while others are barely more than short encounters in a specific locale. All include stats for NPCs and, where appropriate, maps. Reading through them again, I found myself struck by a couple of things, the first being just how much more space is required in a RuneQuest adventure for stat blocks than is the case in a D&D adventure. Indeed, there are often entire pages consisting of nothing but stat blocks. The second thing that struck me is the level of detail provided for many encounters, far more than I am comfortable with these days. It's not for nothing that RQ adventures have the reputation for demanding much from the referee.

In the end, Big Rubble is something I like more in theory than in reality. The idea of a boxed set describing a huge ruined city as an above-ground megadungeon is quite compelling and it's one that appeals to me on many levels. Unlike Pavis, though, this boxed set provides fewer tools for the referee, instead giving more attention to pre-designed scenarios. While that might make Big Rubble more usable immediately (though that's a relative thing when dealing with RQ material), I think it also limits its long-term utility, at least compared to Pavis, which I think does a much better job of presenting a locale that referees can make their own.

None of this is to say that Big Rubble is a bad product, because it's not. On the other hand, I find it a lot less satisfying than other RuneQuest products of similar vintage, such as Griffin Mountain or even Borderlands, which is a shame, as the idea behind it remains an excellent one that could really benefit from the kind of treatment only a boxed set can offer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Strategy & Tactics

By now, regular readers of this blog are no doubt tired of my constantly reminding everyone that I have never been much of a wargamer. Despite that, I've long had a fascination with wargames, given the number of roleplayers I knew in my formative years who were wargamers. So, despite not playing many wargames myself, I was always aware of them and the companies that produced them, particularly Avalon Hill, which was located in my hometown of Baltimore.

I also knew of SPI, which, by the early 1980s, was producing the vast majority of all wargames published in the world. When SPI went bankrupt in 1982, its assets -- but not its debts and liabilities -- were acquired by TSR. Being a subscriber to Dragon at the time, I read about this acquisition from TSR's point of view, which, of course, did not mention that among the debts TSR didn't acquire was honoring existing subscriptions to SPI's magazine, Strategy & Tactics, an advertisement for which appeared in issue #95 (March 1985):
TSR published S&T for 21 issues before selling it off to the British company World Wide Games (3W). As I understand it, the magazine was poorly received by wargamers during TSR's ownership, as were most of TSR's wargames, which was likely a disappointment to staff designers who saw the acquisition of SPI as an opportunity to expand the company's repertoire beyond RPGs. Alas, it was not to be.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Second MacGuffin?

Those of you who saw the latest version of Conan the Barbarian might find the following blog post amusing. I certainly did, especially this part:
Time to put on my mask and unleash my godlike power!

Wait! New rule! The mask doesn’t work without the blood of last surviving descendent of the kings who first made the mask a thousand years ago.

A second MacGuffin? That’s bullshit!

Did we mention this MacGuffin is a hot babe, and you get to see her boobs?

I’m going to allow it.
Like all such humor, of course it's more than a little unfair, but, equally like all such humor, there's also more than a grain of truth in it. As I said previously, the real shame about the 2011 movie is that it's just not very good. Much as I'd prefer a film that hews as closely to an actual REH story as possible, I'd be willing to accept a decent pastiche, but, alas, that's not what we got. It's even more of a shame because I think, overall, the movie, for all its manifest faults, was light years closer to Howard in its portrayal of Conan than we've seen in visual media before.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Do they even have carnivals anymore? I mean, real carnivals: rickety, dirty, dodgy, and, above all, scary carnivals? Sure, there are things calling themselves "carnivals" that set up shop in the parking lots of shopping centers and have rides and concession stands and maybe even the occasional game of chance whose rewards include cheap stuffed toys vaguely reminiscent of cartoon characters, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about carnivals, where, in addition to the rides and concession stands, you also get mind readers, bearded ladies, and dog-faced boys. I'm pretty sure they don't exist anymore, outside of works of the imagination and maybe that's not such a bad thing. But there's no denying that the idea of carnivals like that is a powerful one, at least for me.

That, and the incomparable writing of Ray Bradbury, are probably the reasons why I have such a fondness for the 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It probably helps, too, that the novel begins in a way that has always rung particularly true to me:
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren't rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn't begun yet. July, well, July's really fine: there's no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June's best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September's a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School's been on a month and you're riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you'll dump on old man Prickett's porch, or the hairy-ape costume you'll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it's around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash grey at twilight, it seems Hallowe'en will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Hallowe'en came early.
As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I adore the month of October. Not only is it the month of my birth, but it's when Fall (my favorite season) is at its most attractive to me. There's still enough life left in the world that it doesn't feel as depressing as November and it manifests a kind of glory that is utterly absent in warmer and more conventional vibrant months. And, of course, there's Halloween, a holiday replete with both religious and secular meaning, which I enjoy probably more than almost any other, save Easter. So, I was probably predisposed to like Something Wicked This Way Comes before I'd even read it.

The novel tells the story of two friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. The boys are both thirteen years old and, as the story begins, they're returning home as a big storm is about to hit their home of Green Town. There's lightning and thunder and some say they can smell cotton candy in the air as well. The pair stop off at the library, where Will's father works, allowing Bradbury the opportunity to wax rhapsodic about libraries, books -- and growing old:
Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen. . . .

Will stared.

It was always a surprise - that old man, his work, his name. That's Charles William Halloway, thought Will, not grand-father, not far-wandering, ancient uncle, as some might think, but. . .my father.

So, looking back down the corridor, was Dad shocked to see he owned a son who visited this separate 20,000-fathoms-deep world? Dad always seemed stunned when Will rose up before him, as if they had met a lifetime ago and one had grown old while the other stayed young, and this fact stood between. . . .
As I get older myself, I find this section of the book even more affecting than it was in the past, doubly so as the story unfolds and we learn that Will's father envies his son his youth and looks back longingly on "The boy [he] once was ... who runs like the leaves down sidewalks on autumn nights."

Into this situation arrives a traveling carnival called Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show and its arrival throws Green Town into tumult. Not only do the carnival's tents go up mysteriously but townsfolk begin behaving strangely, some of them even disappearing after a visit to the carnival. Its proprietors, especially the tattooed Mr Dark (evocatively called "the Illustrated Man"), have a decidedly sinister air about them, made all the more clear when they take a particular interest in Will and Jim. Needless to say, these oddities embolden the two boys to investigate the truth behind Cooger & Dark's and soon discover that there is more at work than they ever imagined.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a delightfully terrifying fantasy. Its characters are well drawn, its imagery memorable, and, most of all, it has something to say. I consider it one of Bradbury's best novels, which is saying something, as I'm not sure that Bradbury ever wrote anything that wasn't excellent. Like Lovecraft, he is quite adept at using words to conjure up not only sights and sounds but also emotions. Unlike Lovecraft, Bradbury typically does this with fairly ordinary words and colloquial language. It's a remarkable gift and is used to great effect in Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you've never read it (or Bradbury), it's well worth the time and effort. Even if, for some reason, you don't find the story to your taste, you might enjoy it for its artistry alone, which is considerable.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Open Friday: Non-Humanoid Aliens

Much as I love Star Wars and Star Trek (which celebrated the 45th anniversary of its first airing yesterday). I have to admit that I've grown completely tired of humanoid aliens. I understand why, in the old days, they were a necessary evil, but, nowadays, there's usually little justification for them. And in literature? They were never needed. I'm much happier with alien beings that don't look as if they could just be a guy in a suit.

So, my question is: what are your favorite non-humanoid aliens? By "non-humanoid," I mean beings that don't look anything remotely like a human being. Adding another head or extra limbs or whatever does not count. I'm talking aliens like Star Trek's Horta, Traveller's Hivers, or Ringworld's Puppeteers. By my definition of "non-humanoid," something like the Hutts from Star Wars would not count, since they're basically just big humanoids with tails instead of legs.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The End

I've been racking my brain, trying to come up with examples of any effect in any version of old school D&D that results in permanent and irrevocable death. The only one that immediately leaps to mind is drawing the Skull card from a deck of many things, but I am sure there must be others. If you can cite some others, I'd be greatly appreciative.

The Ads of Dragon: The Enchanted World

Another good gauge of the vitality of the hobby back in the early and mid-1980s is the diversity of advertisements one might find in the pages of Dragon in those days. Though most were fantasy or science fiction-related, not every ad was for a gaming product. A good case in point is this one from issue #94 (February 1985):
The Enchanted World was a series of Time-Life books that presented stories collected from legend, mythology, and folklore together under a single theme, like Wizards & Witches or Dragons, to cite just two examples. Life all Time-Life books, the series was lavishly illustrated and fairly expensive to purchase. I think it was the artwork that won me over and so I subscribed to it for a time, getting maybe 10 or 12 books of the 21 that were eventually released.

Though not specifically written with gaming in mind, The Enchanted World books nevertheless provided great fodder for my hobby. Back in 1985, when I saw this ad, I was going through a period of dissatisfaction with D&D -- and indeed all fantasy games -- because I found them to be too far removed from their mythological inspirations. What I craved was fantasy more in keeping with the ancient tales I'd devoured as a kid, so The Enchanted World gave me lots of fodder for imagining such things. I won't claim my attempts to make D&D more "mythologically true" were particularly successful, but I didn't much care, because those attempts scratched an itch I'd had and I was grateful for that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Learning to See Again

Who knew that getting a new pair of glasses -- bifocals, admittedly -- would necessitate training your brain to see again?

Life is ever a discovery.

Retrospective: Pavis

Of all the things I missed out on because of my youthful prejudice against RuneQuest, I think it's "dungeoncrawling Glorantha" that I feel most acutely these days. "Dungeoncrawling Glorantha" is my shorthand for the Chaosium presentation of the setting, back when most published scenarios and setting packs focused at least in part (if not wholly) on exploring ruins and caves, beating up their inhabitants, and taking their stuff to fund your quest for power. Like a lot of gamers in days of yore, I uncritically accepted the notion that RuneQuest was fundamentally different from D&D and thus largely inaccessible to anyone not already initiated into its alien mysteries. So I missed out not just on a really great game during the heyday of its popularity and creativity but also on some truly excellent RPG products, such 1983's Pavis: Threshold to Danger.

This boxed set, written by Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin, consisted of three books (a player's book, a referee's book, and a scenario book), along two large maps. The set describes, as its name suggests, the city of Pavis -- or rather the city of New Pavis, for old Pavis is now an extensive ruin known simply as "the Rubble," on the outskirts of which New Pavis has been built. Armed with that information alone, I'd have found Pavis an intriguing product. The re-casting of the megadungeon concept as an entire ruined city is a terrific one that, strangely, hasn't been used very often, to my disappointment. And if one still wishes to argue that RuneQuest is fundamentally different than Dungeons & Dragons, Pavis might be a good place to make that argument, for, while it's true that the Rubble is essentially an above ground megadungeon, its context is unlike that of a traditional megadungeon. Indeed, it's this context that I think makes Pavis such a great product.

Pavis, both old and New, is located in the region known as Prax, which is currently under military occupation by the Lunar Empire. Consequently, New Pavis, though filled with all manner of rogues and ne'er-do-wells (aka the player characters) isn't just some lawless frontier town. The Lunars are attempting to bring some semblance of order to this barbarian settlement and thus provide excellent villains (or at least antagonists) in a Pavis-based campaign. Likewise, New Pavis is near the ruins of the old and that history, too, plays a part, as cultures and cults maneuver in the background to gain advantage over one another and against the Lunar occupiers. The result is, I think, an entertaining mix of factions and influences, any one of which could easily serve as the basis for many adventures without even taking into account unique aspects of the area, such as the River of Cradles, so named for the cradles of baby giants that have been known to float down its length toward the sea and whose appearance is the occasion for great tumult.

New Pavis itself is fleshed out in considerable detail. Each of the city's seven neighborhoods is given its own treatment, complete with buildings, encounters, and NPCs. This makes it easier to use New Pavis as the "home base" for the PCs as they explore the surrounding region, including the Rubble. As with many RuneQuest supplements, the amount of information presented is considerable, which more or less demands that the referee spend considerable time beforehand reading and re-reading the contents of the boxed set to get a good handle on it. Fortunately, New Pavis isn't so bizarre a locale that a talented referee couldn't "wing it" when necessary and, for all its detail, there's still plenty of room for individualizing the city with one's own locales and NPCs.

I like Pavis a lot. It's a well-presented city that could easily serve as the basis for a campaign on its own, never mind as the springboard for something greater. My main criticism of it is that there are often times when I felt that it included too much detail, or at least far more than I wanted. There is, for example, a lot of history to digest, not to mention cultural and religious information. It can certainly be argued that all of this provides context useful to the referee in giving his adventures more depth and "reality." I don't dispute that, but I do think that, for some referees, it may prove off-putting enough that they'll ignore many of the better ideas included in Pavis, which would be a shame, because there's a lot of goodness to be found within its pages. In that respect, Pavis is emblematic of so much of Glorantha -- excellent ideas presented in a way that might turn away many of the gamers who'd most enjoy them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Twilight: 2000

Issue #93 (January 1985) featured a multi-page advertisement that included the following:
I've written before about Twilight: 2000 and the weird place it occupies in my memories and imagination. I'll add that this advertisement, along with others like it, was very effective in grabbing my attention. For all the faults one can find with it (and the game itself), it did a superb job of capturing the Zeitgeist in a way that few RPGs prior to this time did. Again, I don't want to unduly praise Twilight: 2000 as a timeless classic of the hobby. Indeed, it's just the opposite of that, since it's very much rooted in its time. Yet, there remains, for me anyway, something strangely compelling about it and advertisements like this played a big role in fostering that feeling.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dreams in the Witch House

Among the many ideas that H.P. Lovecraft popularized in the field of pulp fantasy is the notion that "magic" is nothing more than supremely advanced science as seen from the perspective of one who does not understand its workings. He returns to this idea again and again in his works, perhaps nowhere more explicitly -- and effectively -- than in "Dreams in the Witch House," first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales. The story takes its title from the disturbing dreams experienced by a mathematics student at Miskatonic University named Walter Gilman. Gilman has taken up residence in the former haunt of Keziah Mason, a woman reputed to have been a witch in the 17th century and who supposedly escaped capture by means of her black magic. The Witch House has an evil reputation and, over the course of the centuries since Mason's disappearance, its inhabitants have died under mysterious circumstances.

It's precisely for this reason that Gilman decides to rent a room in the Witch House.
Gilman believed strange things about Keziah, and had felt a queer thrill on learning that her dwelling was still standing after more than 235 years. When he heard the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah's persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets, about the irregular human tooth-marks left on certain sleepers in that and other houses, about the childish cries heard near May-Eve, and Hallowmass, about the stench often noted in the old house's attic just after those dreaded seasons, and about the small, furry, sharp-toothed thing which haunted the mouldering structure and the town and nuzzled people curiously in the black hours before dawn, he resolved to live in the place at any cost.
As it turns out, lodging at the Witch House is unpopular, owing to the dark legends associated with it, and he finds it easy to obtain a room there. Gilman's interest in Keziah Mason is at least partly "professional," for he had come "to connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic" and to believe that "a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century [had] an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter."

The story's titular dreams are bizarre and frightful, filled with images and feelings Gilman cannot quite explain. Others seem almost real and feature not just the reputed witch Keziah Mason but also her grotesque familiar, Brown Jenkin, a huge rat with human hands and feet. While these dreams disturbed Gilman, they also seemed to have aided him in unexpected ways:
He was getting an intuitive knack for solving Riemannian equations, and astonished Professor Upham by his comprehension of fourth-dimensional and other problems which had floored all the rest of the class. One afternoon there was a discussion of possible freakish curvatures in space, and of theoretical points of approach or even contact between our part of the cosmos and various other regions as distant as the farthest stars or the trans-galactic gulfs between themselves -- or even as fabulously remote as the tentatively conceivable cosmic units beyond the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum. Gilman's handling of them filled everyone with admiration, even though some of his hypothetical illustrations caused an increase in the always plentiful gossip about his nervous and solitary eccentricity.
As his dreams take on an ever more nightmarish turn, Gilman discovers signs that he is sleepwalking and that, seemingly, Keziah Mason is urging him to join her in her dark activities, leading Gilman to question his sanity. "Dreams in the Witch House" continues on in this vein, leading to a conclusion that is far from satisfying as a piece of fiction, even if it does further advance Lovecraft's thesis that magic is nothing more than misunderstood advanced science.

I've always been fond of "Dreams in the Witch House" myself, but it's generally held to be one of HPL's weaker efforts, particularly among recent critics who (mistakenly in my view) see Lovecraft primarily as a cosmic "philosopher" rather than a pulp fantasist who used cosmicism to embellish his tales. For them, "Dreams in the Witch House" is too lurid and conventional in places -- a crucifix, given to Gilman by a Catholic priest, fends off Keziah Mason at one point -- to be a "true" Lovecraft story. Leaving that aside, there's no question that the story's plot is weak and characterizations thin, but, even so, its central ideas are compelling, compelling enough that I can find pleasure in it nonetheless. Is it one of Lovecraft's best? Certainly not but it's still an intriguing bit of fiction that I continue to find enormously inspiring.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

REVIEW: Song of the Beast-Gods

As regular readers of this blog ought to know, I haven't counted myself a fan, let alone a player, of D&D III for many years now. Indeed, it was my dissatisfaction with that game that brought me back to the games I played in my youth and that I'm playing today. Consequently, I haven't been keeping a close eye on events in the D20 world; it's generally only when someone brings one of its products to my attention that I take notice. It's rare still that I find myself enjoying a D20 product enough that I wish there were some way I could work it into my OD&D campaign -- but that's exactly how I felt after I read Morten Braten's adventure, Song of the Beast-Gods.

This should come as no surprise, since I'd already read and enjoyed Braten's previous adventure The Spider-God's Bride, which, like the present one, is written for the D20 system and set in a fantasy world called Xoth. Xoth is a fascinating setting, calling to mind both Howard's Hyborian Age and Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique, suffused with hints of eldritch horror. It's almost tailor-made for the kinds of pulp fantasy adventures I most enjoy. This fact probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it easy to overlook the D20 stat blocks and related mechanics and see Song of the Beast-Gods for what it is: a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure for characters of 2nd to 3rd levels.

Before discussing the contents of this adventure, allow me to briefly discuss its appearance and presentation. Like its predecessor, Song of the Beast-Gods uses a two-column layout for its dense text. I occasionally found it slightly hard to read, but that probably says more about my aging eyes than the layout itself. Maps, important details, and notes to the referee are highlighted through the use of boxes. Titles and headers use evocative -- but legible -- fonts that contribute greatly to the pulp fantasy feel of the adventure, as does the artwork, which is a mix of original pieces and public domain engravings. All in all, Song of the Beast-Gods is attractive and well put together, something I find particularly impressive because it's the product of a one-man operation, with Braten acting as writer, cartographer, and graphic designer.

The adventure itself concerns events in the city of Khadis, where, until two decades ago, the Great Red Sphinx "was placated every year with offerings of treasure and blood." That all changed, when the High King of Yar-Ammon instituted a religious revolution that overthrew the old gods, such as the Great Red Sphinx, and replaced them with a previously unknown deity, the First One. To cement this reformation, the petty king of Khadis sacrificed his eldest daughter, who was being groomed as a priestess in the old faith, to the First One, an act that reverberates even unto the present day, when the player characters make their appearance ...

It's difficult to say more about the adventure without spoiling its secrets. Suffice it to say that events two decades ago did not go quite the way that history records them. This provides an opening for the PCs to become enmeshed in several plots within the city of Khadis that have far-ranging repercussions. What I most liked about Song of the Beast-Gods was that it is, at its heart, a location-based adventure. Certainly, there are plots, but these plots are the plans of various people seeking to take advantage of the situation in Khadis rather than a foreordained sequence of events the referee is expected to follow. Thus, there are no pre-arranged "scenes" or lengthy sections of boxed text to be read as long-winded NPCs try to involve the PCs in their schemes. Instead, what we get are situations, along with detailed descriptions of adventuring locales -- the city, the royal palace, dungeons -- and it's up to the players and referee to use those things to craft an adventure of their own.

For this reason, I think it'd be quite easy to ignore even the situations described in the adventure and simply use its maps, locales, and new monsters on their own. Of course, doing so would deprive one of what I think is a terrific scenario filled with both exuberant sword-and-sorcery excitement and the potential for further developing the fallout from the events the PCs set in motion. Song of the Beast-Gods is the kind of adventure that could easily kick off an entire campaign and a pretty interesting one at that. That alone makes it worth the $5 cost of the PDF ($12 for print). My only real qualm in recommending this adventure is that it's not specifically written for older versions of D&D and thus using it will require a certain amount of conversion but nothing too onerous. In the end, it's Morten Braten's ideas that are this product's main selling point and they're very compelling if, like me, you prefer your fantasy with a healthy dose of pulp.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a well-done, low-level sword-and-sorcery adventure and don't mind doing a little conversion work.
Don't Buy This If: You either have no interest in sword-and-sorcery or are unwilling to convert D20 mechanics to your preferred system.

Whither Dwimmermount?

As  most of you know, the Dwimmermount campaign went on hiatus when one of its key players moved away while he hoped he'd still be able to make it into the city on a semi-regular basis to get together, that hasn't happened. Now, to be fair to the player in question, the way things developed in campaign is entirely my fault. When I began the campaign way back at the beginning of 2009, I'd hoped that, with enough players and with a megadungeon at the center of things, I could avoid just what happened. I had hoped that, as in the earliest days of the hobby, individual characters wouldn't become the focus of the campaign, that role being taken by Dwimmermount itself.

Unfortunately, as players dropped out of the campaign or showed up ever more regularly, I failed to replace them and so, inevitably, the campaign did become focused on a handful of characters, the loss of any one of which made it ever more difficult to continue playing. Had I done what I'd originally intended to do, I should have been recruiting more players all along, with the understanding that only some of them would continue to play with any devotion, while many, if not most, of them would be drop-ins who showed up more rarely. Had I done that, I think the campaign could have weathered the loss of a single player. Indeed, the very idea of a "key player" is antithetical to the kind of campaign I was hoping I'd actually run. I guess old habits die very hard.

Of course, a few weeks ago, I got the chance to run a couple of levels of Dwimmermount with a group of total strangers at OSRCon and it was a blast. The rekindled in me thoughts of my original goal for the campaign: a "rotating cast" of players all of whom explored the same megadungeon. That idea would work, I think, if I had ready access to a site other than my home at which to meet. I say that because, while I have had very large numbers of players in my house at any one time, it can get crowded and less conducive to the kind of play I prefer these days. Likewise, given that, under my original conception of things, I might not know who is going to show up in advance, I think I'd find it easier to manage at some "neutral" locale -- like the "games day" meet-ups or gaming clubs I remember from my youth.

The obvious solution, of course, is to turn to Google+ and the other online tools that are fueling ConstantCon and I will admit the thought is an attractive one. The biggest issues for me are twofold. First, finding a time when I can do this without distraction. During most days, I am not alone in my house, which means that I'm primarily restricted to the evenings, after my family has gone to sleep. That's fine, but I need to sleep, too, so this would likely mean a fairly small sliver of time in the late evenings -- say, between 10 PM and 12 AM EST -- and I'm not sure that's enough time, especially if I only do this once or twice a week. Second, Google+, as I understand it, works best with four players and a referee, which, again, is fine, but that means I'm either going to have to severely limit the number of players who join the campaign or I'm going to have a largely different crew every session, which rather undermines the notion of a campaign. I say "severely limit," because, based on the emails I have received, a very large number of people want in on any online Dwimmermount campaign I might theoretically start. Even if I am picky in whom I choose, we're still talking a lot more possible players than I've ever had access to locally -- an embarrassment of riches indeed!

Meanwhile, one of the remaining players of the Dwimmermount campaign has kindly offered to run a low-key Labyrinth Lord + AEC campaign set in the world of Red Tide for my wife, my daughter, and I. My wife's not really a roleplayer. She enjoys the idea of it and is obliquely interested in fantasy (though not necessarily "D&D fantasy") and decided to give it a try. My daughter, of course, is very interested in both roleplaying and fantasy. She was drawn to this idea because Red Tide includes several Asian-derived cultures and, these days, she's quite fascinated by all things Japanese. Me, I'm just happy to be able to play once in a while rather than referee, which is my usual role. We've only had one session so far, but it was enjoyable and I look forward to more. As the campaign progresses, I'm sure I'll have things to share about it here.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Open Friday: Beyond D&D

A constant refrain of this blog is that D&D's days as a pop cultural force are long gone, its position usurped by by other entertainments. Despite that, D&D's influence lingers -- so much so, in fact, that one regularly encounters examples of ideas, concepts, and terminology that originated in Dungeons & Dragons even today. For example, just the other day I came across a depiction of an ebon-skinned, white-haired elf whose creator called it a "drow," even though it had nothing to do with the iconic evil demihumans created by Gary Gygax. Indeed, it's quite possible that the image's creator had never played D&D and simply knew that dark elves are called "drow," much in the way he also knows that bestial humanoids are called "orcs" without having read The Lord of the Rings.

So, for today's topic: what's the strangest example you've seen of D&D's pervasive pop cultural influence beyond our little hobby? I'm not talking about specific references to D&D in pop culture, like an episode of a TV show or a movie where some of the characters actually play the game or talk about it. What I'm interested in are times when you've seen or heard something in pop culture that is clearly derived from D&D but is presented without its original D&D context, like calling a generic dark elf a "drow."

I'll be very curious to see what people have to offer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Distinctively D&D

In running Dwimmermount, I've made use of material from all the OD&D rulebooks, including all the supplements. This is in keeping with my "D&D 0.75" approach to the game -- more complex than a pure White Box campaign but not full bore proto-AD&D either. So, if you play in my Dwimmermount campaign, you'll find magic items, character classes, and spells from sources other than the LBBs, though, in most cases, I use them as "spice" rather than as the "main course," if that makes sense. The one area where I haven't made extensive use of the supplements is monsters. In general, I've stuck primarily to the monsters found in Volume 2 of OD&D, supplemented by beasties of my own creation. The reason for this is simple: I find most of the monsters introduced in the supplements too distinctive for use in my campaign. By that, I mean that most of them feel too strongly associated with D&D.

Now, that probably sounds like crazy talk and perhaps it is. After all, I am playing D&D; why wouldn't I want monsters that are strongly associated with D&D in my campaign? Well, the game rules I'm using may be D&D but I don't think of the world I'm describing through them to be a "D&D world." To me, it's merely a fantasy world -- a fine distinction, maybe, but a real one. To put it in more concrete terms, nothing about the presence of, say, a goblin or even an orc in an adventure suggests anything about the nature of the world outside that adventure. But a beholder? An umber hulk? A sahuagin? Demogorgon and Orcus? Monsters like those carry with them certain larger assumptions, or at least expectations, that I don't want brought into my campaign.

Obviously, there are degrees here and everyone will personally draw their lines on different places in the sand. For example, I don't have any problem with carrion crawlers or displacer beasts in my Dwimmermount campaign, even though both of these creatures are rightly, in the minds of many, seen as "D&D monsters." So, I can imagine someone feeling similarly about beholders or ixitxachitl, while I reject them both as so strongly tied to a certain specific conception of D&D that I don't want to bring to bear in Dwimmermount. If I were playing a Greyhawk-based campaign, though, I wouldn't hesitate to use most of these creature, because, to me, they're part and parcel of Oerth.

At the same time, I want to go on record as disliking the approach adopted most famously by Lamentations of the Flame Princess wherein every monster is unique. To me, that'd be like playing AD&D using Appendix D of the DMG in place of the Monster Manual. Certainly it'd make it harder for players to use their much-hated metagame knowledge to their characters' advantage, but I've come to believe that, the more of D&D's fundamental building blocks one rejects, the less the game feels like something recognizable to anyone outside that campaign -- and monsters are a very important building block. Which ones we use (or don't) can have wide-ranging consequences.

The Ads of Dragon: Paranoia

Appropriately enough, the final issue of the year 1984 (#92) saw the appearance of this ad:
Paranoia is a game about which I've written before. It's also a game for which I have many fond memories, despite some of my misgivings about what its appearance heralded for the hobby. On that point, I think it interesting that it appeared when it did. While I'm pretty sure that the 1984 release date was, in part, an attempt to play off its pop cultural associations to Orwell, I can't help but wonder if Paranoia is the kind of RPG that could only have been written a decade after the public dawn of the hobby. By that I mean that Paranoia is clearly the product of a mature/decadent and inward-focused hobby and would thus have been impossible to imagine much prior to this point in history.

That's why I can't shake the feeling that 1984 really does mark an important year for the hobby -- the high tide of its mass market faddishness, when designers and publishers alike began to realize that the future, such as it was, lay in selling more, different games to a shrinking market of hardcore devotees. Or maybe I'm just overthinking this, as I so often do ...