Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Retrospective: Space Marines

I've talked about Space Opera and its kitchen sink setting in several posts previously, but what I don't think I've ever talked about (much) is the game that laid the groundwork for both, 1977's Space Marines by A. Mark Ratner. To be honest, I've never seen the 1977 edition of Space Marines, which was self-published by Ratner under the FanTac Games label. Sometime after its publication, the game was sold to Fantasy Games Unlimited, which led to a second edition, published in 1980. That's the only edition I've ever seen, so I cannot comment on whatever differences there might be between the two versions, but I welcome details in the comments by anyone who has seen both.

Space Marines is a science fiction miniatures wargame that uses a scale of 25 meters to the inch and twenty-second turns.  The rules are quite comprehensive, covering wide range of topics -- unit integrity, suppression fire, bombing from air and orbit, electronic warfare, morale, and so on. However, the rules aren't particularly lengthy, especially when compared to other SF miniatures games with which I'm familiar, such as Striker. The relative shortness of the rules is at least partially a consequence of the fact that some topics are treated only sketchily. Orbital and sub-orbital bombardment and combat, for example, are largely left up to the referee to adjudicate, with only some very basic guidelines provided in the text. That's not to say that Space Marines is a simple game. It is, however, a lot more clearly written and intelligible than the game it spawned, Space Opera, which, despite my fondness for it, is far from a paragon of clarity.

About a third of Space Marines is devoted to background material. It was this material that Ed Simbalist drew on when creating Space Opera's setting. Indeed, I don't think I ever really understood the full scope of Space Opera's setting, until I'd actually seen a copy of Space Marines. Races and governments to which the RPG only alludes are given write-ups in the wargame. Granted, those write-ups mostly focus on military matters, such as organization, tactics, even uniforms, but at least they exist. Without the benefit of Space Marines, I'd never really know who the Mekpurrs were, let alone even more obscure races like the Rauwoofs or the Whistlers. Ultimately, that's the main reason I still find Space Marines interesting. It works very well as a supplement to Space Opera, filling in some blanks that the RPG's author didn't think needed to be filled lest precious page space be taken away from more important topics like ranged combat status modifiers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "How Many Coins in a Coffer?"

Another preview of the Silver Age appears in issue #80 (December 1983) of Dragon, in the article "How Many Coins in a Coffer?" by David F. Godwin. The article's premise is that the way AD&D abstracts encumbrance with regards to coins makes no sense, since the Players Handbook states that all coins are relatively the same size and weight (one-tenth of a pound or 1.6 ounces). After quibbling over the meaning of "relatively," the author points out that, for example, platinum weighs 2.5 times as much as copper. Given that, how can these two types of coins be the same weight or the same size? He goes on to note that this problem isn't unique to AD&D. RuneQuest doesn't talk about the size of its coinage, but it does talk about its weight and does so in a way that Godwin believes is nonsensical (he points out that silver does not weigh twice as much as copper). Tunnels & Trolls also includes coins that weigh one-tenth of a pound each but without any reference to size.

Having presented that prolog, the author explains why this matter concerns him:
The easiest way out is to reiterate that it's only a game and isn't supposed to be totally realistic. What's realistic about fire-breathing dragons or alignment languages? How does that accord with the laws of biology and physics? There are quite a few of us out here in the boondocks who feel perfectly comfortable with basilisks, fireballs, illusions, the fact that a spell called "continual light" produces continuous light with nothing intermittent about it, and even the rule that clerics can't use edged weapons, but who balk at the idea of a world where platinum, gold, electrum, silver and copper all weigh precisely the same for a given volume. And if we do say that all coin metals weigh the same, we are still faced with the volume question.
The bulk of the article that follows then concerns not so much the weight of individual coins, which Godwin admits would give the referee a nervous breakdown to track, but with the size of coins. His interest in this question is in how many of a given coin will fit into a given container. So, if a chest is 18" x 30" x 18" in dimension, how many gold coins can it contain? How many silver? What about a mix of gold and silver? By recourse to formulae involving the specific gravities of each metal, Godwin is able to offer a small table that gives the weight, volume, and thickness of typical coins of precious metal in AD&D. Armed with this table and the size of any container, the referee can, with comparative ease, determine how many coins of any type can fit within it.

As these kinds of articles go, "How Many Coins in a Coffer?" isn't very math-heavy. Godwin kindly saves most of the math for himself, but, even so, the idea of having to spend much time calculating how many silver pieces actually fit into an adventurer's saddlebags seems a needless complication. Working the other way -- figuring out many and how large the containers holding a given volume of treasure must be -- is not better in my opinion. But then I prefer to keep most things in Dungeons & Dragons fairly abstract, from hit points to experience points to encumbrance. Worrying about such things has never been an obsession of mine (I'd prefer to obsess about other things), but, back in 1983 and beyond, such obsessions became commoner in the pages of Dragon. The drive toward "realism," whether in encumbrance, weather, linguistics, population density, or some other area, was the tenor of the day and Dragon's content reflected that.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pulp Science Fiction Library: The Winds of Gath

If A. Bertram Chandler qualifies as an "influential but not well known author," how do we describe E.C. Tubb, whose multi-volume Dumarest saga is even less familiar to sci-fi fans and gamers alike? Tubb, who died a little over a year ago, was, if nothing else, a major inspiration to Marc Miller's Traveller, as will quickly become obvious to anyone who reads even one novel in the series. Beginning with 1967's The Winds of Gath, Tubb recounted the adventures of Earl Dumarest as he wandered throughout our galaxy in the far future, seeking fame and fortune. Dumarest is, by occupation, a "traveler," a sort of interstellar vagabond who travels in cold sleep while crossing the vast distances between worlds. He's also a native of Earth, having made his way into space as a stowaway in childhood:
"I stowed away on such a ship. I was young, alone, more than
a little desperate. I was more than lucky. The captain should
have evicted me but he had a kind heart. He was old and had no
son." He paused. "That was a long time ago. I was ten at the
He shook himself as if shedding unpleasant memories, been
traveling ever since, deeper and deeper into the inhabited worlds. "That's all there is to it, My Lady. Just an ordinary story of a runaway boy who had more luck than he deserved or thought existed. But Earth is very real."

"Then why haven't I heard of it? Why does everyone think of it as a planet that does not exist?" She stooped and picked up a handful of dirt. "Earth! This is earth! Every planet, in a way, is earth."

"But one planet was the original." He saw the look of shocked realization followed immediately by forceful negation. "You do not believe me—I cannot blame you for that, but think about it for a moment. Earth, my Earth, is far from the edge of the inhabited worlds. No one now, aside from a few, has any reason to go there. But assume for a moment that what I claim is true. Men would venture from that planet in which direction? To the stars closest to home, naturally. And from there? To other, close stars. And so on until the center of civilization had moved deeper into the galaxy and Earth became less than a legend." He paused. "No, My Lady, I can't blame you for not knowing of Earth. But I do."
As I noted above, travelers journey between the stars naked in
coffin-like boxes with their sterilizing glow. Here was where the livestock rode, doped,
frozen, ninety per cent dead. Here was the steerage for travelers willing to gamble against the fifteen per cent mortality rate.

Such travel was cheap—its sole virtue.
Later books in the series establish more details about the nature of space travel, including lotteries based on the likelihood of a given passenger's surviving the trip in cold storage. Other details developed in later books include the Cyclan, an organization devoted to pure logic, the Universal Brotherhood, an interstellar religion, and the network of Free Traders. All of these make an appearance, if only briefly, in The Winds of Gath, which takes place on the inhospitable world of Gath, whose violent storm winds are among its only attractions to outsiders and whose secrets kick off this series in grand style.

Over the course of more than 30 sequels, published between 1967 and 2009, Earl Dumarest's travels are presented in all their pulpy glory, as he goes from world to world, running afoul of all manner of antagonists and threats, and continuing his quest to find his "mythical" homeworld of Earth. The Dumarest tales aren't great literature, but they're fun and inspiring. You can easily see why Marc Miller liked them so much and incorporated so many elements from them into Traveller. This seems only fair, as Tubb himself seems to have swiped ideas from numerous other sci-fi authors, from Asimov to Brackett to Herbert, in creating these stories of interstellar adventure. In that respect, Tubb's great reading for referees looking to find creative ways to incorporate ideas form other sources into his campaign. So, if you can find a copy of The Winds of Gath or any of its follow-ups, do so.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Hodie Christus natus est:
 Hodie Salvator apparuit:
Hodie in terra canunt Angeli,
laetantur Archangeli
Hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Open Friday: Christmas Gaming Memories

Though I do want to talk about the results of last week's poll, since it's so close to Christmas, I thought I'd make this week's Open Friday post about gaming memories associated with the holiday. For me, I strongly associate gaming and Christmas, since it was a Christmas gift to a friend of mine -- TSR's Dungeon! -- that got me to dig out the Holmes boxed set sitting in the linen closet of my home and try to make sense of it for the first time. Subsequent Christmases often featured RPG-related gifts, but no Christmas will ever quite beat the one in 1979 when I was made first furtive steps into a hobby that's been with me for more than three decades. That's a memory I'll never forget.

How about you?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Setting Saintly Standards"

"Setting Saintly Standards" from issue #79 (November 1983) exemplifies two of the worst aspects of D&D: a mania for quantifying everything combined with forgetfulness about the game's origins. Written by Scott Bennie, the article to provide a system "for defining sainthood [and] classifying the precise abilities or capabilities of a saint." Saints, Bennie notes, are mentioned several times in passing in the Dungeon Masters Guide (the Mace of St. Cuthbert being the most notable), but what saints are and what purpose they serve is never explained. Bennie is correct so far as he goes. What he forgets (or is unaware of) is that Gary Gygax provided some good evidence as to the nature of saints back in an issue of The Strategic Review where he talks about alignment. There, saints are exemplars of Lawful Goodness, just as devils are exemplars of Lawful Evilness and demons exemplars of Chaotic Evilness. While AD&D provided lots of information on devils and demons, saints get no similar treatment (neither do "godlings," but no one seems to care about them for some reason).

That's where "Setting Saintly Standards" steps in. Bennie proposes that saints are special servants of the gods who've achieved immortality and some measure of divine power. He makes them on par with Greyhawk's "quasi-deities" like Murlynd or Keoghtom, but explicitly tied to a specific deity, whom they serve and whose cause they promote. The article lays out their spell-like abilities and offers four examples of saints from his own campaign to give the referee some idea of how to create saints of his own. He likewise suggests that some saints -- "patron saints" -- may have shrines dedicated to them and, over time, achieve sufficient power to become demigods in their own right. Exactly what this means for relations between the saint, his followers, and the deity he ostensibly serves is never discussed.

I'm on record as intensely disliking the reduction of gods and semi-divine beings to game stats. It's not for nothing that I dislike both Gods, Demigods & Heroes and Deities & Demigods. One of D&D's worst failings is its reductionism, its voracious appetite to turn everything into either a monster to be killed or a piece of magical technology to be wielded. Saints, as Bennie imagines them, are just big monsters -- or little gods -- to be confronted rather than anything more sublime. Maybe I'd be less bothered by this if he'd have adopted another term for what he's presenting; I don't think the idea of fighting gods is necessarily out of bounds. For certain styles of fantasy, it's even highly appropriate. But saint has a very specific meaning and Gygax's mention of them is almost certainly tied up in the implicit Christianity of early gaming.

Late 1983, though, was a long distance away from 1974, though, and the culture of the hobby had changed. What to Gygax had seemed obvious was now in need of explication and not just explication but expansion. That's why Bennie broadens the use of the term "saint" to include the servants of any god, not just Lawful Good ones. Thus we have St. Kargoth, a fallen paladin, among the four examples he provides us. To say that the idea of an "anti-saint" or "dark saint" is bizarre to me is an understatement. Mind you, I find the idea of non-Lawful Good paladins similarly bizarre, so clearly I'm out of step with a lot of gamers, no that this is any surprise.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Case You Somehow Haven't Seen It ...

... here's the teaser trailer for next year's The Hobbit movie (or Part I anyway).

I'll be honest: it's a very good trailer. Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo and hearing the dwarves sing "Over the Misty Mountains Cold" is a pleasure. On the other hand, I still don't like the look of the dwarves, especially Thorin, and, maybe I'm just looking for things to complain about, but the brief scene between Gandalf and Galadriel didn't sit well with me at all.

In short, I expect The Hobbit movies will be much like The Lord of the Rings movies -- feasts for the eyes that are at their best when they hew closely to Tolkien than when they deviate from him. I also expect that most gamers, like most moviegoers, will care not a whit about textual fidelity.

Retrospective: Traveller: 2300

In my long history of doing stupid things, selling all my Traveller books and boxed sets in 1986 because I believed that GDW's new SF RPG, Traveller: 2300, had "superseded it" is surely one of the stupidest. I say this not because Traveller: 2300 was a bad game (though it did have its problems) but because it was a very different game than its predecessor and namesake. Back then, though, my teenaged self was still, as most teenagers are, a believer in Progress. Newer didn't just mean better; it also meant wholesale rejection of the old. And so it was that, upon getting my copy of Traveller: 2300, I deemed it the greatest science fiction roleplaying game ever, a declaration I punctuated by selling off everything I owned for the game I'd previous declared the best science fiction roleplaying game ever. Ah, the follies of youth.

Now, as I said, Traveller: 2300 is a good game. As its name suggests, it takes place not in the "far future" of Traveller but on the cusp of the 24th century, three centuries after the disastrous Third World War (chronicled in GDW's Twilight: 2000) laid waste to Earth and its people. Traveller: 2300's future history assumes that, after several decades of rebuilding, mankind recovers from the war, the trauma of which engenders a newfound desire to explore and, eventually, colonize other worlds. World War III played havoc with the political situation on Earth, ultimately resulting in a much diminished United States, an ascendant Manchuria, and an Africanized Third French Empire as the dominant powers. Though the future history is very dated now, written as it was before the collapse of Communism, it's nevertheless very interesting. Part of that is because it contains a lot of surprises and oddities rather than being a typical sci-fi future history whose final outcome is a vindication of its creator's ideology with a few ironic counter-examples to suggest breadth. Instead, Traveller: 2300's future was the result of a loose political-economic-military simulation run by GDW's staff that took the post bellum and then played out the next 300 years. It was not the creation of a single person so much as the result of many people playing a wargame that included random factors.

I won't argue that the resulting history is at all plausible, but it was unique and fascinating to me at the time and felt much more grounded than classic Traveller's space operatic approach to history. It was that "groundedness" that was a big part of the game's appeal to me. 1986, after all, was solidly within the Silver Age, when "realism" became the watchword for a lot of game design. Traveller: 2300 certainly took realism to heart. Its combat rules, for example, included concepts like penetration and hit locations, while even character generation distinguished between various body types (ectomorph, endomorph, etc.). Though this gave the game a great feel, in practice it proved quite unwieldy and indeed, as written, the combat system didn't even work properly (it'd take errata to fix it). But I didn't care back then. What I wanted was a SF game that looked and felt "real" and Traveller: 2300 delivered that to my satisfaction. It certainly didn't hurt that the game clearly took a lot of inspiration from Aliens, a hot new movie at the time and one that I still like a great deal.

Traveller: 2300 suffered to some extent because, like many RPGs, the intentions of its designers and its fanbase were often at odds. The game's tagline -- "Mankind Discovers the Stars" -- suggested that the designers intended it to be a "serious" SF game about exploring other worlds and interacting with strange aliens. The game did include a number of truly wonderful alien species, several of them alien indeed. These weren't guys in suits but beings with wholly inhuman biologies and, best of all, psychologies. This, of course, made them unplayable as PCs, which I suspect wasn't met with much pleasure by many gamers. Early adventures focused very heavily on exploration and solving alien enigmas, which, again, probably wasn't what gamers were expecting from a game that devoted so much verbiage to differentiating between various types of, say, laser pistols. When a new edition of the game was released a couple of years later, the redubbed 2300 AD now carried a new tagline -- "Mankind's Battle for the Stars." Quite the difference, isn't it?

Despite it all, I remained a Traveller: 2300 true believer for several years, before returning to classic Traveller and slowly (and expensively) re-acquiring all the books I so foolishly sold. I retain a great fondness for Traveller: 2300. It was a flawed game, no doubt, but it was also an ambitious and imaginative one. The game taught me a lot about how to present a science fiction setting, particularly when it came to alien races. The sample aliens in Thousand Suns owe more than a little to those in Traveller: 2300. Unfortunately, many of the things that made the game seem to realistic to me back in the late '80s now repel me. Likewise, so much of its setting depends on a future history that has been rendered impossible that, much as I appreciate it, I could never again use it. Far moreso than Traveller's 57th century, the 24th century presented in Traveller: 2300 strains at credibility, so rooted is it in the contemporary world in which it was made. That's another lesson I learned from the game: if you're going to make a futuristic setting, it's best not to talk too much about anything in the very near future. Doing so is only going to date your setting quickly, no matter how clever it is.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thousand Suns Available for Sale

I'm happy to announce that, at long last, the Thousand Suns: Rulebook is available for sale, in both PDF and print forms (either softcover or hardcover). The rulebook is a complete 276-page science fiction roleplaying game consisting of 15 chapters that cover everything from character generation to starship combat to world and alien lifeform design. I wrote Thousand Suns as a straightforward, flexible toolbox game that draws heavily on the "imperial" science fiction literature of the '50s, '60s, and '70s -- authors like Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Bertram Chandler, Gordon Dickson, and H. Beam Piper, among others -- and I'm very pleased with how it turned out. I'm especially proud of the book's presentation, for which I owe a big debt of thanks to my graphic designer, Adam Jury, and to the many artists who contributed to it. This rulebook is a real labor of love and I hope others might enjoy it as much as I do.

The Articles of Dragon: "And Now, The Psionicist"

Psionics in AD&D is a strangely contentious topic and not just because the rules presented for it in the Players Handbook leave a lot to be desired. For many gamers, psionics belong to the realm of science fiction and are thus inappropriate to a fantasy game like Dungeons & Dragons. I can understand that point of view, but it's not one I share, since D&D is a "fantasy" game in the broadest sense, which is why it can readily incorporate "science fiction" elements without difficulty. That said, I never used psionics much back in my AD&D days nor have I attempted to add it to my Dwimmermount campaign. The reason for this has nothing to do with maintaining the "purity" of my fantasy worlds so much as the fact that, as written, the rules for psionics are a mess.

This unsuitability of the psionics rules was widely acknowledged by nearly every gamer I knew back in the day. Consequently, many of us greeted issue #78 of Dragon (October 1983) with some pleasure, as it was largely devoted to psionics and its problems. Of the articles in that issue my hands-down favorite was "And now, the psionicist" by Arthur Collins. Collins was one of those authors, like Roger E. Moore and Ed Greenwood, whose stuff was always good. He wasn't as prolific as Moore or Greenwood, but he never failed to impress me. Indeed, if I were to be completely honest, I think Arthur Collins was my favorite old school Dragon writer and "And now, the psionicist" reveals part of why I think so.

The article takes the then-bold step of introducing a new character class -- the psionicist of the title -- as a way to make the psionics rules both workable and enjoyable. More than that, though, Collins also does something even more remarkable: he makes the AD&D psionics rules intelligible. He does this through his explanation of the psionicist's class abilities, such as its acquisition of attack and defense modes and psionic disciplines. It's a small thing, really, but it had a profound effect on me as a younger person. For the first time, I began to feel as if I understood how psionics was supposed to work. Likewise, the notion of making psionics the purview of a unique class rather than an add-on to existing classes was a revelation to me. It made so much sense that I couldn't believe no one had thought of it before. (Someone had, of course -- Steve Marsh -- but their version of psionics never made it into OD&D as written).

"And now, the psionicist" is fairly typical of Collins's work. Rather than wholly rewrite AD&D, he instead clarifies and expands upon the rules as written, in the process making the original rules both understandable and stronger. It's a talent all the best Dragon writers had in those days, but Collins, in my opinion, made it into a high art. Moreso than any other writer, he showed me that, strangely organized and presented as it was, AD&D's rules weren't wholly arbitrary; indeed, they often made sense if you actually took the time to look at them objectively and think about the logic behind them. The proper attitude when encountering a rule that seems "broken" is to step back and consider it carefully before deciding to excise it from the game. That's an attitude that has stuck with me after all these years and one I continue to recommend to others.

Monday, December 19, 2011

More John Carter Trailers

Some TV spots for the upcoming John Carter movie have starting appearing. I like them well enough, though I still find the Tharks skinny and Dejah Thoris comparable. Despite that, it's still recognizably based on Burroughs's classic tale, which is more than anyone can say of any movie made about one of Robert E. Howard's stories (Pigeons from Hell being the exception).

Pulp Science Fiction Library: The Road to the Rim

Among the lasting accomplishments of the old school renaissance has been a greater knowledge and appreciation for the books that inspired our hobby. Indeed, the phrase "Appendix N" has now become a widely used shorthand for the literary origins of RPGs. I take great pleasure in this, since it's a central contention of this blog that the collective amnesia of our hobby about where it came from has played a role in its decline and deformation. But despite the much larger number of gamers who've now read Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber or even Robert E. Howard, many continue to remain ignorant of other authors who've nevertheless had a significant influence on some of the foundational games of the hobby.

A prime example of an influential but not well known author is A. Bertram Chandler, a British-Australian writer of science fiction who wrote numerous short stories and novels during the '60s, '70s, and early '80s. Many of his works are set within the same universe, the bulk of which have as their protagonist a man named John Grimes. Grimes begins his career as a lowly ensign of the Federation Survey Service but who later becomes a free trader beyond the borders of the Federation, then a spy in the Federation's employ, and finally a commodore in the navy of the Rim Worlds Alliance, an independent coalition of planets who seek freedom outside the confines of the stifling Federation. If any of the foregoing sounds familiar to you, that's probably because you're a Traveller player. Chandler, along with E.C. Tubb -- another Brit -- is one of the great unsung inspirations for Marc Miller's RPG of science fiction adventure in the far future.

The first appearance of John Grimes was in 1967 in the novel The Road to the Rim. The novel tells the story of a newly-commissioned Grimes, who's traveling via a merchant vessel, the Delta Orionis, to his first assignment outside the Solar System. The young Grimes is snobbish and overconfident, dreaming of the brilliant career he is certain he will one day have. He's also certain of the superiority of his native Federation, looking down on the other interstellar states, both human and alien, that border it, just as easily as he looks down on the merchantmen whom he believes lack his education and training. Over the course of his journey, Grimes comes to realize that the situation "out there" is far different than his youthful fancies imagined, such as the nature of politics between the Federation and its neighbors. A Rim Worlder also traveling aboard the Delta Orionis explains it to him thusly:
"Just think about a Pact of Perpetual Amity between an elephant and a tom cat," said Baxter. "A fat an' lazy elephant. A lean, scrawny, vicious tom cat. If the elephant wanted to he could convert that cat into a fur bedside rug just by steppin' on him. But he doesn't want to. He leave the cat alone, just because the cat is useful to him. He does more than just leave him alone. He an' this feline pull out their pens from wherever they keep 'em an' sign their famous Pact.

"In case you haven't worked it out for yourself, the elephant's the Federation, and the tom cat's the Duchy of Waldegren."

"But why?" asked Grimes. "Why?"

"Don't they teach you puppies any interstellar politics? Or are those courses reserved for the top brass? Well, Mr. Grimes, I'll tell you. There's one animal that has the elephant really worried. Believe it or not, he's scared o' mice. An' there're quite a few mice inside the Federation, mice that make the elephant nervous by their rustling an' scurryings an' their squeaky demands for full autonomy. That's where the cat comes in. By his free use of his teeth an' claws, by his very presence, he keeps the mice quiet."
That pretty well describes the situation at the start of Grimes's career, before the Rim Worlds have broken away from the Federation -- and before Grimes has become fully sympathetic to their cause. However, the seeds are planted early and a lot of the action in The Road to the Rim depends on understanding Mr Baxter's metaphor of the elephant, the cat, and the mouse. Of course, the real pleasure of Chandler's stories is watching not just Grimes but the entire galaxy in which he lives evolve over time. This is not a static universe and Grimes is not a static character.

I discovered Chandler fairly late, well after I'd begun playing Traveller and that's a pity. If you have a chance to read this or any of the other books in the series, it's well worth it. Not only are the stories fun space operas wit intriguing characters, they're short. The Road to the Rim is just a little over a hundred pages in length and that's fairly typical of most of the Grimes tales. Chandler has a spare but not spartan style and he's quite good at using "small" stories to share Big Ideas, which I think is one of the key features that separates a lot of the best SF from its competition.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Open Friday: Did You Have a Gaming Mentor?

For the benefit of those of you who haven't been following recent discussions, here's a more detailed version of the question: How did you learn to play RPGs? Did you simply buy a boxed set or a book, read it, and start playing all on your own, or did you have someone else show you how the game was played (correctly or incorrectly)?

I'm sure there are shades of gray in between the two options, but, for the purposes of this poll, "Yes" indicates that you turned to someone else for assistance at any time, while "No" indicates that you taught yourself without any outside assistance.  I mention this because I myself began playing by cracking open a Holmes boxed set and diving in, but it wasn't until a friend's older brother corrected all my misapprehensions that I started playing the game "right." That's why I consider myself to have had a gaming mentor.

If you want to do so, you can use the comments to let me know which game you used to teach yourself the game or, if you had a mentor, who it was that taught you how to play.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Speaking of Kiddie D&D

The other day I was searching the Web for an image and I stumbled across this one instead:
Any negative thoughts I might have had back in 1983 about Red Box D&D were nothing compared to what I thought about stuff like the Fortress of Fangs Playset. Bad enough that they were making ridiculous action figures with names like Strongheart the Paladin and Warduke the Evil Fighter but that they slapped the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons logo on it was even worse.

The Articles of Dragon: "A New Game with a Familiar Name"

If the results of my poll back in October are any indication, nearly two-thirds of my regular readership entered the hobby within the first ten years of its existence, with a sizable portion of them doing so between the years 1980 and 1984. During that five year span, two different Basic Sets appeared, the first in 1981 and the second in 1983. Being a Holmes man who'd "upgraded" to AD&D sometime in 1980, I had no need for either of the Basic Sets released subsequently, but, TSR fan boy that I was, I nevertheless dutifully purchased both when they were released. That, of the two, I still have Tom Moldvay's 1981 version still sitting on my shelf today probably tells you all you need to know about my opinions of them.

But, back in issue #77 (September 1983) of Dragon, the reviser of the 1983 version, Frank Mentzer, made his case for why we needed a new Basic Set. It's a really fascinating article, both because it suggests that TSR obviously felt some need to justify the release of yet another Basic Set and because of the things that Mentzer says in his piece. It is, I think, a fascinating snapshot of the end of the Golden Age, making it well worth a read if you're at all interested in the history of this hobby and how it changed over the years.

The very first thing Mentzer mentions in his criticism of previous editions is that "you had to find someone to show you how to play." He notes that, in fact, learning from others who had figured out how to play on their own was the norm previously. That's because the game had "a devoted following, people who taught newcomers the ways of roleplaying." Mentzer is absolutely correct about this, as I've noted before. In those bygone days, you entered the hobby by initiation, aided by someone who'd done so before you. In my case, it was via a friend's teenaged brother; I, in turn, taught others how to play. That was the order of things in the late '70s and very early '80s. The 1983 edition is thus an attempt to correct this "flaw" of expecting that you'd learn to play from others.

Mentzer then notes that
the previous editions were not revisions. They were new attempts at using the same methods of organization applied to the original data plus evolution. They were not "revised," merely "reorganized." This one is different.
That's an interesting statement. I regularly point out that Holmes isn't really an introduction to AD&D at all, despite the claims inserted clumsily by TSR, but rather a new edition of OD&D that retains much of the original text of the LBBs. Moldvay is, I think, more of a revision than Mentzer gives it credit for. That said, it's also largely consonant with the LBBs, again retaining verbiage to be found in the 1974 game. The 1983, on the other hand, is even more than a revision; it's a rewriting of the game, using new language to express many of the same ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the language is very simple and clearly geared toward children, which wasn't the case with the Blue Book I first encountered in 1979. Consequently, I recoiled upon reading it and it only further solidified my notion that the D&D line was for kids.

The 1983 set's focus on self-teaching and simple language probably made sense from a marketing standpoint. Given how well the set supposedly sold, I can't really fault TSR for going in this direction. At the same time, though, there was clearly a shift happening, away from adults and teenagers as the target audience and away from initiation as the means of entering the hobby. Likewise, the adoption of a unified esthetic (all Elmore and Easley artwork) that, while attractive, seemed to narrow rather than broaden the scope of the game. In short, the 1983 Basic Set marked a definite change from what had gone before.

I'll be honest: I was somewhat reluctant to write this particular post. I've gotten a surprisingly large number of requests from readers asking me to touch on the issue of the differences in philosophy between the 1981 and 1983 Basic Sets. But I also know the fondness with which many remember the Red Box and the profound influence it had on them as younger people. So, I hope no one takes this as a knock against the '83 boxed set, even if it's not to my cup of tea. I'm sure there were guys who started with the LBBs who looked at the Holmes set with disappointment, too; that's the way these things go. At the same time, I don't think it can be denied that 1983 marks another change in the history of both D&D and the hobby.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Retrospective: Striker

Allow me to begin this week's retrospective by admitting, once more, that I'm not a wargamer and never have been, whether the wargame in question is hex-and-chit or miniatures-based. I've often wished I were. I've made many good faith efforts over the years to become one, but, no matter how hard I try, I can never quite do it. Sure, I can play the games; I can sometimes even do so tolerably well. Yet, I never quite acquire the right mindset to enjoy wargames as anything more than an intellectual exercise -- and I feel bad about that, as if I'm missing out on ever truly understanding the foundations of our hobby.

I bring this up, because, back in 1981, I was already playing GDW's science fiction RPG, Traveller, and loving it. Until a few years, it was my go-to sci-fi game and, even though I don't play it anymore, there's no question that it's shaped my understanding of what a SF RPG is and ought to be like no other. So, when GDW released Striker in that year, I was very keen to buy it and use it, even though it was quite explicitly a set of 15 mm miniatures rules rather than a "proper" supplement to Traveller.

For whatever reason, though, I could never find a copy of the boxed set in any of my local game stores and, in those days, if I couldn't find it in a store, I couldn't buy it. I did see a range of 15 mm miniatures intended for use with Striker and they contributed to my inexplicable lust for it. It'd be a couple of years before I'd actually see a copy of Striker, at a local games day, by which point my ardor had lessened considerably. That's probably just as well, since, as I discovered, Frank Chadwick's rules were dense and complicated, at least to my early teenage self. They took up three 48-page booklets, the first two of which described the basic and advanced rules, while the third presented design sequences for every sort of technology, along with extensive equipment lists.

To this day, I honestly can't tell you whether or not the rules for Striker are as complex in play as they seemed to me even after I got a chance to read them in depth. However, I can tell you that Striker exercised a baleful influence over Traveller as the '80s wore on. The design sequences, originally intended to aid in the creation of new units and equipment for use in miniatures battles, came to be used more broadly. By the time of Traveller's second edition -- the goofily named MegaTraveller -- these sequences were expanded and incorporated into the main game, thereby ensuring that MegaTraveller would be one of the most unnecessarily confusing and heavily erratafied RPGs I've ever owned. Likewise, many aspects of Striker's combat system were also incorporated into MegaTraveller, making it feel far less wild and woolly than the original version of the game I fell in love with in the early '80s.

I don't want to come down too hard on Striker. Firstly, I've never actually played it, even though I've read the rules. Secondly, like a lot of spin-off products from RPGs, Striker was intended as something to run in parallel to Traveller rather than something that would supplant it. Yet, supplant it Striker did, at least in part, because those design sequences, which gave referees and players alike the ability to design a wide variety of technology, were simply too appealing a toolbox not to be used. Traveller already had a lot gearheads among its fans, thanks to earlier supplements like High Guard, but Striker enabled them to become a prominent fixture of the game forever, the effects of which are still felt even today.

Another reason I don't want to criticize Striker unduly is because of a comment it includes on its credits page:
Although this game (as presented in Books 1, 2, and 3) envisions a referee or umpire to supervise play and resolve questions, the publisher is prepared to answer questions or inquiries on Striker provided a stamped, self-addressed envelope accompanies the request.
That's a pretty incredible thing to read, isn't it? Like Loren Wiseman's editorial from issue #2 of The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, it suggests that GDW's designers only grudgingly felt it was their job to clarify rules rules, since this was properly the purview of one's referee. If that doesn't speak to the question of just how different the hobby was three decades ago, I don't know what does.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "For NPCs Only: The Death Master"

Ah, that staple of Dragon from back in the day: the "NPC only" class. One of the oddities of the magazine was that, while there was a voracious demand for new character classes, as a house organ of TSR, it could never offer up a new class for use with D&D without a formal caveat, unless it came from the pen of Gary Gygax himself. Of course, this was done with a nod and a wink, as no referee I knew back in the day ever refrained from allowing his players to use "NPC only" classes if he felt they were well done and fit the spirit of his campaign. I know I never had any problems with it, though, to be fair, I was choosy and, in any event, most of the new classes presented in Dragon were so specialized as to have limited appeal.

Still, the presentation of Len Lakofka's death master class in issue #76 (August 1983) went above and beyond those of most other classes in terms of making it clear that it was intended only for NPCs. You can see the title of the article in which it appeared above. In addition to the "For NPCs Only" phrasing, there's the subtitle that calls the class a "monster" and notes that one shouldn't consider playing as a death master. Even more notably, the article itself begins with an "Introduction/Sermon" where Lakofka opines
The AD&D game should not have assassin player characters. In fact, no player character should be evil at all unless adverse magic affects him.
This is an interesting, though not unusual, point of view, especially as the '80s rolled on. It's also worth noting that assassins were eventually eliminated from AD&D in its second edition, a point of view even Gygax toyed with on occasion, though for different reasons. In any case, Lakofka continues in his introduction to explain that he feels evil is treated too casually in the game. One of his reasons for creating the death master class was to rectify this.
As a way of putting evil in its often without enough of a penalty proper place, here is presented an evil character that makes an assassin look like the boy next door. The death master is meant as a non-player character -- one the player characters and their party have to defeat. Please use the character that way only. If I ever run into a player character death master at a convention, I may turn evil myself. . .
Again, it's an interesting point of view, especially when viewed against the changing culture surrounding D&D at that time. Naturally, Lakofka's concerns had zero effect on me at the time, since there was for a brief time a PC death master in my old campaign -- brief, because he was eventually slain by the other PCs, but I allowed the class nonetheless. The PC in question was a formerly good character turned to evil by possession of the Hand of Vecna and who became obsessed with eliminating his former companions in the belief that they would eventually destroy him. He was right, as it turned out, though, ironically, his destruction was more the result of his repeated attempts to slay the other PCs than their own desire to see his life ended. In any event, I didn't heed Lakofka's warnings and I'd be amazed if I were the only one.

The death master class itself is somewhat interesting. It's basically a necromancer, with many powers over the undead and a collection of new spells. Beginning at 4th level, the class also gains the ability to make a variety of "potions, salves, and pastes" that replicate some of his spells and class abilities. At the time, I found it an impressive addition, since it spelled out a bit more explicitly the crafting of magic items than was seen elsewhere. In retrospect, I'm not sure a new class was needed, when new spells alone could have probably sufficed, but that was the style at the time. Regardless, I'm not at all convinced that the death master did anything to advance the notion that evil should be Evil and never an option for player characters.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Imagination, Research, and Thought

Over the weekend, among other things, I was re-reading some old issues of GDW's The Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society. JTAS was a magazine devoted to Traveller and ran for 24 issues between 1979 and 1983 before it was subsumed into and superseded by a broader gaming magazine called Challenge. I have very fond memories of both JTAS and Challenge, the latter being where my earliest gaming writing was published.

Anyway, in issue #2 of JTAS, editor Loren Wiseman has a column where he takes exception to a review of Traveller Book 4, Mercenary, which appeared in issue #26 (June 1979) of Dragon. Among the complaints made in the review (by Mark S. Day) is "Laser pistols were missing from hardware." Now, as any old Traveller hand can tell you, laser pistols weren't originally included in the game. I'm not certain I can recall when they finally did appear (MegaTraveller in 1986?), but their absence was a common knock against the game, especially by fans of other SF RPGs.

What's interesting is the way that Wiseman dismisses the reviewer's criticism:
Take, for example, the laser pistol. Although it does not specifically mention them, Traveller provides all the information needed to enable a referee to create them, with a little mental effort. Since, as referee, we are running the world, we declare that a laser pistol should be to a laser carbine as a conventional pistol is to a conventional carbine.
He then goes on at some length showing how he'd extrapolate the game stats of a laser pistol, concluding his efforts with the following:
The above example indicates how the Traveller rules can be used to create something not present in the rules. We don't have room to describe everything. With a little imagination, a little research, and a lot of thought, almost anything can be made compatible with Traveller.
On some level,Wiseman's reply to the review comes across as a little tetchy. On another, though, I find it reminiscent of the afterward [sic] of OD&D, where Gygax and Arneson ask the question "why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" That's a sentiment that makes more and more sense to me as the years wear on, so it delighted me to see it expressed in the pages of JTAS so long ago.

Pulp Science Fiction Library: The Stainless Steel Rat

Alongside Poul Anderson's Sir Dominic Flandry, one of the longest-running characters from the Golden Age of Science Fiction is James Bolivar diGriz, also known as "Slippery Jim" or "the Stainless Steel Rat." The latter nickname is also the title of the story in which he debuted, published in the December 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Harrison would, in 1961, also use the title for a novel that contained the original 1957 story, its 1960 sequel (The Misplaced Battleship), alongside completely new material. Over the course of the next five decades, the Rat would appear in a total of twelve novels, the most recent of which was published in 2010.

In the future world in which Slippery Jim diGriz exists, crime is practically non-existent thanks to a combination of genetic screening and social control. The few malcontents who do exist are therefore aberrations, the most talented of which make life extremely interesting for law enforcement officers, who spend most of their time dealing with petty crimes like burglary and shoplifting. DiGriz himself explains the situation -- and himself -- in this way:

That is almost the full extent of crime in our organized, dandified society. Ninety-nine per cent of it, let's say. It is that last and vital one per cent that keeps the police departments in business. That one per cent is me, and a few others like me, a handful of men scattered around the galaxy. Theoretically we can't exist, and if we do exist we can't operate - but we do. We are the rats in the wainscoting of society - we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules. Society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as the old wooden buildings had more rats than the concrete buildings that came later. But they still had rats. Now that society is all ferroconcrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps between the joints, and it takes a smart rat to find them. A stainless steel rat is right at home in this environment.
It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel rat - and it is the greatest experience in the galaxy if you can get away with it. The sociological experts can't seem to agree why we exist, some even doubt that we do. The most widely accepted theory says that we are victims of delayed psychological disturbance that shows no evidence in child-hood when it can be detected and corrected and only appears later in life. I have naturally given a lot of thought to the topic and I don't hold with that idea at all.
A few years back I wrote a small book on the subject - under a nom de plume of course - that was rather well received. My theory is that the aberration is a philosophical one, not a psychological one. At a certain stage the realisation striked through that one must either live outside of society's bonds or die of absolute boredom. There is no future or freedom in the circumscribed life and the only other life is complete rejection of the rules. There is no longer room for the soldier of fortune or the gentleman adventurer who can live both within and outside of society. Today it is all or nothing. To save my own sanity I chose the nothing.
The Rat is thus a professional criminal in a world where such people are practically non-existent -- but not completely so. As he soon finds out, there are other people like him and the role they play in society is quite different than the one he chose for himself. I won't spoil the story by saying any more, except that Harrison creates a terrific vehicle by which the Rat can continue to have exciting adventures that are more than just endless con games and bank robberies. He also provides himself with plenty of opportunities for satire, social criticism, and philosophy in the best traditions of classic science fiction. I quite often disagree with the points of view Harrison advances in the Stainless Steel Rat stories, but I can't deny that he spins a good tale. Likewise, Jim diGriz makes for a great protagonist, as charming and self-rationalizing as any a lovable rogue in pulp literature. Plus, he's a native speaker of Esperanto, so what's not to love?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Princino de Marso

As some of you may be aware, in Thousand Suns, I sometimes use words and phrases from the constructed language of Esperanto as stand-ins for the futuristic universal human language of Lingua Terra (a name cribbed from H. Beam Piper). This not only felt "right," since a lot of Golden Age SF uses Esperanto in a similar fashion, but was fun, too, since I've had a strange fascination with Esperanto since I was a teenager.

Anyway, I recently came across references to a translation of Burroughs's A Princess of Mars into Esperanto, the cover for which I've reproduced below. I'd love to find a copy of it somewhere, though I wouldn't actually be able to read it, since, despite my interest in the language, I'm far from being fluent in it. Still, I thought it was kind of cool.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Telekinetic Shield

Here's another illustration from Thousand Suns from the chapter on psi powers. If all goes well, the book should available for sale sometime next week.
©2010 Jacob Walker

German Traveller Cover Art

Foreign translations of English-language RPGs are of great interest to me, in large part because they're often quasi-revisions of the original games -- incorporating material from later supplements and having new layouts and art. Sometimes, these changes make them better than the originals, but, even when the changes are mostly cosmetic, they're nevertheless worthy of examination.

Traveller, so far as I know, was only ever translated into Spanish, German, and Japanese. I've talked about the Japanese translation before and, from what I've gleaned elsewhere, the Spanish language version isn't all that exciting. The German edition, on the other hand, is quite fascinating to me, if only because of its cover art, much of which was done by artist Thomas Kidd. Pictured to the right is the cover of the German rulebook.

Though the original cover of Traveller is a classic, one of the best RPG covers ever in my opinion, I really like this one too. It oozes '60s and '70s sci-fi charm, from the guy's clothes and hairstyle to the space station in the background. The covers of many of the German supplements and adventures are also quite good. You can see them here on the RPGNow website.

In Search of the Unknown

Last night, before bed, I was reading an essay by S.T. Joshi and was shocked to see reference to a title that's all too familiar to me: In Search of the Unknown. Of course, Joshi wasn't referring to the first D&D module I ever owned, Mike Carr's 1978 classic. Rather, he was talking about a 1904 book by Robert W. Chambers (of The King in Yellow fame) that's long since been in the public domain.

Seeing as I'd never heard of it before, I've never read Chambers's In Search of the Unknown, though I plan to rectify that when I have the time to do so. As I understand it, the book is actually a collection of episodic stories about a man seeking out species of animals believed extinct. This being a Chambers book, he naturally finds more than he expected.

I have no idea if Mike Carr was making a reference to this book when he named module B1. My guess is that the similarity of title is merely a coincidence, but it's intriguing nonetheless.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Open Friday: Good Gaming Covers

Last Friday, I asked about good gaming art produced in the last five years. This time I'm more specifically interested in good gaming covers -- that is, cover art to RPGs you consider particularly well-done and evocative. I'm going to open this question up to include any tabletop RPG published at any time, since, even when I specify that a timeframe, very few people actually stick to it. However, I am going to ask that commenters limit themselves to primary rulebooks or boxed sets. That means no supplements or adventures, please. Also, because it's already well established that Dave Trampier's Players Handbook illustration is the best cover ever, I'd like to ask that no one nominate it as an example of a good gaming cover. If you can briefly explain why you regard your choice as a good cover, that'd be of interest to me as well.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

REVIEW: Darkness Visible

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of espionage stories and movies. That's probably why so many of my RPG campaigns, even when they're ostensibly about something else, inevitably turn into ersatz spy-based ones. I simply adore everything about the espionage genre, including the factional infighting that sometimes makes one's own side just as much an impediment to success as one's opposition. So, naturally, when I heard about Darkness Visible, the espionage supplement for the excellent Star Without Number, I was very excited.

Darkness Visible is 96 pages long and available as either a PDF (for $9.99) or a printed softcover book (for $19.99). In terms of its appearance, it's very similar to previous releases for Stars Without Number: a no frills two-column layout consisting of dense text and very limited art. This is an unambiguously hobbyist product, conceived, written, and assembled by one person (Kevin Crawford). It's also an extremely well written and imagined product that I found myself re-reading even after I'd finished it, something that sets it apart from all but the best products I review. Make no mistake, though; Darkness Visible is also a very specialized product, far moreso than, say, Skyward Steel or even Polychrome, both of which are more broadly useful even in campaigns not focused on interstellar navies and cyberpunk, respectively.

The supplement consists of six chapters and a short introduction. The first chapter discusses espionage in the days prior to the cataclysmic Scream that is the foundational event of the Stars Without Number setting. It's mostly focused on an organization called the Perimeter, whose primary purpose was as a first line of defense against rogue A.I.s but whose role eventually expanded over time. The second chapter follows this up by discussing the organization and operation of contemporary espionage agencies descended from the pre-Scream Perimiter. Of the two, the second chapter is much more immediately useful to a referee running an espionage campaign, as the first is largely historical and somewhat canon-heavy. That's not to say the first chapter is devoid of interest, but it mostly deals with events that occurred more than 500 years before campaign present, which tends to limit its obvious utility.

The third chapter provides rules constructing espionage agencies and conspiratorial cabals. These rules are similar to those in the Stars Without Number rulebook for handling factions but aren't identical, which could cause some confusion. On the other hand, I like the fact that Crawford didn't try to shoehorn agencies and cabals into the factional system, preferring instead to give them a system reflective of their peculiarities. Consequently, concepts such as infiltration and connections play a big role, along with a host of "elements," which are like factional assets from the main rulebook but geared toward espionage campaigns. So we get assassins, criminal ties, front businesses, and hidden strings, among others, each of which comes with numerous examples and plot seeds. Cabals get their own elements, which function similarly, but have slightly different focuses, primarily forbidden and dangerous technology. This is the chapter where Darkness Visible really shines by providing not merely a simple system for handling actions by espionage agencies and sinister cabals but also by providing lots of ideas on how to use the system to inspire adventures.

Chapter four focuses on three types of cults and cabals -- those devoted to eugenics, those devoted to "unbraked" A.I.s, and those devoted to weapons of mass destruction. In each case, there's a brief overview of these groups, their organizations, and their goals, followed by rules and sample NPCs appropriate to them. There are also 36 new tags to use with the world generation system in the Stars Without Number rulebook, each of which offers plenty of examples and suggestions for their use. Chapter five is referee-oriented and is about creating espionage adventures. In addition to the usual abstract talk about adventure design we see so often in RPG books, we get six pages of random tables to aid the referee in his task. For my money, these few pages are worth a lot more than what precedes them, as they're eminently usable and quickly aid the referee in creating the outline of a scenario. Chapter six is a short one, offering new backgrounds and equipment for espionage campaigns.

Darkness Visible is a compelling, tightly focused supplement for Stars Without Number -- perhaps too tightly focused for some, though, for me, it was a delight to read. If you're planning to include lots of espionage agencies or maltech cults in your campaign in any capacity, it's probably worth picking up. If you're not, it might still be worth getting but, as I noted earlier, I don't think it's as generally useful as earlier supplements. On the other hand, Crawford does a great job of making his subject matter compelling, so much so that I found myself taking a far greater interest in, for example, cabals and cults than I thought I might. As with all previous Stars Without Number products, the rules material of Darkness Visible is simple, unobtrusive, and quite amenable to modification. All in all, it's a nice little package that demonstrates once more why Stars Without Number is one the most interesting RPGs, old school or otherwise, to be released in the last few years.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're playing Stars Without Number or any other SF RPG where espionage and conspiracies play an important role.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in extra detail regarding espionage agencies or conspiratorial cabals.

The Articles of Dragon: "The Nine Hells, Part I"

And so we come, once again, to an excellent article written by Ed Greenwood -- "The Nine Hells, Part I," which appeared in issue #75 (July 1983) of Dragon. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Greenwood would enjoy such success; he was not only prolific but also imaginative. Plus, his articles were memorable. Even now, nearly three decades later, I clearly remember the first time I read this issue of Dragon, filled as it was with information about the lower planes, thanks to both Gary Gygax's extensive preview of new devils from the upcoming Monster Manual II and the first part of Ed Greenwood's tour of the first five levels AD&D's version of Hell. I was absolutely blown away by what I read, much to the chagrin of my players at the time, several of whom found themselves on unexpected visits to the domains of one or more arch-devils.

Like Roger E. Moore's "The Astral Plane," "The Nine Hells, Part I" is a work of remarkable scholarship, mining the entirety of the AD&D corpus available at the time for hints as to what the planes of Hell might be like. Also like "The Astral Plane," this article wasn't content to simply regurgitate what we already knew. Rather, it expanded on that information in clever and sometimes surprising ways, painting a picture of the Nine Hells that was both true to its gaming source material but also evocative of other works of fantasy and myth. Greenwood doesn't present his Nine Hells as canonical for anything other than his own Forgotten Realms campaign, but it wasn't long before it received Gygax's blessing, which gave it a status it enjoyed until comparatively recently, where books as recent as 2006's Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells continued to make use of ideas laid down in 1983. That's a degree of influence that few articles (or authors) can match.

In addition to giving names to each of the Nine Hells and discussing their locales and points of interest, Greenwood also devotes a fair bit of space to their inhabitants, in particular unique devils. Prior to this issue of Dragon, the arch-devils were the only unique devils described in AD&D. Now, both Gygax and Greenwood have provided a coterie of such personalities, which, as a referee, I found a terrific boon. Unique devils gave me the opportunity to pit the PCs against powerful devils that weren't rulers of entire planes. This not only gave the PCs a fighting chance to defeat them but, in the event that the PCs did defeat them, the multiverse wouldn't resound with their victory the way it might if they bested Dispater or Geryon. Greenwood also found a way to work Astaroth from "The Politics of Hell" (from issue #28) into his depiction of the Nine Hells, which I know endeared him to many older gamers of my acquaintance who adored Alex von Thorn's article from way back when.

"The Nine Hells, Part I" (and its sequel, which I may well wind up discussing next time) are in a rare class of Dragon article: ones I actually used. Ever since I started playing AD&D, I desperately wanted to run adventures in the Outer Planes, but I rarely did, in large part because the game gave so little information on them. That's why articles like this and "The Astral Plane" were so useful and inspiring to me. And, unlike "The Astral Plane," Greenwood's Nine Hells articles were remarkably concrete, describing people and places one could encounter in addition to providing rules for how magic worked differently in this plane of ultimate Lawful Evil. I liked that a lot; I still do.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Retrospective: Star Trek II Starship Combat Simulator

I've spoken glowingly of the starship combat rules in FASA's Star Trek the Roleplaying Game before and there's a reason for that: they remain perhaps the best starship combat rules ever included in any RPG. They're simple enough that even the wargames-challenged such as myself can grasp them, but they also possess enough depth to hold the attention of players adept at strategy and tactics. On top of it all, the rules are an excellent evocation of their source material and integrate well with the Star Trek RPG. Rather than being effectively a separate game used to adjudicate starship combat, these rules work hand in hand with those of the RPG, thereby enabling starship combat to be as much of a roleplaying experience as arguing morality with rock creatures or teaching alien women the meaning of love.

Even so, the starship combat rules could be used independently of the RPG and it was likely this fact, coupled with the possibility of selling metal miniatures to use with it, that led to the publication of the Star Trek II Starship Combat Simulator in 1983. The Starship Combat Simulator (herafter SCS) was designed by Forest Brown, David F. Tepool, and William John Wheeler and, though completely compatible with FASA's Star Trek RPG, effectively became the centerpiece of a separate, though related, game line. This game line featured not only this boxed set but also miniatures, starship construction and recognition manuals, and small sub-games designed to be played quickly by two players. I have no idea how successful the line was for FASA, but it became a favorite in my gaming groups, something Starfleet Battles never achieved.

At the heart of the SCS's appeal was the way that allowed multiple players to run a single starship, each one taking the role of a different member of its crew. Each player had a paper tactical display where they allocated energy to important starship systems and made dice rolls to determine if they could coax a little extra performance out of them. It was a brilliant way to involve everyone and stay true to what we see in Star Trek. Equally brilliant, though, was the way that the system scaled upwards, so that, if the players wanted to simulate a battle between more than two ships, they could do so without bogging things down. In such cases, the specific details of individual systems were abstracted a bit, making larger scale engagements not only possible but relatively painless to run. It was a lot of fun to play, which is a boast no starship combat system except for Knight Hawks can make in my book and even that excellent system pales in comparison to the SCS.

My only real complaint about the Starship Combat Simulator was that it fed the impression that a lot of Star Trek fans somehow viewed the series (and movies) as being military science fiction rather than optimistic action-adventure with occasional forays into military SF. It's a small thing, to be sure, but I can't tell you how often I've met self-professed Star Trek fans whose primary interest is in space battles and technology, two areas that, while certainly present, are far from the core of Star Trek. Granted, when I was a younger man, I loved those things, too, so perhaps it's simply a phase one goes through. Still, when I look back on my youthful experiences roleplaying Star Trek, there were a heck of a lot more space battles played out with the SCS than we ever saw in any of the episodes or films available at that point. I don't blame FASA for my own misapprehensions, but there is a part of me that wonders whether the existence of a separate starship combat-based game line didn't lend credence to my foolishness rather than discourage it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

OSRCon 2012 News

Last August, Toronto hosted a small local gaming convention devoted to old school RPGs called OSRCon. It was a very big success, attracting not just Torontonians but gamers from as far away as Massachusetts and Virginia. I'm happy to report that OSRCon will return on August 10-11, 2012.

This past year, Ed Greenwood was one of the convention's guests. Next year, organizer Chris Cunnington informs me, we'll be graced by the presence of Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls and one of the nicest guys in the hobby. I had a blast this year and look forward to the chance to do it again in 2012.

Kepler 22b

Some of you have no doubt heard the news of the discovery of a "Super-Earth" in a star system some 600 light years away from our solar system. Given the rather uninspiring name of Kepler 22b, the planet is twice the size of Earth and possesses a surface temperature estimated to be approximately 22° Celsius. It orbits a star very similar to our Sun at a distance that makes it plausible candidate for liquid water, as well as, possibly, life. Of course, there's no way to know for certain and there are still plenty of reasons why Kepler 22b may in fact be very different than our own homeworld. Still, it's very fascinating news if you're an astronomy buff or a fan of science fiction.

The Articles of Dragon: "Seven Swords"

Like his "Pages from the Mages," Ed Greenwood's "Seven Swords" from issue #74 of Dragon (June 1983) is an article I remember reading for the first time very vividly. Not only was I keen for more information about Greenwood's then-mysterious Forgotten Realms setting, but I had come recognize the man as one of the more clever and imaginative writers to appear in Dragon's pages. A big part of Greenwood's appeal is the way that he could make something as seemingly banal as sword +1 and make it interesting -- and he did it without having to introduce a host of new powers or abilities into the game.

What "Seven Swords" does is present seven different magical weapons, none of which is more potent than a sword +3. Each of these swords gets an extensive description of both its physical and magical properties. Amusingly, it's often the physical description that really sets these swords apart from the pack. Whether it's the huge cabochon-cut black sapphire in the grip of Adjatha, the six matched bloodstones set in the bronze blade of Ilbratha, or the rearing serpents who make the guard of Shazzellim, Greenwood makes each of these weapons unique in appearance as well as abilities. This is a small detail that many referees overlook, concentrating instead on game mechanical effects. Greenwood doesn't skimp on these either, but they're only one facet of what makes the titular swords special.

Each weapon also includes a "lore" section, detailing the history of the blade, from its forging to the present day. It's this section that I really ate up as a younger man. Re-reading them in preparation for this post, I can completely understand why that was the case. The lore Greenwood presents isn't extensive -- no more than four or five short paragraphs in most cases -- but it's evocative. It's suggestive of adventures and, better still, it gives even a lowly sword +1 an air of antiquity and individuality that makes it a weapon worth holding on to even when better weapons come along. That was probably the biggest lesson "Seven Swords" taught me: game mechanics aren't always what make a magic item special. It's a lesson I've kept with me all these years and one I'd like to see adopted more broadly.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Tiger by the Tail

No, that's not a mistake in the title of this post. For the month of December, Pulp Fantasy Library has become Pulp Science Fiction Library, with a special emphasis on authors who have been particularly influential on me over the years. That's why I inaugurate this special feature with Poul Anderson's 1951 short story "Tiger by the Tail," which marks the first appearance of one of his most memorable characters, Captain Sir Dominic Flandry of the Imperial Naval Intelligence Corps. Flandry is often described as a "science fiction James Bond," which, while apt, is somewhat anachronistic, given that Ian Fleming wouldn't start writing Casino Royale until 1952 and the novel wouldn't appear in print until 1953. Similarly, the plot of "Tiger by the Tail" is sometimes described as "Yojimbo in space," which, again, is apt but anachronistic as Kurosawa's classic film appeared a decade after Anderson's short story.

"Tiger by the Tail" begins with Captain Flandry having been drugged and captured by unknown assailants. As Flandry regains consciousness and contemplates his predicament, he quickly comes to some conclusions about them:
They were barbarians, all right. But no tribe that he knew about.
That wasn’t too surprising, since the Terrestrial Empire and the half-dozen other civilized states in the known Galaxy ruled over several thousands of intelligent races and had some contact with nobody knew how many thousands more. Many of the others were, of course, still planet-bound, but quite a few tribes along the Imperial borders had mastered a lot of human technology without changing their fundamental outlook on things. Which is what comes of hiring barbarian mercenaries.
The peripheral tribes were still raiders, menaces to the border planets and merely nuisances to the Empire as a whole. Periodically they were bought off, or played off against each other—or the Empire might even send a punitive expedition out. But if one day a strong barbarian race under a strong leader should form a reliable coalition—then vae victis!
If the above passage makes Anderson's 31st century setting sound a bit like the late Roman Empire, there's a good reason for that. His stories of Flandry are about the interstellar spy's efforts to stave off "the Long Night," the Dark Age that will inevitably fall across civilized space should the tottering Terran Empire finally fall. Flandry knows he cannot stop the Long Night but he hopes he can delay it another generation or more -- or at least long enough not to have experience it himself. That's the overarching theme of all the tales of Flandry, which SF writer Theodore Cogswell elucidates eloquently in his introduction to a later collection of Anderson's Flandry stories.
The wildest adventures seem to come at two different stages in the life of a civilization. First the adventures come when the civilization is fresh, vigorous, and aggressively expanding. But there is also the time when the civilization is old, when it wants nothing but to be left in peace. Then the ruthless new peoples arise, beyond the imperial borders or even within them. It happened to Egypt, Persia, India, China, Greece, Rome. Someday it may happen to all Earth.
In those eras, someone must man the ramparts. He may be a Roman legionnaire, or he may be an intelligence agent of Terra’s empire among the stars. But he is always a lonely man. Sir Dominic, no grim and humorless professional hero, can crack a joke, hoist a bottle, or kiss a girl with the best of them. But he sees the barbarians pressing inward through the stellar marches. He sees the purpose of the powerful, nonhuman Merseian Empire—to end the uneasy peace with mankind by sweeping mankind aside. And he sees corruption and cowardice at home. If the Long Night is not to come in his own lifetime, if the things he cares about are to be saved, he must do what he can.
In "Tiger by the Tail," Flandry soon learns that his captors are an alien race called the Scothani, who'd somehow acquired sufficient technology to establish a little empire of their own, oppressing other aliens and impinging on the Empire's borders. Believing Flandry to be "another worthless younger son, given a high-paying sinecure so [he] can wear a fancy uniform and play soldier," the Scothani figured him an easy to target for kidnapping. And while they doubt his worth in the grand scheme of things, they still think him likely to know sufficient classified information to be useful and easily intimidated to hand over what he knows. Though on some level insulted by his "hosts'" estimation of his character and ability, Flandry nevertheless plays along. In doing so, he learns a great deal about not only the Scothians' culture, but also their politics, including rivalries within their leadership. It's through the keen understanding of the latter that the main plot of the short story unfolds -- and the comparisons to Yojimbo are made.

Compared to later Flandry stories, "Tiger by the Tail" is exceedingly pulpish. The Scothians, for example, are little more than Celtic/Nordic barbarians in space with a slightly inhuman skin color. They're a far cry from the more complex and believable aliens Anderson would create later in his career. Likewise, the plot, while exuberant, is a little unbelievable in the way that Flandry navigates it, even given his remarkable professional skills and personal talents. Despite that, there's something incredibly compelling about the idea of a man doing his level best to prop up a decadent and dying empire lest darkness fall across the galaxy. It's one I've always found very potent, even moreso as I get older. I guess it's no surprise, then, that most of my SF RPG campaigns over the years have employed it to one degree or another and that Thousand Suns includes it as a major pillar of its meta-setting.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Underdark Gazette is Moving

In case you haven't already heard, James of the Underdark Gazette is going to be shutting down his current blog at the start of 2012 and devoting himself instead to a new one, entitled Dreams of Mythic Fantasy. While I fully understand the reasons behind the shift and largely agree with them, I'm still sorry to see the Underdark Gazette go. It's been a pillar of the old school community for several years now and it's long been my one-stop shop for the latest news and information from our little echo chamber, so it's nice to know that James will continue doing what he's been doing so well, even if it's under a new name.

The Whisperer in Darkness Available for Pre-Order

At long last, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's movie adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness" is available for pre-order. I absolutely adore the silent movie version of "The Call of Cthulhu," which I purchased years ago and still consider the most faithful direct adaptation of a Lovecraft story ever put to film, so I've been eagerly anticipating The Whisperer in Darkness for a long time now.

Whisperer is a much more ambitious project by the HPLHS, being more than twice as long as its predecessor and being a talkie rather than a silent film. Reviews at the time of its limited release during this year's convention season were mixed. There was a lot of praise for the film's period production values, but some reviewers weren't happy with the pacing (or the CGI mi-go). If you think the pacing issues owe to its being too faithful to HPL, then you'd be wrong, as some reviews have also noted that this movie deviates considerably from the text, particularly in its final act.

This disappoints me a little bit. A big part of the appeal of these fan films is that they hew fairly closely to their source material, but, not having seen the movie, it's hard to know whether or not the deviations are nevertheless in the spirit of Lovecraft. Even if they aren't, I have a hard time imagining that they'll be as deviant as most Hollywood efforts to bring HPL to the silver screen to date. Once my copy arrives -- and I have no idea when that'll be -- I'll post my own review here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Inirot

I'm not a big fan of humanoid alien races, or at least I prefer that, when possible, extraterrestrial beings not share many physical characteristics with human beings. That's why, in Thousand Suns, all the sample alien races look pretty weird, like these guys, the Inirot.
©2011 Alfredo Lopez Jr.

The Game You Think You Know

It's funny how often you can read a book and still overlook something that's stated very clearly and unambiguously. For example, a lot of players of OD&D fail to notice that the Dexterity bonus to Armor Class applies only to fighting men and to no other class. Of course, the same is true of the bonuses to hit and damage for high Strength. That's something I didn't realize until earlier today when I was re-reading my copy of Greyhawk and saw the following on page 7:
Strength also aids the fighting man in his ability to both score a hit upon an adversary and damage it. This strength must be raw. i.e. not altered by intelligence scores. On the other hand low strength will effect [sic] any character's fighting ability.
If I'd ever read those words before, I don't recall them. It's a perfect example of why it's so important to read OD&D with fresh eyes and to try to forget, to the extent that it's possible, what you think you know about the game based on what was done in later editions.

A Kindred Spirit

By now, some of you have no doubt heard that a fellow by the name of Ben Solovey has found the workprint of the 1966 movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and is making a project of digitally restoring it for release on Blu-Ray. For those of you who don't know, Manos is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made, right up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film achieved its present notoriety thanks to its appearance on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in 1993. But, in a post on his blog, Solovey makes the case, rather convincingly in my opinion, that Manos is not a actually a bad movie so much as an amateurish one, made by people with little or no experience of film making. Likewise, the poor quality of all the existing prints only adds to the perception that it's a movie without any redeeming features:
A common refrain I’ve heard is that without Joel and the Bots, the movie is “unwatchable”, but I suspect a big part of that is the bad visual presentation that the movie has always had. When you divest Manos of its grimy, unpleasant patina, you are still left with a weirdly dubbed, strangely edited, small town, outsider horror film. But with a clearer view of the production design (paintings, metalwork, and stone sculptures by Tom Neyman, a local artist who played The Master), the off kilter handmade world the film presents, and the shaggy but poppy Ektachrome photography by Robert Guidry, 45 years later Manos assumes a different identity as a fascinating bit of 1966 ephemera.
This is a big part of why Solovey wants to restore the film, but it's not the only one.
Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60′s, a contemporary of 1962′s Carnival of Souls and 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him. Although he had not yet infamously sold fertilizer- that would come later- he was a good salesman and was able to rustle up a reported budget of $19,000 (over $132,000 in today’s money) to get his script made.

If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. Actors dropping in and out of the production, a broken leg that stranded two in a car for their entire screen time…

A lack of reliable electricity, which creates a murky, crudely lit effect at night…

Animals that were unwisely written into the movie and refuse to cooperate…

It’s all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it’s memorable. If you’ve seen it you’ll remember Torgo and the Master. You’ll remember the interminable driving that opens the movie, the weird squabbling of the Wives, the loungey soundtrack, the unconvincing dubbing, the Scorpio Rising-esque invocation of Manos, God Of Primal Darkness. All this in a film that’s only 70 minutes and change.

So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I’ve resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.
I don't know about you, but I can't help but applaud Solovey's efforts, perhaps because I detect in him a kindred spirit to a lot of us in the old school community, someone who's willing to ignore conventional wisdom about the quality of a work and try to appreciate it for the virtues it might possess beneath the patina it's accumulated over the years. That's an attitude worthy of respect and so I'll be paying close attention to this project in the weeks and months to come.