Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Look What I Got

The other day I received the following package in the mail:
And this was the invoice it contained:
I hope I can be forgiven for being more than a little delighted that I get mail that could almost double as props for use in a Call of Cthulhu adventure. Some might argue that the appearance of the package and invoice have no bearing whatsoever on the quality of the movie with which they're associated, but I'd argue otherwise. The fact that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society puts so much fannish love into even their billing invoices tells you everything you need to know about why its movies, like The Whisperer in Darkness (about which I'll talk more soon), kick the butt of anything "Lovecraftian" Hollywood has ever produced. If we only had a group of Howard fans as dedicated, we might finally get a Conan movie worth a damn ...

Retrospective: Authentic Thaumtaurgy

In yesterday's post on the article "Realistic Vital Statistics," reader Joe Nuttall rightly notes that "the desire for 'realism' ... didn't start in the Silver Age." I completely agree with his statement. The desire for greater "realism" is a tendency as old as the hobby itself. Indeed, I'd suggest it predates it and is in fact a strand of DNA retained from roleplaying's wargaming roots. What's interesting is that some of what we call "realism" isn't actually about realism at all; rather, it's about "properly" translating something into game mechanical form. This could be falling damage or heights and weights or it could be, as it so often was in the Silver Age, the "laws" of drama. But back in the Golden Age, there was a quite (in)famous example of attempting to promote "realism" so understood when dealing with magic.

First published in 1978 (and revised and expanded two decades later), Authentic Thaumaturgy was written by Isaac Bonewits and published by Chaosium with the provocative subtitle of "a professional occulist on improving the realism of magic systems used in fantasy simulation games." Bonewits is usually touted as "the only person ever to earn a degree in Magic from the University of California," a statement that's always baffled me. In the late '60s and throughout the 1970s, he was an important and influential figure in various occult organizations, including the Reformed Druids of North America, where he acted as a priest, and the Church of Satan, though his association with the latter was short-lived due to differences of opinion with its founder, Anton LaVey. I mention all of this background because it's now commonplace to mock the "Satanic panic" of the 1980s as being wholly without foundation, especially when it came to our hobby. But the fact is that, from the first, fantasy roleplaying did attract people with genuine interest in the occult, many of whom infused their gaming with ideas derived from their esoteric beliefs. Authentic Thaumaturgy is one of the more famous examples of this.

 I didn't see Authentic Thaumaturgy back in the day, but I knew of its existence. It was one of those books, like Arduin, that older gamers of my acquaintance spoke about in hushed tones. I got the sense back then that Authentic Thaumaturgy was viewed as a book of "real" magic and thus to be avoided. But, like so many such things, the reality was quite different. When I finally got a chance to see a copy, I have to admit that I was disappointed by what a slight and banal thing it was. This was no black grimoire but a rather amateurishly put together bit of theorizing that took itself very seriously, as so many of us are wont to do. I don't mean that as a criticism of Authentic Thaumaturgy, which for all its faults, is an intriguing book. I mention it mostly to put the book's reputation and reality into context, at least as I experienced it in the early '80s.

Though published by Chaosium, Authentic Thaumaturgy was not written with RuneQuest or any flavor of Basic Roleplaying in mind. Indeed, the book isn't really written with any RPG in mind. Instead, Bonewits devotes himself to providing theories of magic for use in gaming, whatever game you happen to be playing. His goal is not specifically to "convert" anyone to his own beliefs but rather to show how one can take a "realistic" approach to magic and use it as a basis for presenting magic in a roleplaying game. To do this, Bonewits presents various "laws" of magic, along with discussions of the essence and limitations of magic, all of its written in a rather dry, almost academic tone. Bonewits himself clearly believed in much of what he was presenting in Authentic Thaumaturgy but he wrote like a professor rather than an evangelist.

Unfortunately, it's this dryness that, in my opinion, limits the book's utility as a gaming supplement. Don't get me wrong: it's fascinating reading, both as a historical document and as an exploration of a contentious topic, but most of it is not immediately useful in bringing magical "realism" to one's games, or at least it didn't seem so to me. And, like all types of realism, I'll admit that I don't see the point. Bonewits, for example, takes Gary Gygax to task for his presentation of magic in D&D and, while his points undoubtedly have validity from a certain perspective, they also miss the point that, while D&D magic may not be "realistic," especially to an occultist, it is eminently playable. Like the much derided abstractions of D&D's combat system, D&D's magic system has survived because it works, despite the efforts of generations of game designers who think otherwise. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Realistic Vital Statistics"

I am nothing if not tedious and repetitive, so, when turning to issue #91 of Dragon (November 1984), it was pretty much a given that I'd talking about the article "Realistic Vital Statistics" by Stephen Inniss. The article is a near-perfect exemplar of the Silver Age of D&D, with its concern for providing referees with the tools needed to inject "realism" into their adventures and campaigns. In this case, the author's concern is for the fact that, according to their descriptions in the Monster Manual and Players Handbook, dwarves are implausibly heavy, standing only 4 feet tall and yet weighing 150 pounds (on average). According to Mr Inniss, if one extrapolated this weight for a 6-foot tall human male, he'd weigh over 500 pounds! This, he says, violates a fundamental rule of physics -- the square-cube law, which states that "the weight (or volume) of an object is proportional to the product of its linear dimensions (height, length, and width)." Using a realistic model, a 4-foot dwarf should weigh only about a third the weight listed in the AD&D books.

The article thus provides a series of tables for generating more plausible vital statistics to replace those in the Dungeon Masters Guide. For what it is, the system is pretty easy to use: the tables are clear and the variables aren't difficult to keep track of. But, ultimately, I find myself wondering why anyone would care about such a system. Mr Inniss notes that giants in D&D show no signs of appropriate adaptation to their height and (presumed) weight, meaning they're not very plausible as typically presented. Having said that, he then dismisses the concern by saying
Fortunately, their world is a magical one. They are probably supported by some permanent variant of the levitate spell, with bone-strengthening magic thrown in for good measure. Interestingly, the larger giants (storm and cloud giants), like the equally huge titans, have true levitation powers perhaps a natural extension of the talents of their lesser brethren.
It's, in my opinion, a perfectly valid solution to this "problem" of the height and weight of giants, but, if one can accept this when dealing with giants, why is the weight of dwarves an issue? Once you admit that the world is magical and therefore exempt from inconvenient physical laws that would get in the way of fantasy, where does on draw the line? Mr Inniss anticipated this line of thought and attempted to counter it.
Since this is after all a fantasy game, it might be argued that it doesn't matter how much dwarves are defined as weighing. However, it is just such realistic-looking details as a character's height and weight that make for a more willing suspension of disbelief during a game session. Otherwise, why bother with such statistics in the first place? Plausibility, or "realism" as it is sometimes called, is definitely a factor in the enjoyment of even a fantasy game; the more so where the game makes a relatively close approach to reality.
I'm far from convinced by Mr Inniss's rejoinder, but, leaving that aside, when was the last time that a character's precise weight mattered in a game? I can't recall its ever mattering in any games that I've run. Height is a little more useful, though, even there, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I ever allowed or disallowed a character action based on height. For me, knowing that a dwarf weighs 152 or merely 52 pounds is about as vital as knowing whether he has brown hair or red.

But that's just me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sweet Silver Blues

Glen Cook's name has appeared in this feature once before, in discussing his 1984 novel, The Black Company, which Gary Gygax cited as an example of a book that, in his opinion, mapped well onto his vision of Dungeons & Dragons. Though The Black Company proved a success and spawned many sequels, it's not Cook's only fantasy series. In 1987, he kicked off a different set of novels with Sweet Silver Blues. "Different" may be an understatement, since, except for the fact that Sweet Silver Blues and its sequels also use first person narration, they don't have a lot in common with the tales of the Black Company. In terms of both style and content, Sweet Silver Blues almost feels as if it were written by another author, though some of that might be because Cook is self-consciously imitating the tone and diction of a genre other than mainstream fantasy. Sweet Silver Blues begins thusly:
Bam! Bam! Bam!
It sounded like someone was knocking with a sledgehammer. I rolled over and cracked a bloodshot eye. I couldn’t see a figure through the window, but that wasn’t surprising. I could barely make out the lettering on the grimy glass:

Confidential Agent

I had blown my wad buying the glass and wound up being my own painter.
The window was as dirty as last week’s dishwater, but not filthy enough to block out the piercing morning light. The damned sun wasn’t up yet! And I’d been out till the second watch barhopping while I followed a guy who might lead me to a guy who might know where I could find a guy. All this led to was a pounding headache.
“Go away!” I growled. “Not available.”
Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Go to hell away!” I yelled. It left my head feeling like an egg that had just bounced off the edge of a frying pan. I wondered if I ought to feel the back to see if the yolk was leaking, but it seemed like too much work. I’d just go ahead and die.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I have a little trouble with my temper, especially when I have a hangover. I was halfway to the door with two feet of lead-weighted truncheon before sense penetrated the scrambled yolk.
When they are that insistent, it’s somebody from up the hill with a summons to do work too sticky to lay on their own boys. Or it’s somebody from down the hill with the word that you’re stepping on the wrong toes.
In the latter case the truncheon might be useful.
I yanked the door open.
For a moment I didn’t see the woman. She barely came up to my chest. I eyeballed the three guys behind her. They were lugging enough steel to outfit their own army, but I wouldn’t have been shy about wading in. Two of them were about fifteen years old and the other was about a hundred and five.
“We’re invaded by dwarfs,” I moaned. None of them was taller than the woman.
As you can see, Sweet Silver Blues has as much in common with hard-boiled detective fiction as it does with fantasy, so much so that its protagonist, Garrett (he has no other name) is in fact a private investigator after the fashion of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. The world that Garrett inhabits is still (largely) recognizable to fans of fantasy -- there are dwarfs and centaurs and and vampires -- but their presentation is nothing like Tolkien or Howard or any of their imitators. Instead, Garrett's world is basically 1930s but with magic taking the place of technology and fantasy beings and nations in place of more familiar ones. Like the real 1930s, it's also a world that's still recovering from a disastrous war in its recent past, one whose outcome still has repercussions for the present day.

One of those repercussions hits Garrett personally. The dwarfs who show up on his doorstep want to hire him to investigate the death of one of their kinsmen, Denny Tate. Denny, it turns out, served in the war alongside Garrett, so discovering the real cause of his death isn't just another job for the private eye. I say "real cause," because, though Denny supposedly died an accidental death, his family thinks otherwise -- especially once they discover the terms of his will. Denny, who was a shoemaker by trade, seemed to have a secret fortune in gold and silver and, rather than leave it to his family, as one might expect, he left it all to a woman none of the dwarfs had ever heard of and whom they presumed to have been an old flame. Of course, Garrett's heard of this woman, because she'd once been his girlfriend as well, which only makes the investigator even more suspicious about this case.

Like The Black Company, I knew of the existence of Sweet Silver Blues for years before I actually read it. For some reason, I just never came across a copy and so I missed out on the chance to enjoy what is a fun little tale cleverly told. As I said above, it's a lot more lighthearted than The Black Company, though it's still very cynical and world-weary at times, as befits its inspirations. I'm not completely convinced that its transposition of hard-boiled literary tropes to a fantasy setting works, though I'm also not sure that I care. Cook is a good writer, with a knack for creating interesting and compelling characters. The central story of Sweet Silver Blues is perhaps a little clichéd, particularly if you're familiar with the sources he'd drawing upon, but I don't think that necessarily weakens the novel or one's pleasure in reading it. This is one of those lean-back-and-enjoy-the-ride books and makes a nice change of pace from the pretension and self-seriousness that characterizes too much of modern fantasy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Open Friday: 'Zines

One of the many, many positive results of the old school renaissance over the last few years has been the rediscovery -- and re-invigoration -- of old forms, whether those forms be megadungeons, hexcrawls, or pulp fantasy in general. Another form I've noticed undergoing a revival is the fanzine, with Christian's Loviatar being the best example. By the time I got into the hobby in late 1979, 'zines were hardly dead, but they weren't something that the younger generation of kids like me really got into. It wasn't until the late '80s that I ever read or subscribed to a gaming fanzine and the ones I did were all dedicated to Traveller (which was my obsession between 1987 and 1992, during which I largely abandoned D&D).

I really loved those Traveller 'zines, which I still have to this day. They weren't "professional," either in content or presentation, but they were filled with enthusiasm and imagination and they encouraged me to pick up a pen and start writing my own stuff. Some might argue that blogs are the new 'zines and there's some truth to that assertion. On the other hand, 'zines just feel different to me in some indescribable way, though perhaps Christian said it best when he wrote:
While blogs are a wonderful tool for connecting with people who share similar interests, there's an anonymity to the process. It's easy to insult someone from the safety of an avatar with a codename. It's harder to actually sit down, write a letter and drop your anger in the mailbox. Zines are a much more personal and direct way to communicate. You might read and forget a blog post. You're more likely to save a favorite zine for years.
I think he's absolutely right here, which is why I'm glad that he's keeping the 'zine alive and well in 2012 (and I understand Tim is thinking of trying his hand at the form, too -- good show!).

So, for today's Open Friday, feel free to share your thoughts about and experiences with gaming fanzines. I'm curious to hear how many of you have ever read, subscribed to, or written them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

REVIEW: Barrowmaze

Though there's no universally accepted definition of "megadungeon," I tend to use it to mean a dungeon large enough to be the primary (or sole) focus of a D&D campaign for years. By that definition, I'm not sure that Greg Gillespie's Barrowmaze qualifies as a "true" megadungeon, but I don't really care. The fact is that the titular Barrowmaze is huge -- nearly 200 rooms, many of which have sub-areas -- and, more importantly, engaging. While it probably couldn't serve as the focus of a campaign for years, it could certainly do so for months and it contains enough "spin-off" material that it wouldn't be difficult to keep the PCs busy for even longer, should the referee desire it.

Barrowmaze is an 84-page PDF describing a vast warren of underground tombs controlled by several Chaotic cults. Written for Labyrinth Lord but easily adaptable to any old school class-and-level fantasy RPG, Barrowmaze is simply laid out using a two-column format, punctuated by black and white artwork, much by the excellent Stefan Poag. Poag's illustrations are wonderfully evocative of the weird combination of elements that characterize old school play -- equal parts mystery, fear, and black humor, all viewed through a phantasmagoric haze. I can't deny that a large part of my positive feeling toward Barrowmaze was generated by Poag's contributions. That said, the artwork throughout the product is very good, with artists Toren Atkinson, Zhu Bajie, Trevor Hammond, John Larrey, and Jason Sholtis all turning in some terrific pieces.

Barrowmaze has a number of virtues that, I think, set it apart from other dungeons, including some other recently published ones. First, Gillespie's style is spare without being cramped. I know it's popular in old school circles nowadays to praise room entries that read "6 giant rats, 2 gems (25 gp each)," but, especially in a published product, I prefer a little more meat. Conversely, I have no interest in reading paragraphs upon paragraphs of room description, complete with detailed histories and personalities of the monsters and NPCs therein, so the middle road Gillespie took very much appeals to me. Second, the Barrowmaze has lots of empty rooms, unguarded treasures, and tricks and traps. It's, in my opinion, a perfect mix of the elements that make old school dungeon crawling not just possible but enjoyable. Third, Barrowmaze has a theme -- in this case, undead -- that helps to give the dungeon a feel. There are other monsters than just undead here, of course, but the undead, including many new varieties, are its primary antagonists and that goes a long way toward giving Barrowmaze the cohesion necessary to avoid being just a fantasy funhouse. Finally, the dungeon is sprawling. Rather than multiple levels stacked on top of each other, the Barrowmaze fans out in multiple directions on a single level, which not only further contributes to its unique feel but also sets it apart from most other large dungeons.

I'm hard pressed to find any real faults with Barrowmaze. Nearly everything about the product is well done, from the layout to the artwork to the content and cartography. Indeed, Barrowmaze is nearly a textbook example of how to make a compelling, well-presented dungeon module. More than that, it reaffirms my belief that, despite the standard complaints from veteran gamers, the dungeon remains not merely a viable but a powerful locale in which to set fantasy adventures. This hobby was born in the dungeon and, while it's probably good for its long-term health to seek fresh from time to time, there's still much to be gained by returning to its point of origin regularly. If I had to settle on a nit to pick, it'd be that there's currently no print option for the book, which is a shame, because I'd happily pay for a copy to put on my shelf beside Stonhell and the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, two other recent dungeons that made me sit up and take notice.

I suspect the primary knock against Barrowmaze will be that it's "just another dungeon," which is unfortunate, because I don't think that's true at all, for reasons I've stated above. Gillespie has done a wonderful job of synthesizing the wisdom of the Old Ways with more recent theorizing about the same to create something that distinguishes itself from other dungeon modules. And I say this as someone who's preparing to bring his own megadungeon to publication shortly.  Given that it's price is only $6.66, I nevertheless recommend that even the congenitally dungeon-averse pick it up, if only to see what a well-done dungeon crawl looks like. It's my hope, though, that Barrowmaze might change a few minds as well, reminding them why it was that so many of us spent untold hours in underground vaults when we first entered this hobby.

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

Buy This If: You're in the market for a new dungeon with which to kick off a campaign or just want a well-done dungeon to loot for ideas.
Don't Buy This If: You really, truly have no interest in dungeons and can't imagine ever using one in a campaign, whether in whole or in part.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Does anyone have a copy of a second edition AD&D Monstrous Manual (or Compendium) handy? I ask because I just noticed today, seemingly for the first time, that Greyhawk, the Monster Manual, Holmes, and Moldvay all perpetuate the misspelling "doppleganger" rather than the correct "doppelganger." I can tell, from looking at the online D20 SRD, that the misspelling had been corrected by the WotC era, but what I don't know is if that's the first time the monster's name has been spelled correctly or if it had been corrected prior to that point during 2e.

Retrospective: "Glozel est Authentique!"

From the perspective of 2012, it's hard to remember a time when Lovecraft -- or at least things tangentially related to Lovecraft -- weren't everywhere. Like nearly everything these days, Lovecraft and "the Mythos" are an industry, one whose pervasiveness has contributed in large part to the defanging of most of HPL's central ideas. I mean, it's hard to take seriously the notion of knowledge so unsettling that it can bring on insanity when you've got a plush Cthulhu doll wearing a Hawaiian shirt sitting next to you on a bookshelf. Once upon a time, this was not the case and, if I sound like an old man in bemoaning the violence pop culture has done to Grandpa Theobald's oeuvre, so be it.

For and for ill, I suspect that Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu has played a significant role in the popularizing of Lovecraft and the Mythos. Back in 1981, when the game was released, I don't think any of my immediate circle of gaming friends had heard of Lovecraft, let alone read any of his stuff and this wasn't unusual among the younger generation of roleplayers in those days. Even today, I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of people who read this blog first encountered Lovecraft as a result of Call of Cthulhu rather than being drawn to CoC, because they were fans of HPL first. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, except that, for all my love of Call of Cthulhu, I do think it (necessarily) distorts Lovecraft and his ideas in its presentation of them, so much so that the default assumption is that CoC investigators are Indiana Jones-like globetrotting adventurers rather than sensitive, bookish polymaths for whom merely interacting with other human beings is adventure enough.

I mention this all because it might seem, in retrospect, like Call of Cthulhu always had tons of adventures and other materials to support it; that's not the case at all. Back in the first few years of the game's existence, Chaosium didn't produce a lot for it, which left a void filled by licensees, like Theatre of the Mind Enterprises (TOME). I know very little about TOME, so if anyone has any information about the company I'd be grateful. All I know is that, throughout 1983 and 1984, they produced about a half-dozen different adventure collections for use with Call of Cthulhu. These collections were heavily advertised, including in official Chaosium products as I recall, but I only ever saw one of them, "Glozel est Authentique!," published in 1984. If it's any indication of the quality of TOME's other CoC offerings, I am grateful I didn't acquire them.

"Glozel est Authentique!" is the title of the first of two scenarios included in this book. Written by Stephen Rawling, the adventure concerns a real world town in France, Glozel, which in 1924, became the center of an archeological controversy, when a young farmer discovered a hidden chamber in his field containing a wide variety of seemingly ancient artifacts. The artifacts consisted of pieces of glass and ceramic, human bones, and some clay tablets written in a strange language. The controversy centered on just how these artifacts were and their origins, leading to some outlandish hypotheses, as well as claims of fraud. As you can guess from its title, the first scenario makes the claim that the find is authentic and, of course, connected to the Mythos -- except in a very dull way.

The second scenario, "Secrets of the Kremlin," was written by E.S. Erkes, whose name I recognize from several old issues of Different Worlds magazine. "Secrets of the Kremlin" isn't directly connected to the previous scenario and concerns, as you might expect, a Mythos connection to both the Russian past and present. And by "present," I mean Josef Stalin, who, according to this adventure, possessed a copy of the Necronomicon, as well as a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, which he imprisoned within the Kremlin. In many ways, "Secrets of the Kremlin" is the antithesis of its companion. Where "Glozel est Authentique!" is boring, even pedestrian in its revelations, "Secrets of the Kremlin" is laughable, a caricature of the kind of pulp adventure Call of Cthulhu frequently inspires.

"Glozel est Authentique!" may not be the worst adventure collection ever put together for Call of Cthulhu, but it's pretty bad. At the same time, I feel for the authors of these scenarios, since I suspect, like so many gamers, they had a very skewed impression of what the game (and Lovecraft) was about. How could they not, when Chaosium's first adventure collection was Shadows of Yog-Sothoth? I love Shadows and have used it profitably several times, but it does tend to diminish Lovecraft's ideas somewhat. The same is equally true of Masks of Nyarlathotep, which many not unreasonably consider the greatest roleplaying adventure ever written. Still, a bad product is a bad product and "Glozel est Authentique!" is bad.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Edition Musings

When Wizards of the Coast released their new edition of the world's first published roleplaying game to great fanfare in the summer of 2000, what did the company call it -- that is, besides Dungeons & Dragons? Well, a variety of names were used, but the most common one was "Third Edition" (or 3e for short). Take a look at the WotC website now and poke around the D&D section -- don't worry, no one will hold it against you -- and see how the company refers to the current edition of the game. It's "Fourth Edition" or some variation thereof. But that begs the question: Fourth Edition of what?

I'm sure most of you can see where this is going, since it's a point I've made before. Once upon a time, there was Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and, while the latter was clearly derivative of the former, the two were treated (by their publisher if by no one else) as if they were two separate games. As time went on, though, mere Dungeons & Dragons became a kind of also-ran game, standing in the immense shadow of its descendant, AD&D. So great was the influence of AD&D that, when Wizards of the Coast had the opportunity to revise the game, they not only acknowledged that their edition was, in fact, dependent on it (by calling it "Third Edition"), but also dropped the "Advanced" part of its name, thereby making it the only D&D.

Depending on how one chooses to count, AD&D, whose first volume didn't appear until 1977 (and that wasn't a complete, playable-on-its-own game until late 1979), was either the second or third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. And it was never called anything other than AD&D until its second edition arrived in 1989. Even then, I don't recall ever using the phrases "1e" or "First Edition" until the advent of Third Edition, though I'm getting old and my memory is increasingly unreliable about events more than two decades ago. Yet, for a lot of people, including WotC, which is reprinting its first three volumes in April, AD&D -- and Gygaxian first edition AD&D -- is D&D without much qualification or any exceptions.

I don't necessarily object to this identification and I can name many reasons why it's the case, but it's interesting to observe nonetheless.

The Articles of Dragon: "Hold That Person!"

Issue #90 (October 1984) of Dragon contained a short installment of Gary Gygax's increasingly irregular "From the Sorceror's [sic] Scroll" column entitled "Hold That Person!" The article's subtitle explains its purpose. According to Gygax, "the vast array of new monsters" found in books like the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II have left players and DMs alike wondering which humanoids are affected by the spells charm person and hold person. Was that the case?

I ask because I distinctly recall that my feeling upon reading the article nearly 30 years ago was one of bemusement. I mean, I was, back then, very much enthralled by nearly everything Gary wrote. He was, after all, the creator of AD&D and his word on the subject was Law. But a list -- a definitive list, no less -- of what creatures qualified as "persons" for the purposes of certain spells? Why was this necessary? Did anyone really wonder whether a swanmay could be charmed or an ogrillon held? Was this even an issue at all? Maybe it was needed in tournaments, I don't know, but it was never an issue that came up in my gaming groups.

Just as interesting as the list Gygax provides are his closing comments in this article. He says the following:
If you, as a player, are grateful to have this expanded list, your gratitude is certainly appreciated but keep in mind that it is a mixed blessing. Players must attempt to remember the list of creatures affected by charm person and hold person, for when it comes time to cast a spell, the DM must never allow them to consult their reference works except for the Players Handbook. On the other hand, the DM can use any reference source at his disposal (including articles like this one) to check for desired information.
Now, there's nothing beyond the pale in what Gygax says here. In my experience, it was pretty much standard operating procedure amongst the groups with which I had contact. However, this is the first time I can recall its ever being stated outright as the Gospel of Gary. Again, I don't disagree with it, as it's identical to my own practice, but it is nonetheless interesting to see it stated so plainly.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Original EPT Now Available

Victor Raymond asked me to pass the following along, on behalf of the Tékumel Foundation:
The original manuscript for Empire of the Petal Throne is now available from DriveThru/RPG Now.  Known as the "green cover" or "mimeo" version, it was produced in the Spring of 1974 in a limited and confidential run of fifty copies for the world of Tékumel, the creation of Professor M.A.R. Barker.This is the first time this original manuscript has been published or made available to the general public.  The PDF product now available for purchase was prepared from a copy taken directly from Prof. Barker’s archive, and is presented with each facing page containing the text of the original manuscript.

This version is a precursor to the game published shortly later by TSR, Inc. and contains a number of significant differences.  However, it is in many ways is substantively similar to the later TSR publication, and is being produced more as a historical document than as a different product.   Print-on-demand versions are in development and expected to be available by mid-March. "Tékumel" is a trademark of M.A.R. Barker; for more information about Tékumel, visit

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Last night, we took a break from the Red Tide Labyrinth Lord campaign to play the cooperative boardgame Pandemic. This was one of my Christmas gifts from my lovely wife, but we'd not had a chance to play it yet. The premise of the game is that the players are all members of the CDC working to control the outbreak of multiple diseases across the globe before they become so virulent that nothing can be done to contain them.

Since we'd already played Forbidden Island, a cooperative game by the same designer, we were fairly familiar with the basic rules and approach of Pandemic. There are some differences, of course, chief among them being that Pandemic is a more difficult game to beat, since it's designed for older players. Likewise, when we played our first game, I misread the setup instructions and wound up using the "heroic" (i.e., hardest) rules rather than the introductory ones. Needless to say, we lost.

But it was a fun game nonetheless. Like Forbidden Island, it's not a game where you can afford to be lax. Players must quickly adopt an aggressive and proactive play style or else the multiple plagues will overwhelm you. That's a lesson we didn't apply, so, even if I hadn't flubbed the setup as I did, I doubt we'd have won the game, though it might have taken longer for us to lose than it did. I hope to play it again in the future, since it looks like it'll be quite a challenge.

Artifacts and Relics

The skull of St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia
On Friday evening, my parish had an exhibition of relics to which my family and I went. Relics are an aspect of Christian belief that don't get much discussion nowadays, except perhaps negatively, which is too bad, because the veneration of relics is both an ancient practice and theologically important. The history of the Church is filled with stories of relics, including miraculous ones, reflecting the Bible's own recounting of such things (the man restored to life by touching the bones of Elisha, the woman cured by touching the cloak of Jesus, etc.). And, of course, there's an undeniable degree of luridness to the practice of collecting and displaying the bones, clothing, and other possessions of the deceased.

None of the relics I saw on Friday (there were 168 in all) were as impressive as the one depicted above. Almost all of them were tiny fragments of bone (ex ossibus in Latin) or clothing (ex indumentis) placed in a theca, a small, circular, gold container, which in turn was placed in a standing display. The theca (meaning "receptacle" in Latin) is sealed in a special way, using four strings and a wax seal impressed with the signet of an appropriate authority (a bishop, an abbot, or a postulator), and is always accompanied by a certificate attesting to its authenticity. The lack of any of these things -- the strings, the seal, the certificate -- makes the relic dubious and thus not fit for public veneration. During the Middle Ages, the creation of fake relics was almost an industry, thus necessitating the Church's oversight and regulation of the practice, including the banning of the sale of relics. This prohibition continues to this day.

In regulating relics, the Church distinguishes between three types. First class relics are either items associated with the life of Christ (like a piece of the Cross, for example -- one of which was at my parish's exhibition) or the physical remains of a saint. The vast majority of the relics I saw were first class relics. Second class relics are items worn or frequently used by a saint. Third class relics are items touched to a first or second class relic. Consequently, many people at the exhibition brought rosaries, crucifixes, and similar objects to touch to the relics on display so as to create third class relics from them.
Theca of a relic of St. Louis de Montfort
I bring all this up in part because I distinctly recall my surprise as a younger man upon reading the Dungeon Masters Guide and seeing a section on "artifacts and relics." With the exception of the Mace of Cuthbert, though, none of the DMG's items are connected to the life of a saint. As he so often did, Gary Gygax had universalized the meaning of a word for gameplay purposes, so that a "relic" came to mean a potent item associated with the life of a past historical figure. So, we get (to cite a few examples) the Sword of Kas, the Machine of Lum the Mad, the Mighty Servant of Leuk-o (all second class relics by Church standards), in addition to the Hand and Eye of Vecna and the Teeth of Dahlver-Nar (first class relics).

None of D&D's relics seem to be the objects of veneration. Rather they're just powerful magic items -- another example of the game's often reductionist appropriation of religion and mythology. But that didn't stop me from inventing my own more saintly relics in my campaigns of old (like the Sword of St. James) and attaching them to pilgrimage sites rather than throwing them in a dragon's hoard somewhere. The structure of the Dwimmermount campaign's cosmology does not (at present) allow for saintly relics, so I don't have any new ones to share. However, that may change in the future, as more of the setting's ancient past is made known through the actions of the PCs, in which case I may return to this topic in earnest.
Thecae in display stands

Friday, February 17, 2012

Open Friday: Inspiring Illustrations

I woke up this morning and was ecstatic to discover an email from Jeff Dee that included the preliminary sketches for a couple of illustrations he's doing for the upcoming Dwimmermount book. I'll probably share those later, but what immediately struck me upon seeing them was how beautifully he'd captured scenes I'd described in actual play, such as the ascent up the stairs of the Path of Mavors to the first level of the dungeon or the fight with the eldritch bones in the Red Chapel. As a writer, it's really gratifying to see one's words given another form.

This in turn got me to thinking about illustrations from published adventures that I found particularly inspiring. The Erol Otus piece on the back of The Keep on the Borderlands has always been a favorite of mine, as has Jim Roslof's fight with the kuo-toa from the combined edition of Descent into the Depths of the Earth. I could cite lots more, but those two have always stuck with me, in large part because they expressed two equally important parts of D&D play: the grand beginning and the nitty gritty of combat against a dangerous foe.

So, for today's Open Friday question, I'd like to ask you: what are the illustrations in published adventures that most fire your imagination?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Dr Holmes!

Over at his excellent blog devoted to all things Blue Book, Zenopus reminds us that today is the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Dr J. Eric Holmes, who edited my favorite edition of D&D. Head on over and offer up a testimonial in memory of Dr Holmes.

REVIEW: Carcosa (LotFP Edition)

Going back to review a new edition of a product one has already reviewed is often an interesting exercise. A significant part of the interest comes from seeing whether the changes introduced into the new edition have noticeably altered one's opinion. In case of Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, whose original edition was self-published in 2008, and which I reviewed over the course of four posts, I largely stand behind by initial assessment, namely that Carcosa is a frustratingly eccentric work whose primary virtue is also its primary flaw: a rejection of the (often unstated) moral structure underpinning Gygaxian D&D. It's this rejection, I think, that's at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding Carcosa, which attempts to present a stark, even bleak, interpretation of Lovecraft as the basis for a gonzo science fantasy setting filled with serpent men, gray aliens, Great Old Ones, and Jack Kirby-style science-as-magic. Go ahead and read those original reviews, if you're unsure of the basic premise of Carcosa and what it includes.

The new edition, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and available as both a gorgeous hardcover or PDF, differs primarily in presentation from its 2008 edition, though there are changes, about which I'll speak shortly. Purely as a physical artifact, Carcosa (2011) stands head and shoulders above its predecessor. Indeed, it stands head and shoulders above most other recent gaming products I've purchased. Its cover, which you can see here, depicts a silhouette of the mysterious city of Carcosa after which the book is named. The image is embossed on leatherette that feels right when you hold it, like some ancient tome of forbidden lore. Also right is the fact that the book has no title or identifying marks on it besides the above image and a sigil on the spine. In addition to making Carcosa look like a grimoire (but not in the gaudy way many RPG books have attempted this in the past), I also found myself reminded of early editions of weird fantasy books by authors like Abraham Merritt, William Hope Hodgson, and Arthur Machen, which I suppose was probably part of the point.

The interior of the book is similarly attractive. The pages are thick and off-white in color, again suggesting a libram of black magic. The layout is clear but varied -- sometimes a single column, sometimes two, sometimes more elaborate -- and makes good use of color (green and purple). I'm not especially fond of some of the title fonts, which are occasionally hard to read at small point sizes, but I don't think that seriously undermines Carcosa's esthetics, which I think are nearly perfect. To that end, there are illustrations by Rich Longmore throughout, depicting many aspects of the savage world of Carcosa. I was initially somewhat skeptical of the inclusion of any artwork in the book, feeling it'd undermine individual imagination, but, having now seen Longmore's work, I'll readily admit to being wrong about that. I think the artwork does a superb job of fueling my imagination, in large part because it helps ground Carcosa rather than leaving it to float in some ethereal realm. Longmore is the perfect artist for this purpose, too, since his dark, realistic style provides some much needed weight to elements of Carcosa that might be goofy in other hands, like the dinosaurs and robots.

Carcosa (2011) is an expansion of its predecessor and, for my money, the expansions do a lot to make the setting both more playable and more palatable. Chief among the expansions are the hex descriptions of the Carcosa campaign map. Whereas Carcosa (2008) had terse, often single-line, descriptions like "1 Cthugah's Flame Creature," Carcosa (2011) adds a second encounter or point of interest, which helps, I think, in providing some depth to the setting. Likewise, some of these descriptions include small, off-hand references -- "9 Irrationalist Space Aliens" -- that encourage further development and expansion, something I appreciate in sandbox setting hex descriptions. Also included among the expansions is a starter adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, originally published in Fight On! Starter adventures are always useful, since they let the reader know what the creator thinks you're supposed to do with his creation, thereby providing a model to emulate. In a setting as weird as Carcosa's, I think this is essential.

Geoffrey McKinney has penned a new essay, "Humanity on Carcosa," which offers some insight into what it's like to live on Carcosa amidst all its Lovecraftian horrors and extraterrestrial entities. It's pretty bleak stuff, in my opinion, and reinforces the notion that I could never run an extended campaign in the setting. At the same time, I am grateful for its inclusion, since I believed in 2008, as I do now, that a setting like this one demands some "designer notes" to properly get a handle on it. "Humanity on Carcosa" is brief and doesn't explain everything, but it goes a long way toward making explicit some of the thinking behind the setting. A series of random monster tables is another addition in the 2011 version that contributes greatly to playability.

Taken together, Carcosa (2011) is a very impressive package and a good example of where I think an amateur effort was noticeably improved by more "professional" presentation and production values. Purely as an object, I think Carcosa (2011) may be the most attractive old school RPG product I've seen and a vindication of James Raggi's often-eccentric esthetic. As a RPG, I think Carcosa (2012) still remains somewhat frustrating, at least to me, largely because it is written from a viewpoint so alien to my own. That's almost certainly a feature rather than a bug for most people, including its author, but I can't deny that I continue to find Carcosa too bleak and nihilistic a setting for my tastes. It's not just a "hard" setting; it's a hopeless one and, girly man that I am, I'm not much interested in hopelessness in my pastimes. On the other hand, one could reasonably make the argument that its bleakness is in fact a perfect emulation of Lovecraft's worldview, where mankind is cosmically insignificant and knowledge is a double-edged sword. If that's what one wants, Carcosa delivers it in spades.

(I'm going to leave the comments open for this review BUT, as ever, I will ruthlessly delete any comments I consider needlessly intemperate or insulting. Feel free to disagree either with my assessment or with the value of Carcosa all you wish, so long as you do so in a civil, constructive fashion. I didn't allow comments on my original review of Carcosa precisely because of the nonsense it engendered. It's my hope that, in the years since, people have learned to phrase their thoughts and feelings in less inflammatory ways. Don't prove me wrong.)

Presentation: 10 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a Lovecraft-inspired swords-and-sorcery setting and don't mind a heavy dose of bleakness and amorality.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your fantasy settings tinged with at least a little bit of hope.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Point of Clarification

I received a number of emails and other correspondence asking about the system under which the Dwimmermount megadungeon product is being written. Though this is spelled out in the FAQ over on the Autarch blog, I thought it worth stating even more emphatically: Dwimmermount uses Labyrinth Lord as its ruleset. I am doing this for a couple of reasons, chief among them being that Labyrinth Lord is the system I use in my home campaign and have used for several years. Like all referees, I've made some modifications and additions to the basic Labyrinth Lord rules (which will be published separately in the forthcoming Dwimmermount Codex series), but, fundamentally, the rules remain those presented by Dan Proctor in Labyrinth Lord, Original Edition Characters, and the Advanced Edition Companion, all of which I've used to varying degrees in kit-bashing my own Holmes Blue Book-like house rules.

I'm also doing this because, in my opinion, Labyrinth Lord most closely emulates the old school fantasy rules I prefer. Labyrinth Lord has all the delightfully quirky elements -- descending armor elements, multiple saving throws, three alignments, etc. -- and includes them unapologetically, which is how I like it. It's also worth noting that Adventurer, Conqueror, King, itself a very fine game, makes good use of the Open Game Content from Labyrinth Lord, meaning that, while there will be some differences, Dwimmermount will be usable with ACKS without much difficulty. The same, of course, goes for Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Delving Deeper, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. That's one of the many great things about old school D&D: differences aside, it's all quite compatible.

I'll have more details on Dwimmermount in the days and weeks to come, both here and elsewhere, but I wanted to make this particular point clear, since there seems to have been some confusion about it.

Retrospective: The Ice Dragon

The period between 1984 and 1985 was a strange time in the history of TSR, the Cent-Jours of Gary Gygax, who returned from his Californian "exile" to find the company he founded mismanaged and deep in debt. Gygax quickly maneuvered to retake control of TSR -- and, in so doing, unwittingly laid the groundwork for his own eventual ouster -- and attempted to get its financial house in order, in part through the publication of a large number of game products, many of which are today regarded with some ambivalence, such as Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. I share the mixed feelings some have about this era of TSR. Even as a teenager whose only "contact" with TSR was through the pages of Dragon and Polyhedron, you could sense that the times they were a-changin' and not necessarily for the better.

Late in this period (September 1985), Pocket Books published the first of four gamebooks written by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille about the adventures of Sagard the Barbarian. When we are introduced to him, Sagard is a youth of sixteen years preparing to undertake his Ordeal of Courage, which, if successful, will mark him as an adult amongst his people. As a gamebook, The Ice Dragon really isn't that interesting in my opinion. For one, it's quite short (there are only 121 entries) and has only three different conclusions. By way of comparison, most of the Choose Your Own Adventure books had 30 or 40 different conclusions, while the Fantasy Fantasy volumes typically had 400 individual sections. Likewise, the game elements of The Ice Dragon are limited, using only a four-sided die for resolution -- an odd choice! -- and most are heavily slanted in the player's favor. It is possible to die in The Ice Dragon, but the likelihood is small. For that reason, I didn't find the book particularly compelling and never picked up any of its sequels.

The main interest that The Ice Dragon holds is that it's written by Gary Gygax and that it takes place within his World of Greyhawk setting. I can't deny that these were the primary reasons I bought the book back in the day. In the end, the book didn't feel noticeably "Gygaxian," which led me at the time to think that Flint Dille had written most of it; I still have no idea if that's true. Likewise, the Greyhawk content was limited to a few place names here and there. As I understand it, later books had even less to do with Greyhawk as we know it, since Gygax was forbidden from using certain names as a result of his departure from TSR. So, in the final analysis, there's not much to recommend in The Ice Dragon and it remains in my mind emblematic of an era when I first recognized that the bloom was finally coming off the rose planted in 1974.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dwimmermount on the Horizon

I'm sure it'll come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog to learn that I plan on publishing my home campaign's megadungeon, Dwimmermount, in a form usable by other referees. What may be a surprise is when I'll be publishing it and how I plan to go about doing so, though at least some of you have already puzzled this out -- not that it was exactly a secret. The gist of it is the good folks at Autarch, who produced the excellent Adventurer, Conqueror, King, have kindly offered to assist me in crowdfunding Dwimmermount through Kickstarter and, later, distributing the hardcover book that results, should the project be successfully funded.

The official launch of the Kickstarter will be at the end of the month. In the meantime, I can announce that the book's front cover will be illustrated by Mark Allen, with the back cover illustrated by Jeff Dee, and interior artwork by Mark and Jeff as well as other talented artists, such as Ryan Browning (who illustrated much of Adventurer, Conqueror, King) and Conor Nolan ( The book's layout will be by Adam Jury, who made the new edition of Thousand Suns such a thing of beauty. Backer rewards will include the PDF of the finished product; the PDF plus hardcover; both plus a separate map book in softcover; a vinyl play aid for tracking dungeon factions and the impact of the party's progress using wipe-erase marker; and handbound copies of the book signed by all creators. In addition, the first bonus goal of the project is the donation of original Dwimmermount materials -- maps, keys, character sheets, etc. -- to Tim Hutchings's Play Generated Map and Document Archive and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection at Texas A&M University.

I'm sure people will have lots of questions about this project. Some of them, I hope, will be answered over at the Autarch blog, which has a FAQ already online. Others I'll do my best to answer in the comments and in other posts over the course of the weeks to come. I'm very excited to finally get this project under way and I hope others share my enthusiasm.

The Articles of Dragon: "Of Grizzly Bears and Chimpanzees"

As I've said innumerable times on this blog, in my heart of hearts, I'm really more of a science fiction fan than a fantasy one. That's why, much as I love D&D, I'm perpetually pining for the opportunity to play a sci-fi RPG. In my younger days, I had a slew of SF games I'd pull out to play whenever my friends and I decided we were tired of D&D. One of the most popular was Gamma World, which some would no doubt call a science fantasy game (and, to be fair, that's how its first edition bills itself), but I don't think that alters my essential point, namely that, when I wasn't playing D&D, my first inclination was to pull out a science fiction-y game like Gamma World or Traveller or the FASA version of Star Trek.

Consequently, I loved "The Ares Section" of Dragon, whose articles, even when they weren't of immediate use to me (like the articles on, say, Universe). Among my favorites, though, were the Gamma World articles by John M. Maxstadt, which I often did use in my games. A good example is "Of Grizzly Bears and Chimpanzees," which appeared in issue #89 (September 1984). As its name suggests, the article is devoted to detailing the unique abilities of animals, in this case as stock for mutated animal PCs. Maxstadt provides some basic statistics for a dozen different animal types -- bears, big cats, herbivorous animals, primates, snakes, and birds. These statistics include things like general size, their ability to vocalize and grasp/carry items, in addition to more obvious game stats like armor class and movement rates. The idea behind the article is to rationalize the abilities of mutated animals both from a game mechanical and a logical perspective, thereby making them more attractive to play and easier for the referee to accommodate.

Looking back on the article now, what's fascinating is how simple it really is in the end. There are a couple of pages of game stats, presented as Monster Manual-like entries, followed by a couple of pages of explanation of what the stats mean and how they interact with other aspects of the Gamma World rules. That's probably why I found them so easy to use. At the same time, they carry with them an implicit vision of Gamma World, one that's a bit more limited than the wide open "wahoo!" style usually associated with the game. Maxstadt, for example, doesn't provide stats for insects or amphibians, so the referee is either left to his own devices in coming up with his own or else disallowing such mutated animal types, as Maxstadt apparently did. Now, there's nothing wrong with such a limitation and indeed there's definitely a case to be made for it, but, somehow, the idea of playing Gamma World with any limitations seems to go against its fundamental grain and, were I ever to run a campaign again, I'd probably not use this article's system or else come up with additional stats for other types of animals.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Quote from Yesterday's Game

Because of changes in our gaming group's makeup, I haven't been refereeing D&D in any form for a while, but I have been playing in a Labyrinth Lord campaign that uses the excellent Red Tide setting. In that campaign, I play a cleric of the Maker named Brother Egon. In the course of the adventure, our party rescued a wounded young boy, who, upon waking up, began to cry hysterically, making it impossible for my no-nonsense cleric to interrogate him about how he came to be in his current predicament. Unable to calm the boy, Brother Egon turned to one of our female companions, a Viking-esque warrior woman named Inga Skarsgard. I implored her, "Inga, you're a woman, calm the boy." Then, my wife, who's playing Inga, said, without missing a beat, in a loud voice, "Stop crying, stupid boy!"

It was priceless.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Stardock

In my experience, it's rare that an idea enters one's mind wholly unbidden. Usually there's some cause for it, some inspiration or influence, even if it's often unrecognized or at least unacknowledged. That's certainly the case of most of my own ideas, whose originality has always been suspect. Lately, in thinking about the megadungeon of Dwimmermount, I found myself pondering where I got the idea for a huge mountain filled with treasure and reputed to have once been the citadel of the Ancients, who fashioned the great works of the world. And while it's true that fantasy is replete with examples of such things, I had to wonder about the specific image that gave birth to Dwimmermount. In the end, I decided it was probably Fritz Leiber's Stardock, from the short story of the same name, which was first appeared in the November 1965 issue of Fantastic.

"Stardock" is a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, focusing on Fafhrd's obsession with scaling a mountain peak from northern homeland. Fafhrd's father, we learn, was a renowned mountain climber. Known as the "Legend Breaker," he topped numerous peaks believed to be unclimbable, earning him great fame and, ultimately, a death on the slopes of White Fang. Fafhrd admits to being nowhere near the climber that his deceased father was, but nevertheless he strongly desires to test himself against Stardock, about which the following was written:
Who mourns white Stardock, the Moon Tree,
Past worm and gnome and unseen bars,
Will win the key to luxury:
The Heart of Light, a pouch of stars.
Fafhrd goes further, explaining to the Mouser what his people say about Stardock:
"They say the gods once dwelt and had their smithies on Stardock and from thencem amid jetting fire and showering sparks, launched all the stars; hence her name. They say diamonds, rubies, smaragds -- all great gems -- are the tiny pilot models the gods made of the stars ... and then threw carelessly away across the world when their great work was done."
It was this very passage that was the seed from which Dwimmermount sprang. Though the megadungeon eventually grew beyond this initial idea, it was Fafhrd's description above that first inspired in me the idea of an impenetrable mountain fortress filled with ancient treasures.

Naturally, the Mouser is intrigued with the idea of finding the great wealth rumored to be found atop Stardock. He suggests that the "Heart of Light" mentioned in the poem might refer to the largest diamond in all of Nehwon, a gem he'd love the opportunity to steal. And so the Twain set off to best Stardock, hoping, in the case of Fafhrd, to achieve something even his famous father could not, and, in the case of the Gray Mouser, to gain treasure beyond imagining. The story that follows is a long one and, I'll admit, often slow going. Leiber, as I understand it, was fond of mountain climbing himself and it shows in the lengths to which he goes to describe the details of his protagonists' ascent. However, this is also a sword-and-sorcery yarn; Fafhrd and Mouse encounter numerous challenges other than the high peak, some of which are quite memorable.

I can't say much about what is truly atop Stardock without spoiling the fun of this story. I will say, though, that I think "Stardock" is one of Leiber's better tales of the Twain -- charged with adventure, eroticism, and more than a little melancholy. Indeed, it's that last quality that I think elevates "Stardock" above many of its competitors in the canon of Nehwon. Though Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are, in many ways, the quintessential happy-go-lucky vagabonds for whom life is nothing but a grand adventure, they do grow and change over the course of that adventure. You get a clear sense of that growth and change in "Stardock" and I think it helps to make this story more than a plodding, even dull, recounting of a mountain climbing expedition. That said, it's also probably not to every reader's tastes, which is why, though I love it, I can easily imagine others might not. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

News from the Tékumel Foundation

Victor Raymond sent along word to me that the Tékumel Foundation, the non-profit corporation charged with supporting and protecting the works of Professor M.A.R. Barker, is preparing to release "the original, never-before-released rules draft for Empire of the Petal Throne.  As such there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle differences between it and the published version from TSR." Though the price for the PDF version of the unreleased EPT is still being determined, Victor says that it'll likely be under $20. A print-on-demand version of the same is under discussion as well, though when it will be available is still uncertain. The PDF will be made available through RPGNow/DriveThruRPG, where a wide variety of other Tékumel-related gaming products are already available.

As a teaser, here's a photograph of a copy of the original EPT rules, put together by Professor Barker in 1974, as well as one of the earliest maps of Tékumel, drawn by the professor. The Foundation intends to release the map to the public too at some point, but is still deciding the best way to do so. Once again, I stand in awe of not just what Professor Barker has done but what the Foundation is doing to promote and support his work. It's a pity more of the hobby's creators aren't in a similar position to be able to preserve and make available their works.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Open Friday: Who Are These Guys?

I'm going to be lazy and self-indulgent with today's Open Friday post (how is that different than usual, you may ask?). You see, just before the release of Thousand Suns in late December, I received proof copies of both the softcover and hardcover versions of the game. These proofs showed me that I needed to make a few small tweaks to the game before it was released for sale. I still have the proofs, sitting on my desk, and I was wondering aloud what I should do with them. My wife suggested that I give them away as prizes in a contest and so I shall.

Below you will find two images. They were both drawn by the always-awesome Mike Vilardi, with whom I've wanted to do a project for, literally, more than a decade. He did a number of pieces in the Thousand Suns rulebook and he's currently working on some pieces for upcoming supplements. One of the things he recently did was a series of sketches for pregenerated characters in an adventure for the game. I haven't yet gotten round to generating the characters, so that's when I had an idea: what if I present a couple of these sketches and ask readers to come up with descriptions of them, the two I like the best getting one of my proof copies of the game?

So, take a look at images below. Choose one (or both) and write up a brief description of the character: his or her name, occupation, personality, and background. Put your description in the comments. Don't worry about game mechanics or anything like that. I'll produce those after I've found two descriptions that I like. Remember that Thousand Suns is a science fiction RPG inspired by the imperial SF of the '50s, '60s, and '70s (and their contemporary descendants). It's neither hard sci-fi nor cartoonish space opera. Think Anderson, Chandler, and Piper, among others. You can make as many entries as you wish, but no single person will be able to win more than once.

I'll make my decision between now and February 16 based on originality, concision, and how closely the entries evoke the literary inspirations of the game. One winner will receive the hardcover and the other will receive the softcover, which being which determined by a 1D12 roll. Likewise, I'll credit the creator of the description in the upcoming adventure and send along a copy of it when it's released (probably during the summer). If anyone has any specific questions, put them in the comments, just like the descriptions. Please don't email them directly to me. I already have a backlog of emails I need to answer as it is.

Without further ado, here are the two images:
©2012 Mike Vilardi

©2012 Mike Vilardi

Thursday, February 9, 2012

REVIEW: Game of the Year

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of "gaming movies." Most of them, in my experience, are either inhabited by broad stereotypes intended primarily to appeal to mainstream audiences (who then laugh at how pathetic the gamers are) or are vapid feel-good films intended to show that "gamers are people too." Very few of them show any evidence that their producers have had any personal contact with gamers or gaming in decades, let alone are gamers themselves, never mind self-aware and thoughtful gamers. Consequently, when I received a copy of Chris Grega's Game of the Year, I was wary. But then I saw the cover of the DVD (pictured at left) and I started to wonder, "Could this finally be a good gaming movie?" Or, at the very least, could it be a movie that shows more understanding of the hobby and its participants than what can be gleaned from hazy, quarter-century old memories of gaming's heyday?

Game of the Year is presented as a mockumentary about a group of adult roleplayers hoping to win a spot for themselves on the fictitious reality TV show after which the movie is named. Should they succeed in this effort, their reward is running a game company for one year, but, before they can do that, they must first prepare themselves for the tryouts at an upcoming convention. Enter Jennifer and Neil, the director and cinematographer of the documentary. Every week, they venture into the basement of John Schiendheimer, where he and his friends gather for their gaming sessions, and film what they see there. In addition to John, who's more of a hex-and-chit wargamer at heart (because it's "based in reality"), there's the slightly pompous Game Master, Richard Matherson, Shawn Biondo (the "normal guy"), Mark Otus (the uber-gamer), Kyle Martek (the "cool guy" who insists he's "not really a gamer"), and John's cousin, Billy, who's attendance is spotty and who's easily distracted while playing.

With the introduction of the characters, I found my initial skepticism evaporating. From the little allusions to people and things from gaming's past to the games and paraphernalia scattered about John's basement, everything started to feel familiar -- and not in the sense that I'd seen all this before in other gaming films. Rather, I found myself reminded of my own experiences, both as a younger man and now. The characters are indeed stereotypes, at least initially, but what struck me is that many of these stereotypes weren't the usual ones you see in movies involving the hobby. Instead, they were stereotypes that spoke of real life experience with gamers and gaming. I was particularly taken with the characters of John, whose wife doesn't really approve of his hobby, and Kyle, who doesn't want his girlfriend to know what he does each weekend with his buddies. Both of these characters are broadly drawn -- this is a comedic film, after all -- but these are people I've known, people whose hobby has had repercussions in their personal lives and not entirely positive ones.

Like any gaming group, the one portrayed in Game of the Year is quirky and riven with little disputes, but, by and large, the guys get along well and have fun together. Whether they're the "Olympic" gamers they believe themselves to be is a question that never really occurs to them, as they plan for the selection process at the upcoming convention. What I really liked about Game of the Year was how much time the film spends on gaming sessions and not in a boring or silly way. Rather, the movie gives a good sense of what it's like to actually sit at a table with a bunch of adults, roll some funny dice, and pretend to be a fantasy character in an unfolding adventure. It's a small thing in some ways, but it's a huge one in others, since, I think, it simultaneously highlights the virtues and exposes the flaws in our shared pastime.

The real plot of the movie takes off when Jennifer steps onscreen and begins to game with the guys, at Richard's suggestion. Though enthusiastic and more knowledgeable than the average person about roleplaying, she's no gamer (she names her character Wonder Woman, leading others to follow suit and rename their own characters after various superheroes), despite the excuses being made for her by Richard, Shawn, and Mark, all of whom vie for her affections (while John and Kyle look on in horror). Again, in other hands, the whole "girls ruin gaming" trope might come across as puerile and small-minded, but, here, it's well-handled and used as a device for examining the inner lives of the various characters. It also precipitates a break-up of the gaming group, throwing into question their possible selection for Game of the Year, as well as introducing some hilarious scenes as the gamers struggle to find new players and new groups who match their own styles. Again, these scenes rang very true to life and also brought us into contact with the film's "villain," Gary Elmore, a former friend of Richard's, with whom he was once going to start a game company, Void Dragon Enterprizes. Gary's appearance, like that of Jennifer as an active participant in the game, is pivotal to the unfolding of the overall story.

Game of the Year is ostensibly a niche film. Some of its dialog and even plot points might be lost on non-gamers, though I should point out that my non-gamer wife, when I described some of the the scenes and dialog, rhetorically asked, "Where have I heard that before?" So, while familiarity with the hobby is certainly helpful, it's not essential. More to the point, I'm not sure Game of the Year can really be described as a "gaming movie" anyway. Rather than being about the hobby, it's about people, who happen to be involved, to varying degrees, in the hobby. For that reason, I think it's actually a lot more accessible to non-gamers than it might first appear. Likewise, I think it's a much more interesting and occasionally insightful film than one might expect, given its title and subject matter. In the end, I enjoyed Game of the Year a great deal, as has at least one other member of gaming group. It's an amusing, thoughtful, and sometimes cathartic movie neither pokes fun at gaming nor lauds it uncritically. If you have the chance to see it, I'd recommend it highly.

High Levels

In LBB-only OD&D, it's stated that "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress." However, the game's tables stop at 10th level for clerics and fighting men and go to 16th level for magic-users. Guidelines are provided for "levels above those listed," but those guidelines only cover hit dice, fighting capability, and spells. The number of experience needed for those additional levels isn't stated, assumption being, I suppose that one can intuit an appropriate rate of advance based on the existing tables.  

Supplement I includes expanded tables for both clerics (to 20th level) and magic-users (to 22nd level), in part because of the introduction of new levels of spells for both classes. The thief class is also introduced, but its level progression table ends at 14th level. There is no new chart for fighting men. Interestingly, the next two OD&D supplements, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry, introduced new character classes that had explicit level limits: assassins (14th level), druids (13th level), and monks (16th level).

I bring all this up because I've often wondered why it is that we so often hear D&D players complain that the game "breaks down at high levels." That statement may in fact be true but, in all my years of playing D&D, it was rare that a character ever legitimately achieved a level higher than 12 and even then such an accomplishment was rare. The highest level character ever played in any of my pre-WotC D&D campaigns was 16th and he was a noteworthy exception. In my Dwimmermount campaign, after 2+ years of play, the highest level PC was nearly 8th level and, owing to death and attrition, most PCs were a couple of levels lower than that.

One wonders, then, where all these high-level characters have come from. Have I been doing something wrong all these years? More to the point, was D&D written with the expectation that PCs would reach much higher than 10th-12th level? My own feeling is that it wasn't, even if the game leaves open the possibility of such a thing -- but then the game also leaves open the possibility of dragon and balrog PCs, too, so I'm not sure that says much.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Retrospective: Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (Volume 1)

Published in 1985, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space appeared just after the period I cover in these weekly retrospective. I decided to include it both because I'm in a very science fictional mode these days (I wonder why?) and because I think Zebulon's Guide offers an interesting example of how fads can affect even game designers. Written by Kim Eastland and Bruce Nesmith, this book was ostensibly a supplement to TSR's science fiction roleplaying game, Star Frontiers. In reality, though, it was in fact a massive overhaul of Star Frontiers, changing nearly every aspect of the game to the point where I consider it a reboot rather than a revision (and certainly not a "streamlined" one, as claimed in the preface).

Back in 1985, a mania for color-coded action resolution charts had overtaken the hobby. Numerous games, such as Marvel Super Heroes and Chill, to cite just two with which I was intimately familiar, used such charts and I'm guessing that they proved very popular not just with players but with designers. I say this because it wasn't long before it seemed as if every RPG had action resolution charts of some sort, including some that hadn't originally included them, such as Gamma World and Star Frontiers. Zebulon's Guide was where Star Frontiers made its ill-fated transition to the world of action charts. I say "ill-fated" because Star Frontiers didn't survive the transition. Zebulon's Guide was the last supplement to the game and, while I can't say with any certainty that the rules change was directly responsible for this turn of events, I don't think it helped matters. TSR clearly intended there to be additional support for Star Frontiers, since Zebulon's Guide was released as "Volume 1," but no subsequent volumes ever appeared.

In addition to a new universal resolution mechanic, this book introduced classes -- "professions," they were called -- that worked in conjunction with a new skill system. The original Star Frontiers rules were skill-driven, it's true, but they were limited in number and utility, the assumption being that a lot of actions didn't require explicit rules to cover them, leaving their adjudication up to the referee. Zebulon's Guide changed all that by presenting us with skills for nearly everything. The skill list was huge, larger than Traveller's and fast approaching that of Space Opera. I don't necessarily mind lengthy skill lists; they can be appropriate to some games. However, the increase in the number of skills was such an about-face from what we'd seen in the original Star Frontiers that it made it hard to accept that this was somehow the "same" game.

Zebulon's Guide also gave us a fifth, optional profession -- the mentalist. The mentalist is a psionicist, using a variety of mental disciplines to achieve his ends. Again, I'm not opposed to psionics, especially in a sci-fi setting, but their introduction here felt "off." The original Star Frontiers gave no hint of the existence of psionics, at least not of the sort described in Zebulon's Guide. So their sudden appearance here, even as an option, further contributed to my sense that TSR was basically starting the game over again, extensively reworking what had come before into a new game. I was already at the time a big fan of Traveller, which was always my go-to RPG for "serious" science fiction; the appearance of Zebulon's Guide made it even less likely that I'd play Star Frontiers, since it meddled too much with the straightforward simplicity that made that game a viable alternative when I was feeling more "wahoo!" about sci-fi.

It's a pity, too, because there is some genuinely good stuff in Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space. I loved the new equipment, the new races, and the expansion of the Frontier setting. But all of these things were lost in my mind because of the massive and unnecessary changes wrought to the rules and general feel of Star Frontiers -- all in the pursuit of the latest fad in game design. It's an object lesson, I think, on a game's staying true to itself regardless of what happens to be popular at the time. There's always room for experimentation and "innovation," but they're best reserved for new games rather than existing ones, a lesson contemporary designers looking to revamp classics of the hobby would do well to bear in mind.