Saturday, March 31, 2012

FYI Re: Comments

I'm playing around with a new comments application in place of the default Blogger one. For that reason, all the old comments have been temporarily removed. They should reappear sometime over the next day or so. I'm also playing around with different settings for the commenting app, so bear with me if things are a little chaotic in the meantime. It's my hope everything will be back to normal soon.

Words of Wisdom, Part II

Over at Blood of Prokopius, the ever-insightful Fr Dave has a really terrific post in which he rather cogently puts forward his thoughts regarding 5e. His concluding paragraph is pure gold:
To my mind, if WotC is interested in bringing our hobby together in one big happy family, then the best way to do that is to make every edition of the game official and make every edition available either through reprints or POD. This game has been successful in every iteration because so many of us have had fun with them — 0e all the way through 4e. Don’t fix what isn’t broken — give us all the freedom to officially play the version that best suits us and purchase those supporting materials that help us play that version.
I think, at this stage, it's probably too late for Fr Dave's recommendation to come to pass, which is a pity. The AD&D reprints are the first things published by WotC I'll have purchased in, literally, years. If they made B/X or some older modules available too, even if only through a POD service, I'd plunk down serious cash to snag them. I suspect I wouldn't be alone in that regard.

OSRCon 2012

Chris Cunnington, the organizer of last year's delightful OSRCon here in Toronto, has asked me to pass along that registration for this year's convention will open up sometime tomorrow, April 1. The con will be held on the 10th and 11th of this coming August. I'll be there running Dwimmermount sessions, as I was last year. Ed Greenwood is also returning as a guest and Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls, and all-around nice guy will be there as well.

I'll post additional updates about the con and its events as I learn them.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Open Friday: Four Years

Today marks the fourth anniversary of my starting this blog -- and what a four years it's been! Back in March 2008, there were only two retro-clones, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord, and there wasn't the plethora of new published adventures or supplements for old school gaming that we have today. For that matter, there weren't that many blogs and forums dedicated to the Old Ways either, if you can believe it. Neither were there any, let alone multiple, conventions where the vast majority of the attendees would be playing RPGs published three decades ago. In those days, "old school" wasn't the Next Big Thing that it seems to have become, with even Wizards of the Coast, whose D&D IV wasn't yet released when I started this blog, openly embracing it as it prepares to produce the latest edition of the Original Fantasy Roleplaying Game. All in all, it's been a fun and successful four years for our little corner of the hobby.

So, for today, feel free to use the comments to post your memories and thoughts about the last four years as it pertains to old school gaming. I'm especially curious to hear from people who were involved in preserving and promoting the Old Ways prior to 2008 and if they ever imagined that their preferred style of RPG would even experience a revival, let alone a renaissance.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

HackMaster Basic Sale

Kenzer & Company is offering a rather nice deal on their HackMaster Basic rulebook. For $25, plus shipping and handling, you get five copies of the rulebook. Considering that the book normally retails for $19.99, that's a very good deal. If the cost of shipping and handling to Canada wasn't higher than that of the five books, I'd probably take advantage of this sale, since I only own a PDF of the rulebook and, while HackMaster isn't quite my cup of tea, there are some interesting ideas in it that might be worth pillaging.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

AD&D Reprints Delayed

Several people have contacted me to inform me that the release date of the upcoming reprints of the original three Gygax-penned Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks has been pushed back to July 17. You can see this new release date here on WotC's website. I have no idea why the books are being delayed, though I've seen several suggestions as to the cause on various forums. Regardless of the delay, the book still are coming out, just not as soon as some of us had hoped.

REVIEW: In the Shadow of Mount Rotten

Back in 1988, TSR published a product as part of its D&D Gazetteer line -- I still find it difficult to say the name "Mystara" with a straight face -- called The Orcs of Thar. In addition to providing historical and geographical details on the aforementioned region of the Known World, The Orcs of Thar doubled as a rules supplement for players hankering to roll up an orc or a hobgoblin or a gnoll character. For the referee, there was lots of information on the societies and cultures of these humanoid species, in addition to a boardgame called Orcwars! that was intended to simulate the tumultuous politics of Thar.

If that sounds interesting to you, I'm sorry to say that, as presented, The Orcs of Thar came across mostly as a joke, with the various humanoid races being portrayed as congenitally stupid and thuggish caricatures. The product isn't helped by the fact that its interior art is entirely the work of Jim Holloway in full-on Paranoia mode. I say that as a fan of both Holloway's art and of Paranoia. My feeling is that the artwork only adds to the sense that we're not to take the humanoid races of Thar seriously, either as traditional exemplars of Faceless Evil or as revisionist Misunderstood Primitives. Consequently, though I own a copy, I've never for a moment considered borrowing any ideas from The Orcs of Thar.

So, when I received my copy of In the Shadow of Mount Rotten from Faster Monkey Games, I was skeptical. Written by Joel Sparks, this 80-page book (available as either a PDF for $12.00 or a printed book for $19.99), it presents rules and information for using goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs in Labyrinth Lord (or any old school class-and-level RPG), whether merely as antagonists or as player characters. Part of my skepticism is due to memories of The Orcs of Thar, but a bigger part of it is that I'm not now nor have I ever been a fan of "playing the monster" in D&D. With few exceptions, I prefer my humanoid monsters to be, well, monsters -- alien and implacably hostile minions of Chaos. Nowadays, whenever someone tries to make orcs or goblins playable, they do so by revealing that they're not really so bad after all and it's just the prejudice of the Man that makes us think otherwise.

Well, I'm happy to say that In the Shadow of Mount Rotten (hereafter ItSoMR) does no such thing. Goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs -- collectively referred to as "Rotlanders," for reasons I'll explain shortly -- are, in general, nasty, brutish beings who think nothing of raiding, pillaging, slaving, and even, on occasion, cannibalism (or "anthropophagy," as the book charmingly calls it). Certainly there's room for putting one's own spin on the Rotlander races, if one is so inclined, but the default assumption is much closer to my own preferences, which greatly helped me overcome my initial skepticism.

ItSoMR consists of five sections of varying size. The first (and shortest) is the introduction, which presents the Rotlands setting, in addition to overviews of its history, mythology, and races. The Rotlands, of which there is a color map provided, connects to the sample campaign setting map provided in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook, as well as the map in the excellent Lesserton and Mor. It's essentially a region of mountainous badlands, where life is difficult for all who inhabit it. The second section covers Rotlander characters. Thus, we get rules not only for the various Rotlander races but also for three new classes: warriors, shamans, and mongers. Warriors are similar to fighters but more geared toward being lightly armored and commanding lesser examples of their species. Shamans are spirit-oriented clerics with their own spell lists. Mongers are the "smart guys," being especially useful because of the nature of the economy in the Rotlands, where scrounging and bartering are commonplace. Much more is packed into this section, such as rules for reputation, ransoming, and encumbrance, some of which has utility even in "standard" Labyrinth Lord campaigns.

The third section discusses the various tribes of the Rotlands and their territories. This section is very useful, whether as a basis for determining the homelands of humanoid PCs or simply as a gazetteer of the region. This gazetteer provides many random tables (and sample maps) to help the referee determine what is found in ruins or caves encountered in the wilderness, along with more peculiar "oddities." There's also a really clever system using 54 playing cards to determine what's going on in the life of the PCs' tribe. It's intended to spur the imagination in creating adventures, which are more fully discussed in the fourth section. That section likewise offers its own random tables for encounters, along with some simple but useful rules for wilderness survival. The fifth and final section is dedicated to "stuff," like trade goods, caravans, and bartering. Concluding the book is an excellent three-page index.

All in all, In the Shadow of Mount Rotten is a well-done supplement to Labyrinth Lord, though its focus makes it more of a niche product than a must-have. Like previous Faster Monkey products, it's clearly written and uses a simple two-column layout. Personally, I find the margins on the pages too narrow, which gives them a somewhat "cluttered" look, but that may just be my old man's eyes speaking. The majority of the book's artwork is by Mark Allen and is uniformly well done and evocative. My only complaint is that I'd have liked to have seen more artwork, but, having self-published a few books of my own, I fully understand why that's not always practical.

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

Buy This If: You're looking either to add some depth to humanoid monsters or fancy giving them a whirl as PC races.
Don't Buy This If: You either have no interest in additional details about humanoids or want a more non-traditional approach to these races' societies and cultures.

Retrospective: Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective

I used to think that the late '70s and early '80s were a uniquely magical time for games in general, but now I'm not so sure. That's not say that the period when I first entered the hobby wasn't a magical one, since it certainly was for me. Rather, I think it more likely that it was the time when I was most open to picking up and learning new games, no matter how "weird" they might seem. As a result, I was exposed to a lot of games that I not only enjoyed playing but that had a profound impact on how I play and even conceive of games.

A good example of this is Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, written by Raymond Edwards and published by Sleuth Games in 1981. As I understand it, there were several versions of the game released. The one I owned, which I picked up in 1982 or 1983, came in a brown binder, like the one depicted above. However, there was also a boxed version that I sometimes saw in game stores and hobby shops. I suspect the contents of the different versions were identical, but, again, I can't say for certain. The game's components consisted of a brief rulebook, a map of Victorian London, a case book, a clue book, a London directory, a quiz book, and an archive of newspaper clippings from The Times. In the version I owned, these components were either three-hole punched to be held in the binder or placed in pockets at the front and back of it.

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective was, as you'd expect, a game of mystery solving, with the player -- it was a solo game -- taking on the role of Holmes as he attempts to unravel one of ten cases presented in the case book. Additional cases were made available in boxed supplements that I never owned and were very necessary if you completed the ten integral cases, since they had no re-playability. Cases were presented in a simple narrative form, almost like a story, after the reading of which the player is set loose to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. This was done by consulting newspapers, interviewing eyewitnesses and suspects, and generally scouring London for clues. For example, you might read in The Times that, at the same time as the crime you're investigating occurred, a celebrated entrepreneur disappeared from his home. Looking at the London directory gives you his address, which you then look up in the clue book. If it's pertinent to the case, you might find an additional narrative describing what you learn upon visiting his home and talking to those who live there. This in turn might give you further leads, which you then pursue in like fashion.

If this all sounds a bit like a very free-form choose-your-own-adventure book, with the information scattered across several volumes, you wouldn't be far off. That's certainly how it felt to me, at least initially, but, over time, the game took on its own feel, one that has forever colored my sense of how to handle mysteries in RPGs. Needless to say, I loved Consulting Detective, in large part because I could play it alone and take my time in doing so. There's no time limit on the cases and you can take days or even weeks to puzzle out the mysteries it presents. Once you believe you've solved the case, you go to the quiz book, which asks a series of questions to determine if you have, in fact, come to the right conclusions. The game relies on an honor system to be enjoyable, though the clues and information for all ten cases are scattered throughout to such a degree that it'd frankly be more work to try and cheat than to actually solve the cases the proper way. Only the quiz book contains any real revelations the player must avoid until he's ready.

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective is a game I spent many, many hours playing alone and I had a lot of fun doing so. The game is very well presented and strangely immersive. Looking through those Times articles for clues and then seeking out suspects through the directory was thoroughly enjoyable and contributed greatly to the sense that I was doing more than playing a "mere" game. Likewise, there were no game mechanics for discovering clues; I relied entirely on my own cleverness, memory, and intuition. That's probably why, to this day, I shun games and game mechanics that attempt to replace (or at least supplement) player skill at solving mysteries. Even Call of Cthulhu's Idea, Know, and Spot Hidden rolls rub me the wrong way much of the time. It's also why I love props, like fake newspaper clippings and diary entries. To me, they're the best way to present a mystery in a roleplaying game.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

REVIEW: An Echo, Resounding

I've mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of PDFs. The vast majority of the products I'm sent to review, though, are in electronic format. Speaking as a publisher myself, that only makes sense, since sending a PDF to a reviewer costs little or nothing and is instantaneous, while sending out a physical copy takes both time and money. And when dealing with Luddites like me, sending an electronic copy might just induce them to buy a hardcopy, provided, of course, that I like it. In the case of An Echo, Resounding, I most certainly did like it, so much so that I snagged a print-on-demand copy from RPGNow, which I wanted to get into my hands before I wrote up a review for it.

An Echo, Resounding is both a generic Labyrinth Lord sourcebook providing rules and advice for "lordship and war in untamed lands" and a supplement to the Red Tide campaign setting released last year. Like all Sine Nomine products, this one is penned by Kevin Crawford, which means that it's written clearly and unpretentiously. The 110-page book uses the same two-column format as all Sine Nomine releases, with the text broken up by a variety of stock art images. This doesn't make for the prettiest of books, especially when compared to many recent releases from other publishers, but the content is compelling enough that I don't think it much matters. An Echo, Resounding could have been released with no interior artwork and I doubt I would have cared.

The book consists of six chapters, plus an introduction and an index. The first chapter, "Domain Play in a Campaign," introduces the concept of domain-level play and how it interacts with "regular" Labyrinth Lord adventures. This chapter is brief compared to those that follow and isn't rules-focused. Instead, it's mostly advice about the benefits and drawbacks of including the clash of empires into one's campaign. The second chapter, "Creating Campaign Regions," gets down to the nitty-gritty, providing the foundations on which later chapters depend. What becomes immediately clear is that the rules presented in An Echo, Resounding are somewhat abstract. That is, they're built on concepts like "regions" and "locations" and "obstacles," with the meanings of these concepts being variable rather than being precisely (and narrowly) defined. That's not to say that these concepts are "fuzzy" or meaningless, only that the rules weren't written with bean-counters in mind. Once the basic concepts are laid out, the chapter goes on to provide both advice and examples on how to apply them to one's campaign setting. If you're already familiar with any of the Stars Without Number books or Red Tide, much of this will look familiar.

Chapter three covers "Domain Management" and provides rules for creating and ruling domains. The rules depend on a "domain turn" that represents approximately one month, though the actual timeframe, like most other aspects of these rules, is flexible in either direction. During a domain turn, a player whose character rules a domain may make two actions (referee-controlled domains may make only one), with actions covering things as diverse as military attacks, establishing assets (such as markets, temples, etc.), and dealing with disruptions/obstacles. The chapter also includes brief descriptions of all the available assets, along with the associated game values, and an example of domain play. Like earlier chapters, this one is both comparatively short and abstract, leaving many details to individual referees and players to flesh out.

Chapter four presents a mass combat system that uses mechanics very similar to normal Labyrinth Lord combat. Thus, units have hit dice, armor class, movement rates, and saving throws, in addition to upkeep costs and special traits. It's designed to be playable without the need for miniatures, but I think it'd work just fine with them if one were so inclined. Chapter five introduces the idea of "Champions," which are powerful PCs and NPCs, whose abilities are such that they can benefit both domain and mass combats. Characters who become champions -- the process for doing so is somewhat vague -- gain a parallel "class" in which they advance. Every time they gain a new level as a Champion, they gain a new ability from a list of nearly 50 of them. These abilities might be something like "Administrator," which gives a bonus to the Wealth and Social values of a single town over which the Champion has control or "Overwhelming Sorcery," which lowers the saving throws of enemy units against his magic on the battlefield. I rather like the idea of Champions, though I wish the rules were a bit more clear regarding how and when PCs gain levels as Champions. Even so, it's a solid concept that, I think, nicely represents the power of PCs without making them demigods.

The final chapter of the book is also its longest, providing detailed examples of the domain system for use with the Red Tide setting. There's a map of a region called the Westmark, which includes 40 locations, each of which has a page-long write-up. These write-ups provide everything needed to use the locations as adventuring locales or focuses for the domain and mass combat systems. Though it's probably most useful for referees and players using the Red Tide setting, I think it'll serve as a practical primer for newcomers to the supplement's rules systems.

I liked An Echo, Resounding quite a lot, since it suits my preferred style as a referee. I'm not the kind who cares all that much about counting gold pieces or determining exact population figures for a given location. I like things to be easy to use and abstract, since I can always make up the details on the fly as needed. For that reason, I imagine its domain rules would work very well as a separate, parallel "game within a game" where the referee and players use it to generate macro events that affect the campaign setting. That's certainly how I plan to use it. At the same time, I suspect that the book's approach might be frustrating for those whose style gives greater weight to knowing the precise details of a domain's inhabitants and resources. Consequently, An Echo, Resounding isn't a panacea for every campaign where domain-level activities is important; it largely caters to one approach and should be viewed in that light.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for abstract and easy to use domain and mass combat rules for use with Labyrinth Lord or other old school fantasy RPGs.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer domain and mass combat rules that are concrete and "bottom up" in their presentation and approach.

The Articles of Dragon: "Demi-Humans Get a Lift"

For a lot of old school AD&D players, the appearance of Unearthed Arcana in 1985 marked the end of an era. Filled with a wide variety of new options for players, it fundamentally upped the power level of characters in a way that forever changed the game. What's interesting is that is that, at the time, some people were critical of UA because they felt it "didn't contain anything new." In a sense, that was true. The book consisted primarily of material reprinted from several years' worth of Gary Gygax's "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column in Dragon. Very little of the book's contents should have surprised anyone who was regularly reading Dragon, as I was.

And yet, somehow, by compiling all that material under one cover, it became more than the sum of its parts. I knew lots of gamers, myself included, who'd allowed this class or that spell from Gygax's columns into their AD&D campaigns without so much as a second thought. In aggregate, though, they all took on a different character. Things that never bothered me before suddenly did, when placed side by side with other options I hadn't allowed (or didn't like). The result was that Unearthed Arcana was the book that "broke" AD&D for me. It was a bridge too far and it contributed to my growing disillusionment with the game in the mid-80s.

One of the last of Gygax's columns previewing material that would eventually appear in UA was "Demi-Humans Get a Lift," which appeared in issue #95 (March 1985). In his characteristic way, he explains the purpose of his article thusly:
 After long contemplation of the plight of dead-ended demi-human characters, and considerable badgering from players with same, it seemed a good plan to work up some new maximum levels for those demihumans with super-normal statistics -- and in a couple of cases just reward those with high stats across the board. Demi-humans were limited in the first place (in the original rules) because I conceived of a basically human-dominated world. Considering their other abilities, if most demi-humans were put on a par with humans in terms of levels they could attain, then there isn't much question who would be saying "Sir!" to whom. With that in mind, let's move along to the matter at hand.
Once again, Gary makes it clear that, in his mind, demi-humans were always supposed to play second fiddle to humans, which is why he included level limits. One may argue that such limits do a poor job of discouraging the play of demi-humans, but there can be no question that that was the intention behind it.

Despite that, Gygax decides here to give in to "considerable badgering" from players of demi-human PCs and provide the means for demi-humans to reach higher levels of experience. He does this in two ways. First, he allows single-classed demi-humans to exceed the standard level cap by two. Multiclassed demi-humans must abide by the usual limits. Second, he allows demi-humans with exceptional ability scores, whether single or multiclassed, to achieve even higher levels. While I think the first change is reasonable, if unnecessary, the second more or less ensured that every demi-human PC from then on would have absurdly high ability scores. In my opinion, AD&D already had a problem with ability score inflation; these changes only further encouraged such bad behavior. The article also opened up for play several new demi-human races, such as deep gnomes and drow, both of which, in my opinion, are too powerful for use in an "ordinary" campaign.

Throughout the article, Gary makes a couple of asides that suggests that he himself doesn't much care for these rules changes but is allowing them because "the gamers have spoken." It's very odd and makes one wonder why, if he really was so opposed to these changes, he nevertheless went ahead and presented in them. The tone throughout is strange and he ends the piece by not only saying that these are the final, ultimate, never-to-be-changed-again, for-real-this-time alterations to demi-human level limits but also by suggesting demands for further power escalation are inevitable:
To put a cap on things, let us get something straight. Any statistics beyond those shown, for levels and ability scores alike, are virtually impossible. Spells and magic, even artifacts and relics, will not increase statistics beyond what is shown, and no further word is necessary. If some deity likes a character so much as to grant a higher statistic, then that deity should also like the character sufficiently to carry him or her off to another plane. (Rules for quasideities will, I suppose, now be in demand . . . sigh!)
Even more than a quarter-century later, I find Gary's tone odd.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Words of Wisdom

I was happily reminded that this week Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is going to press, with the book expected to appear on store shelves late next month. Electronic copies of the game will be made available to those who have pre-ordered sometime after April 1. I'm among those who pre-ordered a copy, in large part because, after some initial nitpicking about certain design choices in the DCC RPG, I came to a conclusion that Joseph Goodman neatly summarizes in an interview he gave earlier this month. In that interview, Goodman is asked, "What is your target audience for the upcoming DCC roleplaying game?" His reply is a terrific one:
Joseph Goodman is my target audience. I have said this before and I’ll say this again: I’m writing this game for me. It’s the game I’ve always wanted to play. Hopefully a few other folks will like it as well.
That's not something I hear very often, or at least that I don't hear often enough. I think, ultimately, that the best games (not to mention books, movies, etc.) are those created to please their creators, not anyone else. Naturally, of course, creators like it when others share their enthusiasm for their creation, but that's not really the point -- or, at least, it shouldn't be.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Wizard Fog

Issue #5 (March 1977) of Dragon (or The Dragon, as it was still called back then) saw the second appearance of Gardner F. Fox's barbarian protagonist, Niall of the Far Travels. The story begins as Niall is aboard a boat traveling along the great river Thalamar toward the great city of Urgrik, where he hopes to find lucrative employment. His journey is interrupted by the appearance of a "great white fog" on the river, a fog that Niall believes smacks of sorcery, a claim of which the ship's captain is not so sure. The two of them examine navigation charts of the river and on them the barbarian warriors spots something that, in his mind, confirm his suspicions:
“There,” Niall said, jabbing his finger.

“Those ruins . . .” “ . . . are only ruins,” scoffed the captain.

“Na, na. They’re more than a pile of rocks. There’s evil there, Edron Hobbort. Ancient evil.”

“Now, how can you know that?”

Niall straightened slowly. He tried to think, yet could not. Almost dazedly, he passed a hand across his broad brow. “I — cannot say. And yet — I know. It’s as if — something whispered into my mind. But it told me of an evil that has come recently to life, back across eons of Time — and made its home close by this river.”

Edron Hobbort snorted. “Nonsense. That ruin has been uninhabited since Porthia Malvia was queen in Angalore, and that’s about ten centuries ago. We’ll go on. If the sails won’t work, the oars will.”
Niall is, of course, right to be worried, especially after the ship enters the fog and strange things begin to happen. First, the fog stings his flesh, as if tiny insects had flown across the deck. Then, the ship moved, seemingly of its own accord, toward an ancient wharf, and the ship's crew, including its captain disembarked, hypnotized by some force that did not affect Niall. Not long after they enter the fog, the swordsman hears a cry. Against his better judgment, he rushes headlong into the fog beyond the wharf, thinking at first he might find a hint of what became of the crew. Instead, he comes across a young woman being lowered into a pit, at the bottom of which is a giant snake.

Naturally, Niall rescues the woman, whose name he learns is Kathyla. She expresses surprise that the barbarian was unaffected by the same magic that bewitched the crew of the ship on which he traveled. She explains that this island, Kor Magnon, is now the home of an evil wizard called Ulkarion.
“Ulkarion needs sacrifices for Sisstorississ, the snake-like god who dwells in labyrinthine hells far out in space. Long ago, Sisstorississ was worshipped here in Kor Magnon.” She caught the bewilderment in his eyes and smiled faintly.

“Kor Magnon is the name of this place where we stand. Long and long ago, it was the lair of a race of serpent-men who were worshippers of Sisstorississ. They stole human sacrifices to offer the snakegod, until the peoples of this region rose up and attacked it.

“Kor Magnon fell, everyone in it was put to death. From that day on, it has lain empty, abandoned, until all record of its location was forgotten.Yet Ulkarion searched for it, hampered only by the efforts of another wizard named Iphygia. Eventually, he defeated Iphygia and came here to worship Sisstorississ, so that the snake-god would make him powerful and almighty.”

The girl shrugged. “I was to have been the first sacrifice to Sisstorississ — until you came along. I — am grateful.”

Niall eyed her cautiously. “You know a lot about this magician.”
It's here that the true story of "Beyond the Wizard Fog" picks up and it's another enjoyable yarn, which, like the first appearance of Niall, has something of a surprise ending. It's too early to tell whether or not Fox will make these climactic twists a staple of his Niall of the Far Travels stories or not, since I've only read two so far. Much as I like them, I think it'd be a shame if the series devolved quickly into a formula, particularly since they already borrow so much from other sword-and-sorcery tales. At the same time, I can't deny that I really enjoyed "Beyond the Wizard Fog." It's neither deep nor original, but it is cleverly written and unpretentious. Fox clearly knew what he was about when he wrote this and that self-awareness, I think, elevates the story above mere pastiche and into the realm of genuinely enjoyable pulp fantasy.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Roots of the Revolution

Over at the Mule Abides, Tavis reminded me of something I'd seen once before: the introduction to the pre-TSR, Daystar West edition of Tracy and Laura Hickman's Pharaoh. In that introduction, the Hickmans put forward four "requirements" for the adventures they were presenting:
  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing. 
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself. 
  3. Dungeons with an architectural sense. 
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time. 
Tavis somewhat hyperbolically calls these four requirements the "manifesto of the Hickman Revolution," since, as originally presented, they're descriptive rather than prescriptive -- a statement of intent on behalf of the authors. In hindsight, though, it's very easy to look at these and see the seeds of what would eventually bear fruit at the end of the Golden Age. And of course it's important to remember that the Daystar West version of Pharaoh appeared in 1978, four years before the TSR version.

This is vital information, because it's all too easy, in retrospect, to see the Hickman Revolution as something imposed from the outside on D&D, when in fact it was an organic outgrowth of it and one with deep roots. That doesn't make it any more palatable to me, but we mustn't forget that, from fairly on, there were those dissatisfied with the way RPGs were presented and marketed in the early days and they offered up alternatives to those who felt the same way -- just like the old school renaissance is doing today.

One Page Dungeon Contest 2012

Alex Schröder asked that I pass along the One Page Dungeon Contest (which began in 2009 and has continued every year since) has begun again. The rules and particulars of the contest can be found via the link above. The deadline for submissions is April 30, 2012, with the winners announced on June 1.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Open Friday: Revisiting Dungeon Locales

One of the lessons I learned early on in creating Dwimmermount was that most levels, if not every level, ought to have some locale or feature that encourages return visits to that level. So, there's the "Cleric Tree," a weird tree-like plant that bears fruit that act as potions of healing and the Moon Pool, whose waters have various potentially beneficial effects. These locales and many others scattered throughout the dungeon encourage repeat visits and provide the referee with the chance to restock rooms with monsters and treasure. They are, in my opinion, a vital part of keeping a dungeon "fresh" and making it feel "alive."

For today's Open Friday question, I'd like to ask people to share some of the locales in their dungeons that players return to again and again, even as they explore deeper into them.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Venomous Thoughts

While working on translating my Dwimmermount notes into something others can read and understand, I was reminded some weirdness regarding poison in OD&D. In Volume 1 of the LBBs, in the section describing how saving throws work, it's stated that
Scoring the total indicated above (or scoring higher) means the weapon has no effect (death ray, polymorph, paralization, stone, or spell) or one-half effect (poison scoring one-half of the total possible hit damage and dragon breath scoring one-half its full damage).
It's a peculiar section, because it implies that poison deals damage rather than simply being save or die, as longstanding tradition would have it. Likewise, there's the 4th-level clerical spell neutralize poison, whose description in the same volume states that it is
A spell to counter the harmful effects of poison. Note that it will not aid a character killed by poison, however. It will affect only one object. Duration: 1 turn.
That, too, is pretty peculiar, because, once again, it implies that poison deals damage rather than instant death. However, no poisonous creature in the LBBs seem to deal damage with their venom that I can find and even the fact that they deal death is more a matter of interpretation.

In AD&D, a 2nd-level clerical spell is introduced, slow poison. Its description notes that it can restore "even .. a supposedly dead individual" back to life, if they died from poisoning within a number of turns less than or equal to the level of the cleric who cast the spell. That description suggests that "real" death from poison occurs not immediately upon failing a saving throw but some time afterward. AD&D's description of neutralize poison is roughly consonant with its OD&D predecessor, in that it doesn't seem to affect someone who's been killed by poison (though, presumably, it could be used in conjunction with slow poison), but, rather, could be used to make poisonous food edible or even de-venom poisonous creatures. Interestingly, the 1981 Expert Rules seem to combine the effects of AD&D's slow poison with OD&D's neutralize poison.
This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds. It can also be cast on a poison or poisoned item to make it harmless. It acts only on poison present at the time it is cast.
It's a bit of a muddle, if you try to go with just the bare text, unless, as is quite likely, I'm missing some crucial passage somewhere in the LBBs that clarifies it all. That's why, back when I was preparing to start the Dwimmermount campaign, I briefly contemplated having poison deal damage rather than death. The problem I had was trying to figure out just how much damage it ought to deal and whether that damage ought to be in addition to the damage dealt by the attack that delivers it. That is, if a giant spider deals 2-8 points of damage, does that include the poison damage or is it in addition to it? I never came to a satisfactory conclusion and, the more I thought about it, the more questions it raised, so I simply decided to ignore the implications of those passages in the LBBs and go with the "traditional" understanding that all poison is deadly poison.

I'm still not sure that was the "right" decision, but it's a decision that worked -- a few dead henchmen and hirelings to the contrary.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mixed Feelings

So, I finally got around to seeing John Carter in the theater and wanted to share my thoughts on the film. For those unwilling to suffer through the lengthy commentary that follows, here's the short version: I enjoyed it -- enough that I'd be willing to watch it again -- even though it's flawed as a movie and deeply flawed as an adaptation of Burroughs.

As longtime readers of this blog ought to know, I'm critical of Hollywood's inability (or unwillingness) to treat the literary source material on which it so often draws with respect. Consequently, I'm not a fan of either of the 1982 or 2011 Conan the Barbarian movies and I am even contemptuous of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies. In the minds of many, this makes me a "purist," which is polite shorthand for "Puritanical snob I want to punch in the face." At the same time, I had a lot of faith in director Andrew Stanton, who did not merely profess but actually demonstrated in interviews that he loved and, more importantly, understood Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom novels. Contrast this with Milius or Jackson, both of whom showed again and again that they had no clue what Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien were all about.

My faith in Stanton was such that, seemingly alone amongst fans of the Barsoom novels, I wasn't put off by the various trailers released in advance of the film. Instead, I was relieved -- cheered even -- when I saw that movie would use the same framing device as the novel, A Princess of Mars, right down to including a fictional Burroughs as a character. To my mind, that fact alone already made John Carter a far more faithful adaptation than any movie purportedly about a Cimmerian barbarian to have appeared on screen. And while I had doubts about his casting choices, particularly the two leads, I was willing to give Stanton the benefit of the doubt. This was a man who knew and loved Barsoom, so I figured that any changes he might make would merely be those demanded by the translation to a different medium.

Before proceeding further, I think a word about "the spirit" of a work is in order. In my experience, a great many people are willing to accept changes in a cinematic version of a beloved literary work if they believe the spirit of the original is preserved. Of course, the spirit is a fairly nebulous thing, so nebulous that talk of "staying true to the spirit" can often be used as an effective cover/justification for all manner of alterations. While I don't deny that books have spirits or that it's possible to discern them, I am wary of attempts to "stay true" to them while at the same time abandoning -- or contradicting -- their letter. I am, after all, the man who intensely dislikes the movie version of The Natural on the petty justification that it turns a tragic literary tale into a story of triumphant redemption. According to some, this constitutes staying true to the spirit of the book, so I hope I can be forgiven for being skeptical of such verbiage.

It's worth noting that, all other considerations aside, bringing A Princess of Mars (the primary book on which John Carter is based) was always going to be a difficult proposition. The 1917 novel rambles, following John Carter as he wanders from place to place, meeting people and becoming involved in various intrigues on the Red Planet as he does so. Any cinematic adaptation that wasn't three or more hours long would likely have to concentrate on certain characters and events in order to present a more coherent narrative. In doing so, other events and characters would need to be minimized or dropped entirely, particularly those that don't support the coherent narrative the director has chosen to advance. I readily accept that, which is why I don't begrudge Stanton for most of his omissions.

What I do begrudge him for, though, are his additions, not merely because they diverge from Burroughs but also because they actually make the movie's narratives less coherent than the rambling raw material from which it's drawn. The two biggest problems are its main characters, John Carter and Dejah Thoris, with the eponymous hero being the worse of the two. Here's how Burroughs describes John Carter in his foreword to A Princess of Mars:
My first recollection of Captain Carter is of the few months he spent at my father's home in Virginia, just prior to the opening of the civil war. I was then a child of but five years, yet I well remember the tall, dark, smooth-faced, athletic man whom I called Uncle Jack.
He seemed always to be laughing; and he entered into the sports of the children with the same hearty good fellowship he displayed toward those pastimes in which the men and women of his own age indulged; or he would sit for an hour at a time entertaining my old grandmother with stories of his strange, wild life in all parts of the world. We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.
He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.
The movie version of Carter, though, is nothing like the one described here. He is a broken man, "lost in our world" (as the movie poster proclaims him), suffering from a (totally invented) tragic past. Movie Carter spends close to half the film seeking a way to escape Mars and return to Earth, where he believes a fortune in gold awaits him. Despite the wonders he sees on Barsoom, he cares little for the planet or its inhabitants, including Dejah Thoris, the first human-like being he encounters. He is sullen and self-obsessed, almost to the point of being anti-heroic. There is a moment in the film, shortly after he rescues the incomparable princess from the Zodangans when I thought, for a brief moment, that the real John Carter would finally make his debut. With hordes of baddies rushing at her, Carter grabs a sword -- her sword, which should have been my first clue about how this would end -- and stands in front of her, saying something to the effect of "Stay behind me, ma'am; this could get dangerous."

But, apparently, chivalry is dead, even on the Red Planet. Dejah Thoris is offended by this Jasoomian effrontery and quickly shows Captain Carter that she needs no saving. The scene is, I expect, intended to be funny and to play with our expectations, but it has the effect of further lessening John Carter as both a character and as a hero. Granted I'm a Neanderthal, who wasn't too keen to see female warriors among the Slightly-Tan Martians either, but, even given that, I do think, purely from a storytelling perspective, having Dejah Thoris upstage Carter as a warrior so early in the story does little to make me like him as a character. Indeed, it only contributes to one of the film's biggest problems: why does anyone care about John Carter? Sure, he can jump very high and is equally strong, but so what? As portrayed in much of the movie, he's a withdrawn, bitter grump, who cares more about his riches on Earth than fate of Barsoom. Why would anyone follow this guy? "Because his name is in the title" seems to be the only explanation.

Now, I understand why Stanton changed Carter's character -- to give him an "arc" -- but I hate it nonetheless. Not only does it deviate from Burroughs's portrayal of the character, but it actually made the plot of the film slower paced and less exciting than it ought to have been. When you only have two hours, give or take, to tell a story in a setting filled with wondrous and exotic things, wouldn't it save a lot of time if you don't have to waste time contriving ways to get your protagonist invested in that setting? Had the cinematic Carter been more like the adventurous Southern gentleman of Burroughs, we might have had time to see more of, say, the Warhoons or the atmosphere plants, two omissions I wished hadn't been made so as to allow for other stuff.

Which brings me to the Therns. I'm honestly not sure what I think about the Therns. On the one hand, their inclusion is justifiable, since they provide a nice segue to The Gods of Mars. On the other hand, their portrayal in John Carter sets them up to be the Big Villains of the series, which is not only a mistake, but also necessitates lots of scenes with them delivering exposition that eats up screen time better spent fleshing out characters and situations that actually are in A Princess of Mars. It's another case where I think that Stanton and screenwriter Michael Chabon were too clever by half, inadvertently creating new narrative problems in an effort to "fix" those in the original text. As a result, the whole movie has a strangely "unfinished" feel, as if it's missing scenes that, if inserted, would help make sense of the whole.

And yet, in spite of it all, I liked John Carter. It was a fun movie and, its downplaying of the Green Martians' cruelty and its liberation of Slightly-Tan Martian women to the contrary, a surprisingly old fashioned one in terms of the story it tried to tell. I could pick lots of little nits and quote lengthy sections of Burroughs's texts to show where Stanton and Chabon "got it wrong," but I won't, because I was entertained. I was also pleased to get to see on the big screen things I've imagined since I was a younger person. Were they exactly like I imagined them? No. In fact, a lot of stuff was downright unlike the way I'd imagined them. Yet, for all that, John Carter presented something that was recognizably inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom tales -- far closer than any Tarzan movie to date and light years truer to its source than last year's Conan the Barbarian.

I'd like to see John Carter again to get a better handle on my mixed feelings about it. I take it as a good sign that I'd even countenance a second viewing, despite my misgivings about it as both a movie and as an adaptation.

Retrospective: Dungeon Geomorphs

If you ever want a visual illustration of how much the hobby has changed from when I first entered it and today, you need only look to products like Dungeon Geomorphs. Originally published in three parts between 1976 and 1977, my first encounter with Dungeon Geomorphs was in 1981, by which point all three parts had been collected into a single product, with a memorable cover by Bill Willingham. Since I've still never seen the original releases, my thoughts will focus solely on the 1981 collection, though I've  never seen any evidence that, other than the format, much changed between 1976/77 and 1981.

Dungeon Geomorphs is quite clearly intended as an aid to the referee in quickly creating new dungeon levels, much like the Monsters & Treasure Assortment. It includes 48 pages of traditional blue and white maps, each of which is divided into square and rectangular sections (30 of the form and 15 of the latter). Some of these maps feature typical dungeons, while others feature caves and caverns. When cut apart, the maps can be easily connected to one another in almost any combination to create large maps on the fly. I say "almost" because nearly every combination results in at least a few dead end corridors or passages, but their presence may be the result of dungeon design philosophy as much as more immediate, practical considerations. Old school dungeons frequently included dead ends to delay and confuse players as their characters explored. It's a feature that's not so common anymore and one that I admit I had to remind myself of when designing Dwimmermount's levels for my own campaign.

Dungeon Geomorphs was designed by Gary Gygax and his son Ernie and was, I suspect, something of a throwback product even by 1981. Though I owned and liked Dungeon Geomorphs, I cannot recall ever using it to create a truly huge dungeon map. More often I'd take a section or two to expand upon an existing map I felt too small or I'd use it to quickly build a monster lair encountered in the wilderness. Nearly all of the sample dungeons and modules I'd seen in official TSR publications or in the pages of Dragon were fairly small affairs, with about 30-40 rooms per level (at most). Most of these dungeons rarely had more than two or three levels. I doubt I was alone in having a limited view of what a "dungeon" consisted of than did those purchasing this product in its original releases.

As the years crept on, dungeons kept getting smaller and smaller, with rare exceptions, thus making products like this curiosities rather than essential tools for the referee running a D&D campaign. Fortunately, that's changing. Megadungeons -- and geomorphs -- have made something of a comeback in recent years, thanks in no small part to the old school renaissance's resurrection of this ancient birthplace of the hobby as a vibrant locale for adventure. A good place to look for modern day geomorphs is at the excellent Dave's Mapper site, which gives contemporary referees everything they need to create a massive dungeon in seconds.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mars Needs Money

I finally got round to seeing John Carter -- I'll post my thoughts on it in the near-ish future -- but whether one thinks it's fair that it'll likely be remembered along with last summer's Conan the Barbarian as yet another failed attempt to bring a classic pulp fantasy character to the screen is now academic. According to news stories, Disney is claiming that it'll lose $80-120 million dollars on the movie, making it (in the words of the linked article) "one of the biggest flops in cinema history." That all but guarantees we won't see another Barsoom movie anytime soon.

Again, leaving aside my (very mixed) feelings about the movie, I have to wonder: why the heck did John Carter cost so much? I mean, I've seen estimates that claim the film cost upwards of $250 million to make and up to another $100 million to market. Unless they were actually shooting on location on Mars, that's just insane. The mind boggles.

The Articles of Dragon: "An Army Travels on its Stomach"

Though I continued reading Dragon for sometime longer, issue #94 (February 1985) marked one of several turning points in my feelings toward the magazine. From its feathered-hair-and-fringed-leather ranger on the cover by Clyde Caldwell to Gary's overly complex clarifications regarding the ranger class to the uncharacteristically banal "Ares Section," this issue contributed further to my growing sense that the magazine's own Golden Age was long since at an end. As I've noted before, by this time, I was already growing dissatisfied with the direction of D&D and reading articles like Katharine Kerr's "An Army Travels on its Stomach" did little to dissuade me of this perspective. The article is a lengthy discussion of how "to role-play wars and troop movements properly" (emphasis mine), thus revealing the twin obsessions of the Silver Age: realism and narrative verisimilitude.

To be fair to Kerr, her article isn't rules heavy. Indeed, there's scarcely a rule to be found anywhere in its many pages. And unlike many other Silver Age Dragon articles, this one doesn't focus on how D&D's rules are wrong so much as how the reasoning behind them is unclear and needs to be teased out so that gamers can understand them and thus be able to roleplay them better. Looking back in hindsight, I think it says a lot that this article was written and published. Most fundamentally, it reveals that, by 1985 at least (though probably much earlier), the hobby had fewer and fewer participants in it who knew much about wargaming or medieval warfare. When I entered the hobby in late 1979, I was on the young side and had only the barest minimum education in wargaming, thanks in large part to teenagers and older guys who'd been roleplaying for several years beforehand. I suspect that those who entered the hobby after me had even less of an education in these matters, hence articles like Kerr's.

The other thing the article suggests to me is that the Silver Age's drive toward ever greater "realism" was in fact fueled by a desire for greater dramatic coherence rather than the mere anal retentiveness toward which so many gamers seem prone. That is, the need to know about how many calories a warrior needs to consume each day to stay in fighting trim or how much grain a given acreage of land can produce in a year isn't driven by a desire to know these things for their own sake but rather to present adventures that allow for more "realistic" and believable roleplay. What's interesting, too, is that articles like this confirm my feeling that the early Silver Age began, at least in part, by ruthlessly applying the logic of Gygaxian naturalism to a wide variety of topics, all in the effort to make settings and adventures that provided greater scope for roleplaying. As Kerr herself puts it in this article:
Including logistics in a campaign does more than add a certain sour note of realism to play. Gamers forced to operate within the limits of their armies will have to make fascinating strategic decisions, while gamemasters can add those extra touches that keep campaigns dangerous to the overbold and rewarding to the clever.
I find this perspective fascinating, even though I've never found it particularly compelling. It's not far removed from the argument made by some that "realistic" falling damage actually leads to better roleplaying because it forces players to make decisions based on real world considerations of life and death. I can certainly see the logic of it, but it's not something that's ever mattered much to me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Things You Never Noticed Before

Anyone who owns and adores Gary Gygax's AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide knows well that one of its appeals is that, no matter how thoroughly you think you've read it, the next time you pick it up you'll find some little tidbit you're pretty sure you've never read before. Case in point: today, while hunting down all the Will McLean cartoons in the DMG, I chanced upon a line at the end of the description of the cloak of poisonousness that I can't recall ever having read.
After its effects are known, a small label saying "Nessus Shirt Company" might be seen at your option.
Another fine example of Gygaxian drollery!

Google+ Gaming Thoughts

So, last Friday saw another expedition of backers of my Dwimmermount Kickstarter descend into the depths of my megadungeon. This time, the trio -- the expected fourth player didn't show -- explored Level 2A: The Laboratory, which is an area of the dungeon that my own players only very briefly visited. Considering that, once again, the party had no clerics amongst their number, I have to hand it to Keith, Josh, and Steve, for how far they managed to venture into the level before one of their number sustained sufficient wounds that they decided to retreat to the surface. Of particular note is the way that the magic-user, whose highest ability score was his Intelligence of 12, spent most of the evening stabbing orcs with his dagger. He successfully took down three orcs all by himself, which is why, by the end of the night, we were calling him "the Orcslayer."

Steve wrote a post on his blog where he recounts his experiences from his perspective. He also includes a rather nice little graphic that I've reproduced below, but do visit Steve's blog for a fuller explanation of what it all means.
With three Google+ gaming sessions under my belt now -- I'm still a tyro compared to guys like Jeff and Zak -- I have to say that I'm enjoying it a great deal. A big part of my enjoyment comes from introducing new people to Dwimmermount, people with whom I'd probably otherwise never get the chance to play. I'm having a blast seeing how different groups engage the monsters and obstacles I've placed in the dungeon.

I'm also pleased that, while lacking the immediate physical connection that comes from face-to-face gaming in my dining room or basement or at a con, Google+ still feels "real." We all roll dice and use pieces of paper to take notes and record information. About the only thing that we aren't using old fashioned methods for is mapping, mostly because I think it'd be tedious to do so via video chat. Luddite that I am, it makes me happy to know that we don't have to completely abandon the outward accoutrements I associate with roleplaying games even when playing with people separate by great distances. That alone means that I'm likely to continue doing this each week, even after the Kickstarter campaign has reached its end (and thank you again to everyone who's contributed).

Pulp Fantasy Library: Shadow of a Demon

It's a rare thing when two of my regular series intersect, so I take some pleasure in the fact that today's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library focuses on a short story written by Gardner F. Fox and published in the pages of Dragon -- in its second issue, no less (August 1976)!  I was just shy of my seventh birthday when this issue was released, so I didn't read it at the time. But, once I did, start to read Dragon, I was always happy to read its fiction section, which, over the years, published some excellent short stories by both established and up-and-coming writers. I like to think that my longtime fascination with the literary origins of the hobby was fueled in part by the fact that, during the time I was a regular reader and subscriber, Dragon devoted a portion of every issue to a new fantasy or science fiction story.

Gardner F. Fox needs no introduction to fans of pulp fantasy (or comic books), as his contributions to the field are well known. Strangely, this is the first time I've actually devoted an installment of this regular series to a book he's written, except for a brief one back in 2008, when I still called it "Pulp Fantasy Gallery." That's an oversight on my part I'll try to rectify over the course of 2012, since Fox was well regarded by Gary Gygax -- he makes it into Appendix N -- and because, as this entry shows, he was, like Fritz Leiber, directly connected to the early RPG hobby.

"Shadow of a Demon" introduces a new character, Niall of the Far Travels, who is depicted on the cover above. Fox describes him (and his situation at the start of the story) thusly:
He came into Angalore from the eastern deserts, a big man wearing a kaunake of spotted fur over his linkmail, his legs bare above warboots trimmed with miniver, with a sense of his own doom riding him. Niall of the Far Travels had not wanted to come to Angalore, for an old seeress had prophesied that he would be taken from this world by demons, should those warboots carry him into that ancient, brooding city.

Yet he had come here because his fate had so decreed.

He was a mercenary, a sell-sword, a barbarian out of the forested mountains of Norumbria. A wanderer by nature, he earned his keep wherever he went by the might of his sword-arm, by his skill with weapons. He feared no living thing, man or animal, though the thought of demons put a coldness down his spine.

Now he paused on the crest of a hill and stared at the city. Massive it was, and old, so old that some men said it had been here since men had first learned to walk upright. It lay between the river and the desert over which the caravans came from Sensanall to the south and Urgrik to the north. Ships lay in the little harbor that was formed by the river, riding easily to the lift and fall of its tides
If that sounds a little like a Conan pastiche to you, I wouldn't disagree. Before creating Niall, Fox had created two other Conan analogs, Kothar and Kyrik, in addition to the suspiciously named Crom the Barbarian, about whom I've talked before. So, it's not entirely surprising to see Fox create yet another barbarian sell-sword for his Dragon series (yes, series: there were ten short stories published in its pages between 1976 and 1981). Like many pulp fantasists, his strength as a writer was not in his characters but in his ideas and in the zest with which he tells his tales.

"Shadow of a Demon" is no different in this respect, telling what would appear to be a fairly banal tale of a mercenary adventurer seeking to avail himself of a fabled treasure hidden in the dungeons beneath an evil wizard's castle. Adding to the seeming cliche, Niall even encounters a mysterious, beautiful young woman to whom he is attracted and who eventually finds herself a captive of the very wizard from whom he wished to steal. Yet, as is so often the case in short fantasy fiction, not all is as it seems, including the seeming cliches. Fox is playing with his readers' expectations, leading them to believe that his tale is in fact little more than a run-of-the-mill Conan knock-off. That's certainly what I expected after the story's opening, but it didn't take long to realize that there was more at work here.

"Shadow of a Demon" is no classic for the ages, but it's a lot of fun. And while it's true that Niall of the Far Travels is mostly a cipher, the situation in which he finds himself is intriguing and Fox tells it with vigor. As I said, I never read this story back in the day, but I enjoyed it enough that I made an effort to read all the others that followed and am glad I did so. In the weeks to come, I'll be returning to Gardner Fox's Dragon stories for future installments of Pulp Fantasy Library. They're well worth a look, if you can find them.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dwimmermount Kickstarter Updates

Here we are, two weeks in, and Dwimmermount is nearly 200% funded and not far off from its first bonus goal. For that, I am very grateful to everyone who's made a contribution, no matter how small. I honestly had no idea how well received this Kickstarter would be when it was launched, so seeing such a positive response is both surprising and pleasing. Thank you, all.

Work is already well under way on getting the book ready for publication. I've been turning my rather sparse notes into text usable by others and artists have been producing some truly amazing illustrations. What's best about these illustrations, some of which you can see here, is that they're not just flights of fancy but reflective of events from actual play, whether from my home campaign, in the play-by-post I ran back in 2009, in the Google+ sessions I've been running for backers of the Kickstarter, or that Tavis has been running at the Brooklyn Strategist. I honestly think drawing on events that happen in play makes for better -- and more memorable -- artwork and can't wait to share more of what we've got with others.

Friday, March 16, 2012

RIP: M.A.R. Barker (1929-2012)

Victor Raymond just passed along to me the sad news that
Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (MAR) Barker, known to his friends as “Phil,” died peacefully in home hospice on March 16, 2012 with his wife Ambereen Barker at his side. Professor Barker is survived by his wife of 53 years, Ambereen. Details on memorial services will follow. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Tékumel Foundation are preferred:

For more information:
This is, of course, very sad news. Another one of our hobby's founders has passed from this world.

Open Friday: Oddities

In general, I'm not someone who craves absolute consistency in my game rules. In fact, I rather like it when there are rules that either defy expectations or don't make much immediate sense. A good example of this is the cleric's acquisition of spells in OD&D. According to the LBBs (as well as Swords & Wizardry, ACKS, and Labyrinth Lord Original Edition Characters), clerics don't get any spells at first level at all, but, at sixth level acquires both third and fourth-level spells for the first time. This is a quirky little rule that AD&D (and its successors) abandoned when it smoothed out some of the game's rough edges, but I've come to like it a great deal.

So, today's question is this: what odd little rules in your favorite RPG have you come to love and embrace wholeheartedly?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Party of Fifteen

One of the things I'm most enjoying about the Dwimmermount Kickstarter is that it's given people outside my home group a chance to play in the megadungeon that's occupied my time for the better part of the last three years. In addition to the players I've been refereeing in my weekly G+ sessions, Tavis Allison is also running some of his own at the The Brooklyn Strategist. Among Tavis's players at a recent session was artist Paul Hughes, who drew the illustration above, depicting fifteen PCs and henchmen as they explore the Gallery of Masks on Level 1 of Dwimmermount. I think it's terrific.

Paul has a Kickstarter of his own that might be of interest to readers of this blog, so do take a look.

Dwimmermount G+ 3/16

If you commented on this post under the name "Josh D.," "sabode," or "Welleran," drop me a note at to indicate that you're still interested and available to play online tomorrow night at 9pm Eastern Standard Time. I may have another slot available, as well, and, if so, I'll make an announcement about that here tomorrow.

As for lurkers/watchers, I'm open to the possibility, provided that their presence doesn't adversely affect the running of G+. As I understand it, hangouts can handle up to 10 people, but work best with 5 or less. Last week, we have four players, myself, and one lurker and it worked just fine. So, in principle, I'm not opposed to spectators.

I'm going to continue to do these sessions each week. Starting next week, I'm going to try and schedule a few for different days and times to make them more accessible to players outside the East Coast of North America. I'll post about that when I have the details worked out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Howling Tower

No, not the Arduin adventure -- the blog of long-time TSR and WotC employee Steve Winter. If you haven't been reading it, you really ought to do so. This week, Mr Winter began a series of posts about his thoughts and experiences of the various revisions to D&D over the years. His post today, entitled "Dysfunctional and Co-Dependent," is of particular interest to those of us in the old school world, since it mirrors a lot of what we've been saying over the last few years, such as:
In short, the types of things that players want are bad for the game. They'd be fine if published in moderation, but moderation is a luxury only small companies can afford. Big companies have big monthly bills. The types of supplements that would be healthy for the game, players won't buy in sufficient quantity to keep the company or the game alive at the corporate level. To keep the engine running, the company must publish what customers want, and thereby cut its own throat.
That's as true a statement about D&D thirty years ago as it is today.

Anyway, head on over to his blog and take a look at what he's got to say. Having been involved with D&D as long as he has, I think he's got quite a few insights to share. I interviewed Mr Winter back in 2009, in case you're keen to learn a little more about the man and his involvement in both the hobby and the industry.

Retrospective: Warriors of Mars

It's oft been noted that the LBBs contain more references to the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs than to any other fantasy tales and with good reason. Though largely unknown today -- to the point where the ignorant have suggested that the movie John Carter is ripping off the innumerable films inspired by Burroughs -- the Barsoom novels were hugely influential for decades. They are, in many respects, the wellspring from which contemporary fantasy and science fiction flow, even if the debt both genres owe to these seminal books is often unacknowledged.

Gary Gygax, though, was not shy in acknowledging the debt he owed to Burroughs. He mentioned his name in both OD&D and in Appendix N of his AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and the Greyhawk campaign included at least one expedition to the red sands of Barsoom. Given this, it should probably come as no surprise that, in the same year that OD&D appeared, TSR released a 56-page miniatures wargame entitled Warriors of Mars. Written by Gygax and Brian Blume, this small book provides rules for adjudicating battles, both on the land and in the air, between the various antagonistic cultures of Mars, as envisioned by Burroughs.

If you've never heard of Warriors of Mars, let alone seen a copy, there's a good reason for that. There was, so far as I know, only one print run of the book before the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate contacted TSR about possible infringement of their rights. Rather than risk legal action, the book was never reprinted, making it today one of the rarest -- and most expensive -- TSR products. I've tried in vain to obtain a copy for myself at a reasonable (i.e. not multi-hundred dollar) price for several years now but to no avail. Fortunately, I have known several people who own copies that they've been willing to lend me, so I've at least had the chance to read the book.

Warriors of Mars is not explicitly a roleplaying game; it's a miniatures wargame. However, it wouldn't be difficult to use it as the basis for an RPG, since there are rules for "personalities," like John Carter or Tars Tarkas. Likewise, the rules cover several scales, including 1:1, along with things like experience points, levels, and advice on how to design "personal adventures." Like the Greg Bell artwork used to illustrate it, Warriors of Mars makes for a very crude RPG -- far cruder than even OD&D -- but one could do it, especially if one is prepared to wing it when it came to anything other than combat. Where Warriors of Mars does excel, though, is as an introduction to Barsoom and its various characters, cultures, life forms, and locations. It's no substitute for the novels, of course, but Gygax and Blume cover enough foundational material to get one started if one has no previous knowledge of the works of Burroughs.

Barsoom remains, in my opinion, a great source of inspiration for fantasy roleplaying games. The Red Planet of my Dwimmermount campaign, Areon, owes a lot to Burroughs's conception of Mars (just as my Kythirea, owes a lot to his Amtor). It's my hope that, whatever the virtues or flaws of the Disney movie (I have still yet to see it), it will at least pique some interest in the source material on which it draws. Barsoom is every bit as much the birthplace of D&D -- and the hobby -- as the Hyborian Age or Middle-earth and it deserves to be better known.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

G+ Dwimmermount This Week

This Friday, March 16, I'll be running another Dwimmermount session via Google+ for backers of the Kickstarter. The session will run from 9pm to 12am EST, but will be for 2nd-level Labyrinth Lord characters, since they'll be exploring Level 2A (The Laboratory), which I've been transferring from my mess of notes into a more intelligible form.

If you're a backer who's interested, can make the times, and has access to G+, make a comment below and I'll randomly determine several of you to fill the available slots. I'll let everyone know the results of the random rolls by Thursday evening, which will give us plenty of time to make changes, in case something comes up for anyone between then and the time of the game. Last week, things were a little chaotic and I had to scramble to choose some new players in time to get moving by 9pm.


The Articles of Dragon: "The Making of a Milieu"

When I think of under-appreciated writers from the hobby, one of the names that comes immediately to mind is Arthur Collins. Collins wrote a number of articles in Dragon that I adored, because they seemed to provide the kind of detail and immersion that the Silver Age craved while still being firmly rooted in Golden Age obsessions. They offered a kind of media via between the two eras of D&D and, as such, greatly appealed to me during my teen years, when I wasn't ready to abandon the kinds of games I played as a younger person, but still hoped for something "deeper" than "mere" dungeon crawls. Plus, Collins was a good writer: clear and easy to understand but not simplistic, either in style or content. He wasn't a hugely prolific author -- perhaps two dozen articles or fewer -- but his stuff was almost always of great interest to me.

Of all the articles Collins wrote, the one that most affected me was "The Making of a Milieu," which appeared in issue #93 (January 1985). Its subtitle was "How to start a world and keep it turning." The article is basically a lengthy discussion of how to build not just a campaign setting but a campaign itself, which is to say, how to kick things off in such a way as to ensure that play continues for months or years afterward. Nowadays, a lot of what Collins wrote might be considered old hat, but, back in 1985, it was nothing short of revelatory, at least to me.

Up until that point, I'd largely run my campaigns either in my beloved World of Greyhawk setting or else in some nebulous, vaguely defined setting. In neither case did I give much thought to "the Big Picture." And by "the Big Picture," I don't mean a plan or a script for the players to follow in their adventures. Rather, I mean only some notion of how all the various pieces of the setting interrelate and how they might be used to serve my purposes as a referee. Prior to reading this article, my campaigns were just random collections of "stuff that happened" somewhere and that was usually good enough.

By 1985, though, I started to think it wasn't good enough. I'd become so thoroughly immersed in fantasy literature, especially of the Interminable Series of Ponderous Tomes variety and I wanted my campaigns and settings to mirror that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1985 also marked the beginning of the period during which I actually played less and less. I went to a different high school than all my neighborhood friends and I became distracted by other things. But I was still as interested in D&D as ever and devoting my time to world building seemed an adequate substitute for actually playing the game.

Collins gave me lots of food for thought about how to build a setting, stuff that kept me thinking and creating for years to come. For example, he suggested creating several maps of the campaign area, each one depicting the area at a different point in history. In this way, names and settlements can be altered to reflect the rise and fall of empires, the migrations of people, and other such events. So I spent a lot of time at the library making photocopies of a blank map of my new, original campaign setting -- the first I'd ever come up with -- and then adding details to it, so that I eventually amassed a lot of information in pictorial form about how the setting evolved over the centuries. It was a fairly simple thing but quite effective and it gave me a lot of pleasure as a teenager.

These days, I'd never go to even the meager lengths Collins suggested in planning out a campaign or its setting. I'm much more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy; indeed, I embrace it as the best way to play the game. At the same time, I retain a great deal of fondness for this article, in large part because it broke me of certain other bad habits, namely my dependence on published material for ideas. As Collins so aptly put it at the conclusion of his article:
When I began playing the AD&D game six years ago, there were very few playing aids on the market of the type that are now so abundant. There was no WORLD OF GREYHAWK Fantasy Setting, no Harn, and very few canned modules in print. Very nearly all of our adventuring had to come out of our own heads. And I still think that's fantasy gaming at its best. I now meet players, especially young ones, who think that, in order to play the AD&D game or some other such activity, they must invest megabucks in someone else's ideas. It shocks many of them when I suggest that it's more fun to make it up yourself.

Alas for them! No canned module, no playing aid, no set of rules, no list of NPCs can quite become your very own. As enjoyable and thought-provoking as all the published material may be, it is a poor substitute for creating your own campaign milieu, designing your own castles, and exercising your own brain. Creativity is what the game is about. It would be a shame if the success of fantasy gaming contributed to the stifling of creativity in its own enthusiastic adherents.
I was one of those young players about whom Collins speaks, at least to some degree, which is why I owe the man a debt of thanks. I may no longer build a campaign the way he suggests in this article. However, that I build my own at all is in large part a result of what he says in it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Delta's Dwimmermount Adventure

Over at his D&D Hotspot, there's a really nice post in which Delta recounts his experiences adventuring on the first level of Dwimmermount, with Tavis Allison as the referee. His post made me really happy for a number of reasons, not least of them being that it's terrific to see others enjoying something that I've created. I was also gratified to read the following:
In my short play experience, it seems that James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount is a whole lot freakier than I expected -- and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Of course, we were dealing with things like orcs, kobolds, and skeletons -- but no element appeared that wasn't corrupted in some deep and disturbing way. Not even the dungeon doors escaped being of bizarre function and construct. It looks like a very memorable place to adventure.
Those are words to warm the cockles of even the most curmudgeonly referee's heart.

Do take a look at Delta's post, if only to see the photos he's included of the Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles they used to represent Dwimmermount. Good stuff!

Pulp Fantasy Library: Out of the Aeons

As I've noted before, I have a strange weakness for many of the stories H.P. Lovecraft "revised" (i.e. ghostwrote) for other authors. I'm not entirely sure why that is, because, when viewed objectively, these stories usually aren't as well-constructed as HPL's own tales. Some are downright shlocky, even by the fairly low standards of the pulps. Yet, there's still something compelling about them that brings me back to them time and again.

A good case in point is "Out of the Aeons," published in the April 1935 issue of Weird Tales under the byline of Hazel Heald, an amateur writer with whom Lovecraft collaborated on five stories. "Out of the Aeons" is presented in the form of a first person account "found among the effects of the late Richard H. Johnson, Ph.D., curator of the Cabot Museum of Archaeology, Boston, Mass." The account primarily concerns
a hellish mummy, the antique and terrible rumours vaguely linked with it, the morbid wave of interest and cult activities of 1932, and the frightful fate of the two intruders on December 1st of that year
One has to admit that's a pretty good opening to a story! It's certainly lurid, much like the story that follows, but it does nicely set the scene and draw one in. Dr. Johnson explains that, in 1878, a freighter from New Zealand "sighted a new island unmarked on any chart and evidently of volcanic origin." A landing party under its captain discovered "prehistoric Cyclopean masonry" on the island, including a massive stone crypt. Inside the crypt, the party found the aforementioned mummy, on whose body was found a cylinder of unknown metal containing a scroll of similarly unknown material on which was written some kind of unrecognizable script.
The mummy was that of a medium-sized man of unknown race, and was cast in a peculiar crouching posture. The face, half shielded by claw-like hands, had its under jaw thrust far forward, while the shrivelled features bore an expression of fright so hideous that few spectators could view them unmoved. The eyes were closed, with lids clamped down tightly over eyeballs apparently bulging and prominent. Bits of hair and beard remained, and the colour of the whole was a sort of dull neutral grey. In texture the thing was half leathery and half stony, forming an insoluble enigma to those experts who sought to ascertain how it was embalmed. In places bits of its substance were eaten away by time and decay. Rags of some peculiar fabric, with suggestions of unknown designs, still clung to the object.

Just what made it so infinitely horrible and repulsive one could hardly say. For one thing, there was a subtle, indefinable sense of limitless antiquity and utter alienage which affected one like a view from the brink of a monstrous abyss of unplumbed blackness—but mostly it was the expression of crazed fear on the puckered, prognathous, half-shielded face. Such a symbol of infinite, inhuman, cosmic fright could not help communicating the emotion to the beholder amidst a disquieting cloud of mystery and vain conjecture.
The true nature of this mummy and how it came to be form the bulk of the story, as Dr. Johnson deals with a steady stream of strange characters coming to the Cabot Museum to inquire about it. These dealings lead Johnson to seek out forbidden books, such as Von Junzt's Nameless Cults, where he slowly pieces together disparate bits clues to attain what he thinks might be the truth -- a truth that is all but confirmed by the conclusion of the story.

"Out of the Aeons" is not a good story. It's mostly exposition and much of its feels recycled if you're already deeply immersed in Yog-Sothothery. As he so often did in his revisions, Lovecraft borrowed heavily from his own prior stories, blending some of their details with the bare bones provided by his revision clients. The result is never great literature, but it is often enjoyable, as is the case with "Out of the Aeons." To this day, I will never forget the first time I read the story in high school and the strange feeling that came over me as I kept one step ahead of Dr. Johnson in figuring out the history of the "hellish mummy" in the Cabot Museum. And while that history is absurd, even laughable in some respects, there's nevertheless an element of genuine horror in it that has stuck with me all these years and continues to haunt my imagination.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Actual Play Notes

I absolutely adore seeing documents generated through actual play, like maps, character sheets, and collections of notes. That's why I was very pleased to see this photo of what Jason Azze wrote down while participating in Friday's Dwimmermount G+ session:
Also depicted in the photo are Jason's amazing dice, which regularly provided just the right results the PCs needed. I may have to get myself a set!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dwimmermount After Action Report

Last night was my second foray into the world of gaming via Google+ and it went very well indeed. My players this week consisted of Jason Azze, Ryan Browning (who filled in for someone who couldn't show), Robert Conley, and Michael Curtis (who also filled in at the last minute for someone who couldn't show). As you might have guessed from my parentheticals, the roster for the 3-hour session didn't finalize until close to start time, as several people I'd tapped to play had something pop up that prevented their participation. I blame myself for this; I didn't plan very well in advance and that likely contributed to the chaos. For future sessions, I'll try to do a better job of assembling players and alternates several days beforehand.

I had a lot of fun last night, both because I didn't feel as ill at ease with using video chat for gaming as I did the previous week and because I had a really great group of players. Jason played a fighting man named Martin, Ryan played an elf named Felren, Rob was a magic-used called Argyll, and Michael was another fighter named Rake. Once again: no clerics! Because Ryan had played the previous week and because his new character was an elf, I made the assumption that he was an associate of Locfir the Astrologer, Tavis's character from the week before. That assumption gave Ryan the excuse to use any information he recalled from the previous week in last night's session. As it turned out, it didn't matter all that much, since this group went in a different direction, exploring rooms the other party did not.

One thing I really have to give the crew last night was how thorough and cautious they were. They reminded me quite a bit of my home players. They used every trick in the old school playbook -- 10' poles, iron spikes, etc. -- to avoid falling prey to traps and other hazards. As a result, none of them died, which is fairly impressive for 1st-level PCs who spent three hours in Dwimmermount. Of course, as I mentioned before, the first level is filled with lots of empty rooms and oddities, so careful players can avoid many dangers. It also helps that the bulk of the monsters on the level aren't clustered around the early chambers, so you have to delve pretty deep into it before you encounter them. Neither group I've played with on Google+ has yet done that.

Last week, Zak suggested we make use of an online whiteboard called Twiddla to handle mapping. This worked quite well night, as you can see from this screenshot:
Among the highlights of last night's session were:
  • A battle with some orcs
  • The discovery of the Gallery of Masks
  • Hiding from some spiders wandering on the ceiling of a nearby corridor
  • Fighting some eldritch bones in a chapel dedicated to Mavors (a similar scene is depicted by Jeff Dee on the Kickstarter page)
  • Exploration of the Hall of Memories
  • Finding stairs down to Level 2
  • And, of course, looting a secret treasury
I had a great deal of fun. It's not quite the same thing as playing face to face, but it's not far off. There are also two other benefits I noticed. First, I have a much larger pool of people with whom to play. Distance is not an impediment. Second, because you have to be sitting at your computer to stay engaged, there's little temptation to get up and wander away, distracted by something you see in the other room. As a result, we got in a very solid three hours worth of play, with very little downtime. That's not to say there weren't occasional, brief, friendly digressions -- I'm not a proponent of 110% deadly serious gaming -- but last night further proved to me that Google+ is a very viable platform for tabletop gaming. I look forward to future sessions with great anticipation and have a feeling that, even after the Kickstarter has ended, I'll continue to use it as a way to play with people with whom I wouldn't otherwise get the chance.