Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Imagine Magazine: Issue #2

Issue #2 of Imagine appeared in May 1983 and kicks off with an editorial that treats a topic that regularly concerned TSR at the time -- what is and is not an "official" change to D&D and whether or not house rules change one's game into something else. Though the editorial itself takes a more moderate approach to this question, it nevertheless cites Gary Gygax's own opinion that
any house rules that alter the technical aspects of the way an AD&D™ game is played mean that the game being played is no longer the AD&D game.
It's worth noting that, while TSR -- and Gygax especially -- became much more strident in pressing this point over time, it was not a new point. Going back at least as far as the Dungeon Masters Guide's release in 1979, Gary argued that, if you're not playing AD&D by the book, you're not playing AD&D but something else instead.

Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz return for a second installment of "The Beginner's Guide to Role-Playing Games," as well as "The Adventures of Nic Novice" comic strip. The latter focuses on generating a character's ability scores and presents 3d6 in order as the method. The example character is a fighter with the following rolls: 18, 8, 10, 11, 15, 9. That's very close to the fighter stereotype I inherited as a young man, in which nearly every felt a character needed 18 Strength and felt that a good Constitution was valuable, but all the other abilities didn't much matter, so long as they weren't too low.

Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" column discusses "winning" in the context of RPGs, another topic clearly geared toward neophytes. Meanwhile, Gary Gygax's "The Big, Bad Barbarian" is a reprint of an article that appeared in issue #63 of Dragon. Graeme Morris provides an adventure, "For the Honour of the Tribe," that is designed for a party consisting solely of barbarians. It's actually a rather interesting little adventure, though it does little to make me appreciate the Gygaxian barbarian class, which I've long disliked.

There's a report on Games Fair '83 that's worth noting, since Gygax was a guest of honor at the convention. According to the report, attendees were "surprised at how approachable Gary [was], after the negative press he received in the hobby." It's also reported that Gygax "horrified a few of the purists with one remark," namely that "a good referee only rolls the dice for the sound they make. He just decides what happens!" While that comment might have been surprising in 1983, it's pretty well known nowadays that Gary had a lot more of the "storytelling" style as a referee than many old schoolers would themselves countenance in their own games.

"Horror Scope" by Chris Baylis is basically a horoscope column, using the months of the World of Greyhawk setting in place of zodiac signs. It's pure fluff without any game mechanics attached to it. Graeme Morris reappears to offer news of upcoming changes to AD&D, including new character classes, weapons, and spells. "Dispel Confusion" offers up official answers to questions about AD&D, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret. Editor-in-Chief Don Turnbull has a short but well-done column in which discusses the ways in which RPGs are odd kinds of games. He concludes with this:
The game [i.e. D&D and, by extension, all RPGs] thrives on its lack of rules, its lack of equipment, the lack of any necessity to learn more than a few simple facts, its lack of competition, its indeterminate length, its free-for-all no-holds-barred style.
The comic "Rubic of Moggedon" re-appears and is just as baffling to me as in its first appearance. Pete Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" continues to report on fanzines and local events. It's worth mentioning that Imagine continues to feel more plugged into the local hobby scene than Dragon did at the time. I like that. There are multiple game reviews, including one of The Morrow Project, which is surprisingly favorable. "Illusionary Script" returns with more mind-benders, as does Mike Brunton's "Figure Painting." Nick Pratt presents a review of the 1973 film The Island at the Top of the World, with an eye toward its utility as inspiration for referees. Concluding the issue is more of "The Sword of Alabron" comic by Ian Williamson.

Reading Imagine almost 30 years after it was published is an enlightening experience, both because it sheds light on UK gaming culture at the time, but also because it's a house organ gaming magazine that doesn't seem aloof from the hobby out of which it grew. There's a "groundedness" to Imagine I find intensely appealing, even if it sometimes comes at the cost of being a lot less polished and "professional" when compared to Dragon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Oh no ...!

If the latest news from Hollywood is to be believed, there are plans to release another Conan movie in 2014 -- in which Arnold Schwarzenegger will reprise his role as the Cimmerian. Much as I was disappointed by the 2011 reboot of the movie series, the last thing I wanted to see was Arnie return to play Conan for a third time, especially at age 65.

The unwelcome truth that, whatever limited virtues the 1982 movie has, it's not exactly crying out for a sequel, certainly not more than three decades later. It's also disappointing that, in 2012, after the strides made in the literary re-appraisal of Robert E. Howard's work and after we've seen decent, if not 100% faithful, adaptations of beloved works of fantasy, we hear Frederik Malmberg, the man whose company owns the rights to the character of Conan, say the following of this upcoming film:
“The original ended with Arnold on the throne as a seasoned warrior, and this is the take of the film we will make,” Malmberg told me. “It’s that Nordic Viking mythic guy who has played the role of king, warrior, soldier and mercenary, and who has bedded more women than anyone, nearing the last cycle of his life. He knows he’ll be going to Valhalla, and wants to go out with a good battle.”
Perhaps he's speaking metaphorically here, with "Nordic Viking" and "Valhalla" being mere shorthand, but, even so, it doesn't exactly bode well for the authenticity of this project -- not that that has ever been a concern of Schwarzenegger's Conan efforts. I suppose we can hope that, like so many Hollywood pictures, this one winds up in development hell and never sees the light of day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Retrospective: AD&D Action Scene Kits

When I was a kid, most boys I knew enjoyed model building. Even I did, though I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, particularly proficient at this hobby. Still, I remember walking down entire aisles of toy stores that were given over to plastic model kits of every kind imaginable. The vast majority of them were either military vehicles, especially those from World War II, or automobiles. There were airplanes, too, as well as rockets. There were also models of the space vessels from Star Trek and Star Wars. I remember being very fond of a model of the USS Enterprise that was released in the wake of 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The model had working lights and, for many years, mine hung from wires in my bedroom.

Around 1982, model manufacturer MPC produced a series of boxed "action scene kits" under license from TSR. These kits -- there were three of them, as I recall -- consisted of molded plastic terrain and a handful of plastic miniatures based on  Grenadier's official AD&D miniatures. The miniatures generally consisted of two halves that snapped together without the need for glue, though some of them required a bit of filing down before they worked properly. Once assembled, they could then be painted, though I don't think I ever got around to doing so. Painting miniatures, even plastic ones, has long been my downfall.

The set I owned was called "Dungeon Invaders" and depicted a raid on a dragon-inhabited dungeon by a party of adventurers. There were other monsters in addition to the dragon, but I can't for the life of me remember which ones they were. I think there were some skeletons and a carrion crawler, but I may well be mistaken. In principle, this was a model kit, intended for display no different than, say, a WW II battle scene, but I never used it that way. Instead, my friends and I take the molded terrain and used it as an adjunct to our cardboard dungeon tiles. For us, it became another way to help us visualize our dungeon adventures.

Truth be told, these action scene kits weren't very well made, either as models or as gaming miniatures, but we didn't care. For us, they were a comparatively cheap way to acquire a lot more minis to use in our sessions and the idea of three-dimensional terrain, even if it was only a single piece, excited us beyond all measure. It's funny how anti-miniatures a lot of old schoolers are these days and I share their belief that RPGs shouldn't require their use. But I also remember well that, when I entered the hobby, miniatures and dungeon tiles were a big part of its attraction to me. I doubt I am alone in that regard.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Imagine Magazine: Issue #1

Back in April 1983, I hadn't the slightest inkling that TSR UK had just released the "adventure gaming magazine," Imagine. Though I avidly read Dragon at the time, there was no mention of Imagine's premier anywhere in its pages. And while White Dwarf was readily available at many of the hobby shops and bookstores where I bought RPG products, Imagine never, so far as I know, crossed the Atlantic to land anywhere near my home. Consequently, I didn't even learn of its existence until long after it had ceased publication in late 1985, which is a shame, because it's a both a very interesting gaming periodical in its own right, as well as a window into what the UK gaming scene was like in the early to mid-80s.

Gary Gygax, in an interview he gave in 1999, talks a little about the genesis of Imagine and its ultimate fate. Like most things Gary said after his departure from TSR, you have to take much of it cum grana salis, but it's interesting nonetheless.
It was my plan for TSR UK to publish a UK version of "Dragon" magazine. This I meant to be named "Royal Dragon" and its content were to be about 50% that taken from "Dragon" the balance, and all ad space, coming from contributors and advertisers in the UK. Don Turnbull did not favour this plan and eventually he convinced the Board of Directors that his "Imagine" magazine was a superior idea. I was dubious, but I agreed. As a matter of fact, the magazine never showed any substantial profit, generally ran at a loss from a purely financial standpoint. Of course, the advertising and promotion of the TSR line and the goodwill the publication generated, justified its continuation for the time. Had the expense of half the content, general layout too, been absorbed by "Dragon" magazine, which was then generating a profit of something like a million dollars annually, and the name I urged been used so as to make it clear that it was tied to the D&D game, I believe the publication would have made a profit, been more effective and still satisfied the individual tastes of the British gaming audience. That is a moot question now, certainly.

As for lower echelon staffers believing that they were paid to be independent critics of TSR products, somehow being given free rein to exercise their budding critical talents, I can only shake my head in wonderment at such hubris. Biting the hand that feeds one has always been considered in bad taste. If such persons felt so overwhelming an urge to be independent, they should have sought employment elsewhere or struck out on their own. In short, I have absolutely no sympathy for such views. The very reason for their employment was to promote the TSR line and its success paid the wages for their livelihood.
I'll return to Gygax's comments periodically, as I discuss the thirty-one issues of Imagine in the months to come.

What's most immediately interesting about issue #1 is how much material it includes for complete neophytes. There's "The Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Games" by Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz, which is accompanied by a comic strip called "The Adventures of Nic Novice," which focuses on explaining just what a RPG is. Then, there's Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" column, where he reminisces about his first encounter with RPGs and how he had to wrap his mind around the concept of a game with "no restrictions." I find myself wondering if roleplaying games were still a largely alien concept in the UK in 1983 or if these articles were simply meant as a way to entice newcomers to the hobby into picking up a copy of the magazine.

"QB-161-01: Antares" by John E. Black is a fiction piece about virtual reality "cubes" and the consequences of one man's use of them. Dave Pringle offers up book reviews and the pseudonymous Gordius presents a mind-bender in the "Illusionary Script" feature. Michael Brunton and Graeme Morris co-author a D&D adventure called "The Beacon at Enon Tor," which is designed for use with the recently-released Frank Mentzer-edited Basic Set. Morris also provides "D&D Players Association News," as well as (again with Brunton) the "Dispel Confusion" column, which answers questions about AD&D and Star Frontiers game rules. "Turnbull Talking" is for TSR UK's head honcho, Don Turnbull, to talk about whatever is on his mind.

Peter Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" is a column devoted to "the amateur side of the hobby," focusing on conventions, fanzines, and the like. Meanwhile, Jim Bambra reviews Star Frontiers and Paul Cockburn reviews Judge Dredd. Michael Brunton returns in a lengthy piece called "Figure Painting," where he talks about how to paint miniature figures for use with RPGs. Rounding out the issue is a brief "Letters" column (understandably so, since this is issue #1) and a comic by Ian Williamson called "The Sword of Alabron," which is notable for featuring an explicitly Scottish dwarf (he is identified as such and even wears a kilt). Is this the first instance of that now hoary gaming stereotype?

What's most notable looking at Imagine #1 is how much less polished it is than contemporary issues of Dragon. At the time, that probably would have put me off -- I felt similarly about White Dwarf -- but nowadays I find it not only charming but positively a point in its favor. There's also a lot more emphasis on the amateur side of the hobby, with lots of ads for fanzines, local cons, and the like. Though clearly a house organ for TSR UK, Imagine nevertheless feels a lot more "open" than did Dragon, which is precisely what Gygax was complaining about in the interview quoted above. Me, I like that and I suspect it's one of the defining characteristics of this magazine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Adventuress

A regular refrain of this blog since its inception is the fact that the chasm between "fantasy" and "science fiction" that now exists in the minds of many readers was once not so vast. Consequently, many writers felt no compunction at dropping laser guns or spaceships into their fantasy stories or including vampires or ghosts in their science fiction ones. This looseness carried over into the early days of our hobby, too, as anyone familiar with the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns can attest (not to mention many others). As a younger man, I generally wasn't comfortable with the blurring of the lines between the two genres. As I get older, though, I find myself not only more comfortable with it, but embracing it, as anyone who's even passingly familiar with my Dwimmermount campaign would know.

I mention all of this as an introduction to "The Adventuress" by Joanna Russ, which first appeared in the science fiction anthology, Orbit 2, edited by Damon Knight and published in 1967. The Orbit series was published between 1966 and 1976 and included twenty-volumes -- roughly two a year. Its authors were an eclectic bunch, but many were newcomers with unusual approaches to their stories, which is why Orbit had a reputation for being "cutting edge" in its day.

"The Adventuress" is a good example of Orbit's content, since its protagonist, Alyx, is cut from the mold of C.L. Moore's Joirel of Joiry or Robert E. Howard's Black Agnes rather than the females in your typical sword-and-sorcery tale. Did I say "sword-and-sorcery?" In an anthology of "the best new SF stories?" As I said, genre boundaries were a lot looser back in 1967 than they would become later, so readers wouldn't look askance at the story of a female thief in the fantasy city of Ourdh being included in Orbit. Besides, it's not entirely clear that Alyx inhabits a fantasy setting anyway. Over the course of her adventures (there are five short stories about her), she flits between a fantasy world, the ancient world of our own Earth, and a more "pure" science fiction setting without little explanation (though the later introduction of the time traveling Trans-Temporal Authority might serve that purpose if one wishes to be kind).

"The Adventuress" begins with Alyx as a follower of a deity named Yp, whose faith preaches "the venomous hatred of inanimate objects for mankind.” Fed up with such nonsense -- and the persecution that goes with it -- Alyx abandons the worship of Yp to become a pickpocket, a vocation she finds much more rewarding (in every sense of the word). In doing so, she eventually makes the acquaintance of a spoiled young woman named Edarra, who is seeking to escape an arranged marriage to a Bluebeard-like widower. Together, the two women leave the city of Ourdh, along the way encountered numerous people, both malevolent and benign, as well as bicker incessantly, owing to their very different outlooks on the world.

What makes "The Adventuress" interesting is not the story itself, which, while engaging enough, isn't particularly ground-breaking. Rather, it's the character of Alyx herself, who, as I mentioned above, is not cut from the same cloth as the women who appear in too many pulp fantasies. Alyx is blunt, driven, and clever, which makes her quite appealing. A good example of what I mean can be found in this exchange between her and Edarra, in which Alyx discusses a brief but passionate love affair she once had:
“Ah! what a man. A big Northman with hair like yours and a gold-red beard—God, what a beard!—Fafnir—no, Fafh—well, something ridiculous. … And we fought! At a place called the Silver Fish. Overturned tables. What a fuss! And a week later,” (she shrugged ruefully) “gone. There it is. And I can’t even remember his name.”
“Is that sad?” said Edarra.
“I don’t think so,” said Alyx. “After all, I remember his beard,” and she smiled wickedly.
In case you're wondering, yes, that's a reference to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd. Leiber obviously thought well enough of Russ and her literary creation that he returned the compliment by including Alyx in not one but two Lankhmar stories. In my book, that's recommendation enough to try and find "The Adventuress" and give it a read.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Open Friday: Ability Score Modifiers

One of the bigger discontinuities between LBB-only OD&D and post-Greyhawk OD&D is the way ability scores are handled. In the former, the prime requisites -- Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom -- provide an experience point bonus and only to the class with which they're associated. Meanwhile, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma all provide some mechanical benefit that applies to every character, regardless of class. Consequently, there's neither a mechanical advantage nor disadvantage for, say, a fighter to have a low Intelligence or a high Wisdom.

Supplement I changes this dynamic by providing modifiers for Strength and Intelligence (but not Wisdom, curiously), so as to make high scores in them more valuable for fighting men and magic-users respectively. In addition, the introduction of the thief, whose prime requisite is Dexterity, also had the unintended side effect of making most thieves very good at the use of missile weapons.

When I began my Dwimmermount campaign, I wanted to go for as "pure" an OD&D experience as possible, so we initially used only the rules in the LBBs. That rather quickly changed, because, like variable weapon damage, a wider range of ability score modifiers is one of those aspects of later editions of Dungeons & Dragons that everyone expects to be there. So, we used Supplement I in a quasi-AD&D fashion (e.g. granting to hit and damage bonuses for high Strength to all characters, not just fighting men).

Lately, I've been pondering the idea of two sets of ability score modifiers. One set that's for all classes and one set that's only for members of a certain class. What if, say, bonuses to hit with melee weapons was available to characters of any class with a high enough Strength score, but bonus to damage was only available to fighters? There's precedent for this even in OD&D, where high or low Intelligence has consequences for a magic-user above and beyond an XP modifier but for no other class. My intention here is to restore a little of the unique association a prime requisite has to its class while at the same time providing benefits and drawbacks to all classes for their ability scores.

This is definitely a great deviation from LBB-only OD&D, but I'm OK with that. After years of experimenting, I find I'm happiest playing D&D 0.75 and this is in that vein, I think. But I'm curious to hear what others think about this, at least in the abstract. If people want, I can make another post later where I lay out the full extent of what I'm imagining and we can talk more specifically about that.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Retrospective: 2010 Odyssey Two Adventure

Released in 1984, 2010 Odyssey Two Adventure, is a Star Frontiers module written by Bruce Nesmith and Curtis Smith. The module ties into the then-current science fiction film, 2010, based on the 1983 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, itself a sequel (of sorts) to the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like its predecessor, 2010 Odyssey Two Adventure is a peculiar product, but it's a much better presented and broadly usable one.

I call this module "peculiar" for several reasons. First, it's a poor fit for Star Frontiers, mostly in tone rather than in rules. Star Frontiers is a very "pulpy" RPG, one better suited to Saturday morning matinee space opera than introspective meditations on the place of Man in the cosmos. I daresay most of its audience would have been baffled by an adventure like this, which is a (largely) bloodless investigation of an interplanetary mystery. Second, the module closely follows the events of the movie, meaning that there aren't going to be too many surprises for players who've seen it.

At the same time, 2010 Odyssey Two Adventure does provide some scope for divergence from the film, mostly because its text actually acknowledges the possibility of failure in a meaningful way. Its predecessor does no such thing, instead contriving ways to ensure that, even if a skill roll goes the "wrong" way, the end result is still the same. This approach is not only lazy, it contributes to the overall dullness of the module, whose plot and outcomes are foregone conclusions. That's less true in 2010. For example, when characters board the Discovery to repair HAL-9000, it's possible they may fail, in which case, rather than being helpful, the computer resumes its homicidal duplicity and attempts to kill them. However, the overall plot of the module remains very close to that of the movie and, while more willing to acknowledge failure as a possibility, it still contains a number of contrivances to keep things "on track."

The main attraction of this module are its deck plans (of both the Discovery and Leonov) and its rules expansions to Star Frontiers. These expansions consist mostly of new skills and examples of using them to make the game more "realistic," but they do their job well enough that I have no real complaints about them. I still think that, tonally, Star Frontiers was a poor fit for the source material of this module and have sometimes wondered if it was an attempt to "prove" that Star Frontiers was more than just a vehicle for interplanetary shoot 'em ups. If so, it did little to convince my younger self and, even now, I find myself skeptical.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ares Magazine: Special Edition #2

And now, at last, we come to the final issue of Ares magazine, Special Edition #2. It's undated, but it must have appeared sometime between Summer 1983 and Spring 1984, when Ares became an integral section of Dragon. Its layout and general appearance match that which appeared in the pages of Dragon at any rate, so there's clear continuity between what TSR was attempting here and what we later saw elsewhere. I view that as a good thing, since I was a huge fan of "the Ares Section." Indeed, it was that section more than any other that kept me interested in Dragon. Special Edition #2 is actually very good and contains a number of excellent articles (and some oddities).

The issue kicks off with David J. Schow's "So you want to write the ultimate SF film book, huh, kid?"It's frankly a very strange article that I assume was an attempt humor. By "SF film book," Schow means a book about science fiction films. His article is a tongue-and-cheek examination of the pitfalls of such an endeavor, but it's neither funny nor informative. Fortunately, it's short. David Stover offers up a science fact piece entitled "New Worlds," which discusses the major planetary satellites of the solar system. Though purely factual (based on then-current data), it's nicely done and includes healthy doses of speculation to inspire SF gaming scenarios.

The first of two short stories is Douglas Borsom's "Tales of the Sky, Tales of the Land," which takes the form of a story told by a father on a far-off colony world to his children. The second, "Latent Image," by Gary Woolard, is about two tourists who come across a shop filled with antique photographs that exert a weird influence over them. Of the two, I like Woolard's story better, but it's not particularly science fictional -- more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

"Home Sweet Home" is a terrific article by David Cook -- lots of Davids writing in this issue -- that provides random charts for generating new star systems for use with Star Frontiers. It's a surprisingly meaty article that does more than provide astronomical data; it also gives the referee cultural and other details he can use as a springboard for creating adventures. Meanwhile, Dale L. Kemper provides an entire sector for use with Traveller, the Far Frontiers sector, which was the home sector of all of FASA's excellent licensed adventures. I had a photocopy of this article in my "DM's binder" years ago, since I liked the idea of a campaign set farther away from the Third Imperium than even the Spinward Marches.

Mark Graham Jones provides "Revised Psionics for Traveller Gaming," which is an attempt to simultaneously make psionics less powerful and more flexible than as presented in the rulebooks. This stems from the author's desire to present a setting in which there is not the rampant anti-psionics prejudice of GDW's Third Imperium. While I can understand that desire, I'm not sure how that desire necessitates revising the psionics rules. Continuing in this theme, James M. Ward provides "It's All in Your Mind," which is a collection of new mental mutations for use with Gamma World. Jon Mattson's "New Frontiers of the Mind" is an optional system for psionics in Star Frontiers. I'd never read this article before, though I knew of its existence from a rejection letter I received from Dragon when I submitted a similar article to them for inclusion in the new Ares Section. Truth be told, Mattson's article was much better than my own.

Kim Eastland reviews some science fiction miniatures, while various other writers (including Roger E. Moore) review science fiction gaming products. Michael Lowrey is this issue's book reviewer and Christopher John continues to review movies. Roger Raupp's sci-fi comic, "Ringshipper," gets one more installment -- its final one as it turns out.

There's a lot to like in Ares Special Edition #2, at least from my perspective as a fan of space opera and post-apocalyptic gaming. I wish I had had this whole magazine back in the day, as I suspect I would have gotten a lot of mileage out of it. And while it's sad to note that this is the true end of Ares as an independent periodical, it did spawn my favorite section of Dragon for the next several years, so its legacy lived on.

Next up: Imagine.

Monday, October 15, 2012


I've been involved in Tékumel fandom to varying degrees since the 1990s, when there was mini renaissance of interest in M.A.R. Barker's science fantasy setting. Among the many things that emerged from that time was an "official" website dedicated to the setting created and maintained by Peter Gifford. The site recently underwent an overhaul and is very attractive indeed, with sections devoted not just to the setting itself but also to gaming on Tékumel. There are forums and archives, too, the latter being especially interesting, since it includes a wide range of older resources.

It's an extremely good and useful website. If you have even a passing interest in one of the great settings of our hobby, you owe it to yourself to visit Tekumel.com.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hok Visits the Land of Legends

Though I had read Dragon for sometime beforehand, issue #68 (December 1982) was the first one I ever received as part of my subscription. As it turned out, I got two copies of every issue during that subscription owing to an error at TSR, which resulted in one copy being sent to me in Baltimore, Maryland and another being sent to me in Baltimore, Mississippi, but, since it's the zip code (which was correct on both copies) that matters when it comes to postal delivery, not the putative state, I wound up with two of every issue for twelve months.

What was cool about this state of affairs, beside the fact that I could give away copies to friends and look like Mr Magnanimity, was that I could also disassemble issues with impunity, adding particularly favored articles to my "Dungeon Master Binder," where I kept stuff like my maps, NPC write-ups, and critical hit charts (also from Dragon). Among the articles from issue #68 that I removed from my extra copy and carried around was "Thrills and Chills: Ice Age Adventures" by the underrated Arthur Collins. The article, which was lengthy, re-imagined your typical D&D fantasy setting as a prehistoric Ice Age one. For some reason, the idea of adventuring in a land of woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers really appealed to me at the time, though I never actually used the article in play.

I bring all of this up as an introduction to Manly Wade Wellman's short story, "Hok Visits the Land of Legends." First published in the April 1942 issue of Fantastic Adventures, it's part of the larger saga of Hok, a prehistoric man living during the Ice Age, whom the short story describes thus: "Hok the Mighty, strongest and wisest and bravest of the Flint Folk whose chief he was." The story begins just as Hok has decided to go alone to hunt the great mammoth Gragru.
On a cloudy gray day, not too cold, he spoke from his cave-door in the bluff above the huts. "I go on a lone hunt," he told the tribe. "It will be several days, perhaps, before I return. In my absence, Zhik is your chief." Then he gave his handsome wife Oloana a rib-buckling hug, and told young Ptao to grow in his absence. He departed along the river trail, heading south for mammoth country.
When, after a long search, Hok finds and engages Gragru in battle, he finds that the beast is hardier than he expected. Though wounded by his attacks, the mammoth flees and Hok pursues him, following the trail of his blood. After several more days of tracking, Hok comes upon the dying mammoth and prepares to kill him.
"Gragru, I am honored by this adventure," he wheezed. "Eating your heart will give me strength and wit and courage beyond all I have known. You will live again in me. Now, to make an end."

He kicked off the snowshoes, so as to run more swiftly at Gragru's sagging hindquarters. But, before he moved, Gragru acted on his own part. He stretched his trunk backward to the shaft in his wound.

Hok relaxed, smiling. "What, you would die of your own will? So be it! I yield you the honor of killing Gragru!"
 Not long thereafter, however, the ground crumbles beneath the mammoth carcass and it slides down into a strange valley.
The valley seemed to throb and steam. He made out rich leafage and tall tree-summits far below. One or two bright birds flitted in the mists. Hok grimaced.

"Summer must sleep through, the cold, like a cave-bear," he decided. "I will go down, and look for Gragru's body."

There were shoots and shrubs and hummocks for him to catch with hands and feet, or he would have gone sliding again. The deeper he journeyed, the warmer it became. Now and then he hacked a big slash on a larger tree, to keep his upward trail again. Those trees, he observed, were often summer trees, lusher and greener than any he had ever seen.

"Is this the Ancient Land of safe and easy life?" he mused.
This valley is, of course, inhabited, not only by creatures Hok calls "nightmares" (relict dinosaurs) but also a strange race of men. This is the Land of Legends mentioned in the story's title and where Hok's true adventure begins.

I have little doubt that the idea of a fantasy tale starring a prehistoric man seems strange to a lot of people, even uninteresting. The truth is that Wellman is a terrific writer, superb not only at creating compelling characters but at weaving history, folklore, and imagination into a delightful pulp adventure, just as he did with his stories of Silver John the Balladeer. Wellman isn't as widely known an author as he ought to be, though Gary Gygax lists him in Appendix N as having had an influence over AD&D and Karl Edward Wagner (creator of Kane) was also a great admirer of his work. His Hok stories have recently been collected into a single volume and are finally back in print. I'm very fond of them myself and think they're well worth investigating if you've never read them before.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Old School Minis

One of the other fun consequences of the renewed interest in old school fantasy gaming over the last few years is the greater availability of old school miniature figures. Several companies have sprung up and are producing some of the best minis I've ever seen. That they're modeled so closely on the illustrations and esthetics of RPGs of yore is almost icing on the cake. A good example of what I'm talking about is Fractured Dimensions, which seems to specialize in doing some of the more obscure and outré monsters of D&D lore, such as:
The intellect devourer
and Joiblexx, Slime Lord of the Bleak Fens, among many others. I fear these photographs don't do these miniatures justice. They're very attractively sculpted and it pains me that I don't have any talent for painting (almost as much as it pains me that the player in our group who painted most of my Otherworld Miniatures has moved away).

Speaking of Otherworld Miniatures, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the production of a new series of minis called "Dungeon Adventures." Here are the greens of the first batch of these adventurers -- a magic-user, a cleric, a fighter, and a thief:
There's a lot to like there if you're an old school gamers, from the wizard's pointy hat to the Friar Tuck-style cleric to the fact that that thief looks downright untrustworthy. Other installments of the series will include sub-classes, demihumans, and females. It looks to be an excellent collection of miniatures.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

REVIEW: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

In certain quarters of the online world, Jeff Talanian's Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (hereafter AS&SH -- an infelicitous abbreviation if there ever was one) will no doubt be viewed as "yet another retro-clone" and dismissed out of hand. If so, that'd be a shame, since, while there's no doubt that that AS&SH borrows more than a few pages from Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons -- as Talanian freely admits -- its specific content and presentation transcend its origins. In particular, as Stuart Marshall notes in his foreword, this game
is a return to some of the literary roots of the hobby, to the thrill and wonder of weird fiction. You will find the pages that follow are overflowing with references to the golden age of Weird Tales: the Picts and the Atlanteans, the Amazons and the barbarians, of Howard; the Colour out of Space and the Plateau of Leng, from Lovecraft; and Hyperborea itself is, of course, a name familiar from Smith, though he did not invent it.
The pulp fantasy roots of D&D is a subject near and dear to my heart and one that, I hope, is now more widely understood, if not necessarily widely embraced. Consequently, I was predisposed to like AS&SH before I'd even read a word of it, though I am happy to say that it more than lives up to my predispositions.

Before getting into the meat of the game itself, I'd like to discuss its physical qualities. AS&SH is available in two formats: a PDF version and a boxed set. The PDF version is, frankly, a steal at $10.00, while the boxed set sells for $50.00, which I also think is a very good price for what you get. The game consists of two books, each made up for three "volumes" (i.e. large sections). Each book is around 250 pages, spiral-bound, and measures 7 x 8.5 inches. The books use a single-column layout that's very easy on the eyes and are profusely illustrated by the gorgeous black and white artwork of Ian Baggley. Also included in the boxed set are a six precision polyhedral dice, a pad of character record sheets, and a poster-sized map of the titular Hyperborea. The box itself is nice and sturdy with a suitably pulp cover by Charles Lang.

The two integral books are the Players' Manual and the Referee's Manual. The Player's Manual covers character creation, character classes, equipment, spells, movement, combat, saving throws, and related rules. At 252 pages, it's the larger of the two books. Players already familiar with any version of D&D should find the basic rules familiar  -- six ability scores, alignment, etc. -- but AS&SH introduces several new wrinkles. First, this is not merely a humanocentric game but one where playing anything other than a human is impossible. In AS&SH, "races" refers to various human cultures, many of which are modeled on ancient Earth cultures (Kelt, Kimmerian, Pict, etc.) while others are legendary in origin (Amazon, Atlantean, etc.). The other area where AS&SH differs from its inspirations is its character classes. The familiar four -- cleric, fighter, magician, thief -- are all here, as are many traditional sub-classes, but there are also many new ones, like berserkers, warlocks, pyromancers, and shamans. AS&SH has 22 classes in all.

Magic and spells are much as one would expect, though all classes have only six spell levels. That's something I like a great deal, perhaps because I already do something similar in my Dwimmermount campaign. Other rules, like combat, are very similar to what you'd expect from a game inspired by/derived from AD&D. The rules generally differ from their inspirations in two ways. First, they are clearer and better explained. Talanian has obviously taken great pains to ensure that every rules in AS&SH is easy to understand. Second, as part of the process of clarification, they've been regularized and, in many cases, simplified. For example, there are still five saving throw categories, but they're death, transformation, device, avoidance, and sorcery. Likewise, what were percentage chances in AD&D, like thief abilities, are now D12 rolls. None of these changes are bad or indefensible ones, but they are changes and they give AS&SH a distinct feeling compared to AD&D.

The Referee's Manual is 236 pages long and covers monsters, treasure, and a gazetteer of Hyperborea. The monsters should mostly be familiar to most D&D players, though many are presented with Hyperborean twists. Golems, for example, are called "automatons" (though they still come in clay, flesh, iron, and stone varieties) and are presented as much as robots as magical creations.There are also many new creatures, like leaper camels, tentacular horrors, thew wagons, and many others derived from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Treasure is similarly "familiar yet different," with magic items given slight alterations here and there for flavor. New items include a variety of science fantasy weapons, such as laser swords (presented as Atlantean artifacts). Both these sections highlight Talanian's overall approach: hewing closely to D&D "tradition," while giving it his own personal touch.

The setting of Hyperborea is a "micro-setting," which is to say, a place of limited geography that can be used either on its own in conjunction with an existing setting. The gazetteer provides ample information for using it, regardless of its nature. There are details on astronomy, the calendar, history, climate, flora and fauna, races, geography, and gods. Though original, Hyperborea draws strongly on the pulp fantasies of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith; it's hard to miss the borrowings and homages from these as you read the gazetteer. I really like it myself, but then I share Talanian's love for these early fantasy authors. If you're not as keen on such things, you may find the gazetteer of less use, particularly since it presents more of an outline for a setting than a fully-realized one. Again, I see that as a positive rather than a negative.

Taken as a whole, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is an impressive product, both as a physical product and as another interpretation of old school Dungeons & Dragons. As I've stated throughout this review, AS&SH reminds me most of Gygaxian AD&D, albeit a clearer and more rationally presented version. Normally, I'd consider clarity and rationality to be enemies of the kind of quirkiness that makes for a good old school game, but, in this case, I think Talanian's strong, pulp-influenced voice comes through strongly enough to make up for anything lost. The result is a solid, well-designed, if occasionally baroque, class-and-level fantasy roleplaying game that is imbued with a distinctly pulp feel. It won't appeal to everyone but it's well-written, attractively produced, and fills its own distinct niche well -- all marks of a RPG worth a look in my book.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for either a fantasy RPG that in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but more clearly and rationally presented.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in a complex fantasy RPG, no matter how presented or written.

A Shout-Out to Dave Hargrave

It's no secret that, when it comes to RPGs, I have a fairly narrow range of interests. In my younger days, the Holy Trinity consisted of AD&D, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu (in that order). I played other games, of course, but I played very few of them with the same level of frequency and enthusiasm as I played these three. During the late '80s and throughout much of the '90s, I expanded my interests somewhat, partially because I was trying my hand at professional RPG writing and it only made sense to cast my net as widely as possible, but those years were unusual.

Consequently, I haven't been paying much attention to the development of a fantasy RPG called 13th Age, written by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo and published by Pelgrane Press. From what I had gathered, 13th Age is a kinda-sorta clone of D&D IV. Since I wasn't interested in 4e the first time around, I certainly had no interest in its clone version.

The reason I mention 13th Age at all is because of a blog post by Jonathan Tweet, pointed out to me by reader Greg Oakes. In it, Tweet heaps praises upon Dave Hargrave of Arduin Grimoire fame and notes the degree to which his latest game owes to him. It's really gratifying to see this, as I think Hargrave is under-appreciated outside the OSR. Heck, even within the OSR, I think there's less appreciation of him than there ought to be (says the man guilty of this very thing for years). 13th Age doesn't really sound like my kind of game, but knowing that its designers took a page or two from Dave Hargrave -- and aren't shy about saying so -- made me smile nonetheless.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Open Friday: Dungeon Entry "Stat Block"

In the comments to last week's Open Friday post about setting detail, the idea was floated of a "stat block" for dungeon entries, which would include lines for doors, lighting, smells, and hazards -- something like this perhaps:
Door: Heavy wood with metal reinforcements, pulls outward, locked.
Lighting: Dark.
Smells: A faint musty odor.
I find the idea intriguing, though I do worry that such a format could easily lead to bloated room descriptions that provide so much information that it's hard to prepare and, worse yet, hard to improvise from.

So, for today's question: what do you think of the idea of dungeon entry stat blocks? Would they be useful to you and, if so, what sort of details would you like to see it include? If you don't like the idea of them, why not?

Monday, October 8, 2012

More Reprints on the Way

Joseph Bloch and Rob Conley both alerted me to the news that, next May, Wizards of the Coast, will be doing premium reprints of the AD&D 2e Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monstrous Compendium. Even more interestingly, they're also doing hardcover compilations of the A-series and S-series modules.

I'm no fan of 2e, but, even so, this is good news. If nothing else, it suggests that the 1e reprints from this past summer (which I did buy) sold well enough for WotC to be able to justify producing even more. Indeed, as many opined, I think it quite likely that the 1e reprints were a trial balloon to determine if there was in fact a market for reprinting reprinting older D&D products. I also think it provides a little more insight into the plans of the D&D product team at WotC, namely, they really are interested in winning back the fans alienated over the past few years as a result of 4e's botched marketing. If all these reprints stay in print I'll be even more impressed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have been skeptical, if not downright dismissive, of WotC's attempts to appeal to old school gamers over the last few years, thinking them little more than shallow pandering. Recently, though, the company has given me a lot of reasons to think I may have been too hasty in my judgments. This is a case where I'd be quite happy to discover that my initial opinion was ill-informed and wrongheaded.

Here's hoping ...

Pulp Fantasy Library: Arak, Son of Thunder

When I was in college, I knew a guy who was really into comics -- DC comics in particular -- and he decided to bring a significant portion of his collection with him to keep in his dorm room. While certainly an odd decision, I didn't complain, as it afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of comics I'd never seen when they were released. Partly this was because I hadn't been all that interested in comics as a kid (with a few rare exceptions, mostly Marvel) and partly this was because the comics that seemed to be readily available in my neck of the woods were pretty straight forward superhero ones. Although I knew of the existence of comics like Savage Sword of Conan, I didn't regularly see copies of it at any of the drugstores where the neighborhood children bought their comics.

On the other hand, I'd never even heard of Arak, Son of Thunder when it debuted in September 1981. Amusingly, the comic was created by Roy Thomas (along with Ernesto Colón), creator of the aforementioned Savage Sword of Conan and there's a superficial similarity between the two comics. Both feature clever, muscular wanderers who have adventures in an ancient/medieval world. The similarities largely end there, though. Whereas Savage Sword is set in the fictitious prehistorical world of the Hyborian Age, Arak takes place in the real world of the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Admittedly, this "real" world is a legendary one, replete with magic, monsters, and Charlemagne's paladins, but it wasn't wholly imaginary in nature, even if it did play fast and loose with history in the interests of a good story.

Arak's "gimmick" was that its titular character was an American Indian (from a fictitious East Coast tribe) cast adrift in a canoe as a child -- by his father, the thunder god, He-No -- and then picked up and raised by Vikings. Though his real name was Bright-Sky-After-Storm, the Vikings renamed him Erik, which he mispronounced as Arak, giving rise to his nom de guerre. As recounted in the first issue of his comic, Arak spends his early life raiding with his adoptive people, becoming a great warrior, especially skilled with the axe and the bow. During a raid on a monastery, the Vikings find themselves attacked by a monstrous serpent sent by the sorceress Angelica of Albracca (who becomes the comic's primary antagonist). Arak slays the serpent by means of a hammer-shaped cross, leading one of the surviving monks to opine that Arak has a divine mission. Arak himself wonders what god it was, if any, who aided his victory and sets off to find his destiny.

From then on, Arak wanders, for a time settling in one place, but eventually moving on as he continues his personal quest to discover the truth about himself and his dimly-remembered past a continent away. For most of the early issues, Arak is in Frankland, as part of the court of Charlemagne, fighting side by side with his famous paladins against a variety of magical and mundane foes. Among the paladins was the female warrior Bradamante, whose daughter, Valda, is a powerful fighter in her own right, as well as the eventual love interest of Arak. In time, Arak moves on from Frankland and has adventures all across the Old World, meeting both historical personages and mythological monsters. It is my understanding that he eventually returned to North America to be reunited with the tribe of his birth before the comic ended its run in 1985.

Arak, Son of Thunder appealed to me back in college for the same reasons it does now: it's a fun take on historical fantasy with a twist. Certainly it's not very plausible historically but then neither are the tales of Conan. Still, I think Roy Thomas did a terrific job with the comic, presenting both a world and a protagonist worth reading about. It's also a good model for historical fantasy gaming, something I find myself pondering quite regularly. I have no idea how hard it is to find copies of the comic nowadays (I last saw them in the early '90s), but, if you ever come across them, they're worth a read.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Open Friday: Level of Setting Detail

The first published setting for Dungeons & Dragons I remember seeing was probably The World of Greyhawk, which was long my model of the "perfect" level of detail in a published campaign setting. Its entries are short -- a paragraph or two at most -- and provide just enough information to inspire the referee while not leaving him without a net, so to speak. In recent years, I started to become a lot more enamored of the terseness of Judges Guild's Wilderlands setting material, but, on reflection, I realized that something a wee bit closer to The World of Greyhawk might have greater utility. That's why I'm very fond of the format Rob Conley adopted in Blackmarsh last year, which seems to offer a happy medium between the two approaches.

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about (taken from the gazetteer of the area around Dwimmermount):
2806 Elphame
Population: Unknown; Alignment: Neutral; Ruler: Linwa Nirmalan, Elf 8, N; Resource: Market
Elphame is the elven “capital” in the north, a secluded, fortified settlement closed to most outsiders. Its precise population is unknown, owing to the secretive nature of the elves, but is reputed to be in the hundreds.

2911 Gloris
Population: 300 Men; Alignment: Lawful; Ruler: Mayor Gillet Hodemer, 0-Level, L; Resource: Farm
Gloris is a small community whose inhabitants make their living by farming and trading with the friendly goblins of the nearby Makrono Marsh (see above).

3413 Ghaz Droonan
Built into the side of a mountain, the mighty dwarf hold of Ghaz Droonan stood for centuries as an example of the great works of the sturdy Children of the Earth. All that changed when a plague of unknown origins swept through its halls and exterminated its population. The source of the plague has never been determined and a foul miasma lingers still, discouraging any dwarf from ever returning.

3627 The Outyard
The Outyard is an immense subterranean complex hewn out of the Thunderhome Mountains (see above) and populated by giants. In Thulian times, the giants were kept at bay, but, in recent decades, they have become more active, raiding the settlements of Men and dwarves.

4004 Castle Greenholt
Population: 200 Men; Alignment: Neutral; Ruler: Nycaize Ouyquant, MU 7, N
Caste Greenholt is home to a powerful magician who has set himself up as protector of the Greenholt Forest (see above). Some believe this is because the forest hides a secret of the Great Ancients, while others believe he entered into a pact with the elves of Elphame (2806). Whatever the truth, the magician and his men do their best to prevent anyone from entering the forest without his permission.

4221 The City Out of Time
Whether this city even exists is open to debate among scholars. Legends claim that, on certain nights -- naturally there is debate as to which ones -- an ancient city filled with treasure appears for a short time before disappearing again. Legends also claim the city has magical guardians that slay any who attempt to make off with its treasure.
So what do you think? Is this too little detail? Too much? Just right? If these don't hit your personal sweet spot, what does? And how would you change these entries to make them more in line with your own philosophy of setting detail?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Multi-Level Mapping

When I first entered the hobby, I was greatly taken by the cross-section illustration of "Stone Mountain" (aka Skull Mountain) presented in the D&D Basic Set rulebook edited by Dr J. Eric Holmes. Indeed, it's not unreasonable to say that, for over three decades, Stone Mountain has been my mind's eye vision of what a "megadungeon" looks like. For those of you somehow unfamiliar with this illustration, here it is:
There's a similar, though, in my opinion, less interesting, cross-section in Tom Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rulebook that looks like this:
A much better cross-section appeared in another Tom Moldvay effort, The Lost City, and it looked like this:
What I like about these cross-sections is the way they provide context for a dungeon by showing how all the various levels interrelate with not just one another but also the surrounding environment. I think that's key to presenting a compelling tent pole dungeon for long-term campaign use.

Much as like these cross-sections, they do have one problem: they're very stylized. That is, they're more art than map. That's fine for helping one to visualize the dungeon as a whole but it doesn't provide the nitty gritty details that are vital to ensuring that all the dungeon's pieces fit together properly. That's why I had Tim Hartin put together several images where all the levels of Dwimmermount were piled on top of each other to show how they connected. Here's one that shows seven different levels (1, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4, and 5):
Here's another that shows four different levels (5, 6A, 6B, and 7):
Doing this was incredibly helpful, since it revealed a couple of minor errors in the cartography -- places where the connections between levels didn't quite work out as they were intended to. While easily fixed and relatively minor in nature, neither of us would have noticed the errors if we hadn't undertaken this exercise. More than that, I got a different perspective on ten dungeon levels than a cross-sectional illustration might provide. I still think cross-sections are useful tools for referees and players alike, but they do have limitations, no matter how attractive and inspirational they may be.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

REVIEW: The Complete B/X Adventurer

The Complete B/X Adventurer is the latest publication by Jonathan Becker of the B/X Blackrazor blog. It's a 62-page softcover book focusing on a variety of new rules and rules options for characters in "fantasy role-playing games of the sort that use 'class' and 'level' to define [them]." Like its predecessor, the B/X Companion, The Complete B/X Adventurer is not written with any specific retro-clone in mind (even though it's probably most directly compatible with Labyrinth Lord). In fact, this supplement doesn't even use the OGL at all, which, while defensible, ensures that no other publisher will be able to make use of its contents. I bring this up mostly because I think there's a lot of good stuff here and it's a pity that some of it likely won't get used more widely.

Physically, the book is a sturdy perfect-bound volume, with color cover art by Brian DeClercq, depicting four of the seventeen new classes presented herein. Interior artwork is by Josh Boelter, Kelvin Green, Matthew Shultz, and Kayce Sizer, all of it quite good, with Green's being the stand-out in my opinion. The book uses a two-column layout and the text is clear and readable. Currently, it's only available in printed form for $28.99 for US/Canada and $37.99 for the rest of the world (the price includes postage).

The book begins oddly, with a section entitled "100 Fine Reasons & Fantastic B/X Headgear." The 100 Fine Reasons in question are tied to a percentile table offering justifications for characters to be traveling together. It's intended as a quick and simple way to explain why a party of adventurers has come together. The section on headgear is a collection of random tables intended to describe what a character, be he a PC or NPC, is wearing on his head. Neither of these sections is badly done or without value. Together, they take up three pages of the book. Still, they seem out of place, particularly given the bulk of the book's contents.

Less odd is another three-page section entitled "Exceptional Traits," which offers four D12 tables for each broad character archetype (cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief). Each entry on the table indicates something that's special about the given character. For example, a cleric might be an "apostate," which grants him the ability to cast reversed spells freely without penalty, while a magic-user might have a "mystic aura" that grants him a +2 bonus to reaction rolls. These exceptional traits all grant minor mechanical benefits, as well as helping to distinguish the character from others of the same class. It's a clever concept elegantly presented and I like it a lot.

The next three-page section offers up rules for "Firearms in a Fantasy World," specifically black powder weapons. As presented here, firearms have almost as many drawbacks as they have advantages, making the decision whether or not to use them a significant one, which I like. However, unless my aging eyes deceive me, there is no indication of how much damage each type of firearm does under these rules. There are lots of asides about range, rifling, misfires, use in sieges and the like, but nothing on damage -- again, unless I am missing something.

The meat of the book lies in the seventeen new character classes it presents. They are:
  • Acrobat
  • Archer
  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Beastmaster
  • Bounty Hunter
  • Centaur
  • Duelist
  • Gnome
  • Ogre-kin
  • Mountebank
  • Mystic
  • Scout
  • Summoner
  • Tattoo Mage
  • Witch
  • Witch Hunter
Of these seventeen, most are human-only (all but centaur, gnome, ogre-kin) and four are spellcasters with their own unique lists of spells (gnome, mystic, summoner, witch). Several other classes use spells from either the traditional cleric or magic-user lists. Slightly less than half of the book (pages 32-61) consists of new spells.

The new classes and spells are a mixed bag, though I suspect I'm a lot more prone to dislike new classes than many gamers. For me, a class clearly needs to fill a role that no existing class does, so, on that basis, a class like the archer is going to be a hard cell, no matter how well done. That said, what I really like about the new classes presented here is that their associated rules are simple and straightforward. And, even if I don't like the class itself, I can pillage ideas from them for use in other contexts. The same is true of the new spells.

In the end, I suspect one's reaction to The Complete B/X Adventurer will depend greatly on how many options one likes in one's games. For many players, the more available classes, the better; for others, that way lies madness. The same principle applies to new spells. If, like a lot of old schoolers these days, your tastes abhor the baroqueness that afflicted late AD&D (or even BECMI), you may find a lot less to like here. On the other hand, if there's no such thing as "too many" options, especially when it comes to player characters, The Complete B/X Adventurer is probably right up your alley.

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

Get This If:
You play an old school class-and-level RPG and are looking for more character-related options.
Don't Get This If: You are happy with the range of character options available in your class-and-level RPG.

Retrospective: 2001: A Space Odyssey

I have decidedly mixed feelings about roleplaying games based on pre-existing properties. They have a long history in the hobby, with early examples appearing less than five years after the release of OD&D. The 1980s saw a huge uptick in the number of licensed RPGs, some of which I not only played and enjoyed but, even today, consider examples of excellent game design. Though I often think the best RPGs are inspired by rather than based on other media, I'm far from wholly opposed to the notion. My real concern is that, more often than not, licensed games are little more than unimaginative cash grabs.

That's not my criticism of the 1984 Star Frontiers adventure module, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written by Frank Mentzer, it's got to be a serious contender for being one of the most bizarre RPG products ever published by TSR. I say that as an admirer of both Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction film and Star Frontiers. I say "bizarre," because, for all its virtues as a RPG, Star Frontiers wasn't sold as a game of cerebral scientific speculation. I say "bizarre," because, for all its virtues as a film, 2001 doesn't lend itself to being the basis for an adventure scenario. That's not to say that I think it impossible to use Star Frontiers for something more than space operatic shoot 'em ups or that 2001 couldn't inspire a compelling -- and fun -- adventures, because I don't.

Unfortunately, this module adopted a kind of worst of both worlds approach that baffles me to this day. Rather than using Kubrick's film as a launching point for something original, 2001: A Space Odyssey is instead a rather uninspired recreation of the film using the Star Frontiers rules. So, the first "chapter" is called "the Dawn of Man" and puts the players in the roles of -- I kid you not -- primitive man-apes who must survive until the Monolith appears to induce the evolutionary changes that will allow them to defeat their enemies and begin their slow ascent to true sentience. There are also chapters devoted to the mission of the Discovery to Jupiter, including HAL 9000's attempt to murder the crew, as well as the passage through the "stargate" there -- that funky psychedelic part of the end of the movie.

In all of the cited examples, the final outcome of the chapter is nearly identical to that of the movie. Sure, if you're playing Frank Poole, you may survive to travel through the stargate while David Bowman is killed off by HAL, but that's about as big a change as you're likely to make. If you've seen the film, there's really no reason to play through this adventure. The only place where there's even a hint of a wider world is in Chapter Two, "Lunar Excursion," where the players take on the roles of astronauts scouring the Moon for the source of a strange magnetic anomaly (the Monolith) within 400 km of Moonbase Clavius. This is an event not seen in the movie but alluded to. As written, it's stated that the Chinese (for reasons never explained) are also looking for the anomaly and that it'd be somehow bad if they managed to find it. So, this part of the module is a race across the lunar surface, as the PCs check out various potential locations for the anomaly while the Chinese NPCs do the same under the control of the referee. If that sounds vaguely interesting, even tense, it isn't, since the module's text flat out states:
If they [i.e. the Chinese] reach the goal first, assume that they do not test it accurately and believe it to be a large (300-400 gamma) but not unnatural anomaly.
The module thus makes it impossible for the PCs to "lose" -- or for events to play out any differently than depicted in the movie.

Equally baffling is the loving detail provided on so many aspects of the adventure. There are lots of rules additions to Star Frontiers, including new skills and equipment. There are charts for the odds of successfully navigating lunar hazards, daily schedules of the Discovery crew's activities, and lengthy discussions of HAL's various malfunctions and how they might be addressed. Even more impressive are the maps, by Dave "Diesel" LaForce, of Discovery, maps that, as a teenager, I simply adored. There's an incredible earnestness to this adventure in terms of its presentation, as if everyone involved felt they needed to make a "serious" adventure scenario that did justice to the seriousness of the 1968 film. Alas, it resulted in one of the most boring and uninvolving modules I've ever purchased. To this day, I still wonder why it was ever made.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ares Magazine: Special Edition #1

In addition to its seventeen regular issues, Ares also released two "special editions," the first of which appeared in Summer 1983. If you're curious what's constitutes a special edition, managing editor Geoffrey Golson helpfully provided the following:
The Special Editions will maintain the same format of the regular game issues, but will concentrate on different aspects of the magazine's formula. Sometimes we'll delve deeper into science fact, other times we'll explore myriads of game variants.
My own feeling is that the special editions (of which there were two) were an attempt by TSR to make use of material they already had but couldn't find a way to include in a regular issue of the periodical. For example, this first special edition's highlight is a massive supplement for the Universe RPG detailing an alien race. I also think that TSR was simply experimenting with different formats, trying to find some way to make Ares work for them now that they held the editorial reins.

The issue kicks off with "White Hole Bomb" by Curtis L. Johnson. This is a "science fact" article that discusses the possibility of creating artificial singularities to use as weapons of war. While the science may be considered dubious nowadays, the article at least makes an attempt to present then-current ideas as fodder for speculation. It's a far better approach than the killjoy articles John Boardman wrote for most of the magazine's run. Next up is "Conan the Barbarian" by L. Sprague de Camp, which is little more than a timeline of Conan's life according to both Howard's original stories and the later pastiches. As these things go, it's fairly innocuous, though, as usual, De Camp can't resist getting in his digs at REH, especially with regards to his "abnormal" devotion to his mother.

There are two fiction pieces in this issue. The first, "The Oaken Sword," is by Ian McDowell and is an Arthurian tale whose protagonist is Mordred Mac Lot. Mordred is here portrayed sympathetically, as a rakish youth who feels disappointment at his true father's unwillingness to admit to his paternity. The second story, "Nitimandrey & the Cabinet Maker's Vision," by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, concerns the titular king who is visited by a poor cabinet maker who has received a terrible vision that the king decides must never come to pass. Edward Bever then offers rules variants for use with the Dawn of the Dead simulation game to make the game "more like the film."

The remaining half of the magazine (32 of 64 pages) is devoted to "First Contacts," which describes an alien race known as the Sh'k''tlp. Written by Greg Costikyan, this is, as I noted above, more a full-length supplement to Universe than a mere article. It presents not only information on the race's history, society, and culture, but also rules modifications for Universe to enable players and referees alike to create Sh'k'tlp characters for use in their campaigns. It's very well-done but suffers a bit because there's only a single very small and not very clear illustration of a Sh'k'tlp, making it difficult to visualize what these rather alien aliens look like. There's also the fact that their name is unwieldy to the point of being unpronounceable, but that was the style at the time.

I personal liked the first special edition of Ares, particularly the "First Contacts" supplement. However, I can't help but wonder how it was received at the time. Unless one were a hardcore Universe fan -- did such beasts even exist -- more than half the pagecount was devoted to something of very limited utility. Of the other half, most of it was taken up by fiction pieces and, while decent enough, neither one is science fiction. Once again, Ares seems to have suffered from an identity crisis to its likely detriment.

Monday, October 1, 2012

REVIEW: The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time

I find it interesting how widespread the term "adventure module" (or just "module") is among gamers to describe a pre-written scenario for a roleplaying game. I suppose it's yet more evidence of the long shadow cast by Dungeons & Dragons. I have no idea if the term predates its use by TSR which is how the company described its own published adventures, but it was from these that I first encountered it.

Whatever else it does, "module" brings with it the unspoken assumption of interchangeability -- something you can pick up and drop into your existing campaign with ease. Modules were for when a referee needed something with which to occupy the players and he hadn't had either the time or inspiration (or both) to come up with something on his own. Because modules were self-contained, one generally assumed that using one is simple and consequence-free.

Though comparatively few RPG companies describe their adventures as "modules" anymore -- does even Dungeons & Dragons do so in 2012? -- the term still colors how many gamers think of pre-written adventures. For them, an adventure should be straightforward and cause few, if any, lasting problems for the campaign into which they are dropped. These expectations may explain why James Raggi's The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time (hereafter Monolith) is meeting with such strong reactions from many. While I completely understand these reactions, I also think they're a little unfair. Monolith most definitely isn't an adventure module in the traditional sense (though Raggi does in fact use the term). Dropping it into an existing campaign will have long-term consequences; any referee thinking of using Monolith needs to bear this in mind.

Let's talk briefly about the physical qualities of the adventure before getting into its contents. Monolith is a 48-page A5 (148 mm x 210 mm -- slightly smaller than 6" x 9"). The color cover, depicting the titular Monolith, and black and white interior illustrations are all by Aeron Alfrey and have a suitably "Lovecraftian" vibe (more on that later). The book uses a clean, two-column layout and is, in fact, very easy on the eyes. In fact, I'd say it's one of the more attractive Lamentations of the Flame Princess released to date (though the text of my copy was slightly blurred on a couple of pages). The text was written by James Raggi, with a small, two-page section, called "The Owls' Service," written by Kenneth Hite. Monolith is available either as a PDF for 4.80€ (about $6 US) or as a PDF + Printed Book bundle for 12€ (about $15.50 US).

Like it or not, Raggi's adventures have a strong authorial voice. This is particularly true of Monolith, which he describes in his "Author's Notes" section as his "homage to Howard Phillips Lovecraft." He further elaborates that his goal was to make
a Lovecraftian adventure without leaning on the usual trappings of Lovecraft's mythos ... No Cthulhu, no Necronomicon, none of it. Just take the concepts these things were vehicles for communicating, and use those.
With that in mind, he presents "a teleporting, dimension-hopping, time traveling phenomenon" that "can be placed anywhere in any campaign without the need to be adjusted to fit a specific flavor." This phenomenon is the Monolith and the valley that surrounds it. Their mere presence warps reality, creating distortions that change Nature in various ways. Likewise, the valley of the Monolith is home to several unique encounters that reflect the weirdness of the place. All of these distortions and encounters are detailed at some length (16 pages).

Of course, the adventure's main attraction is the Monolith itself, which the characters may enter and explore. Once entered, the laws of reality function differently -- such as the fact that it's bigger on the inside than on the outside -- and the characters must spend some time figuring out exactly what does and does not work while inside. Raggi provides extensive details on how to run the Monolith, complete with examples. This is helpful, as the Monolith is a structure of a very bizarre sort and it's not just the player character who'll wonder just how it functions. There are also a number of specific locations within the Monolith, in addition to a single "encounter."

I hope I can be forgiven for being vague on the precise details of what's in the Monolith and how this eldritch structure operates. Much of the enjoyment of this adventure comes from discovering these things for oneself. What I will say is that, as presented, the Monolith is a very open-ended environment, in that the players have a create deal of freedom in deciding where their characters go and what they can do. Of course, that freedom comes at a price and a big part of the adventure's "Lovecraftian" tone comes from the players' grappling with whether or not they're willing to pay that price or if they can live with the consequences of not doing so.

I think it's on precisely this point where opinion will be divided regarding The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time. Unlike most adventure modules from the past, playing this one will forever change a campaign. More precisely, it will forever change the characters in the campaign. Raggi himself brings this up in his "Author's Notes," where he says of the characters will eventually "... realize they cannot win. They are doomed, and were doomed from the moment they got involved." No character who enters the Monolith will escape unscathed and at least one won't escape at all (unless he and his companions are willing to allow even worse consequences to follow).

In this respect, Monolith is a bit like Death Frost Doom turned up to 11. In both, there are dire consequences from the moment the player characters walked onto the scene. The difference, I think, lies in the fact that the consequences in Death Frost Doom are more impersonal -- unleashing a zombie plague on the world -- whereas those in Monolith directly affect the sanity and well-being of the characters themselves, with any effects on the wider world being sub-consequences of that. This is an adventure that will wreck characters, a fact made all the worse because some aspects of Monolith are, once entered into, inexorable. They simply cannot be avoided unless the player characters decide not to participate in the adventure at all.

That's why, I think, the only way to use this adventure without generating a great deal of acrimony and unhappiness is as a location within a sandbox-style campaign. In this scenario, the Monolith is some weird thing placed on the referee's map that the PCs might come across as they explore the world and one that they might, like a dragon's lair or a powerful magic-user's tower, choose to avoid entirely out of fear of the consequences. Simply throwing it at the players -- "Here's what we're going to play today ..." -- is unfair and cruel, because the horror of Monolith lies not merely in the nature and purpose of the titular structure but that, if the characters' curiosity gets the better of them, they truly will have come across a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know and paid the price for it. Without that initial choice, the rest is meaningless.

I like The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time and think it's largely successful in its aims of presenting a Lovecraftian scenario without the overt trapping of Lovecraft's mythos. However, I also think that it's a "nuclear option" adventure that the referee ought not to use lightly and that, if used, has the potential to change things forever.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 2 out of 10

Buy This If: You're interested in introducing Lovecraftian themes into your campaign and are willing to accept the far-reaching consequences to the player characters and campaign in doing so.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in Lovecraftian themes or have no interest in potentially wrecking one or more player characters to introduce them into the campaign.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Witch of the Demon Seas

When I was a kid, I never much bothered by the fact that Iron Man (whose superpowers were technological in origin) could fight side by side with Thor (whose superpowers were alien-science-appearing-as-magic in origin) and Dr. Strange (whose superpowers were purely magical in origin) to fight against Dr. Doom (who wielded both advanced technology and magic). So long as the story involving these four characters was compelling to me, what difference did it make?

As I got older, I became much more hung up over "genre" distinctions, due to the dual influences of some of the older gamers I knew and, more insidiously, English teachers. From that point on, I became a lot more dismissive of entertainments that didn't share my new fastidiousness toward keeping fantasy chocolate out of my science fiction peanut butter (or mixing any other two genres, for that matter). Older still, I find myself caring less and less about such literary miscegenation. Indeed, I find myself reveling in it, which is why, for example, the setting of my Dwimmermount dungeon includes lots of elements my younger self would almost certainly have abhorred.

I bring this all up because of the history behind today's pulp fantasy story, "Witch of the Demon Seas." Written by Poul Anderson using the pseudonym A.A. Craig (because he already had another story under his own name in the same issue), it was published in January 1951 issue of Planet Stories. Planet Stories, as you may know, was a pulp magazine that ran from 1939 to 1955 and whose stories were devoted to "planetary adventure." This category could include space opera or sword-and-planet yarns but it could not include "straight" fantasy. Consequently, Anderson's tale was given the thin veneer of being a science fantasy tale set on a far away planet so that it might be salable at a time when pulp magazines of any sort were drying up faster than the seas of Barsoom.

That said, "Witch of the Demon Seas" is not lessened because of Anderson's willingness to make a few fleeting references that pleased the editors at Planet Stories. The story opens with Khroman the Conqueror, thalassocrat of Achaera, pondering what to do with the pirates he has just captured, in particular one named Corun, whom Khroivian respects after a fashion.
"What will you do with them, sire?" asked Shorzon the Sorcerer.
Khroman shrugged heavy shoulders. "I don't know. Pirates are, usually fed to the erinyes at the games, I suppose, but Corun deserves something special."
"Public torture, perhaps, sire? It could be stretched over many days."
"No, you fool! Corun was the bravest enemy Achaera ever had. He deserves an honorable death and a decent tomb ..."
While still a prisoner awaiting execution, Shorzon and his daughter Chryseis -- the wife of Khroman -- visit Corun and make him an offer.  His voice shook:
"What do you want?"
"Your help in a desperate venture," said Chryseis. "I tell you frankly that we may well all die in it. But at least you will die as a free man—and if we succeed, all the world may be ours."
"What is it?" he asked hoarsely.
"I cannot tell you everything now," said Shorzon. "But the story has long been current that you once sailed to the lairs of the Xanthi, the Sea Demons, and returned alive. Is it true?"
"Aye." Corun stiffened, with sudden alarm trembling in his nerves. "Aye, by great good luck I came back. But they are not a race for humans to traffic with."
"I think the powers I can summon will match theirs," said Shorzon. "We want you to guide us to their dwellings and teach us the language on the way, as well as whatever else you know about them. When we return, you may go where you choose. And if we get their help, we will be able to set Conahur free soon afterward."
Corun shook his head. "It's nothing good that you plan," he said slowly. "No one would approach the Xanthi for any good purpose."
"You did, didn't you?" chuckled the wizard dryly. "If you want the truth, we are after their help in seizing the government of Achaera, as well as certain knowledge they have."
If Corun agrees to help the father and daughter, since they promise him not only his own freedom but the liberation of his homeland, currently subjugated by the Achaerans. Like any good barbarian, Corun is suspicious of his supposed benefactors but is also unwilling to let a chance like this slip through his fingers, thinking it better to die a free man engaged in a desperate adventure than executed as a prisoner.

What follows is a very enjoyable story well told, one that feels more like Robert E. Howard than Poul Anderson, filled as it is with swashbuckling combats, duplicitous alliances, and eldritch horrors. On the other hand, Anderson has always been good at producing interesting and believable characters, even when those characters are very "archetypal" as those in this story are. The same is true of the plot, which manages to be genuinely surprising at times, despite the clichéd nature of its set-up. "Witch of the Demon Seas" is thus a good example of the kind of pulp fantasy tale --  fun, fast-moving, and engaging -- I like to read.