Thursday, November 29, 2012

Imagine Magazine: Issue #5

Issue #5 of Imagine appeared in August 1983 and features a rather striking cover by Tony O'Donnell. In general, I've found the covers of Imagine much more compelling to me than those of Dragon. They're quirkier and more diverse, which appeals to me these days, though I don't doubt that, as a younger person, I probably wouldn't have appreciated them to the same degree. The issue kicks off with an editorial by Kim Daniel on the perennial favorite of "women in gaming." I reproduce the bulk of Daniel's words here:
A woman coming fresh into this hobby feels somewhat excluded. Women are provided for in TSR's game rules (the USA being more sex-egalitarian than the UK), but the language belies the truth -- look at 'Dungeon/Games Master', and all the him- and his-ing that goes on in articles we receive. Mere convention of speech, you may say -- but if that's true then why are articles about nurses, secretaries, and teachers full of she and her? No doubt about it, your average gamer is expected to be male. And it's clear that most gamers are: attend any convention, visit any club or hobby shop, and most of those present will be male.

But why should this be? Perhaps it stems from the roots in wargames. War is traditionally a man's game, so it follows that the simulation of war is, too. There's a theory in sociological circles that war only becomes acceptable while the women remain at home to be 'defended' ... However, if wargamers are mostly pacific people, as Don Turnbull asserted last month, such considerations should not be prohibitive of women. And if, as common mythology has it, women are artful and cunning dissemblers, then surely we should be good tacticians and role-players?

Eureka! I get it -- women must be excluded from gaming because otherwise we might beat men at that game too. It's obvious!
I'm not foolish enough to offer any commentary on Daniel's editorial. I'll only say that, nearly-thirty years later, these same concerns persist and "women in gaming" remains a topic about which many feel strongly.

Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz provide further installments of "The Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Games," which discusses how spells work in D&D, while "The Adventures of Nic Novice" touches on other game systems, in this case Traveller. Roger Musson continues to talk about adventures in his "Stirge Corner" column. This time he addresses the differences between an "adventure dungeon" and a "main dungeon." Though the terms he uses are different, the difference Musson is recognizing is the difference between a "lair" and a "campaign" (or mega) dungeon many in the OSR have also noted. Unlike the OSR, Musson tends to denigrate the "main" dungeon, saying that encourages "dungeon bashing" and "it resembles nothing in life, history and literature. It is certainly not role playing at its best."Here is, I think, a clear example of the shift in tastes that characterizes the transition between the Gold and Silver Ages of D&D.

"In a Class of Their Own" by Chris Black looks at the historical origins of the druid and attempts to apply that knowledge to the AD&D character class. The issue also reprints a number of new druid spells by Gary Gygax, spells which had previously appeared in Dragon and would later appear in Unearthed Arcana. Peter Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" continues to keep readers abreast of local cons and game clubs. Doug Cowie and several others review recent game releases, including the modules Dungeonland and Master of Desert Nomads, both of which are treated favorably. Graeme Davis pens a Celtic-themed AD&D scenario called "The Taking of Siandabhair," which largely takes place on a remote island.

"Dispel Confusion" continues to provide answers to game rules questions, once again focusing on AD&D, Star Frontiers, and DragonQuest. Don Turnbull's "Turnbull Talking" briefly talks about the history of wargames and how D&D grew out of that environment. The only really noteworthy thing about the piece is that Turnbull wrote it at all. By 1983, my own experience was that wargames were increasingly uncommon in the games shops I frequented and were seen more and more as a separate hobby from roleplaying. But then perhaps that's the reason Turnbull felt it necessary to talk about that history.

The comic "Rubic of Moggedon" continues. Mike Costello offers up "The Imagination Machine," where he talks about computers. Dave Pringle tackles several book reviews. Carole Morris's "Lay, Lore, and Legend" is a treatment of Celtic mythology for roleplaying purposes, which seems to be something of a theme in issue #5. There are more letters, con and club announcements, and ads aplenty, along with another episode of Ian Williamson's "The Sword of Alabron" comic.

Issue #5 is solid, especially in the way that it further helps to establish Imagine's unique voice, compared to Dragon or even White Dwarf. I can definitely understand why TSR would grow increasingly worried about that voice, since it's not merely different from that in TSR's other publications but also a bit too "independent." In time, as I understand it, that independence would lead to clashes between the two branches of the company and would ultimately lead to the demise of Imagine. But that's still far in the future at this point.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tenuous Golden Ages

Over on Google+, Chris Kutalik shared some photos of an old TSR board game called Knights of Camelot. I never owned the game myself, but I remember it well from ads I saw in the catalogs included with lots of TSR games back in the day. Looking at the photos Chris shared, it was the layout and graphic design that caught my eye. With a map by Darlene and interior artwork by Jeff Dee, it's a very attractive product. Equally eye-catching was the presentation of the rules, which looked like a dry run for the Basic and Expert Rulebooks (no surprise, given that Knights of Camelot was published in 1980, shortly before the B and X books came out).

I commented that, for me, TSR was at the height of its powers, between 1979 and 1982. While the fact that those coincide with my earliest in the hobby certainly plays a role in my estimation, I don't think that's all there is to it. Fond as I am of TSR's earlier efforts, I don't think any of them, taken as a whole, are as well done as the aforementioned B and X rulebooks or Star Frontiers or Gangbusters or any number of other products of that era. I mean, I love the Dave Trampier's cover the Players Handbook to death, but the presentation of the PHB itself? It's OK but it's got nothing on even TSR's more lackluster efforts between 1979 and 1982.

Looking at it as objectively as I can, what strikes me most about that era is that the products still exemplify the wild-eyed enthusiasm that makes the earlier stuff so intoxicating, while at the same time looking professional but not "slick." A lot of my dislike of TSR's output from 1983 on is that it feels soulless and uniform, more like that of a mass market widget manufacturer than a purveyor of "products of your imagination." Again, some may disagree with this assessment on my part, but it's one that comports with the recollections of at least some of the company's former employees, who saw a sea change at TSR.

I mention all of this as a kind of prolog to presenting this link a post over at Gamasutra, which presents the history of the TRS-80, Radio Shack's personal computer. Interestingly, the heyday of the "Trash-80" (as we called it), roughly coincides with that of the period I so admire at TSR. Consequently, I tend to strongly associate the two in my mind. One of my closest friends in elementary school was a computer aficionado and he owned a TRS-80, which he used to write programs to aid him -- and us -- in playing D&D and other RPGs. We also played some early computer "RPGs" on that computer, like Zork and Temple of Apshai, among others, thereby cementing the mental connection. The fact that that computer and D&D's publisher both used the same three consonants probably also had an effect on my young mind.

I've often wondered if the reason that putative golden ages are often so brief is because they only arise during a period of transition between one era and another. In the case of TSR, it was the transition between being a hobbyist company and a more professional one, while, in the case of the TRS-80's ascendancy, it was a period between personal computers being a curiosity and a consumer product. Younger friends of mine often talk wistfully about the days "before the Internet became big" in a similar fashion. I am sure enthusiasts of other hobbies have their own versions too. Great work seems to arise in periods of tension, while the old ways still exert their influence and the new ones are just aborning. They're great times to be involved and I consider myself lucky to have been there for several throughout my life.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Starting a Meme

As a general rule, I'm not a big fan of Internet memes. My eyes tend to glaze over whenever everyone's blog is posting and re-posting the same stuff or variations on it -- some of the wags out there are no doubt asking, "How is that any different than usual?" -- but I'm going to be hypocritical and indulge in a little memetic engineering anyway.

Posted above is a photo of the shelf immediately above my desk, where I do most of my writing. The books on that shelf are the ones to which I refer most often, both in my writing and in my playing. What I'd love to see are more photos like this, with people showing off the shelves to which they most frequently turn in their writing and (especially) gaming. A number of folks have already done this on Google+, which is great, but I'd like to see them on blogs, too.

Have at it!

New Popular Edition

At the back of issue #6 of Imagine (I'll be posting about issue #5 later today), there's this advertisement:
That's obviously the 1983 Frank Mentzer-edited Basic Rules, with which I'm familiar. But this is the first time I've ever seen the phrase "new popular edition" associated with it. Is that something unique to the UK market (since the ad appeared in Imagine) or was it a phrase used elsewhere as well? In either case, what does it mean? Is it "popular" in the sense of "mass market," suggesting that the boxed sets were intended for wider appeal than AD&D? It's a strange turn of phrase, so I'm curious what others make of it.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

More OSR Links of Awesomeness

Back at the end of September, I made a post in which I directed readers to eight blogs that presented material from some awesomely diverse campaigns settings. That post proved extremely popular, so, with November drawing to a close, I thought I'd do it again and shine a light on some of the clever, cool, and imaginative work of our fellow old school enthusiasts. Here are six more blogs -- and campaign settings -- worth visiting:

The Black City: Beedo's megadungeon has been described as "At the Mountains of Madness with Vikings." The eponymous Black City is a ruined alien city located on the shores of the island of Thule, now the focus of expeditions of glory-seeking Northmen. It's a great idea for a campaign set-up -- even if Beedo does show an inexplicable liking for halflings ...

Castle Nicodemus: Michael Moscrip of The Grumpy Old Troll, like a lot of us, runs a regular OD&D campaign via Hangouts on Google+. His setting, Anglia, which includes the dungeon known as Castle Nicodemus, is described as taking cues from "Boorman's Excalibur, Bakshi's Wizards and plenty of Dragonslayer." This blog details that setting, along with other old school goodness.

Hill Cantons: Chris Kutalik's venerable sand box campaign might rightly be called one of the foundational campaigns of the OSR. It's not just of longstanding, but it's also served as a kind of laboratory for many of the wild and crazy ideas we've all discussed over the last five years.

HMS Apollyon: Gus L. of Dungeon of Signs runs a megadungeon-centric campaign set aboard "a miles long demon and monster haunted cruise ship that travels between worlds and frequently 'rescues' individuals from the seas it traverses." Someone else called the campaign "Metamorphosis Alpha adrift on the River Styx." Whatever you call it, I think it's pretty cool -- one of the most original ideas for a megadungeon I've seen in a community filled with original ideas for megadungeons.

Planet Algol: Though I've known about -- and admired -- Blair's Planet Algol setting for years, it occurs to me that some folks might never have heard of it. Describing succinctly is difficult, but I'd call it a sword-and-planet romp that draws equally on Burroughs, Heavy Metal, Harryhausen movies, and psychedelic fantasy from the '60s and '70s. I love it.

Wermspittle: The walled village of Wermspittle is surrounded by garbage-infested shantytowns and its labyrinthine sewers are filled with all manner of unwholesomeness. Plagues and warfare are abroad and the once-secluded village has seen its population increase, as refugees and fortune seekers make their way here. Wermspittle is a weird urban fantasy campaign -- and we need more of those!

Comments on this post can be made here.

ASE 2-3 Now Available

Though the news of this has already spread far and wide -- or, at least, I hope it has -- I'd nevertheless like to make everyone aware that the second volume of Patrick Wetmore's terrifically gonzo post-apocalyptic megadungeon, the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, is now available for purchase via in both print and electronic form.

The second volume is bigger the first one, since it includes two full levels of the ASE rather than just one. It's also, if anything, even more bizarre. I've already got my copy and will doing a review of it in the coming weeks, but, if you liked the first volume, as I did, I have little doubt you'll enjoy the second.

Pulp Fantasy Library: On Thud and Blunder

I'm firmly of the opinion that it's no mistake Dungeons & Dragons was published when it was. The late '60s saw a huge literary revival of pulp fantasy, thanks in no small part to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, which kicked off in 1969. And one cannot deny the influence that the first authorized paperback editions of Tolkien's works (also published by Ballantine) had, when they appeared in 1965. This foundation having been laid down, the 1970s proved to be an extraordinarily fruitful period for fantasy literature of all sorts, much of it quite excellent. Of course, given the sheer volume of new fantasies being written during the '70s, it was inevitable that a significant portion of them would be, at best, mediocre and, at worst, execrable. This was particularly the case with regards to "heroic fantasy," the term then used to refer to what we nowadays call sword-and-sorcery tales -- the genre Robert E. Howard pioneered in the 1930s.

It's against this backdrop that Poul Anderson penned his famous essay "On Thud and Blunder," which first appeared in Andrew Offutt's anthology, Swords Against Darkness III, published in 1978. Anderson's essay is both a clear-headed skewering of the worst excesses of then-contemporary sword-and-sorcery stories and a call to arms to writers to do better in their own efforts. Anderson begins his essay with the following "excerpt" from the adventures of Gnorts the Barbarian:
With one stroke of his fifty-pound sword, Gnorts the Barbarian lopped off the head of Nialliv the Wizard. It flew through the air, still sneering, while Gnorts clove two royal guardsmen from vizor through breasplate to steel jockstrap. As he whirled to escape, an arrow glanced off his own chainmail. Then he was gone from the room, into the midnight city. Easily outrunning pursuit, he took a few sentries at the gate by surprise. For a moment, arms and legs hailed around him through showers of blood; then he had opened the gate and was free. A caravan of merchants, waiting to enter at dawn, was camped nearby. Seeing a magnificent stallion tethered, Gnorts released it, twisted the rope into a bridle, and rode it off bareback. After galloping several miles, he encountered a mounted patrol that challenged him. Immediately he plunged into the thick of the cavalrymen, swinging his blade right and left with deadly effect, rearing up his steed to bring its forefeet against one knight who dared to confront him directly. Then it was only to gallop onward. Winter winds lashed his body, attired in nothing more than a bearskin kilt, but he ignored the cold. Sunrise revealed the shore and his waiting longship. He knew the swift-sailing craft could bring him across five hundred leagues of monster-infested ocean in time for him to snatch the maiden princess Elamef away from evil Baron Rehcel while she remained a maiden — not that he intended to leave her in that condition … .
As Anderson immediately admits, the above is "exaggerated" for effect "but, unfortunately, not much." Before moving on to the meat of his essay, he defends heroic fantasy literature as not "inherently inferior" to other kinds of literature, while at the same time recognizing that
every kind of writing is prone to special faults. For example, while no one expects heroic fantasy (hf) to be of ultimate psychological profundity, it is often simple to the point of being simplistic.
The purpose of "On Thud and Blunder," then, is to point out these "special faults" so that writers can avoid them in the future and thus ensure that fantasy literature lives up to its fullest potential. That's an admirable thing in my opinion, but it Anderson's essay is loaded with assumptions that don't always apply -- which is inevitable when you're dealing with fantasy. Anderson takes the tack that heroic fantasy takes place in a pre-industrial society based on historical Europe. That's often the case, but it isn't universally so (look at Tékumel, to cite just one obvious example), making some of his comments and suggestions less broadly pertinent than he might have assumed.

That said, he brings up a large number of good points, such as:
People who have experienced blackouts will tell you that a nighted city without the modern invention of lights is black. With walls shutting off most of the sky — especially along narrow medieval streets — it is far gloomier that any open field. You’d grope your way, unless you had a torch or lantern (and then you’d better have an armed guard). Furthermore, those lanes were open sewers; in many places, stepping stones went down the middle because of that. Despite sanitary measures, metropolitan streets as late as about 1900 were often uncrossable simply because of horse droppings. Graveyards stank too: one reason why incense was used in church services.
The Church raises the subject of religion in general, which is little used in our field. Oh, yes, we may get a hero swearing by his particular gods and perhaps carrying through a small rite, equivalent to stroking a rabbit’s foot. We certainly got plenty of obscene ceremonies in honor of assorted toad-like beings. Both of these do have their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see an imaginary society which was pervaded by its faith, as many real ones have been.
These are but two small but valuable thoughts Anderson brings to bear in imagining an "improved" heroic fantasy genre, where verisimilitude is given a higher priority than it often is by writers of the genre. No doubt some will see in this essay a schoolmarmish attitude seeking to "take the fun out of" pulp fantasy by making it conform to a narrowly-conceived "reality," but I don't think that's what Anderson was attempting to do at all. Rather, he wanted writers to avoid sloppiness and to ground their stories of fantastical heroism in something more closely approximating a believable world, so as to make both the fantasy and the heroism shine all the brighter. Even if one disagrees with him and his observations, "On Thud and Blunder" is nevertheless and intriguing document from the second flowering of sword-and-sorcery literature and is worth reading for anyone interested in its history.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

REVIEW: The Magnificent Joop van Ooms

Reviewing almost anything James Raggi writes poses unique challenges, but it's his adventures that are particularly troublesome to me. Partly, it's because Raggi's understanding of and approach to fantasy is often so different from my own. I don't think any of the adventures he's written to date are ones I can imagine myself as having written. Mind you, that's a good thing! To my way of thinking, what separates a good adventure module from a bad one is that a good one gives you ideas -- whether in rough or polished form -- that you could never have come up with yourself.

The flip side of this is that I frequently have no idea what to do with these modules, however intriguing their ideas. I recall reading somewhere (perhaps on Google+?) that Raggi says this is a common response to his writing and that he enjoys watching people wrestle with it. That's fair enough and, truth be told, one of my biggest cavils about adventure modules is that they can encourage passive consumption by referees rather than active, imaginative engagement.

Which brings me to The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, an 16-page product written by James Raggi, illustrated throughout by Jez Gordon, and with a cover by Jason Rainville. Though released under the rubric of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Adventures, it's not really an adventure at all, at least not in the traditional usage of that term. Rather, it's more of a collection of settings, mechanics, NPC descriptions, and related ideas that can be used to create adventures, thirteen examples of which are included in the book itself. Consequently, I can easily imagine some purchasers being disappointed by its contents if they were expecting a map-and-room-key sort of product, because The Magnificent Joop van Ooms (hereafter JvO) is nothing like that.

Before discussing exactly what JvO is like, a short digression regarding its physical qualities is in order. As I noted above, this product consists of 16 pages, which are staple-bound and enclosed in a cover with a wrap-around illustration depicting the eponymous Joop van Ooms demonstrating his unique magical abilities. The interior uses a clean, two-column layout and is amply illustrated with superb black and white artwork. The text is small, like all Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, meaning that it is in fact meatier content-wise than its page length would suggest. The book sells for 3.00€ (about $3.80 US) in PDF or 7.50€ (about $9.50 US) for the print + PDF combo.

Like Death Love Doom, JvO is set in the "real world," specifically early 17th century Amsterdam. While the amount of material unalterably grounded in early modern Europe is small (about two pages), I nevertheless find its inclusion needlessly off-putting. It's not that I mind the real world setting; it's that Lamentations of the Flame Princess, as currently written, doesn't really support that setting. There are, as yet, no rules for firearms, for example, and there are too many swordswomen and too much magic (never mind the implicit demihumans) for me to buy it as anything like the 17th century I know about. Now, that said, I think it's pretty clear that Raggi loves the early modern period and wants to make it the game's native setting, but, to do that, there's some work remaining. In the meantime, I think he confuses and frustrates some potential customers of his adventures.

JvO begins with overviews of both the United Provinces (of the Netherlands) and Amsterdam itself. Following that are 50 random encounters adventurers might have "down on the wharf." These encounters range from the mundane (a swarm of street urchins) to the exotic (a mermaid on the prowl) to the downright bizarre ("Everybody dies. Seriously. Roll up new characters, start them somewhere else. Amsterdam is wiped from the face of the Earth."). There are also simple rules for buying and selling on the black market.

This brings us to Joop van Ooms himself -- "an inventor, architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor" who "has broken through to the Void Beyond the World and has seen both the glories and feculence of creation." He also works magic through his art. The book provides many examples of just what he is capable of when painting, writing plays, sculpting, etc. Also detailed are his constant companions and the studio where he lives and works in Amsterdam. The sections devoted to Joop van Ooms and his activities contain almost no game mechanics. Instead, they're simply descriptions and ideas, leaving it up to the referee to implement.

This is the point where I expect opinion of JvO will be divided -- between those who lack for ideas they can riff off of and those who want a complete, ready-to-run product. Bearing in mind my minor cavils, the former group ought to be quite happy with JvO, while the latter are bound to be disappointed. Even the former group may have some issues with this product, since it's ideas are of a very specific kind, rooted not just in the early modern era but also in an idiosyncratic take on a Lovecraftian cosmos. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine almost anyone buys a James Raggi product not expecting these things, so my sympathy is somewhat limited.

In the end, I suspect whether one likes The Magnificent Joop van Ooms will depend greatly on whether one has enjoyed Raggi's previous works. It's very much of a piece with them, so, if they appeal, this one will too. If not, then this product will do nothing to change one's mind and may in fact only encourage further dislike.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You've enjoyed James Raggi's previous efforts or are looking for a collection of inspirational ideas from which to craft your own weird fantasy adventures.
Don't Buy This If: You're expecting an adventure module you can run "out of the box" or have no interest in weird fantasy set in early modern Europe.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Luke Gygax Speaks

Over at the comments to my earlier post, Gary Gygax's son, Luke, one of the principals behind the new TSR Games and Gygax magazine, had this to say:
At this time Gail is not part of Gygax Magazine.  Personally, I hope that she decides to come onboard in the future.  All the posts from Gygax magazine staff I've seen were clear that this project is something Ernie and I are involved in as part of a larger team including Tim Kask, Jayson Elliot, James Carpio and Jim Wampler.

Gygax Magazine is supported by the Gygax family members who are actually gamers.  Ernie (aka Ernest Gary Gygax Jr.) was the first person to playtest D&D, played numerous iconic characters in Greyhawk and worked for TSR through the 1980's.  I cut my teeth on gaming and feel passionate about the positive aspects that gaming brings to people's lives.  Gygax Magazine is a way for us to share our love of gaming both Old School and current systems with the gaming community.  We are focused on producing a quality magazine and we hope that you will take the time to read the first issue in December.

Please realize that the information on Gygax Magazine was leaked ahead of our projected announce date.  This resulted in unwanted confusion.  I appreciate the excitement this has generated and I hope that the product meets expectations.
That's about as definitive as it gets right now. Thanks to Luke for providing this information and helping to clear up some of the confusion. 

Yet More Gygax Magazine News

In the wake of yesterday's news about a new company laying claim to the TSR name and a new gaming magazine called Gygax, Mr Gygax's widow, Gail, has weighed in via ENWorld:
Please respect my wished to change the caption of this thread to:

Gygax Magazine? {UPDATE -, does not have the support of the "Gygax Family Estate" }

I wish to clear up any confusion I am the proper owner of the use of the name of my late husband, E. Gary Gygax. And furthermore would ask respect from his public and children from his first marriage, who are fully aware I own all rights to the use of his name and likeness, and all intellectual properties.

We have previously informed Jason Elliot of my ownership rights.

I can understand the enthusiasm for this project and will remain neutral in regard to its merits however, not at the expense of the Gary Gygax Estate, which represents his wishes.
My most immediate thought is that it's sad that Mrs Gygax and the "children from his first marriage" seem to be at odds over Gary's legacy. That's something that would be sad in any family, but it's especially troubling in this case, because Gary's life's work means a great deal to millions of people beyond his family. I also fear this tussle might further divide opinion regard the merits of this new TSR, which would be a shame.

Once again, thanks to everyone who made me aware of this news.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Retrospective: Chivalry & Sorcery (1977)

Normally, when I speak of Chivalry & Sorcery, I'm talking about boxed second edition of the game, which was released in 1983. That's the version of the game I vividly recall from having seen its many advertisements in the pages of Dragon. That's also the version that secretly intrigued me, since it's the one I actually saw on hobby stores shelves. I say "secretly," because many of the older guys I knew, the ones who initiated me into this weird hobby, were really down on C&S, seeing it as unnecessarily complex and too concerned over "realism." So, it was generally best not to admit to having an interest in such a game in their presence -- and I didn't.

The thing is, even though no one admitted to playing C&S, at least no one with whom I had any regular contact, it still got talked about a great deal, much like the Arduin Grimoires. Despised or not (in my neck of the woods), it nevertheless had a big intellectual "footprint." What I didn't understand at the time was that the Chivalry & Sorcery the older guys were talking about wasn't the edition I instinctively associated with the name, but the original one, published in 1977 -- the so-called "Red Book" pictured above. Since I didn't play it and was discouraged from doing so, I never looked into the matter until recently and simply assumed that the version of the game advertised in Dragon was the only one.

The Red Book is a 128-page softcover book whose contents are presented in very small typeface in two columns. As FGU editor Scott Bizar says in his introduction:
The sheer mass of these new rules has made it necessary to print in small type rather than in our usual format, but this saving in pages will cause substantial savings in the purchase price of the book.
Bizar also goes on to call C&S "the most complete rule booklet ever published" and "the length of a novel" in terms of word count. He's certainly not kidding and I think Bizar reveals something very important about the game with his words. You see, lots of people criticize Chivalry & Sorcery for making a fetish of "realism," but I think, if one were to look at it with an unbiased eye, the game's real focus is on "completeness." C&S tries very hard to provide everything a referee might need in running
an all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.
That block quote above is from the first page of the game itself, under a heading titled "Chivalry & Sorcery: The Grand Campaign." There, the authors lay out the origins of C&S as well as their vision for it. My feeling is that it's here that one can really come to understand what this RPG was all about. That section also explains that
Chivalry & Sorcery began innocently enough with a discussion about the vacuum that our characters seemed to be living in between dungeon and wilderness campaigns. In the Fantasy Wargames Society of the University of Alberta a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our characters.
Thus, authors Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus created a game that answered their own needs for an "all-encompassing campaign." C&S includes all the usual things you'd expect from a roleplaying game -- character generation, combat, etc. -- but it also has rules and discussions of social status and influence, costs of living, enfeoffment, castles, warfare, training, sieges, tournaments, and more. Whether it really qualifies as "the most complete rule booklet ever published" I leave to others to decide, but there's little question in my mind that Simbalist and Backhaus did create an extraordinarily broad and complete RPG, especially for the time period.

All that said, Chivalry & Sorcery is deserving of its reputation for complexity. Many of its rules, especially for combat, are quite complicated, moreso even, in my opinion, than Rolemaster, which is more "chart heavy" than complex. But I also think it's fair to say that the complexity of C&S reflects not only the mindset of its creators but the game's origins as well. Within a few years of the publication of OD&D, there were gamers who wanted more -- more realism, more complexity, more depth. And from those wants were born a wide variety of alternate approaches to fantasy roleplaying, some of which, I can't deny, I find very intriguing.  

C&S is one of those games.  God help me if the old guys I used to know ever find out.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More News on Gygax Magazine

Several people have pointed me towards the Gamers & Grognards blog, which includes the following bit of updated information from Tim Kask regarding Gygax Magazine:
Here's a snippet from our ad now you all the official word there is at this time.

Gygax is a gaming magazine for new and old players alike.

We are looking forward to the games of tomorrow and today, while preserving the traditions and history that got us where we are now.

Our articles and features cover current independent and major publisher games such as Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, The One Ring, Shadowrun, Godlike, Labyrinth Lord, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Warhammer 40k Roleplay, Traveller, and others, as well as classic out-of-print games with a modern following, like AD&D, Top Secret, and Gamma World.

Our features include comics by Phil Foglio (What’s New With Phil and Dixie), Jim Wampler (Marvin the Mage), and Rich Burlew (Order of the Stick). Contributors include Jim Ward, Cory Doctorow, James Carpio, Ethan Gilsdorf, Dennis Sustare, and many more.

Publishing quarterly in print as well as PDF and iPad editions, we hope each issue of Gygax will be an anticipated and treasured addition to any gamer’s library.
I'm going to continue to take a cautious, wait-and-see attitude toward this, since, honestly, I'm not sure what to think of all this. No matter how it turns out in the end, I don't think anyone can claim that the new TSR Games lacks for ambition.

Comments on this post can be made here.

TSR Returns?

Or something. If you follow this link, you'll find TSR Games. If you follow this one, you'll find Gygax Magazine. Details are still sketchy as to what this exactly means, but this post over at ENWorld reveals a few snippets of information:
Hi guys, this is Jayson. I'm the editor for Gygax Magazine.

Gygax Magazine is myself, Ernie Gygax, Luke Gygax, Tim Kask, James Carpio, and Jim Wampler. Our first issue is out in December; since it's not finished yet, we've been pretty quiet about things until it's ready.

Just to address some of the questions, I thought it was best that I leave a reply. We do own the trademark for TSR, and have since December of 2011. We are a new company, not the old TSR, as they were purchased by Wizards in the '90s. The trademark was abandoned about nine years ago, and we registered it in 2011. 

We decided the best thing to release first as TSR was a gaming magazine, because we wanted a way to bridge the traditions of the old guard with the awesome new games that are out today.
"Jayson" is apparently Jayson Elliot, a name unknown to me, but I'm sure someone out there must know who he is and what his connection to the old school community might be. Since we know so little, I have no real thoughts on this announcement, though it is interesting, especially since this is the second time in the last couple of years that Tim Kask has been attached to an attempt to "get the old band back together," so to speak. Time will tell what this means.

Thanks to everyone who emailed me about this announcement. I probably wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

UPDATE: According to this post, James M. Ward, Len Lakofka, and Phil Foglio are also involved in some fashion. The plot thickens.

Comments on this post can be made here.


Last night, before bed, I was reading my recently-acquired copy of Character Law & Campaign Law. Now, Rolemaster, as has been noted many times, has a reputation for being dry and abstruse and I don't think that reputation is entirely unearned. But I will defy any man who thinks Rolemaster humorless (as will anyone who's used its critical hit charts will as well). Within the first few pages of the book, I came across multiple examples of play that brought a smile to my lips, such as this one from Section 7.12:
Snidepucker the Rogue dies after eating a poisoned bagel.
I'm not sure whether I was more amused by the character's name, his manner of death, or the fact that the whole thing is right smack in the middle of a rather detailed discussion of the deterioration of stats due to death. Then there's this one in Section 7.21:
Bandring is fleeing from the dreaded Malevolent Moose.
As with the previous example, this one appears as part of a larger discussion of game mechanics, in this case "movement maneuvers." I can't help but find this charming, as I always do when I find quirky little bits of text that suggest a real person rather than the Design-o-Tron 9000 has written the book. I think such bits are especially important in games like Rolemaster which might otherwise be mentally painful to read.

Mind you, when I was a younger man, I was, believe it or not, even more dour and humorless than I am today. Back in those dark days of yore, I didn't like this sort of thing in my game books. Roleplaying, after all, was a serious hobby and serious hobbies didn't include puns and anagrams and goofy examples. This attitude all looks terribly pathetic in retrospect, but you must remember that it was not an uncommon one (then or now) and many of my gaming mentors inculcated a number of prejudices into me, many of which had to do keeping things "serious."

I look forward to finding more examples like this as I make my way through Rolemaster. Heck, it wouldn't be a bad thing if I found more examples like this in every RPG product I read.

Comments to this post can be made here.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #4

Issue #4 of Imagine is dated July 1983 and features a gorgeous cover by (I think) Simon Senior, an artist with whose work I am not familiar. The issue begins with a fascinating editorial by Keith Thomson, a large excerpt from which I'd like to present here:
You will have seen from the letters columns in issues 2 and 3 that there is still some lack of understanding about the aims of this magazine. I have a strange mixture of feelings about this. Sadness that some of our friends still feel that they are not being catered for and joy that so many people not only like the magazine but are being introduced into the adventure gaming world and indeed into the ranks of the Players Association.

All you experienced players who are concerned about there being too many basic details in this magazine should be delighted that we allocate space to the newcomer, for he or she keeps the hobby alive and, with time, they too will develop into experienced players.
I find the editorial fascinating for several reasons, the first being that it really does reflect some of the hobby's growing pains that I experienced even on the other side of the Atlantic. By 1983, I'd been gaming for close to four years and, though only nearly-fourteen years-old at the time, I was nevertheless resentful of the "kiddies" who were entering the hobby, especially after the release of the hated (from my perspective) Mentzer-edited versions of D&D. It was absurd that I felt that way, but I did, so Thomson's editorial strikes a familiar chord. Secondly, it's a reminder that, in mid-1983, the hobby was still expanding. Ironically, I think the rot that would later set in had to do with catering ever more to the experienced players rather than continuing to look for new ways to bring in new blood.

Consequently, issue #4 features additional installments of Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz's "The Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Game" and "The Adventures of Nic Novice" comic. Neither is particularly noteworthy to my mind, but, after reading Thomson's editorial, features like these make a great deal more sense. The same can be said of Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner," which, in this issue, offers advice to inexperienced referees. Here's a bit that I found worth sharing:
The temptation, when taking on the challenge [of refereeing --JDM] for the first time, is to let someone else do much of the hard work by buying a pre-designed module and running that, thus avoiding all the work of drawing up a dungeon. Personally, I don't think is really the best idea.
Musson goes to offer several reasons why he doesn't think it "really the best idea," not least of which is that "drawing up a dungeon" -- how I love that phrase -- gives a neophyte referee insights into how to run and use others' creations. I couldn't agree more, but it's the kind of advice one doesn't expect to see in an official TSR publication, since, moreso than any company, TSR was responsible for pushing the pre-packaged adventure module as a "necessity" for playing their games.

Paul Mason's "Alternative Game Styles" briefly discusses various approaches to roleplaying (educational, psychological, etc.) and the benefits of using them. There's a bit of fiction by Anne McCaffrey, entitled "Cinderella Switch." Brian Creese provides "An Introduction to the Postal Games Hobby." Though short, the article brought back a lot of memories, since play-by-mail gaming is one of those things that was thriving when I entered the hobby and is now virtually extinct, though I suppose one could make the argument that forum-based gaming occupies a similar place nowadays. It is not, however, an argument to which I give much credence, though.

"The Philosopher's Stone" by Anne Hamill is the first part of a four-part competition in which readers must find clues in an illustration and accompanying text to answer several questions posed by the magazine staff. The winner gets vouchers for the purchase of TSR or SPI products. "Aramax One" is a Star Frontiers adventure by John Tantoblin. "Dispel Confusion" this time offers answers to questions about both AD&D and DragonQuest. Don Turnbull's sopabox, "Turnbull Talking," tackles the question of "realism" in RPGs.  He concludes with an utterly commonsense position:
I find myself returning again and again to the same basic belief -- the gaming hobby is fun, and it's there for enjoyment. Hang the realism -- give me a game I can enjoy at any time.
There's another installment of the (to me) baffling comic "Rubic of Moggedon" and some film reviews (of The Dark Crystal and Q -- The Winged Serpent) by Colin Greenland. Peter Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" continues to talk about the local gaming scenes, but also includes a brief aside about "the profusion of ®, ™, and © marks that are attached to every TSR product name." Again, this reminds me of similar discussions I heard back in the day and it's a reminder of another fact: by 1983, TSR was already well on its way to becoming the "T$R" so roundly despised by the late '80s and early '90s.

Doug Cowie provides some reviews of D&D modules (I2, I4, and M1) that are largely positive, while Robert Hulston talks about a British RPG called Starstone. The name rings a bell with me, but I don't believe I have ever seen it. Has anyone else? There are the usual assortment of letters, fanzine announcements, and club notes in this issue, all of which, I think, contribute to my sense that Imagine was a much more "grounded" gaming magazine than almost any of those I read regularly as a younger person. I like that. Finally, Ian Williamson's "The Sword of Alabron" appears once more.

I really enjoyed issue #4 of Imagine. I think it has a very unique voice, one that not only differentiated it from other gaming magazines at the time, but one that said a lot worth listening to. It's a pity that I never got to see it at the time and even more of a pity that, eventually, that unique voice was stifled.

Comments about this post can be made here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Adventures Dark & Deep Kickstarter Launches

Joe Bloch's longstanding "what if" project, Adventures Dark & Deep, now has a Kickstarter for its Players Manual. In case you're not familiar with Adventures Dark & Deep, it is, in Joe's words,"an attempt to explore what the world's most popular role-playing game might have looked like if its creator had been allowed to continue developing it, rather than leaving TSR in 1985" and is "based on extensive research into Gary Gygax's public statements about his vision for the next edition of the game, using the game's 1st edition rules as a jumping off point. It's not a retro-clone, but an entirely new game with a very familiar feel."

Even though I wouldn't call myself a player of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons these days, I still find this project very interesting. This Fall, Joe released A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, which is a kind of "sampler" of some of the player-oriented aspects of Adventures Dark & Deep (character classes, spells, etc.) for use with existing retro-clones like OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord. I thought it quite well done and will probably swipe some stuff from it for use in my home campaign. I have little doubt that the full Players Manual won't be similarly good.

Reprint Musings

Back at the start of last month, it was discovered that Wizards of the Coast would follow up its apparently-successful reprints of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks with a couple of adventure compilations. The first is Dungeons of Dread in March of next year, which collects all of the S-series modules under one cover. The second, to be released in June 2013, is Against the Slave Lords, which puts all four A-series adventures into a single volume.

The mere fact that, more than 30 years after they were first published, WotC is once again making available classic AD&D material should be cause enough to warm an old schooler's cold heart. It's even more impressive when you consider what a turnabout it is from WotC's approach over the last several years with regards to D&D products published before 2008. I'd almost go so far as to say it's "miraculous."

But the miracles don't stop there. In the description to Against the Slave Lords linked to above, you'll see this paragraph:
Added to the collection is an all-new fifth adventure -- A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry -- that you can use to kick off an AD&D campaign that pits a group of adventurers against the evil Slave Lords! Module A0, designed for levels 1-3, sets the stage for events that unfold throughout the remainder of the "A" series.
An "all-new" AD&D adventure? That's the first time since 1999 that Wizards of the Coast has published something new for AD&D (someone can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). So far as I know, we don't have any details about module A0 at this stage beyond what's included in the quoted blurb. I'm sure there are some crotchety grognards (do I repeat myself?) out there who will find some way to find fault with this -- "Who at WotC even knows how to write an AD&D adventure?" "How dare they bundle their faux module into a collection of such hallowed classics?" etc. -- but, to my mind, this is something worth cheering and I sincerely hope I am not alone in applauding it. Kudos to WotC!

Comments to this post can be made here.

Descent into Madness

As I've noted on more than a few occasions, I have, in addition to face-to-face gaming, been playing in and refereeing several different RPGs via Google+ Hangouts. If anyone among my readership hasn't already given this a whirl, you really ought to, because it's a lot of fun. These days, it certainly seems as if the center of gravity in the old school world has shifted to G+, due in no small part to the exceedingly large numbers of games being run there. This hobby, after all, is about playing games, not merely talking about them and, as I said, there are a lot of games for every taste being run on Google+.

Among the games I'm playing is Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, refereed by the awesome Shawn Sanford. Among my fellow adventurers are the equally awesome Jason Sholtis and Will Douglas, though we've recently had an influx of several more stalwart souls to add to our company. That not only improves our chances of survival but also the fun. One of the many lessons Google+ has taught me is that roleplaying with only two or three players is a pale imitation of what it's like to play with six or more players. My online Dwimmermount sessions, for example, typically have at least six players and I've sometimes had as many as eight. Yes, it requires a bit more coordination to deal with the presence of so many players, but it more than repays the effort in terms of dynamism and chaotic creativity.

Back before DCC RPG was released, I remember that one of the big knocks against the game was that it used "too many dice" and had "too many charts." Having actually been playing the game for months now, I can honestly say that neither of the critiques holds much water. In play, one only uses a few dice types or charts at any given time and, as time goes on, their use becomes second nature. Moreover, the presence of these dice types and charts adds a lot of delightful unpredictability to play, so much so that I found myself thinking (as I often do) that what many RPGs need is more, not less randomness.

As it happens, Shawn Sanford is a huge Rolemaster aficionado, having used that system for years with great success. He's also currently involved in Iron Crown Enterprise's open playtest of the next iteration of this venerable game system. Consequently, we often talk about Rolemaster, a game with which my past experience has been decidedly mixed, but that, I freely admit, I've long been intrigued by. So, I've been slowly acquiring some of the old Rolemaster products I remember from the early '80s and examining them, not so much with an eye toward actually playing the game -- though I wouldn't shy away from doing so if an experienced referee made himself available (hint, hint) -- but in order to get a less biased understanding of it.

As I've noted before, "old school" is not synonymous with "rules lite" and we do the larger hobby a disservice when we talk as if it were. For that reason, expect to see more musings on some of the more complex RPGs of the '70s and '80s, since they're very much on my mind these days.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Stone

Robert E. Howard is most well known for his swords-and-sorcery yarns, particularly those in which Conan the Cimmerian is the protagonist, but the truth is that REH was a multi-talented writer, who penned tales in a variety of genres, including horror. Among his horror tales, several stand out as worthy of attention, "The Black Stone" being one of them.

First published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales (the same issue also contains Clark Ashton Smith's The Tale of Satampra Zeiros), "The Black Stone" is nowadays considered a Cthulhu Mythos story, since it's quite clearly an homage to and inspired by the writings of Howard's friend and colleague, H.P. Lovecraft. Both its structure and content clearly owe a great deal to Lovecraft, right down to its being the first-person account of a nameless narrator relating his brush with eldritch horrors man was not meant to know.

The story begins, as so many Mythos tales do, with a book, in this case Nameless Cults of Von Junzt:
I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. It was my fortune to have access to his Nameless Cults in the original edition, the so-called Black Book, published in Dusseldorf in 1839, shortly before a hounding doom overtook the author. Collectors of rare literature were familiar with Nameless Cults mainly through the cheap and faulty translation which was pirated in London by Bridewall in 1845, and the carefully expurgated edition put out by the Golden Goblin Press of New York, 1909. But the volume I stumbled upon was one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy black leather covers and rusty iron hasps. I doubt if there are more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today, for the quantity issued was not great, and when the manner of the author's demise was bruited about, many possessors of the book burned their volumes in panic.
What is the "it" of which the narrator read in Nameless Cults? The eponymous Black Stone of course.
There among many strange things I found mention of the Black Stone, that curious, sinister monolith that broods among the mountains of Hungary, and about which so many dark legends cluster. Von Junzt did not devote much space to it -- the bulk of his grim work concerns cults and objects of dark worship which he maintained existed in his day, and it would seem that the Black Stone represents some order or being lost and forgotten centuries ago. But he spoke of it as one of the keys -- a phrase used many times by him, in various relations, and constituting one of the obscurities of his work. And he hinted briefly at curious sights to be seen about the monolith on Midsummer's Night. He mentioned Otto Dostmann's theory that this monolith was a remnant of the Hunnish invasion and had been erected to commemorate a victory of Attila over the Goths. Von Junzt contradicted this assertion without giving any refutory facts, merely remarking that to attribute the origin of the Black Stone to the Huns was as logical as assuming that William the Conqueror reared Stonehenge.
Naturally, the narrator decides to investigate the Black Stone for himself and so travels to Hungary to do so firsthand. In the process, he learns a great deal about the history of the region, including the following:
I did find subject for thought in Dornly's Magyar Folklore. In his chapter on "Dream Myths" he mentions the Black Stone and tells of some curious superstitions regarding it -- especially the belief that if anyone sleeps in the vicinity of the monolith, that person will be haunted by monstrous nightmares forever after; and he cited tales of the peasants regarding too-curious people who ventured to visit the Stone on Midsummer Night and who died raving mad because of something they saw there.
It should come as no surprise to long-time that, once he learns this, the intrepid narrator decides to visit the Black Stone on Midsummer Night to observe what truth, if any, lies behind these legends; his efforts are not in vain.

"The Black Stone" is a short, enjoyable read and, while one schooled in the history and culture of the region in which it is ostensibly set would no doubt quibble with Howard's scholarship, it's nevertheless quite effective. It was also surprisingly influential on later Mythos writers, as the story not only introduced Nameless Cults (whose erroneous German title, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, was provided by August Derleth) but also the "mad poet" Justin Geoffrey, whose insanity was the result of his own visit to the Black Stone in advance of the narrator. I think why I'm so fond of this story is that, while it clearly looks to Lovecraft as a model, it's told in a distinctive voice. Howard did not ape HPL as so many other writers of Mythos stories have. Instead, he uses Lovecraft for inspiration and makes "The Black Stone" his own.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

All This ... And Faerûnian Lingerie Too

Given my own feelings regarding Dragonlance, it's difficult for me to begrudge anyone who doesn't have much love for the Forgotten Realms. As an official D&D campaign setting, it's been frightfully overexposed since the appearance of its first -- and greatest -- boxed set in 1987. Then there are the novels, many of which are risible even given the rather low bar set by "gaming fiction." So, believe me, I get the dislike, even if I don't share it.

One of the reasons I don't share it is that I was a fan of the Realms (and of Ed Greenwood) for years before TSR decided to canonize the setting. One of the first issues of Dragon I remember buying was issue #62 (June 1982), which included the article "Pages from the Mages." The article caught me completely off-guard, since all it purported to do was describe four famous spellbooks, only one of which (as I recall -- correct me if I'm mistaken) contained unique spells. Yet, Greenwood made these spellbooks interesting by wrapping them in the history and lore of the Forgotten Realms. He showed that you didn't need to make a magical item more powerful mechanically to make it compelling. Instead, you needed to give it a sense of connectedness to the wider world -- one of many lessons he taught me over the years.

It's that sense of connectedness that (for me anyway) has distinguished Greenwood's own Realms work from those of most other writers who've attempted to follow in his wake. It's also why I quite happily picked up my fourth WotC-published book of the year, the unwieldily named Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster's Forgotten Realms. This 192-page hardcover volume is a system-less "peek at the beating heart of the Realms, at what makes it work and seem alive." In practical terms, it's a collection of notes, musings, and memories written by Greenwood, in which he talks about whatever topics most interest him, including, yes, the lingerie of Faerûn (albeit very briefly).

This is a book of pure "fluff," to use the unhappy term in vogue in some quarters, but it's delightfully fun fluff that rather nicely showcases the wild imagination of Greenwood himself. This is, in many ways, one of the most Greenwoodian of all Realms books, since it doesn't need to concern itself with presenting a ready-made adventure or a new spell or monster. Instead, it can focus on all those details, big and small, that Greenwood found himself wanting to talk about. And I can say, as someone who's played in a few scenarios refereed by Ed, that the book does a very good job of bringing the Realms to life in a way that's reflective of the way he runs his sessions. This is "Ed Greenwood Unplugged."

In keeping with that, the book includes scans of Greenwood's original maps and typewritten notes from the old days, along with sidebar commentaries from him in which he reminisces about his home campaign. It's exactly the kind of thing so many of us wish we'd gotten from Gary or Dave -- a look "behind the curtain" of one of the great roleplaying game campaign settings. Whether one likes the Realms or not, it ought to be clear to anyone reading this book that the Forgotten Realms is the fruit of actual play and the product of a quirky, far-ranging creativity. Kudos to WotC for publishing and to Ed for having written it.

Comments on this post can be made here.


This weekend, I pulled out my copy of the 1981 version of the Dungeon! board game -- I wrote an article about the game and interviewed its creator, Dave Megarry, a few weeks back, actually -- and sat down to play with my family. We had a lot of fun and it brought back fond memories of my first having played it in late 1979. As long-time readers of this blog no doubt remember, Dungeon! was my gateway to the hobby, which is why I'm encouraged that Wizards of the Coast has recently re-released the game. I think that, as it was for me, this game could serve as an entrée to the hobby for a new generation of gamers.

Anyway, when playing, I chose to be a Hero, one of four adventurer types available for play. "Hero" is, of course, a callback to the old Chainmail-derived OD&D level title (another type is a "Superhero") and, along with Elf, it's one of the weaker options. To compensate for its lesser degree of combat prowess, the Hero also requires less gold to amass in order to achieve victory -- a mere 10,000 gold pieces compared to the Superhero's 20,000 (or the Wizard's 30,000). Consequently, a good strategy if you're playing a Hero or Elf is to stick to the upper levels of the dungeon, where the monsters are weaker.

So, when my Hero was poking about on the 1st Level, what did he encounter?
Best of all? The giant rats were guarding exactly 250 gold pieces. What terrible game design!

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Miniatures Forever

While I'm not of the opinion that the rules of Dungeons & Dragons should require the use of miniature figures to play, I do think it'd be a mistake to attempt to sever the game's historical link to their use and the photos throughout this post are a big part of the reason why.
My 10 year-old son, unlike my nearly-13 year-old daughter, has rarely shown much interest in tabletop RPGs. He's much more of a video games kind of kid, like most of his peers, and I've never attempted to strong arm him into the hobby. If he's not interested, he's not interested; such is life. But he loves my Hirst Arts dungeon blocks and miniature figures (yes, many of them are WotC's plastic pre-painted ones -- I know: I'm a bad grognard). Last night, he asked me if I'd mind if he took them out and made (in his words) "a dungeon," which my wife then took photos of.
I remember very well that, as a young gamer, one of the things that most enthused me about gaming was seeing the elaborate dungeon set-ups that the older guys I knew used when they played the game. Likewise, I loved going to hobby shops and ogling the lovingly painted 25mm -- this was in the Dark Ages before "European-style" 28mm was the norm -- miniatures displayed in glass cases for delectation of patrons. Seeing those miniatures was one of several gateways into the hobby.
I mention this because it's fashionable in the larger roleplaying world, including in many parts of the old school community, to deprecate miniature figures, suggesting that they're a thing of the past, like measuring movement in inches, and that "real" RPGs have no use for them. Five years ago, when I started this blog, I might have agreed with such comments. Now, I reject such notions wholeheartedly.

As I said above, I don't want the rules of D&D -- or any RPG for that matter -- to depend on the use of miniatures, but I think we do our hobby a disservice if we treat miniatures as an atavism rather than what they are: a delightful option that can, in the words of Gygax, "add color and life to the game." For a lot of people, miniatures add visual appeal and a degree of groundedness to roleplaying that might otherwise be lacking and there's nothing wrong with such an approach. If, one day, my son does take a serious interest in tabletop RPGs, I have no doubt that it was miniature figures and dungeon tiles that paved the way for it. That's a good thing however you look at it.

Comments on this post can be made here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Retrospective: Horror on the Hill

Transitional periods in history are of particular interest to me, as one order slowly fades away and another arises to replace it. In the history of Dungeons & Dragons, one such transitional period is what I've called the Electrum Age, between 1981 and 1985, during which the game, the culture that surrounded it, and the company that produced all underwent some pretty radical changes. Released right smack in the middle of this putative Electrum Age was 1983's Horror on the Hill, written by Douglas Niles. The module is intended to be an introductory adventure à la Keep on the Borderlands, but it differs enough from its illustrious predecessor that I think it worth discussing in its own right.

The basic set-up of Horror on the Hill is familiar enough: a party of low-level adventurers comes to Guido's Fort, a lonely bastion of civilization not far from the eponymous Hill, in which dwell numerous monsters and, it is said, an evil witch. That's remarkably similar to the situation presented in Keep on the Borderlands, so much so that I used to be baffled as to why TSR bothered to publish this module at all. What did it offer that Gygax had not already provided in module B2?

I have no way of knowing what the good folks at TSR had in mind when they published this, but, as an outsider, a couple of things stand out about Horror on the Hill. First and foremost, it's new. That may not seem like much, but it is. I often here old schoolers complain when an OSR publisher releases "yet another version of Keep on the Borderlands." I've come to realize that such complaints miss an important point, namely, that there are always new campaigns starting and many of those campaigns will include people who've played B2 numerous times. After a while, referees need something different, even if only slightly, with which to kick things off. That's why I can no longer find fault in an introductory module simply because it follows the basic outline of Keep on the Borderlands and then goes its own way.

The second reason TSR likely released this module was to experiment with its new presentation. Horror on the Hill has slightly updated trade dress (new D&D and TSR logos, for example), more art, and uses a lot of boxed text to aid the novice referee. None of these elements is, in itself, without precedent; you can find other modules that also possess them to varying degrees. But, as a transitional module, they're notable as signposts for what TSR had in store for the D&D game line. Speaking for myself, I really like both the cover art (by the late Jim Roslof) and the interior art by Jim Holloway, both of which evince a strain of fantastic realism that I find much more congenial nowadays than that of other artists of the same period.

The final thing I'd say about Horror on the Hill is that it's a lot more cohesive than Keep on the Borderlands. That is, there are fewer types of monsters in the Hill and their relationships are elaborated upon much more than what we see in the Caves of Chaos. (Paradoxically, Guido's Fort is not given any detail at all -- not even a map -- unlike the Keep from B2). While this gives the Hill a stronger sense of "realism," perhaps even Gygaxian Naturalism, it also makes the place a lot less varied and thus less interesting to players, a great many of whom grow tired if they fight the same creatures over and over again for too long. On the other hand, the Hill does have a rather nifty "end boss" (I feel dirty typing those words) that compares more than favorably with the minotaur in B2.

I judge Horror on the Hill more favorably now than I did back in 1983, when I saw it as little more than a knock-off of Keep on the Borderlands. I think it is that, but I also think it's more than that. Whether its unique qualities are unique enough to appeal to any given referee or player is something only they can answer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Imagine Magazine: Issue #3

One thing I've been enjoying about Imagine is its cover artwork, which, so far, as has been both attractive and distinctive. There's no mistaking Imagine for Dragon, that's for sure! (Which is no slight against Dragon, which also had some excellent covers over the course of the time during which I read it). My only complaint is that the credits page makes it difficult to determine who the cover artist is. I think this cover was done by Richard Clifton-Day, but I am far from certain of that. Does anyone know?

Issue #3 (June 1983) opens with an editorial that I find interesting.
A few people will, on occasion, complain about something they term 'censorship'. By this they mean that the publication does not carry the obvious references to sex and violence that appear in some other publications. We can assure them that no external body or individual holds censorial powers over the magazine; where we consciously alter or withhold anything, it is because we believe that is what most readers would prefer, if we were able to lay the choice before them. This is a hobby based on fun -- what purpose can there be in offending anybody?
It's an intriguing paragraph, not merely for what is say but what it claims to be responding to. What are these "some other publications" to which it refers and why did anyone, in 1983, think that Imagine was censoring itself? I can't help but think there is some aspect of the UK gaming scene at the time with which I'm not familiar and that might better explain this. Or was it simply a sense that TSR was already beginning to whitewash D&D and its corner of the hobby?

Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz provide new installments of "The Beginners' Guide to Role Playing Games" and "The Adventures of Nic Novice." Neither is especially noteworthy, being, as you'd expect, discussions of very basic aspects of RPGs without much that'd be deemed insightful nowadays. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" elaborates on what it means that RPGs' rules are more open-ended and open to interpretation compared to other types of games. It's basically a primer on trusting the referee and being willing to accept his judgments in matters where the rules are vague or non-existent -- again: solid stuff but not exactly world-shaking.

On the other hand, Noel Williams tackles the thorny question of "Basic or Advanced?" This is a very fascinating article, since it deals head-on with the differences between the two different strains of Dungeons & Dragons. Ultimately, Williams concludes that
The DM in Advanced can add more detail (more monsters, more treasures) but not much in the way of rules or the system becomes unbalanced. On the other hand, because it is so well balanced, new contributions of detail are easy to make ...

With Basic, more is left to the DM. He has greater freedom but less guidance. There is less research for him to do and less to attend to in game, but additional work may be needed to make scenarios credible, and imagination is essential.
I'm not sure I'd have stated this the way that Williams does, but I think he's definitely on to something. While I've met my fair share of Basic rules lawyers and free-form AD&Ders, the general thrusts of the two games, as Gygax stated on more than a couple of occasions, comports with what Williams says above.

Peter Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" continues to discuss the local gaming scene in the UK. Doug Cowie provides reviews of multiple D&D and AD&D modules (assisted by Jim Bambra and Ian J. Knight). These reviews are, on the whole, quite positive, if not necessarily effusive, so, clearly, at the beginning at least, Imagine didn't go out of its way to promote an independent editorial stance for its own sake. Mike Brunton provides an AD&D adventure called "A Box for the Margrave" for levels 4-7. We also get more official rules answers in "Dispel Confusion," Don Turnbull's editorial about "the Pub Game" about which Gygax often talked, and another "Rubic of Moggedon" comic.

Mike Costello's "The Imagination Machine" is an overview of computer gaming at the time. It's a short but thoughtful pieces that declares
In the end, the success of a computer game is not dependent on programming skill but the quality of the underlying design, and there are fewer good designers than good programmers.
How little has changed in the last three decades!

Dave Pringle reviews several books, including Robert Heinlein's Friday and Stephen R. Donaldson's White Gold Wielder. Dave Langford, whom I first encountered in White Dwarf's own book reviews, pens a fantasy short story called "Too Good to Be." There are also letters, fanzine notices, and another comic, part three of Ian Williamson's "The Sword of Alabron."

Issue #3 is a decent one, though it's clear that Imagine is still finding its feet. I continue to like its references to the hobby side of roleplaying and wish that many of its articles were longer. I've also noticed that there seem to be a great many more advertisements per issue than in Dragon, though it's possible that this is simply because ad space was cheaper. Regardless, I increasingly find myself regretting that I never knew about Imagine back in the day. So far it impresses me and it gives me a different window on what gaming on the other side of the Atlantic was like back in the early '80s.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Demon Mini Pics

Brett Zeleznik of Fractured Dimensions produces some excellent fantasy miniatures that draw on old school esthetics. I'm particularly impressed with his demon figures, perhaps because demons figure prominently in Dwimmermount. So, when Brett sent me photos of the greens for his upcoming Type III demon figure, I knew I'd like to share them.

Those look terrific, don't you think?

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pigeons from Hell

For his creation of Conan the Cimmerian alone -- never mind Kull of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and many others -- Robert E. Howard enjoys a pride of place in the realm of pulp fantasy with which few can compare. Of course, there's an unfortunate flip side to the popularity of Conan and his brethren, namely, Howard's many one-off stories don't get nearly as much attention by contemporary readers. While that's understandable, it's also a pity, since REH wrote a number of excellent short stories that don't belong to any "series,"chief among them "Pigeons from Hell."

"Pigeons from Hell" was published posthumously, in the May 1938 issue of Weird Tales. Unlike so many of Howard's stories, this one is not set in the past, whether real or mythical, but in the present day. It's a horror tale that might well be called a "Southern Gothic" by some, a term that's not inappropriate in most respects. According to Howard, "Pigeons from Hell" had its genesis in a ghost story his grandmother used to tell him, suggesting that it had some basis in genuine folklore. Even if it didn't, it's a remarkably effective short story, one that many fans of REH consider among his finest.

The story begins with two travelers, Griswell and Branner, who, tired of having driven so long across country, decide to do what no one ought to do in a horror story -- spend the night in an abandoned house.
They were tired, sick of bumping and pounding all day over woodland roads. The old deserted house stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay. They left the automobile beside the rutty road, and as they went up the winding walk of crumbling bricks, almost lost in the tangle of rank growth, pigeons rose from the balustrades in a fluttering, feathery crowd and swept away with a low thunder of beating wings.
Some time after the pair settle down to sleep, Branner hears a strange, whistling noise coming from upstairs and decides to investigate. Worried, Griswell listens intently as his companion walks slowly up the stairs:
Griswell heard the stairs creaking under Branner's measured tread. Now he had reached the hallway
above, for Griswell heard the clump of his feet moving along it. Suddenly the footfalls halted, and the whole night seemed to hold its breath. Then an awful scream split the stillness, and Griswell started up, echoing the cry.

The strange paralysis that had held him was broken. He took a step toward the door, then checked himself. The footfalls were resumed. Branner was coming back. He was not running. The tread was even more deliberate and measured than before. Now the stairs began to creak again. A groping hand, moving along the balustrade, came into the bar of moonlight; then another, and a ghastly thrill went through Griswell as he saw that the other hand gripped a hatchet—a hatchet which dripped blackly. Was that Branner who was coming down that stair?

Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!
Unsurprisingly, Griswell flees the house in fear and fortunately comes across Buckner, the sheriff, who was riding home late after delivering a prisoner to a neighboring county. In a panic, Griswell explains what happened and, while somewhat skeptical, Buckner is willing to consider the possibility that there is some truth in what he saw, since the house Griswell and Branner visited was Blassenville Manor. As a traveler, Griswell has never heard of the Blassenvilles.
"Who were the Blassenvilles?" asked Griswell, shivering.

"They owned all this land here. French-English family. Came here from the West Indies before the Louisiana Purchase. The Civil War ruined them, like it did so many. Some were killed in the War; most of the others died out. Nobody's lived in the Manor since 1890 when Miss Elizabeth Blassenville, the last of the line, fled from the old house one night like it was a plague spot, and never came back to it ..."
From there, the story turns toward investigation, as the sheriff follows up Griswell's claims and, in the process, reveals to the reader a great deal more about the terrible history of the Blassenvilles. I won't say any more about the plot or the central mystery of "Pigeons from Hell," since I don't want to spoil it for those who've never read it before. However, I will offer up another quote from the story that provides some insights into the nature of the story.
He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing in sunbathed cottonfields. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side—a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side, and the discovery repelled him.
The story is well-done and genuinely scary at times. It was dramatized in 1961 as an episode of the anthology series, Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. You can see the whole episode below. It's rather well done and, sadly, is one of the most faithful adaptations of Robert E. Howard's works into a TV show or movie.