Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Obscenity in Lead

Fantasy Role Playing Games by J. Eric Holmes is a fascinating book. Published in 1981, it's an overview of this then-new hobby, written at least in part to clear up some popular misconceptions about RPGs and the people who play them. It's also a terrific window into the state of things in the late '70s and early very early 1980s from the point of view of someone knowledgeable about the West Coast scene and with connections to many of the movers and shakers of the Midwest region as well. 

Over the past few months, I've been returning to the book and re-reading certain sections of it, focusing on those where Holmes offers interesting or even unusual takes on those times. A good example of what I'm talking about occurs in Chapter 11. Entitled "Little Metal People," it discusses, among other topics, the use of miniatures in roleplaying games. At one point, Holmes notes that

Traditional wargame figures were all male. Minifigs did make castings of a few ladies who might appear on a battlefield – Queen Boadicea, for instance. The wives, sweethearts and camp followers of the armies of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon were not depicted in lead, however. Fantasy gaming has changed all that, since female characters are of major, or central, importance in many fantasy and science fiction stories. Also, for the first time, the game players who used the figures were often female.

The first set of female figures wasn't much to brag about. Minifigs added Amazons to the early Sword and Sorcery line and "Valka Spacewomen" to the first science fiction series. These ladies were either nude or almost so. It was several years before any of the figure companies realized that there was a market for lady adventurers and sorceresses who dressed appropriately to their role and did not look as if they were about to star in the middle of a Las Vegas nightclub chorus line.

I was, at best, an indifferent collector and user of miniature figures in the roleplaying game campaigns of my youth. Nowadays, I don't make use of them at all, though I have made good faith attempts to do so in the recent past. Consequently, I had – and indeed still have – relatively little knowledge of the history of miniature figures. What Holmes says above is not surprising to me, but, until I'd read it, I never gave it much thought. He talks more about this topic and, in doing so, discusses some intriguing bits of history.

The women in the Western, Star Trek and Barsoom figure series are all dressed appropriately. For the Barsoomian ladies this does mean near nudity, but that is true of the male figures also and entirely faithful to the stories. Ral Partha now makes a series of amazonian warriors whose femininity is obvious but whose armor and military equipment look distinctly functional. There are now appropriate figures for a princess, a lady thief or an old witch, although as yet no lady clerics, orc or dwarves. There is a sharp controversy within TSR Hobbies over whether a female dwarf wears a beard. Since Gygax insists she would, perhaps there is no hurry to produce a game-playing figure.

Intriguing, as I said, not least because the matter of female dwarven beards remains a contentious one, even among old schoolers. I sidestep the issue entirely by imagining sexless dwarves, though I nevertheless like to tweak my fellow gamers who hate the idea of bearded female dwarves by sharing this illustration from Dragon (and others like it). I find it equally intriguing that Holmes treats Gygax's opinion on the matter – which I remember his voicing on several occasions – as if it settled the matter. That, too, comports with my memory the oracular status Gary once possessed in certain quarters of the hobby at the time (though just as many, perhaps more, people would have laughed at the suggestion that Gygax's thoughts had any special status).

Holmes continues, bringing us to the section that occasioned this post's title.

This sexual revolution among wargaming figures appears to have taken place without much fanfare. Such is not the case in the hobby of the large military miniatures. I gather there had always ben an "underground" traffic in castings of the female body, but when fantasy figures began selling in the larger sizes as well as the game-playing 25 millimeters, an advertisement for a series of beautiful and sexually exciting nude figures in the British magazine Military Modeling produced several letters of protest. Protest was over the "obscenity" of the figures and their appearance in a hobby magazine that appeals to "innocent" young boys. These letters were followed, of course, by others pointing out the ludicrous nature of a charge of obscenity against the female body, long an accepted challenge for the artist and sculptor, in a hobby devoted to the accurate depiction of men and mechanisms equipped for the killing and maiming of other human beings. Meanwhile, in 25 millimeters, the ladies seem to have entered the field, in various stages of dress and undress, without serious opposition.

Some things never change! Unfortunately, I can find no evidence of the particular advertisement of which Holmes speaks. He provides insufficient detail to determine when this might have occurred or even which company's advertisement it was. If anyone has any insight into this, I'd love to know more. In any case, it's precisely these kinds of stories that Holmes shares regularly in the page of Fantasy Role Playing Games and why I find it such a remarkable book. 

Retrospective: Fiend Folio

Resting on a shelf atop my desk are, among other things, my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcover book collection. Most of them are about forty years old or close to it and it's obvious they've all been well loved. Their covers are faded and scuffed at the corners and their interiors reveal their age through a collection of small stains scattered across their once-white pages. I say "most," because there's one volume that looks almost brand new, despite the march of the years: the "tome of creatures malevolent and benign," the Fiend Folio. There's a reason the book appears nearly pristine and it has nothing to do with the high quality for which TSR's first edition AD&D books were made: I didn't think much of the Fiend Folio and, therefore, almost never used it.

I realize that, in some quarters, that's a controversial, verging on blasphemous, opinion. There is a contingent of old schoolers for whom the Fiend Folio is the best monster book published for AD&D – alas, not for me. I owned it more out of completeness than any enthusiasm. I adored the Monster Manual, which was my first AD&D hardcover, ordered at a Sears catalog store with money given to me for Christmas by my grandmother. I still cherish that book to this day, a fond possession from my youth, portions of whose text I can quote from memory, so often did I read it in those early days. The Fiend Folio, though? I've barely cracked the spine.

I used to think, when the matter of the Fiend Folio came up in conversation, that my dislike of it was based on a failure to appreciate the book's idiosyncratic Britishness. The tome quite clearly evinces a different sensibility from its rather staid American predecessor, most notably in its illustrations. Though the volume contains artwork by TSR stalwarts like Jeff Dee, Erol Otus, and Dave Sutherland, their familiar visuals were buried beneath an avalanche of pieces by Alan Hunter, Albie Fiore, Russ Nicholson, and others, none of which looked much like what I'd seen in the Monster Manual. There was a gloomy, gritty quality to the illustrations that shocked and repulsed me at the time. This wasn't what Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to look like and I found it hard to accept. 

But it wasn't (just) the artwork that turned me against the Fiend Folio; it was the content. Compared to the Monster Manual, most of the creatures in this book are, at best, weird and strangely specific and, at worst, downright silly. Again, I recognize that many see this as precisely why they like the Fiend Folio. I can see that, but, for me, monsters like the Enveloper, the Flail Snail, and the Gorbel, to cite a few obvious ones, are simply goofy and I can't think of any circumstance in which I'd use them. And they're not alone. I could easily go through the book, page after page, and point out all the monsters that strike me as too ridiculous (lava children), overpowered (death knight), or bizarre (trilloch) for my tastes. The whole thing has a rough, unfinished, and fannish quality to it – filled with the kinds of monsters overly enthusiastic but not very creative kids would come up with for their homebrew adventures. I realize that's an unduly harsh judgment, but it's how I felt at the time.

In the years since, my opinion of the Fiend Folio has softened a bit, in particular with regards to the art, some of which I now consider among the best ever done for AD&D. Russ Nicholson, for example, is now a favorite of mine and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once didn't much care for his illustrations. Likewise, I've come to accept that there's a place for some of these monsters, if only as occasional palate cleansers. However, except for those that had appeared previously in published adventures (like the drow or the bullywugs), there aren't any that I feel fill an obvious gap in AD&D's roster of monstrous opponents. The Fiend Folio should, therefore, be treated as a book of options to be used with care rather than as a regular supplement to the Monster Manual (or Monster Manual II, which I consider a much better book, despite its flaws). Viewed in this fashion, I think of it much more kindly.

But before I forget, it must be said: the githyanki are overrated. Ugh.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

When Does D&D Take Place?

No, I haven't gone insane. Yes, I realize that's a very odd question, but I think it's a question worth exploring.

When Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1974, it billed itself  as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns." Gary Gygax elaborates a bit on this matter in his foreword, when he talks about the Castle and Crusade Society, the chapter of the International Federation of Wargaming formed by himself and Rob Kuntz in 1970. Among other things, the C&C Society served as a testbed for the miniatures rules that would eventually become Chainmail, itself one of the foundations on which the published version of D&D was built. He adds:

While the C&C Society is no longer, its spirit lives on, and we believe that all wargamers who are interested in the medieval, not just fantasy buffs, will enjoy playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

So, at the start, Gygax in some way saw D&D as a "medieval" game, though precisely what "medieval" means is unclear. Looking at Chainmail, one sees that "medieval" covers a very broad swath of history, since the troop types include Saxons (6th–9th centuries), Normans (10th–15th centuries), Landsknechts (15th–17th centuries), and Condottiere (14th–17th centuries), among many others. Further, it's worth noting that Gygax quickly concedes that D&D "need not be restricted to the medieval," but, in so conceding, he is implying that "fantastic-medieval wargame play" is normative, or at least expected. 

The rules of OD&D themselves provide few clues as to what "medieval" means, since their details are both vague and inclusive. One could look at its list of "basic equipment" and attempt to draw historical conclusions, I suppose. The presence of, for example, plate mail armor might imply a late medieval (15th century) setting, but it's far from certain. In the discussion of clerics, there's a reference to "Turcopole-type" horsed crossbowmen that might imply a different time period (11th–12th centuries), that of the early Crusades. Again, though, it's far from definitive and one might well say it's evidence of the fruitlessness of this line of questioning.

I'm sympathetic to that point of view, if only because I don't think that Gygax ever intended Dungeons & Dragons to be a historical simulation. "These rules are strictly fantasy," he famously explained and all his most explicit references to the game's inspirations are works of fantasy literature, not history texts. Given that, what's the point of this exercise? For me, the point is simply gaining a better understanding of the original game's unstated assumptions so as to understand OD&D better. My intention is not to limit the scope of what's acceptable – something Gygax himself rejected, as noted above – but rather to see if there's anything we can learn about the game's characteristics and idiosyncrasies that might be rooted in its tacit historical antecedents. 

I remember thinking, upon reading Gygax's last published works, particularly those related to Castle Zagyg, that he had begun to embrace a very late medieval or even early modern vision of fantasy gaming. This made sense on multiple levels, given both his well-known fascination with exotic polearms, many of which did not appear on the scene until the late Middle Ages, and the fact that "adventuring" as an occupation is more plausible in a post-medieval world filled with rootless freemen and mercenaries. In fact, I have a recollection of Gygax's having admitted, in one of his many Q&A threads, that, were he to have written D&D at a later time rather than in the early 1970s, he'd have drawn more heavily from early modern history rather than the medieval. Unfortunately, I can't find the quote and might well have imagined it. 

Regardless, I think there's value in pondering the extent to which Dungeons & Dragons (and fantasy RPGs more generally) are in any sense "medieval" and what, if anything, that means for the worlds in which they are set. 

Halls of the Dwarven Kings

 Does anyone remember this advertisement?

I remember seeing it in the pages of Dragon originally, but I was reminded of it again after reading issue #21 of Imagine. Part of something called "The Complete Dungeon Master" series, it was apparently a system-agnostic boxed set that included an adventure, an illustration booklet, maps, player handouts, and even a referee's screen designed to help keep all the details of the scenario straight – the kind of thing that Chaosium frequently did with its boxed sets for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu and that TSR would later do for D&D

I never saw a copy of the thing, but I was intrigued by the advertisements. I believe there were several sequels to this set, though, again, I never saw them. If you owned a copy or even saw one in the wild, I'd love to hear about it.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #21

Issue #21 of Imagine (December 1984) is another themed issue, this time devoted to superheroes. The cover illustration by Steven Kyte depicts Captain Arrow, a character with whom I am unfamiliar, which means he's either a lesser British superhero or original to Imagine. If anyone reading this can provide some insight into the matter, I'd appreciate it. Regardless, it's a fun cover piece and very much in the style of art I remember from the days when I actually read comic books. 

The issue kicks off with "To Save the World," an overview of superheroes and superhero roleplaying by Nige Squires. Taking the form of a compendious history of the genre, Squires uses that history to illustrate how to create adventures and characters for a RPG campaign. It's an interesting approach and enjoyable to read, especially when you consider the time it was written. The comics world was still vaguely intelligible to an outsider in 1985, though mega-crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths were just starting become an unavoidable trend. In any case, I liked the article and think it succeeded in what it set out to do.

Paul Cockburn provides us with "Kiss of Death," a mammoth 12-page adventure for Marvel Super Heroes that includes several detachable pages of battle maps and stand-up figures, as well as stats for Captain Britain (by Pete Tamlyn). Martin Lock writes "Harrier Comics," which is both a discussion of comics publishing in the UK as well as an advertisement for the titular comic company (of which Lock was founder). Again, my lack of knowledge of the British comics scene, aside from 2000AD, limits my perspective and I'd be happy to learn more from readers who know more. Game reviews continue the comics theme, with reviews of Marvel Super Heroes, several Champions supplements, and TOON. There are also reviews of Justice Inc., The Adventures of Indiana Jones (which the reviewer felt was a good idea badly executed) and Psi World, among others. I was struck by just how many products were discussed – more than fourteen in all – and wondered if I'd ever seen so many reviews in a single issue of any gaming magazine before.

Roger Musson pens two articles in this issue. The first is his regular "Stirge Corner" column, which continues to tackle alignment. This time, though, it's Neutrality that catches his attention. Like the others in the series, it's a solid article with some genuine insight. His conclusion, which serves as the conclusion to the whole series, is worth reproducing here:

Altogether, the morals of the average adventurer are somewhat open to suspicion. Of the players I have seen, few have demonstrated a true alignment in any positive sense. The rest have concerned themselves almost exclusively with staying alive, gathering treasure, and gaining experience levels. 

Musson's other piece, "The Curse of the Purple Potion," is a pun-filled story of the sort I adored when I was in high school but that now seems far less funny.

Chris Felton's Pellinore article, "The Arena," presents the City League's gladiatorial and chariot racing arena, along with maps and NPCs associated with it. There's also a simple set of rules to adjudicate chariot racing that includes a hex map of the race track and counters to represent the chariots. John McKeown's "Monsters, Magic & Menageries" is a very unusual article. It covers the process of breeding – and cross-breeding – monsters, a topic I don't believe I've ever seen in a RPG article before. I can't see using it in any games I'd run, but I'm always intrigued by unusual options like this nonetheless.

"For Whom the Bell Jingles" is a "not terribly serious" AD&D adventure by P. Howard, G. Baker, and L. King. The adventure takes place at Christmas and involves the characters rescuing Santa Claus from a demon called Nurk. I'm not a fan of such scenarios, but I know many people like them. Colin Greenland's "Fantasy Media" reviews several movies, including Red Dawn (which he, quite reasonably, pans) and Ghostbusters (which he likes). He also reviews the second Thieves' World novel, Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn and treats it favorably, despite disliking the stories by Philip Jose Farmer and A.E. van Vogt, whom he calls "two burnt-out stars if ever there were." Mike Lewis, in his "Soapbox," compares RPG rulesets to computer hardware and software, a somewhat odd analogy but one that probably seemed very relevant at the time, as affordable personal computers were just starting to appear. Finally, "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Phalanx" comics return and I continue not to care.

Issue #21 is fine but, for me anyway, not as enjoyable as issue #20. That's not slight against Imagine itself but more of a testament to my own relative lack of interest in superheroes compared to other subjects. I hope that next issue will be more to my liking.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Huge Ruined Piles


Men & Magic, Volume I of original Dungeons & Dragons, in a section entitled "Preparation for the Campaign," rather famously describes a dungeon as a
"huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses".

The quote is a popular one in the OSR and for good reason: it's incredibly evocative. Reading it, I find myself thinking of an immense, crumbling Gothic structure, perched precariously on some mountaintop and sprawling across its slopes. In this, I've likely been influenced by the cover illustration to OD&D's Supplement II: Blackmoor.

What's interesting is that both the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns were centered around – and indeed named after – a castle (as was Rob Kuntz's El Raja Key). Despite that, it was the levels beneath those two castles that served as the focus of player character action rather than the castles proper. Castle Greyhawk did have an "upper works" (as did Castle Zagyg), but they did not occupy much of the player's attention, at least according to one account by James M. Ward. For Castle Blackmoor, we have a map of the surface levels of the castle, presented in Judges Guild's The First Fantasy Campaign, but they're sadly not very interesting – hardly a "huge ruined pile."
Speaking of Judges Guild, the 1977 module, Tegel Manor, is in some ways closer to this ideal, though, at only 250-ish rooms, it's probably too small to be called truly "sprawling" (though moreso than either Castle Amber or my own The Cursed Chateau). 

I've written before about "above ground" dungeons, but, in that case, I was thinking mostly of ruined cities on the model of Glorantha's Big Rubble, which is itself worthy of further discussion. However, my present musings are occasioned more by today's Pulp Fantasy Library entry. I now find myself thinking about immense, haunted castles – an unholy amalgam of Castle Dracula, Neuschwanstein, and the Winchester Mystery House, peopled with all manner of monsters and perhaps even the degenerate descendants of the original inhabitants á la H.P. Lovecraft's The Lurking Fear
It's funny really that "the dungeon," meaning an improbable warren of subterranean tunnels should become the default environment for adventuring in RPGs. On one level, it makes perfect sense, since dungeons, as conceived by roleplaying games, have no real world analog, thus freeing the referee to map them according to his own fancies. Mapping a castle, even an absurdly large and rambling one, might demand at least a little knowledge of the layout of such buildings and that can impede one's creativity. I've experienced a little of this myself, in detailing the surface ruins of Urheim, since it's meant to be a "real" fortified monastery where all of its buildings have a clear and logical purpose. 

That aside, I don't see any reason why a would-be designer of a massive castle "dungeon" need be limited by real world considerations. My references above to Neuschwanstein and the Winchester Mystery House were chosen specifically to highlight the legitimacy of whimsical, irrational, and downright deranged design choices. After all, if your huge ruled piles is the result of "generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses," why should its floorplan be bound by normal logic? 

I remain quite taken with Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone's notion of "the dungeon as mythic underworld," which I believe comports almost perfectly with OD&D's presentation of the game's play environment. But we need not be too literal when it comes to adopting this perspective. Properly presented, a sprawling, crumbling castle can be every bit an example of an underworld as any series of monster-infested tunnels. Indeed, if one looks at Gothic fiction from the late 18th through 19th centuries and beyond – fiction that has had a clear influence on fantasy roleplaying – cursed and haunted castles abound and entering them is often metaphorically akin to descending into Hades (consider Jonathan Harker's trip to Transylvania in Dracula, for instance).

Obviously, creating a dungeon of this sort will require some re-thinking of the traditional structure of levels and the difficulty associated thereto. Off the top of my head, I might suggest dividing the castle into wings, with certain certain wings being "low level" and others "high." Alternately – or even in conjunction with wings – one might instead opt for a vertical approach: as one ascends the castle's spires, it becomes more difficult. Another possibility is simply to dispense with such artificial notions and opt for a more "organic" one, where the challenge is independent of location and characters exploring the place must learn to be clever to avoid running into dangers beyond their present abilities. The possibilities are quite large and, were I a better cartographer, I might start work on my own huge ruined pile. Alas, my skills in this area are negligible, so it won't be happening anytime soon. One day ...

RIP David Prowse (1935–2020)

By now, most of you will have heard that the news that English bodybuilder, weightlifter, and actor, David Prowse, best known for physically portraying Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, has died at the age of 85. I don't believe it's an exaggeration to say that Darth Vader is one of the greatest fictional characters ever created, as instantly recognizable across the world as Superman or Mickey Mouse. While none can –or would – deny the importance of James Earl Jones's vocal performance to cementing Vader in the popular imagination, Prowse's contribution is often sadly overlooked. 

That's understandable, I suppose, given that we neither saw his face nor heard his voice, the two most commonly understood tools in any actor's repertoire. Yet, Prowse was more than just "a guy in the suit," as I've sometimes heard said of him. His performance in Star Wars is quite good, portraying the imposing physicality of the Dark Lord of the Sith while also evincing a low-key intensity that's even more evident in The Empire Strikes Back. From what I have read, the Vader costume was bulky and stiff, which would have made it hard for any actor, particularly one whose face was completely obscured, to convey much of anything. Nonetheless, he did so and did so memorably.

I was seven years old when I first saw Prowse as Darth Vader on the big screen and I will never forget it. The moment he strides into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia's starship, surrounded by stormtroopers, is one of the truly great character introductions in all of cinema. Prowse effectively portrayed menace and authority in equal measure. By all rights, Vader could well have come across as ridiculous rather than threatening. That he did not is no mean feat and a testament to Prowse's skills. In a very real way, Star Wars would have been impossible without him.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Titus Groan

Two admissions before I begin. 

First, and most obviously, Mervyn Peake's 1946 novel, Titus Groan, cannot, by any reasonable judgment, be called a work of pulp fantasy. Certainly it's a fantasy and a remarkable one at that, but it's quite far from the sort one would have found in the pages of Weird Tales. Nevertheless, because of its relevance to matters near and dear to fantasy RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, I hope I can be forgiven for this taxonomical impropriety (a sin I've committed on more than one occasion previously). 

Second, despite numerous entreaties by people whose opinions I respect, I hadn't read Titus Groan or its two sequels in the Gormenghast Trilogy until quite recently, an omission that, having now corrected, I feel was a terrible lacuna in my literary education. Please bear that in mind, as you read this post, as what follows are the fervid thoughts of a neophyte experiencing a rare delicacy for a first time rather than the carefully considered opinions of someone well-versed in its unique pleasures.

Titus Groan begins with the birth of its titular character, the only son of Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, who will one day inherit rulership of Castle Gormenghast. City-like in size, Castle Gormenghast is effectively a world unto itself, to the point that all the novel's action takes place within its vast expanse. The castle is so large that characters who dwell in different parts of it occasionally remark that it's been years since they last saw one another. Filled with innumerable sub-buildings, chambers, and hiding places, many of which have evocative names – the Tower of Flints and the Hall of Bright Carvings being but two that feature in the novel – the castle is almost a character in its own right. It's certainly more than just the setting of the story: characters make frequent references to the castle and "the stones" (or variations thereof) in their oaths and exclamations, reinforcing its centrality to the unfolding story. Castle Gormenghast is truly a singular literary creation and I now understand why so many people have recommended I read Titus Groan over the years.

Contemporaneous with the birth of Titus are events in the far-off – and insufferably hot – Kitchens, overseen by a cruel chef called Swelter. (As an aside, the names in Titus Groan are terrific: reminiscent of Dickens in their dark whimsy and portentous of the natures of those who bear them.) Among Swelter's many abused minions is a teenaged boy named Steerpike, who wishes nothing more than to leave his service and find escape. This he does during the commotion caused by the celebration of the birth of Titus. Unfortunately, he is soon discovered by Mr Flay, Lord Sepulchrave's majordomo, who consigns him to a locked room for, among other things, not knowing his proper place. Mr Flay is quite keen on such matters, as Castle Gormenghast depends on everyone who dwells within it – and there are seemingly a great many of them – knowing his place and acting in accordance with it. Even Lord Sepulchrave himself is bound by his duties, which consist in large part of performing rituals dictated by the books of the Master of Ceremonies, rituals passed down from previous Earls of Groan and added to as circumstances demand. It's a ponderous, hidebound system and one can't help but be a little sympathetic to characters who wish to see it ended, one way or another.

Steerpike is one such character and much of the book focuses on him, as he uses his natural charm and cleverness to work his way up the ladder of Castle Gormenghast's internal hierarchy. He escapes from the confinement into which Mr Flay flung him through a window and then scrambles across the rooftops of Gormenghast. While doing so, he spies Lady Fuschia, the teenaged sister of newborn Titus and decides to endear himself to her as a means of bettering his position. This he does through a combination of flattery and genuine friendship, appealing to her loneliness and romantic yearnings for a more exciting life. In fairly short order, he uses her to secure himself a job with the court physician, Dr Prunesqualor, but his goals are much, much higher and the bulk of the novel concerns the rise in fortune that results from them – as well as the chaos he unleashes on the previously staid world of Castle Gormenghast. 

Titus Groan is, at times, a mildly confusing book whose narrative demands attention to follow, which is why I'm uncertain I've understood all the details. There are a large number of characters and locales within Gormenghast, in addition to references and allusions that give the book a fevered, dream-like quality. This is simultaneously commendable and infuriating, as the very elements that make Titus Groan so compelling sometimes work against immediate comprehension (or at least they did in my case). Admittedly, the same could be said of, say, The Lord of the Rings, another great work of English fantasy that appeared a few years later. Titus Groan is thus a book one might need to read a couple of times before fully appreciating but that should prove little chore, given the richness and imagination of Peake's prose. It's a pleasure to read and I look forward to doing so again when time permits.

Though named for the young heir to the throne, who spends much of the book a child, the real stars of Titus Groan are Steerpike and Castle Gormenghast itself. The former is a charming rogue who, as the story progresses, becomes increasingly black hearted and outright villainous. Peake is to be praised for his ability to lure the reader into initial sympathy with the downtrodden young man, even as he slowly reveals the true depths of his wickedness. Gormenghast, meanwhile, could be called the greatest literary example of a megadungeon, despite being almost entirely aboveground. Nevertheless, it's hard not to imagine what it would be like to wander the twisting halls of this immense structure and uncover its secrets. It's in this context that I think Titus Groan and its sequels are perhaps of most immediate interest to roleplayers and, on that basis, alone I highly recommend it, though it offers a great deal more, if you're willing to stick with it. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

News from the Front

The other day, I received PDF copies of the alpha version of Free League's upcoming new edition of GDW's classic military roleplaying game, Twilight: 2000. I was very pleased to see these, first because I was a fan of the original game and, second, because Free League makes excellent RPGs. If anyone could produce a new edition of T: 2000 worthy of the original, it's them. 

I've only had a chance to scan the PDFs briefly. From what I've seen, though, it looks very good. One of the things I liked about the original was its emphasis on the details of survival – keeping track of food, water, fuel, and ammunition, as well as avoiding disease and radiation. That, combined with its attention to the dangers of overland travel, make it potentially one of the great hexcrawl RPGs of all time. Free League has a great deal of experience with this style of game, which is why I'm not at all surprised that they're producing the new edition.

The new edition embraces an alternate history angle, as the game's tagline – "Roleplaying in a World War III that Never Was" makes clear – and that's the right approach, I think. At the time Twilight: 2000 was released in 1984, a limited nuclear war in 1995 didn't seem all that implausible a scenario. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, though, that future seemed less likely and GDW, rather than embracing the possibilities of an alternate history, retooled the background of the war to keep it current. Ultimately, this undermined the game and, I suspect, contributed to its demise (the awfulness of the second edition's rules, which were more "action movie" oriented than the sober, grounded ones of first edition probably didn't help). With the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, an alternate history makes so much sense and, oddly, I think it makes the setting easier to embrace wholeheartedly. 

A few years ago, I did a re-read of many of the original Twilight: 2000 adventures. What struck me is how hopeful many of them seemed. Despite its reputation in some circles as the ultimate murder hobo game, Twilight: 2000 was nothing of the sort. Nearly all of the adventures involved the player characters working to shore up civilization and rebuild some semblance of normalcy in the face of the chaotic aftermath of the Third World War. Far from being just heavily armed marauders, the adventures assumed the characters were interested in using their military skills to help pick up the pieces of the shattered world. In a weird way, I rather think that, rather than being depressing, Twilight: 2000's alternate history might seem comforting in 2020 – a much needed reminder of humanity's resilience and capacity for learning from its mistakes, even ones as grave a nuclear war.

In any case, I'm looking forward to the final release of the new edition, sometime early next year. Some of my friends have already asked that I start up a campaign and I'm very likely to do so. If that happens, you can be sure there will be posts discussing our experiences.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Urheim: Northeast Ruins

Today, we look at the area to the northeast of the Lower Temple, consisting primarily of rubble and debris where once were a series of monastic buildings. As always, comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome, as they help me to develop this locale better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

36

Volume I of original Dungeons & Dragons says the following about levels:

There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress, i.e. 20th level Lord, 20th level Wizard, etc.

Shortly thereafter, there's a section entitled "Levels Above those Listed," which details the progressions for hit dice, fighting ability, and spells for levels above those provided in the "Statistics Regarding Classes" charts. Supplement I: Greyhawk spells these out much more explicitly, expanding those charts for magic-users to level 22 and clerics to level 20. Neither Supplements II or III touch upon this topic again, but Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes alludes to the matter briefly in Tim Kask's foreword, where he comments on "the absurdity of 40+ level characters." Precisely why characters of that level are absurd is never explained.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons does not, so far as I can determine, touch specifically on this topic. A perusal of the Players Handbook shows that the "Spells Usable by Class and Level" charts for both the cleric and magic-user go all the way to level 29 (and illusionists to level 26). Unearthed Arcana increases the maximum level for druids to 23, but druids have always had a clear level cap, as have assassins and monks. Meanwhile, Deities & Demigods, the expanded successor to Supplement IV, seems to cap divine beings at level 25 in their respective classes (though, it should be noted, many of them have levels in multiple classes). 

The Cook/Marsh Expert Set, in a section entitled "Levels Beyond Those Listed" – an obvious allusion to the aforementioned section in 1974's OD&D – states that

Several character classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user and thief) are allowed to advance to 36th level.

To my knowledge, this is the first time in a published D&D ruleset where there is both an unambiguous statement about the existence of a maximum level for character classes (aside from the demihuman ones) and a specific number attached to that maximum level, namely 36. When I first read that section, back in 1981, I remember thinking, "Why 36?" Nearly forty years later, I'm no closer to answering that question than I was then. The idea of a maximum level is not, in itself, absurd, but, once you've committed yourself to that idea, why not stop at, say, 20 or 30 or even 40, since they're nice, round numbers? What's the logic behind 36? What am I missing?

My Kingdom for a Horse

I've always been fond of the illustration above; it's by Bill Willingham and appears in the Cook/Marsh D&D Expert Rulebook. Aside from its esthetic virtues – seeing two fully armored combatants, complete with helms has always been appealing to me – what I liked most about it was the suggestion that fighting from horseback conveyed advantages against an enemy on foot. The problem, unfortunately, is that, aside from a few sentences about lance combat, which requires charging from 20 or more yards away, there's no mention of mounted combat in the Expert Rulebook whatsoever. More is said about aerial combat than is said about mounted combat (though, again, it's not a great deal). 

Sadly, AD&D isn't much better on this matter. I don't believe it was until the publication of Unearthed Arcana in 1985 that we even get suggestions of rules for mounted combat and, even then, the rules offered would seem to apply exclusively to the cavalier class. According to UA, cavaliers are treated as one level higher for combat purposes while mounted. There is also some discussion regarding the characteristics of warhorses too, but it has very little in the way of rules and mostly focuses on the sizes of the various breeds. I find this disappointing, since the image of knights fighting from horseback is deeply ingrained in my imagination and I've long wanted to see mounted combat given its due.

My recent experience with historical wargaming has probably played a part in reviving my interest in the topic. Horses were used in warfare for more than three thousand years, right up until World War I more or less made them obsolete. Is it any surprise then that I'd start to think more about this subject? The difficulty, as is so often the case, is that, when all is said and done, I'm not entirely what I want out of "proper" mounted combat rules or indeed whether I'd even make regular use of them. My experience to date has been that most RPG session, to the extent that mounts come up at all, think of horses more as vehicles for getting from place to place than as engines of war. That's completely understandable, especially in games that involve subterranean exploration and similar activities where horses would prove unwieldy. Still, I don't think it's unreasonable to give this matter some thought.

If you have experience of such, what RPGs have good rules for mounted combat? I know, for example, that the most recent edition of Chaosium's RuneQuest includes rules for both ranged and melee combat from horseback, as well as using polearms against charging cavalry. Free League's Forbidden Lands contains some very brief rules but the focus in that game, as in so many, is on mounts as a means of traveling from place to place rather than their potential use in combat. I find myself wondering if mounted combat is one of those things that, while important historically, was left behind as roleplaying games became less indebted to their wargames roots.

Retrospective: Blizzard Pass

Yesterday's post about solo wargames reminded me of something that I had almost forgotten: that, in 1983, TSR  published the first of two solo adventure modules for Dungeons & Dragons. Entitled Blizzard Pass and written by David Cook, this module is, in broad outline, not all that different from a Fighting Fantasy book like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Considering the immense popularity of the Fighting Fantasy books at the time, one can hardly blame TSR for attempting to horn in on that market.

TSR's solo adventure modules differed from Fighting Fantasy in two key ways, however. First, and most obviously, they were written for the D&D rules, which are required to use them. Second, and more interestingly, the solo modules didn't simply make use of numbered paragraphs, as Fighting Fantasy did. It also used an invisible ink pen. When you opened up the module, before playing it, you'd see lots of blank boxes scattered throughout the text. As you worked your way through it, you'd use the invisible ink pen to reveal the text hidden in those boxes. Though obviously a gimmick – and an excuse, no doubt, to increase the price of the module – it's not an inherently ridiculous idea. Mind you, at the time, I thought it was yet another manifestation of kiddie D&D and made fun of it. I only had the chance to read it years later and it's not nearly as bad as my younger self would had imagined.

The adventure scenario itself isn't itself particularly memorable, but it nevertheless contains some interesting content, as we'll see. The module provides you with a pre-generated character – a Level 1 Thief – is provided for use with Blizzard Pass, though it does leave open the possibility that you might want to generate your own character. Unfortunately, the text indicates that, if you go this route, you're limited to creating a thief, which is rather disappointing. In any case, the pre-generated character has 18 Constitution, presumably to ensure that he has 7 hit points. That's because the adventure is quite difficult, even unforgiving at times, and your character will need each and every one of those hit points to survive, a fact Cook acknowledges straightaway: "This adventure is a dangerous one, so do not take any decision lightly." Good advice!

That acknowledgment is part of "Guidelines and Tips for Playing the Solo Adventure." Some of the points it offers are so fascinating that I have reproduced the section below for the benefit of everyone reading this post.

Notice that guideline 2 is to "resist the temptation to alter die rolls, for any role-playing game will lose all its excitement and challenge if the players use only the best rolls." I find it hard to argue against this point and I presume most readers of this blog would feel similarly. Guideline 5, meanwhile, states "If you are using a character from a regular game, be ready to accept the character's fate. It must be removed from the regular game if it is slain in this adventure!" That's pretty hardcore, wouldn't you say? I think it's a perfectly defensible position, but I rather expect that very few people abided by it. It's also a little odd, given the limitation on the type of character that can undertake this adventure (thieves). My suspicion is that this is boilerplate text that was reproduced in all the modules of this series (of which there are two), though I can't say for sure, since this is the only one I have seen.

The adventure itself, as I mentioned above, is not particularly memorable, though it's not awful, given that it's a solo scenario. It begins in medias res, with the character fleeing from an unjust accusation of murder. If he's lucky, the character ends up captured and joining a caravan of snow sledges heading toward the titular Blizzard Pass. Because of his skills as a thief, the character is eventually given the option of aiding his captors as the weather worsens and their situation becomes more precarious. Naturally, he soon finds things aren't as simple as that and the real adventure begins, including a means to prove his innocence. 

Like the Fighting Fantasy books, there are ample opportunities for death, both of the instant "You are dead" variety resulting from a bad choice and from bad dice rolls in combat or for saving throws, according to the rules of D&D. Some of the "right' choices are hard to determine, while some of the "wrong" choices actually make more sense, at least to me. But then part of the fun of these kinds of programmed adventures is that they're hard and require as much dumb luck as skill in surviving the situations they describe. In that respect, Blizzard Pass is fine, though nothing special. Its real appeal, I suppose is that, after you've played through it, the caverns of Blizzard Pass can be re-used as an adventure locale, complete with two new monsters. That might not seem like an innovation, but I can't tell you how often I wished that the Fighting Fantasy books had included a full map and key so that they could be re-purposed for a RPG session. 

I know very little about the success or failure of the solitaire D&D modules. I can only assume they sold poorly, or at least not as well as more traditional modules, because there were only ever two published. 1983 is right in the middle of TSR's "experimental" phase, when the company was trying all sorts of new ideas, in an effort to secure and expand D&D's appeal. Like licensed adventures and odd branded items, Blizzard Pass doesn't seem to have advanced that goal significantly and is now mostly a curiosity from the Electrum Age of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Perfect Dungeon

For various reasons, we've lacked quorum (defined as "half the total players plus one," which is five in this case) in my weekly House of Worms campaign. That's fairly unusual, but Real Life™ has intruded on everyone during 2020, so we do our best to roll with the punches. One of the joys of a long campaign like this one is that it has years of momentum behind it; there is no danger that, even if we somehow didn't meet for more than a month, the campaign would fall into desuetude. 

Those of us who have been available have used our regular meeting time simply to socialize, talking about matters of interest to us all. Though not limited to gaming, that's naturally a common topic, particularly our memories of games past. During one such chat, the Moathouse from Gary Gygax's The Village of Hommlet came up, where it was generally agreed that it's a truly great low-level dungeon. One of my players is Dyson Logos, who plays Grujúng hiZnáyu, a mighty warrior who enjoys direct solutions to problems, which sometimes means Grujúng is often left out of conversations among his more nuanced clan mates. Anyway, Dyson put forward the notion that the Moathouse is near perfect, for a variety of reasons, and I am inclined to agree with him, as I said on this blog some time ago:

Then there's the moathouse, which has everything I crave from a low-level old school dungeon: a plausble backstory, lots of vermin, and several encounters that might, if the PCs are foolhardy, lead to deaths. To my mind, the moathouse ruins provide a superb template which other referees might use in creating their own starting dungeons. It's a great example of Gygaxian naturalism in action, which is itself a reminder that, while the campaign may be set in a fantasy world, that doesn't mean the world exists solely to fulfill the players' fantasies. There are many encounters – such as the giant crayfish – that will kill low-level PCs if they are stupid enough to charge in until they are ready to do so. I like that a lot and it's something that D&D has slowly lost over the years, much to my disappointment.

I don't think I'd change a word of what I wrote above. If anything, I'd probably wax even more lyrical about the things I adore in the dungeon – and by "dungeon," I also mean the upper level on the surface as well. In fact, that upper level is just as important to the feel of the place as the dungeon proper. The foes on the surface consist of dangerous but mundane creatures, like giant frogs, snakes, spiders, and rats. There are also lots of brigands – underutilized opponents in my opinion. There's an "extraordinary ordinary" vibe to the upper levels that, I now realize, has probably influenced my conception of Urheim's own surface ruins more than I had realized. They're just great in my opinion, striking the perfect balance between being too mundane and too unnatural. I prefer my adventure locales to start out relatively "normal" and slowly build toward weirdness. That's why I like lots of empty rooms filled with seemingly random and inexplicable debris: they keep things understated and allow the tension to build, since the characters and, by extension, their players start to feel lulled into false sense of security.

The lower levels are just as good, with a solid selection of monsters, ranging from various Chaotic humanoids (bugbears, gnolls, ogres) to weak undead and soldiers in the employ of Lareth the Beautiful, "the dark hope of chaotic evil," as Gygax so memorably calls him. Say what you will about Gary but he certainly knew how to turn a phrase. I'd wager that no module written since first edition AD&D has ever had a single line of text worthy of memory, let alone quotation. All in all, it's a perfect package worthy of continued study and emulation. 

Solo Wargaming

As a latecomer to the hobby of wargaming – board wargaming, at least for the present – I am rapidly finding that my reach is exceeding my grasp. I am fortunate to have friends with whom I can play wargames on a regular basis via VASSAL, but I'd like to be able to play more often. Partly, this is a case of my simply wanting to play catch-up on decades of games I've not yet played and partly my desire to experience different design approaches to strategic and tactical events

It's my latest obsession and I've observed, in the course of having played Falling Sky and Liberty or Death!, that there's a lot in these and other wargames that can serve as inspiration for RPGs. That only makes sense, of course, given that roleplaying games arose out of wargaming (primarily miniatures, it's true). Despite the decades of formal separation between these two types of games, I'd like to think that there are still lessons they can learn from each other, which is why I'm making a strong effort to educate myself after years of neglect.

For example, I've learned is that there's a long tradition of solo wargaming. in both the miniatures and board wargaming fields. Despite the cover I've used to accompany this post, my present knowledge of the topic, such as it is, comes largely from the world of board wargaming, though I do hope to change that. From what I have learned, there are, broadly speaking, two types of solo wargaming. The first is when you a single player chooses to play a game by himself. The second is when a game is designed to be played by a single player. 

I had a brush with the second type long ago, in the early 1990s, when GDW published Phase Line Smash, a solitaire game of the Gulf War. At the time, my friends and I joked that the real Gulf War was itself a one-player conflict, given how comparatively ineffectual the Iraqi forces were, so the design of the game made sense. What I didn't know at the time was that this was no innovation of Phase Line Smash but rather a not uncommon design choice in wargames design. More recently, I learned that many of the COIN games include "bots," programmed choices for each faction that allow it to participate in a game with fewer than the recommended number of players. I'd never heard of such a thing before and must confess to being amazed by the existence of such an option.

The first type, in which a single player takes on all the sides in a wargame intrigues me. On the one hand, it strikes me as if it'd be very difficult to do this effectively, since, in my own experience anyway, one quickly comes to identify with one's side and do whatever one can to ensure its victory. Would I be able to play each side equally effectively? On the other hand, one of the points of wargaming of any kind is to come to a better understanding of the conflict being simulated. "Cheating" by playing one side better than another defeats that purpose. More to the point, what's the fun in stacking the deck? One of the things I've most enjoyed about the wargames I've been playing is the way that I can be surprised by the interplay of events. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that that's a big part of why I enjoy roleplaying games too. The emergent "story," for lack of a better word, that comes from the protean interactions of choice and randomness is intoxicating to me. I also very much enjoy looking back on those interactions after the fact and pondering what might have ben if things had gone differently.

For that reason, I'm starting to consider seriously picking up a board wargame or two and playing it solo. I'm not yet sure which games I might choose and have been asking for advice from anyone who might be willing to offer it. Most people I've asked have said that it's more important to find a game whose subject matter interests me than to worry about other factors, though game mechanics do, of course, matter. I've taken this to heart and begun to consider my options. In doing so, I realize that I'm not all that interested in ancient or medieval warfare. Instead, the wars of the early modern era, such as the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War, and the Seven Years' War hold much more appeal for me. I'm investigating in print wargames that cover these conflicts and trying to settle on one or two that I could devote myself to in the weeks to come. If anyone has any suggestions on this score, I'd love to hear them.

The ultimate goal in this exercise is to come sufficiently comfortable with playing a solitaire wargame that I might be able to develop something wargame-y that could aid me in simulating large scale events in my various ongoing  campaigns. I'm particularly keen to figure out something that might work with my House of Worms Tékumel campaign. There are a number of high-level events brewing in the background, such as the start of the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór, that I'd like to adjudicate in an "objective" and genuinely unpredictable fashion. I don't want things to turn out according to my own designs but according to the inexplicable designs of Fate. If this sounds like I'm beating a dead horse, you have my apologies. Like a dog with a bone, I can't let go of this idea, which has seized my imagination in a powerful way. Solo wargaming is yet another avenue by which I'm grappling with it. 

Imagine Magazine: Issue #20

Alan Craddock provides the cover to issue #20 of Imagine (November 1984), which is dedicated, as its cover proclaims, to "Clerics in the Dungeons & Dragons game." Themed issues like this are always a risk, since, if you're not interested in the theme, it tends to damper your enthusiasm for reading the issue. Fortunately for me, this issue's theme piqued my interest greatly, since clerics might well be my favorite class in D&D. I've always felt that clerics weren't given the love and attention they deserve, being reduced to armored medics respected only for their ability to heal and nothing else. Needless to say, I was curious to see what the writers of Imagine had to say on the subject.

Things kick off with Paul Vernon's "Clerics are People Too." The article rightly notes that, whereas fighters, magic-users, and thieves all have clear literary inspirations, the cleric does not. While I can certainly come up with examples to counter Vernon's specific claim, his larger point remains, namely, that D&D clerics lack fantasy role models and that this contributes to their being played badly and banally. What Vernon suggests is developing fantasy religions better so that players of clerics understand what their character should believe and its impact on their behavior. Nowadays, it's an obvious point – though how often it's actually employed is an open question – but, in 1984, I think it was fairly unusual.

Lewis Pulsipher offers "Alignment, Personality & Philosophy-Religion," an extensive examination of all these factors with regards to playing a cleric. Pulsipher is particularly interested in the subject of alignment, which, as we all know, remains a contentious one even today. He argues for making alignment more important, even to the point of suggesting, for example, that Lawful clerics not roll for their hit points but instead get the average amount per level, while Chaotic ones roll as normal. It's an intriguing notion, though not one I expect to catch on, even if it does succeed bringing alignment front and center rather than leaving it a philosophical abstraction at best.

"As God is My Witness" by Graeme Davis examines the judicium Dei, the various types of trials used during the Middle Ages to determine guilt or innocence. This is a purely historical article but a worthwhile one, full of ideas for use in a campaign. "The Necklace of Lilith" by Phil Gallagher is an AD&D adventure intended for a party consisting only of clerics, which is certainly a novel idea. The scenario concerns the recovery a divine item, the titular Necklace of Lilith, long believed lost. Accompanying the article is another, "New Clerical Spells," which is a reprint of an article from Dragon #58 (February 1982) by Gary Gygax and Len Lakofka. The adventure makes some use of these spells and is, in fact, intended as a means of introducing them into an existing campaign.

"New Flail Types" by Graeme Davis does exactly what its title suggests, providing more weapons for use by clerics (along with stats for these weapons in other game systems, like DragonQuest, Traveller, and Bushido). Carl Sargent's "Looking for an Edge" examines the ban on the use of edged weapons by clerics and argues, as others have done, that the ban should not apply to clerics of every god. In the traditional polytheistic set-up of Dungeons & Dragons, I am sympathetic to this perspective, though I also think the prohibition exists for reasons beyond a hamfisted attempted to introduce a Christian worldview into the game.

This issue's reviews include Grenadier's Disappearance on Aramat, which the reviewer, Stephen Nutt, liked even less than I did. There are also a number of reviews of adventures for Star Frontiers, Space Opera, and The Morrow Project, continuing Imagine's commitment to greater coverage of science fiction RPGs. There's also a very positive review of the revised, boxed version of The World of Greyhawk, for which I have many fond memories. "Chain Mail" discusses the postal version of En Garde!, while Colin Greenland gives a strangely positive review of Conan the Destroyer, a movie most people intensely dislike. Conversely, he gives a negative review to the animated Fire and Ice, which, while no masterpiece, I recall being more enjoyable than Schwarzenegger's second outing as the Cimmerian. 

The comics "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Phalanx" continue in this issue. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" continues the discussion of alignment begun in the previous issue. He rightly points out that Law does not equal Good and Chaos does not equal Evil and riffs off of these matters to good effect. Richard W. Lee's short fiction, "Prince of Thieves," is fine for what it is but nothing special. Much more compelling is the Pellinore installment, "Pablo Fanquay's Fair," which details a group of traveling performers, along with ideas for using them in a game. The Cock o' th' Walk tavern gets a similar treatment, including a map by Paul Ruiz. There are also rules for making a living by street performance – including by breakdancing. Yes, you read that right. Forgive them: it was 1984.

This is another fine issue of Imagine, with much to recommend it. I am particularly fond of the Pellinore setting articles. They evince a terrific combination of creativity, utility, and humor that sets them apart from most other TSR offerings at the time. Seeing as many of those who worked on Pellinore would eventually contribute to Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, this should come as no surprise. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Saints Alive

Without thinking, most of us assume that any given fantasy setting is going to be a polytheistic one, modeled after a crude understanding of the religions of the ancient world. Yet, perhaps the most famous of all literary fantasy settings, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, is monotheistic, though not explicitly so, at least in The Lord of the Rings itself. Middle-earth is not unique in this regard, but it is unusual, particularly when compared to most fantasy RPG settings. I find that interesting, given early D&D's use of many Jewish and Christian concepts, at least some of which would filter into the wider world of roleplaying, due to D&D's preeminent position.  

Back when I was creating what would eventually become my Telluria setting, I toyed with the idea of making it explicitly monotheistic, but, in the end, went with "secret monotheism" instead. On this model, there are "gods" who are worshipped and around whom religions have grown up, but they are not truly divine. The only true Deity of the setting, know variously as Law, Father God, and the Great Maker, among many sobriquets, is no longer widely known in the main campaign area. Though I like this set-up and have used it to good effect, I find myself wishing I'd gone with my initial idea and dispensed with all the lesser, false gods, if for no other reason than it'd be different.

So, in working on Urheim, I'm playing with this idea a little more obviously. How – or if – this meshes with what I've done before is still an open question. For the moment, I'm developing Urheim as a kind of "parallel" universe in which many of the same elements exist as in the rest of Telluria but that there are also idiosyncrasies unique to it. If nothing else, this gives me a freer hand to create; I don't feel bound by anything I've come up with before and can pick and choose those elements I think fit the overall feel.

In keeping with this approach, I've been mentioning various saints in my Urheim posts, starting with St. Gaxyg the Gray. Being a fan of homages and anagrams, I decided that many, if not most, of the saints would be coded references to noteworthy individuals from the history of the hobby. Thus, Gaxyg the Gray is (obviously) an anagram of Gary Gygax. In a similarly obviously fashion, St. Evad filzArn refers to Dave Arneson. I've also mentioned St. Carmichael, which is a double reference, both to Mike Carr, player of the very first cleric in roleplaying, as well as to Dohram, Servant of Saint Carmichael, a pre-egenerated character from In Search of the Unknown (penned, not coincidentally, by Carr). There's also a mention of St. Richomer the Tailor, whose identity I leave to the astute to undertangle in the comments. (That's in addition to two others, I've not yet mentioned anywhere: St. Iacomus the Warden and St. Andreas the Taker of Fiends)

I've found this exercise of making (I hope) clever homages to the worthies of the gaming pantheon a lot of fun. I'd like to encourage others to take it up too, offering any idea they have in the comments. Should I like any of them enough to make use of them in Urheim, I'll gladly credit your creation and send you a copy of the 'zine or other publication where it appears. 

REVIEW: Ordure Fantasy

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the play/design/esthetic movement that has come to be known as the Old School Renaissance has had several notable successes, among them a greater appreciation of mechanical simplicity. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that a driving force behind the creation and promotion of retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials is the recognition that simple, even open-ended, rules are very well suited to the activity of shared fantasy on which the hobby is built. Remember that the hobby's foundational work, Dungeons & Dragons, ended the third volume of its 1974 edition with the sage words to "decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" Improvisation and extrapolation from a loose rules framework has been at the heart of the hobby from the very beginning and the OSR has championed such an approach as worthy of consideration (and, occasionally, as superior to others).

It's with that in mind that I approached Michael Raston's Ordure Fantasy, "a simple d6 roleplaying game." Available only as a 19-page PDF, Ordure Fantasy, as its name suggests, doesn't take itself too seriously, but that doesn't mean its a joke. Rather, its title is a humorous allusion to an earlier simple RPG on which it is partially based. Both games employ six-sided dice for all necessary rolls, usually only one. The goal is to tie or roll under a value rated from 1 to 6. For easy tests, the player rolls 2d6 and takes the lowest result; for hard tests, he rolls 2d6 and takes the highest. It's very simple and easy to remember mechanic and everything in the game uses it. The only other "rule" is the Ordure Test. Whenever the referee isn't sure what might happen – such as whether wandering monsters appear or if a hidden trap is sprung – he rolls 1d6 and, on a roll of 6, "ordure happens." The purpose of this mechanic, according to Raston, is "to ensure the PCs feel constantly endangered and that the world is trying to kill them." There's a delightfully spartan forthrightness to the entire game, which delighted me, but may not be to everyone's taste. 

Player characters have three attributes: Body, Mind, and Luck, all rated from 1 to 4 (or 5, in the case of bonuses from magic items). There are also four classes: Mercenary, Conjurer, Scoundrel, and Curate, each of which broadly corresponds to the classes of Basic D&D conceptually. Classes provide four skills (of which only three may be chosen to start), plus a boon, which is a special ability. For example, a mercenary's boon is the ability to choose one target per turn and, if the attack against that target is successful, the target is instantly slain. On the other hand, the curate's boon is augur, which allows him to ask the referee one question which must be answered truthfully. Characters advance in levels (to a maximum of 6, as you might expect) whenever they survive "something interesting, dangerous, exciting or entertaining," which results in one attribute or skill increasing by 1. At level 3, a character can choose his fourth class skill if so desired. 

Combat consists of a series of tests, with NPC enemies (including monsters) being handled slightly differently. The first test uses a combat skill to determine if an attack is successful. A PC struck in combat gets to defend, using either Body or Mind, as appropriate (with armor providing bonuses to Body tests). If the defense roll is also a failure, they get one more test, against Health. If this too is a failure, the character loses one Health. At 0 Health, the character is dead. NPCs have only a single attribute, Health, which doubles as their other combat skill. If Health is above 5, NPCs automatically hit, dealing 1 damage per hit. They never defend and always take 1 damage per hit by a PC (since all attacks deal 1 damage, unless increased by some other means). Since all player characters have 5 Health, I expect that combat is fairly deadly, particularly against NPCs with Health scores above 5.

As presented in the rules, magic takes the form of magic items, which typically improve attributes or skills, and the class abilities of the curate and conjurer. The curate, as a cleric analog, possesses healing magic. The conjurer, meanwhile, can summon emotions, elements, and beings. These magical summonings are only loosely described, with few mechanical features, meaning that their effects are open to negotiation between the player and the referee. If I were to find fault with Ordure Fantasy, it's here, since I imagine that a little more explicit guidance on how to handle these abilities would be appreciated by many readers, including those already comfortable with improvisational play. 

The bulk of the book consists of six examples of various useful "components" for a game, whether they be monstrous adversaries, equipment, or even haggling with merchants. Raston's overall approach consists of embracing randomness as a springboard for creativity. He makes that very clear at the start of the book, when he lists among the requirements for play "a willingness to play and see what happens." To my mind, that's a refreshing perspective and one that I see as key to the continued appeal of what has come to be called, rightly or wrongly, the old school style of play. If that style appeals to you, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Ordure Fantasy. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Horror on the Links

I find it hard to believe that, after more than two hundred posts in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I've only ever written a single post about the writings of Seabury Quinn. What makes it so unbelievable is that Quinn was a prolific writer, penning more than 500 pieces of fiction during his 80 years of life, most of which were published in the pages of Weird Tales – including the story I'll be discussing in this post.  

Quinn himself was quite an unusual individual. To the extent that anyone remembers him at all today, it's as a pulp writer, which might have surprised him, since he considered fiction writing to be a sideline to his "real" professions of journalism and law. His legal specialty was, believe it or not, mortuary law. Consequently, he knew a great deal about funerals, funeral homes, embalming, and related subjects that he put to good use in his fiction. He also served as the editor (and occasional writer) of several funerary magazines. 

Quinn created several long-running series of stories, the most successful of which were the tales of French occult detective Jules de Grandin (Grandin being Quinn's middle name). His first appearance was in the October 1925 issue of Weird Tales in a story entitled "The Horror on the Links." The story begins with Dr Trowbridge being awakened in the night by a phone call from Mrs Maitland, informing him that "something dreadful" has happened to her son, Paul, after he returned from a dance at at the country club with Gladys Phillips. 

Physicians' sleep is like a park–public property. With a sigh, I climbed out of bed and into my clothes, teased my superannuated motor to life and set out for the Maitland house.

Young Maitland lay on his bed, eyes closed, teeth clenched, his face set in an expression of unutterable dread, even in his unconsciousness. Across his shoulders and on the back of his arms, I found several long incised wounds, as though the flesh had been raked by a sharp pronged instrument.

Paul Maitland briefly awakens under Trowbridge's care, crying out, "The ape-thing–the ape-thing! It's got me! Open the door; for God's sake, open the door!" Trowbridge uses a sedative to calm Paul and then returns home to catch up on his own sleep. 

The next morning, he awakens to "the front page of the paper lying beside my breakfast grapefruit," announcing "Body of Young Woman Found Near Sedgemore Country Club Mystifies Police." Reading the story, Trowbridge learns that the mutilated body of Sarah Humphreys, a waitress at the country club, was discovered lying in one of the bunkers of the club's golf course. Since Paul Maitland had also been at the same club, Trowbridge immediately assumes a connection between the murder and what happened to the young man.

The doctor's housekeeper, Nora McGinnis, interrupts his reading of the paper to announce that Sergeant Costello and "a Frinchman, or Eyetalian, or sumpin" were both waiting for him downstairs "ter ax ye questions about th' murther of th' pore little Humphreys gurl." Alarmed that he might be considered a suspect, he rushes to meet them. Costello quickly reassures him that this is not the case, only that he wishes to ask him some additional questions about Paul Maitland – and to introduce him to Professor Jules de Grandin of the Paris police. 

De Grandin introduces himself, explaining that, while he does work with the Paris police, his "principal work is at the University of Paris and St. Lazaire Hospital; at present [he] combine[s] the vocation of savant with the avocation of criminologist." Trowbridge admits that he knows De Grandin by reputation and this pleases the Frenchman, who explains his interest in Paul Maitland. Together, they go to the recovering young man and ask him about what he experienced the previous night.

Maitland tells them that he had come across a woman's body, lying across the path. He started toward it and was surprised by a rustling in the trees overhead, as something dropped right down in front of him. He had no idea what the thing was but was sure it was not human, being shorter in height than himself but twice as wide. He carried a .22 automatic in his pocket and repeatedly pointed the weapon at the thing, threatening to shoot if it did not identify itself. The creature was unimpressed and leapt at him, grabbing the gun from his hand and snapping it in half before grabbing him and rending his flesh. Maitland had no idea what the creature was but repeated that "it was hairy as an ape." It's at this point that the true investigation begins, with Trowbridge and De Grandin working side by side for the first time.

"The Horror on the Links" is by no means a story for the ages, even by the standards of pulp literature. It's full of clichéd characters and situations and the ultimate resolution of the story's central mystery is disappointing, to put it mildly. Yet, for all that, there's still something fun about it. Perhaps it's the melodramatic verve with which Quinn presents it all, especially when it comes to De Grandin and Trowbridge and their Holmes and Watson dynamic by way of Thomas Carnacki and Hercule Poirot. There's a strange charm to whole mess of this tale that, for me anyway, almost overcomes its narrative deficiencies. I suppose, too, that I'm simply so fond of the occult detective genre that I'm willing to overlook the flaws of "The Horror in the Links." Even so, no one should read this post and think I am unaware of the story's many issues. Instead, the takeaway should be that there are many metrics by which one can judge the quality of a story – particularly a pulp one – and simple enjoyment is one of them. I enjoyed "The Horror on the Links" and maybe that's enough.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Adventure Planning à la Mentzer

 

I've been re-reading Frank Mentzer's 1984 D&D Companion Set, for which I have warm feelings, despite its flaws. While I was doing this primarily to refresh my memory of the rules for dominions and mass combat, in doing so I've come across some very fascinating little bits I hadn't remembered. For example, there's the section reproduced above offering advice on "adventure planning." The interesting bits, in my opinion, occur in the section titled "Rates of Progress."

In that section, Mentzer states that name level characters

should gain a new level of experience for every 3 to 8 successful adventures. More adventures can cause player frustration; fewer adventure can make the game too easy and eventually bore them.

So much to ponder in just a couple of sentences. First, there's the idea that level advancement should occur at a predictable rate. Does this idea exist in any other version of TSR era Dungeons & Dragons? Second, there's the idea that "player frustration" is both tied to a slow rate of advancement – "slow" being defined as more than nine adventures between levels – and to be avoided. To me, that's a strangely reductionist understanding of why people enjoy RPGs. Now, I understand that Mentzer's version of D&D goes all the way to Level 36, so there's probably an expectation of at least some people who play it that their characters might eventually reach that level, which will take time. Does that therefore mean they expect level advancement according to a schedule? I wouldn't think so, but then I share M.A.R. Barker's assertion that a roleplaying campaign is not a casual parlor pastime

Take a look, too, at the Adventure Planning Table. The leftmost column is for the number of characters in a campaign, which numbers from 1 to 10. Remember the Companion Rules came out in 1984, just a decade after the publication of OD&D. In my post the other day about large groups, the question of when the shift toward smaller groups became more common was posed. Looking at the chart, it would seem that, whether or not small groups were common by this point, they were at least envisaged as a possibility. A commenter suggested that the shift might have been the result of the game's being marketed more toward children than adults, which I think is plausible. Mind you, I've criticized BECMI as "kiddie D&D," so I might be more inclined toward this interpretation of events than is warranted. Regardless, this whole section is fascinating to me.