Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Retrospective: Adventures in Blackmoor

I'm not ashamed to admit that, when I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I barely recognized the name of Dave Arneson. Certainly, his name appeared prominently on the inside front page of the Basic Set I first owned, but, for some reason, it never really registered with me. That probably has something to do with the fact that, in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere, Gary Gygax was the spokesman and face of all things D&D. Arneson was relegated to little mentions here and there, if at all. 

Consequently, I was somewhat surprised when I saw an advertisement for the Origins Game Fair in 1983 that announced that the convention's guest of honor was Dave Arneson, "co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons games." After my initial bafflement wore off – after all, Gary Gygax was the creator of D&D, right? – I recalled seeing Arneson's name and started asking some of the older guys I knew about this mysterious Arneson fellow and why I'd never noticed his name before. 

This being before the Internet, precise information was hard to come by. Instead, I got hearsay and innuendo about a falling out between Arneson and Gygax, former friends and colleagues, a lawsuit, and more. It was all vague and unclear but it was my first sense that the history of D&D was a lot more complicated than I had believed. The game had not sprung fully-formed from the head of Gary Gygax but may have, in fact, involved others, such as this Dave Arneson fellow. I had to content myself with such fragmentary evidence for years. It was only when I obtained a copy of Supplement II: Blackmoor that I gained some confirmation of the story. Reading Gygax's effusive praise of Arneson in the foreword to that work made it clear that, at one time, the two men had indeed been friends and collaborators. Exactly what had sundered their relationship, I did not yet know – and wouldn't for many years – but I now knew it was true.

Around the same time, TSR began to publish the "DA" series of adventure modules for the Dungeons & Dragons line, the first of which was entitled Adventures in Blackmoor. I, of course, knew the name Blackmoor already, both from the OD&D supplement I had acquired just previously but also from the World of Greyhawk setting, which featured a Barony of Blackmoor in the far northwest of the Flanaess. This new module didn't seem to have any connection to Greyhawk, but the cover, depicting some frightful retro-tech machine with the face of a bull, intrigued me and I bought a copy. 

I was immediately enthralled. Though the 64-page module did include an adventure intended to introduce the characters to Blackmoor (here depicted as having existed 3000 years in the past of TSR's Known World setting), it was the gazetteer and sourcebook of the Northlands that was vastly more interesting to me. Here was, I had just learned, the first setting for fantasy roleplaying, and it was quite different from any of the D&D settings I'd previously seen. I already knew from Supplement II that Blackmoor included science fictional elements, much like Gygax's own Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" adventure from that book included an alien being – Stephen the Rock – genetic engineering, high-tech weapons and armor, and more. So, seeing that weird Jeff Easley cover piqued my interest mightily.

The appearance of Adventures in Blackmoor seemed to coincide with the departure of Gary Gygax from TSR and I doubt that was coincidental. That said, the module is fascinating in its own right, in that we get we get a decent amount of information about the Kingdom of Blackmoor, its history, present political situation, and notable personages, albeit through the lens of Frank Mentzer's D&D revision and the burgeoning Known World setting (later to be redubbed Mystara). The map by Tom Darden, depicting the Northlands, was, for me, the crown jewel of this module and I pored over it for many hours, pondering its many evocative place names (as well as noticing commonalities with names from Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk, such as the Duchy of Ten(h)). 

What Adventures in Blackmoor did was make me much more aware of and interested in the early history of Dungeons & Dragons and of the RPG hobby in general. Consequently, I have very fond feelings about this module and keep it within arm's length of my writing desk. It and two of its three sequels – I never owned The Duchy of Ten, alas – are among my favorite TSR products from the the late 1980s. If anything, my warm feelings toward them have only grown.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Your Mother Was a Martian

These rules are strictly fantasy Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don't care for Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard's Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser putting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS & DRAGONS to their taste.

The seminal influence of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons is well established, I think. The role of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt is probably less known, given how few people have even heard of, let alone read, the Harold Shea series. Even less known, I think, is the influence of the Barsoom stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And yet he's the very first author whom Gary Gygax mentions in the "forward" [sic] to Volume 1 of original D&D. 

Consider, too, Gygax's words in the (again misspelled) "forward" to Warriors of Mars, written less than a year later.

Worlds of heroic fantasy are many, but perhaps the best known of them all is the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, where John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris, etal [sic] adventure endlessly in eternal youth.

I don't think there can be any question that Gygax highly esteemed the Barsoom stories, which are included even in Appendix N (though, it should be noted, Burroughs is not listed among "the most immediate influences" upon AD&D). 

OD&D contains multiple references to Mars, such as the tables for wilderness wandering monsters in Volume 3. The column for "Desert" has a parenthetical note "(Mars)," with entries for Red, Black, Yellow, and White Martians, as well as for Tharks. There's also an "Optional Arid Plains" column with entries for Apts, Banths, Thoats, Calots, White Apes, Orluks, Siths, Darseen, and Banths. Now, none of these beings or creatures are given any game stats and indeed it wouldn't be until the 1981 Moldvay Basic Rules that this would change, when one of these – the white ape, albeit with only two arms – finally appeared in print. Additionally, Mars is cited as an example of another world where one might set D&D adventures.

As it turns out, Gygax did just that. One of his son Ernie's characters was called Erac's Cousin and had an adventure on what is quite clearly the Mars of John Carter. One retelling of his exploits can be found here, from which I quote the following:

One of Erac's Cousin's more memorable adventures occurred after he spotted a strange red star in the night sky. He drifted off to sleep thinking of the strange star and when he awoke he discovered he had been transported to Mars. To his surprise he arrived stark naked. Soon after his arrival, the mage was attacked by the Cannibals of Ugor. Much to his dismay, he discovered that magic didn’t work there, and he was forced to fight toe-to-toe with the bloodthirsty cannibals using nothing more than a tree branch. In time the unnamed adventurer adapted and ultimately excelled in is new environment. Due to the planet's low gravity the marooned wizard's strength was heroic. He could leap 20 to 40 feet into the air, and much further than that forward. During the many months that he spent there, being unable to use magic, Erac's Cousin began training as a fighter. Instead of using magic to defeat his enemies, he would now cut them down with a sword. Before returning to Oerth he had slaughtered hoards of Green Martians, and organized an escape from the mines of the Yellow Martians. Finally he discovered a method of returning to Greyhawk. He found Oerth in the night sky before going to sleep and when he awoke he was back home. Unfortunately his arrival home was similar to his arrival on Mars; naked. He had left a fortune behind on the red planet.

Erac's Cousin's awakening on Mars naked recapitulates Carter's own experiences and, if the reference to multiple colors of Martians were not enough of a giveaway, there are the Cannibals of U-Gor, which appeared in the 1930 story, A Fighting Man of Mars. Issue #3 of the first volume of The Strategic Review (Autumn 1975) features an article on randomly generating ruined Martian cities by James M. Ward. It's not specifically associated with OD&D, but it's another example of Barsoomian content in a TSR product. 

I think it is unquestionable that the fantasy genre as we understand it today – and hence the roleplaying games that derive from it – owes its existence largely to Edgar Rice Burroughs's stories of Barsoom, which even a youthful H.P. Lovecraft regarded highly (he would distance himself from them later in life) and which inspired generations of imitators and pasticheurs, including such luminaries as Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock. That Gygax, give his age and fondness for pulp literature, would have likewise admired and drawn upon these same stories should surprise no one. Nevertheless, I think the influence of Barsoom on D&D's development is underappreciated and ought to be known more widely.

The Forest of Enchantment

Look on my works, ye grognards, and despair!
I mark the end of D&D's Golden Age at 1983 for a number of reasons, but one of them is that '83 is when the vast majority of weird licensed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons products begin to flood the market. (It's probably not a coincidence that, during this same period, Gary Gygax was in the midst of his exile to Hollywood, as well as in the midst of a rancorous divorce from his first wife.) By comparison to beach towels, wood-burning sets, and needlepoint patterns, AD&D-branded storybooks seem positively benign. Only a heartless curmudgeon like me could hate this stuff, right?
Take a look at the credits. It's published by Marvel, illustrated by Earl Norem (best known for painting the covers of men's adventure magazines in the '50s and '60s, though he also did plenty of work for Marvel, including The Savage Sword of Conan), and written by Bob Stine – known to a later generation of children under the name R.L. Stine. 

The book tells the story of Caruso the elf bard and his fellow elf Filaree the druid as they attempt to foil the machinations of the sorcerer Kellek, his master Warduke, and their army of lizard men, who are using the titular forest as a staging ground for ambushing Princess Mirra so as to steal the magical Ruby of the Seven Stars from her. I've read fantasy novels with worse plots than this, but that's hardly a vote in favor of The Forest of Enchantment. 
No doubt there were many children whose first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons was through this book. No doubt some of them eventually went on to buy and play the RPG. If so, that's great! But I hope I can be forgiven for finding the whole thing faintly ridiculous and even a little embarrassing. I fortunately never came across this book at the time. If I had, I imagine I'd have had even stronger words to say about it.

Chainmail Bikini

After so many entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I sometimes forget the books and the stories about which I've already written. This happened recently when I started writing a post on Robert E. Howard's "Sword Woman," featuring Agnès de Chastillon – Dark Agnes, as she is sometimes called – only to discover that I'd previously written one on this very story more than a decade ago. The reason I wanted to make a post on this story is that it's often reported that Marvel's Red Sonja is based not just on the similarly named Red Sonya of Rogatino but also on Dark Agnes. 

Of course, the matter is complex. None of Howard's yarns about Agnès de Chastillon appeared during his lifetime, though he shared drafts of them with fellow writer C.L. Moore. In fact, Moore was so enthusiastic about Dark Agnes that she was inspired, at least in part, to create her own fictional swordswoman, Jirel of Joiry. In any case, a "posthumous collaboration" between REH and Gerald W. Page resulted in the third Dark Agnes story being published in the neo-pulp magazine Witchcraft & Sorcery in early 1971. That story, entitled "Mistress of Death," served as the basis for "Curse of the Undead-Man," the first (original) story to appear in Marvel's The Savage Sword of Conan" in 1974. 

The Savage Sword of Conan is itself a fascinating topic worthy of further discussion, not just for its role in further popularizing Robert E. Howard's most famous literary creation, but also for its influence on later fantasy entertainments of all kinds (including RPGs – remember that OD&D appeared almost contemporaneously with its inaugural issue). For present purposes, what's important is that Savage Sword was initially published not by Marvel Comics directly but the related company of Curtis Magazines. This meant that, among other things, Savage Sword did not have abide by the strictures of the Comic Code Authority (which, at any rate, had already revised its rules several times in the early '70s). Unsurprisingly, Roy Thomas – and, more importantly, his artists – were freer in adapting Howard's stories, particularly when it came to violence and sexual or occult content. Equally unsurprisingly, this made the comic one of the most popular and successful of the decade.

So it was into this environment that we first see Red Sonja in the garment for which she is most famous – the chainmail bikini, as it is commonly known.
Recall that Sonja had previously appeared in issue #23 (February 1973) of Conan the Barbarian and it's to this prior adventure that she refers here. Recall, too, that when Sonya appeared in that comic, she dressed rather differently.
Still not the most practical armor perhaps, but at least her arms and chest are protected. So what happened? Why the change in the character design? 

According to Roy Thomas, it was Spanish artist Esteban Maroto whom we have to thank for this innovation. The story goes that Maroto submitted a piece of artwork to Thomas that depicted Sonja in this now-famous outfit. Thomas loved the look and ordered John Buscema to use it as the basis for Sonja's appearance in "Curse of the Undead-Man," while Maroto got to illustrate a back-up story featuring the Hyrkanian warrior woman entitled simply "Red Sonja." Also worthy of note is that the cover to Savage Sword, depicting Conan and Red Sonja fighting side by side against a horde of undead, was done by Boris Vallejo, back before he had become fantasy caricturist and demonstrated some genuine talent.

Growing up in the '70s, it was almost impossible to escape Red Sonja. She was featured regularly in advertisements for Marvel comics during the period and, alongside Conan himself, forms a big part of my early awareness of sword-and-sorcery as a distinct literary genre. To this day, I've never actually read a single one of her own titles; she's always been a secondary character in Conan's comics. Still, she's an important part of the pop cultural history that feeds into the history of roleplaying games, so I may need to familiarize myself better with her as a character. Even if you're not interested in her as a comic character, her creation touches on the interplay between publishing and fans, as well as changing mores regarding what was acceptable content for comic books. Those are some rich veins to mine for anyone interested in the prehistory of RPGs, so this probably won't be the last time you'll see the chainmail bikini in these pages.

Imagine Magazine: issue #11

Once again, Imagine has a very striking cover, this time  by artist Peter Knifton. Also of interest is that issue #11 (February 1984) features the banner "For players of Dungeons & Dragons," which had not been there previously. Previous issues had had occasional articles about other RPGs, but it was still predominantly focused on D&D. I suspect that the addition of this banner was by order of TSR in the USA, based on a news item mentioned later in the issue, which mentions a visit to the TSR UK offices by Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers, Kevin and Brian. I would be quite surprised if there were not a connection, but I am deeply cynical.

"The Adventures of Nic Novice" by Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz continue, this time focusing on interacting with intelligent monsters in a non-violent fashion. The player characters encounter a kobold prisoner of some orcs they just slew. The kobold offers to help the PCs if they will free him, but Norva Ironarms – Nic's character – wonders whether the creature is leading the party into a trap. This is actually a useful little article, not just in presenting the pros and cons of parleying with monsters, but also for the way it sheds light on how to differentiate characters of the same class through roleplaying. For perhaps the first time, I see some value in this feature (though, as I've repeatedly said, it's not intended for old hands of the game).

Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" tackles the vexing issue of D&D's weights and measures, including units of time. He's right to do so, I think, because D&D has always been a welter of systems and units, often to the point of confusion. "The Cavalier" by Gary Gygax is a reprint of the article that originally appeared in Dragon #72 (April 1983), as is "Social Status and Birth Tables," also by Gygax but from issue #70 (February 1983). These were articles I really enjoyed at the table, but, in retrospect, I have far less positive feelings about them (that's probably a topic for another time). Complementing these Gygaxian contributions are a pair of articles: "Horse Combat" by Chris Felton and "Orders of the Day" by Carole Felton. The first rules for using lances from horseback, while the second discusses a pair of historical chivalric orders. "Black Roses" is a mini-adventure written with cavaliers in mind; it involves the defense of the town of Braeme against invasion.

"In the Time of Meltingice" is a forgettable piece of fiction by Andrew Darlington. "The Private Lives of NPCs" is more interesting, as it offers a series of questions a referee should ask about his NPCs in order to make them more interesting – and fun – to play. We also get new episodes of the comics "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Sword of Alabron." The "Illuminations" columns offers up gaming news, as well as sarcasm, this time directed at Avalon Hill's soon-to-be-released Powers & Perils. "The Imagination Machine" talks more about the possibility of the then-nascent technology of personal computing, which is of historical interest but little else.

This month's reviews take on the Traveller adventure Nomads of the World Ocean – a favorite of mine – along with Talisman, James Bond 007, and Lost Worlds. Re-reading these reviews, I was reminded that, even ten years after the appearance of D&D, there's still a great deal of vibrancy in the broader hobby. That's why it's intriguing that it's precisely at this time that Imagine decided to rebrand itself as being a Dungeons & Dragons magazine rather than a general RPG periodical. I will be very curious to see what future issues have to offer.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Stalker the Soulless

The 1970s were a time of both great instability and great creativity at DC Comics, with new characters being created at a rapid pace and then discarded just as swiftly. This was particularly true of those characters created to capitalize on the growing popularity of sword-and-sorcery themes and concepts, few of whom lasted more than a handful of issues.

A very good example of this is Stalker, premiering in June 1975. Created by Paul Levitz (perhaps best known for his work on The Legion of Super-Heroes) and Steve Ditko (of Spider-Man and Dr Strange fame), Stalker only lasted four issues before being unceremoniously canceled. It's a pity, because there are some clever ideas in the comic that, given time, might have developed into something of lasting interest. As it is, Stalker is, at best, a curiosity for those of us chronicling the history of fantasy themes in pop culture.

Stalker takes its title from its protagonist, who begins as a nameless urchin from the streets of Geranth near the Cold Wastes. Dreaming of one day becoming a great warrior, he seeks out the temple of the god of evil and war, Dgrth – try pronouncing that – and offers the deity his soul in exchange for his martial blessing. Dgrth not only agrees but appears before the young man to give him the power and skills he desires – as well as the moniker of Stalker.

Dgrth is true to his word: Stalker is now a potent warrior of unmatched skill. Unfortunately, he soon finds that he takes no pleasure in his blessing. Dgrth, it seems, has already taken his soul and, with it, his emotions and everything that made him a human being. 

Enraged, Stalker decides to storm Dgrth's hell to force another audience with the god and there to demand his soul be returned to him. After many trials, he succeeds in facing the god of war once more, who explains to him that what he seeks is impossible, for Stalker's soul has already been absorbed into his very being. So long as evil and war existed, he was invincible and there was thus no way for Stalker to reclaim his soul. Rather give up, Stalker instead takes Dgrth's words as a challenge.
It's actually a pretty good setup for a sword-and-sorcery comic, as Stalker travels across the world, attempting to find a way to stop wars and defeat evil without in the process strengthening them – quite a task for a soulless man whose only powers are of a violent nature. The whole thing has a vaguely Moorcockian vibe, which is helped somewhat by Ditko's signature style. Stalker the Soulless is no Elric, to be sure, but, as heroic anti-heroes go, he's much more interesting than Kane

Like many of these discarded fantasy heroes from the 1970s, Stalker has apparently made small appearances in DC comics over the years, though I know little of their contents. If anyone knows more about the subsequent history of the character, I'd be interested in knowing about it.

Artifacts, Relics, and Minimalist World Building


One of my favorite sections of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide was the section discussing artifacts and relics. Even if one ignores their "potent powers and possible strange side effects," artifacts and relics are notable in that they come with hints of a setting specific to AD&D. I used to think about all the names, places, and events referenced in this section and wonder what they might mean.

When I say this, I'm not talking about, for example, the Codex of the Infinite Planes or the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty, both of which explicitly reference the World of Greyhawk setting, though entries of this sort did command my attention nonetheless. Rather, I mean items like the Rod of Seven Parts, which talks of "the Wind Dukes of Aqaa" and "the great battle of Pesh, where Chaos and Law contended," or the Crown of Might, part of a mighty set of regalia "constructed for special servants of the deities of each alignment when they were contending amongst themselves." In just a few words, Gygax implies a great deal; it's a great example of minimalist world building.

Even more interesting in my opinion is the final part of this section of the Dungeon Masters Guide, where Gygax discusses "possible destruction means for artifacts/relics." Here, he references multiple legendary locales without any explanation. In a few cases, these locales come from Earth mythologies, such as Arthur's Dolmen, the River Styx, or the Clashing Rocks. In others, though, it's a bit less clear to what he is referring. What is the Well of Time or the Earth Wound? Where is Marion's Trench or the Cornerstone of the World? Is the Tree of the Universe the same as Yggdrasil or is it something else entirely? How about the Juggernaut of the Endless Labyrinth? 

These are all questions without answers, at least in the page of the Dungeon Masters Guide. To my mind, that's what makes them so compelling: the only answers that exist are the ones you come up with and, boy, did I spend a lot of time trying to come up with my own. My Emaindor setting, for example, included the Earth Wound, as well the Cornerstone of the World, the former of which actually played a big part in its history. I often think that a creator can achieve more with suggestion than straightforward explanation. The DMG's discussion of artifacts and relics is a great example of one way to do that.

Wandering DMs

Dan Collins and Paul Siegel very kindly invited me to be a guest on their video show, Wandering DMs. We talk about a bunch of different topics, such as fanzines, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Traveller, among other things. Dan and Paul are terrific and did a great job of putting me at ease, since I have zero experience of appearing on video. I doubt I'll ever get used to hearing my voice outside of my own head, though. Give it a watch if you're interested in any of these topics or if you just want to watch my weird mannerisms.

Words Gary Taught Me

High Gygaxian is the term used to refer to the pedantic, archaism-laden, run-for-the-dictionary writing style often employed by Gary Gygax, particularly in his AD&D rulebooks and adventures. I'm on record as adoring this idiosyncratic manner of speech. For me, High Gygaxian establishes the feel of the particular strain of fantasy that I associated with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This is one area where I believe AD&D is superior to OD&D and goes a long way toward explaining the enduring influence of this version of the game, even though it's been twenty years since any currently published RPG bore this title.

High Gygaxian was educational to me as a young person. Reading through the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual expanded my vocabulary enormously (as well as introduced me to Latin abbreviations that I still use today). I know I'm not alone in this, which is why this post is celebration of just a few of the grandiose turns of phrase I owe to Gary Gygax. 

Deliquescing: Apparently, the soul of the Faceless Lord possesses this quality.

Enmity: This one is simply fun to say; I think it has something to do with the placement of "n" before "m."

Ichor: It's possible I first came across this word in Bullfinch's Mythology, but Gygax used it much more memorably and I now associate it with D&D.

Legerdemain: Synonyms for magic abound in Gygax's writings (v.i.) and this is one of my favorites.

Leman: While I could have included numerous examples of words I learned from unfairly derided harlot table from the DMG, this one has the advantage of being much more handy in real life.

Milieu: If I had to pick a single word that encapsulates the spirit of High Gygaxian, this would be a strong candidate for it.

Offal: Gygax was also fond of synonyms for carrion, garbage, and rubble. This one has the advantage of being useful when talking to your local butcher.

Prestidigitation: Another delightful synonym for magic.

Puissant: Obscure enough that the blog's spellchecker doesn't recognize it.

Weal: Of which assassins are the antithesis.

This is far from an exhaustive list, which is why I encourage readers to share others in the comments below. What words did you learn from Gary Gygax's extravagant diction?

Pulp Fantasy Library: Bloodstone

I find it hard to believe that, in all the years I've been writing entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I've never written one about Karl Edward Wagner's, aside from this one. That's an oversight that needs correcting, which is why today's post discusses the 1975 novel Bloodstone.

Before jumping in, some introductory words are in order. Kane, like Conan, lives in a grim, fantastical world that precedes our own. He is described as a left-handed, red-haired warrior who is implied to be the firstborn son of Adam and, therefore, cursed by God to wander the world forever for having slain his younger brother. Kane is thus an anti-hero like Elric of Melniboné or Thomas Covenant. It's important to bear this in mind when talking about Bloodstone or any of Kane's other appearances, as he is a mercenary who works for the highest bidder. Though his effective immortality has allowed him to acquire knowledge of a vast array of subject, he remains an amoral slayer of men.

Kane appears in the novel almost immediately.

An ominous black shadow in the leaping firelight, the big man crouched enswathed in his cloak and moodily sipped wine from a crockery mug lost in his huge fist. His close-fitting shirt and trousers of dark leather were freshly stained with sweat and blood, and the right sleeve was rolled back from a scarlet-streaked bandage encircling an arm thick with corded muscle. A belt bright with silver studs crossed his massive chest, holding fast an empty sword scabbard behind his powerful right shoulder. The sword itself stood before him, its point embedded in a gnarled tree root. Absently running a knuckle over the short red beard that framed his rather brutal face, he brooded over the many nicks and red brown smears that defaced the blade and cast shadows of violent by the flickering light. Seemingly he was oblivious to the others as they greedily spread out the loot to divide among themselves.

Amidst the booty these bandits have assembled is a strange ring – large in size and made of a hard metal. More significantly, the ring's setting holds a bloodstone. Kane takes an immediate interest in it, but his companions, particularly their leader, Hechon, are not so keen to hand it over to him, despite Kane's claim that bloodstone "is scarcely a precious gem, and this ring's value is only that of a curiosity." They suspect that, if Kane wants it and is willingly to forfeit the rest of his share of the loot for it, the ring must be quite valuable indeed. Inevitably, a fight ensues over the ring and the red-headed warrior ably demonstrates his prowess at swordplay. Kane leaves the camp with the ring and the novel's real story commences.

As Hechon guessed, Kane does know something about the true value of this ring – or at least he thinks he does. One of the downsides of his immortality is that he often forgets things he has learned; they exist only as vague memories. For this reason, he seeks out Jhaniikest, a winged sorceress with whom he has good relations to learn more. Kane makes use of her "collection of scrolls and strangely bound volumes" and, in time, uncovers the history of the bloodstone. Jhaniikest is appalled and implores him,"Kane! Don't attempt this. I see only death for you in this madness! Let this ancient power lie buried!" His suspicions confirmed, Kane sets off to make use of the bloodstone ring to further his own plans, plans that Wagner does not immediately explain but instead reveals to the reader only slowly through the course of the novel.

I wish I could say that I like Bloodstone but I don't. I like the ideas of the novel, many of which are in the pulp tradition of Robert E. Howard, to whom Wagner was very devoted. Likewise, I like the idea of Kane, but, unlike Elric, he comes across as largely unsympathetic and bloody-minded. That may have been Wagner's point, of course, but, if so, he did his job too well and I found it difficult to care about Kane's exploits. The purple prose and convoluted plot did the novel no favors either and I frequently found myself losing both track of and interest in its action. It's a shame, because I think the ingredients of a good sword-and-sorcery tale are here; they're just poorly assembled.

Before I re-read Bloodstone in preparation for this post, I remembered liking it, but I may have been confusing it with other Kane stories, of which there are slightly more than a dozen. It's also possible that, as I've gotten older, I have simply lost the taste for the hammy, over-the-top style of fantasy that Bloodstone evinces. In the coming months, I might return to Kane and try another story to see if my feelings on the matter have changed.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

REVIEW: Hot Springs Island

I'm cheating a little by reviewing two books at a time, but only a little, as A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island (AFG), and The Dark of Hot Springs Island (TD) are meant to be used together. AFG is the player's book, while TD is intended for use by the referee. Together, they detail a mysterious tropical island – the eponymous Hot Springs Island – as a system-neutral hexcrawl setting. Authors Jacob Hurst, Evan Peterson, and Donnie Garcia memorably call Hot Springs Island "a sandbox of black powder," by which he means that these two books provide a collection of locations, monsters, random encounters, NPCs, and factions awaiting a spark – the player characters – to create an "explosion of consequences." That's a very good way to describe Hot Springs Island, both as a setting and as a product.

Before getting into the content of the books themselves, I have to comment on their physical quality. Fond as I am of the do-it-yourself esthetic, I also really appreciate well-made books and the two Hot Springs Island books are seriously well-made. I'm especially pleased with the binding, which is equal to that of the best RPG books published over the last few years. The books are also sturdy hardcovers, and look like they could stand up to being carted around and used, a trait that is far too rare in game books these days. It's worth noting, too, that The Dark of Hot Springs Island, lays flat, which is especially useful, as you'll see .

AFG is a 240-page, digest-sized book. It's presented as an in-setting document, namely a guide provided by the Martel Company to individuals recruited to explore the island.  The guide consists of several distinct sections, each written as if it were the notes of someone who'd previously been to the place. The inside front cover, for example, presents a color hex map of the island, along with a partially filled-in key, representing those places explored by previous expeditions. There are also many pages of journal entries and recollections by earlier explorers. Naturally, this information is only partially complete (and occasionally misleading), but it does a good job of presenting the broad outlines of conditions on Hot Springs Island to the player characters.

The bulk of AFG is made up of descriptions of the living things that dwell on the island, including its flora. This is noteworthy in my opinion, not only because it's unusual – most RPG books don't spend many words on describing plants – but also because it's delightfully evocative. Reading through the entries on Ambermoss and Quickweed and Sleeping Ivy, I was reminded of naturalists' journals from the 19th century, which goes a long way toward setting the scene. Furthermore, these entries aren't just filled with local color; many of the island's plants possess useful (or dangerous) qualities that make them of interest not only to the PCs but also to their employers and other factions. 

Hot Springs Island is, of course, home to many unusual beasts – about three dozen, I think – and they are described in a similar way to the plants. Again, there's a naturalist's sensibility on display here, with details about not only habitat and diet, but useful parts that can be harvested and used. Several factions of intelligent beings receive attention, describing their activities and goals, in addition to typical members of the faction. Worth mentioning is a handy chart at the back of the book cross-referencing the useful parts harvested from local wildlife, their sources, and which factions would be interested in them. It's a small thing, but illustrative of the care the authors took to make these books easy to use at the table.

TD is 192-page, standard-size book. Unlike AFG, it's written for the referee and, as such, provides more specific details about the island, its locations, and inhabitants. All 25 hexes of the island, for example, have three points of interest within them, some of which have their own maps associated with them (like Glavrok Village above, home to the Night Axe ogres, and the Ashfire Mine). Scattered throughout are numerous random tables to aid the referee in further fleshing out hexes and the locales within them. Helpfully, the authors provide some examples of how to combine all of these elements. I found this quite useful, since there are a lot of moving parts in TD and it would be easy to lose track of them all. The layout of the book (and its ability to lay flat) also contributed to making it easier to use.

Factions get a similar level of detail, with expanded entries on them and their members. In each case, the referee is given lots of options and ideas to work with. The emphasis here, as elsewhere, is on utility, and flexibility. TD is clearly intended to make the referee's job as easy as possible, helping him to use Hot Springs Island in play. There is no plot or adventure path here, only lots of tools for the referee to use in constructing his own, whether in advance or by allowing events to unfold through play. These books are designed with the notion that the PCs will serve as the spark that ignites the entire island into that "explosion of consequences" mentioned earlier. 

Taken together, the two books are a remarkable achievement, both in terms of content and presentation. Because Hot Springs Island is a far-off tropical locale, it's easily dropped into almost any setting without much effort. My only real complaint is that its system neutrality means the referee will have to come up with his own stats for the denizens of the island (and the many unique treasures described in an appendix). That's not necessarily an issue, especially for old school referees used to winging it, but it is another bit of preparation, on top of everything else. 

All in all, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, and The Dark of Hot Springs Island, are a terrific pair of books, full of great ideas, attractively illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez. They're available in print or digital formats from the Swordfish Islands site. I highly recommend them. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Business Hours

Surf's Up!

For our next entry in the category of "weird licensed D&D products," I present you with an AD&D beach towel – which is helpfully labeled as such, just in case you're not sure of its purpose. Based on the information at this blog (which also has photos of other beach towel designs), this product was released in 1982. Until I stumbled across that blog, I don't think I'd ever seen one of these before. 

Perhaps surprisingly, I see nothing objectionable about this. Sure, it's kitschy, but that's par for the course when it comes to beach towels. The art looks very similar to that of the late David C. Sutherland III. Compare the blue dragon here with the illustration in the Monster Manual. The knight, with his historical armor, holds a lot of appeal to me, but I am a huge fan of what I've called "the extraordinary ordinary" style of fantasy art. As I say above, I never saw one of these when they were released, but, if I had, I might have considered buying it. Heck, I might buy one now.

Nagoya Subsector

Previously, I posted the complete sector map of my recent Traveller campaign. This post presents in greater detail subsector G, known locally as the Nagoya subsector, after the Empire of Nagoya, which is centered here. The descriptions below do not detail the entirety of the subsector. That's because, in general, I only fleshed out worlds that the player characters visited. Consequently, if you read the entries below, you can get some sense of where they went and what they did there.
The Nagoya subsector contains 36 worlds with a population of 7.7 billion. The highest population is 5 billion, at Nagoya. The highest tech level is D at Ginnungagap, Ausar and Ka’a.

Bajy (Riphaeus 1711)
Until thirty years ago, Bajy was a subject world of the Triarchy of Endu. However, during a revolt known locally as the Blue Phoenix Rebellion (named after its leader, Sankh Uru, whose name can be loosely translated as Blue Phoenix), Bajy achieved independence, which it has retained to the present day. Of course, its continued autonomy is largely the result of disinterest on the part of the King-Emperor of Endu, who could probably crush Bajy if he were determined to do so.

Presently, Bajy is renowned as an open port of call, where almost any good or service can be acquired for the right price. Despite this, the local law level is high, though, as with most things on the planet, money talks. Indeed, it is enshrined in local law, where “a better kind of justice” is readily available to those who can afford it. Given its status as a free port, Bajy is a hotbed of intrigue.

Ciméria (Riphaeus 1919)
A heavily populated world along the coreward edge of the Empire of Nagoya, Ciméria is notable for having been home to humans since before the foundation of the First Federation of Suns. A colony ship intended for a destination farther spinward crash landed on Ciméria, where life proved extremely difficult owing to the planet’s trace atmosphere and non-existent surface water.

Through a combination of luck, determination, and advanced technology, the Cimérians survived and even prospered until the arrival of the Federation, incorporation into which they resisted. When the Federation withdrew, Ciméria was independent for a few decades before the newly-established Empire of Nagoya appeared, offering protection and trade. Reluctantly, the Cimérians swore fealty to the Throne of Paulo, though a vocal minority remained restive and continues to be a source of unrest even today.

Ginnungagap (Riphaeus 1815)
Technically non-aligned, this water world is nevertheless closely associated with the Triarchy of Endu, one of whose corporations, Tiagi Atah, exploits its resources for the benefit of the ruling House of Anputelep. To that end, Tiagi Atah has expended considerable resources to establish three automated undersea settlements, as well as an orbital facility (where the system’s Class B starport is located, portions of which are leased to the Scouts).

Körmt (Riphaeus 1915)
An asteroid belt overseen and mined by the Endu crown corporation known as Tiagi Atah. Nevertheless, the system is open to exploitation by anyone, including foreigners who are not subjects of the Triarchy. Of course, Tiagi Atah has laid down some very strict rules and regulations governing the behavior of independents working in the belt, most notably a complete ban on any weapon outside one’s home. This ban does not extend to Tiagi Atah’s own security forces, but it does include non-corporate vessels, which are legally required take offline all weapons systems while visiting Körmt.

Nocki (Riphaeus 2017)
While listed as a Red Zone, Nocki is in fact quarantined; travel from the world is prohibited by Imperial Nagoyan law. This is due to a virulent airborne contaminant in the atmosphere, whose origins are uncertain. It is clear the contaminant is not natural in origin, but whether it was purposefully or accidentally released into the air remains a mystery. Within the Empire of Nagoya, the most common belief is that the First Federation released it during the same withdrawal (circa 715 New Calendar) that destroyed the planet’s starport.

Regardless of the truth, the contaminant has neurological effects on the human brain, ranging from permanent memory damage to loss of motor functions to death. The native population, divided into several dozen states, has developed an immunity to the contaminant but carry it within their own bodies. Standard filter masks are capable of protecting visitors from its immediate effects. However, strict decontamination afterward is required.

Shun (Riphaeus 2118)
This world was a rich, vital world during the rule of the First Federation of Suns. After the rapid withdrawal of the Federation military from the sector following the Skorth Incident (714 New Calendar), panic spread on Shun (or Arcadius as the natives call it), resulting in the collapse of the local government. Several factions contended to take its place, supported by elements of the native army. Within a few years, the planet was divided into five powerful states and a half-dozen lesser ones.

In the centuries since, Shun has prospered after a fashion, but its inhabitants are deeply xenophobic. The world’s former starport was deliberately destroyed and every attempt at re-contact or interstellar trade since have been rebuffed, sometimes violently. In the absence of such contact, the world has regressed to Tech Level 5.

Vimur (Riphaeus 1717)
The Vimur system includes two human-inhabited worlds. Vimur possesses a TL6 culture just recovering from a planet-wide war. The system’s innermost world, Élivágar, is a cold, tidal-locked planet with a scrap of habitable land in the twilight zone between glaciers. Its inhabitants possess a TL3-4 culture.

Vimur is within the sphere of influence of the Empire of Nagoya, but it is too technologically backward to be seen as a true client state.

Xi’an (Riphaeus 2016)
A lightly populated, non-aligned world that enjoys regular contact with the Empire of Nagoya – in large part because its approximately 700 permanent inhabitants are former Nagoyan military personnel (and their families) who have embraced Concordianism. Concordianism is a dualist religion that preaches complete pacifism. Xi’an’s inhabitants have renounced all violence and, as such, no longer feel they can live within the Empire’s borders. Due to the influence of Concordianism, the world has no formal government or laws, as neither as necessary.

Physically, Xi’an’s most notable feature is the high quantity of methane in its atmosphere. Oxygen tanks are thus required outside of the planet’s domed settlements, but further protection is not required. Methane and similar natural gases can also be found beneath Xi’an’s surface; extracting them forms a large part of the planetary economy.

Interview: Chris Holmes

Today's interview was a real treat for me. Chris Holmes, son of Dr J. Eric Holmes, kindly agreed to answer my questions about his own experiences with roleplaying, as well as the life and works of his father, whose Basic Set was the very first RPG I ever owned. 

1.  How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

My favorite game as a kid was Clue; it was the only game I could beat my older brother at. It was also the closest thing to an RPG in America in the sixties.

Sometime in 1975 by brother Jeff told my Dad and I about a game his friends from the alternative high school were playing.  He thought we would like it even more than he did and he was right. He arranged for Dad and I to join a game run by two high schoolers. The rules they used were developed by Cal tech students and were called WarlockWarlock used a complicated combat system with percentile dice and a magic system with more spells than OD&D and spell points; it was all a bit overwhelming. We had enough fun that first confusing night that Dad wanted to buy his own set of the rules. The high schoolers directed him to Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica. There he bought the 3 brown books plus Greyhawk and Blackmoor, Chainmail and two copies of the Warlock rules and lots of dice and minis.  He was rather frustrated at his first attempts to learn the rules from the books, but eventually made his own hybrid of the two rule systems. He was well prepared to be a Dungeon Master because his bookshelves already contained most of “Appendix N” and he had already had his first success as a pulp writer. When, a couple of weeks later My friends and I entered his first dungeon we were about to have the most fun of my teenage years.

2.  Was your father an avid player of games generally or was it because of the fantasy component that he was interested in trying Warlock?

Dad was a good chess player; he had a beautiful set he bought in Japan on leave during the Korean War. He didn’t play many other games until he discovered D&D. After attending his first GenCon he got interested in wargames and other strategic, miniature, and even play by mail games. In the 70’s we played the Dungeon! board game and Cosmic Encounter. Later we played miniatures wargames with Romans vs. Picts and Vikings vs. Britons. He painted Aztec, Egyptian and Zulu Armies but I don’t think he ever played me with them. We also loved Snit’s Revenge and The Awful Green Things from Outer Space by Tom Wham.

3. On the matter of Appendix N, who were your father's favorite authors? He wrote a novel set in Pellucidar, so he was clearly a fan of Burroughs. Do you recall others whom he liked?

I believe his favorite was Lovecraft, but he didn’t talk about favorites very much. His collection was very similar to Gygax’s, I imagine. Dad had an almost complete set of Clark Ashton Smith stories published by Arkham House. He had a large collection of ghost stories and adventure stories as well as a lot of science fiction. He had a complete collection of Robert E Howard in paperback, most of Burroughs, Andre Norton, and many others. Another author he collected who didn’t make it on to Appendix N was William Hope Hodgson, a favorite of Lovecraft’s. He began collecting Weird Tales and other pulp magazines in high school. He also had a small collection of Big Little Books and a huge collection of mostly Marvel comic books.

4. What do you recall about that first dungeon adventure with your friends?

Dad had most of the visual aids he would use for dungeon mastering prepared for our first game. We all had minis and he had something to represent every monster we encountered. He drew the corridors around our figures in grease pencil on a clear sheet of acrylic. The dungeon was massive in scale; this was because it was home to a purple worm. We quickly learned to run away from some of our foes.  The adventure as I recall was very similar to the description in The Maze of Peril. The encounter with the weresharks was our second or third game; we could not have been more than second level. I still don’t know how we survived our encounter with those were creatures, but it was the most fun I have ever had playing a game.

5. Did any of the events or characters of Maze of Peril derive from your father's D&D campaign? Were Zereth or Boinger based on player characters?

Boinger and Zereth were my first characters. Boinger’s silly name came from his high Dexterity and Zereth’s dour personality grew out of his low Charisma. Both characters were refined by my father but I feel like I am their co-creator. Murry the mage was my friend Eric Frasier’s character.

6. You mentioned weresharks. You drew one of the early illustrations of this monster to accompany your father's description of them in Alarums & Excursions. What was the origin of this creature? 

Weresharks were Dad’s creation. They were based on Hawaiian folklore. The Polynesian shark man retains a shark mouth on his chest in the myth, which is not a detail my Dad kept. His monsters had arms and legs that allowed them to crawl upon the land and grab in addition to biting. He also gave them the immunity to conventional weapons.

7. At what point did your father decide to undertake the writing of a Basic Set for D&D? Was it on his own initiative or was he approached by TSR to do it?

It was fairly soon into his experience as a dungeon master that he mentioned his idea for a “Beginner’s Guide to Dungeon’s and Dragons." I’m not going to say what year, because I don’t trust myself with dates. I believe he wrote them a letter and I think Gygax called him back. They arranged over the phone that Dad would write the rules for free and he would receive TSR products for life as payment. I do remember talking with him about a Beginner’s Guide and agreeing it was a good idea, but I didn’t think there would be much market for it. As we know, I was wrong by over a million copies.

8. The Basic Set has a number of distinctive features, such as the ease with which magic-users can create scrolls and the use of the Dexterity score to determine initiative in combat. Were these rules your father used in his own games?

I don’t recall anyone using the scroll writing option, though I would certainly encourage it among first and second levelers playing Basic.

The Dexterity for initiative order was something  we used even before Dad wrote the Basic rules.  He may have adapted it from rules on spell casting initiative from either Original D&D or Warlock or thought it up on his own. I remember liking that rule as a teen because both Boinger and Zereth had the highest dexterities in our group. Nowadays, I have every one role a D6 for initiative and use Dexterity as a tie breaker. I do this to keep the players from feeling bitter about their low Dex. I don’t think it made it into the rules, but each round had magic, missiles, and melee in that order.

Speaking of Dad’s gaming style: he did use a 4-sided die for damage from daggers and missiles. I wish he had added that rule, but I think he was trying to be as faithful to the original rules as possible.  He also had a rule I liked where if your character was killed, they were given a dying blow.

9. After the Basic Set, did your father continue to write roleplaying game materials? Other than books like his 1981 Fantasy Role Playing Games or "Confessions of a Dungeon Master," he doesn't seem to have written anything more relating to the hobby. Is this correct or am I overlooking something?

I think “Confessions of a Dungeon Master,” the article he wrote for Psychology Today may have been as important as the Basic Set. It was not only a very early defense of the hobby at I time it was under attack, it also anticipated its acceptance as a beneficial activity.  

He did a chapter on the Cthulhu Mythos with Rob Kuntz for Deities & Demigods in 1980. He wrote four “Boinger and Zereth” stories for the Dragon magazine; three of which were published. He followed them with the novel, The Maze of Peril, which unfortunately did not find a major publisher. It came out in 1986 from Space and Time. He wrote a few more articles and letters all of which are chronicled in Tales of Peril in Zach Howard’s excellent bibliography. I think he approached Gary Gygax to write a forward to Maze of Peril and was ignored, though that may be a false memory. We were both bitter about the rejection of the story “Witch Doctor” by Dragon. He was also commissioned at this time to write a Conan novel by L. Sprague De Camp. That unpublished novel as well as a posthumous collaboration with John Coleman Burroughs were what occupied him till the end of his life. Since some of Dad's D&D fans are also fans of his pulp writing, I want to say it seems likely that Red Axe of Pellucidar and Danton Doring will be published. The fate of the Conan Story is less sunny.

10. Did your father continue to play D&D and other RPGs for the rest of his life? For that matter, do you still roleplay?

My father spent a few interesting years in the 80’s in Shiprock, New Mexico raising his daughter. He did not get a D&D group together again. Eventually, his son would be old enough to play Warhammer with him. I played a few games with Dad and my younger brother on my visits, like my superhero game and Call of Cthulhu. He continued to collect and paint miniatures for most of his life along with his other collecting hobbies.

I befriended a new group of players who played the Warlock rules for a while. We also invented a superhero game and a Road Warrior inspired game. When I lost touch with them, I briefly started a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Although I enjoy playing with my wife, I have yet to find a group of players, much less a DM that could replace my original group. I have come very close to my initial player joy at the North Texas RPG con. I love playing with both the new and the original members of the OSR and also talking to them on podcasts. Recently, I have been playing in a Zoom game with my childhood friend Eric Frasier. I run a Basic game currently with teens from the Boys and Girls Club.

NOTE: Tales of Peril: The Complete Boinger and Zereth Stories of John Eric Holmes is available from Black Blade Publishing. Instructions for ordering a copy are available here.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

D&D is Everywhere II

My relationship with comics is pretty spotty. I collected a few when I was a kid – mostly Star Wars and Dr Strangeand would sometimes read my friends' superhero comics. For the most part, though, I didn't have a serious exposure to comics of any sort until I was in college. Consequently, I completely missed out on the arrival of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when it appeared in 1984. I eventually became aware of it through the 1987 children's cartoon and immediately dismissed it, as I am prone to do. But some college friends, who had read the original Mirage Studios issues, informed me that the comics were little like the TV series and that I shouldn't be so quick to judge them. Later, another friend of mine, who was a Palladium RPG fan, showed me his copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, which was based on the comics and published in 1985. I wish I could say that it did anything to give me a better appreciation of the Ninja Turtles but it didn't.

That wouldn't happen until 2012, when my then-young children started watching a new computer-animated TMNT series. Initially, I was skeptical; my memories of the goofy '87 series made it almost impossible for me to have an open mind. Despite myself, I would catch little glimpses of the show from time to time and I liked what I saw. It wasn't anything deep or important but it was fun and filled with lots of little references and homages that I appreciated. 

The episode that really won me over, though, was in the second season. Entitled "Mazes & Mutants," it featured the Turtles playing a roleplaying game. Now, I'm usually very wary of mass media portrayals of RPGs; they're almost always reveal that the people writing them have no idea what playing an RPG is actually like. "Mazes & Mutants," though, was pretty good – not perfect, mind you, but much better than most. The moment when I fell in love with the episode was when I saw this:

The cover is quite clearly based on my beloved 1977 Holmes Basic Set rather than any of the letter versions. That's amazing unto itself, since the Holmes set has largely been forgotten by pop culture, which tends to fixate more on the 1983 Mentzer edition (and, for good reason, given how well it sold). Still, seeing that image warmed my heart. 

The episode also features a moment when we see the Turtles hunched over a large graph paper map.
I'm probably letting my delight at the box cover art to color my perceptions, but doesn't that map look a little like Zenopus dungeon from the Holmes Basic Set, at least stylistically?  

Power Creatures™

In the 1980s, LJN made a lot of money by making toys of licensed properties. One of these properties was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – and it's important to remember that all their toys were branded as Advanced D&D rather than simply Dungeons & Dragons. Over the course 1983–1984, LJN released a very large number of AD&D toys. Some of the toys, such as these figures, are quite well known, since at least a few of them appeared as characters on the D&D cartoon and in a few TSR-published RPG products.

I was a teenager during this time, so I never owned any of them myself, though I regularly saw them in shopping mall toy stores that also sold RPGs. Naturally, I turned my nose up at them, seeing them as another example of "kiddie D&D." Even so, I'd sometimes take a look at the monster figures, if only so that I could criticize how bad they looked (and they generally looked very bad).

One range of D&D toys I don't ever recall seeing were the Power Creatures, which were wind-up toys.
What's strange about these toys is not their appearance or construction – I actually think the cave fisher looks half-decent – but the choice of monsters. These are all pretty obscure monsters; certainly none of them could be called iconic Dungeons & Dragons adversaries. The cave fisher first appeared in the 1981 module, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, and was later included in Monster Manual II, along with the Tarrasque. The pernicon appeared in the Fiend Folio and, if anything, is even more obscure (and useless) than the cave fisher. 

I assume that these three were chosen almost entirely on the basis of the fact that their names could be trademarked. That makes sense form a business standpoint, I suppose, but I can only imagine what a kid, who was only vaguely familiar with D&D, would have thought of receiving one of these as a gift. By almost any measure, they're odd toys, particularly if one of their purposes was to popularize and promote Dungeons & Dragons outside its usual audience. 

The Future of TSR Hobbies, Inc.

Issue #8 of Polyhedron (October 1982) was the first issue I ever owned. In addition to a terrific cover illustration by the late, great James Holloway, the issue also featured the conclusion of a two-part interview with Mike Carr (the first part appeared in issue #7). At the time of the interview, Carr was at Executive Vice President of TSR's Manufacturing Division. Because of this, the unnamed interviewer asks him about "the future of TSR Hobbies."

Carr's answer is interesting on a number of levels, but what I noticed was his reference to TSR's having recently acquired a craft company. Carr explains that TSR did this "to promote our philosophy and hopefully our regard for quality products." He doesn't say anything else about the craft company or what it produced, but I wonder if it was Greenfield Needlewomen, as reported in this fascinating article by Jon Peterson. This company is notorious for having released products every bit as bizarre as the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Woodburning Set. Take a look at one of them:
If you poke around online, you can find images of more D&D products made by Greenfield Needlewomen. There were at least three different designs, but, for some reason, I find "Dragon Power" the most amusing.

Wizard Funk

One of the happiest developments of the last decade of gaming is the resurgence of fanzines. Dungeon Crawl Classics played a huge role in this resurgence and Goodman Games deserves a lot of credit for encouraging and promoting 'zines of all sorts. Fanzines are a great way to actively participate in this shared hobby of ours. There are now 'zines for nearly every game and taste and I highly recommend looking into some of them. I have no doubt you'll like what you see.

Earlier this month, the second issue of the digital-only fanzine, Wizard Funk, was released. It's a lively black and white offering, an homage to the APAs of the 1970s, right down to the typewriter-style fonts. The content is a mix of amateur fantasy art and RPG material. There are adventures, monsters, magic items, dungeons, rants – the whole range you'd expect to find in a 'zine emulating the spirit of the early days of the hobby. Best of all, each issue costs only $1, which is a steal, particularly for issue #2, which is 48 pages long and features lots of fun gaming content, as well as an interview with Allen Hammack.

I'm so happy to see products like Wizard Funk. They evoke everything that's best in the hobby and I hope we'll see more issues in the future. If there are any fanzines you would recommend, please post them in the comments. I'd love to know about more!

Grognard's Grimoire: Beggar

Illustration by Luigi Castellani

Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 14
Armor: Leather, no shields
Weapons: Any
Languages: Alignment, Common

Beggars are adventurers who survive by their wits and fortitude. Though similar to thieves, with whom they are often confused, beggars bring a number of unique skills to a party that make them worthy companions in many circumstances.

Combat
Beggars cannot wear armor heavier than leather and cannot use shields. They can use any weapon.

Back-stab
When attacking an unaware opponent from behind, a beggar receives a +4 bonus to hit and double any damage dealt.

Beggar Skills
Beggars can use the following skills, with the chance of success shown below:
  • Disguise (DS): A beggar can disguise himself as a human, humanoid, or demihuman of similar height and build. (same as hide in shadows chance of thief of equal level) 
  • Hide in shadows (HS): Requires the beggar to be motionless–attacking or moving while hiding is not possible. 
  • Pick pockets (PP): If the victim is above 5th level, the beggar’s roll is penalized by 5% for every level above 5th. There is always at least 1% chance of failure. A roll of more than twice the percentage required for success means that the attempted theft is unnoticed. The referee should determine the reaction of the victim (possibly using the reaction table under Encounters, in Core Rules). 
  • Scrounging (SC): Once a day, a beggar can locate useful mundane items equal in value to 10 gp × level, provided the beggar is in an urban environment.
Trust
A beggar is adept at playing on the sympathies of Lawful and Neutral aligned beings, gaining a +2 bonus to reaction rolls in dealing with them. This bonus is in addition to any bonus from Charisma. The beggar need not share a common language with the being but the being must be intelligent.

After Reaching 9th Level
A beggar can establish a beggar’s court, attracting 2d6 apprentices of 1st level. These beggars will serve the character with some reliability; however, should any be arrested or killed, the PC will not be able to attract apprentices to replace them. A beggar might use these followers to challenge the position of the current King/Queen of Beggars.

Beggar Level Progression

Level

XP


HD


THAC0

1

0


1d4


19[0]

2

1,200


2d4


19[0]

3

2,400


3d4


19[0]

4

4,800


4d4


19[0]

5

9,600


5d4


17[+2]

6

20,000


6d4


17[+2]

7

40,000


7d4


17[+2]

8

80,000


8d4


17[+2]

9

160,000


9d4


14[+5]

10

280,000


9d4+2*


14[+5]

11

400,000


9d4+4*


14[+5]

12

520,000


9d4+6*


14[+5]

13

640,000


9d4+8*


12[+7]

14

760,000


9d4+10*


12[+7]

*Modifiers from CON no longer apply

Saving Throws

Level

D

W

P

B

S

1

8

9

10

13

12

2

8

9

10

13

12

3

8

9

10

13

12

4

6

7

8

10

10

5

6

7

8

10

10

6

6

7

8

10

10

7

4

5

6

7

8

8

4

5

6

7

8

9

4

5

6

7

8

10

2

3

4

4

6

11

2

3

4

4

6

12

2

3

4

4

6

13

2

2

2

2

4

14

2

2

2

2

4

Beggar Skills Chance of Success

Level

DS

HS

PP

SC

1

10

10

20

50

2

15

15

25

55

3

20

20

25

60

4

25

25

30

65

5

30

30

35

70

6

35

35

45

75

7

45

45

55

80

8

55

55

65

85

9

65

65

75

90

10

75

75

85

95

11

85

85

95

96

12

90

90

105

97

13

95

95

115

98

14

99

99

125

99