Thursday, October 22, 2020

Grognard's Grimoire: Bael

Bael (Old School Essentials)

Bael by Jason Sholtis
AC –7 [26], HD 23**** (184hp), Att 2 × bite (2d6), THAC0 5 [+14], MV 150' (50'), SV D2 W2 P2 B2 S2, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 10,500, NA 1, TT R, S, T, V

Bael is a great demon king, arguably the most powerful of his kind. From his citadel on the dark side of Aido in the Sixth Shell, he commands 66 legions. Though capable of assuming many guises, his preferred form is that of an eight-legged creature with three heads—his right one looking like a cat, his left like a toad, and his central one like a cadaverous human king wearing a two-tiered crown. When Bael speaks, it is through the mouth of his human head, which possesses a harsh and haughty voice.

Bael may only be struck by +3 or better weapons. His human head has a charm gaze (no saving throw) that affects creatures within 300' for 1 turn. The number of creatures affected is determined by their hit dice, as follows: 3 HD or fewer, 1d10×10; 4–6 HD, 5d8; 7–9 HD, 3d8; 10–12 HD, 2d6; and 13+ HD, 1d4. Creatures possessing 15 or more hit dice are entitled to a saving throw versus spells. His toad head has a breath attack identical to the effects of a wand of cold. His cat head causes fear as a wand of fear. These two attacks are usable at will. Both the toad and cat heads may also bite, but Bael rarely stoops to such attacks, deeming it beneath him. 

Bael may use the following spell-like abilities at will: clairvoyance, continual darkness, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, ESP, invisibility, levitate, polymorph self, read languages, read magic, telekinesis (5000 coins per head), wall of ice, water breathing, web, and summon (with an 85% chance of success) any demon of the first through sixth shells. Once per day, he can use feeblemind or projected image.

All spiders do Bael homage, as do Chaotic felines and batrachians. The Grimoire Major (which designates Bael 06-02 Red) claims there is a rivalry between the King of the East and Duke Vephar (q.v.) regarding the Ranine (q.v.), with both demon lords asserting dominion over them. On Telluria, cultists and witches make pacts with Bael to gain the powers of subtlety and invisibility.

Grognard's Grimoire: Phlogerus

Phlogerus (Demon of the Sixth Shell) (Old School Essentials)
A phlogerus by Jason Sholtis
AC –2 [21], HD 8+7*** (43hp), Att 2 × sword (1d8+1), 1 × bite (1d6), 1 × constrict (2d4), THAC0 12 [+7], MV 60' (20') / 150' (50'), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12, ML 10, AL Chaotic, XP 2300, NA 1d3 (1d6), TT

The phlogerus is a 12-foot tall demon, whose serpentine lower half is surmounted by a humanoid torso with a frightful reptilian head. Although capable of doing so, it rarely deigns to set foot on the ground, preferring instead to float aloft. The demon's scaled skin radiates intense heat and light, making it difficult to look directly at it (–2 to all attack rolls against it unless the attacker's eyes are somehow shielded). 

The phlogerus wields two swords +1 in battle, but is equally fond of employing its teeth and tail in battle. An opponent grabbed by the tail is constricted and drawn toward its body, so as to expose him to the heat emanating from its hide (dealing 3d6 damage). It is immune to ordinary weapons, like all demons of the sixth shell. At will, it can use the following spell-like abilities: cause fear, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, feeblemind, mirror image, read languages, and read magic. Also, it can summon (70% chance of success) a demon from the first five shells.

Like the amenus (q.v.), the phlogerus is rarely found on Telluria. It is more common in the upper air and even in astral space. It is claimed (in the Kenomicon, among other volumes) that phlogeri existed in vast numbers during the time of the Great Ancients, when travel between the Four Worlds was commonplace. 

This is an Orc

An orc by Jason Sholtis
I have a longstanding preference for pig-faced orcs, owing no doubt to the Dave Sutherland illustration that appears on the title page of the Holmes Basic rulebook, which depicts two fighters and a wizard fending off a horde of these vicious things. It's one of Sutherland's best pieces in my opinion, if only because it's stuck with me all these years and forever colored my view of these monstrous humanoids. 

I know there are plenty of other interpretations of orcs – let a thousand flowers bloom! – but I prefer an explicitly bestial version of them. This interpretation is a way of vacating the space better occupied by human antagonists, allowing orcs to serve as products of black magic and demonic sorcery rather than just another kind of bland goon whose only purpose is to occupy a space on a hit die progression chart. 

Rebellion Victorious!

A few weeks ago, I posted about my foray into the world of tabletop wargaming (though, at the moment, it's a virtual tabletop, thanks to VASSAL). Having completed Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt against Caesar, my friends and I took up Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, another game in the same series. Like all the other COIN games, this one is only partly a "war" game in that military conflict is but one facet of its play. Just as important, especially for the player(s) of the rebel faction(s), is influence. 

Since I was playing the American rebels (Patriots), I opted not to fight many pitched battles, knowing that the Royalist regulars were more numerous and effective. Instead, I opted to wage a campaign of propaganda and rabble-rousing against the Crown in order to bring as many colonies to my side as I could. I likewise made the decision to focus almost entirely on the northeastern colonies, since the southern ones were more sparsely populated and sympathetic to the Royalists. Swaying them to the Patriot cause would be costly in terms of my very limited resources – the primary weakness of the faction – and in terms of exposing my underground militias. 

The strategy paid off fairly well, though, over the course of the game there were many moments when I thought I was doomed. In fact, just prior to the last few turns, I was certain the Royalists had won, since they had done a good job of simultaneously keeping the French at bay, aiding their Iroquois allies (under Joseph Brant), and shifting opinion against the insurrection. Their mistake was in marching a large army of regulars under Howe into Massachusetts, where the Continental Army was holed up with Washington, supported by French regulars under Lauzon. Though the Royalists outnumbered the combined Patriot/French forces and Howe is an excellent commander, fortune did not favor them. A greater blow was dealt to the Royalist forces, resulting in the perception that the Patriots had "won the day," which increased support for the rebellion across the region. Given that the game's countdown clock was close to signaling the end of the game, there was nothing the Royalists could do and I won.

I have to say I was surprised. I'm frankly terrible at strategy and only marginally better at tactics. Plus, my inexperience with wargames of any sort, let alone those in the COIN series, is considerable. I suspect that, since all the COIN games are based on historical counterinsurgencies, there's probably a slight mechanical bias in favor of the rebels. That said, the Royalist player admitted afterward that he probably erred in spending too much time in the early game trying to seize control of a colony rather than waging a "hearts and minds" campaign against the rebels. Control has some value, but it's secondary to winning over the loyalty of the people. 

What made Liberty or Death most enjoyable for me was being able to look at the flow of events and understand better why individuals at the time made the choices that they did, even if – perhaps especially if – the choices ultimately proved to be the wrong ones. I think that's something wargames have the potential to do well: provide insight into historical conflicts and the decisions, good and bad, made by the leaders of those conflicts. I'm very glad to have the opportunity to play these games and look forward to more in the weeks to come. Next up: Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation.

Grognard's Grimoire: Amenus

Amenus (Demon of the Fifth Shell) (Old School Essentials)

An amenus by Jason Sholtis
AC –6 [25], HD 7+6*** (37hp), Att 2 × front claw (1d6), 2 × back claw (2d4), 1 × bite (1d6), THAC0 12 [+7], MV 90' (30') / 120' (40'), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12, ML 10, AL Chaotic, XP 1650, NA 1d3 (1d6), TT

The amenus is a frightening demon sporting bristly fur and four wings. It is rarely seen on Telluria, except when summoned by foolhardy magicians or on an errand for its lord, the mighty president Camio (q.v.). Its coming is preceded by a powerful blast of cold air that extinguishes all unprotected flames within 80' of itself.

The amenus prefers to fight while flying, so that it can use all four of its claws as well as its powerful bite. Being a demon of the fifth shell, it is immune to ordinary weapons. All of the following spell-like abilities are available to it, usable at will: cause fear, control weather, continual darkness, detect invisible, and projected image. An amenus can summon (75% chance of success) a single demon from the first five shells (determined randomly).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Arion, Lord of Atlantis

Throughout the 1970s and into the '80s, DC Comics made multiple attempts to take advantage of the growing popularity of the genre. Of all the comic titles the company published during this time, The Warlord, about which I talked last week, was by far and away the most successful. The Warlord ran for 133 issues plus six annuals over the course of twelve years – a considerable feat in a genre littered with innumerable failures. So successful was The Warlord that DC used it as a platform from which to launch additional fantasy titles, an example of which is Arion, Lord of Atlantis, which began its existence as a back-up feature in issue #55 (March 1982) of that comic.

Arion takes place during an age of magic that preceded the Ice Age.

As the Ice Age overtakes the world, destroying ancient civilization after ancient civilization, Atlantis finds its own stability sorely threatened. Refugees from these other civilizations have fled before the encroaching ice, as have the barbaric cavemen who now seek to take Atlantis by force. Arion is the Lord High Mage and it falls to him to use his sorcery to protect his city. The story begins with Arion exhausted and feeling alone and isolated. His master, Caculha, is dead and his king and the other nobles of Atlantis are, in his opinion, fools. Retiring to his chambers, he is called upon by Lady Chian, Captain of the Royal Guard.
Despite his rude treatment of her, it's clear that Chian loves Arion and wishes only to aid him in his labors. Like a petulant teenager, however, Arion feels ill-used and under-appreciated. There is some truth to his feelings. Atlantis does depend upon him for its very survival and there is no one else in the city who can truly help him. At the same time, the Atlanteans are grateful for his work on their behalf and would gladly do whatever they can to to ease his burdens.

Later, the king asks Arion to read the Oracle of Choloh to seek guidance. Arion complies and, while doing so, is shocked to make contact with the spirit of his master, who speaks to him cryptically of his destiny.
Arion retires to his chambers once more – he does that a lot – to contemplate the meaning of what his master's spirit had told him. But he cannot do that long before the dinosaurs Atlantis keeps in its zoos – yes, you read that correctly – escape and run rampant throughout the city. Arion is called upon to deal with the problem, but finds that his magic has left him. He is unable to command any spells and is forced, alongside the Royal Guard to fight the dinosaurs using only his sword.
This first installment ends with Arion deciding that he needs to seek out the destiny of which Master Caculha's spirit spoke. Perhaps the departure of his magic is tied to this destiny and, if so, he has no choice but leave Atlantis and find it. Arion, Lord of Atlantis would appear in the next eight issues of The Warlord, after which it received its own series, which itself ran for 35 issues. 

I don't think Arion is quite as successful in its aims as was The Warlord. Partly, it's because Arion is himself a somewhat unsympathetic character – a stand-offish, arrogant, and self-absorbed jerk – like Elric but far less compelling. On the other hand, his quest to restore his magic has definite potential as a framing device for his subsequent adventures and the antediluvian world of Atlantis is mythically potent one. All in all, it's not a terrible comic, though it's not as enjoyable as other fantasy comics of the same era.  

Perils of the Maze

The abomination above is the titular nightmare maze of Jigrésh and it certainly lives up to its name. I was thinking about it recently, because I've always liked mazes and labyrinths. When I was a child, I remember being thrilled by corn mazes, which popped up all over the place during the Fall. Later, on vacation, I visited an old home that had a hedge maze, which I thought was the greatest thing ever. No doubt the minotaur's labyrinth and the one from the 1951 Alice in Wonderland movie had some influence over my imagination as well. 

When it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, I think the credit goes entirely to Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknownwhich is full of twisting, maze-like corridors.
Because this was the first module I ever owned, Quasqueton's maps served as my mental picture of what a dungeon should be – and that includes lots of labyrinthine passages designed to confuse and frustrate the characters (and perhaps the players too). 

In truth, I'm not sure that's what happens at the table. Mazes are one of those environmental elements that sound better than they play. What thrilled me about real mazes is that I had a hard time determining where I was and I had to puzzle my way out of them. There was an intellectual pleasure in using a combination of my memory, spatial sense, and ingenuity to work out the proper path. In a roleplaying game, the experience is quite different. At best, it's a largely mechanical problem that's solved by making a map. The process of doing so can certainly be confounding – "No, not that left, the other one. Forget it: just give me the paper and I'll draw it for you." – but that's probably not quite the feeling a referee hopes to convey by including a maze in his dungeon.

Perhaps I'm simply insufficiently imaginative. I continue to like the idea of mazes and labyrinths (and keep trying to find ways to include them), but I've never been truly satisfied with any of my attempts to use them in play. Lately, I find myself wondering if mazes are one of those things that simply can't be translated into a tabletop roleplaying game. Perhaps this is an example of something that works better in a more explicitly visual medium, like video games. Many early dungeon crawl video games made use of labyrinthine maps, though, in thinking back on them, they weren't all that much fun either. 

If you've ever succeeded in using a maze successfully in a game you ran, I'd love to hear about it.

Kaiyo Subsector

Kaiyo is subsector H of Riphaeus Sector, where I set my most recent Traveller campaign. Several worlds of the Empire of Nagoya are located here, but the Second Federation of Suns has a strong presence here too, along with many independent worlds. Most of Riphaeus Sector was claimed by the Federation's predecessor, which fell into civil war about 350 years ago. Under the leadership of the Nova Tagiĝo (New Dawn) Party, the Federation has become aggressively expansionist in recent years, intending to reclaim the worlds its forerunner once possessed. Consequently, agents of the Second Federation were frequent antagonists in the campaign.

The Kaiyo subsector contains 38 worlds with a population of 1.7 billion. The highest population is 1 billion, at Gorod. The highest tech level is E at Ixchel.

Jahannum (Riphaeus 3112)
Jahannum has a thick Nitrogen-Oxygen atmosphere, but its mean surface pressure is too high to support unprotected human life. However, at high altitudes, such as the plateau on which the settlement of Adin is constructed, the pressure is more tolerable.

Manai (Riphaeus 2512)
Physically, Manai is an unpleasant world, with large concentrations of sulfur compounds in its atmosphere, which can cause damage to unprotected visitors. The planet’s small population (approximately 500) is transient, consisting primarily of the families of naval personnel stationed at the nearby base.

Sirin (Riphaeus 2812)
Sirin was founded as a world of voluntary exile by political dissidents from the First Federation of Suns. Distrustful of powerful governments, they organized themselves along family lines. Over time, these families grew and specialized in various skills, which they used in bartering with other clans for their skills. When re-contacted a generation ago, Sirin was stable and its 80,000 inhabitants bore no animosity toward the Federation, which assisted in integrating them back into interstellar society.

Väki (Riphaeus 2711)
Väki’s atmosphere is tainted with reputedly inert pathogens from a genetically engineered virus created millennia ago by the planet’s original nonhuman inhabitants (now extinct). While Federation scientists believe these pathogens are harmless, it is nevertheless required by law that anyone leaving one of its sealed settlements wear not only a filter mask but also protective clothing to prevent possible contamination. To date, these and related precautions have prevented any infections for more than a century.

Retrospective: Disappearance on Aramat

Though I have played a wide variety of science fiction roleplaying games over the years, Traveller was my go-to SF RPG until I wrote my own. Even then, I frequently return to Traveller and continue to enjoy it. A remarkable thing about this classic game is that, throughout its heyday, GDW licensed a number of other companies to produce supplementary materials for it. Some of these companies were already well established ones, like Judges Guild, while others, such as FASA, were relative newcomers who would use their success in producing licensed Traveller as springboards to bigger things

In 1984, Grenadier Models decided to throw its hat into the publishing ring by producing a number of licensed adventures for several RPGs, including Call of Cthulhu and Traveller. The rationale for this was likely twofold: to expand into another aspect of the still-growing gaming market and to promote the miniature figures for these games that they also produced under license. As business strategies go, it's not a terrible idea and, had the adventures been notable in any way, it might even have worked. Unfortunately, such was not to be the case.

Disappearance on Aramat is a 48-page scenario written by Gary Pilkington and illustrated by Flint Henry and John Dennett, with a cover by Martin Kealey. Taking place at the edge of the official Third Imperium setting, the adventure concerns an overdue archeological mission visiting the planet Aramat. Aramat is a desert world with no known intelligent lifeforms but is believed to have served as an outpost of the Vilani empire some 5000 years before the present day. Dr Alandra Chadra and her team of graduate students visited Aramat with the goal of locating the ancient outpost to study. However, they failed to check in at the designated time and now her father and her fiancé have grown concerned that something untoward has happened to her and her students. They turn to the player characters, whom they outfit for an expedition to Aramat to determine what has become of them.

As set-ups go for a Traveller adventure, it's far from the worst, though that's small praise. I trust no one reading this will mind if I reveal that the ancient Vilani base is populated entirely by robots that have been functioning all these millennia, waiting for their masters to return. When Dr Chadra and her students discovered the base, the robots assumed they were intruders and attacked them, killing several and taking the remainder prisoner. In addition, a second group is also on Aramat – agents of a disreputable corporation with sinister motives. Thus, the characters find themselves thrown into a somewhat chaotic situation that requires them to find the ruins Dr Chadra was seeking, rescue her and her surviving students, and avoid the dangers posed by the robots, the opposing corporate agents, and the wildlife/environment of Aramat itself.

I suppose if this basic situation had not been used many times before in the annals of Traveller, I might have been more impressed. As it is, Disappearance on Aramat is, at best, yet another variation on a well-worn plot and a rather banal one at that. I generally avoid doing reviews or retrospectives on gaming products I don't like, but there are times when I chose to make an exception. In this case, I did so because I think Grenadier was definitely on to something with their attempt to publish RPG adventures. All of their miniature sets included mini scenarios intended to make use of the included figures. The larger adventures, like Disappearance on Aramat, were a logical progression and I so wanted to like them. On the other hand, re-reading this made me think about what would and would not make good science fiction adventure scenarios and that might come in handy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Grumble, Grumble

The very first post of this blog attempts to provide a definition of "grognard," both in its historical context and in its latter-day usage among wargamers and, by extension, roleplayers. I wrote that post more than a decade ago and, while I stand by what I wrote all those years ago, my thinking on the matter has evolved a little bit. This evolution was occasioned by several things, including the general mellowing that comes with age. However, some of that evolution comes from reflecting on a phenomenon I've observed over the past year or two, namely fans of Dungeons & Dragons 3e (or even Pathfinder) referring to themselves, unironically, as grognards.

Now, on the face of it, this seems absurd. After all, "grognard" was often used as a term of derision in RPG circles, one directed at stick-in-the-mud holdouts who weren't enthusiastic about the latest edition of a game. My recollection is that the term was thrown about a lot during the heyday of 3e. Anyone who objected to ascending armor class or the loosening of class restrictions was a doubleplusungood wrongthinker and roundly mocked. That some of the very same people who once used the word to ridicule others would now be applying it to themselves is bizarre, right?

Even a few years ago, I would have thought so. Now, I'm not so censorious. As I said, my thoughts on the matter have evolved. What I would say is that grognardism, for lack of a better word, is not about believing that older games are better than newer ones. Rather, it's about believing that just because something is old, it's not therefore bad. Put more positively, grognardism promotes the idea that fun games remain fun regardless of when they were published. There's nothing necessarily wrong with new games, especially if you genuinely enjoy them, but the same is equally true of older game, with "older" in this case simply meaning any version that is not the current one. 

I still have harsh words for neophilia, a vice closely tied to consumerism in our society and strongly encouraged by game publishers. But I can't muster any opprobrium for players of an edition later than my own preferred one who have chosen to embrace the term "grognard" in reference to themselves. 3e is now two decades old; there have in the years since been two more editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Choosing to stick with 3e because you have had fun with it and continue to do so is, I think, praiseworthy, even if it doesn't align with my own predilections. 

I hold out hope that, as time marches on, more gamers might begin to recognize that those of us who haven't adopted the new shiny aren't doing so out of retrograde contrariness but because we sincerely prefer an earlier version – and that those preferences can be and probably are rational ones. This entire blog is dedicated to articulating the reasons for my own preferences, as well as celebrating the games with which I have had – and continue to have – fun. I have never expected anyone to share my preferences or be convinced by my reasons for holding them. That was never my purpose, though I do hope I've in a small way contributed to a better understanding of the unique pleasures of what we now call "old school" roleplaying games and the culture that gave birth to them. I'll still grumble, of course, but I never wanted that to be all I do. 

Kobolds!

Yesterday, I posted about alternate takes on traditional Dungeons & Dragons monstrous humanoids and noted that I'd be presenting some of my own in the future. As it turns out, I'd already taken steps in this direction, but the name I chose for the creature didn't connect it to an existing D&D one. At some point, I was reminded of the description of kobolds in Holmes's Basic Set, where he describes them as "evil dwarf-like creatures." That flipped a switch in my head and, from that point on, I ceased to call these aberrant, insane dwarves knockers and instead opted for kobold.

A kobold by Jason Sholtis
The description in the linked post is still accurate. For game statistics, I would, however, suggest using those of "standard" kobolds in whatever version of the game you're playing. My preference these days is Old School Essentials, but, since it's nearly identical with every other edition derived from OD&D, there's no need that you should do the same. In the coming weeks, I'll make additional posts on this topic, with the eye of using them as a way to demonstrate the ease with which a distinct fantasy setting can be fleshed out via small tweaks to the game.

House of Worms, Session 203

After having spoken with the ambassador from Pichánmush, Znayáshu concluded that the best course of action was to return to the ruins of Pashkírigo to investigate it. The characters' previous investigations there had been stymied by the presence of numerous powerful undead beings – Hrá in a large, still-intact structure; and a swarm of Vorodlá flying about a strange maelstrom at the center of the ruins. To defend themselves against these beings, Znayáshu approached Lady Srüna. As an initiate of the temple of Ksárul, he thought she might be able to obtain for him an amlulet of peace amonsgt the servers of Ksárul, which would protect the characters from the Hrá. Srüna replied, "Why are you approaching me? Why not check with your own temple?" It was at that point that Znayáshu realized that he had been foolish: surely the temple of the god of death would have an amulet of power over the undead!

With that, Znayáshu and Keléno set off for the local temple of Sárku. While a new, larger temple is being constructed – under the patronage of the House of Worms clan and the colonial administration – the priests of Sárku maintain a small shrine near the City of the Dead. The temple commandant is Argomé hiSsánchunu, a has-been with a reputation for greed – and a member of the Black Stone clan, the clan of Chánkoru hiKhánuma, high priest of the temple of Ksárul, with whom Keléno has tangled in the past. When the pair arrived, they did so under cover of conducting an "audit" of the shrine's holdings. Argomé misunderstood this as an attempt to elicit a bribe. He summoned a slave who then brought back a large bag full of coins, presented it to Znayáshu and Keléno and said, "I hope this … gift will be more than adequate to allevaite the need for an audit."

Znayáshu rejected the bribe, explaining that they had come looking for a specific item in the shrine's holdings, a blue faience statuette. Argomé immediately knew what they were looking for. He explained that, yes, the shrine possessed such a statue but that it wouldn't be available for them to examine at this particular point in time. When asked where the statuette was, Argomé hesitated before explaining that he had "lent" it to a member of his own clan, who, he emphasized, had given an "exceptionally large donation" to the shrine in exchange for its use. When asked which member of his clan it was, Argomé reluctantly admitted that it was none other than Chánkoru hiKhánuma. Upon hearing this, Znayáshu concluded that it was proof that the temple of Ksárul was indeed present within the ruins of Pashkírigo.

Keléno ordered Argomé not to leave the shrine and said that soldiers would soon be arriving to ensure that he made no attempt to hide anything within it. Argomé was baffled by this turn of events and reiterated his willingness to offer the character a sizable "gift" in order to assuage the characters' concerns. Keléno ignored him and warned him again against attempting to leave the shrine. Together with Znayáshu, they made their way to the Black Stone clanhouse to seek out Chánkoru hiKhánuma. The clanhouse was a large and well appointed one and the characters were soon met by Trujékku hiVársha, the clanmaster. Friendly and pleasant, he received them with a smile and asked if the characters had come to discuss "the matter of Ta'ána."

The pair were confused by this question, as they had no idea who Ta'ána was. Trujékku explained that she was the granddaughter of Chánkoru and that a message had been sent to the elders of the House of Worms clan indicating the Black Stone clan's willingness to marry her to Aíthfo, "as a gesture of goodwill between our two pre-eminent clans." The characters knew little of this, as the matter had been quashed by Grujúng, who, as clanmaster of House of Worms, had the final say in these matters. Grujúng believed that, since Aíthfo's term as governor would end in less than a year, there was no point in tying him to a wife from this backwater colony. Trujékku was disappointed to hear this and hoped House of Worms would change its mind.

When told why they had actually come, Trujékku said that he would find Chánkoru and bring him to meet the characters. He left them and Znayáshu decided to head outside, keeping an eye on all obvious exits from the clanhouse, in the event that Chánkoru attempted to flee unseen. As it turned out, he did not; Chánkoru appeared and greeted Keléno with obvious contempt, "Oh, it's you." Keléno brushed off the slight and explained that they had come, humbly, to request the amulet of power over the undead. It was at this point that Znayáshu returned, enabling Chánkoru to get in another barb, "What do you want it for? To protect him (i.e. Znayáshu) from his wife?" Sighing resignedly, he said that the amulet would be delivered to the Palace before day's end. He then left.

The pair returned to the Palace to wait. Meanwhile, discussions continued with the ambassador of Pichánmush about what was happening in the ruins of Pashkírigo. The ambassador continued his line that there was no problem there that his city's legions could not handle. Side talks with the priests accompanying the ambassador reveal that this is not quite the case, which emboldens the characters' desire to sneak into the ruins to deal with it themselves. Once the statuette arrives from Chánkoru, this plan takes a greater urgency and the details begin to be worked out. The goal is to leave Linyaró within a few days, under cover of a "hunting trip" into the wilds. Because it is hurricane season, travel by sea is dangerous, so the trek to Pashkírigo will be over land.

In the midst of all this. Nebússa decided that now was the time to broach the subject of marriage to Lady Srüna. He sent a letter to her chambers, asking to speak with her about this matter. No response was immediately forthcoming.

Jeff Grubb Video Interview

Imagine Magazine: Issue #15

Issue #15 of Imagine (June 1984) is a special issue devoted to coverage of that year's UK Gamesfair. The cover features an illustration by Glyn Wyles and a photo of a game of Illuminati be played, presumably at the Gamesfair. Paul Cockburn's report on the convention leads off the issue and is accompanied by numerous photographs. From the vantage point of 2020, looking back on Gamefair is incredibly fascinating. The article boasts that 350 people attended, which is about one-tenth the number that attended GenCon that same year. Being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, I know next to nothing about the history of UK conventions, including Gamesfair, which is why reading articles of this delight me. Graeme Morris follows this with an account of a game of En Garde! he played (a game I tried to run a few years ago and at which I utterly failed). 

The report of Gamesfair also includes a poll of attendees about their favorite games, miniatures, magazines, etc. Looking over the ranked listings is intriguing. They seem to comport with my sense of what was popular in the UK RPG scene at the time – for example, the popularity of Traveller and RuneQuest is clear – but I nevertheless wonder whether the poll is indeed reflective of anything other than the particular tastes of those present at Gamesfair that year.

The previous year, there was a fiction contest held at another convention, Mythcon. The two winning entries, "Trial" by Linda Morgan and "After the Storm" by Pauline E. Dungate, are printed in this issue. "The Marsh Idol" is an AD&D adventure by Mark Davies. The scenario includes a new monster, the marsh dragon, which is detailed later. Curiously, the creature is explicitly noted as being "unofficial." Also included in a competition adventure, "Round the Bend" by Jim Bambra, which was used at Gamesfair that year. It's a fun little scenario, in which the players all take the roles of half-orc thieves who have been caught by a wizard from whom they were attempting to steal and, as a punishment, are reduced to two inches in height and then tasked with recovering a magic item the wizard accidentally dropped down his drain. How's that for an adventure set-up?

"The Imagination Machine" reviews the game Pi-Eyed and discusses the state of the software industry at the time. The game reviews are equally split between reissued SPI wargames and RPG materials. The comics "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Sword of Alabron" have new installments and I still cannot bring myself to care. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" talks about the importance of mapping, which I find fascinating, because I know there are many players for whom mapping is a chore and one of the least interesting aspects of D&D. Yet, here we are, in mid-1984 and it's still a topic that Imagine considered worthy of an article. 

Ian Knight and Graham Fuller present "In Search of Dragons," which is an exploration of the myths and legends of dragons across the world. "Illuminations" announces the latest gaming releases. One of them caught my eye: The Character Generator, a computer program designed to generate AD&D characters. I know nothing of this program, which was produced by Triffid Software Research. I doubt it was a licensed program but perhaps who knows? The column also discusses the adventure modules published by Grenadier Models, such as The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island. One day, I should really revisit the other entries in that series.

Colin Greenland reviews media, starting with the movie, The Right Stuff, followed by the novels Fire in the Abyss (by Stuart Gordon), The Follower (by Stephen Gallagher), and Frost (by Robin W. Bailey). Rounding out the issue is Derrick Norton's "It's like this … only different," in which he talks about the risks and rewards of expanding one's RPG repertoire beyond the games with which one is already familiar. It's an unusual topic, particularly for those of who've always played lots of different roleplaying games, but I suppose, when the hobby was still new, it might have been an issue with some players. 

Imagine continues to be equal parts captivating and confusing to me. Some of that no doubt comes from not having read the magazine at the time and not having lived in the United Kingdom. But a lot of it, I suspect, comes from the editorial team's attempts to find a distinctive voice for the magazine, something that set it apart from the more well-known Dragon and White Dwarf. Each issue is thus an attempt to discover just what Imagine is and what it should include. I'm now halfway through its run and I must admit I'm still not entirely sure if there are any answers to those questions, but I'm happy to keep reading to see how things unfold.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Alternate Humanoids

Today's Pulp Fantasy Library featured monsters called "gnoles" which were first referenced in a short story by Lord Dunsany. Though Gary Gygax gave different answers at different times, OD&D's entry on gnolls nevertheless makes reference to Dunsany, implying that the Anglo-Irish author was the ultimate inspiration for these antagonistic humanoids. 

Dunsany doesn't describe his gnoles in any detail, leaving it to the imagination of his readers. Consequently, the entry for gnolls in Volume I of OD&D theorizes that they are a "cross between Gnomes and Trolls," despite the fact it later states that the gnoll king's bodyguards "fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power." There's no suggestion whatsoever of their being hyena-headed, something I don't believe appears prior to the publication of the Monster Manual (though, as always, feel free to correct me in the comments if I am mistaken).


This relative lack of detail extends to all the monstrous humanoids in the game. Other than being small and poorly adapted to daylight, for example, neither goblins nor kobolds receive any detail. Orcs and hogoblins are not much different. Greyhawk gives us bugbears and says they are "great hairy goblin-giants" with a "shambling gait," but is otherwise silent on the matter of their appearance (though there is a genuinely compelling depiction of them on the inside back cover that features a jack-o-lantern as a head).

Why mention all of this? I've talked before about my unhappiness with the enervating self-referentiality of Dungeons & Dragons. This is a feature of all editions of the game after OD&D and necessarily so, since they all build on one another (with the possible exception of the much-hated 4e which, for all its manifest faults, did genuinely try to break free of the shackles of the past). When I first read the Holmes Basic Set or even the Monster Manual, this was all fresh and imaginative and it powerfully seized my imagination – as you would expect, given its novelty to me. 

With time, though, it's inevitable that I wouldn't feel quite as enthusiastic about the standard presentation of monstrous humanoids in the game. So I find myself returning to OD&D and using what little it presents as the basis for my own interpretations of these enemies. As I further develop Urheim, I'll share what I've come up with here. My goal is twofold: to imagine unique versions of classic monsters that convey the distinct flavor of my campaign setting and to show that this cane be done without the need for mechanical changes. That is, even if, for example, my take on orcs or kobolds is different from the received D&D version, it will still be mechanically compatible with the one everyone already knows. I don't want to create a new game, just show how the existing game can be used in (I hope) imaginative new ways.

Death Dealer

If I had to choose a single piece of artwork that summed up the feel of "fantasy" around the time I discovered Dungeons & Dragons (1979), it'd be this one.

Painted by Frank Frazetta in 1973, Death Dealer has got to be one of the most iconic – and imitated – pieces of sword-and-sorcery artwork ever created. I'm not sure when or where I first saw it. If I had to guess, I'd imagine I saw it as a poster somewhere, perhaps in a hobby shop, though it's also possible I encountered it in a record store, since Molly Hatchet's debut album used this image as its cover. Wherever I first saw it, the painting is unforgettable. 

A friend of mine growing up was so taken with Death Dealer that it was a regular point of reference for his descriptions of his D&D characters – "He has a horned helmet like the Death Dealer," etc. I also seem to recall that he purchased a Ral Partha miniature that had clearly used Death Dealer for "inspiration" and insisted that it be used for his character.  Who could blame him? It's a remarkable painiting.

The First Characters

Thanks in large part to Jeff Rients, I think most people are aware of the existence of Xylarthen, the very first sample Dungeons & Dragons character ever.

Xylarthen is actually a very good sample character for a couple of reasons. First, he has ability scores that reflect the most likely spread of 3d6 in order. His player clearly didn't fudge the dice rolls. Second, and more significantly, the text notes that Xylarthen "would have progressed faster as a Cleric, but because of a personal preference for magic, opted for that class." I love that. A common knock against 3d6-in-order is that it somehow limits player preference. That's not true at all, as there's no reason that you have to choose your character's class solely on the basis of his highest ability score. The idea of, say, a fighter whose highest ability is Intelligence or a thief with a similarly high Charisma is rather appealing to me and offers a good model for the flexibility of the old school style of play. Three cheers for Xylarthen!

Holmes's Basic Set, sadly, does not offer a sample character. Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown, which was packaged with many printings of the set, includes a large collection sample characters, but nearly all of them follow the banal principle of their prime requisite being their highest ability score. More famous than Xylarthen is Morgan Ironwolf, about whom I theorized recently.
Morgan Ironwolf's ability scores are those of a "typical" old school fighter – high Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution; low Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. She's very much in keeping with the sample characters in module B1. 

What people sometime forget is that Morgan Ironwolf is not the only sample character in Moldvay's Basic Rules. In fact, she's not even the first sample character presented in that rulebook. Behold: Borg!
I've always had a soft spot for Borg, primarily because of the way he's presented – as if written on a sheet of ruled paper of the sort every child uses in school (though his player's penmanship is far better than that of almost any child I ever knew). It's a reminder that character sheets, while useful, are unnecessary for a game that originally proclaimed itself "playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures." As for Borg himself, he's not all that different than Morgan Ironwolf in having a high Strength and Constitution. Where he differs is in having a low Dexterity as well, something I don't believe was quite as common (since Dexterity affected numerous combat capabilities, such as armor class, initiative, and missile attacks).

Despite their differences, what I find noteworthy is that all three possess two or more ability scores below 9. This isn't much of an impediment to Xylarthen, since, in LBB-only OD&D, low ability scores have minimal (or no) consequences. In this case of Morgan and Borg, though, those below average scores exact penalties on them, something that became increasingly rare as the game evolved. AD&D codified the importance of having high ability scores and, while I genuinely understand why that happened, I can't help but think it was ultimately an error that had a number of unintended (and undesirable) knock-on effects for the game. 

Showdown

As I've commented beforePolyhedron would, after its first few issues, mostly use recycled illustrations for its interiors (covers were another matter). Issue #1 (Summer 1981), however, contains a few examples of original illustrations, such as the one above by Darlene. It's possible that this artwork was re-used in a later Boot Hill product – indeed, quite possible, since I'm prone to overlooking the obvious – but, if so, I can't recall (feel free to correct my misapprehension in the comments). Regardless, I don't think I've ever seen her depict a scene from a Western, so it's fascinating simply on that basis.

On the other hand, one piece I know I've never seen before is this one.

If you look at the signature at the bottom right, you'll see it's by Bell. Bell – or Greg Bell, as he is more commonly credited – provided a lot of the art in the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, as well as Greyhawk and Blackmoor (where he is mistakenly credited as "Mike Bell") and Warriors of Mars. Bell is somewhat infamous for having based many of his OD&D illustrations on pages from Marvel comics, but he was apparently a teenager at the time, not a professional artist, so one can hardly blame him. Jon Peterson has a blog post about him and his other contributions to early TSR products.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles

If I had to pick the most obscure author listed in Appendix N, Margaret St. Clair would almost certainly be whom I'd choose. Despite the fact that she wrote at least two books that had an influence on Gygax – The Sign of the Labrys and The Shadow PeopleI think it's safe to say that very few players of Dungeons & Dragons have ever heard her name, let alone read one of her stories. 

I can't fault anyone for not having heard of St. Clair. I'm fairly certain I'd never encountered her name prior to seeing it in the Dungeon Masters Guide and, even then, finding an actual book with her byline wasn't easy. Why she is largely unknown is a mystery to me. If I had to guess, it's that she broke into the pulp scene during the late 1940s, which was after the golden age of the pulps that is now so familiar and celebrated. If so, it's ironic, as St. Clair's writing is very much in keeping with the ideas and themes of her more acclaimed colleagues. 

A case in point is her short story, "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles." Written under the pseudonym of Idris Seabright, the story originally appeared in the October 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (which also featured stories by Richard Mattheson, Alfred Bester, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fletcher Pratt). The gnoles of the title are a reference to a short story from Lord Dunsany's The Book of Wonder, "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles." Dunsany's tale is ostensibly about how the titular character, a professional burglar, attempts to steal from the monstrous gnoles – and it is – but it's also a satirical meditation on capitalism and monsters.

St. Clair's own short story is not a sequel or continuation of Dunsany's tale but I'd say that one's enjoyment of it is increased by familiarity with its predecessor. Both explore similar themes and do so in humorous ways. The difference, in my opinion, is that "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" is much darker, even horrific, than Dunsany's narrative and it's precisely for that reason that I find it so memorable. The story begins thusly:

The gnoles have a bad reputation, and Mortensen was quite aware of this. But he reasoned, correctly enough, that cordage must be something for which the gnoles had a long unsatisfied want, and he saw no reason why he should not be the one to sell to them. What a triumph such a sale would be! The district sales manager might single out Mortensen for special mention at the annual sales-force dinner. It would help his sales quota enormously. And, after all, it was none of his business what the gnoles used cordage for.

From the very beginning, the tone of the story is clear and St. Clair takes full advantage of this breezy, almost light-hearted spirit, drawing the reader to conclude that this will be a fun little piece utterly lacking in punch. Mortensen, his Manual of Modern Salesmanship in hand as his guide, continues toward his intended goal.

The gnoles live on the very edge of Terra Cognita, on the far side of a wood which all authorities unite in describing as dubious. Their house is narrow and high, in architecture a blend of Victorian Gothic and Swiss chalet. Though the house needs paint, it is kept in good repair. Thither on Thursday morning, sample case in hand, Mortensen took his way.

No path leads to the house of the gnoles, and it is always dark in the dubious wood. But Mortensen, remembering what he had learned at his mother's knee concerning the odor of gnoles, found the house quite easily. For a moment he stood hesitating before it. His lips moved as he repeated, "Good morning. I have come to supply your cordage requirements," to himself. The words were the beginning of his sales talk. Then he went up and rapped on the door.

It's at this point that the story slowly begins to make a turn toward horror, but the turn is so slow, so subtle that the reader might not notice it at first. On the surface, not much has changed. Mortensen proceeds to greet the gnoles, enter the home, and make his sales pitch without taking any heed of the danger into which he has thrown himself. Yet, things are most definitely not what they seem and St. Clair masterfully conveys this switch from the fanciful to the dreadful with assurance. The story's final paragraph is indeed shuddersome and further demonstration, if such were needed, of St. Clair's skill as a writer.

As an aside, roleplayers might well wonder whether the D&D gnoll in any way derives from either Dunsany or St. Clair. There is no clear answer for, although OD&D Volume II makes reference to Lord Dunsany (or "Sunsany" in the actual text) in the entry for gnolls, Dunsany does not describe them in any detail. St. Clair offers a little more but what she says does not comport in any way with the AD&D-derived idea that gnolls are hynea-headed humanoids. Further, Gygax's original description stated that they were "a cross between Gnomes and Trolls," whatever that means. For my part, I like the fact that the description of OD&D's gnolls are so vague and encourage referees to decide for themselves what these monsters look like. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

REVIEW: Tales of Peril

J. Eric Holmes has deservedly received a great deal of attention within the old school renaissance for his role as editor of the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. For many gamers of a certain age, myself included, that Basic Set was our introduction to both D&D and to the larger hobby of roleplaying. I feel I owe Dr Holmes a great debt, which is why I have regularly drawn attention to him and his large body of work (though not to the same extent as Zach Howard, whose excellent blog is a veritable shrine to all things Holmesian). 

In addition to roleplaying games, Holmes was a great fan of pulp fantasy, particularly the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, he wrote an authorized continuation of the Pellucidar series, which was published just a year before the release of the Basic Set. A few years later, he would also pen a Buck Rogers novel from an outline by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. He was also contracted to write a Conan novel – Conan on the River of Doom – that unfortunately was never published. For our present purposes, though, it is Holmes's game-related fiction that's of most interest, since Black Blade Publishing has collected it all, along with many additional pieces of Holmesiana, in a single hardcover volume entitled Tales of Peril

Published in 2017, I have only now gotten around to reading it and I am very glad that I did. Capably edited by Allan T. Grohe Jr, Tales of Peril is subtitled "The Complete Boinger and Zereth Stories," after the two characters – a hobbit and an elf, respectively – who appear in most of them. As Chris Holmes recounted in my recent interview with him, the pair were his first D&D characters and the stories recount slightly fictionalized retellings of some of their adventures, the earliest of which appeared in Alarums & Excursions throughout 1976 and '77. Additional depictions of their exploits were published in the pages of Dragon, beginning in 1979. Eventually, Holmes wrote a short novel of Boinger and Zereth, which he called The Maze of Peril and that he hoped would be the first in a series of novels. That dream was never realized, making Maze the final appearance of this intrepid duo.

Until now, that is. Tales of Peril includes a "new" short story of Boinger and Zereth. I use scare quotes here because the story, while never published prior to its appearance in this volume, was written sometime after the publication of The Maze of Peril and represents a collaboration between Chris Holmes and his father. This story, "The Witch Doctor," is very much in the vein of the others that came before – a rambling fantasy romp that readers very much like a transcript of a fun D&D adventure played with a bunch of friends. To my mind, that's the real value of these collected stories: they're a written record of the fun, funny, and slightly incoherent "stories" that arose out of actual play in the early days of the hobby (and still do, if you're lucky). 

As I mentioned above, however, Tales of Peril, despite its subtitle, contains more than just Holmes's fiction. There is also the full text of the 1980 Psychology Today article, "Confessions of a Dungeon Master," in which Dr Holmes talks about his experiences refereeing the then-new game of Dungeons & Dragons. There are prefaces and an afterword by Chris Holmes, in which he talks about his father and provides context for the book's contents. Likewise, Eric Frasier, a childhood friend of Chris Holmes, reminisces about his time as Murray the Magic-User in Holmes's campaign. Reproductions of the character sheets for Boinger, Zereth, and Murray are likewise included, in addition to artwork by Chris Holmes, Ian Baggley, and Jim Roslof. Capping it all off is an extensive, annotated bibliography of Holmes's works, compiled by Zach Howard.

All in all, it's a terrific volume, especially if, like me, you started your journey into the hobby with the 1977 Basic Set. The fiction, both the short stories and The Maze of Peril, are charming evocations of the wild and woolly period in the history of D&D before the game had begun to solidify into the house style that would inform AD&D and, by extension, all subsequent editions of the game. The supplementary materials and anecdotes from Chris Holmes and Eric Frasier are just as valuable in this respect. They're valuable reminders of those days from the perspective of people who were there, rolling dice together, and enjoying the wide-open vistas of the imagination that this new form of entertainment was offering. I had a blast reading this book and I think others will too. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Dump Stat

Here's OD&D's explanation of ability scores from Volume I:


Holmes's Basic Set has its own take on ability scores, which, while close to the one above, incorporates a few elements from Supplement I, in addition  to certain idiosyncrasies.
Let's look at one more instance of ability scores, this time from Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules. In the interests of saving space and because Moldvay's book is a model of graphical concision, I'm only including his ability score bonuses and penalties tables.
In looking at these, two things immediately struck me. First and most obviously, there's a steady expansion of the bonuses and penalties of abilities. In OD&D, for example, Strength and Wisdom provide no benefits outside of the acquisition of experience points. That changes with the release of Greyhawk, which expands the benefits of abilities more broadly, modified versions of which are also reflected in Holmes. With Moldvay, every ability – including poor Wisdom, which had been neglected in both Supplement I and Holmes – provides some benefit or penalty based on their scores. 

The second thing that struck me is, I think, far more fascinating. In D&D circles, it's commonplace to refer, even if only jokingly, to Charisma as a "dump stat," which is to say, the ability whose benefits to a character are so minimal that it's safe to have a low score in it. Yet, if you look at the evolution of D&D abilities, Charisma changed very little from its first appearance. In OD&D, Charisma is quite well defined and useful. Charisma determined how many hirelings a character could hire and how loyal they were. In the hardscrabble world of early D&D, that's very significant. 

I theorize that, as the years went on, morale, reaction rolls, and hirelings became less important to the way people played the game. Without those aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, Charisma came increasingly to be seen as "useless." This is the point of view behind the very idea of a dump stat, of which Charisma is the commonest example. I need to think about this more, of course, but I think there's some truth to this. The perception of Charisma is a "weak" ability depends on the prior weakening of morale and reaction roll rules, as well as the downplaying of hirelings as vital to an adventurer's success. Thus, the best way to counter this perception is to re-emphasize those rules, something I've advocated for a long time, though there may be other approaches to dealing with this matter. 

House of Worms, Session 202

The player characters continued to attend to their various social obligations and duties in Linyaró. The most immediate of these concerned the arrival in the colony of Ku'óchan Chadíj, the ambassador from the Naqsái city-state of Pichánmush. He had been sent, in the company of an entourage of priests of Hánmu, the tutelary deity of his city, to speak to Aíthfo regarding certain rumors about him that had reached the ears of Pichánmush's rulers. 

It should be noted that Pichánmush, like most Naqsái city-states, is dedicated to the worship of a single deity (the main exception being the city-state of Miktatáin, whose people have largely abandoned belief in any gods, a situation the Tsolyáni characters found equal parts baffling and horrifying). The deities worshiped play some role in determining natural alliances and rivalries between the city-states, but this is not the whole story. Pichánmush, as the pre-eminent city-state of the coastal region of the Achgé Peninsula has many rivals, despite being devoted to Hánmu, the distant "high" god of the loose pantheon of Naqsái gods. This is largely due to its monopoly on the harvesting the jájnekursh shellfish whose ground-up shells are the raw materials for the creation of a ceramic called rushqá used by the Naqsái all over the region. Rushqá plays a similar role in the Peninsula to chlén-hide back in the Five Empires.

In any events, Ku'óchan wished to ascertain whether there was any truth to the "tall tales" he had heard that Aíthfo had been favored by the god Eyenál, tutelary deity of the city-state of Mánmikel (and a rival of Pichánmush). Aíthfo openly admitted that he had; in fact, he explained that Eyenál's power had, for a time, dwelled within his own body. Ku'óchan initially assumed Aíthfo was jesting, but, after being assured that the governor was speaking truly, he inquired into the matter further. The characters then recounted the story of how this came to be, events which took place many months ago and culminated in Eyenál, through Aíthfo, expending all his power to close an otherplanar prison located above Miktatáin – though not before three entities escaped, one of which the characters just recently returned to the pirson.

Needless to say, Ku'óchan was quite taken aback by these stories and was still somewhat unwilling to believe them. His primary interest, though, seemed not to be their veracity but what they meant for Linyaró's diplomatic position. Traditionally, the Tsolyáni colony had been an ally of Pichánmush. If Aíthfo had indeed been favored by Eyenál, did this signal a shift toward an alliance with Mánmikel? Znayáshu assured the ambassador it did not. In fact, he suggested that, now that Eyenál had completed his task on Tékumel, Linyaró would no longer have any need to be involved with Mánmikel. Further, he suggested that there was in fact a matter of mutual interest on which Linyaró and Pichánmush could collaborate.

Znayáshu brought up the contentious issue of the ruins of Pashkírigo, an ancient city under the protection of Pichánmush. Pichánmush formally forbade anyone from entering the ruined city, believing it to be "cursed." The city had, in the past, been dedicated to the goddess Kírig, whose unpleasant characteristics reminded the Tsolyáni of the Goddess of the Pale Bone. Despite the interdiction of the site, the characters had in fact entered the ruins and explored it, following in the footsteps of previous expeditions sent there by Aíthfo's predecessor as governor. The characters' efforts yield some information, most notably that the ruins are riddled with nexus points and that there is a tubeway car station beneath it, but they were ultimately forced to flee, owing to the dangerous creatures that also dwelt within it. There was also evidence that the Temple of Ksárul had launched its own expeditions into the ruins.

Ku'óchan reiterated that the ruins were off-limits to everyone and that Pichánmush had matters well in hand. There was nothing to worry about and anything happening within the ruined city was "under control." Znayáshu's wife, Tu'ásha, questioned one of the ambassador's assistants on this matter and learned that this was not the case at all. Emboldened with this information, Znayáshu continued to ply Ku'óchan with Tsolyáni wines and brandies, eventually getting the ambassador to admit that there were "a few small problems" in Pichánmush, but "nothing we can't deal with." He sensed an opening for further discussion, but, rather than pressing the matter, he thought it best to wait until the next day to continue the conversations.

Meanwhile, Kirktá, with the permission of Keléno was busy copying the pages of the Book of Ebon Bindings delivered by the mysterious young woman a few days prior. Keléno questioned the slave who had received the original package, hoping to learn more about the identity of the young woman. He described her as "young and not unattractive but strange." When pressed, he added that she was "well dressed but in an old fashioned style." This immediately suggested to Keléno that the woman in question was Toneshkéthu, an advanced student at the College at the End of Time, who has occasionally helped the characters in their work by providing little "pushes" in the right direction. This alleviated some of his concerns, as Keléno had worried that the pages were delivered by someone far more sinister.

Keléno continued to study the pages, which he noted were carefully selected so as not to provide full information on any of its rituals. Instead, the pages seemed to have been selected to draw attention to lost city names, cities whose locations are unknown to modern scholars, though some argue they are in present day Livyánu. Keléno was starting to believe otherwise, based on linguistic similarities between the city names and those of cities reputed to be on the western side of the Achgé Peninsula – a region reputedly populated by a people called the Hinákho (or so the Naqsái called them), who worshiped "bloodthirsty" gods and employed peculiar magic. This fired Keléno's imagination and he began to consider how he might convince his clan mates to journey to their lands.

Interview: Rick Priestley (Part I)

For gamers of a certain age, especially in the UK, Rick Priestley needs no introduction. Designer of 1983's Warhammer Fantasy Battle (with Bryan Ansell and Richard Halliwell), he also had a hand in many of the many games that derived from it, such as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer 40,000. Mr Priestley worked at Games Workshop until 2009, when he left to join Warlord Games, which has published several of his designs, perhaps most notably Bolt Action. He very kindly agreed to an interview, the first part of which I am pleased to present below. 

As you will see, Mr Priestley's answers are quite thorough and touch upon many aspects of not only his own experiences but the early days of UK gaming. Since the process of answering my questions in such a fashion takes time, there will be gaps of several weeks between installments of this interview. Nevertheless, I have no doubt readers will agree that what he has to say is worth the wait. I learned a great deal from his answers and am grateful he took the time to provide them.

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

It’s the usual story for players of my generation and nothing out of the ordinary. Like every other boy in the 60’s, I was brought up with Airfix models and Britains/Timpo toy soldiers, all sold through Woolworths and commonly available across the nation. Boys’ comics were full of war stories and war themes made for popular TV and films. For many of us, our relatives had served in either the second or first world wars and our parents certainly lived through the second war. Our fathers had probably done national service after the war. Even as infants we routinely played 'war’ in the playgrounds using stick guns and imaginary hand grenades. Children’s magazines like Look and Learn and World of Wonder often had military themes and history was still respectably a tale of battles and kings, with proper dates and all.

At the same time, games were pretty much universal parts of growing up, especially board games, which we all treasured as Christmas and birthday presents. Even as kids we would congregate in each others' houses to play whatever new and exciting games were about. That continued as we turned into teenagers, and we would start to buy and play SPI and Avalon Hill games – the latter were very expensive through – quite an investment at the time! At the same time we’d be putting together more advanced plastic kits, so it wasn’t just wargaming: it was always a mix of military modelling, board gaming and miniatures-based wargames. Many of us would lean one way or the other – perhaps dabbling in miniatures wargaming whilst being primarily a modeller or board gamer, for example. 

I don’t think there was much of a leap from assembling and painting Airfix kits and collecting toy soldiers to devising games with them. I guess the moment when ‘playing’ turned to ‘gaming’ for me was with the discovery of ‘proper wargames’ in the form of the books written by Charles Grant, Donald Featherstone, and Brigadier Peter Young. There was also a series of little booklets in the ‘Discovering’ series (part of Shire publications – pocket-money books on a variety of subjects). Anyway, I came across a copy of Charles Grant’s Battle! Practical Wargaming in a local book store, and that was the loose end of a ball of string as far as I was concerned. That was the first time I encountered proper rules. Afterwards I made friends with other lads at my school who had started wargaming in a similar fashion. Military Modelling began publishing in January 1971 and quickly became the ‘go to’ resource for young wargamers, with adverts from all the leading manufacturers and publishers of the day. I suppose I would have been 12 years old when I came across that first book, towards the end of my first year at secondary school I think.

2. What about RPGs? When and under what circumstances did you first encounter roleplaying games?

Role-playing games didn’t really exist as a genre until quite late in my wargaming day. Before D&D came along in – I guess it must have been 1975 – there was a style of wargaming with miniatures that you might characterise as ‘skirmish’ wargaming. In skirmish wargames a figure was one man rather than representing a portion of a larger formation. Often our men would have names and they would take part in a series of adventures with a continuous narrative, and individuals would survive wounds, gain experiential bonuses and buy, steal or make new weapons and so on. These were ‘role-playing’ games after a fashion, even if we didn’t use that name, and often they would be based upon adventures in the American West or the high days of Empire in Africa. At that time it was reasonably common to have an ‘umpire’ running even ordinary tabletop wargames, so it was usual for someone to work out a game and others to play it out. In essential details this kind of wargaming was the ancestor of all role-playing games.

If you read about the history of D&D, you’ll see that it was a very similar route that led the TSR team from publishing wargames rules to role-playing games via their Chainmail system. Some of my friends and I were already playing similar fantasy games – skirmish fantasy wargames with named characters and a story arc worked out by an umpire. When the first copies of D&D appeared in the UK we did feel a bit as it we’d been beaten to the post! I did go on to play D&D though and created dungeons: this was with the imported rules – I think it was the second edition – three books in a brownish box. A friend of mine had the rule book and some of the early supplements, which was just as well because it was a damned expensive affair! That early version of D&D was extremely free-form, which was very appealing, and beyond that I would just make up stuff – great fun. I never got any further than that with D&D or any commercial RPGs that came afterwards. They all seemed over-regulated and rule-driven to me. Some of the background was nicely done though – RuneQuest especially – and the RuneQuest percentage driven mechanic was considered pace-setting at the time. Some skirmish wargames rules had also used a similar mechanic, as did the first published set of rules that I was involved with – Reaper. I think by the time D&D developed into a phenomenon my gaming had taken a back-seat to college life. Afterwards it was more a question of earning a living so my interest became more professional than hobby.

3. Would you mind talking more about Reaper? You designed this set of rules with Richard Halliwell. What was the origin of the game? Were you happy with the published version?

Reaper was born from two things: a fantasy campaign that Hal ran, and our mutual ambition to publish a set of wargames rules. I think that ambition  to write and publish our own rules – was something that we nurtured all through our teenage years. Hal had a set of science fiction space combat rules printed in a fan magazine called Dragon’s Lair – an irregular newsletter for fantasy wargamers, the first of its kind in the UK as far as I know. We worked on rules together and would invent games using the models we had. I remember coming up with a science-fiction boarding action game that used gridded floor plans to represent different parts of a space ship – something like what would become Space Hulk. Obviously, as teenagers, we were convinced we could do a better job than any of the published rules writers out there. Such is the arrogance of youth.

Not that there was much for fantasy wargames at that time. There was a set of fantasy amendments for the Wargames Research Group ancient rules, which we adapted and used for most of our early fantasy games. These would be games in Tolkien’s Middle-earth using the Minifigs ME (Mythical Earth) range of models. Later on we would prefer to write our own rules to go with whatever fantasy projects presented themselves. Both Minfigs and Garrison produced a range based on Robert E Howard’s Conan stories that included some nice monsters and unusual ‘fantasy’ types.

I don’t remember exactly when the first percentile dice arrived in the UK, although I recall they were sold by Skytrex and were quite expensive. These were actually 20-sided dice numbered 0-9 twice – one red and one black making a pair. There were a few games that featured these dice. I remember in particular a set of WW2 naval rules that used a series of complicated charts and graphs in conjunction with a percentage mechanic to determine the effect of gunfire. These dice suggested rules mechanisms different from those associated with usual six-sided dice. Percentage dice – D100s if you like – imply a mathematical profundity and precision that I believe we found appealing at the time. They give a feel of a serious and proper game – something more realistic than could be achieved with a D6. I still maintain that D100s give that feel to a game, though I would also suggest that it is a ‘feel’ only and in fact such mechanics are neither more realistic nor more accurate in terms of simulation. D100s can be remarkably unhelpful because of the even spread of probability, making fluky scores rather more common that you might wish. I would go on to use a D100 system for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but we had to ameliorate the fluke element with ‘fate points’ to protect players from erratic dice swings.

Anyway, we started to use a percentage system as the basis for our own fantasy wargames. I think the game that inspired us to do so more than any other was The Old West Gunfight rules by Mike Blake, Steve Curtis and Ian Colwill. This was an inspiring set of rules with snippets of history and lovely sketches to accompany the text. For the time this was rather unusual. We are in the age of rulebooks that were solid text and roneo’d sheets stapled together rather than printed and bound. As for photographs and even diagrams… dream on! Our games evolved as a mixture of rules that we’d transposed from other games together with our own percentage driven combat system. In essence they were skirmish wargames with heroes and followers, and usually fixed upon a scenario where our gallant warriors had to travel across a blighted wilderness enduring the onslaught of mutant monsters, rescuing allies from the clutches of ne’er-do-wells, capturing ancient or mystical towers to uncover mysterious artefacts, and so on. Although ostensibly a ‘fantasy’ campaign, events were to reveal a world that was in reality a post-apocalyptic earth where magic had developed in the clutches of psychic mutants following some catastrophic nuclear war. The action eventually took us to a semi-terraformed Mars via a matter transporter. So, I say fantasy… but there was a lot of science-fiction. To some extent this setting was inspired by Michael Moorcock’s stories, notably the Count Brass books which are part of the History of the Runestaff series.

I can’t remember exactly at which point our collection of rules and notes became Reaper but the name was taken from the Blue Oyster Cult song "Don’t Fear the Reaper," a jukebox favourite following its release in 1976. Asgard Miniatures was also founded in 1976, and we’d started to incorporate some of the first Asgard releases into our games. Asgard were based in Nottingham – which is not all that far from Lincoln where Hal and I lived – and I think we had this notion that maybe Asgard would publish our rules. Of course, we had little idea of what publishing amounted to at that time, let alone how to sell something you’d published, but – as I said before – we were ambitious! Hal phoned the number on the Asgard advert and spoke to Bryan Ansell, who every generously invited us over to Nottingham to demonstrate our game. Bryan showed us round the Asgard workshop, which was a small unit round the corner from where he lived, little more than a double garage really. That was the first time we’d seen casting machines and mould presses and all the paraphernalia of manufacturing wargamers figures. I seemed to remember I bought some figures ‘hot’ out of the mould! Bryan was very encouraging, not just with the rules but also with painting and modelling. I’d painted a lot of the models we took over for our demo and I’d also made conversions of some of them. I think in those days Bryan was keen to see if anyone half-promising could design figures. I did subsequently paint a few models up for the Asgard display and even made a few bits and pieces that found their way into the range. It was Bryan who hooked us up with the owners of the Nottingham Model Soldier Shop – who eventually published Reaper.

I got the job of putting the book together having been introduced to the concept of ‘camera ready copy’ by Bryan. Basically, I typed the rules up onto A3 sheets which would then be reduced down to A4. We had a typewriter at home and it happened to have a ‘legal’ carriage, i.e. an extra wide carriage that could take bigger sheets of paper. I left spaces for illustrations which would be added by Hal and Bryan using stock artwork from the Asgard adverts. I think by this time – probably late '77 and early '78 – Hal was at Nottingham University, so he was travelling a lot between Nottingham and Lincoln, acting as go between. I was out of school but wouldn’t go off to college until late '78, so I guess I had some time on my hands. Anyway, I did the basic production work, finalising the text and drawing up the few diagrams, adding the headers using rub-down Letraset transfers. Hal sorted out the cover and a friend drew the cover illustration. Bryan added a nice sketch of Hal onto the credit page – not a bad likeness either!

Hal handled the final stage over in Nottingham. It was printed by the Nottingham Model Soldier Shop – although often described as ‘Asgard’ at the time – and was supposedly the longest set of British wargames rules published to date! Much of that was down to a rather lengthy set of magic rules, which I’d developed as a kind of ‘build your own spell’ system. The rules were quite expensive and I don’t think they exactly set the world on fire, but it’s amazing how many people say they played and enjoyed them back in the day. Later on a second edition was published by Tabletop Games – essentially a tidied up version of the game – and these are fairly easy to find. The second edition is easy to spot because it’s only A5 size compared to the original A4, and it’s saddle-stitched rather than slide bound as was the original.

Mechanically, Reaper suffered from being a little too predictable in terms of combat resolution, basically because of the accumulated percentages. For example, ten men fighting with a 17% of scoring a hit would calculate out at 170% or 1 hit and a 70% chance of a second. In essence, you would inflict 1 or 2 hits every time and that was that. Hits were moderated by a ‘toughness’ role – a sort of saving throw – but even so things were a bit too predictable really. Later on I tried splitting the results out into 50% chances and taking rolls for each, but with D100’s that’s a bit cumbersome so I reduced the percentages to a D10 system with some loss of detail. At the end of the day you lose a lot of the advantages of a D100 system doing that and if you’re going to go for 50% rolls you might as well be throwing a D6.

The Reaper rules were actually more of a battle game than the games we were actually playing, mostly because our role-playing elements were pretty much done free-form by the umpire without any rules as such. There was a lot of ‘it’s up to you’ in the game system and that’s something I think both of us felt was key to the game. I think we were rebelling against the ‘rules are rules and must be obeyed as holy writ’ style of game that was more usual at the time (and since!).

Reaper was the gateway that introduced Hal and myself to the world of miniature manufacture and rules publishing, and most importantly to Bryan Ansell who would later go on to recruit both of us into Citadel and hence Games Workshop. Two other players who took part in our Reaper games (members of what we called LOON – the Lincoln Order of Necromancers) also joined Citadel – before me – Paul Elsey, who became a mould maker, and Anthony Epworth, who became the shop floor manager and subsequently a mould maker. So really, we have a lot to thank Bryan Ansell for, and none of it would have happened without Reaper.