Monday, November 30, 2020

Huge Ruined Piles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP David Prowse (1935–2020)

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

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

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

Pulp Fantasy Library: Titus Groan

Two admissions before I begin. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2020

News from the Front

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Urheim: Northeast Ruins

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Kingdom for a Horse

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Blizzard Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Perfect Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Wargaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine Magazine: Issue #20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2020

Saints Alive

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Ordure Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Horror on the Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2020

Adventure Planning à la Mentzer


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

In that section, Mentzer states that name level characters

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

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

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

An Attack of Gout

I mentioned previously that I have begun playing the historical simulation, Here I Stand, with some friends. (I say "historical simulation" rather than simply wargame, because, in this case, the game models more than military conflict.) Its design is complex, not so much because of difficulty, but because it has a lot of moving parts. Learning each part takes time, as does learning how they all relate to one another, never mind how to make use of them effectively. So, it's been slow going initially, as one might reasonably imagine. 

Last night, though, progress was made and I began to feel as I were getting a handle on it. The game is card-driven, like many contemporary wargame designs, The cards, like the one depicted above, can be used in two ways, either for the event described on it or for its value in command points (CPs). CPs are used to pay for actions, like "raise regular troop," "explore," or "burn books." Naturally, the best events tend to have concomitantly high CP values, meaning that players are forced to decide between whether to play the card for its event or cash it in for CP to power other actions. It's an engaging approach and I found it gave me a lot to think about as I played.

The Ottomans had amassed a fairly large army under Suleiman and had marched to within striking distance of Vienna. That's when the card above came into play. Because it's labeled "response," I, as the Habsburg player, was able to make use as a kind of "interrupt" on the Ottoman player, as he prepared to launch his attack against my capital. Now afflicted with gout, Suleiman could not advance with his troops, which made the attack against Vienna dodgier. Coupled with another response event employed by the player of England (which caused unrest in two Turkish-held cities) and the Ottoman threat was neutralized for the time being. 

I can't begin to express how delightful I found this. This is exactly the kind of unexpected turn of events that happens in real world history; it's also what I strive for when it comes to the history of a campaign setting. I'm keen to find a way to mechanize unpredictability into macro-level campaign events, which is why this card and its effects on the game so charmed me. I firmly believe that a key element to the longevity and success of a campaign is that one remembers the referee is as much of a player as anyone else. As such, he should be surprised from time to time. To do that, there needs to be some method, some system to take certain decisions out of his hands. I'm still not entirely sure what form this will take, but it's a matter about which I've been thinking a lot lately. That's why I'm tinkering with a series of nested tables to generate campaign events, taking inspiration from multiple sources, including wargames like Here I Stand. As I get further into this project, I'll share some of the results here.

Also: in the same game, I dispatched Johann Eck to Leipzig to debate Martin Luther and succeeded in besting him, news of which struck a blow against heresy in Strasbourg, returning it to the bosom of Mother Church. Theological debates are one of the many sub-systems of the game and are quite fun in their own right. They also introduce another level of unpredictability into the flow of the game and served to inspire me further. I have a feeling this game is going to give me quite a few ideas and I'm looking forward to watching the alternate history of 16th century Europe unfold with my friends.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Urheim: The Lower Temple

Map by FrDave
Today I present one of the largest sections of the surface ruins of Urheim: the Lower Temple. During the days before the fall of the monastery, the Lower Temple was dedicated to St. Evad filzArn and Companions and sits atop the Lower Catacombs. Unlike the Upper Temple, the Lower Temple suffered significant damage during the Simonist Wars, as the map indicates. Presently, the Lower Temple is being used as a bivouac by a troop of the Company of the Quarrel commanded by Lieutenant Anskar. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We Need Large Groups

Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:2- or thereabouts.

Men & Magic, Volume 1 of Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

Players: The more the merrier!

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) 

Any number of people can participate in a campaign or scenario, although generally 40 players should be treated as a maximum. Optimum game size (based on the ability of the referee to control and interact effectively) is from three to ten persons.

Characters and Combat, Book 1 of Traveller (1977) 

When I first took up the hobby of roleplaying, my neighborhood circle of friends consisted of seven people, a number that often increased, such as when one friend's cousin from Minnesota spent the summer with him or when we met up more distant school acquaintances to do something together. Consequently, my earliest experiences of playing RPGs, especially Dungeons & Dragons, include being surrounded by a sizable number of people. I've talked before about the local gaming meet-ups and the the number of participants at most of the games there. Those games were raucous, lively affairs – even anarchic by many measures – but I enjoyed them a lot, which is why I regularly reflect on them on this blog. 

I found myself thinking about this recently, because, due to a concatenation of events, my House of Worms campaign hasn't met for the last couple of weeks. That's highly unusual. There are eight players in the campaign and it's rare that more than a couple of them are unavailable on a given week. That's one of the joys of a large group: there are always enough people to play.  That means more than one might think, since it's only through regular, continuous play that a campaign can be built up and survive for years. And, as a commenter on another post rightly said, long campaigns are "indeed the acme of the hobby." Anything else is, in my opinion, a mere shadow of what the hobby is capable of.

In the past, I used to make all sorts of excuses as to why my groups consisted of only three or four people and some of them might even have been valid explanations rather than facile rationalizations. I can't do that any longer, as it's become increasingly clear that I'd been missing out on the chaotic creative energies that can only be unleashed by a larger group of players. I've had fun with small groups certainly and I'd even argue that, in some contexts – an espionage campaign à la Top Secret, for instance – they make more sense than large ones, but, as a general rule, I think large groups are vital to the success of a RPG campaign. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that RPGs were created with large groups in mind.

At some point, though, a shift happened and smaller groups became the norm. I'm not quite sure when it happened or why. A quick survey of games from the early '80s, during the height of RPGs' first instance of faddish popularity, reveals that the subject of the size of a gaming group is rarely addressed at all. When it is, such as in, for example, in Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules, there's a certain hedging of bets:

At least two persons are needed to play this game, though the game is most enjoyable when played by a group of four to eight people.

It's a far cry from OD&D's four to fifty players but still skewing toward a size that is large by the standards of later eras, when smaller groups seems to have become more common – at least that was my experience during the later '80s and into the 1990s. 

The other thing I have observed, especially during this year, is that having a large group of people with whom you regularly game, even if it's only virtually, as it is for most of us these days, is a much needed antidote to the social isolation we might otherwise feel. My House of Worms crew, with whom I've spent many hours, have helped keep me on an even kilter and contributed much to my general level of emotional well-being, which is exactly what any worthwhile entertainment does. Further, the presence of so many different people, with different playing styles, ideas, and temperaments has not only made the campaign richer and more varied than it otherwise would be, it's also, I think, made me a more patient, tolerant, and open-minded person. That's no small thing, particularly in an age when so many of us voluntarily wall ourselves off from others and then despair of loneliness. 

Get out there and play with more people and more regularly. It's good for the hobby and it's good for you too.

Retrospective: The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game

The history of TSR between 1982 and 1984 is a strange and fascinating one. It's simultaneously when Dungeons & Dragons is at the height of its popularity (and profitability) and when TSR seems to have had no idea how to build on that success. Instead, TSR adopted multiple strategies, such as attempting to turn D&D into a brand name with which to sell non-gaming products to re-imagining the game into something more story-driven and, it was assumed, more accessible to potential customers unfamiliar with either pulp fantasy or its wargames roots. Another strategy was one that's still employed to this day, even by the current producers of D&D: license a hot property – or a not-so-hot one – and hope it'll result in expanded sales.

TSR's history with licensed properties is decidedly mixed. For example, Jeff Grubb's Marvel Superheroes is rightly considered an unqualified success, both as a near-perfect RPG design and as an example of the potential value of the right licensed property. On the other hand, the 2001: A Space Odyssey module for Star Frontiers is a classic example of "what were they thinking?" licensing, only slightly more intelligible than Dungeons & Dragons-branded sunglasses. TSR's AD&D Conan modules and Conan Role-Playing Game are, I think, an example of a middle case, namely a good idea poorly – or at least insufficiently well – executed. Throughout the early to mid-80s, TSR was clearly throwing lots of spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck; the results were, more often than not, a mess.

An infamous case in point is 1984's The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game. Designed by David Cook, the game was, like so many others at the time, a boxed set consisting of a 64-page rulebook, a map of the 1930s world, a referee's screen, a collection of player handouts, and cardboard cut-outs to represent characters, buildings, and vehicles, plus dice. Taken purely on these terms, The Adventures of Indiana Jones is a nice package and I can imagine that it would have seemed quite attractive purely on this basis. Of course, the main reason anyone bought the game – myself included – is because the pulp-inspired action-adventure world of Indiana Jones was very appealing. I have little doubt that every gamer who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the summer of 1981 (or even The Temple of Doom three years later) thought, "This would make a great roleplaying campaign."

So, unlike, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which still baffles me to this day, I don't wonder why TSR grabbed this license as soon as it was feasible for them to do so. The world of Indiana Jones is definitely the stuff from which a game RPG could be made. Alas, The Adventures of Indiana Jones was not that RPG – and it's not because of its game mechanics. Mechanically, the game was fine, if nothing special. Like many games at the time, Indiana Jones uses another variation on the color-coded results chart that Marvel Super Heroes employed to such great success. There are even small moments of brilliance in its particular take on the chart, with exceptionally good and bad results being called Lucky and Bad Breaks respectively and each having unique effects, depending on the attribute being checked. 

The game's real problem, the one that utterly cripples it is its lack of character creation rules. Instead, there are a total of seven pre-generated characters from which players can choose: Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, Sallah, Willie Scott, Short Round, Jock Lindsey (the pilot from the beginning of Raiders), and Wu Han (Indy's ally at the start of Temple of Doom, who dies). Now, I can understand including these characters as examples and even encouraging people to use them, but not including any rules for creating your own characters? That's a bizarre design choice, especially since the movies themselves imply that the world of Indiana Jones is much bigger than him and his immediate circle, filled with lots of other heroic and dastardly people trekking across the world in pursuit of valuable ancient artifacts. (There are also no experience rules; characters earn "player points" that enable them to reduce the severity of damage – that's it)

It's such a pity, because, as I've said several times now, there's a great deal of potential in the pulpy 1930s the movies presented. Further, the game itself is a decent introductory RPG that provides not only lots of fun little components but also a few interesting little sub-systems like the Chase Flow Chart intended to aid the referee in conjuring up the action of the movies. There's nothing revolutionary here, to be sure, and no one should think otherwise. This is not a forgotten gem of a roleplaying game, unfairly maligned despite its virtues. Rather, The Adventures of Indiana Jones is a textbook example of a missed opportunity – a nigh-perfect setting/world that could have, with a bit more imagination, have been a fun and successful RPG. Alas.

(And before anyone brings it up in the comments, no, TSR did not try to trademark the word "Nazi." TSR and this game can legitimately be criticized for many things; this is not one of them and I wish this particular urban legend would go away for good.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Urheim Fanzine?

 As Urheim continues to grow in size and scope, I'm looking for better ways both to present it and to develop it in the manner I think it demands. For example, I've been commissioning art for it by the remarkable Zhu Bajiee (who's also been a stalwart of The Excellent Travelling Volume) and that's been extremely well received, which pleases me. However, I can't really justify that over the long term without some way of subsidizing the cost. That's why I've lately been contemplating moving development of Urheim to a fanzine. 

I have a lot of experience producing fanzines now. The aforementioned Tékumel 'zine has reached a dozen issues, with a thirteenth under way. I've also produced Imperio to support my SF RPG, Thousand Suns, though that's regrettably a project that's not received the attention I'd like to give it. Between the two of them, I've learned a lot about the process of making 'zines for sale and I'd like to think that, as the years wear on, I've gotten better at it. Given that, I have little doubt that an Urheim fanzine would be at least as good as those, if not better.

The Excellent Travelling Volume sells around 250 copies per issue upon initial release, with a few dozen more in the months afterward – and Tékumel is, by even a generous definition, a very niche setting. Those sales are just enough to cover each issue's art budget, as well as printing and postage, but not much else. I'd like to think that Urheim, being a more traditional fantasy locale, would have wider appeal, but who knows? Judging by Blogger's stats, my Urheim posts are popular, with several among the most read posts in the last three months. That suggests there's interest in it. Whether it's enough interest to support a fanzine, though? That's the question.

I suppose there are alternatives to a 'zine, but, given my desire to develop the site, piecemeal, either continuing to do so here, through regular blog posts, or through an irregular fanzine seem the best options. The excellent Wormskin is my model here, since it's been slowly developing the Dolmenwood setting bit by bit over the course of the last few years. I hope to do something similar with Urheim, though I'm not yet committed to the idea of a 'zine. In discussing this with others whose opinions I trust, the notion of a subscription-based newsletter has been suggested, on the model of the superb Glatisant

I'm still uncertain of the path forward or indeed if it's something I should contemplate seriously. For the moment, I'm going to continue to make regular Urheim posts here, at least through the end of the year. Come 2021, things may change and, if they do, I'll explain them decision here. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions of your own to offer, please comment or drop me a note. As always, I'm actively seeking advice, opinions, and alternative perspectives and appreciate those of you who offer them.