Friday, January 22, 2021

Remembering REH

After so many years of writing about pulp fantasy and highlighting the contributions of its essential writers, what more could I possibly say about the life and works of Robert E. Howard, born this day 115 years ago? You need only search through this blog's archives or click on the "Howard" tag to see how often I've written about him in the past – and with good reason! Though the success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings understandably receives the lion's share of the credit for making fantasy the popular (and profitable) genre it is today, I think a very strong case could be made that, when it comes to contemporary fantasy, it is to Howard that we owe a bigger, unacknowledged debt.

Tolkien was, even in his own day, an anachronism, writing in a style that was self-consciously old-fashioned, intended to recall the sagas of Northern Europe and create "a mythology for England." Howard, on the other hand, had much less lofty ambitions for his writing, wanting only to tell ripping yarns that would entertain his audience and bring him a meager income. Yet, as he gained experience and honed his craft, Howard nevertheless succeeded in creating the elements of a modern mythology, some of which are arguably more well known in the 21st century than the hoary legends of the ancient world. Conan the Cimmerian stands beside Superman, James Bond, and Darth Vader as a fictional icon of the modern world.

More than that, though, Howard's characters, particularly Conan, typically bring with them thoroughly modern outlooks and concerns. Take, for example, Conan's disinterest in matters of religion, preferring to live his life by his own lights rather than those handed down by tradition. Though a man of his word, Conan adhered to no "code," guided by his wits and his sword rather than by high-minded ideals. "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content," he famously said in "Queen of the Black Coast," the closest the barbarian ever came to stating his personal philosophy – and one that is, in practical terms, not far from the way most people live their lives today. I cannot imagine one of Tolkien's characters giving voice to such a perspective.

It's here, I think, that Howard's impact on fantasy has been the strongest and most enduring. Howard was an iconoclast and freethinker; he had equal disdain for the priests of old and their modern descendants, schoolteachers. His skepticism of tradition and received opinion is distinctively, if not uniquely, American, and this mindset can be seen throughout his literary works, where his characters regularly run afoul of the pettiness and arrogance of the established order. This rebellious streak – Howard would no doubt have called it "independence" – is nowadays ubiquitous among contemporary heroes, fantasy and otherwise and REH was ahead of the curve in valorizing it. In a very real sense, all of fantasy since has been following a trail that Robert E. Howard blazed long ago.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

House of Worms, Session 210

The lights in the darkened chamber were three in number, blue-white in color, and rotating around each other, several feet above the ground. Keléno and Znayáshu recognized these as nexus points, similar to those seen elsewhere in the ruins of Pashkírigo. The ancient Naqsái city seemed to be situated in an area where the "skin of reality" was thinner and magic generally more effective. Consequently, nexus points were unusually common here and, when encountered, were often seen in odd configurations such as these. Regardless, the pair believed that it was likely through these nexus points that Arúken hiSesmúga, with whose spirit Znayáshu had communicated, intended to rendezvous with his ally, Kétem. 

After a time pondering the best way to test this theory, one of the group's guards, a younger member of the House of Worms clan, stepped forward and offered to enter one of the nexus points and, if he survived the journey, return to the chamber to report what he saw. With some reluctance, the group endorsed this plan. The guard entered the nexus point – and did not return. The group waited several more minutes, eventually amounting to thirty in the end, before deciding that something untoward had happened to their young charge and someone else would have to test the nexus point. Grujúng volunteered, along with Nebússa. They entered the nexus, one after the other, and likewise did not return. This began to worry the party, who eventually decided, with great reluctance on the part of Keléno, that they ought to all enter the nexus point, reasoning that their purpose would not be served if they were separated from one another with no means of communication.

What they discovered, upon passing through the nexus point, is that they had all arrived at the same point and at the same time, despite their having passed through the nexus point at different times from their perspective. Keléno noted that it was not uncommon for such temporal anomalies to occur, as nexus points can traverse time as well as space. More pressing was the fact that, up ahead, they saw a young man employing both sorcery and an eye to defend himself against a half-dozen strange, silvery-white humanoid figures. These figures were utterly featureless, having no discernible faces or or even fingers or toes. They seemed to possess sorcery of their own, shooting bolts of energy at the young man, who, for the moment anyway, was able to protect himself. 

Nebússa suggested that perhaps the young man was Kétem and, if so, they should join the battle on his side. Though there was some dispute about this, the characters ultimately decided to do so, with Grujúng and Nebússa running ahead, weapons drawn, supported by the guards they brought with them. Meanwhile, the others attacked from range, with Chiyé making use of his crossbow, Keléno his eye of Krá the Mighty, and his third wife, Mírsha, her spells. Most of their efforts proved ineffectual, or seemingly so, as the silvery beings were quite resilient. Keléno in particular was frustrated that his eye had failed him multiple times, while Grujúng, usually a potent combatant, was unable to do much damage against these weird beings. Ultimately, it was Mírsha's sleep spell that proved most effective, causing all six of the beings to enter a quiescent state and stop attacking.

The young man smiled at the sight of this and, addressing Mírsha, said, "You must show me how you did that!" He then thanked the characters and suggested that they vacate this space by returning to the chamber from which they had come. He showed them the proper nexus point to enter and they all did so, leaving the weird beings behind. Upon returning, he said that his name was Kétem and he inquired what had become of Arúken. Kétem was saddened to hear of his ally's death but was nevertheless grateful the characters had come to his aid. He explained that those beings appeared "whenever someone was attempting to meddle with branches of the Tree of Time."

Upon hearing this, the characters erupted in questions, which Kétem did his best to answer. Over the course of much discussion, the following was learned. A group within the Temple of Ksárul known as the Ndálu Clan had been traveling between two branches – two alternate versions of Tékumel – transporting people and objects between them in an attempt to merge the two into a single branch, thereby altering reality more to their liking. Kétem explained that their efforts had already succeeded in part, resulting in numerous changes to the past, present, and future of the branch the characters inhabited, a fact that explained a great deal about what they had experienced both on the Southern Continent and back in Tsolyánu before they had any inkling that a plot of this magnitude was afoot.

Needless to say, the characters were simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the information Kétem shared. They pressed him for more information, especially about the Ndálu Clan and their purposes, but he knew little, saying only that, "whatever they are up to, much of it has already been achieved." However, it was still possible to prevent more changes by "sealing the breach" between the two branches that the Clan was using to move between branches. He explained that there are certain fixed points on the Tree of Time that cannot be altered. The Ndálu clan was using one such fixed point as a "bridge" of sorts and that he and Arúken had been planning to travel to this fixed point in order to seal up access to it from the other side – something he hoped the characters would now join him in doing.

Naturally, they were interested in doing so, at least until they learned two details. First, the fixed point in question was the fabled Battle of Dórmoron Plain, the Armageddon of the Gods. The characters had earlier discovered a nexus point that seemingly led to this location/event and had spent a short time there before fleeing it. Second, Kétem stressed that, in order for the seal to work properly, it would have to be effected from the other side and be permanent. In other words, they would be forever trapped at that fixed point and unable to return to Tékumel. 

While the characters recognized the logic of what Kétem suggested, they were understandably concerned, to the point that Keléno stated outright that he was unsure he would join them in this endeavor. However, before any decisions were made, Kétem recommended that they ready themselves. He opened a nexus point to the Linyaró so that they return to their home, speak with anyone they wished, and otherwise make any preparations they felt were needed. If he were correct in his claims, they might well never be seeing Linyaró – or Tékumel – again.

Individualistic and Imaginative

Issue #2 of Lee Gold's famed Alarums & Excursions (July 1975) is well known for having published a letter by Gary Gygax, in which he offers his opinion on a number of topics, the most interesting part of which (to me anyway) is the following:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark. Let us consider the magic-user question.

Needless to say, I approve very strongly of what Gygax says here, but it's worth noting that it would seem to be in contradiction to his later statements that OD&D was a "non-game" because of its high degree of variability. This is an area of great interest to me: how individual referees took OD&D's basic framework and ran with it in different ways to suit their own campaigns. Even now, I love hearing about house rules and unique interpretations and implementations of the sparse text of OD&D and other RPGs. 

Likewise, this passage is yet more evidence in support of the notion of two Gary Gygaxes – the gamer and the corporate spokesman. The former clearly speaks in this letter, defending individualism and imagination and utterly rejecting any suggestion that he should "play god" for other referees (or, to quote OD&D's closing words, "do any more of your imagining for you.") The latter is the author of perfervid denunciations of deviations from the published rules in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. I doubt I'm alone in preferring Gamer Gary over Corporate Gary nor, I hope, in recognizing that these two Garys could exist side by side. Nevertheless, I often ponder how the early history of the hobby might have been different, for good and for bad, if the Gary Gygax of this 1975 letter had been the only one.

Grognard's Grimoire: Vephar

Vephar (Old School Essentials)

Vephar by Jason Sholtis
AC –2 [21], HD 22**** (132hp), Att 2 × claws (1d10), 1 × tail slap (1d6), THAC0 5 [+14], MV 360' (120'), SV D2 W2 P2 B2 S2, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 10,500, NA 1, TT I, K, N, O

Vephar is a duke whose watery domain can be found on Demon World Dawo within the Fifth Shell. His 29 legions include many cohorts of aegaei (q.v.), as well as even more terrible aquatic demons. Vephar's preferred form is an emaciated humanoid whose grotesquely distended belly reveals his viscera. Instead of legs, he has a fish-like tail. His gangly arms end in large, clawed hands. Vephar's designation in the Grimoire Major is 01-23 Blue.

Vephar may only be struck by +3 or better weapons. While in contact with water, he regenerates 2 hit points per round. He has the following spell-like abilities, usable at will: cause fear, control weather, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, feeblemind, polymorph self, read languages, read magic, teleport, and wall of ice. Vephar can summon (with 60% chance of success) 1–6 aegaei. Damage dealt by his claws does not heal unless the spell cure disease is first applied.

Vephar claims suzerainty over all Chaotic marine life, including amphibians. This latter point is a source of contention between himself and Bael (q.v.), as both demon lords regard the Ranine (q.v.) as their subjects alone. Evil Men sometimes beseech Vephar to cause storms at sea, an appeal he is only too happy to oblige.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Definite Article

I was reminded that today is the 87th birthday of the one and only Tom Baker, who definitively portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord known as the Doctor between 1974 and 1981. During my high school years, I became a devoted fan of Doctor Who, thanks in no small part to Baker's remarkable performance. His effortless combination of eccentricity, wit, and, if you'll pardon the expression, humanity absolutely sold me on a program that, by all rights, I should have viewed with derision. Baker elevated the show and I look back on watching it all those years ago with great fondness largely because of him. 

Happy birthday, Mr Baker!

"The only Dragons … Lawful in nature"

One of the primary reasons I prefer OD&D and its descendants over AD&D is its "primordial" character. Being Gygax and Arneson's first stab at a published version of the game, its presentation is raw and undeveloped, often to the point that the referee has no choice but to interpret its meaning for himself. Relatedly, OD&D often contains ideas and concepts that were either forgotten or rejected by them. In some cases, these ideas and concepts were no doubt left behind for very good reasons, but I nevertheless enjoy going back to the original source and seeing if perhaps something might have been lost in doing so.

One such area concerns dragons, first described in detail in Volume 2 of the game. As first presented, there are only six varieties of dragon: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden. Earlier, in Volume 1, there's an alignment chart that includes dragons.

What you'll see is that dragons appear only in the columns for Neutrality and Chaos. However, it's clarified, in the description of the golden dragon, that these dragons "are the only Dragons which are Lawful in nature, although this exception is not noted on the Alignment table." This is in contrast to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which includes many more good-aligned dragons that first appeared in Supplement I of OD&D. 

I'll be honest: I've never been wholly on board with good-aligned dragons. Due to the influence of medieval stories of St. George, Tolkien's Smaug, and Disney's Maleficent, I've long looked on dragons as inherently evil creatures. In all my years of playing D&D, I don't believe I've ever made use of a good dragon on my own initiative (there was once a ranger in a campaign among whose followers was numbered a young bronze dragon, if I recall) and I don't think anyone complained. Indeed, as I've remarked before, dragons ought by all rights to be among D&D's iconic adversaries.

That said, I'm a sucker for stories of villainous redemption. As I continue to work on Urheim, I've started toying with the idea that golden dragons represent Chaotic dragons who turn to Law and, in the process, are physically metamorphosed by their shift in allegiance. What I like about this approach is that it not only provides an explanation of why most dragons are Chaotic but that it also emphasizes the significance of alignment, a concept that seems disappointingly downplayed in contemporary Dungeons & Dragons. 

"Less than Worthy of Honorable Death"

No matter how many times I crack open Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, I come across something I don't remember ever having read before. That's probably not literally true, but the book is so large and anarchic in its organization that it's very easy to overlook (or forget) bits of its text. Sometimes, the text in question is insignificant; other times, it's actually vital to understanding some aspect of AD&D's rules. More often, the text is simply amusing and/or provides insight into the mind of Gygax himself. 

And then there are the head scratchers – passages or paragraphs that leave one wondering whether or not to take them seriously. I found one of these the other day as I was seeking out something else entirely from the DMG. In the book's preface, shortly before the credits and acknowledgments section, Gygax offers the following warning:

As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of an honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that would otherwise arise from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players. If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting "sages" and other sources of information not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge that could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment – insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.

I'm genuinely torn between thinking the whole paragraph in jest and thinking that Gygax was being completely serious. Like the Dungeon Masters Guide itself, the paragraph contains both genuine wisdom and absurd bluster. In my youth, I don't think I knew a player of AD&D who didn't own the DMG, it being seen as part of the essential "three-book set" one needed in order to participate in the game. If Gygax were serious in his admonition, very few people heeded him (and, to be honest, I can't imagine that TSR would have wanted to discourage anyone from buying the biggest – and most expensive – of the AD&D hardbacks).

And yet, for all that, there is a kernel of truth in what Gygax wrote. Not knowing is an important part of the fun in almost any RPG campaign; I can remember many occasions when the players' puzzling out something previously unknown to them was the source of much excitement. (Mind you, I feel the referee is a player too and some things should remain unknown even to him.) Secrets, hidden knowledge, and the thrill of discovery are all vital tools in a good referee's repertoire and Gygax is quite right to caution against allowing players to know too much, lest it lessen their own enjoyment. But the "solutions" he advocates, I hope humorously, are small-minded and vindictive. Far from achieving the laudable goal of preserving campaign mysteries, they would, if implemented, only convince players that their referee is petty martinet. I am certain that was not Gygax's intention, but, as with many passages in the Dungeon Masters Guide, who can say?

Retrospective: Hexagonal Mapping Booklet

"The past is a foreign country" is a saying of which I am fond. I am reminded of it often as I look back on my early experiences in the hobby, which are replete with things that scarcely make sense from the vantage point of the present. Living as we do in a world relatively inexpensive personal computers and desktop printers, as well as Internet connectivity, the idea that anyone would pay for something like character sheets (or non-player character sheets) probably seems a little bizarre and understandably so. Yet, I can say, with complete sincerity, that products such as those were much appreciated, even coveted, though we nevertheless balked at their price – not to mention complained that they were difficult to photocopy, thanks to the colored paper on which they were printed.

When I think back to this time, I am also reminded of the 128-page Hexagonal Mapping Booklet that was originally released in 1981, with a cover illustration by Bill Willingham. This is a book I desperately wanted, since, unlike graph paper, which was readily available from any office supply store, hex paper was hard to come by. I had up until that time been making do with hex pages photocopied from a sheet included at the back of Gamma World, which were merely adequate to the task. It always frustrated me that the D&D Expert Set, which includes a section on designing a wilderness for use with one's campaign, did not include a sample hex sheet (nor did The Isle of Dread, a module whose impact on my sense of what a hexcrawl is cannot be overstated). 

It's funny: I consider hex paper to be as much a marker of roleplaying games as polyhedral dice. Since I was never a wargamer, RPGs were the first place I encountered the idea of hex maps and their oddity left a strong impression on me. I was already familiar with graph paper from school, so that, when I first picked up Dungeons & Dragons, there was nothing the slightest bit strange about it. As I recall, I already had graph paper in my home when I cracked open my copy of the Holmes Basic Set on that fateful day in December 1979. But hex paper? I'd never seen it before and I was thoroughly enthralled by it. Being able to own an entire book filled with it was a proud moment and I treasured that book for years afterward.

My original Hexagonal Mapping Booklet is long gone and it's now easier than ever to find hex sheets of any size without incredible ease. Nevertheless, I can't help but look back fondly on those early days, when I would spend untold hours mapping out enchanted forests, perilous mountains, and pestiferous swamps for the players in my games to explore. I eventually graduated to even bigger and more ambitious maps (though, oddly, I used graph paper for my Emaindor setting) and remain, like most gamers in my experience, a devoted fan of maps of all types. The Hexagonal Mapping Booklet wasn't the source of my devotion, but it certainly encouraged it and for that I'll always be grateful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Contact Higher Plane

I was perusing Men & Magic the other day and my eyes fell upon the 5th-level magic-user spell, contact higher plane. The funny thing is that, while I remembered the existence of the spell, I had misremembered its name. I had mistakenly believed that it was called contact other plane, a perfect example of what I have called the long shadow of AD&D – the way that AD&D's prominence has skewed perceptions of OD&D. Now, to be fair, AD&D isn't wholly to blame for my misremembering; it's also due to the fact that I can't recall ever using this spell in any game in which I've taken part. Granted, I'm old and my recollections are often spotty, but, even so, contact higher plane has never been a staple of my D&D experience. 

As I was looking at the OD&D version of the spell, several things stood out. First, there's the name, that is, its original name. Why "higher plane?" This is where genuine research will need to be done, something for which I don't have the time right now. My guess is that it's "higher" rather than "outer" plane because, at this stage in D&D's development, its cosmology is vague. For example, Gygax had not yet come up with the idea of "inner" and "outer" planes. Instead, he (likely) cribbed a more common notion, popularized by Theosophy and its offshoots, of "higher planes of existence." 

Second, the spell states that it allows the "magical-type" – now there's an odd turn of phrase – to "seek advice and gain knowledge from creatures inhabiting higher planes of existence (the referee)." Just who (or what) these creatures are is not defined, either in this spell or its AD&D descendant. What is most notable to me is that the spell does not declare that these "creatures" are gods or divine in any way. In fact, OD&D does not include the words "god" or "deity" anywhere in its text.

This might tie into my third observation about the spell: whatever the nature of the creatures contacted, they are neither omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Even those dwelling on the "highest" plane contacted (about which I'll say more below) have a chance of not knowing the information requested and all but those dwelling on the highest plane has a chance of lying about their knowledge. Furthermore, the higher the plane contacted, the more likely it is that the magic-user will go insane. That last bit is suggestive, in that it implies, at the very least, that the creatures contacted are so unlike mortal minds that mere contact with them is enough to end one's mental stability. 

Finally, the spell connects the number of questions the magic-user can ask of these creatures to the plane on which they dwell. Thus, a creature of the eighth plane can answer eight questions, which makes some sense, I suppose. Why is it that the planar numbering system starts at three rather than one? Is this purely an artifact of game logic? Did Gygax believe any fewer than three questions would be insufficient for a 5th-level spell or was there some other factor at work here? 

Spells like this, whatever one thinks of their in-game utility, please me greatly, because they raise questions for me to ponder. That's one of the main attractions of OD&D for me: it's filled with mechanical and "philosophical" lacunae that demand the referee fill. 

A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Lots of people, understandably, remember the Dungeons & Dragons advertisements that appeared in the pages of Marvel comics over the course of 1981 and 1982, starring Valerius the fighter, Grimslade the magic-user, and Indel the elf exploring Zenopus castle. I've always been particularly fond of this installment of the story, which features perpetual victim, Indel, falling prey first to green slime and then a trap door (that ultimately lands him in the lair of a dragon). 

However, as it turns out, there's a second series of D&D advertisements featuring a comic story drawn by Willingham of which I was unaware until very recently. Here's a representative panel:
The artwork is much more obviously Willingham's work than the other comic. His kobolds, for example, are unmistakable if you've ever seen the AD&D Monster Cards. More interesting to me is the revised cast of characters, which still features a trio consisting of a fighter, a magic-user (here called a "wizard"), and an elf, but who have different names and appearances. The wizard is named Khellek, which would seem to be a variation on the name Kelek used in other media for an evil wizard and antagonist. 

I find all these advertisements quite fascinating, since they're all from around the time period when D&D had just broken into the popular consciousness (thanks, in part, to the story of James Dallas Egbert III) and TSR was beginning to make real money from it. Clearly, the company had no idea how to promote and sell its products and was simply throwing lots of things against the wall to see what stuck. These ads are one example of their fumbling attempts at marketing – and one of the better ones, in my opinion. 

Imagine Magazine: Issue #28

Issue #28 of Imagine (July 1985) is another "special" issue, in this case "pulps." I try not to be too judgmental on this particular topic, since I understand what is meant by "pulps," namely broad, over-the-top action, as exemplified by many of the stories that appeared in the pages of pulp magazines during the 1920s, '30, and '40s. Yet, as I regularly point out, "pulp" is no more a genre than is anime (another term frequently misused by those unfamiliar with it); the pulps were filled with stories of many different genres, from fantasy to crime stories to historical fiction, with many more besides, most of which shared only the paper on which they were printed and nothing more. 

Paul Mason's "The Masked Avengers" presents itself as "an introduction to pulp rolegames," which in this case means Daredevils, Justice Inc., Gangbusters, Chill, and Call of Cthulhu. According to Mason, pulp stories were "stirring tales of two-fisted action" featuring "rugged individuals fighting for truth, justice, and the American way against the forces of evil in a variety of exotic locations." He's correct that that's the way "pulps" are popularly understood, though the pedant in me recoils at the narrow understanding of the contents of these magazines. Oh well.

".... And Action!" by Mark Davies and Derrick Norton is, in a bit of serendipity, an article that demonstrates well just how much of a mess AD&D's combat rules were. The article takes five pages to elucidate the game's initiative system, something that Moldvay Basic handles succinctly in a few short paragraphs. Chris Felton's "Lycanthropy," on the other hand, is a four-page discussion of lycanthropes in D&D and AD&D, fleshing them out for use as opponents, NPCs, and even player characters. As is often the case, it's not a topic that matters much to me personally, but the article is nicely done and engaging – exactly what I want out of gaming articles. Felton returns, along with Paul Cockburn, in "The Gods of the Domains," this issue's Pelinore article. The piece fleshes out a few of the gods, providing them with mythology and relationships to one another. Accompanying the article is "Carraway Keep and the White Order" by Graeme Drysdale, which describes an organization for magic-users and elves.

David Hill's "A Look at the Cthulhu Mythos" is an overview of its (literary) history, detailing all the authors who have contributed to it and the ways in which their contributions changed it. Short but interesting, I was glad to see an article like this in a gaming magazine. Marcus Rowland's "A Nice Night for Screaming" is a murder mystery scenario intended for use with a variety of "pulp" RPGs, including the Adventures of Indiana Jones. It's a tight, well written adventure, as one would expect of Rowland. Chris Felton has yet another article in this issue, "The English Daredevil," which examines this pulp archetype from the perspective of England in the 1930s, with suggestions for modifying the rules of various games to make them a little less USA-centric. It's a good article; my only complaint is that it's too short and narrow. I'd love to have seen a longer treatment of the subject.

Hilary Robinson's "Time for the Little People" is a science fiction short story dealing with interactions between Terrans and an alien race. Sadly, this month's review focus entirely on TSR products, for AD&D and Marvel Super Heroes. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" discusses the potential pitfalls of a campaign less focused on dungeon delving and defeating monsters and more on politics and other social interactions. In particular, he ponders how to award experience points in D&D campaigns of this sort. As always, there's lots of food for thought. 

This month's "Fantasy Media" is written by Neil Gaiman, which is interesting from a historical perspective, if nothing else. Gaiman reviews a movie I've never heard of, Titan Find, which he dubs an "Alien rip-off," as well as Runaway (starring Tom Selleck, which he likes well enough), Repo Man (which he also liked), and Cloak and Dagger (another positive review). What struck me reading this column was how many movies whose existence I had forgotten; it was quite a trip down memory lane being reminded of these. And, as always, there are comics I didn't bother to read.

Imagine continues to intrigue me, partly because I'd never seen it back in the day and partly because its content is noticeably different from what I'd read in Dragon or even White Dwarf (to which I had more regular but nevertheless intermittent access). Articles are fairly hit or miss, it's true, but they also tend to be longer and off the beaten path in terms of content. There's quite a lot of good material here, along with some forgettable stuff too. The good material, though, is of very high quality and it's a shame that the magazine didn't last longer. As the conclusion of this series draws closer, I find myself slightly saddened.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Enduring Appeal of Basic D&D

If I'd been asked, back in, say, 1981, the name of my favorite roleplaying game, I'd have answered, without hesitation, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There are multiple reasons why I'd have replied this way, perhaps the greatest of which being that AD&D presents a very eclectic but nevertheless compelling fantasy vision informed by the literary tastes of Gary Gygax. Decades later, I still find that my imagination remains thoroughly colonized by ideas and concepts whose origins lie in AD&D. That's not a criticism by any means; if anything, it's evidence of just how powerful a thing Gygax wrought.

Despite this, purely as a game, I don't think I'm speaking uncharitably in calling AD&D a convoluted mess. I don't believe I've ever met a gamer who played AD&D strictly by the book – assuming such a thing is even possible. AD&D's combat rules, for example, are nigh unintelligible and I'd be amazed to learn that anyone who'd bothered to fathom their mysteries gained anything of lasting consequence by doing so. I say this as someone who's on record as liking "rough edges" in games. 

I don't think I'm alone in this doublethink regarding AD&D: simultaneously adoring its ideas and esthetics while feeling its rules are awful. In fact, I suspect this attitude is quite widespread, at least among gamers of a certain age. Equally widespread, I think, is effusive love for Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. Indeed, if I had to hazard a guess, I imagine that, among gamers who call themselves "old school," Basic D&D (or one of its retro-clones, like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials) is being played much more often than AD&D. Why would this be?

It's an interesting question and one for which there are probably as many answers. Speaking only for myself, I would say that Basic D&D's strengths are its flexibility and open-endedness, the very things that Gygax would later claim made it a "non-game," a topic to which he returned on other occasions. Basic D&D (and, by extension, Expert D&D) is intentionally written in a way that is easy to understand (compared to the little brown books of OD&D from which it derives) and encourages individual creativity.
While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable – anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed. This is not to say that everything in this booklet should be discarded! All of this material has been carefully thought out and playtested. However, if, after playing the rules as written for a while, you and your referee (the Dungeon Master) think that something should be changed, first think about how the changes will affect the game, and then go ahead. The purpose of these "rules" is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don't feel absolutely bound to them.

It's precisely this attitude, stated boldly and upfront, that, when combined with its generally simpler and more straightforward rules, makes Tom Moldvay's version of Dungeons & Dragons my go-to version of the game these days. This is true, even when I wish to introduce ideas or elements from AD&D (which is often). 

Obviously, other players and referees will have their own reasons for choosing Basic D&D – and if you're one of them, I'd like to hear why – but the larger point remains: Basic/Expert D&D has become the preferred version of the game for those interested in its earliest editions. I find this fascinating, given how much more common it was, back in the day, to dismiss it as "kiddie D&D." I regret being so contemptuous of it when I was younger and am grateful that I've come around to recognize it for the masterpiece of clarity, concision, and creativity that it is.

The Halls of Tizun Thane

A constant lament of this blog since its inception is the extent to which fantasy games and gamers are ignorant of the literary origins of the genre on which they both depend. This lament is not universally applicable, however: many older games and game writers were better versed in the foundational works of fantasy. A good example of this can be seen in issue #18 of White Dwarf (April/May 1980), which contains a low-level Dungeons & Dragons adventure entitled "The Halls of Tizun Thane" by the late, great Albie Fiore, whose title is clearly a riff of that of the titular wizard from Robert E. Howard's "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune."

"The Halls of Tizun Thane" is a remarkable piece of work from the early days of White Dwarf, as this terrific map of more sixty-five keyed areas amply demonstrates.

The scenario involves a party of adventurers exploring the former abode of Tizun Thane, "a high level evil magic user, who was as cruel as he was cunning." Thane, we learn, had a hall of mirrors in his abode, and, if one stared into them, one could see "not reflections but instead a scene from another scenario" – a clever echo of what Kull observes in the short story linked above. Otherwise, the adventure doesn't have any other obvious connections to the story, but the fact that it has any whatsoever is a testament, I think, to how much more commonplace familiarity with pulp fantasy stories was among early RPG players. 

The Murderous Mirrors of Kharam-Akkad

I wrote in my earlier post on "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" that Roy Thomas "clearly disagrees with me" regarding adapting the story to feature Conan. I wrote this because I was thinking of Issue #25 of Conan the Barbarian (April 1973). That issue contains a story entitled "The Murderous Mirrors of Kharam-Akkad" that draws heavily on the Kull tale but isn't precisely an adaptation, as I had thought. In it, a Hyrkanian high priest named Kharam-Akkad possesses Tuzun Thune's mirrors and sees in them a vision of Conan standing over his dead body. 

Kharam-Akkad becomes so obsessed with this vision of his demise that he attempts to thwart it by ordering Conan captured and brought to him. You only need to have read Sophocles or Shakespeare to see where this story is going: the Cimmerian's capture brings about the very death that Kharam-Akkad had hoped to avoid. 

It's frankly not a very interesting story in its own right and only really serves to advance the story of Conan's life, pointing toward his eventual adoption of the pseudonym Amra. That said, the story does feature a couple of panels that recapitulate the plot of "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," marking the first ever appearance of Kull in the pages of a Marvel comic. 
Whatever else I could say about Thomas's Conan comics, one thing I will always praise is his willingness to use Howard's own words (or paraphrases of them) in his dialog and descriptions. That's evident in the panels above, which include snippets from "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane" and this otherwise forgettable issue is the better for it.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

Robert E. Howard's character Kull of Atlantis is not as well known as Conan, even among fans of fantasy, and understandably so. For one, Kull appeared in only three published stories between August 1929 and November 1930. For another, Kull is a much more "restrained" character than the Cimmerian, being much more conventionally chivalrous and, I'd wager, less compelling than the hotblooded barbarian to readers of the pulps. Consequently, the stories of Kull, both those published during Howard's lifetime and those published later (mostly in the 1960s and '70s), to the extent that they're remembered at all, are conflated with those of Conan. This situation is only made worse by the fact that REH himself re-purposed at least one Kull story as a tale of Conan, which established a precedent followed by others, such as Marvel's Roy Thomas. 

I think this is a shame, not just from a historical perspective, but also because I think that Kull is an intriguing protagonist in his own right, one whose differences from Conan demonstrate well Howard's range as a writer. This comes through clearly in the second published Kull story, "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane," which appeared in the September 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The yarn begins with with one of my favorite passages in all of Howard, as Kull struggles with a dark mood.

There comes, even to kings, a the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

Kull sat upon the throne of Valusia and the hour of weariness was upon him. They moved before him in an endless, meaningless panorama, men, women, priests, events and shadows of events; things seen and things to be attained. But like shadows they came and went, leaving no trace upon his consciousness, save that of a great mental fatigue. Yet Kull was not tired. There was a longing in him for things beyond himself and beyond the Valusian court. An unrest stirred in him and strange, luminous dreams roamed his soul.

Kull is so immersed in his thoughts that even his boon companion, the Pictish warrior, Brule, can rouse him from them. Then, "a girl of the court" with golden hair and violet eyes whispers to the king of the wizard Tuzun Thune, who, she says, possesses "the secrets of life and death." Kull asks the girl to tell him more of the wizard, which she does, explaining that he is

"A wizard of the Elder Race. He lives here, in Valusia, by the Lake of Visions in the House of a Thousand Mirrors. All things are known to him … he speaks with the dead and holds converse with the demons of the Lost Lands."

Intrigued, Kull sets off to meet Tuzun Thune alone, hoping that "this mummer" might be able to cure him of his melancholy. 

Upon meeting him, Kull interrogates the wizard, asking him, "Can you do wonders?" What follows is memorable and another example of the ways in which the tales of Kull differ from those of Conan.

The wizard stretched forth his hand; his fingers opened and closed like a bird's claws.

"Is that not a wonder – that this blind flesh obeys the thoughts of the mind? I walk, I breathe, I speak – are they not all wonders?

Kull meditated a while, then spoke. "Can you summon up demons?"

"Aye. I can summon up a demon more savage than any in ghostland – by smiting you in the face."

Kull started, then nodded. "But the dead, can you talk to the dead?"

"I talk with the dead always – as I am talking now. Death begins with birth and each man begins to die when he is born; even now you are dead, King Kull, because you were born.

Kull is unimpressed by these clever responses and declares the wizard to be "no more than an ordinary man." It's at this point that Tuzun Thune suggests that Kull "look into my mirrors" and reveals that the walls and ceiling of his home consisted almost entirely of perfectly jointed mirrors. The king does so and, in so doing, sees first scenes from the past and then the future before being directed into another mirror "of the deepest magic," in which Kull sees only himself – or does he? 

Fascinated by his reflection, the king begins to wonder "Am I the man or is he? Which of us is the ghost of the other?" This thought slowly overtakes him and, even after he leaves Tuzun Thune's home, he continues to ponder it, in the process becoming more and more unsure of whether the world he inhabits is the real one or whether the world beyond the mirror is. His advisors begin to worry about his state of mind, fearing that Valusia will come to a bad end because of it.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" is a unique story, marrying the conventions of pulp fantasy to a philosophical exploration of the nature of identity and indeed reality itself. No one's world is going to be shattered by this story: it's interesting but not especially profound. But I enjoy it nonetheless, in large part, I think, because of just how different it is from Howard's Conan stories. Though Conan is no blockhead, he prefers to leave questions such as these to teachers and priests. I can't imagine the Cimmerian starring in a story like this one (though Roy Thomas clearly disagrees with me) and that's more than enough to make it memorable. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Dungeon Master

Since I've been writing a bit about the so-called "steam tunnels incident" that, in August 1979, first brought Dungeons & Dragons and, by extension, all roleplaying games to wide public consciousness (if not actual knowledge), I thought I'd turn today to another book related to the subject, this time much more directly. The Dungeon Master is a 1984 book written by William Dear, a Texas-based private investigator. Dear, who's been involved in a number of high profile cases over the years, was employed by the parents of James Dallas Egbert III to locate their son, after he disappeared from Michigan State University. The Dungeon Master is Dear's account of his investigation and what he discovered.

Dear – who is still alive, as of this writing – is a flamboyant figure, the very model of what one might imagine upon hearing the words "private investigator." He is fond, for example, of having his picture taken while holding a firearm and his writing is prone to bombastic self-promotion. Nevertheless, what comes through in reading this book is that, despite his foibles, he actually cared a great deal about the fate of Egbert and genuinely sought to understand him and his situation in order to find out what had happened to him. 

It's precisely for this reason that Dear became interested in Dungeons & Dragons and publicly opined that perhaps the then-new game might have played a role in Egbert's mysterious disappearance. As it turned out – and as Dear makes clear in this book – it didn't, but, by the time The Dungeon Master was published, four years after Egbert committed suicide, the damage had already been done. In the public mind, not only was D&D forever associated with this tragic event but it was also deemed "weird," "deviant," and "dangerous," among many more unsavory adjectives. Gary Gygax was still fielding questions about the game's supposed danger to impressionable young people in 1985, which frankly boggles my mind.

One of the most interesting parts of The Dungeon Master, particularly in hindsight, is the chapter where Dear recounts his first experience playing D&D for himself, in an attempt to understand Egbert's attraction to it. Lord Kilgore excerpts a large section of the chapter on his blog, a small portion of which I reproduce here:
My Dungeon Master and his friend arrived promptly at 2 P.M., as agreed. I’d had only two hours’ sleep, but I’d manage to shower and shave and put on fresh clothes and I felt wide awake. For reasons I can’t explain, I tingled with anticipation and curiosity. 
I didn’t know what to expect from my dungeon master. Would he show up in a Merlin costume, with a funny pointed cap and star: emblazoned all around? Would he be dressed as some authority figure, an all-knowing wizard or a god? I knew he would have complete control over the circumstances of the fantasy adventure on which was about to embark. I knew he would be absolutely fair, siding neither with me nor with the monsters I would face; he was an arbiter of the strictest impartiality, and his decisions were final. Would he com dressed in the robes of an eminent jurist? 
He came dressed in sweater and jeans and scuffed tennis shoes. He might have been Jack Armstrong, so open, friendly, and Midwest- fresh did he seem. His friend, a good-looking Mexican-American sophomore who might have been an athlete, was named Louis. The three of us gravitated to the table and sat around it, and I explained again that I had never played Dungeons & Dragons.

It's a very odd passage for a couple of reasons that strike me immediately. First, Dear once again seems have it in his head that D&D players wear costumes while they play, something I have never observed in real life, outside a handful of convention games and in those cases I'm pretty sure it was intended humorously. Second, the atmosphere of mystery and awe Dear attributes not just to D&D but to the dungeon master is odd. Having been a referee of many games over the years, I can't say anyone has ever viewed me with the reverence Dear evinces in these paragraphs. I suppose I have to remind myself that Dear, as he admits, "had never played Dungeons & Dragons" and so had little idea what to expect from it. His attitude was probably not helped by the pompous title of dungeon master for the game's referee, one I've long felt was a bit silly (mind you, I feel the same way about Call of Cthulhu's "Keeper of Arcane Lore").

The Dungeon Master has lots of flaws, both as a "true crime" book and as a recounting of the events of August 1979 and subsequently, but it's nevertheless an important document from a time that, to me anyway, seems a million years away from the present. "The past is a foreign country," as they say and it never seems more so to me than when I reflect on the bafflement and fear with which roleplaying games were greeted in some segments of society. In my own life, I only ever encountered a single adult who harbored any worries about RPGs; most adults I knew, including my own parents, looked on games like D&D beneficently and even encouraged my friends and I in our newfound obsession. In retrospect, I'm incredibly grateful for that, considering the many boons this hobby has showered upon me during my life.

Retrospective: Traveller: 2300

Despite the amount of time I've spent over the last forty years playing, refereeing, and writing about fantasy roleplaying games, I've always been more of a science fiction fan. There are many reasons for this, but, if I had to single one out, it's probably the fact that the first "grown up" television show I watched with any devotion was Star Trek, broadcast every Saturday afternoon on a local independent TV station. Watching Star Trek with my aunt – who'd been a teenager when the program originally aired – made a powerful impression on me (as did the days of manned space exploration) and I fully imagined that, sometime in my own lifetime, there'd be a permanent base on the moon's surface, as well as regular expeditions to Mars, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets. 

Though it's quite probable that I'll not live long enough to see my youthful dreams come to pass, I remain remain a science fiction aficionado. I have long said that Traveller is my favorite roleplaying game, bar none. I played the game regularly and with great enthusiasm in my younger days and my first professional writing gigs were Traveller articles and adventures that appeared in the pages of GDW's Challenge magazine. Despite this, there was a time, in the late 1980s when I'd grown tired of Traveller and was casting about for a replacement sci-fi RPG. Almost as if on cue, I began to see advertisements in Dragon proclaiming the imminent publication of a new SF game from GDW, entitled Traveller: 2300 and I was immediately intrigued.

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that it was a "prequel" of some sort to Traveller. Later advertisements explained the game's setting better, connecting it not to Traveller but to Twilight: 2000, another favorite game of mine (I was and am an unrepentant GDW fanboy). Traveller: 2300 took place three centuries after the Third World War, as "mankind discovers the stars," according to the game's tagline. The setting's post-Twilight: 2000 history was generated through the play of "The Great Game," a massive freeform (and, therefore, refereed) wargame played out by GDW's staff. Consequently, that history contained all sorts of odd and unexpected elements that gave it the weird plausibility that actual history does. For example, the USA never fully recovered from World War III and took a back seat to an African-oriented Third French Empire and the northern Chinese successor state of Manchuria. I adored this, since it provided not only a terrific backdrop against which to set adventures but also plenty of scope for national rivalries, intrigue, and wars – things missing from the utopian, antiseptic future of my beloved Star Trek.

Traveller: 2300 also excelled in its alien races, all of which were genuinely alien, sometimes to the point of being almost inexplicable to humans. Again, this appealed greatly to me. I'd long been seeking aliens better than the "guys in suits" approach adopted by so much space opera and this game provided them. Attempting to understand these alien species and their cultures was, in fact, a major part of the game, with several early adventures focusing on this. Even the main "enemy" species, the Kafers, received similar treatment, with both a sourcebook and series of adventures that delved into their unique biology and psychology, explaining just why it is that they had decided to launch a devastating war against humanity. 

The game was equally devoted to fleshing out the world of the future. We learned interesting little tidbits about Earth in the future, such as the fact that the eating of rat meat was now commonplace – a holdover from the famine years following the Third World War. The game's equipment list was not generic; instead, it was heavily corporatized, with everything from weapons to armor to computers bearing the name of its manufacturer. The result was a familiar yet somehow different Earth that felt "real," which is precisely what I'd been looking for at the time.

My main complaint about Traveller: 2300 was that its rules were nothing special and, in fact, impeded my enjoyment of the game to a certain extent. I had expected they'd be similar to those in Twilight: 2000 and, while there were certain commonalities, there were also plenty of changes, not all of which agreed with me. I gritted my teeth and used the rules as they were presented to the best of my ability, but I also houseruled many aspects of the game too. Had the game had better rules, I might have played it more than I did. Even so, I devoured the setting and, to this day, retain a great fondness for it.

In the end, though, it wasn't the rules that killed my interest in the game; it was GDW itself. The game's second edition, retitled 2300 AD, bore a new tagline "man's battle for the stars." The Kafer War became a much bigger focus for the game and incongruously tacked-on cyberpunk elements – then all the rage – were introduced. After a while, the game felt less like the wondrous, exploratory game that I fell in love with in 1986 and more like a generic military SF game. Every now and again, I get the hankering to return to this game and it's stymied by my memories of the game's ultimate development. I should probably just put that aside and immerse myself in it, since Traveller: 2300, flaws and all, had a lot going for it. One day, maybe I will.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

House of Worms, Session 209

Nebússa and Srüna,
as drawn by Zhu Bajiee
Faced with a dozen Dlaqó-beetles, the characters nevertheless proceeded to engage them, with Grujúng leaping first into battle, followed by Nebússa. The duo were supported by the remaining Tsolyáni soldiers who accompanied them, wielding spears from the back rank, while Shén mercenaries pelted the giant arthropods with their crossbows. Znayáshu, meanwhile, employed his nature control spell to command one of the Dlaqó to turn on its fellows. Kirktá, on the other hand, fled the scene, heading in the direction of the division of Naqsái who had accompanied them, hoping he could bring them back to the scene before his comrades were overwhelmed. As it turned out, the battle, though hard fought, turned, within a few minutes, to the favor of the House of Worms clan. Thanks to the use of an eye of hastening destiny, which tripled the characters' attacks, the beetles were dispatched and injuries healed by Keléno's magic.

Znayáshu immediately took an interest in the human corpses on which the Dlaqó were feasting. Only two of the three bodies were intact, the other two having been torn apart by the ravenous beasts. Even a cursory examination of the bodies revealed that they were Tsolyáni and in some way associated with the Temple of Ksárul. This came as no surprise to anyone, as it had been clear from months that the temple and its servants had been deeply involved in events in and around the ruins of Pashkírigo. Znayáshu is a gifted medium and regularly communes with the dead in an effort to obtain information. He prepared his ritual accoutrements and conjured up the spirit of the intact body. In doing so, he identified himself as vice-governor of Linyaró and a loyal servant of the Petal Throne, hoping that this might coax the spirit to cooperating more fully.

As it turned out, Znayáshu's gambit worked and the spirit, who identified himself as Arúken hiSesmúga of the Black Stone clan, seemed quiescent and helpful. When asked, he explained that he and other members of "the Society" had come here to deal with the maelstrom at the center of the ruins. Znayáshu suspected and later confirmed that the Society in question was the Society of the Blue Light, one of the innumerable secret societies within the Temple of Ksárul. The Society of the Blue Light, unlike most of its rivals, has no political ambitions and seeks only to acquire knowledge for its own sake. Previously, Lady Srüna, herself an adept within the temple, albeit a low-ranking one, had indicated that there was a three-way (at least) struggle within Linyaró's Temple of Ksárul over, among other things, the ruins of Pashkírigo and the treasures it contained. 

Arúken further explained that he and his compatriots were to be aided in their endeavor by "a sorcerer named Kétem." At this, Znayáshu asked, "Do you mean Getúkmetèk?," referencing a crazed sorcerer they had encountered previously and whose magic had turned Znayáshu to stone for a time. Arúken reiterated that the sorcerer with whom he was working was named Kétem and that he "possessed the ability to seal the breach forever." He added that Kétem was to be met "below," which suggested the network of artificial tunnels the characters already knew existed beneath the Pashkírigo. Znayáshu then commended the spirit of Arúken for his service to the Petal Throne and promised that the bodies of himself and his companions would be buried according to the appropriate rites of his faith. The spirit thanked him and departed.

With that, the characters set about searching the large building in which they found themselves for an entrance to the tunnels beneath. Past experience in the ruins had taught them that most civic structures included some means to journeying below. Given the large size and importance of this building, odds were good that it too possessed a means of traveling into the tunnels. After some time, one of the Naqsái soldiers, whose division had rejoined the characters, found a narrow shaft descending some distance below. The shaft had no obvious means of descent, though there was evidence that there had once been a ladder, long since removed or destroyed. Experimentation suggested the shaft was somewhere between 150 and 200 feet deep.

Nebússa volunteered to be lowered down into the shaft, eventually reaching its bottom. With the use of a light spell, he could see a half-dozen passages heading off in two directions: east and west. Nebússa decided to go west, eventually settling on a slightly larger tunnel in which he felt a faint, rhythmic vibration. He informed his companions above of what he had discovered and they descended to join him, one by one. The Naqsái soldiers were told to keep watch above; Znayáshu feared the return of the Vorodlá. However, he informed the Naqsái captain, Chára Khurgó, to abandon the area in the event they were in danger of being overwhelmed. 

Below, the characters continued down the tunnel, which grew wider as they advanced. Likewise, the vibrations grew stronger and a strobing light could be seen ahead. Znayáshu made use of his clairvoyance spell to see ahead, into the source of the light. There, he saw three bright lights revolving around one another at a fixed rate. This reminded him of a trio of nexus points located elsewhere in the ruins, suggesting that this might have been where Arúken was supposed to meet Kétem. Cautiously, the group prepared to move ahead.


Rona Jaffe's 1981 novel, Mazes and Monsters, is probably the best known example of a book using roleplaying games as the basis for its plot, in large part because of the television movie based on it. However, it was far from the only instance of such a book. Another one, published the same year, is John Coyne's Hobgoblin. Unlike Mazes and Monsters, which I have still never read, Hobgoblin is a book with which I am quite familiar. My father was an avid reader both of fiction and non-fiction; I remember he would check out huge numbers of books from the library every few weeks and spent most of his spare time reading. Occasionally, he'd recommend something he'd read to me and we'd talk about the book once I'd had the chance to read it too. 

In the case of Hobgoblin, our discussions began when he asked me if I'd ever heard of Brian Boru. At the time, I hadn't and he told me that he was supposed to be an ancient Irish king. He was also the name of a roleplaying game character in a novel he was reading. Hearing this piqued my interest and, after he'd finished reading it, he gave me the book to me so that I could see for myself. 

Hobgoblin is not a great book by any means, but it'd be unfair to Coyne to lump it with Mazes and Monsters. Unlike Jaffe, whose story is as sensationalist as it is absurd, Coyne is telling a different kind of tale, a weird coming-of-age horror novel in which roleplaying is not seen as dangerous so much as childish. There's a strong suggestion in Hobgoblin that roleplaying is an emotional retreat, an unwillingness to "grow up" and come to terms with the sometimes harsh realities of life. Its protagonist, Scott Gardiner, is an intelligent but awkward teenage boy whose father has recently died and who has moved with his mother to a rural upstate New York far from the city where he spent most of his life. Already an avid player of the titular RPG, Hobgoblin, he becomes even more obsessed with it, to the point where he begins to see monsters from the game around his new home.

The book is silly and lurid at times – it's a horror novel, after all – but, unlike Mazes and Monsters, I don't get the impression that Coyne had it in for roleplaying games. In fact, the game of Hobgoblin, to the extent we get any sense of it at all, seems vaguely plausible as a real game, in part because it's steeped in Irish mythology and folklore, which lends it a certain verisimilitude. Nevertheless, the rules of the game are still a bizarre mishmash of elements, with a board, cards, dice, and miniature figures. I doubt Coyne had ever played D&D when he wrote the book and his descriptions of the game strike me as the kind of thing an outsider might well say after a fairly cursory investigation into the subject. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter, because Hobgoblin isn't actually about roleplaying games. Its imaginary RPG is more a metaphor than a plot device.

Thinking about Hobgoblin is another reminder of just how revolutionary roleplaying games seemed in the late 1970s and early '80s. From the vantage point of 2021, when RPGs and RPG-like entertainments are not only ubiquitous but in fact form a sizable portion of all pastimes, it can be difficult to understand what all the fuss – and worry – was about. Even having lived through those times, it's often hard to remember the sheer newness of the concept. RuneQuest famously contains a dedication to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax for having "opened Pandora's box," which, I think, recognizes the effect that roleplaying really did have one the wider culture. I say it all the time: RPGs changed the world. It's little wonder that people at the time might react with a combination of fear and curiosity upon first encountering them.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #27

Issue #27 (June 1985) of Imagine features a very striking cover by Pete Young. As with most of the past issues, this one is devoted to a theme, in this case magic and magic-users. It kicks off with "Magic: Miracle or Menace?" by Mike Lewis, which discusses the place of the magic-user in a fantasy society, with special attention given to the ways that the presence of magic might lead to social and political upheaval. The article is brief and its points are fairly elementary, especially to old hands, but Imagine seems to have been focused on beginning roleplayers, so the presence of pieces like this make sense. 

Next up is "New Magic User Spells" by none other than Gary Gygax. The article is a reprint of Gygax's earlier (November 1982) article from Dragon, presenting spells that would later be included in the pages of Unearthed Arcana. I remember enjoying the original article – and others like it – but somehow, when UA was finally published, much of the material didn't seem quite as attractive anymore. One thing this reprint has going for it, though, are some delightful illustrations, like this one, depicting the spell stoneskin.

"Rhyme nor Reason?" by J.A. Robertson is an attempt to provide a rationale for D&D's magic system by postulating the existence of True Speech, a primal language, knowledge of which grants the speaker varying degrees of command over reality. It's an intriguing idea and the author is quick to point out that it's not meant to be a definitive rationale, only a possible one that he's used successful in his own campaigns. "A Familiar Liability" by Mark Davies tackles the subject of familiars, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the spell as presented in AD&D, along with suggestions on how to improve it. While I have never cared much about this topic, I must confess Davies made me more interested in it, which is the sign of a good article in my opinion.

Chris Felton's Pelinore article describes the town of Burghalter, another small settlement in the County of Cerwyn. Burghalter is notable for having a secret cult whose members worship rakshasas, monsters that may or may not actually exist in the town. "One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night" by Paul Emsley is a level-agnostic AD&D adventure set in Pelinore and takes the form of a murder mystery. Its level agnosticism is unusual, at least in published adventures, but it makes a great deal of sense in the case of scenarios like this one, which consists almost entirely of investigation. Good stuff!

Kevin Smith's "Alcain and the Swamp Demons" is an amusing fantasy short story about a barbarian chieftain, the titular Alcain, and his interactions with a high priestess called the most beautiful of all women. It's a fun, clever little story and I enjoyed reading it. This issue's reviews cover adventures for AD&D, Middle-earth Role Playing, and Chivalry & Sorcery, along with Twilight: 2000. The review of the last product is overall positive (with a few caveats) and notes
this is a good game, well worth clubbing together for, if you belong to a group of experienced players who like free-running games and whose referee can run a scenario from minimal notes. If your referee has no experience of 'winging it' and needs all the details worked out in advance, this is not the game for you. Unfortunately, there are far too many of these around, so the game will probably sink into oblivion within the year.


Colin Greenland's "Fantasy Media" offers reviews of several movies and books, starting with John Carpenter's Starman, which he dislikes a great deal. He is much more taken with The Return of Captain Invincible!, a movie I'd never heard of till now and that, based on what I've read about it, sounds awful. I guess there's no accounting for taste. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" discusses the matter of character beliefs and how they affect playing them. Musson uses the example of Norse culture to illustrate his point. As usual, it's a good article that provides some excellent food for thought. Musson is by far my favorite author in the pages of Imagine. I wonder whatever became of him.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Crypts and Creatures

Last week, I alluded to my dissatisfaction with most popular media portrayals of roleplaying games. While it's true, as a commenter correctly noted, that accurate portrayals of many things, not just RPGs, sometimes interfere with good drama, I am nevertheless irked by the misinformation that's spread about the hobby through these portrayals. For example, many such portrayals conflate tabletop roleplaying games with LARPing, a related but different hobby. This is a very common and, in fact, very old error, one to which even Holmes refers in his Fantasy Role Playing Games (published in 1981). In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Probably not, but my irritation stems in large part from how much contemporary popular entertainment depends on ideas and concepts originating in or disseminated by RPGs. It's no exaggeration to say that, at least when it comes to pop culture, roleplaying games roleplaying games are foundational.

Consequently, when I come across a film or television show that does even a halfway decent job of showing what playing a roleplaying game is actually like, I make a point of speaking highly of it. That's where 2010–2013 cartoon, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated comes in. I wrote a previous post about this show during its original run, but that was to highlight its references to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. The fourth episode of its second season, which aired on August 2, 2012, is entitled "Crypts and Creatures" and its plot involves a monster from a roleplaying game of the same name. In a series of flashbacks, we see several now-adult characters playing the game when they were children.

This is an overhead shot of the play area, consisting of three players (left, right, bottom) and the referee (top), all seated around a table. Arrayed before them are sheets of paper, dice, and a battle map with miniature figures – all very real RPG paraphernalia. About the only thing that doesn't ring true – to my experience anyway – is the presence of flashlights. The game is taking place in semi-darkness, with the referee using the flashlights to add "mood" to the game.

Here's another view of the same scene, along with this one.

There's a lot I like about this scene, not least of which being that it's clearly shown that the characters are talking to one another, describing what their characters are doing, with the referee adjudicating the results through a combination of rules, dice, and judgment. No one is dressed up in a costume – aside from the referee, whose cowboy hat is a trademark of his adult self – and none of the gaming materials are implausible. Take a look at this image, for example.

That's a proper 20-sided die – a precision, Zocchi-style one too, from the looks of it. This might seem like a small things but I can't tell you how often popular media can't even get the details of dice right. That's not from any malice, of course, simply disinterest, but it's not as if tabletop RPGs are so unusual in the 21st century that it would take long to find out what they're actually like and make sure their portrayal rings true to those who actually engage in the hobby. Perhaps I expect too much. Regardless, I wanted to praise this cartoon. It did an excellent job of showing that there's no reason you can't tell a fun story about roleplaying games and portrays the games fairly accurately. 

Attention All FRP Gamers

Last week, I posted about Timescape, an early live action roleplaying business located in the UK. While perusing issue #77 of Dragon (November 1983), I came across this advertisement for a similar business on the other side of the Atlantic. Quest Games of Saddle Brook, New Jersey offered "a real adventure" in which participants 
physically walk through a maze of hallways, and rooms in a specially designed castle searching for treasure, avoiding traps, and fighting real monsters.

 There's also mention of the use of electronic devices to enable one to have "working magic items and magic spells." Precisely what this meant, I have no idea, but, viewing it nearly forty years later, I am nevertheless intrigued. 

I'm quite fascinated by these early attempts to produce "real" fantasy adventures in the early to mid-1980s. I remember seeing many advertisements for places like this and Timescape, both in the USA and the UK, though, as I mentioned previously, I never visited any myself. If anyone did, I'd love to hear about it. After a certain point, though, mentions of this kind of entertainment seemingly disappear and I wonder why that is. Even now, I'm hard pressed to think of comparable businesses. I wonder if the improvement in computer technology played a role in their decline, with video games coming to sate the desire for a fantasy entertainment that was more direct than tabletop RPGs.

(Also, I smile whenever I see the abbreviation "FRP" used. It was once very commonly place but seems much less so now.)