Thursday, January 27, 2022

A World of Sorcery and Science

Artwork by Zhu Bajiee and Graphic Design by Lester B. Portly

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Speaking of Micro-Games

Here's an advertisement from issue #24 of White Dwarf, highlighting a collection of "pocket games" by Task Force Games. I never played any of those shown here, but I remember seeing Valkenburg Castle and Battlewagon on store shelves in the early 1980s. In case, it's another reminder of just how many games of this sort were published by a number of publishers at the time. 

Retrospective: Kung Fu 2100

I'm a huge fan of "micro-games" (also known as "mini-games" and "pocket games," among many other monikers). I was an avid player of TSR's forays into this field, but it was the designs published by Steve Jackson Games that first introduced me to the concept. Broadly speaking, most micro-games existed in a space somewhere between boardgames and wargames and came in small containers, whether ziplock bags, plastic clamshells, or pocket boxes. All micro-games featured relatively simple rules and components, which is why they were generally playable in about an hour or so. This was a big part of the appeal of micro-games to me and my friends. We'd often pull out Revolt on Antares or Ogre when we were waiting for the rest of the gang to assemble for D&D. They were a fun way to pass the time, even if you were just watching others play them (most micro-games were two-player). 

Last night, a friend mentioned a micro-game I hadn't thought about in a long time, Kung Fu 2100. Originally appearing in the pages of issue #30 of The Space Gamer (August 1980), the game would eventually be released as a separate product later that same year. That's how I first encountered it, as I rarely saw, let alone read The Space Gamer. Nevertheless, I was a keen player of Steve Jackson's micro-games (especially Car Wars) and snapped them up whenever I came across new ones. In the case of Kung Fu 2100, that happened while on vacation with my family and I chanced upon a little game store that was surprisingly well stocked with games I'd never seen before, including this one.

Kung Fu 2100 is wonderfully strange. Designed by Dennis Sustare, whose contributions to the hobby are many, the game's premise is a delightful goulash of 1970s pop cultural concerns, from cloning to martial arts to the end of human civilization. According to the history presented in its rulebook, human cloning is perfected in 2006, a complicated process that requires not only high technology – take a look at the computer banks and dot matrix printer depicted on the cover! – but the wealth to afford it. The cloning process involves the growth of a physical copy of the biological donor, as well as a copy of the donor's personality, memories, and experiences. Taken together, this opens the door to virtual immortality to those with financial means, setting off riots and unrest, as the masses realize what this means for society. The powerful, who come to be known as CloneMasters, eventually restore order, but only be repressive means, right down to outlawing the possession of most modern technology by anyone but themselves.

If this sounds utterly ridiculous, it is, but, as the premise of a game where one player takes the role of members of a secret society pledged to end the tyranny of the CloneMasters, it's perfect. Members of the Society of Thanatos, as it is known, train from childhood to use only their bodies to fight, since most weaponry is now forbidden to anyone but the CloneMasters and their servants, some of whom are Thanatos turncoats. The masses, who revere these martial artists as heroes, call them Terminators and cheer them on. The game itself focuses on an attack by the Terminator player on a CloneMaster fortress, with the goal of slaying the CloneMaster who dwelled within. The goal of the CloneMaster player, of course, is to prevent this from happening. 

Kung Fu 2100 consisted of a fortress map, some counters, a rulebook, and record sheets – fairly standard components for a micro-game. The sequence of play involves multiple phases of movement, combat, and recovery within each turn, with the Terminator and CloneMaster players alternating between them. Combat, specifically hand-to-hand combat, is quite interesting, in that Terminators (and their enemy counterparts, the Janizaries [sic] or "Jellies") having a choice of tactics to choose from, such as Iron Fist, Lightning Foot, Monkey Soul, and Body of Mist. These tactics are compared to one another on a combat results table, with some each having situational advantages and disadvantages. It's a neat little system that's both easy to use and flavorful. Like many micro-games, Kung Fu 2100 also includes rules for solo play, which is useful on days when no one else is available.

Sadly, this wasn't a game I played much back in the day, not for lack of interest. However, with so many other micro-games available to us, we tended to opt for those that we'd played before, leaving Kung Fu 2100 an also-ran at best. I'm not quite sure what happened to my copy of it. After my conversation last night, I find myself wishing I still had it, if only to take a closer look at its components and luxuriate in the warmth of late '70s pop culture cranked up to 11. Even better would be to get the chance to play it again.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Dungeon Master

As promised.

White Dwarf: Issue #24

Issue #24 of White Dwarf (April/May 1981) features a cover by Dave Pether, an artist whose name I don't recognize. Ian Livingston's opening editorial touches on the growing popularity of roleplaying as a hobby, noting that "Last year TSR sold 500,000 sets of D&D." Whether that figure is strictly accurate or not, it's nevertheless a useful reminder of just how successful Dungeons & Dragons was, despite being, in Livingstone's words, "an esoteric hobby." He later suggests that the success of RPGs has led to an overall improvement in their quality, not just in their physical appearance, but also in their designs, as "no manufacturer can afford to have a turkey in his range." Opinions vary, of course, but I'm not sure this was truly the case in early 1981, but it's undeniably the case that RPGs had, by this point, come a long way from "three badly written rulebooks in a little box."

Lewis Pulsipher continues "An Introduction to Dungeons & Dragons" with a second installment dedicated to "Dungeon Mastering styles." He identifies four such styles, which he labels "simulation," "wargame," "absurd," and "novel." Simulation, as you might expect, is concerned with "reflect[ing] reality as much as possible." Pulsipher associates this style with games like Chivalry & Sorcery and then boldly asserts that simulationists "have no place in D&D." The wargame style is "how D&D is designed to be played" and prioritizes character survival and enrichment as the the game's primary goals. The absurdist style "condones unbelievable occurrences" and "arbitrary" outcomes. This style, I suspect, is that of the "funhouse dungeon." In Pulsipher's view, "the average game tends to fall between wargame and absurd game." The final style is "an oral novel in which the players are participating characters." The article teases out the strengths and weaknesses (in Pulsipher's opinion, of course) of each style and their consequences for a campaign. While I can't say I agree with all of its perspective, it is a genuinely interesting article that, if nothing else, gives the reader a glimpse into how some viewed D&D and its play at the time.

"Backdrop of Stars" by Andy Slack is a Traveller article focused on building a campaign setting. Slack goes over the pros and cons of using GDW's Third Imperium versus "rolling your own" and then looks at the various decisions the referee must make in the latter case. It's a solid, "meat and potatoes" article of the sort that I used to enjoy when I was young and inexperienced. Meanwhile, "Open Box" reviews three games I've never played and a Traveller adventure. Said adventure is Twilight's Peak, which I recently included as one of my Top 10 Traveller adventures (it scores 10 out of 10 here). The games reviewed are Eon's Quirks (9 out of 10), Yaquinto's Shooting Stars (8 out of 10), and Games Workshop's own Valley of the Four Winds (9 out of 10). I mentioned before that I'm not a fan of magazines running reviews of their own publisher's products, but it was standard practice once upon a time (and perhaps still is). 

"Detectives" by Marcus L. Rowland is a character class for use with AD&D. The detective is like a cross between a thief and ranger, with a small selection of detection spells. It's an intriguing idea for inclusion in certain types of campaigns, but I don't see it as having wide utility. "The Lair of Maldred the Mighty" by Mark Byng is a lengthy AD&D adventure for a party of high-level characters led by a cleric or paladin. The scenario concerns an expedition to the secret lair of an evil wizard the past, who once ruled a kingdom in thrall to devils. There's perhaps the core of a good idea here, but it's so densely written and buried under unnecessary detail that it's hard to say for sure. 

"Laser Sword and Foil" is a very short Traveller article by Bob McWilliams in which he touches upon the adventure possibilities in starship malfunctions. McWilliams says he will expand upon these possibilities in a future article. "Alignment in Role-Playing Games" by O.C. Macdonald begins as an overview of the concept before inevitably noting that, outside of D&D, few games use this concept, which is just as well, because it "adds little to the game." What an unexpected conclusion … 

"Fiend Factory" presents a five silly monsters in honor of April Fool's Day. They range from the bonacon, based on genuine medieval legend, to the llort (a reverse troll, which degenerates) and the Dungeon Master. The last is fairly amusing, actually, and I'll post its full description in an upcoming post. "Special Rooms, Tricks & Traps" describes four examples of the kind of thing you might find in Grimtooth's Traps (complete with a diagram in one case). Not being an avid user of traps, it's difficult for me to judge these, but, on first glance, they seem decent enough. One is written by Roger E. Moore, which, as a longtime reader of Dragon, is fun to see.

All in all, this was a pretty good issue of White Dwarf – or at least one I enjoyed reading!

Monday, January 24, 2022

Are You An … Enslaved God?

An advertisement from the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales:

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Death of Malygris

The final story of Smith's Poseidonis cycle was, appropriately, "The Death of Malygris." By his own account, he was pleased with the tale, particularly for its inclusion of "much genuine occultism and folklore." The editor of Weird Tales, the redoubtable Farnsworth Wright, didn't think much of the story and rejected it as "more like a prose poem than a story" – a common criticism of Smith's tales he rejected. H.P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, admired it, calling it "splendid" in a letter to Robert Bloch. Smith would later re-submit "The Death of Malygris" to Wright, who was more well inclined this time. He not only published the story in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales, but even commissioned Smith to provide an accompanying illustration as well.

The sorcerer Malygris, who had previously appeared in "The Last Incantation" (ironically, the first episode of the Poseidonis cycle), had long exercised power over Susran, capital of Poseidonis, power greater than that of even its king, Gadeiron. Recently, rumors arose that Malygris had at long last died, a claim denied by the other wizards of the city, but one that Gadeiron and his chief advisor, the magician Maranapion, hoped to be true. Because Malygris was a "master of illuding shows, of feints, and beguilements," Gadeiron believes that the old sorcerer pre-emptively made use of his enchantments to hide the fact that he has died, so that, even in death, he might still lord it over the people of Susran. For this reason, the king addresses the assembled wizards.

"Not idly have I called ye to this crypt, O sorcerers of Susran: for a work remains to be done. Verily, shall the corpse of a dead necromancer tyrannize over us all? There is mystery here, and a need to move cautiously, for the duration of his necromancy is yet unverified and untested. But I have called ye together in order that the hardiest among ye may take council with Maranapion, and aid him in devising such wizardry as will now expose the fraud of Malygris, and evince his mortality to all men, as well as to the fiends that follow him still, and the ministering monsters."

Seven of the twelve wizards agree to assist Maranapion in this endeavor. Two others, the brothers Nygon and Fustules, conceived an "audacious plan" of their own. During the next night, they carefully stole into the tower of Malygris, which they soon found devoid of any guardians or protections. Emboldened by this, they sought out the chamber of Malygris, at the center of which contained his "chair of primeval ivory" upon which sat "the old archimage … peering with stark, immovable eyes."

Nygon and Fustules felt their awe return upon them, remembering too clearly now the thrice-baleful mastery that this man had wielded, and the demon lore he had known, and the spells he had wrought that were irrefragable by other wizards. The specters of these things rose up before them as if by a final necromancy. With down-dropped eyes and humble mien, they went forward, bowing reverentially. Then, speaking aloud, in accordance with their predetermined plan, Fustules requested an oracle of their fortunes from Malygris.

There was no answer, and lifting their eyes, the brothers were greatly reassured by the aspect of the seated ancient. Death alone could have set the grayish pallor on the brow, could have locked the lips in a rigor as of fast-frozen clay. The eyes were like cavern-shadowed ice, holding no other light than a vague reflection of the lamps. Under the beard that was half silver, half sable, the cheeks had already fallen in as with beginning decay, showing the harsh outlines of the skull. The gray and hideously shrunken hands, whereon the eyes of enchanted beryls and rubies burned, were clenched inflexibly on the chair-arms which had the form of arching basilisks.

"Verily," murmured Nygon, "there is naught here to frighten or dismay us. Behold, it is only the lich of an old man after all, and one that has cheated the worm of his due provender overlong."

Perhaps predictably for a Clark Ashton Smith yarn, the true situation is not as the wizard brothers believe it to be. One of the familiars of Malygris, the viper featured in "The Last Incantation," springs upon them, while a voice echoes "Fools! ye dared to ask me for an oracle. And the oracle is – death!"

Meanwhile, Maranapion, knowing nothing of the fates of Nygon and Fustules, led the seven remaining wizards in a series of "impious charms and unholy conjurations, and fouler chemistries" intended to prove that Malygris is indeed dead, as he suspected. They start with a spell of invultuation, the crafting of plasmic copy of Malygris, which they cursed with their spells so that, by the principle of sympathy, the body of Malygris might decay. Then, making use of "the blue, monstrous eye of the Cyclops" – a crystal ball – they watch as their enemy seated in the tower above Susran slowly rotted. 

Too easy, the reader might think and indeed it is. Malygris did not ascend to the heights of power in Poseidonis without being well prepared against the machinations of his foes, especially those as potent as King Gadeiron's wizardly advisors, as the reader soon discovers. "The Death of Malygris" is a story of hubris and revenge, filled with images of creeping doom and putrescence. It's thus a fitting end to the stories of Poseidonis, the last outpost of Atlantis.

Smith's own depiction of Malygris in his chair.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

And Silence I Was Born

Robert E. Howard (January 22, 1906–June 11, 1936)
By rose and verdant valley
And silence I was born;
My brothers were the mountains,
The purple gods of morn.

My sisters were the whirlwinds
That broke the dreaming plains-
The earth is in my sinews,
The stars are in my veins!

For first upon the molten
White silver sands I lay,
And saw the ocean beckon
With eyes of burning spray.

And up along the mountain,
And down along the lea,
I heard my brothers singing,
The river and the tree.

And through the ocean’s thunder,
And through the forest’s hush,
I heard my sisters calling,
The sea-wind and the thrush.

And still all living voices
Leap forth amain and far,
The sunset and the shadow,
The eagle and the star.

From caverns of the ocean
To highest mountain tree,
I hear all voices singing
Their kinship unto me.

Friday, January 21, 2022

"Presents the Wrong Image"

Last week, I discussed James M. Ward's (in)famous "Angry Mothers from Heck" editorial, which appeared in issue #154 of Dragon (February 1990). It's possible to read Ward's editorial as disingenuous or at the very least canny – an act of "wink, wink" public relations intended to burnish the image of D&D in the eyes of a vociferous minority with whom the good folks at TSR no longer wished to deal. I'm not wholly convinced that's the case, but, even assuming it is, let's look at a different article appearing in Dragon exactly three years earlier. 

This article, by David Cook, is part of a series of "designer's notes" on the forthcoming second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a project for which he acted as lead designer. Entitled "Who Dies?", the article appears in the February 1987 issue of Dragon (#118) and discusses which AD&D 1e classes will carry over into the new edition. Cook's answers to the article's titular question are more or less as one would expect, as are most of the reasons he offers. In the case of the assassin sub-class, he has this to say:

His first point, that the assassin is "disruptive of party harmony," is an odd one in my opinion. I don't at all deny that the inclusion of an assassin character could, in certain groups, be disruptive, but in all of them? I suspect Cook was making a blanket assumption about the kinds of campaigns AD&D is intended to support, namely one in which evil player characters have no place. Since assassins must be of evil alignment, they don't belong, according to Cook. (My interpretation of his assumption is based largely on the discussion of evil PCs in the 2e Player's Handbook, which states that "the AD&D® game is a game of heroic fantasy" and that playing an evil character "is not a good idea.")

This leads to the second and, I think, stronger comment, that the assassin class "presents the wrong image about AD&D games" [italics mine]. Perhaps I am reading too much into what Cook wrote, but, as I look at it, this seems to suggest that, from its conception, Second Edition was intended to be a more "family friendly" version of the game, one that scrubbed many of its more "gritty" (for lack of a better word) elements, in favor of ones that promoted "heroic fantasy." 

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, of course, and it may well be that TSR saw the sanitization of the game as a way to increase its sales. They might even have been correct, for all I know. All that said, I think, in light of statements like this by David Cook, it's incontrovertible that bowdlerization was baked into the 2e cake from the beginning. What Ward says in "Angry Mothers from Heck" may well be wholly insincere, but it wasn't a last minute decision by TSR but rather something the company had committed to years earlier, as it charted the course of AD&D sans Gary Gygax. 

Again, one can view this as positive or negative, according to one's own tastes; that's not my point. Rather, I wanted to cite an example of the kind of tonal shift that occurred with the creation of Second Edition, one that likely contributes to the casual dismissals of that version of AD&D in many corners of the old school scene. These days, I'm much more sympathetic to 2e than I have been in the past, but there's no denying that, on many levels, it's a very different game than its predecessor and those differences are foundational.

White Dwarf Interviews Marc Miller

Issue #23 of White Dwarf features a lengthy – and insightful – interview with the creator of Traveller, Marc Miller. I'm always interested in early interviews with foundational designers of the hobby. In this case, though, I'm especially interested, as Traveller is a game that's near and dear to my heart. The unnamed interviewer (Ian Livingstone?) asks a number of excellent questions and Miller's answers tell us a great deal about himself, GDW, and the origins of Traveller.

Miller's comment that he initially disliked D&D in intriguing, in light of the fact he (and Loren Wiseman) produced some of the earliest D&D-related comics in the pages of The Strategic Review. I also continue to boggle at the usage of "FRP" as shorthand for the hobby of roleplaying. It's not one I regularly encountered myself, but, based on what I've read, it was once quite widespread.

This perspective was, I think, quite commonplace in first half-decade of the hobby, but became less so as time went on. Certainly by the mid-1980s, if not sooner, roleplaying's connections to miniatures or board wargaming were tenuous to the point of non-existence. That said, GDW seemed to be a company that tried to maintain the connections, as evidenced by its publication of both miniatures rules and board wargames to support Traveller, for example.
While there is lots of useful information here, I find the acknowledgement of D&D's influence the most important. Of course, the presentation of Traveller in the form of three digest-sized booklets revealed this already, but Miller's admission clinches the matter.
This section of the interview is, for me, the single most important one. I've often encountered people who believe that Traveller was primarily inspired by cinematic science fiction. Miller certainly makes a concession to this possibility – "Movies and television particularly affected me." – but I think it's significant that all the direct influences he mentions are literary, from Anderson to Tubb to Niven and Pournelle. It's not an accident that, when pressed, the titles Miller rattles off are books, most of which were written in the two decades prior to Traveller's release. 

The interview, as I said, is quite lengthy and touches on a number of important topics regarding Traveller's design, such as why it has no levels or experience rules ("Most people in their real lives don't improve much as they live out their lives."), why many characters are middle-aged, and even why the game uses two six-sided dice ("Six-sided dice are ubiquitous; they are easily obtained, and most people are familiar with them."). Miller's answers are always interesting and, much as I'd like to share them all here, I don't want this post to go on interminably. However, I will include his answer to a longstanding criticism of Traveller, one that I think roleplayers have been making since 1977.
And there you have it!