Friday, May 14, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 82

Page 82 of the Dungeon Masters Guide has several different sections worthy of comment, but, for the current post, I'm focusing on Gary Gygax's discussion of zero hit points. Whereas Volume 1 of OD&D clearly states that hit points are "the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death," (emphasis mine), the DMG instead states:

When any creature is brought to 0 hit points (optionally as low as –3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0), it is unconscious. In each of the next succeeding rounds 1 additional (negative) point will be lost until –10 is reached and the creature dies. 

When I was young, this was a widely quoted – and used – rule, though I'd imagine most of us had no idea precisely where it was found. I don't object to it in principle, though I can't help but wonder why it's necessary.

Such loss and death are caused from bleeding, shock, convulsions, non-respirations, and similar causes. It ceases immediately on any round a friendly creature administers aid to the unconscious one. Aid consists of binding wounds, starting respiration, administering a draught (spirits, healing potion, etc.), or otherwise doing whatever is necessary to restore life.

I find it interesting that Gygax mentions "administering a draught," since it brings to mind the "liquid courage" house rule that was quite popular in the early days of the OSR, though, as we shall see, it's not at all similar.

Any character brought to 0 (or fewer) hit points and then revived will remain in a coma for 1–6 turns. Thereafter, he or she must rest for a full week, minimum. He or she will be incapable of any activity other than necessary to move slowly to a place of rest and east and sleep when there. The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else. This is true even if cure spells and/or healing potions are given to him or her, although if a heal spell is bestowed the prohibition no longer applies.

Now, it becomes clearer what Gygax has in mind. The –10 hit point rule serves a kind of ablative shield, a final protection against death – but one that comes with a significant price. A character who escapes death in this fashion can't simply get up, dust himself off, and keep on adventuring. Instead, he earns unconsciousness for up to an hour, followed by a week of recuperation, during which time he can't do much of anything. All things considered, I think this is fair.

If any character reaches a state of –6 or greater negative points before being revived, this could indicate scarring or the loss of some member, if you so choose. For example, a character struck by a fireball and then treated when at –9 might have horrible scar tissue on exposed areas of flesh – hands, arms, neck, face. 

Since it's optional, I can't really complain about this. However, I still have some reservations, largely owing to the abstract nature of hit points. D&D's combat system has never prioritized "realism," instead emphasizing ease and speed of use. That's one of the reasons the system works so well for many gamers. Introducing the possibility of scarring or maiming seems to run counter to the spirit of the combat system.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Battle for the Mid-Realm

Does anyone remember this game? It's a fantasy card game by TSR artist Darlene in 1982. I remember seeing advertisements for it in Dragon, but I never saw it in the wild. I was reminded of it recently while flipping through copies of the magazine from my youth and thought I'd ask if any readers have any direct experience of it.

Retrospective: City State of the World Emperor

In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, one would regularly read effusive praise for Judges Guild. I think that's completely understandable. If the point of the OSR is the re-evaluation – and appreciation – of older roleplaying games and their products, it stands to reason there would be a lot of discussion of Judges Guild. Judges Guild was, after all, the earliest official licensee of Dungeons & Dragons and, over the course of the company's existence, it published an immense amount of material. Surely, there must be some, if not many, under-appreciated gems among them.

For the most part, I share this perspective. The Caverns of Thracia, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dark Tower, The First Fantasy Campaign, and, of course, City State of the Invincible Overlord are all rightly regarded as classic D&D supplements from the early days of the hobby, as are several others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Judges Guild's output was, in the words of Patrick Amory, "masses of rubbish, poor art, and typos." No glasses are rose colored enough to turn many JG publications into a forgotten tour de force.

Then there are products like 1980's City State of the World Emperor, which occupy a strange middle ground, being neither pure gold nor completely worthless. Consisting of three books, it details the city-state of Viridistan, ruled by Hautulin Scheitt, the last member of "a once haughty and powerful race." Hautulin is also known as the Green Emperor on account of his skin color, evidence of his descent from the mermen of the Trident Gulf. In addition to ruling the city, he is high priest of the evil water god Armadad Bog, who is reputed to actually dwell beneath the emperor's palace within Viridistan. 

Though the Green Emperor has maintained his rule for 150 years, Viridistan is nevertheless rocked with intrigue. The city-state's monarchy is theoretically hereditary, but most of its emperors have been usurpers, having formerly been part of the local aristocracy before seizing the throne. The infighting between the nobility has slowly weakened the city-state and its hold over the surrounding territories. Consequently, it teeters on the brink of rebellion, civil war, or outright collapse – a terrific set-up for adventures or even a whole campaign.

Unfortunately, the bulk of City State of the World Emperor consists of tedious – and, worse, uninteresting – information about bureaucrats, sanitation, tax collection, and endless army barracks. There are descriptions of local businesses, but most of them are inns, taverns, or similar establishments. Now, obviously, inns are important, even vital, parts of many fantasy settings but how many does one need? Certainly not more than fifty and yet that's exactly what City State of the World Emperor offers. The cumulative effect of all the seemingly endless details of the city-state's civil servants, soldiers, and barkeeps is to undermine the high-level situation established earlier.

More useful are encounter and rumor tables, along with information on the local legal system. There's also an extensive treatment of the oppressed Mycretian religion. About 10% of the population of the city-state belong to this faith, which is peace-loving almost to the point of pacifism. Complementing these details is a new character class intended to represent devotees of the faith, complete with unique powers and abilities. I've always been fond of the Mycretians, in part because of how oddly they sit within the larger Wilderlands setting. 

In the end, City State of the World Emperor holds a lot of unfulfilled potential. The general frame of the city-state is a good one, perfect for intrigue-based adventures and campaigns. I absolutely love the notion of the Green Emperor's being the last of his kind, a throwback to the ancient days when gods walked among men. I likewise love the suggestion that the upper echelons of Viridistan's society are wracked with division and sedition. It's incredibly evocative, which is why it's a shame that so much of the product's three books are filled with pointless, dull minutiae – a wasted opportunity. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


The very first issue of Dragon I vividly remember buying was issue #62 (June 1982), in large part because of its spectacular cover painting by Larry Elmore. I read that issue cover to cover so many times that I must have committed a good portion of its contents to memory. I also clearly recall its many advertisements, one of which still fascinates me.

From what I have been able to gather, Legendaria was a short-lived gaming magazine published by an outfit called WITS Publishing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, edited and written by Chandler Driggs. I can confirm that there were at least five issues of the magazine. The illustration above, which is quite striking, was done by Helen Goldman, about whom I can find no information. 

For a long time, I thought that Legendaria was a fantasy comic book, owing to my misunderstanding the subtitle, "the illustrated log of the Varna Adventurers' Guild." As you'll see from the following scan of its inaugural editorial, it was nothing of the kind.

Based on this, Legendaria would seem to have been a rather well done amateur publication presenting material derived from the editor's home campaign of Varna. If you poke around online, you can find images of the covers of the five published issues but not much else. Did any readers own copies of this magazine? I'd love to know more about it, if only to satisfy the curiosity that ad from issue #62 engendered almost forty years ago.

Different Worlds: Issue #14

Issue #14 of Different Worlds (September 1981) opens with "Judges Guild and D&D" by Patrick Amory. This is an unusual article, in that it offers an overview of all the Judges Guild D&D/AD&D products, with an eye toward drawing attention to the best ones. This is necessary, in the opinion of the author, because "the Guild has always sacrificed quality for quantity." He hopes to save the reader the need "to wade through masses of rubbish, poor art, and typoes [sic]" before finding a genuinely useful product. That's harsh but fair. The full article is five pages long and singles out those Amory considers especially worth, such as City-State of the Invincible Overlord, City-State of the World Emperor, Tegel Manor, Caverns of Thracia, and First Fantasy Campaign, among a few others. 

"Character Personality Profile" by Mark Lukens presents a system for rating the personality, attitudes, and interests of a character, whether player or non-player. The system is usable with multiple RPGs, since Lukens provides multiple rating scales (2d6, 3d6, d20, d100). The system reminds me a bit of the opposed personality traits system presented in Pendragon, albeit in a less developed form. It's not bad for what it is and I imagine many referees would find some utility in it.

Richard L. Snider offers a preview to the second edition of Adventures in Fantasy. The article is mostly interesting as a historical curiosity, since, unless I am mistaken, this second edition was never published. "Painting Miniature Figures" by Robin Wood is a lengthy but fascinating article, complete with photographs, about the process of painting figurines for use with roleplaying games. Lewis Pulsipher's "Taverns and Inns" provides a system for randomly rolling up drinking establishments – everything from their size to proprietors to patrons. "Familiars" by David F. Nalle provides a handful of short tables for generating familiars, including unique ones. 

"Plausible Geography for Role-Playing Games" by George Hersh is a surprisingly short article, consisting mostly of a recommendation to acquire copies of United States Geological Survey topographical maps to use as the basis for adventure maps. "Come, Clash with the Titans" by Larry DiTillio provides AD&D and RuneQuest stats for the monsters and opponents from the 1981 movie, Clash of the Titans, along with magic items and scenarios employing them. The issue also includes reviews of the Traveller double adventure Argon Gambit/Death Station and Grimtooth's Traps

Gigi D'Arn's gossip column includes quite a few tidbits this issue, starting with rumors that "SPI is losing money rapidly," which is why it is trimming its staff. Gigi also mentions Avalon Hill and Heritage had supposedly made bids on the company. There's also this story:

This is a reference to the module, Palace of the Silver Princess, about which Jean Wells talked a bit in my interview with her some years ago. I find this fascinating, since, at the time, I had absolutely no idea there was any controversy regarding the module. It was only sometime this century that I became aware of and I still sometimes can't believe it actually happened.

Issue #14 is an improvement, in my opinion, over issue #13. There's a great deal more immediately useful gaming material and not a single "theory" article, which is a welcome change. It's worth mentioning that editor Tadashi Ehara began the issue asking readers to send him letters indicating what games they play and which articles they have found most enjoyable. This suggests that Ehara was well aware of the need to better balance in the magazine's content. It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the next few issues.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Fantastic Fun of Dungeons & Dragons

Like a lot of kids of my generation, one of the highlights of school was receiving the monthly Scholastic Book Club order form from my teacher. Over the years, I ordered a lot of books through the club, some of which I held on to for years afterwards. Scholastic also offered issues of its pop culture-focused periodical, Dynamite, which I bought occasionally, depending on the contents. One issue I remember vividly is the March 1981 issue, featuring Gil Gerard and Erin Grey on the cover.

Though I was never much of a fan of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, I had somehow learned – perhaps through the order form's description – that issue #82 included an article about Dungeons & Dragons. As I mentioned last month, from the very start of my introduction to the hobby, I had become an avid clipper of any newspaper and magazine articles I came across that talked about D&D. So, when I discovered that this issue of Dynamite had such an article, there was no question I'd buy it.

The article really grabbed my attention because of the photographs that accompanied it, starting with this one.

I didn't make serious use of miniatures when playing D&D, but I was fascinated by them nonetheless. Consequently, I was amazed by the photo above. That the young woman on the left is holding a copy of my beloved Holmes Basic rulebook only added to its appeal. (Anyone recognize the hex map on the wall between the two leftmost players?)

The article itself isn't all that remarkable. Like many articles of its kind, it's a very basic introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, including a very abbreviated – and Gygax-centric – version of its history. That's understandable, since, even in 1981, D&D wasn't well known. Furthermore, Dynamite was geared toward elementary school-age children. (That said, the Holmes-edited Basic Set came out in 1977, not 1976, as stated in the article.)

The inclusion of such attractive – and large! – painted miniatures no doubt contributed to the appeal of this article for me. The orc depicted below reminds me of something out of Down in the Dungeon; naturally, I loved it. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Citadel of Fear

When I began this series at the dawn of this blog, my original intention was to take a closer look at the stories, books, and authors mentioned in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide. I hoped that, in doing so, I might draw readers' attention to works and writers that, despite their immense influence over the decades, have largely been forgotten by popular culture. Whether I've succeeded in that goal, I'm not in a position to say. What I can say is that my study of these authors has increased my own appreciation of them, as well as bringing to my attention other forgotten authors not mentioned in Appendix N but which nevertheless exercised a great deal of influence on the development of fantasy and science fiction literature.

A case in point is Francis Stevens, the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose most well regarded story, Citadel of Fear, was serialized in the pages of The Argosy, starting on September 14, 1918. I'd never heard of Stevens – or Bennett – until comparatively recently, when I was researching the "dark fantasy" sub-genre. Multiple sources referenced her pioneering work at the turn of the 20th century, with at least one going so far as to dub "the woman who invented dark fantasy." I can't speak to the truth of such a claim, but it's worth noting that, at the time Bennett's stories were published, many people believed "Francis Stevens" was the pen name of Abraham Merritt – a testament to how well regarded they were at the time.

Citadel of Fear tells the story of two explorers, Colin O'Hara and Archer Kennedy. The men's expedition seeking gold in a remote region of South America has gone badly. Hungry, thirsty, and injured, they are near death when Citadel of Fear begins. Despite this, O'Hara refuses to give up or leave Kennedy behind. Together, they survive and stumble upon the entrance to the lost city of Tlapallan. There, they meet another man, a former explorer named Svend Biornson, who tells them what he knows of Tlapallan, having lived among its people for some time.

Sometimes I think they are the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs, who have left nothing to archaeology but a memory. And sometimes—I have other thoughts of them, thoughts that I can’t put into words, for there are no words to express them. I know that they speak the Aztec tongue in all its ancient purity, and yet they are surely not of Aztec blood. However it may be, they are good, true comrades, and my own wife is one of them, but I sometimes wonder if I have not—have not lost my soul in living here! 

The people of Tlapallan are divided in their loyalties between those who serve the god Quetzalcoatl and those who serve the god Nacoc-Yaotl. The rivalry between the two groups simmers below the surface, with each supporting the city in different ways. When O'Hara and Kennedy arrived, the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl are ascendant. Reading through this, I found myself reminded of Robert E. Howard's story of Conan, "Red Nails," or the D&D module it inspired, The Lost City. Lovecraft's The Mound also came to mind. They all feature lost cities populated by "Mayincatec" riven with internal factions – a classic pulp fantasy set-up if there ever was one. 

As in so many of these lost world narratives, the arrival of outsiders, in this case O'Hara and Kennedy, upsets the balance of power in Tlapallan. Open conflict eventually erupts and O'Hara finds himself exiled from the city and Kennedy taken prisoner by the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl. O'Hara cannot find his way back to the city to rescue his fellow explorer and has no choice but to return to the civilization he knows. He succeeds but is left wondering if what he thought he remembers was in fact or not simply a hallucination caused by his hunger and thirst. O'Hara returns to the United States and tries to leave behind his weird experiences/

With that, Citadel of Fear shifts forward in time fifteen years. In the years since his original expedition, O'Hara has been haunted by his memories of his expedition and especially what happened to Kennedy. He organizes another expedition to seek out Tlapallan, but finds no evidence to support what he remembers, which only further causes him to question his sanity. Of course, O'Hara is not insane, as he learns when his past catches up with him and endangers those he cares about.

Citadel of Fear is quite long and rambling at times, traits it shares with much turn of the twentieth century fiction. Despite that, the story it tells is a good one, equal to the best work of Merritt, himself a master of the lost world genre. The city of Tlapallan is both mysterious and weird. Bennett does a good job in presenting a place that is simultaneously familiar and sinister. There are plenty of hints that all is not well in Tlapallan and she develops those hints more fully in the later sections of the novel to fairly good effect. It's little wonder that the serialized novel was popular in its day, even if it might not quite meet with contemporary tastes.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Gygax's Inner Planes

I've commented before that, while I'm no fan of Unearthed Arcana as eventually published, I was conversely a big fan of much of the material Gygax was creating in preparation for his never-written second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This material appeared in the pages of Dragon over the course of several years, presenting new classes (like the barbarian, cavalier, and thief-acrobat), weapons and armor, spells, and monsters, along with expanded conceptions of other aspects of the game. At the time, I liked these articles simply because they provided me with more stuff to use in my AD&D campaign (and use them I did). Now, though, what I like about them is the way they seem to represent a maturing of Gygax's fantasy conceptions, the fruit of years of thought and play, not to mention the need for AD&D to find new frontiers of adventure.

His article, "The Inner Planes," which appeared in issue #73 of Dragon (May 1983), demonstrates this maturation process quite clearly, I think. In it, Gygax offers "a new way to look at the AD&D world." This new way was necessary because, as the game's cosmology evolved, there was a need to reconcile new conceptions to earlier presentations. The para-elemental planes, for example, arose out of wondering about what happens at the point where two elemental planes met. Gygax obviously liked the idea, but soon realized that the thought process that led to them was incomplete. After all, there were other Inner Planes, like the Positive and Negative Material Planes, the Ethereal Plane, and the Plane of Shadow (the latter itself a recent addition to the cosmology). How did they interact with the Elemental Planes and what was the effect of all this interaction?

The result is a cubic representation of the Inner Planes, as depicted in this cut-out included on page 13 of this issue:

"What a mess!" you might reasonably say and it is a mess – an ugly, convoluted, and probably unnecessary one at that, but I love it all the same. There are a couple of things I like about this, starting with the fact that it's clearly an attempt by Gygax to think about AD&D's cosmology in rational way. If para-elemental planes arise due to the meeting of two elemental planes, what happens when an elemental plane meets the Positive or Negative Material Plane? What about a para-elemental plane? The result is baroque, almost to the point of absurdity, but it makes sense. One might argue that this is little different than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and I'm somewhat sympathetic to that point of view. At the same time, given what Gygax had already established about the game's metaphysics and the interactions of those metaphysical forces, this oddly colored cube is a natural, even inevitable, evolution of it all.

That's the second thing I like about this new presentation of the Inner Planes: it's evolutionary. What I mean by that is that it demonstrates that AD&D and the fantasy world it presented was growing and changing, not in a way that, strictly speaking, repudiated anything about its earlier self but rather in a way that added to and expanded upon what had come before. None of this was needed by players or referees solely interested in dungeon crawls or wilderness exploration or all the usual activities of fantasy roleplaying. However, players and referees interested in going beyond that would find it invaluable. Gygax was taking a lot more interest in the other planes of existence, seeing them as the next logical step in exploring the possibilities implied by AD&D's setting. To do that properly, he'd need to think about them more carefully, teasing out the implications and taking stock of all they could offer. Whether one likes the direction he was headed or not, I hope one can nevertheless appreciate the effort.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 191

The City/Town Encounters Matrix on p. 191 of the Dungeon Masters Guide is quite well known, almost entirely due to its harlot sub-table. As amusing as that sub-table is, today my focus is instead on another one that I think offers a great deal more insight into Gary Gygax's conception of the game and its implied world. 

The Encounters Matrix includes two separate dice roll columns, one for daytime and one for nighttime. During the daytime, the most common encounters are with beggars, city guards, laborers, merchants, tradesmen, and similarly mundane individuals. There's nothing at all surprising in this. Indeed, I imagine that most of us, if asked to come up with a random encounter table for a broadly medieval fantasy city, would have come up with something quite similar to this. 

However, during the night, the Encounters Matrix paints a very different picture of an AD&D city. Suddenly, giant rats (and wererats) are more common, as are assassins, bandits, thieves, and the aforementioned harlots. Now, there's also a chance – a small one, to be sure – of encountering demons, devils, doppelgangers, and many forms of undead (up to and including a lich!). These results paint a very different picture of the city, don't you think? 

Remember that OD&D carried the subtitle of "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns" (emphasis mine). Though naturalism was an important part of Gygax's conception of the implied setting of the game, he never neglected the fantastic. The City/Town Encounters Matrix reflects this, since it makes it clear that, when the sun sets, cities undergo a kind of transformation, becoming much more dangerous – and weird – places, Giant rats emerge from the sewers, thieves and ruffians prowl the alleyways, and demons and undead monsters lurk in dark, forgotten corners. It's a wonderfully compelling vision and a reminder that Gygax was, above all, a fantasist.

Another aspect of the Encounters Matrix worth mentioning is the following sub-table, intended to determine the race of individuals encountered:

No doubt what strikes anyone viewing this is that nearly 70% of all encounters are with humans. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Gygaxian humanocentrism, but it's still amazing to see it in such stark terms. Just as amazing, I think, are the percentages of the various demihumans. Dwarves, for example, represent slightly more than one-quarter of all demihumans encountered in a city (and nearly 10% of all characters whose race is determined by this table). Half-elves are just as common. Interestingly, elves and half-orcs are equally common, each representing a little more than 15% of all demihuman encounters (and 5% overall). Gnomes and halflings, on the other hand, are quite rare.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Gygax's chosen percentages, they do paint a picture of the kind of fantasy world he envisioned. Humans are far and away the predominant race, with dwarves and, unexpectedly, half-elves being distant seconds. The greater appearance of half-elves relative to elves suggests that half-elves have a better opinion of humans than do their elven kin, who would seem to keep to themselves. Half-orcs, though not common, exist in much larger numbers than I would have expected, which suggests a few things about orcs and their place in the setting. That both gnomes and halflings are highly unusual implies the Wee Folk keep to themselves, or perhaps that their numbers overall are few. Regardless, there's more detail to be gleaned from the City/Town Encounters Matrix than one might expect.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Elementary Particles

I can't quite recall when I first encountered the notion of the four elements. I suspect it was quite early, probably through my reading of classical mythological stories, though it's possible I learned about it from some other source. However, I vividly recall that, when I cracked open the Monster Manual for the first time in early 1980, I was almost instantly enamored of elementals. There was something powerfully, if you'll forgive the term, primal about beings composed solely of a single substance. Also, the existence of elementals and indeed the entire conception of the four elements served as a useful reminder that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a pre-modern world, one not merely operating according to different laws than our own but one whose inhabitants conceive of it in a different way than we do ours.

Over the years, my interest in the elements and elementals has endured. I remember when I first read about other elemental systems, like those of the great civilizations of Asia. What particularly struck me about the latter was that many of them included a fifth element, a concept not unknown in ancient and medieval European thought but less well known in popular presentations of them. I was likewise struck by the fact that many of these non-European elemental systems included different elements, like wood or metal. As a younger person, this was eye-opening and helped me to realize that there was room for variation within the broader notion of fundamental elements.

Lately, I've been working on a science fantasy setting rooted in Burroughs, Kirby, Wolfe, Zothique, and The Dying Earth – a formerly high-tech setting brought low to the point it appears to be a weird and/or exotic fantasy world. Think Jorune or Tékumel but more immediately accessible than either. As I began to work in earnest, one of my earliest thoughts was its elemental system, which I wanted to be unique and interesting but also intelligible. The result of my cogitations is depicted in the crude image above. While I need to give it some additional thought, I'm quite pleased with the results, especially the way it interacts with the psychic powers and sorcery of the setting. If nothing else, it's different from the usual fantasy presentation of the elements and their relationships, which pleases me.