Thursday, August 5, 2021

Retrospective: The Free City of Krakow

As a child of the 1970s and '80s, the idea that there might one day be a thermonuclear war between the nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact was easy to believe. Consequently, I had an immense fascination with post-apocalyptic stories and speculations. In the roleplaying realm, my earliest experiences were with TSR's Gamma World, which I adored (and still do). However, I think there's little question that Gamma World doesn't present a "realistic" version of the End, or at least not one that bears much resemblance to the likely outcome of the simmering Cold War tensions that formed the background of my early life.

That's why, when GDW released Twilight: 2000 in 1984, I didn't need to be convinced to pick up a copy. I was already a fan of GDW, but this game seemed to play to the company's strengths. Founded by wargamers, GDW seemed to me to evince the kind of hard-nosed, practical mindset I associated, rightly or wrongly, with military types. If I'd trust any gaming company to make a solid, grounded RPG about life after the Third World War, it was GDW. 

And, for the most part, my trust was well-founded. Twilight: 2000 was far from perfect – many of its rules were more cumbersome than they needed to be – but its presentation of a post-apocalyptic early 21st century was a compelling and, dare I say, believable one, given the parameters established in the game's setting. In addition, GDW thoroughly supported Twilight: 2000 with a wide array of supplementary modules, starting with The Free City of Krakow in 1985. This 44-page book was written by William H. Keith, one of the famed Keith Brothers, who had contributed so much excellent material to GDW's Traveller. 

The Free City of Krakow is a very interesting book. Though it does include outlines for multiple adventures, including one very significant one, the bulk of the book is gazetteer of the titular city, its inhabitants, and factions. According to the module's history section, Krakow declared itself a free city in late 1999, after its garrison, the Polish 8th Motorized Rifle Division, supported this declaration and its commander accepted the position of Police Prefect. Now, Krakow operates as a kind of "Casablanca of Eastern Europe," free from the control of the shattered remnants of the Warsaw Pact forces in the area, as well as the NATO stragglers that still survive. It's a pretty interesting set-up for a home base out of which player characters can operate, made all the more interesting by the presence of multiple plots, both large and small, in which they can participate.

The city of Krakow itself is described in detail, along with maps and information on each of the cities districts. Special attention is paid to the economics and infrastructure of the city, since these are the key to Krakow's continued survival. Equally important are the major NPCs who live here, starting with the head of the city council, known as the Dowodca (Leader) – a charismatic and self-aggrandizing fellow who views himself as a Man of Destiny. Pitted against him is the Police Prefect, a former major general in the Polish Army, who feels he would better run the city. Krakow also holds operatives of the KGB, CIA, and DIA, the Israeli Shabak, and other smaller groups, like crime syndicates. It's a cauldron of intrigue and duplicity – and the perfect environment for adventure.

Speaking of which, The Free City of Krakow provides plenty of adventure outlines for the referee to use, either directly or as seeds for creating his own. One of them is potentially quite significant, as it involves an invention that might enable microcomputers whose chips were destroyed by the EMPs of nuclear strikes and counterstrikes to function again. Needless to say, if true, this invention is something various parties would kill – or at least pay huge sums – for and it represents a major Maguffin with the potential to tip the balance of power in the post-war world. 

Re-reading The Free City of Krakow, what strikes me is how much emphasis GDW places on rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of World War III. Despite its reputation in some circles, Twilight: 2000 was not a game of ruthless murderhobo-ism. Yes, it could be played that way, but the supplementary material generally presented situations where the player characters could improve the lives of those they encountered. This is true of The Free City of Krakow too, which includes lots of detail on smaller settlements that exist in the shadow of the Free City and its bloodthirsty politics. Adventures and campaigns set in this region will inevitably present many opportunities for characters to use their skills to help pick up the pieces of the fallen world. It's precisely for this reason that I so like the module and the others that GDW published over the course of Twilight: 2000's run and why I look forward to one day playing the game again.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #3

Issue #3 of White Dwarf is dated October/November 1977 and features cover art by Alan Hunter, who did a number of illustrations in the Fiend Folio. Its first article is entitled "Solo Dungeon Mapping" and is credited to Roger Moores – please note the terminal "s." I assume, though do not know for certain, that this is a typographical error and that the author's name is, in fact, Roger Moore, better known as Roger E. Moore, who would later go on to become editor of TSR's Dragon. Moore's byline appeared extensively in the pages of gaming periodicals starting in the late 1970s, so it seems very likely that this is the same person, but I could be mistaken.

In any case, "Solo Dungeon Mapping" is an unusual article. First, though intended for use with Dungeons & Dragons, it makes reference to Empire of the Petal Throne as another game for which it could be useful. Second, the very loose system that Moore presents seems intended to create dungeons with few rooms per level but lots of long corridors and passages up and down between levels. Now, there's nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but it's quite different from the much more cramped style I tend to associate with dungeons.

Fred Hemmings offers another installment of his "Competitive D&D," This time around Hemmings presents more details on the chambers of his competition dungeon, Pandora's Maze, which I welcome, given what he implied about it in his previous two articles. The intention here is to provide examples of the mix of encounters, tricks, and traps he uses in scenarios of this style. Likewise, Don Turnbull continues to plug away at his "The Monstermark System," with a third entry. As before, I found the article long and tedious, with an emphasis on mechanical and mathematical minutiae of little use to me. It's odd because, for years, I had heard people speak so glowingly of the Monstermark and assumed it was easy to use – apparently not!

"Open Box" tackles a large number of Judges Guild D&D products: Ready Ref Sheets, The Judge's Shield, TAC Cards, Tegel Manor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, Character Chronicle Cards, and The First First Fantasy Campaign. By and large, these were all well received by the reviewer, Don Turnbull. For myself, I was struck by how much Judges Guild had already released by this relatively early date. Also reviewed was FGU's Citadel, Fourth Dimension (its original, pre-TSR version), and TSR's Battle of the Five Armies. 

Lewis Pulsipher continues his "D&D Campaigns" series, with a lengthy discussion of his philosophy of refereeing. Early on, Pulsipher describes his vision of the referee as a "friendly computer discretion," who interferes in the course of play as little as possible, because "the referee is neither infallible nor completely impartial." It's an interesting perspective and one with which I am largely in agreement. He then elaborates on just what he means by this, offering many examples of how this philosophy operates in practice. I know that Pulsipher is often regarded as smug and stuffy in his approach to gaming, but I found this article engaging and look forward to future installments.

"Colouring Conan's Thews" by Eddie Jones is an overview of miniatures painting – another reminder of this hobby's roots. "The Loremaster of Avallon" by Andy Holt presents more D&D house rules, most notably his card-based combat system, whose use eluded me somewhat. I shall have to re-read it several more times to get a better sense of how the system, which uses 100 cards, each bearing a symbol on it, actually works. John Rothwell's "The Assassin" is a variant of the class presented in Blackmoor, while Ian Waugh's "New Magic Rooms" presents two chambers for placement in a dungeon whose interiors operate according to unusual rules. 

I have to admit that I was less impressed with this issue than I was with the previous one. Aside from Lewis Pulsipher's article, there was little that stood out to me as being either original or useful to me. That's the nature of periodicals, of course, but I had hoped that White Dwarf, compared to Different Worlds, would hit the ground running. I guess it's still too early to pass judgment on that score.

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Vaults of sha-Arthan: Character Classes

I spent a good portion of the past weekend working on the character classes of my The Vaults of sha-Arthan science fantasy setting. I'm happy to say I'm nearly finished this document, though the real work will come once I start refereeing the campaign. I'd originally hoped to be doing that this month, but it'll likely have to wait till September, owing to various real life distractions. As I probably mentioned before, the current plan is to run two concurrent campaigns, one through Discord and another through a play-by-post site. My hope is that this will put development of the setting into overdrive as well as put the rules through their paces. It's been my experience that nothing energizes my creativity more than weekly play with a consistent group of people. To that end, I expect posts about sha-Arthan will increase once the campaigns begin, though I am sure there will be some others throughout this month, as my preparations ramp up after their recent pause.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Lost World

I continue to be amazed by how many foundational works of fantasy and science fiction I haven't yet written about in this series – but then there are a lot authors and stories who've had a powerful influence on the hobby of roleplaying, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. Though most well known for his creation of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, Doyle is also responsible for the creation another character, one whose literary adventures have arguably had as great, if not greater, influence on popular culture: Professor Challenger.

George Edward Challenger is a Scottish professor of anthropology and zoology employed by the British Museum in London. In addition, Challenger is known as an inventor of some ingenuity, making him one of the most significant prototypes for the stock character of adventurer-scientist so beloved in turn of the 20th century popular literature and the later works inspired by it. Challenger makes his first appearance in the 1912 novel, The Lost World, about which I want to talk today, but he appeared in four other stories by Doyle – two more novels and two short stories – in addition to many other tales by later authors.

The Lost World is told from the perspective of Edward Malone, a young man who works as a reporter for the Daily Gazette. Malone is in love with Gladys Hungerton, an intelligent woman with whom he has been friendly for some time before the novel starts but who does not share his affections. When pressed as to why, she tells Malone that she is "in love with somebody else," quickly elaborating that "it's nobody in particular, only an ideal." Malone desperately – and rather pathetically – says that he can change; he is willing to become anything she wants him to be: "teetotal, vegetarian, aeronaut, theosophist, superman," if only she could love him in return. Gladys reproaches him harshly but fairly, telling Malone just the sort of man whom she might love.

"He would be a harder, sterner man, not so ready to adapt himself to a silly girl's whim. But, above all, he must be a man who could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face and have no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences. It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won; for they would be reflected upon me. Think of Richard Burton! When I read his wife's life of him I could so understand her love! And Lady Stanley! Did you ever read the wonderful last chapter of that book about her husband? These are the sort of men that a woman could worship with all her soul, and yet be the greater, not the less, on account of her love, honored by all the world as the inspirer of noble deeds."

Rather than understand what Gladys was trying to tell him, Malone cavils, telling her, "We can't all be Stanleys or Burtons … besides we don't get the chance – at least, I never had the chance." She tells him "chances are all around you" and Malone takes this as the impetus to "do something in the world." 

Energized by his desire to be a man worthy of the esteem of his beloved, Malone sets off. He approaches his editor, McArdle, for advice in finding "anything that had adventure and danger in it." That's when the name of Professor Challenger first comes up. McArdle suggests Malone seek him out for an interview, though he warns him that Challenger is no admirer of reporters, one of whom he assaulted when he started asking impertinent questions about his recent South American expedition.

Malone then presents himself as a student rather a reporter in order to speak with Challenger. The ruse seems to have worked and he meets the famed zoologist.

His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one's breath away—his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-gray under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the notorious Professor Challenger.

Challenger is no fool and he almost immediately sees through Malone's ruse. He becomes angry and, as he with a previous reporter, the professor attacks Malone and throws him out into the street. This catches the eye of a passing policeman, who intervenes. Despite this, Malone refuses to press charges against Challenger, who looks on him with humor, "Come in! … I've not done with you yet."

Inside once more, Challenger's attitude toward Malone changes. He exacts a commitment to secrecy from him and then tells him about his previous expedition. While in the Amazon, Challenger a "most extraordinary creature.

It was the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium. The head was like that of a fowl, the body that of a bloated lizard, the trailing tail was furnished with upward-turned spikes, and the curved back was edged with a high serrated fringe, which looked like a dozen cocks' wattles placed behind each other. 

Malone is not sure what to make of this and advances the possibility that the creature might be something more mundane, like an elephant or a tapir. Challenger scoffs at this, pointing out that no elephants exist in South America. No, he explains, what he had seen was in fact a stegosaurus, a living fossil long thought extinct – and there were more like it in the Amazon. That's why he is planning another expedition and he asks Malone to accompany him. 

The bulk of The Lost World details the expedition into the titular lost world itself, a region of South America that is home not only to dinosaur but to hostile ape-men as well. Reading it from the vantage point of more than a century later, it's difficult to be as impressed with the novel as one would have been at the time of its initial release. Nevertheless, the ideas that The Lost World introduces were genuinely remarkable in their day, so much so that they influenced generations of writers, who borrowed ideas from it, sometimes without even realizing they were doing so. There's entire genre of literature named for the novel, a genre that continues to be popular to the present day. 

None of this is to suggest that The Lost World isn't an enjoyable novel – quite opposite, in fact. Professor Challenger is a terrific character, very different from Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Likewise, Malone, despite his pathetic introduction, turns out to be a solid protagonist and reader surrogate. Then there's the lost world of the Amazon itself, with its strange inhabitants and sights, all of which Doyle memorably describes. The pace of the novel is slow at times, I won't deny, but the overall story is compelling and the vehicle of Malone's narration helps to overcome some of the slowness. Fans of adventure literature should find it to their taste and anyone with an interest in the roots of fantasy and science fiction should read it as well. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Random Roll: PHB, p. 101

Page 101 of the AD&D Players Handbook contains a long section entitled "The Adventure," in which Gary Gygax the "three major types" of locales in which player characters might find adventure, namely the dungeon, the wilderness, and the town. He then discusses each of these locales separately, highlighting not only what makes them unique but what a character venturing into them ought to consider before doing so. Though his comments on each are short, I think they're nonetheless worthy of a closer look.
Adventures into underworld mazes are the most popular. The party equips itself and sets off to enter and explore the dungeons of some castle, temple or whatever. Light sources, poles for probing, rope, spikes, and like equipment are the main tools for such activity.

I think the equipment Gygax mentions by name is telling: not weapons or armor but torches, poles, rope, and spikes. This is indeed an "expedition," as he terms it elsewhere, one on the model of archeological excavations or perhaps the Victorian adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard (or even "The Tower of the Elephant").

And since none of the party will know the dungeon's twists and turns, one or more of the adventurers will have to keep a record, a map, of where the party has been. Thus you will be able to find your way out and return for yet more adventuring. As you party is exploring and mapping, movement will be slow, and it is wise to have both front and rear guards.

Do RPG campaigns regularly include a mapper anymore? In my youth, it went without saying that someone should be keeping a map. Otherwise, as Gygax says, how would you find your way out again – or, just as importantly, take note of unusual features that suggested there might be hidden chambers nearby? In my House of Worms campaign, the players are blessed to have a professional cartographer in their company, but, even if they didn't, I'm pretty sure they'd keep track of the underworlds they explore.

In the dungeons will be chambers and rooms – some inhabited, some empty; there will be traps to catch those unaware, tricks to fool the unwise, monsters lurking to devour the unwary. The rewards, however, are great – gold, gems, and magic items. Obtaining these will make you better able to prepare for further expeditions, more adept in your chosen profession, more powerful in all respects. All that is necessary is to find your way in and out, to meet and defeat the guardians of the treasures, to carry out the wealth …

That's a very succinct way of describing the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons, don't you think? More than that, it also draws our attention to the things Gygax considered the essential elements of a dungeon: rooms (including empty ones), monsters, treasure, traps, and tricks – a good list!

Adventuring into unknown lands or howling wilderness is extremely perilous at best, for large bands of men, and worse, might roam the area; there are dens of monsters, and trackless wastes to contend with. 

The wilderness is where Gygaxian naturalism lives – literally – hence the following admonitions:

Protected expeditions are, therefore, normally undertaken by higher level characters. Forays of limited duration are possible even for characters new to adventuring, and your DM might suggest that your party do some local exploration – perhaps to find some ruins which are the site of a dungeon or to find a friendly clan of dwarves, etc.

One "problem" with D&D, it's that the wilderness surrounding a dungeon is frequently far more dangerous than the dungeon itself, given the lack of an artificial level-based framework for assessing threat to the characters. Gygax's comments here remind us of that.

Mounts are necessary, of course, as well as supplies, missile weapons, and the standard map-making equipment. Travel will be at a slow rate in unknown areas, for your party will be exploring, looking for foes to overcome, and searching for new finds of lost temples, dungeons, and the like. 

Once again, mapping and slowness are mentioned – but then D&D is primarily a game of exploration. Nevertheless, Gygax quickly notes that that's not all the game is about.

Cities, towns, and sometimes even large villages provide the setting for highly interesting, informative, and often hazardous affairs and incidents. Even becoming an active character in a campaign typically requires interaction with the populace of the habitation, location quarters, buying supplies and equipment, seeking information. 

Though not intended as such, these sentences could serve as a rebuke of critics who deride D&D as a purely "hack 'n slash" game. Some of my favorite moments in D&D (and other RPGs) have arisen from interactions with NPCs in a settlement as the characters sought out rumors, lodging, or equipment. 

These same interactions in a completely strange town require forethought and skill. Care must be taken in all one says and does. Questions about rank, profession, god and alignment are perilous, and use of an alignment tongue is socially repulsive in most places.  

Everything Gygax says here demonstrates the need for the creation of a social structure and culture for the campaign setting. Without these, there can be no context for adventures and many opportunities for fun interactions will be missed.

There are usually beggars, bandits, and drunks to be dealt with; greedy and grasping merchants and informants to do business with; inquiring officials or suspicious guards to be answered. The taverns house many potential helpful or useful characters, but they also contain clever and dangerous adversaries. Then there are the unlit streets and alleys of the city after dark … 

If this section has made anything clear, it's that, in a good campaign, adventures can be found anywhere.  

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Interview: Rick Meints (Part II)

Part I of the interview can be found here.

7. How did you become involved with Tales of the Reaching Moon?

On a whim, in January of 1994 I decided to go to RQ Con 1 in Baltimore. I had just read about this convention in Tales 10, but initially hadn't planned on attending. I didn’t know anyone who was attending and I hadn’t played RuneQuest in years. Then, just a few days before the convention I bought a plane ticket and off I went. While there I met Nick Brooke, who was an active contributor to Tales. He offered to show me around London if I was ever in the UK and, as luck would have it, work brought me to London later that year. I contacted Nick, we had dinner, and he started to introduce me to his friends that worked on Tales, including David Hall and Dan Barker. One of the best decisions I ever made, for both my personal and professional life, was to move to the UK in 1995. I was quickly welcomed into a wonderfully creative and energetic circle of friends collectively known as the Reaching Moon Megacorp. It allowed all of us to contribute our talents to a number of projects including Tales of the Reaching Moon, the Convulsion convention, and a number of independent projects such as Tarsh War, the Rough Guide to Glamour, and even my Meints Index to Glorantha. One of the best parts of the group was its social side. Throughout the seven years I lived in the UK we would meet after work at the Round Table pub in London near Leicester Square almost every Wednesday night. Over pints (make mine a Guinness) we would bring along and discuss the latest Gloranthan projects we were working on. I volunteered to do the layout for Tales 14 (part of my day job was writing computer manuals) and kept doing that until Tales 20, which was the magazine's last. A part of me really misses that era. We attended a lot of European conventions together, and I met my wife through this group of friends. Nick, David, and I attended each other's weddings. What's even better is that we're all still friends, and several of the Tales crew are involved with Chaosium now. 

8. What was the path that took you from working for the Reaching Moon Megacorp to your present one as president of Chaosium?

In the late 90s the Reaching Moon Megacorp was losing steam. A number of us were recently married and starting families. Running conventions and publishing Tales felt too much like work and many on the team scaled back their involvement. With each passing issue of Tales I took on more responsibility with getting the magazine printed and shipped. I enjoyed that side of the business. Moon Design Publications was founded in 1999 because the Megacorp didn't want to take on reprinting RuneQuest material. That deal was struck specifically with Greg Stafford. We started spending more and more time doing business with Greg, and we treated him professionally. We paid him on time. We produced quality products. Greg often consulted us on business matters, especially his own business problems. After the Gloranthan Classics reprint project was wrapped up, we then became the licensed publisher for HeroQuest, and Greg largely retired from publishing to focus on his writing and other interests. He saw what we could do as a company. Having been friends with Greg since the mid-90s we often talked about regular life as well. He knew what my day job was like, which was basically being the Managing Director of a small IT company. One day in 2015 Greg and I were chatting on the phone and he semi-joked "I'd love to find someone like you to run Chaosium, but I don't think you'd ever take the job." I surprised him with "actually, maybe I would". After discussing it with my wife I took the leap, and "ran off to join the circus". It's hard to believe that was a little over six years ago. In some ways, I had been auditioning for the job for over 15 years.

9. How long after you took over Chaosium did you conceive of the idea of the RuneQuest Classic project? What was the original impetus of it and what did you learn from it?

I wanted to reprint the RuneQuest 2nd ed. rules back when we did the Glorantha Classics, but the rights were too fragmented. Chaosium owned the copyright on the text, Avalon Hill/Hasbro owned the Trademark, and Greg owned the "Glorantha" part of it. Greg got the RQ trademark back in 2005 and then licensed it to Mongoose until about 2012. We purchased all of Greg's Glorantha IP and the RQ trademark in 2013. It wasn't until Moon Design got a majority interest in Chaosium in 2015 that we had the final piece of the rights needed to reprint the RQ2 rules. Three of the four volumes of the Glorantha Classics were out-of-print by 2015. The first volume had been printed on old film technology in 1999, so it would have to be redone, plus we had mixed in 3rd edition material into other volumes, so we decided to start fresh and just redo each original RQ2 book individually. The Kickstarter helped breathe more interest back into the RuneQuest RPG. It also raised a lot of money for Moon Design, the profits of which we invested in Chaosium, giving it the funds needed to print the 7th edition books. 

10. Did the success of this project show that there was genuine interest in older editions of your RPGs, thereby laying the groundwork for Call of Cthulhu Classic? Might you consider other similar reprints of classic Chaosium games in the future?

The RuneQuest Classics project did show us that reprinting older RQ material can be lucrative and Kickstarter let us know how many to print without having to guess. I've been an RPG collector for about 40 years now and I have watched the trends in the RPG collectables market for both personal and business reasons. I've also been an auctioneer over 30 times at RPG conventions, and one thing I learned is that older material is sought after, and while some will pay collector prices, many more would happily pay for older items if the price was more reasonable. At Chaosium we have our customerservice@chaosium.com email which is our main main avenue for all manner of customer inquiries. One fairly common question we get at least every few days, if not every day, is "do you have any copies of old product X lurking in the warehouse" or "do you have any plans to reprint X because I would love to get a copy". Believe it or not, I actually review all of the customer service emails we get, and the team knows to forward ones like those to me to answer directly. Those emails are a big part of why we got Beyond the Mountains of Madness reprinted. That, and I saw people moan about not wanting to pay $200 to get a used copy of it on eBay. As for more such classic reprints of other Chaosium games, the short answer is yes. We're looking at Pendragon in particular, and a few other older licensed properties. Between print on demand, regular print runs, and such we have more options to keep things available than we used to, and why wouldn't we. Some might be cleaned up scans, like Wyrms Footnotes, while others might be fully OCR'd and have their layout redone. It all depends on how big of a demand we see.

11. Are there any upcoming Chaosium projects that might appeal to fans of the company's older material?

There are a number of products that we have in the works that would appeal to fans of our older material. Jason Durall is heading up the development team that is turning the late '70s Chaosium wargame Lords of the Middle Sea into an RPG. It will expand our BRP game universe into another post-apocalyptic future earth setting. The playtests have been going well and we hope to get it into layout soon. Another couple of titles I need to mention are Gaslight and Dreamlands for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. Both of those settings are getting the full color treatment and should also be going into final manuscript form soon. Each of those would also feature a boxed Starter set as your entry point into those realms of the Mythos. As for RuneQuest, the Sartar Campaign pack is also being developed. It builds on material originally written for the Sartar pack we were developing back in the early 80s, around the time when Griffin Mountain and Borderlands came out. Lastly, I need to mention we also have other older titles we will be making available again via POD. We want to get titles similar to Beyond the Mountains of Madness available again, even if we can't update them any time soon. As for which titles, we want to not over promise and under deliver. We will release them as and when we can.

12. Finally, a question I like to ask most people I interview: what RPGs are you playing/refereeing these days?

While I play a lot of one-shot pick-up games at cons and similar, I haven't been able to find the time for a regular weekly or bi-weekly campaign. That said, it is awesome that I work for a company where my colleagues tell me that I need to play more games. My last Heroquest campaign from a few months ago was set just before the Dragonrise, during the start of the Hero Wars. In most situations I prefer to play rather than GM. I have great respect for all the GMs that devote the time to prepare sessions for their players. As for me, I'm generally too much of a last minute person who lives by the motto "If it wasn't for the last minute, I'd have no time at all". I am slowly writing a few things that I hope to GM some day. One is an RQ scenario set in the Upland Marsh, and the other is a 1920s scenario set in the Great Lakes region of the US. I want to play more 7th Sea, but I've been spoiled by only having played the game with John Wick as my GM.

The Vaults of sha-Arthan: The Chenot

Work continues to proceed on The Vaults of sha-Arthan, though a little more slowly than I'd hoped. Even so, nearly all the basic character classes are complete, including three nonhuman classes. I present one of them – the Chenot, a race of sentient plants – in this entry as a taste of what I've been sharing over at Advanced Grognardia. Between now and when I start up the campaign, I may make a few tweaks to the class, but, for the moment, I am content with it. Constructive comments and suggestions are welcome, as are questions about the Chenot and the sha-Arthan setting (though I reserve the right to keep some matters secret for the time being).

Edit: This is an updated version of the class, after reflecting on the comments below, particularly those of James Mishler. Thanks to everyone for their feedback; it is much appreciated.

Chenot

A Chenot by Zhu Bajiee

Prime requisite:
DEX
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 8
Armor: Special (see below)
Weapons: Any appropriate to size

Chenot are a species of small, plantlike beings renowned for their agility and cleverness. They weigh about 50 pounds and stand just below 3’ tall. Chenot typically live in communities of their own, but sometimes dwell among humans, particularly in rural areas. Chenot are fascinated by relics of the Makers, whom they regard as gods. Many Chenot become adventurers precisely so that they can seek out sites associated with their deities.


Combat

The central trunk of all adult Chenot is encased within a shell of utechra-metal, giving them protection equivalent to plate armor (AC 3 [16]). Because of this, they can wear no other form of armor, though they can carry a shield, but it must be tailored to their small size. Chenot can use any weapons appropriate to their stature (as determined by the referee). They cannot use longbows or two-handed swords.

Communication

The Chenot can hear and speak, but can only speak their own language, which sounds to human ears like rustling, scraping leaves and branches in the wind. However, they can learn to understand other languages. Further, Chenot emit pheromones that enable any living, sentient being who has been within 60’ of them for at least one turn to understand their language, though not speak it (as most species lack the phsyical apparatus to do so). This effect lasts one day. After a week of regular, daily exposure, it lasts a year, and after a month of exposure it is permanent. 


Defensive Bonus

Due to their small size, Chenot gain a +2 bonus to Armor Class when attacked by large opponents (greater than human-sized). 


Tendrils

With their sensitive and flexible tendrils, Chenot can perform certain unusual feats, starting at a 1-in-6 chance of success in each. At 1st level, a Chenot can distribute 2 points among these skills, increasing the chance of success by one per point spent. At every level after first, the Chenot gains an additional point to distribute (to a maximum of 5-in-6 in any skill).

  • Climb sheer surfaces: A roll is required for each 100’ to be climbed. If the roll fails, the Chenot falls at the halfway point, suffering falling damage.  
  • Find or remove traps: A roll is required to find a trap and then another to remove it. This may be attempted only once per trap. 
  • Pick pockets: The Chenot’s roll is penalized by 1-in-6 for every three levels or hit dice of the intended target. The referee should determine the reaction of the target of a failed attempt (possibly using the reaction table). 
  • Search: When actively searching, a Chenot locate hidden compartments and secret doors.

Wilting

Chenot require sunlight, water, and elemental nutrients for nourishment. They must spend at least 8 hours each day in their presence or suffer 1 point of damage per day they go without it. This damage cannot be healed by any means until sufficient nourishment is procured, at which point they regain 1 hit point per level every 8 hours until fully healed. While undernourished, Chenot move at half normal speed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Retrospective: Dragons of Glory

My overall opinion of Dragonlance is, I think, well known and, in the thirteen (!) years since I first publicly expressed it, I haven't much mellowed. I remain convinced that, while Dragonlance may well have "saved" Dungeons & Dragons in some sense, the hobby is still paying the price of that salvation nearly four decades later. This does not mean, however, that the entire Dragonlance project was wholly devoid of worth. Indeed, in the course of changing the course of D&D and, by extension, the entire hobby, a number of genuinely interesting things were produced.

A case in point is 1985's Dragons of Glory, written by Douglas Niles and Tracy Hickman (though I suspect that it was Niles who was responsible for the bulk of the product). Ostensibly the eleventh module in the original Dragonlance series, Dragons of Glory is, in fact, not an adventure scenario at all but rather a stand-alone wargame set in the world of Krynn, complete with rules, maps, and hundreds of cardboard counters.

I dutifully purchased module DL11 upon its release, as I had all the previous modules in the series. As I've explained before, I was never a fan of Krynn as a setting or even of the specifics of Dragonlance – particularly its pre-generated characters – but I was quite taken with the idea of a lengthy series of connected scenarios that chronicled a war against a high fantasy Dark Lord. Thus, I cannibalized the DL modules to use in a campaign setting of my own devising (about which the less said the better) and rarely regretted that decision. Dragons of Glory was one such occasion. 

You see, the module presented a strategic-level simulation of the War of the Lance, with rules for movement, combat, and reinforcements, among other such details. The rules are simple, probably laughably so for anyone with much experience in the hobby of hex-and-chit wargaming. Not having such experience myself, I wasn't at all bothered by this. In fact, I considered it something of a plus, since, as a neophyte, I wasn't in a position to handle a more sophisticated wargame. 

Dragons of Glory was supposed to serve two purposes. As already mentioned, it was intended as a stand-alone wargame that could be played again and again, much in the way one might play Third Reich or Kingmaker. More interesting is the second purpose of the game: integrating the wargame with the module series. The idea here is that the referee (and another player) could take note of their play of the wargame and then use it to influence the play of the module-based campaign. For example, if a battle takes place in the wargame in a particular place, when the player characters make their way through that same place, the referee could use that fact to affect what those characters see and encounter there. Now, to be clear, there are no actual rules to govern this. Even the guidelines offered amount to little more than vague advice, but I cannot tell you how much the idea of using the results of a wargame to affect the play of a RPG inspired me at the time.

There's another unspoken angle here, namely that Dragons of Glory points the way – tentatively, to be sure – toward "alternate universe" versions of Krynn, where things don't necessarily play out exactly the way the adventure modules intend them to. That's always been one of my biggest beefs with the whole Dragonlance project: its expectation that certain events would happen in certain ways and that certain characters would be involved in them. I hated this approach then and I hate it even more now. If the project had been more flexible in allowing events to unfold differently in each campaign, I might have fewer objections. As it is, Dragonlance is a vast railroad with a pre-determined beginning, middle, and end. 

Dragons of Glory hints at the possibility of other approaches and that's probably why I still retain a certain fondness for it, despite its design shortcomings. DL11 is probably the first and only time that a module in this series toys with the idea of the War of the Lance having different trajectories than those presented in official TSR products, trajectories unique to each campaign. Again, I feel I should reiterate that Dragons of Glory itself does little to support this idea and I am likely being more charitable toward it than it deserves. Even so, I was so positively impacted by what little it does offer that I felt it deserved a second look. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Interview: Rick Meints (Part I)

Rick Meints is the president of the venerable and celebrated RPG publisher, Chaosium – as well as a roleplaying gamer of long standing. Recently, he very kindly agreed to be interviewed, answering some questions about his history in the hobby, the games he's enjoyed playing, and what Chaosium is up to these days. Presented below is the first half of this interview; the second half will appear tomorrow.

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

I first played D&D back in late 1978 when I spent my allowance on the D&D Basic boxed set. It opened a whole new world of possibilities. I used graph paper from my math class to sketch out dungeons, and bought a few Ral Partha minis at my local hobby store to move my imagined characters around the map. My parents encouraged reading and told my sister and I that they would buy us any book we wanted. That made it easy to purchase the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979. As a kid that took care of my toys, I still have those books close to hand on a nearby gaming shelf in my home office. During summer vacations I played through the entire Giants and Drow (GDQ) series, happily power gaming all the way. The hook was set deep for what was to come when Tim Webster, our GM, showed us the RQ rulebook and Cults of Prax shortly thereafter...

2. What was your initial impression of RuneQuest and, more specifically, of its setting, Glorantha?

My gaming group started dabbling with RQ a few years after the game came out, mostly with some home-brewed scenarios. I devoured every word of Cults of Prax, especially the stories from "The Travels of Biturian Varosh" that were sprinkled throughout the book. I had previously played a cleric, but the religious side of the character was not fleshed out at all. To be honest I can't even remember which god the character was a cleric for. Playing a warrior who worshipped Orlanth and then a merchant who became a priest of Issaries was a very pleasant change. The depth of the game world of Glorantha intrigued me as well. What set the hook deeply was playing through almost all of the possible adventures in the sandbox campaign Griffin Mountain during the summer of 1981. Everything we encountered while working on Joh Mith's caravan was novel and exciting, be it Jack O'Bears, Citadels built by Giants, the occupying Lunar forces, seeking out the Windsword on Griffin Mountain, carving a Windbery tree branch to make a magic staff, or meeting the legendary Gonn Orta at his castle hidden in the mountains. I actually kept a bit of a game journal back then, which was a first for me. I wanted to write these stories down. We only took a break from RQ to try the next Chaosium game Tim brought home, which was Call of Cthulhu.

3. What did you think of Call of Cthulhu? Were you already familiar with Lovecraft at the time?

I had never read any of his books before playing Call of Cthulhu, and only knew a little about him because I saw a few of his books on Tim, our Keeper's bookshelves. I was keen to play, partially because I really like the 1920s era, and also because my character was able to use a Thompson submachine gun with a 50 round drum. Because it basically used the core rules also used for RuneQuest, it was easy to get playing right away, and we were soon battling various cultists. I enjoyed those game sessions, but we were playing it when there weren't that many supplements published for it yet, so I didn't play through many of the classics. We would have kept playing it but Tim went off to college and his brother Tom brought home a 2" boxed set called Stormbringer for us to try next.

4. Stormbringer is a favorite of mine. What did you think of it? Were you a fan of Moorcock's Elric stories?

I was excited to get a chance to play an RPG set in the Young Kingdoms. I had read several of the Elric novels (classic DAW paperbacks) about a year or so prior to Tom opening the Stormbringer box at our game table. I played a sailor from the Isle of Purple Towns who worshipped Strassha. After reading through the rules I noticed "Impressive Scar" on the Major Wounds table and getting one of those became my first in-game goal. That was followed by getting a Melnibonean Gold Wheel. The combat system was a bit more streamlined, which I liked. The magic system was also streamlined, but that appealed to me less. We all loved demon weapons and armor, and as an Agent I got pretty good at summoning water elementals. I don't remember the mission we were given by Strassha, but when we completed it we got the power to breathe water from him, which came in handy on several occasions during our further adventures. Alas, the closest we got to Tanelorn was Nadsokar. 

5. A common element to most of the games you've mentioned so far are the rules originating in RuneQuest and later known as Basic Role-Playing. What did you find so appealing about those rules when you first encountered them? What do you still find appealing about them?

I initially liked the rules for a number of reasons. It was great that Chaosium uses the same basic rules in all of their games so if you know how to play RQ, learning Call of Cthulhu or Stormbringer or Ringworld is mainly learning about the game world. I also like the way you don't have a restrictive character class that limits what armor, weapons, skills, or spells you can use. With BRP you get to pick and choose a lot more of those things for yourself. I am happy to not have to chase experience points to improve my level and abilities. Skill use and combat also feel far less abstract. It means crunching more numbers, but I like crunching numbers. Most people immediately understand what having a 75% climb skill means and how much protection they get from two point armor. I've played a lot of game systems since the 80s, and the BRP rules still largely work for how I want to play, unless I am playing in a single shot adventure at a con. For one shots I usually prefer a more rules light storytelling type of system.

6. Are there any other memories you have of your early days of roleplaying, whether they be playing a BRP game or something else?

I bought the Holmes boxed Basic D&D set, but didn't know of anyone who played the game. I mainly just read through all the material and rolled up a character, but didn't really play the game until one of my friends in Junior High said he was willing to GM. He had just bought the Players Handbook and the Giants series of modules and was looking forward to running them. Because I was the only player, I played several characters, each of a different class. It worked for Brian and I. We ended up playing through Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, Hall of the Fire Giant King, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo Toa, and Vault of the Drow over the next year or so. With Tim and Tom Webster, the four of us took turns GMing games of Boot Hill, Top Secret, Gamma World, and Traveller. Our interest in each of those didn't last very long though. Gun fights turned out to be too deadly in Boot Hill, Brian and Tim thought the post-nuclear Gamma World was too preposterous (especially when I played a Hoop), the Imperium seemed boring in Traveller even though we liked rolling up veterans, and in Top Secret I had a hard time GM'ing when the three of them decided to become terrorists instead of playing good guys. We ate a fair bit of pizza and had a lot of laughs at the table along the way though. On Boy Scout trips Tom and I would often play the little black box games by Steve Jackson. Arena duels were popular in Car Wars because lots of us could play. We took long bus trips with the troop and would often play fairly late into the night because we could sleep on the bus during the day. We also played Tunnels & Trolls, but all I remember is getting to cast the "Take that you fiend" spell. Up until I went to college we were always playing something throughout the summer, plus weekends year round.

White Dwarf: Issue #2

Issue #2 of White Dwarf (August/September 1977) opens with an editorial by Ian Livingstone in which he addresses the disdain that tabletop wargamers supposedly held for roleplayers at the time. I know, from reading contemporary reports, that there was in fact some friction between the participants in these two related hobbies. I also know that almost all of the early adopters of RPGs were wargamers. Further, my own personal experience – for whatever it's worth – is that there was considerable overlap between the two hobbies. I can't recall ever seeing any evidence of antagonism, though we should bear in mind I didn't start roleplaying for more than two years after this editorial was penned. 

The first article proper is "Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings, a follow-up to the identically titled article in the previous issue. Hemmings provides extensive details of his scoring system for a dungeon he ran at event called "D&D Day," as well as an overview of the "pre-thrown" (i.e. pre-generated) characters used in the scenario. Speaking for myself, I didn't find the scoring system or his discussion of its rationale as compelling as I did the snippets of information he reveals about the dungeon itself, which included such elements as Pandora's Box, Mars, Hercules, Thor, and Monty Python, among others. Would that the article had simply been a write-up of the dungeon itself!

Ian Livingstone reviews "Asgard Miniatures," which he seems to have liked overall. I don't believe I ever own any figures from this line, but I recall their regular advertisements in gaming magazines well into the early 1980s. Lewis Pulsipher, meanwhile, reviews "The Green Planet Trilogy of Game," a series of science fantasy wargames published by Fact and Fantasy Games. I've never heard of any of these three games – Mind War, War of the Sky Galleons, Warriors of the Green Planet – and, from what Pulsipher says, it doesn't sound like I'm missing much (though he himself judges two of the three as "workmanlike" and having "appeal to certain gamers." More fascinating, I think, is his introduction where he bemoans the fact that game reviewers tend to be "faceless" and reveal little of their own "preferences and pet prejudices." To counter this, he lays his own cards on the table, such as his love of "realism" and his detestation of luck "as it allows inferior players to defeat a more skilled one." 

"Before the Flood" by Hartley Patterson is a brief reminiscence of a fantasy wargame (and setting) called Midgard that was played and developed in the pages of a fanzine of the same name. Patterson notes that Midgard predated Dungeons & Dragons but that it nevertheless seems to have anticipated many features of D&D. I love articles of this sort, since it's a useful reminder that there was "something in the air" in the early 1970s that would likely have given birth to RPGs at some point, even if Gygax and Arneson had not done so. 

"Open Box" is the issue's review feature, consisting of four different reviews. The first is for Steve Jackson's Ogre, while the second is TSR's Lankhmar boardgame. Both receive good reviews, though Ogre is better regarded. The third review is very negative and tackles War of the Star Slayers, a science fiction wargame of which I've never heard (a recurring theme in today's post). The final review is by Lewis Pulsipher and deals with Tunnels & Trolls. As one might expect, Pulsipher does not wholeheartedly like T&T, though he (mostly) takes pains to explain why he dislikes aspects of its design. More intriguing, though, is this section of his review, which I reproduce without comment:

The second part of Don Turnbull's "Monstermark System" appears in this issue and, like the first part, I have to say, perhaps to my shame, that I simply didn't see much point in all the ink spilt to measure the relative power of various D&D monsters. I know many referees, then and now, find this kind of thing useful and, if so, more power to them. I'm simply not one of them and thus my eyes glazed over as Turnbull presented his mathematical formulae. 

Much more fun was the "Open Chest" feature, which included submissions by readers. By and large, this consisted of magic items and monsters (like the dune stalker, which would later appear in the Fiend Folio). Also included was a humorous character class, the scientist, and its chaotic counterpart, the anti-scientist, whose level titles are quite amusing.
I can't make up my mind as to whether I find Administrator or Vondaniken funnier. Rounding out the issue is Andy Holt's "The Loremaster of Avallon," which follows his previous "What's Wrong with D&D?" In the article, Holt presents changes to D&D that he uses in his own campaign, focusing more on the magic system than other aspects of its rules. His changes are interesting and involve the use of 38 magical symbols to evoke effects. 

Overall, I'd say that this issue of White Dwarf shows much promise and suggests that it will quite quickly turn into something I will enjoy reading. It's very D&D-centric, of course, but that's to be expected (and is not unwelcome to me at any rate). There is already evidence of many of the traits I'd later come to associate not just with White Dwarf but with Games Workshop more generally, particularly its humor. I look forward to seeing them come even more to fore.