Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Retrospective: World of Greyhawk

Longtime readers may object that I've already done a Retrospective post on The World of Greyhawk. Pedantic as ever, I must reply that, while it's true that I have indeed written a post about The World of Greyhawk, I have never written one about World of Greyhawk. If that last sentence makes any sense, congratulations, you are every bit the quibbler I am. Less fussy readers will probably require an explanation.

In 1980, TSR published The World of Greyhawk, a 32-page "fantasy world setting" by Gary Gygax for use with AD&D. Commonly referred to as the Greyhawk "folio," this is the version of the product that first introduced me to the Greyhawk setting and to which I devoted a previous Retrospective post. However, in 1983, TSR published a product called World of Greyhawk (without the definite article). This version of the setting came in a box and is greatly expanded in scope, consisting of a 48-page booklet and an 80-page one. I have never devoted a post to this version of the setting until now.

There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. The first and most obvious one is that I originally didn't see much point in doing so. Having already written about the folio version, I thought I'd said all I needed about the topic. The second is that, while I owned the boxed set, I didn't make much use of it in play. By the time of its release in 1983, I was making my earliest forays into the creation of my own setting, Emaindor, which I'd use almost exclusively for the remaining years of the 1980s. Consequently, my thoughts about the World of Greyhawk boxed set are almost entirely theoretical, rather than based on its use in play. All that said, as a good TSR fanboy, I did buy the boxed set and I spent a lot of time poring over its pages, so I do have some thoughts to share on it. 

The most obvious difference between the 1983 and 1980 editions is, of course, their relative sizes. The folio version was only 32 pages long – a quarter the length of the boxed set's two books combined. That's partly due to the fact that the boxed set includes a lot more information about the setting than did its predecessor (including a reprint of David Axler's magisterial 1982 Dragon article, "Weather in the World of Greyhawk"), but it's also due to changes in TSR's layouts and graphic design. The folio version's 32 pages are dense, with small fonts and narrow margins. By contrast, the boxed version has larger print and much larger margins. These changes are responsible for a great deal of the increase page count between the two editions.

What's interesting is that, despite appearing three years later, when TSR had significantly more resources to draw upon, the boxed set does not feature significantly more artwork than the folio version. Every fan of the 1983 version naturally remembers Jeff Easley's cover illustration, which is indeed striking (and features the knight bearing a banner on which can be seen the same escutcheon that appears on the cover of the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide). However, there's very little interior art in either of the two enclosed books aside from historiated initial letters (rendered by Darlene, I believe). There is some – all by Easley – and it's not bad for what it is, though it's all fairly generic in the way that all TSR artwork was starting to become during its Electrum Age.

None of this is intended as a serious criticism of the boxed set, which is quite an attractive product overall. Rather, I say all of this primarily to highlight how much TSR – and, by extension, Dungeons & Dragons – had changed over the course of just three years. The company that produced the folio in 1980 was still small and energetic, as well understaffed and amateurish. It could still, I think, be called a hobbyist enterprise. By contrast, TSR in 1983 was both bigger and more "professional," but its growth in these areas had domesticated it somewhat. The World of Greyhawk was always rather vanilla, but its 1983 presentation takes that to another level.

Nevertheless, there is much to praise in the boxed set. TSR wisely collected many of Gygax's best Greyhawk-related articles from the pages of Dragon and included them here. I was a big fan of the coverage of Greyhawk's deities, for example, so seeing them in one of the constituent books was a thrill. The same is true (though less thrillingly) of the Greyhawk regional encounter tables, which are precisely the kind of low-key naturalism that is a hallmark of Gygaxian D&D. Combined with everything else, from kingdom and population information to geography and social hierarchies, the result is a solid, if also stolid, "fantasy game setting" for use with AD&D. 

In that respect, the 1983 boxed set is still very much in line with the 1980 folio, even if it's now longer and with higher production values. Despite my personal preference for the original, born out of both philosophical and nostalgic reasons, I think well of the World of Greyhawk boxed set and think it'd make a fine model for other fantasy RPG settings to emulate. It provides just enough details to inspire without becoming intrusive, which is how it should be, in my opinion.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Retrospective: Southern Mirkwood

The series of Middle-earth sourcebooks published by Iron Crown Enterprises during the early 1980s occupy a strange place in my personal history as a roleplayer. Like nearly every other gamer I knew at the time, I had, of course, read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and I liked them well enough, though I'm not sure I'd have called myself a huge fan of them. That would come later, thanks in no small part to I.C.E.'s products, whose advertisements in the pages of Dragon I can still vividly recall.

The reasons those advertisements still linger in my memory decades later is their artwork, which is wonderfully evocative. They made me want to know more about the region of Middle-earth detailed in the associated product, which, in turn, helped fuel my appreciation for Middle-earth as a setting. (It would still be a little while longer before I'd come to a similar appreciation for Tolkien's storytelling, much to my embarrassment.)

My very first I.C.E. Middle-earth purchase was Bree and the Barrow-Downs, primarily because the hobbits' visit to the Barrow-Downs is one of my favorite sections of The Lord of the Rings and I therefore assumed the book detailing it would be similarly great. Unfortunately, I was disappointed and this dampened the enthusiasm those Dragon ads had elicited in me. Despite this, I decided to give the series another try, this time selecting Southern Mirkwood as my next purchase. I did so for the flimsiest of reasons: I liked the cover. I might also have been influenced by the book's subtitle, "Haunt of the Necromancer," since I was keen to know more about Sauron's hideout in the region, Dol Guldur.

Written by Susan Taylor Hitchcock and first release in 1983, Southern Mirkwood is 60-page softcover book covering not just southern Mirkwood but also southern Rhovanion, the region of Middle-earth commonly called Wilderland. Much like Bree and the Barrow-Downs (and Moria, which I'd acquire later), the pages of Southern Mirkwood feature a dense, two-column layout using a very small typeface that is occasionally broken up with a piece of spot art or a map. The overall effect, even when I was younger and had more patience – and eyesight! – for such things was mildly intimidating. This effect was made even more potent by the dry way that information was conveyed. This was not a book that one read casually; it took real effort to make it through even a couple of pages.

I began to feel some of the same disappointment I had felt about Bree and the Barrow-Downs creep back in. When I bought the book, I had hoped it'd present some frightening and exciting things about this part of Middle-earth. I remembered Mirkwood well from Tolkien's tales, particularly Bilbo and the dwarves' encounter with its spiders, so I expected the book to contain all manner of similar nastiness. Likewise, the presence of Sauron, in his guise as the Necromancer, certainly piqued my interest, since I remember wondering what he might have been up to while hiding in the forest from the prying eyes of the White Council. By all rights, Southern Mirkwood should have been a really good sourcebook, one that commanded my attention for a long time – but it was not.

A large part of the problem lies with the presentation of the material it contains. As I alluded to above, the prose is dull and focuses too much on minutiae and trivia. There are thus pages of history, enumerations of flora and fauna, people and places of note – all good in principle and precisely the kind of stuff one you'd want and expect to find in a book like this. But rather than detail all of this with an eye toward how to use them in adventures or campaigns set in and around southern Mirkwood, we get encyclopedia-style entries that do little to inspire. Toward the end of the book, there are some short suggestions for scenarios but they're quite sketchy and, frankly, boring ("Acquire 5 crates of Dwarven nails for renovation of Tree-town," "Trap and cure or kill as need be a trained mountain lion which has gone wild," etc.).

The banality of it all is really evident in the sections relating to Dol Guldur, the Necromancer's lair within Mirkwood. The book provides eight maps of the place, along with keyed descriptions. One would imagine – or at least I did – that such a place of supreme evil would be compelling and frightening. Instead, it comes across as little more than a run-of-the-mill dungeon filled with traps and orcs and storage rooms. It's all so dull and predictable, with only a few hints that suggest it's located in Middle-earth rather than in some vanilla fantasy setting. 

It's a shame, because I still think there's great potential in this region of Middle-earth, especially during the time period in which I.C.E.'s books are set (Third Age 1640 – nearly 1500 years before the War of the Ring). I can easily imagine fun adventures or exciting campaigns dealing with the growing corruption of the area and the Necromancer's role in it all. That's not what Southern Mirkwood provides, sadly. 

At least the full-color poster maps by Peter Fenlon are terrific, as always. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Cargo Cult

Yesterday, I was chatting with one of the players in my House of Worms campaign. He mentioned that, growing up in Europe in the 1980s, he learned to play Dungeons & Dragons from the German translation of the Basic Set supplemented by a photocopy of a handwritten French translation of the AD&D Players Handbook that also included articles from the magazine Casus Belli. He even showed me some of the pages from that translation, which was well over 200 cramped pages in length, which frankly delighted me. There was, unfortunately, no name attached to the translation, so we may never know which dedicated French roleplayer undertook this gargantuan task that had repercussions greater than he likely ever imagined.

Hearing this story reminded me of similar stories I'd heard from friends and acquaintances living outside the English speaking world: how they'd learned to play D&D – and it was almost always D&D – from a weird combination of sources, including fan-made translations passed down through multiple hands (and sometimes languages) before they laid eyes on it. The result, as the player in my Tékumel campaign explained, was often a faulty understanding of the game's underlying rules and mechanics, thanks in no small part to the "broken telephone" effect that comes when ideas are filtered through so many intermediaries. Of course, none of this lessened the impact of those ideas, as evidenced by the fact that most of these people continue to participate in the hobby of roleplaying decades later.

What's interesting is that, though I grew up in America, my own personal history as a roleplayer nevertheless contains plenty of similar "broken telephone" moments. To a great degree, this is because roleplaying, as a formal entertainment, was so revolutionary. People sometimes forget just how genuinely new – and peculiar – an idea it was at the time of its introduction. Looked at from the vantage point of a world where roleplaying and roleplaying games are not only widely understood but also widely played in one form or another, it's all too easy to see their ultimate acceptance as inevitable. Having lived through those times, I can assure you they were not. I can also assure you that it took a lot of explaining to get people to comprehend just what a RPG was.

In the days before the Internet, my friends and I had to rely upon our own wits and the accumulated "wisdom" of others to make sense of D&D. We turned to various gaming mentors, like my friend's high school-age older brother and guys we met in game stores, to learn how to play – and even then we were often led astray. The early days of the hobby had a rich oral culture, in which ideas about the "right" way to play various RPGs were shared freely anytime two or more gamers met one another. My friends and I were the beneficiaries of these ideas, because we had a very difficult time make sense of the rulebooks available to us at the time (the Holmes Basic rulebook and the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide).

Even after we had a better handle on the broad outlines of how to play D&D, we continued to make use of idiosyncratic rules interpretations and additions that we'd picked up here or there. Many of these were things that "everybody knew," though they could be found nowhere in the pages of any official D&D rulebook. To this day, I am still sometimes tripped up by "rules" I long ago took as Gospel that are nothing of the sort. Such is the power of oral tradition. In those days, it was likewise commonplace to see gamers, especially those, like me, who regularly served as referee, to carry around folders or binders filled with mimeographs or photocopies of house rules or articles from Dragon or White Dwarf that helped "fix" this or that aspect of D&D. 

None of us looked askance at this. Indeed, we considered it perfectly normal, since it was so widespread. Dungeons & Dragons was, for us, a bricolage, made from TSR's published rulebooks, gaming magazine articles, ideas someone once told us, and received opinion that we'd picked up, magpie-like, in our travels to local hobby shops, libraries, and schoolyards. It was a moving target whose basic shape was more or less consistent, but whose precise details often varied considerably from place to place and time to time. That's just how things were – and we loved it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Ultimate in Adventure Games

Retrospective: Timemaster

That the history of the RPG industry is filled curiosities should come as no surprise. Then, as now, "the industry" largely consists of small operations big on passion but often lacking in the business sense necessary to channel that passion into a lasting enterprise. Pacesetter Ltd is a great example of this from my youth. Founded in 1984 by a number of ex-TSR staffers, the company lasted only two years before disappearing. However, during those two years of existence, Pacesetter managed to publish four different RPGs, three of them in the same year – Chill, Star Ace, and Timemaster. 

Though Chill was by far my favorite of the three games the company published in 1984, Timemaster was a close second. As a kid, I enjoyed watching reruns of the old Irwin Allen television show, The Time Tunnel. Even though it only ran for a single season, I remember thinking that it was a great premise for an ongoing TV show – like Star Trek, except that time, not space, was the final frontier. Consequently, Timemaster was an easy sell for me.

Like all Pacesetter RPGs, Timemaster came in a box, inside of which was a 64-page rulebook (Travelers' Manual), a 32-page Guide to the Continuum, which explained in greater depth of how time travel worked; and a 16-page adventure, Red Ace High, set during World War I. Also included were some cardboard counters and a hex map to use with the adventure, which dealt with the First Battle of Cambrai in 1917. It's a nice little package that very much appealed to my sensibilities as a TSR fanboy. I've long suspected that this was intentional on the part of Pacesetter, whose games always had a "TSR-but-not" vibe to them – no surprise, given that its staff included Mark Acres, Garry Spiegle, Carl Smith, Stephen D. Sullivan, and Michael Williams, all of whom had worked at TSR in the years prior. 

Mechanically, Timemaster is pretty similar to the other RPGs in Pacesetter's roster. It makes use of a color-coded action table of the sort I most strongly associate with Marvel Super Heroes but which would eventually be found in many other games during the mid-80s. Character ability scores are generated randomly, but the player can choose his character's skills and paranormal talent, a psionic power of limited utility, like telepathy. The design is nothing fancy but I recall it working without too much fuss in play, which is precisely what I've generally wanted out of RPG mechanics.

Where Timemaster really shined was in the execution of its basic premise. The game assumes that characters are members of the human Time Corps, a 72nd century organization tasked with protecting the integrity of "the Continuum" from those who would disrupt it for their own ends. The two primary sources of disruption are renegade humans and a race of shapeshifting aliens called the Demoreans. Adventures thus consist in efforts by the characters, as agents of the Time Corps, to ensure that disruption is, if not stopped completely, kept to a minimum.

What I found most intriguing about Timemaster was that the Continuum was more than just a linear progression of time. Instead, it encompasses a wide variety of parallel timelines, some of them very different from the timelines from which the characters come. This gave the game a much wider scope than just traveling up and down the timeline to visit famous historical events – though the game certainly supported and encouraged that. Characters could also visit odd parallel worlds where magic works or dinosaurs evolved to intelligence, for example, or even where literary characters like Sherlock Holmes or the Three Musketeers were real. 

It's all quite ridiculous, of course, but Timemaster made it work, in large part because the game clearly spells out the Laws of Time and then follows through with them in a way that makes game sense if not necessarily scientific sense (assuming such a thing is even possible when talking about time travel). This makes it easier for both the players and the referee (or Continuum Master) to get a solid handle on how the universe of the game works and that's essential. Otherwise, everyone can quickly get tied up in knots over questions of paradox and time loops and so on. Timemaster recognizes this and lays it all out in a way I found quite helpful. You might disagree with its take on certain aspects of time travel – I was never fond of the "literary" parallels, for example – but there's no question that it all hangs together decently, if you're willing to accept the game's premises.

Timemaster is one of those roleplaying games that I occasionally remember exists and then think, "I should play this again some time," because I had fun with it in the past. As I said, the game won't win any prizes for game design, let alone scientific "realism," but, like many of the best RPGs, it's a delightfully open-ended vehicle for exercising your imagination and that's no small thing.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

An Oddity

I was examining my draft posts on Blogger to see if I'd left any genuinely worthy ones unfinished and noticed something peculiar: there were a lot more draft posts than I thought there should be. Looking more closely, I soon saw that a half-dozen older posts originally published many years ago had all been reverted to drafts on the same date: May 23, 2023. Take a look.

All of the posts carried a little red "hidden" icon and, when I clicked on each one, I saw a note indicating that each one had been "unpublished because it violates Blogger Community Guidelines. To republish, please update the content to adhere to guidelines." Those guidelines are available here, but, looking at them, I honestly can't fathom how any of the above posts, five of which are reviews and one of which is related to a previous review, violates them. 

It's quite baffling, especially since these are all very old posts that have existed on this blog for more than a decade. Likewise, none of them, as you can see from the pageview numbers, is an especially popular post that lots of people read and commented upon. The only common element, so far as I can tell, is that five of the six pertain to Judges Guild's Wilderlands setting, though none of them were published by Judges Guild itself. More to the point, I have plenty more Wilderlands-related posts and reviews and none of them were reverted to draft form like these were.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of thing? If so, can you explain the logic behind it? Concerns about arbitrary changes like this are precisely why I keep contemplating moving this blog to another platform. So far I haven't pulled the trigger, because doing so would be a huge headache, especially for a guy like me whose tech skills are minimal. Now I find myself wondering if I shouldn't consider it more seriously ...

UPDATE: Following the advice of others, I re-submitted all the flagged posts to Blogspot without any changes. All of them were re-activated without any explanation of why they were hidden in the first place. Looks like it probably was a case of an errant algorithm.

Polyhedron: Issue #8

Issue #8 of Polyhedron (October 1982) occupies a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. For one, this was the very first issue I ever owned, having joined the RPGA after seeing numerous advertisements for it in both Dragon and various TSR products. For another, the issue features a memorable Gangbusters-related cover illustration by the incomparable Jim Holloway. Gangbusters was a favorite RPG of my youth, as I've no doubt mentioned, so it was especially delightful to see it take center stage in Polyhedron. (One of these days I need to start up a large, sandbox-y GB campaign; it's been too long since I last played.)

Issue #8 also marks a significant turning point in the history of Polyhedron. Frank Mentzer, who had been the 'zine's founding editor, is now well and truly gone from its management. In his place are Kim Eastland, as managing editor, and Mary Kirchoff, as editor. Kirchoff had been in this position since issue #5, but this is the first issue where she's become a public presence. Her column, "ESP," replaces Mentzer's "Where I'm Coming From" as the editor's personal soapbox.

The second part of the interview with Mike Carr that began in the previous issue appears here. This part is much shorter than the first one, focusing on – unsurprisingly – Dawn Patrol, but also touching briefly upon Top Secret (whose acceptance by TSR Carr championed) and then shifting to the future of TSR. There's sadly not as much depth or insight in this installment. However, it does include a charming caricature of Carr as drawn by Holloway.

"Encounters" by James M. Ward is the premier article in a series I remember well from my days of reading Polyhedron. The idea behind the series was to present one-page encounter descriptions "that may be used by referees to interject something unusual into their games." I was a big fan of "Encounters," because it was yet another vehicle by which Polyhedron highlighted TSR games other than Dungeons & Dragons, which appealed to me. The inaugural article is devoted to Gangbusters and presents three gangsters – Big Bernie; his moll, Maria Kirchinetti; and Lefty O'Malley – as they face off against a beat cop, Tom O'Donahur. The cover depicts Big Bernie and company.

Frank Mentzer may be gone as editor-in-chief by he continues to contribute "Notes for the Dungeon Master." This issue's column talks a bit about strategy, specifically from the perspective of the monsters the characters encounter. Mentzer suggests that monsters shouldn't just wait in a room for the adventurers to arrive, but might instead defend themselves with cleverness. He then provides several examples of what he means, like the inventive use of fire or spells. I can't really complain anything Mentzer offers – it's broadly good advice – but I'd have appreciated more concrete examples rather than general principles.

"Figure Painting" by Michael Brunton offers more tips and advice on this topic. There's a single black and white photo of a nicely painted miniature to accompany it, which is nice. I'd have liked more, since seeing the finished product is the primary joy of articles of this sort for non-painters like myself (and why White Dwarf's minis articles were so good). "Nerd's Quest" is an uncredited little bit of fiction that's really just a lengthy pun-filled joke – an amusing diversion. "Run Scry" sees the return of Polyhedron's forays into ciphers. This time, the hidden message is written in the Theban script, which is probably best known for its appearance in Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia. As a long-time fan of ciphers, I really enjoy articles like this.

"Spelling Bee," also by Frank Mentzer, talks about material components for AD&D spells. Mentzer states that "some of the most successful campaigns I've ever seen involve a close watch on components" because "the DM can create whole adventures for whole parties to go looking for the rarest items." That's certainly how I've long wanted material components to be used in my games, but it's quite uncommon for it to work that way in my experience. After a while, the whole thing tends to get bogged down in tedious bookkeeping, which is a shame. I very much like the idea of material components. Unlike Mentzer, though, I don't think I've ever seen them used effectively.

"Getting Started in the the Gangbusters™ Game" by Mark Acres is a short and fluffy article introducing the range of campaign structures in Gangbusters. It's fine for what it is, but not nearly as helpful as I would liked at the time I was first getting into the game. "Dispel Confusion," once more by Frank Mentzer – the guy sure does get around – answers more AD&D rules questions. The questions are the usual mix of stuff one typically encounters in columns of this sort. The one that stands out, though, is the statement that "Sage Advice" from Dragon does not provide "official" answers to rules questions; only "Dispel Confusion" in Polyhedron enjoys that distinction. "Another good reason for being an RPGA™ Network member." Indeed.

"Notes from HQ" by Kim Eastland is, unfortunately, a lengthy bit of self-congratulatory fluff, singing the praises of both TSR and the RPGA. Eastland once again addresses the question of whether the RPGA or Polyhedron will ever include non-TSR games. His answer is, of course, in the negative, just as Frank Mentzer's had been some issues previously. He elaborates on this in a rather silly way:

As I had long predicted, Roger Raupp's "Nor" comic disappeared without a trace before its characters or plot could be developed. Replacing it is Ron Shirtz's "The Knight Error," which is a fun little, four-panel strip that wouldn't have been out of place in "Dragon Mirth" in TSR's other periodical. 

Issue #8 is nowhere near as good as I remembered its being. Even so, re-reading it after all these years was a pleasure, if only for the memories it evoked of my earliest days in the hobby. The issue is also clearly a step up in terms of production quality over its predecessors. Its graphic design, layout, and illustrations are all quite good. They point toward Polyhedron's becoming, if not quite as "professional" as Dragon, a more polished and attractive 'zine. That has its good points and its bad points, of course. For now, I'll simply say that, with this issue, Polyhedron has begun to take on the appearance of something I remember enjoying more often than not – and that makes me very happy. 

Friday, September 1, 2023

Memories of Game Stores Past II

One of the things I most enjoy about reading gaming magazines like Dragon is looking at the advertisements. They're a terrific window on the past, not merely the past of the wider hobby but more specifically of my own personal history with it. Consider this two-page advertisement that appeared in issue #90 (October 1984). (Apologies for the smallness of the image below; I'll soon zoom in on a part of it that's relevant to my post.)

The advertisement is for miniature paints sold by The Armory, a Baltimore, Maryland-based manufacturer, distributor, and importer of RPG products. I have very fond memories of visiting their storefront and warehouse on a couple of occasions when I was a teenager. The warehouse was a warren, filled with rows and rows of shelves among which my friends and I would wander, peering into random boxes to see what treasures they might hold. 

What struck me about this ad is that its second page includes a listing of the "fine hobby & game stores" in the United States that sold Armory paints. Perhaps because The Armory was itself located in Maryland, there are a significant number of stores in the same state. Here they are:
I remember several of these stores from personal experience of them. The Ship Shop was located not far from the State House and focused primarily on miniatures and wargames, though they also sold some RPGs. A friend of mine worked there during the two years I attended St. John's College. I've talked about The Compleat Strategist before, as well as What's Your Game. Both were located in Baltimore City proper, so I only ever shopped at them when I was visiting my grandparents. I sadly never got to go to the Barbarian Bookshop – great name! – but I know Dream Wizards quite well. When I lived in Washington, DC, I could take the Metro to Twinbrook station to reach it. Of all the stores on this list that I patronized, it's the only one that definitely still exists

I find it fascinating the way that, for so many of us in this hobby, our memories are closely tied to the stores where we purchased our games, dice, and miniatures. In part, I think, that's because, in the past, RPGs, even at the height of their first faddishness, weren't available everywhere. Often, you had to travel to out of the way places to find what you were looking for. It was almost an adventure to get hold of this stuff, especially if, like me, you were young and your knowledge of the world beyond your immediate neighborhood was limited. Good times!

Secrets of sha-Arthan: Milesho

Milesho (Ashen Spirit)

A milesho by Zhu Bajie
The tombs of Inba Iro hold not bodies but cinerary urns filled with the ashes of the honored dead. Sometimes, whether through sorcery or an incursion of the False World, the twisted shade of one so entombed returns to sha-Arthan, seething with hatred for the living and a desire to spread chaos and destruction.

Called a milesho, this accursed spirit can form a "body" from its burnt remains. The process of doing so takes 1d4 rounds, during which time it cannot attack and can be harmed by normal weapons. A milesho can also disperse its body at will so as to attempt to enter and inhabit (see below) a living being. If it fails to do so, it is then vulnerable to normal weapon for a round, as it reforms from its ashes.

DR 20, LVL 10 (45hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d10) or touch (Vigor drain) or inhabit, AB +8, MV 90' (30'), SV F6 D7 M8 E9 S10 (10), ML 10, NA 1 (1), TT E, N, O

        • Undead: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading disciplines and spells.
          • Mundane weapon immunity: After forming its ashen body, only harmed by spells or magic weapons

          Weapon: Capable of wielding any weapon available with great power (dealing 1d10 damage, regardless of type). If treasure includes magic weapon, the milesho will make use of it.
            •  Vigor drain: Victim permanently loses 1 VIG per hit. If reduced to 0 VIG, the victim dies. Lost Vigor cannot be restored through the usual methods (advancement, training, etc.), but several mystery cults of the Eternal Gods (see Alignment) are reputed to have the means of doing so.

            Inhabit: A living being within range must make a mind save or become inhabited. Failure indicates the milesho gains control of the being's body (but not mind, including his spells or disciplines). The ashen spirit retains control until it relinquishes it, the inhabited being dies, or dispel is successfully used against it.

        Wednesday, August 30, 2023

        Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Immortals Rules

        In the early days of the OSR, a common topic of discussion was D&D's endgame. Both OD&D and AD&D assume that player characters, when they have achieved higher level, will settle down to rule baronies and become movers and shakers within the campaign world. There's little disputing this, since even a cursory reading of the rules reveals that this was clearly the intention of the game's creators. Unfortunately, neither game provided much in the way of explicit rules or even guidance on what this intended endgame would look like in practice, which no doubt contributed to its loss

        It wasn't until the release of Frank Mentzer's Companion Rules boxed set in 1984 that D&D players were a clearly stated version of D&D's intended endgame, however inadequate one might judge it (I personally liked it, but I recognize that not everyone feels the same). However, for reasons I've never understood, the Dungeons & Dragons game line, starting with the beloved revisions of Moldvay, Cook, and Marsh, was obsessed with the number 36 as the highest possible level attainable by a character. That's why Mentzer followed the Companion Rules with the utterly pointless Master Rules: to fill in the level progression gap between 25 (the top level of Companion) and 36, the inexplicably Highest-We-Mean-It-This-Time level for D&D.

        Given the vacuity of the Master Rules, one might be forgiven for thinking Mentzer had finished with his revision, having provided rules coverage all the way up to the lofty heights of Level 36. You'd be mistaken, of course, because Mentzer had one more trick up his sleeve and it was a doozy. 1986 saw the release of the fifth and final boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons, the Immortal Rules. As its title suggests, this set focused on characters who had achieved, in the words of its preface, that "most ambitious of goals – Immortality itself." Now that's an endgame.

        I should immediately note that becoming an Immortal is not the same thing as becoming a god – or at least not exactly. The Immortal Rules appeared during the "angry mothers from heck" era of TSR, when the company was doing everything it could to avoid giving offense to Middle America. That meant eliminating or scaling back anything that skirted too close to religion or religious belief. Hence, Immortals, though they "oversee and control all the known multiverse," are explicitly not its creators. More importantly, Immortals do not seek – or receive – the veneration or worship of mortals. Instead, they have their own goals, which largely consist of exploring and understanding the mysteries of the multiverse and its infinite planes beyond the Prime.

        The rules governing Immortals are clearly derivative of those in Dungeons & Dragons – there are, for example, still six ability scores, armor class, hit points, etc. – but most of them have been thoroughly re-imagined or re-contextualized – so much so that they're scarcely the same game anymore. Most importantly, a character accumulated experience points are converted into power points on a 10,000 to 1 basis and those power points are used by the player to purchase talents and abilities for his now-Immortal character. As an Immortal learns more about the multiverse, he acquires more power points, just as normal characters acquire XP. These new points can then be used to buy new abilities and to advance within the Immortal hierarchy. 

        What Mentzer has done here is effectively turn D&D into a more freeform point-buy system that is wholly unlike the class-based structure of "ordinary" Dungeons & Dragons. I remember, when I first read the rules, shortly after they were published, just how odd it all seemed to me. Now, to be fair, I had absolutely no idea what the Immortals Rules should look like. For that matter, I wasn't even sure that there was much point to rules for player character immortality. All I can say is what I expected and that was something similar to the D&D rules of levels 1–36, though at a greater scale.

        That's not say that what Mentzer does in the Immortal Rules isn't interesting, because I think it is. He clearly had a strong idea of what Immortals were within the cosmology he'd created for the game and, knowing that, the kinds of powers and abilities they should possess. Then, as now, the question is one of why? Did anyone really want these rules? Did anyone ever use them in play? I certainly never did. I read them a couple of times and then largely forgot about them – not because they were badly done but because they scratched an itch I'd never had. Re-reading them in preparation for this post, I can't help but think that the Immortals Rules existed only to fulfill some vague sense that D&D had to include rules for immortality eventually. 

        I suspect my own interest in the Immortal Rules might have increased considerably had Mentzer done a better job of fleshing out just what Immortals did. He talks a lot about exploration of the multiverse and of learning its secrets, but, aside from a few small details here and there, he doesn't provide any practical examples – in a way, recapitulating the problem of D&D's original endgame. It's a shame, because I think there might have been room for a wild and woolly multiversal game at the pinnacle of D&D's level progression. That's certainly in keeping with some of the stuff with which Gygax had long been toying, so it's not in any way alien to Dungeons & Dragons. 

        Mentzer's reach exceeded his grasp with the Immortal Rules, which is no crime – but it is a disappointment.