Monday, February 6, 2023

Hex Help

Much as I adore the incomparable map of the Flanaess from the World of Greyhawk – perhaps the best RPG map ever – over the last few years I've really come to appreciate the style of hex map that appeared during the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh era of Dungeons & Dragons. Though nowhere as artful in their presentation as Darlene's gorgeous work, the B/X hex maps do nevertheless have a beauty all their own, one born of clarity and utility. They are very easy to read and to use in play, especially if, like me, you are saddled with eyesight that's nowhere near as sharp as it once was. This fact alone counts for a great deal nowadays.

That's why I'd like to prevail upon the collective knowledge of my readers. Are there any programs out there that might enable an incompetent Luddite such as myself to make rough approximations of these maps? Once upon a time, there was a program called Hexographer that came close to doing so, but its current iteration looks much too complex for some of my limited skills to use effectively. Are there any alternatives readily available or must I buckle under and learn how to use this new version of Hexographer?

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: A Princess of Mars

Since the real world continues to be demanding of late – my apologies for the lighter than normal posting –  I've decided to present another entry in the Pulp Fantasy Gallery series. This week, I've opted to go back more than a century, to one of the foundational works of fantasy and science fiction (not to mention roleplaying games), Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of MarsLong-time readers may recall that I had previously included this book in an early installment of Pulp Fantasy Gallery. In that post, I only highlighted an image of perhaps the most famous – and, in my opinion, best – cover illustration, that by Frank E. Schoonover. 

I'm apparently not alone in my appreciation for this cover, because it was used again and again throughout the ensuing decades. Indeed, it seems to have been the only cover illustration for US editions of A Princess of Mars until the early 1960s, nearly a half-century after its initial appearance. The first new cover illustration of which I am aware is this one by Roy Carnon, from the 1961 Four Square Books paperback edition:
A couple of years later, in January 1963, Ballantine releases this version, with a cover by Bob Abbett. I find it especially interesting, because it looks as if it takes many of its cues from the original Schoonover cover, albeit with the color schemes of John Carter and Dejah Thoris reversed.
In 1968, there's an abridged version of A Princess of Mars from Dragon, a publisher who specialized in children's versions of "classic" stories. The cover artist would seem to be unknown.
Bruce Pennington provides the very striking cover for the 1969 New English Library edition, which is the first not to depict John Carter.
The 1970 Nelson Doubleday/Science Fiction Book Club edition is understandably famous for its use of Frank Frazetta's iconic cover, my second favorite after Schoonover's original.
When Ballantine issued a new edition in 1973, it featured this cover by Gino D'Achille:
Finally, in 1979, we get the Del Rey edition with Michael Whelan's cover. Because this is the first edition of the novel I ever owned, I retain a certain fondness for it. Apparently, publishers feel similarly, because, like the Schoonover cover before, it's been used again and again since its initial appearance, with editions as recent as just a few years ago still making use of it.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Labyrinth Repair Shop

Long ago – more than a decade now, if you can believe it – I wrote a Retrospective post in which I talked about the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game released by Mattel Electronics in 1980. Though I never owned the game myself, a close friend of mine did and I took advantage of this fact to play it as often as I could. Though I'm not certain that I could unambiguously call it a "good" game, I nevertheless retain a weird affection for it, as I do for many other examples of transitional technology from my long-ago youth.

Rob Conley alerted me to the existence of a blog post over at Old Vintage Computer Research, in which the author pulls out his copy of the game (which he barely played at the time he first received it), examines it in detail, and then sets about repairing it so that he can finally get around to playing it after all these years. It's a terrific post, filled with lots of information on the inner working of the game. I suspect it'll be of great interest to anyone who, like myself, has a fondness for the electronic "boardgames" of the late '70s and early '80s.

(As an aside, it's worth noting that this game, as well as the slightly later Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game, are D&D-branded rather than AD&D-branded, like the Intellivision game cartridges that appeared in 1982. I assume this is the result of various legal and financial wranglings at TSR vis à vis Dave Arneson, but have no proof of this one way or the other. Regardless, it's yet another fascinating wrinkle in the long history of attempts to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a mass market consumer brand.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Retrospective: GURPS

Though I've never been a devoted user of universal roleplaying game systems, I've long been intrigued by the idea of them. My first brush with the concept was probably Basic Role-Playing, which I encountered through the first edition of Call of Cthulhu in 1981. Chaosium used BRP (derived from RuneQuest) as the foundation on which it would build the rulesets of its other roleplaying games, like Stormbringer. Ringworld, and the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu. Hero Games did something similar with the rules of Champions.

For me, the appeal of a universal system lay in the promise of never again having learn new rules just because I wanted to play a new game (or setting). As both a referee and a player, I'm indifferent to rules, except to the extent that I forget them or confuse them with the rules of another game with which I'm also familiar. In general, once I find a ruleset that works well enough for my purposes, I stick with it. This probably explains why I've played so much D&D and Traveller over the years, despite the existence of purportedly "better" systems for fantasy and science fiction: I know these rulesets and they're more than adequate for my purposes.

In my youth, I knew plenty of people who had adapted the rules of Dungeons & Dragons to their favorite genres or settings. This was, I gather, a common practice in the days when there were only a handful of different game systems. Even at the time, this felt odd to me, despite my affection for D&D and my facility with its rules. Nevertheless, I understood the impulse. Why reinvent the wheel? Why did every RPG have to have its own unique – and frequently idiosyncratic – game system? Wouldn't things be easier if you and your fellow players had to learn just one ruleset rather than a new one every time you started a campaign?

So, when I first heard about Steve Jackson's "Great Unnnamed Roleplaying System," I was more than a little intrigued. Though I had never played Jackson's previous RPG, The Fantasy Trip, I knew it was well regarded and, from what I had gathered, the then-upcoming GURPS was designed as a successor to and an expansion of the core concepts behind The Fantasy Trip. Plus, I was a very big fan of Jackson's Ogre and Cars Wars, both of which my friends and I played regularly. By my lights, this pretty much guaranteed that GURPS – or whatever its "real" name would eventually be – would be a winner.

The first publication to carry the GURPS name, Man to Man, was released in the summer of 1985, along with a collection of scenarios entitled Orcslayer. Man to Man was a kind of preview of GURPS, presenting the game's combat system. I never saw a copy of it at the time – indeed I've still never seen one – so its release came and went without much notice from me. By the time the full GURPS Basic Set was published the following year, in 1986, I had largely forgotten about the whole thing, so it too escaped my attention. I'm not entirely sure why this was, though I suspect, given the timing of its release, that I was distracted by other matters. 

When I did finally see a copy of GURPS, it was already on its third edition. This would have been sometime in the late 1980s. The game was no longer sold as a boxed set with multiple booklets but as a single softcover volume. I ordered my copy through the mail, based on an advertisement I'd seen somewhere (Dragon? Challenge?), which reminded me that GURPS did indeed exist and that I'd once been quite interested in the project. I was very happy to receive it, along with a copy of the GURPS Space supplement, since I was then, as I am now, more or a sci-fi fan than a fantasy one.

I was very impressed with GURPS when I first read it. The rules were simple and easy to understand. The presentation was similarly straightforward – a no-nonsense layout with black and white art and informative little sidebars throughout. I loved how modular everything seemed, with skills, advantages, and disadvantages all capable of being added or swapped out, depending on the setting and genre of the campaign you were planning to run. Likewise, the supplementary material, like Space, provided lots of tailored options for the referee to consider. All in all, GURPS exceeded my expectations.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to play much GURPS in the months immediately after I first bought it. It wasn't until several years later, after I'd graduated from university and moved to my present home, that I rectified this. My local friends had played GURPS extensively, having effectively abandoned all other game systems in its favor for several years beforehand. They thus knew the system's ins and outs and were quite happy to share their thoughts on the matter. By and large, their experiences were positive, but they also recognized that, at least in its third edition – things may have changed in more recent editions – the rules creaked somewhat the farther one got from the power and technological level of medieval fantasy. In short, GURPS had something of a scaling problem, particularly as one moved toward science fiction.

This was disappointing to hear, but it didn't stop me from making use of GURPS several times over the years. Whatever its flaws might be, it was still a simple and convenient way to play campaigns that deviated from those presented in other commercially available RPGs. It was a terrific "toolkit game" and its supplements were often among the most inspiring and best researched I'd ever seen. I continued to support the game for years, despite playing it only sporadically. That's no knock against the game itself so much as an acknowledgment that, despite my appreciation for it and what it tries to do, GURPS never succeeded in joining my list of go-to RPGs. I definitely think there's a place for a game like GURPS, which is much more accessible and user friendly than, say, HERO. That said, I'm much less convinced these days that a one-size-fits-all universal system is even possible, let alone desirable and so GURPS remains on my shelf, unplayed.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Swords and Deviltry

On September 1, 2008fifteen years ago, if you can believe it – I inaugurated a new series for the blog that I called Pulp Fantasy Gallery. I intended the series to be a regular look at the evolution of not just fantasy art over the decades but of specific fantasy characters and settings over time. The series didn't last long, in large part because it very quickly evolved into the more literary-focused Pulp Fantasy Library series, which continues to this day (and is my second longest-running series, after Retrospective). 

On some level that's a shame, because I continue to think the evolution of fantasy art is a fascinating subject, especially for those of us who favor the esthetics of earlier times. Because of this – and because I've found myself unexpectedly busy over the last week and thus unable to devote myself properly to Pulp Fantasy Library – I've decided to pen a new entry in Pulp Fantasy Gallery today. Whether I'll continue to do so on a regular basis, I don't know. 

For now, let's take a look at five different cover illustrations created for the various English editions of Fritz Leiber's Swords and Deviltry. The first of these was published by Ace in May 1970 and featured artwork by Jeff Jones. Ace continued to use variations on this cover for more than fifteen years on its US editions of the book.
Not long thereafter, in December 1971, the New English Library released a UK edition of the book. The cover (by an unknown artist) bears a clear similarity to the Ace cover above.
A second UK edition appeared in December 1977 from George Prior Publishers, with artwork by Wayne Barlowe.
Just two years later, a third UK edition appeared from Mayflower, illustrated by Peter Elson.
Continuing a theme, we have a fourth UK edition, this time from Grafton in July 1986, with Geoff Taylor doing the cover.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Nothing New Under the Sun

This week's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library discussed Robert E. Howard's story of Kull, "The Cat and the Skull." To the extent that the story is known at all, it's because it features the first appearance of the undead sorcerer. The revelation of his involvement in the events of the tale is quite memorable.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

"Thulsa Doom!"

"Aye, I guessed as much!" exclaimed Ka-nu.

"Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!" the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly. "The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis! You have won this tilt but, beware, there shall be others."

Years ago, when I first read this story, I was convinced that it had to have been the origin of D&D's lich. While I knew the lich from the AD&D Monster Manual, with its unforgettable illustration by Dave Trampier, the lich was introduced into the game through Supplement I to OD&D, Greyhawk. There, liches are described as "skeletal monsters of magical original, each Lich being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and now alive only by means of great spells and will." The longer description in the Monster Manual adds that a lich possesses not just a skeletal form but "eyesockets mere black holes with glowing points of light." That sound a lot like REH's description of Thulsa Doom to me.

The early 1970s was a remarkable time for aficionados of Robert E. Howard's writing. Not only was Lancer releasing its paperback editions of Howard's sword-and-sorcery yarns, but Marvel Comics was producing comic adaptations of many of them as well. In addition to the much more well known and celebrated Conan the Barbarian (and, later, Savage Sword of Conan), Marvel adapted Howard's characters and stories in other

magazines, such as Monsters on the Prowl. Issue #16 of that magazine (April 1972) featured an original Kull story called "The Forbidden Swamp," in which Thulsa Doom is introduced to comics readers. As drawn by the brother and sister team of John and Marie Severin, Thulsa Doom shares a lot with D&D's lich, don't you think?

For years afterward, I held on to my theory that it was Thulsa Doom who had inspired Gary Gygax in his creation of the lich. Not only was there much similarity between their descriptions, but Thulsa Doom's earliest published appearance, whether in Lancer's King Kull anthology or Marvel's comics, occurred just before the publication of OD&D. There was thus a certain plausibility to the one having been inspired by the other.

As it turned out, my theory was wrong – or at least not the whole story. Many years later, in one of his many online question and answer threads, I recall that Gygax admitted he swiped the lich from "The Sword of the Sorcerer," a Kothar story by Gardner F. Fox. In that tale, Kothar encounters an undead sorcerer named Afgorkon, who is repeatedly referred to by the word "lich," something that cannot be said of Thulsa Doom so far as I can tell. That's not to say that Thulsa Doom might not have exercised some influence over the creation of D&D's lich, only that he wasn't, at least as far as Gygax claimed, the primary one. It's not as if the idea of a skeletal, undead sorcerer is a wholly unique idea anyway.

That's something I keep in mind whenever I look almost any element of Dungeons & Dragons. Very little of it is genuinely unique to the game. I'd wager that almost all of its monsters, spells, and magic items derive from a pre-existing story, comic, movie, or TV show. Indeed, it probably wouldn't take much work to demonstrate this, since Gygax and others were often quite open about the earlier creators and works that inspired them. I don't mean this to be a criticism – far from it! Rather, I bring this up simply as a reminder that what makes D&D special is not any of its individual elements, very few of which are original, but rather the strange alchemy of their admixture. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Retrospective: Blackmoor

Since last week's Retrospective was about Greyhawk, it seemed only right that this week's should be about Blackmoor. It's also appropriate because Supplement II to Original Dungeons & Dragons occupies a special place in the story of my explorations into the history of the hobby of roleplaying. When I was in high school, my father told me about a hobby shop near his workplace that was selling off all their "old D&D stuff" and he asked if were interested in any of it. I told him that, without a list of the titles they had on offer, there was no way I could answer. The next day, he went back to the store and brought me "samples" of what they had, among which was Blackmoor.

At the time, I think I'd seen the occasional references to Blackmoor, such as in the preface to the Monster Manual. And, of course, I was familiar with the land of Blackmoor as it was briefly described in the World of Greyhawk. However, that was close to the extent of my knowledge, this being several years before the publication of the DA-series of D&D modules that began with Adventures in Blackmoor. Consequently, I was very excited to read this weird, little, brown book and see what secrets it might reveal.

I can't say for certain that Blackmoor revealed any secrets to me at that time, but I did find it a very peculiar book nonetheless. Gary Gygax's effusive foreword included references to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, as well as how he "would rather play in his campaign than any other." This certainly whetted my appetite for information about the campaign itself. Indeed, I was hoping that this little book might shed light on the mysterious northern land mentioned in the World of Greyhawk folio.

Instead what I found was a collection of disconnected rules, many of which looked like early versions of material I'd later see in various AD&D books. There were write-ups for the monk and assassin character classes, sages, diseases, and aquatic monsters – all stuff I'd seen previously in slightly different forms. The only rules in Blackmoor I hadn't seen before were the "Hit Location During Melee" sections. Though they intrigued me, I also found these rules somewhat out of place in Dungeons & Dragons, which conceived of hit points in a fairly abstract manner. 

I was feeling a little confused and even let down by all of this. That's when I decided to look more closely at the sample adventure that took up almost twenty pages of Blackmoor. Entitled "The Temple of the Frog," it was quite different from any adventure I'd seen before. For one, its maps were clearly hand drawn, unlike the much more polished maps with which I was hitherto familiar from TSR's products. For another, its primary antagonist, the high priest of the Temple, Stephen the Rock, was described in great detail – including the fact that was "an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension!" This really grabbed my attention, especially after it became clearer that Stephen possessed high-tech weapons and armor of a science fictional sort.

By this point, I'd already read Gygax's own Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which also mixed the peanut butter of science fiction with the chocolate of fantasy, so the ideas presented in "The Temple of the Frog" weren't completely unfamiliar to me. At the same time, Arneson's adventure had a very distinct feel to it, one that differed considerably from Gygax's. The crashed alien spaceship in Barrier Peaks is basically a one-off dungeon, a weird locale separated from the wider world. The Temple of the Frog, though, is an active player in the world of Blackmoor; the Brothers of the Swamp are a rising power, whose ideology of batrachian supremacy over mankind might one day threaten the order of things. That their new high priest just so happens to be an alien possessed of advanced technology only makes the situation more potentially volatile.

When I first opened the pages of Blackmoor, I expected I'd probably find some new rules and ideas derived from Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Instead, what I got was a mishmash of ideas I'd mostly seen before and that, as I later learned, were largerly the work of other hands (Steve Marsh primarily). But then there was "The Temple of the Frog." Though it's almost completely lacking in larger details about the Blackmoor setting, its ideas and presentation took me by surprise. After reading the adventure, I wanted to know more about Arneson's odd setting and the way it might have mixed elements of science fiction and fantasy together.

That would have to wait a few more years, of course, but Blackmoor was the first step I took down that road. Prior to this, Dave Arneson himself was just a name I'd occasionally see in the credits of my D&D books and Blackmoor was just a mysterious land at the top of the World of Greyhawk map. Now, I knew a little better and for that reason I'll always be fond of OD&D's Supplement II.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cat and the Skull

Of all of Robert E. Howard's characters, I would argue that Kull is perhaps his most misunderstood – and not without reason. Though Howard wrote more than a dozen stories featuring the Atlantean king of Valusia, only three of them were published during his lifetime. Compared to, say, Conan or Solomon Kane, who appeared in many more stories, Kull seems almost like an afterthought, a character Howard discarded after the publication of "Kings of the Night" in November 1930. 

Conan, who first appeared twenty-five months after Kull's published swan song, plays a huge role in explaining why Kull is largely unknown today. Even among those aware of Kull, there's often a false sense that he's little more than a "rough draft" of the Cimmerian, an impression that isn't helped by the knowledge that Howard re-purposed a rejected Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!," for Conan's debut, "The Phoenix on the Sword." 

This is a great shame in my opinion. As characters, Kull and Conan have similarities, to be sure, but they also have differences. These differences are much more apparent when one reads the various unpublished Kull stories that Glenn Lord found in REH's famous storage trunk. Lord, a fan and fellow Texan, tracked down "the Trunk," as it is sometimes known, in 1965, finding that it contained about half of everything Howard had ever written, most of which had never been published in any form – including numerous Kull stories in various stages of completion.

Two years after the discovery of the Trunk, the anthology King Kull was released by Lancer, who'd already found great success with its line of Conan paperbacks. And just like those Conan paperbacks, this volume included posthumous "collaborations" between Robert E. Howard and editor Lin Carter. In this case, Carter finished three incomplete tales of Kull to varying degrees of success. Among the wholly Howardian stories presented for the first time in King Kull is one entitled "Delcardes' Cat" therein but whose proper title is "The Cat and the Skull."

The start of the tale is compelling.

King Kull went with Tu, chief councillor of the throne, to see the talking cat of Delcardes, for though a cat may look at a king, it is not given every king to look at a cat like Delcardes'. So Kull forgot the death-threat of Thulsa Doom the necromancer and went to Delcardes.

Thulsa Doom! Now, there's a name to seize the imagination. Though generations know him as the antagonist in John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, he is, in fact, the archnemesis of Kull and this story marks his first ever mention (and, as it later turns out, appearance) in fiction.

Kull is no fool and is thus skeptical of the existence of a talking cat. Tu is even more "wary and suspicious" in part because "years of counter-plot and intrigue had soured him." Indeed, he suspected that the supposed talking cat "was a snare and a fraud, a swindle and a delusion," not to mention "a direct insult to the gods, who ordained that only man should enjoy the power of speech." Does this sound at all like the opening of a Conan story? The yarn begins almost whimsically and I cannot deny that I was immediately seized with interest in seeing where Howard took things.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, is the companion – not pet! – of Delcardes, a Valusian noblewoman, who is herself described as "like a great beautiful feline," whose "lips were full and red and usually, as at present, curved in a faint enigmatical smile." She has come to the court of Kull to crave a boon from the king. The boon in question is marriage to Kulra Thoom of Zarfhaana, a match that would be forbidden, because "it is against the custom of Valusia that royal women should marry foreigners of lower rank." Delcardes knows this and argues that "the king can rule otherwise," much to the consternation of Tu, who reminds Kull that such a breach of tradition "is like to cause war and rebellion and discord for the next hundred years."

Kull will have none of this.

"Valka and Hotath! Am I an old woman or a priest to be bedevilled by such affairs? Settle it between yourselves and vex me no more with questions of mating! By Valka, in Atlantis men and women marry whom they please and none else."

Delcardes sees this as the perfect opportunity to remind Kull of the cat who accompanied her. The cat 

lolled on a silk cushion, on a couch of her own and surveyed the king with inscrutable eyes ... she had a slave who stood behind her, ready to do her bidding, a lanky man who kept the lower part of his face concealed with a thin veil which fell to his chest. 

The noblewoman explains that Saremes was "a cat of the Old Race who lived to be thousands of years old." She then asks him to ask the cat her age.

"How many years have you seen, Saremes?" asked Kull idly.

"Valusia was young when I was old," the cat answered in a clear though curiously timbered voice.

Kull started violently.

"Valka and Hotath!" he swore. "She talks!"

Delcardes laughed softly in pure enjoyment but the expression of the cat never altered.

"I talk, I think, I know, I am," she said. "I have been the ally of queens and the councillor of kings ages before even the white beaches of Atlantis knew your feet, Kull of Valusia. I saw the ancestors of the Valusians ride out of the fear east to trample down the Old Race and I was here when the Old Race came up out of the oceans many eons ago that the mind of man reels when seeking to measure them. Older am I than Thulsa Doom, whom few men have ever seen.

"I have seen empires rise and kingdoms fall and kings ride in on their steeds and out on their shields. Aye, I have been a goddess in my time and strange were the neophytes who bowed before me and terrible were the rites which were performed in my worship to pleasure me. For od eld beings exalted my kind; beings as strange as their deeds."

This is great stuff in my opinion. Apparently, Kull thought so too, because his interest is greatly piqued, so much so that he then asks the cat.

"Can you read the stars and foretell events?" Kull's barbarian mind leaped at once to material ideas.

"Aye; the books of the past and the future are open to me and I tell man what is good for him to know." 

It's at this point that Kull's skepticism of the existence of a talking cat – a skepticism that Tu still holds – gives way to hope, hope that Serames might possess knowledge that will enable him to make the right decisions as he ponders how to rule Valusia and meet the challenge of Thulsa Doom the necromancer. 

What follows is an odd pulp fantasy tale, one in which the barbarian king of a civilized land spends much time discussing fate, prophecy, and free will with a talking cat. I ask once again, does this sound like a Conan story? "The Cat and the Skill" is a fun story, one that nicely balances thoughtfulness with action, honesty with intrigue. That – and I hope no will be surprised to learn this – Serames is revealed to be a fraud, just as Tu warned, in no way takes away from my enjoyment of the story. What transpires before this revelation is thoroughly captivating and a much-needed reminder that Kull is no "rough draft" of anyone, but rather a uniquely engaging character in his own right.   

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Robert E. Howard, Escape Artist

REH (age 18) costumed as a pirate (August 1924)


I am the spur
That rides men's souls,
The glittering lure
That leads around the world.

–Robert E. Howard, Letter to Clyde Tevis Smith (1926)

Today marks the 117th anniversary of the birth of Robert Ervin Howard, creator of such icons of pulp fiction as Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, among many, many more. I don't think it's possible to overstate Howard's importance to the development of sword-and-sorcery literature. The character of Conan is, without a doubt, one of the most well-known fantasy characters of all time and the tales of his adventures established a template that has been widely imitated ever since his first appearance in 1932. These facts alone justify commemorating this day each year.

Of course, like many writers of the past, Howard has his fair share of contemporary detractors, those who criticize not just his writing but also his character. In general, I'm not much given to defending the personalities, choices, or opinions of men who died decades before I was born – not because I cannot recognize their very human flaws but because I know that I, too, might one day be judged by those with the luxury of hindsight. To believe that we, in this present age, have somehow transcended history and, unlike our forebears, hit upon all the Right Ideas that will henceforth be held by all who come after us is the height of hubris. Therefore, I try, not always with success, to limit my criticisms to the fruits of an individual's life.

A common criticism of Howard as man is that, for all the hotblooded machismo of his writings, he was himself a bookish weirdo who lived with his parents for the entirety of his thirty years of life. Howard never travelled outside the state of Texas [This is incorrect; see this comment – JM] nor was he a ladykiller, unlike the charismatic adventurers about whom he so often wrote. Instead, say these critics, REH played at being these things, as evidenced by the many photographs that depict the writer wielding a sword, wearing a sarape with a pistol at his hip, or sparring in boxing gloves. He was thus a fake and a fraud, a mama's boy given to bouts of performative masculinity of the sort who ought to be pitied rather than admired.

Like many criticisms, there are germs of truth in even these, but, also like many criticisms, they don't tell the whole story. Howard possessed many idiosyncrasies and his direct experience of the wider world was limited, in some ways more limited even than that of H.P. Lovecraft, which is indeed saying something. However, REH read widely and, through his many friends, both in Texas and across the United States, was able to imagine what it might have been like to sail the seas of Asia with Steve Costigan, to stand his ground against evil with Solomon Kane, and to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth with Conan. 

Reading – and, of course, writingenabled Robert E. Howard to escape from the circumstances of his birth, to escape life in a rough-and-tumble boomtown where someone with his interests and proclivities would always been viewed as an outsider. How many of us reading this have not done the same? One of the lasting joys of the best pulp stories is their ability to transport the reader to exotic locales where he can witness remarkable events and rub shoulders with even more remarkable people. Howard was one of the best tellers of pulp stories who ever lived, perhaps because, before those stories transported his readers, they transported him – away from the Great Depression, his small-minded neighbors, his mother's lingering illness, and the likelihood that he might never amount to anything.

That last fear proved utterly untrue. Though he died never knowing it, Robert E. Howard had a lasting impact on the world, one that can still be felt to this day, especially in this corner of it. Through his stories and the characters they introduced, he not only laid the foundations for an entirely new and popular genre of literature, but he also enabled other bookish weirdos to escape, if only for a little while, from their own circumstances. To me, that's well worth celebrating.

Friday, January 20, 2023

How Soon We Forget

TSR, Inc., as a publisher of books, games, and game related products, recognizes the social responsibilities that a company such as TSR must assume. TSR has developed this CODE OF ETHICS for use in maintaining good taste, while providing beneficial products within all of its publishing and licensing endeavors.

In developing each of its products, TSR strives to achieve peak entertainment value by providing consumers with a tool for developing social interaction skills and problem-solving capabilities by fostering group cooperation and the desire to learn. Every TSR product is designed to be enjoyed and is not intended to present a style of living for the players of TSR games.

To this end, the company has pledged itself to conscientiously adhere to the following principles:


Evil shall never be portrayed in an attractive light and shall be used only as a foe to illustrate a moral issue. All product shall focus on the struggle of good versus injustice and evil, casting the protagonist as an agent of right. Archetypes (heroes, villains, etc.) shall be used only to illustrate a moral issue. Satanic symbology, rituals, and phrases shall not appear in TSR products.


TSR products are intended to be fictional entertainment, and shall not present explicit details and methods of crime, weapon construction, drug use, magic, science, or technologies that could be reasonably duplicated and misused in real life situations. These categories are only to be described for story drama and effect/results in the game or story.


Agents of law enforcement (constables, policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions) should not be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. When such an agent is depicted as corrupt, the example must be expressed as an exception and the culprit should ultimately be brought to justice.


Crimes shall not be presented in such ways as to promote distrust of law enforcement agents/agencies or to inspire others with the desire to imitate criminals. Crime should be depicted as a sordid and unpleasant activity. Criminals should not be presented in glamorous circumstances. Player character thieves are constantly encouraged to act towards the common good.


Monsters in TSR's game systems can have good or evil goals. As foes of the protagonists, evil monsters should be able to be clearly defeated in some fashion. TSR recognizes the ability of an evil creature to change its ways and become beneficial, and does not exclude this possibility in the writing of this code.


Profanity, obscenity, smut, and vulgarity will not be used.


The use of drama or horror is acceptable in product development. However, the detailing of sordid vices or excessive gore shall be avoided. Horror, defined as the presence of uncertainty and fear in the tale, shall be permitted and should be implied, rather than graphically detailed.


All lurid scenes of excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, filth, sadism, or masochism, presented in text or graphically, are unacceptable. Scenes of unnecessary violence, extreme brutality, physical agony, and gore, including but not limited to extreme graphic or descriptive scenes presenting cannibalism, decapitation, evisceration, amputation, or other gory injuries, should be avoided.


Sexual themes of all types should be avoided. Rape and graphic lust should never be portrayed or discussed. Explicit sexual activity should not be portrayed. The concept of love or affection for another is not considered part of this definition.


Nudity is only acceptable, graphically, when done in a manner that complies with good taste and social standards. Degrading or salacious depiction is unacceptable. Graphic display of reproductive organs, or any facsimiles will not be permitted.


Disparaging graphic or textual references to physical afflictions, handicaps and deformities are unacceptable. Reference to actual afflictions or handicaps is acceptable only when portrayed or depicted in a manner that favorably educates the consumer on the affliction and in no way promotes disrespect.


Human and other non-monster character races and nationalities should not be depicted as inferior to other races. All races and nationalities shall be fairly portrayed.


Slavery is not to be depicted in a favorable light; it should only be represented as a cruel and inhuman institution to be abolished.


The use of religion in TSR products is to assist in clarifying the struggle between good and evil. Actual current religions are not to be depicted, ridiculed, or attacked in any way that promotes disrespect. Ancient or mythological religions, such as those prevalent in ancient Grecian, Roman and Norse societies, may be portrayed in their historic roles (in compliance with this Code of Ethics.) Any depiction of any fantasy religion is not intended as a presentation of an alternative form of worship.


Fantasy literature is distinguished by the presence of magic, super-science or artificial technology that exceeds natural law. The devices are to be portrayed as fictional and used for dramatic effect. They should not appear to be drawn from reality. Actual rituals (spells, incantations, sacrifices, etc.), weapon designs, illegal devices, and other activities of criminal or distasteful nature shall not be presented or provided as reference.


Narcotic and alcohol abuse shall not be presented, except as dangerous habits. Such abuse should be dealt with by focusing on the harmful aspects.


The distinction between players and player characters shall be strictly observed.

It is standard TSR policy to not use 'you' in its advertising or role playing games to suggest that the users of the game systems are actually taking part in the adventure. It should always be clear that the player's imaginary character is taking part in whatever imaginary action happens during game play. For example, 'you' don't attack the orcs--'your character' Hrothgar attacks the orcs.


It is TSR policy to not support any live action role-playing game system, no matter how nonviolent the style of gaming is said to be. TSR recognizes the physical dangers of live action role-playing that promotes its participants to do more than simply imagine in their minds what their characters are doing, and does not wish any game to be harmful.


While TSR may depict certain historical situations, institutions, or attitudes in a game product, it should not be construed that TSR condones these practices.

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