Friday, April 9, 2021

Starfaring in Moves Magazine

In a comment to a previous post, James Mishler asked me to post the review of Ken St. Andre's science fiction RPG, Starfaring, that appeared in issue #35 of SPI's Moves. Here it is in its entirety:

"That Bastion of Socialist Game Design"

SPI is well known for its publication of the famed wargames magazine Strategy & Tactics, but the company also published a second periodical, Moves, which first appeared in 1972. Whereas S&T was a more general wargames magazine, Moves focused on the play and design of specific games, providing play reports, variants, new scenarios, and reviews. 

Recently, I was reading issue #35 of Moves (October/November 1977) and came across an article entitled "Captain Video Returns." The article is a collection of brief reviews of science fiction games, both wargames and RPGs, the author, Phil Kosnett, came across at Origins 1977, held that year in New York. Among the reviews is a glowing one of GDW's Traveller. I reproduce the entirety of the review below for the benefit of readers. Take note of its first sentence.

I assume – without proof, mind you – that calling GDW "that bastion of socialist game design" is a joke, a bit of gentle ribbing at GDW's expense, but perhaps there's more to the comment than I know. If anyone can shed some light on this matter, I'd be appreciative.

Alternate Universe

In Tékumel, reality is likened to a great tree extending from roots at the beginning of time to the highest branches at its end. This Tree of Reality, as it's often called, encompasses all of reality. There are no other trees and everything that has happened, happens, will happen, or even could happen is found somewhere among its leaves and branches. 

The trunk of the Tree of Reality contains those worlds and planes that are most probable. The larger branches are bundles of worlds and planes that have split off slightly from the trunk at various decision points that differ slightly from one another. The smaller branches are similar but they tend to differ more greatly, making them less probable and thus farther removed from the trunk of the tree. 

According to the traditional interpretation of this metaphor, the branches of the Tree of Reality tend to turn and grow back into the trunk. In this way, even fairly aberrant branches will, somewhere down the timeline, converge into the main one. Those that do not become "shadow worlds" that eventually dissipate into nothingness.

While this might seem like a bunch of needless theorizing, the Tree of Reality metaphor serves two truly important purposes for those refereeing campaigns set on Tékumel. First, it frees each referee from worrying each and every detail of Tékumel and whether departing from any of those details in any way invalidates one's campaign. One might reasonably think this is a foolish concern and I agree. However, Tékumel, with its vast store of setting information, is a setting that intimidates many people, including its biggest fans. They fret about its minutiae and angst about "getting it right." While it's genuinely laudable to want to present Tékumel – or any detailed setting – as well as one can, there eventually comes a point where one must stop worrying and, to borrow a phrase, just do it. I know Tékumel pretty well and I nevertheless regularly do things at variance with what you might find in the Tékumel Source Book – and that's OK.

The second purpose is that it opens up the possibility of visiting these alternate Tékumels in the course of a campaign. In my own campaign, the characters are currently visiting one such place, a world that diverged from their Tékumel millennia in the past. An ancient empire that fell in their world never did in this alternate world, resulting in not only a different history but also a different religion, as some gods never rose to prominence and others took on even greater importance. The fun of the campaign right now is in watching the players, through their characters, learn about the ways that this alternate world differs from their own and navigating those differences in ways that advance their own goals. It's been a joy so far to watch and I'm curious to see how things will unfold in the weeks to come.

Identify

Eye Illustration by Luigi Castellani

Original Dungeons & Dragons famously provides no means of identifying magic items beyond trial and error. Consequently, the same is true Empire of the Petal Throne, the earliest RPG set on M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel and whose rules are largely derived from OD&D. 

One of the signature "magical" devices of Tékumel is the "eye," ancient technological tools shaped like small, dull gems with an eye-like aperture on one side and a protruding stud on the other. Eyes come in a variety of types, each of which produces a different effect. Over the millennia, certain eyes have acquired traditional names, like the eye of raging power, which projects a powerful beam of energy at its target, or the eye of rising above all, which enables its user to levitate.

All eyes generally look the same, making it difficult to distinguish between them simply by sight. Rarely, one might find an eye whose previous owner has scratched its name onto its exterior and, provided one can read the language in which it's written, that's a great boon. More commonly, though, one must simply test out the eye and hope that its effects are obvious. (High-ranking priests of the Temple of Ksárul possess a spell, called comprehension of devices, that enables them to learn an ancient item's function, but they do not share such knowledge with outsiders)

In my House of Worms EPT campaign, the player characters have acquired many eyes over the years. With the exception of a handful of them, their actual functions remain mysteries, until employed in moments of desperation. Within the first year of the campaign, for example, an identified eye was employed against enemies in the hope it would deal damage or otherwise harm said enemies. Unfortunately – for the players, not for me, since I loved the result – the eye was an eye of departing in safety, which teleports the user and those closest to him to another location designated by the previous user of the eye. This was one of early campaigns great moments, since it led to the characters' finding themselves far from home and having to trek back, overland, to their home city.

The finding of a new eye in the campaign is thus occasionally one of some apprehension and amusement. In our most recent session, several unidentified eyes were discovered among the possessions of slain Ssú sorcerers, their purpose unknown. The player of Grujúng joked among the types of eyes they might have discovered, offering up the following names:

  • The Eye of Inscrutable Utility
  • The Eye of Unrevealed Operation
  • The Eye of Untold Application
  • The Eye of Obscure Effect
  • The Eye of Mysterious Outcomes
  • The Eye of Cryptic Function
Needless to say, we have a lot of fun in our campaign. I'm very much looking forward to our next session, as the characters learn more about the alternate version of Tékumel on which they've found themselves.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 118

There's a short but interesting section of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide entitled "Non-Standard Magic Items," which begins by noting that the "inclusion of them in your campaign is expected and encouraged." Further, Gygax suggests that even "standard items can be varied so as to make it more interesting when your players are familiar with the usual forms." This, along with the creation of wholly new magic items, is vital to maintaining "freshness," a word Gygax uses often in discussing the maintenance of a long-term campaign. 

After that preamble, the section cautions:

All such creations, however, must be made with care. The items must be such as to not unbalance the game. They must not make one player character too strong, either with respect to opponents or his or her fellows or to the campaign or to the game system as a whole. Items which are expended after a single use, those with limited usages, and those with variable effects are the most desirable.

This is another topic to which Gygax returns again and again. He was very concerned with "balance" in play, but not balance as it is often understood today, based largely on game mechanics. Rather, he seems to have seen a need for balance between risk and reward, failure and success, boredom and engagement, lessons he no doubt learned as a result of refereeing the Greyhawk campaign over the course of many years. I think any referee who's had the privilege of playing with the same group of players in the same campaign over an extended period of time will understand his perspective and likely share it. In any case, there's much sense in these few sentences; they're good reminders that, even in the open-ended, anything goes world of old school gaming, balance, properly understood, is not necessarily a dirty word.

The section's second paragraph touches on a topic that might appear odd nowadays, namely the effects of new magic items on other campaigns. This concern is a consequence of the once common practice of taking one's character and "visiting" other campaigns. This was still a regular thing during my youth, so I understand Gygax's addressing it here. He explains that, because "other referees will not generally know what special powers or restrictions such items have … they will not be usable in campaigns other than that from which they came in most cases." He elaborates on this point:

You, as a referee, should simply cause any such items brought into your campaign to disappear. Never take a player's word for any item. Do not allow its use in your campaign unless you know his or her DM and get a full explanation in writing from that person which details the properties of the item. Do not allow a player to bulldoze you in any matter regarding this. Simply inform the person that he or she must have left the item in his or her former area, as it is not around in yours! This solves the problem of having a possible imbalance brought into your carefully designed campaign.

To some readers, Gygax might sound oddly strident, even paranoid in his concerns and I can appreciate why one might think that. It's vital to remember, though, that those concerns are valid make a great more sense in the environment of early gaming, which was a period of wild, chaotic invention and sharing of ideas but without a widely agreed upon understanding of balance, as Gygax uses it above. Each campaign was effectively a law unto itself, governed by each referee's own sense of what worked and what didn't. Consequently, it makes perfect sense that Gygax should be concerned about the potential ripple effects of importing a magic item from another campaign into his own.

At the same time, we should remember that Gygax is very supportive of each campaign's being unique and reflective of the tastes, preferences, and considered judgments of its referee, which are sovereign within that realm. He has no interest in dictating what goes on in anyone's campaign, even if he might disagree with or even dislike it. This section of the DMG is in fact a bulwark against attempts to undermine referee sovereignty in these matters. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

House of Worms, Session 220

The battle against the Ssú did start well. Under the effects of Znayáshu's haste spell, Grujúng rushed into melee against a group of eight of them approaching the characters from the west. His initial attacks slew only one of the Ssú, far fewer than had been expected, given both his martial prowess and the spell placed upon him. Nebússa did no better. As the Ssú warriors pressed forward, a sorcerer in their third rank succeeded in casting a spell on the two Tsolyáni, which filled them with supernatural fear of their situation. Grujúng and Nebússa both turned on their heels and fled back to the central shaft down which they had come and began to climb frantically up the ropes still hanging from the second level of the ruin.

Meanwhile, Znayáshu made use of his eye of raging power against the larger group of Ssú coming the south. The eye was decently effective, dispatching a few of the Enemies of Man. Seeing that more were still approaching, Aíthfo called on the three soldiers in their employ to accompany him down the corridor to face the Ssú head-on. Still protected by the effects of the shield of defense spell, the attacks of the soldiers proved ineffective. Undeterred, Aíthfo pressed on, hacking his way through the Ssú warriors toward the back ranks of the group. There, one of the Ssú, seemingly a sorcerer based on his attire – a leather harness to which many pouches had been attached – was preparing to make use of his own magical device, another eye. Aíthfo struck him, knocking it from his hands and the Ssú whirled around to attempt to retrieve it from the ground.

Seeing the group from the west moving more quickly toward them, Znayáshu unleashed another blast from his eye, which took down a few more of the Ssú. From the safety of the shaft, Kirktá observed that the soldiers fighting alongside Aíthfo were falling, one by one, before the jagged swords of their opponents. He then rushed off to join Aíthfo, his sturdy staff in hand. When he reached the melee, he fought his way forward, picking up the dropped eye off the ground and making use of it against one the nearby Ssú. To his pleasure, a red beam emerged from it, freezing the Ssú in place – an excellent ruby eye! This would come in handy. However, as he and Aíthfo then dealt with the remaining enemies, the saw, in the distance, more dim blue lights heading in their direction. Clearly, this level of the ruin was crawling with the Enemies of Man. 

Aíthfo ordered a withdrawal and the two of them pulled back to join Znayáshu just as the western group of Ssú set upon him. A series of lucky exchanges resulted in the Ssú's numbers dwindling, though not enough to secure the area. With more Ssú appearing in the south and the sound of loud chiming noises – Ssú vocalizations – it seemed likely that the area would soon be overrun. Though he hated to do it, Aíthfo recognized that discretion was the better part of valor in this case. After a few moments of gathering the dropped items and weapons of the Ssú, Aíthfo, Kirktá, and Znayáshu climbed the ropes and made their way to the second level, with the Ssú hot on their heels. To their surprise, the Enemies of Man did not pursue, but instead filled the shaft and stared menacingly at them with their huge saucer-shaped eyes. Everyone concluded that they were fortunate to have escaped with no serious casualties, except perhaps the pride of Grujúng and Nebússa, who had fled to the uppermost level of the ruin before the effects of the fear spell wore off.

The characters then assessed their situation. They could either lick their wounds and descend again down the shaft to fight their way past the Ssú, in the hopes of finding a tubeway car station somewhere below, or they could return to Bakatlán to rest before heading to the provincial capital of Mihimór. Kirktá and Keléno were very much in favor of the latter option, while Aíthfo did not wish to show his back to the Ssú. For his part, Grujúng continued to wonder why the party simply did not return to the nexus point that led to the Citadel of Sighs so that they might choose another alternate Tékumel to visit in their effort to return to their home. After some debate, the decision was made to head to Bakatlán and then to Mihimór.

The return to the fishing village was uneventful. There, Vrummíshsha expressed pleasure at seeing the characters alive and reiterated his earlier disbelief at their seeking out the Ssú. He told them that they were better off to have left the ruins and that they would have better luck in the provincial capital. He then lent them a pair of boats to travel along the coast to reach Mihimór. He suggested, once there, that they seek out the Temple of Lord Jráka, the mightiest of the gods. His priests could surely aid them in their endeavors, whatever they might be. No one took much relish in this notion, as Jráka was an ancient and particularly bloodthirsty version of Ksárul, the machinations of whose priests on their Tékumel had led them to their present predicament. 

Nevertheless, they proceeded. After a little less than a day's travel by water, they approached Mihimór. The city reminded them somewhat of Linyaró, a small, walled settlement on the coast. It was slightly bigger – perhaps 10,000 people dwelled within – and its architecture was different, but it had the same languid, slightly bedraggled quality to it. Mihimór was obviously a place of little importance, far removed from the great events of the empire of which it was a part. Yet, it also might hold the aid they needed to continue on their quest, so they had no choice but to enter and see what surprises might await them inside.

Pericles

One of the few unambiguous of the pandemic has been my ability to play board wargames more regularly with my friends via VASSAL. Recently, we started playing Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars 460–400 BC from GMT Games. Since I was a child, I've loved ancient history, particularly Greek and Roman history. When I was in college, I had to read the History of the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides. Doing so ushered in a brief, intense period in my life when I devoured everything I could about the period. Consequently, when the opportunity arose to play a wargame set in the fifth century BC, I jumped at the chance.

The structure of the game is quite unusual. There are two sides, represented by Athens and Sparta, as you might expect. However, each side has two players, each one representing a faction within the side. In the case of Athens, it's the demagogues and the aristocrats, while in Sparta, it's the dynasties of the two kings, the Eurypontids and the Agids. The fundamental tension in the game is that each player is trying to achieve the most honor overall and thereby win the game while still cooperating with the other faction on his side. There's an intriguing "tug of war" on each side, as the factions compete to set the agenda in their respective assemblies (the boule for Athens and the gerousia for Sparta) in order to gain the upper hand in the conduct of the war against the other side. 

Pericles is thus divided into two phases, the first dealing with debate in the assembly, the second dealing with the war between Athens and Sparta itself. Though we're not very far into the game, I've very much enjoyed it so far. There's a bit of a learning curve here, as there almost always seems to be when picking up a new wargame. I find that, as I've gotten older, it's often harder for me to pick up new rules and that was certainly true here. Fortunately, the friend who owns the game is very patient and did a good job of initiating the rest of us into its intricacies. The result was a pretty satisfying start of the game and I expect that future sessions will go much more smoothly.

I continue to learn a great deal from my recent forays into board wargaming, not just about modern designs, some of which are very different from the older Avalon Hill or SPI-style wargames with which I was familiar from my youth, but also about different ways of modeling conflicts and large "world events." This is an enduring interest of mine, one that I keep hoping will yield some fruit with regard to my roleplaying game campaigns. I don't know if Pericles will provide me with the flash insight needed anymore than did Here I Stand, Liberty or Death, or Falling Sky, but I am having fun with my friends regardless, which is the important thing. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Retrospective: The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society

My love for GDW's roleplaying game of science fiction adventure in the far future, Traveller, is well known. Traveller stands proudly alongside Dungeons & Dragons as the RPG I've played the most over the years and indeed whose very approach to its subject matter has thoroughly shaped my own. My very first forays into professional writing were for Traveller – technically, its 1987 successor, the infelicitously named MegaTraveller – and the my sole stab at an original game is itself a love letter to Marc Miller's magnum opus. 

I could (and have) written at length about the glories of Traveller and the company that birthed it. Among those glories is its official periodical, The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, whose first issue appeared in 1979. Over the course of six years and twenty-five issues, JTAS provided fans of Traveller with a steady stream of new content for their adventures and campaigns, as well as fleshing out GDW's Third Imperium setting. Though the exact content of each issue varied, there were many recurring features, such as:

  • Amber Zone: Taking its name from the travel classification indicating a world where travel is cautioned, this feature presented short adventure situations or scenarios.
  • Contact! One of my favorites, this feature offered up new sophont races, both human and non-human.
  • Bestiary: Closely related was this feature, which provided alien animals to the referee.
  • Ship's Locker: Sci-fi gamers are notorious for their love of new equipment and that's what Ship's Locker served up.
In addition, many issues included answers to common rules questions, articles for the referee to aid his running of the game, and longer articles fleshing out a locale or starship, usually with maps. JTAS also occasionally provided "modules," which were pull-out sections that detailed rules expansions, such as merchants and trading or exotic atmospheres. There was such a wide variety of content, almost all of it focused on things useful in play, that nearly every issue is terrific.

Looking back on it from the vantage of the present, another thing that stands out about JTAS is the quality of its articles and the names of its contributors. In addition to GDW stalwarts like editor-in-chief Loren Wiseman, creator Marc Miller, and Frank Chadwick, contributors included future Dragon magazine editor Roger E. Moore, William H. and J. Andrew Keith, John M. Ford, Marc L. Rowland, and Phil Masters – and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Like Traveller itself, JTAS offered a sober, serious, and thoughtful approach to science fiction roleplaying that never lost sight of the need for both wonder and fun. 

If I had any serious complaint about JTAS, it's that, as time went on, the magazine was more focused on developing GDW's Third Imperium setting than in providing new material and options for use by players and referees of homebrew settings. This started to become especially noticeable around issue #9, which kicked off the Fifth Frontier War. Fortunately, editor Loren Wiseman ensured that these setting-specific articles didn't dominate the content, which kept JTAS relevant even to those who were using the Third Imperium. Mind you, at the time, I was a huge fan of the Third Imperium and ate up every scrap of information JTAS doled out about it. In fact, it was my interest in developing the setting that eventually led me to submit my own articles, the first of which appeared in the successor to JTAS, Challenge.

At any rate, The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society remains for me a good example of a narrowly-focused gaming periodical that transcended its house organ status. It did more than encourage readers to buy the latest releases from its publisher; it actively encouraged having fun playing Traveller by showing the game's many possibilities. Whether it was trading, exploration, military action, intrigue, or scientific investigation, JTAS provided it on a roughly quarterly basis for the better part of six years. That's no small accomplishment. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Different Worlds: Issue #9

Issue #9 (August/September 1980) of Different Worlds features a quite striking cover by Luise Perrine that seems to tie into an article appearing later in the issue. If so, that's the first example of this I've seen in Different Worlds. Typically, the covers of gaming magazines seem to bear little connection to the issue's contents, no doubt due to the circumstances under which they're commissioned. Still, I've admired Perrine's artwork ever since I first laid eyes on her illustrations for RuneQuest, so it's a treat to see her given the cover here.

The issue begins with "Flippancy in FRP" by my old nemesis, Greg Costikyan. The article advocates, in a tongue in cheek way, for more "silliness" or "flippancy" in roleplaying game sessions and campaigns. Costikyan covers multiple areas where he thinks a bit more "chaos" would help a game, such as handling alignment, religion, money, and character names. While his overall point is fair enough – we could all do with a little less lightheartedness from time to time – the article is, in my view, delivered with the obnoxiousness typical of a young man who thinks he knows it all (Costikyan would have been 21 years-old at the time of this article). 

"Boardgames to RPGs" by Glenn L. Williams is much more interesting (and certainly less annoying). Williams examines the expectations RPGs and boardgames create in their players and the techniques employed in their design to fulfill those expectations. With that in mind, he suggests that it would be possible to use boardgames as the basis for roleplaying games. To prove his point, he takes Steve Jackson's Ogre and develops from it the outline of a RPG. What's interesting – but also slightly baffling – is that Williams makes the Ogres themselves the focus of he RPG, with the player taking on role of the artificially intelligent war machine rather than, say, a human soldier in the world the Ogres inhabit. 

John T. Sapienza presents an extensive review of the Zargonian Figures produced Bearhug Enterprises. These figures are cardboard stand-ups to be used in place of miniature figures. I'd never heard of these specific figures but I am very familiar with the concept. Sapienza thinks very highly of the figures, both for their quality and their price, which he thinks will make them popular with gamers, Later, he reviews actual metal figurines by McEwan and Citadel. I find it fascinating how lengthy these reviews are. I've said before that I never used miniatures much back in the day (or now), so it's good to be reminded how important they were in many quarters of the hobby.

 "The Imperium – A Traveller Campaign" by Marc Miller and Frank Chadwick is a five-page article, describing what would become the official GDW Traveller setting. Though I am deeply familiar with the Third Imperium as a setting, it was nevertheless a joy to read these. It reminded me of how much fun I had with Traveller and my own early days as a writer, creating adventures and setting material in the pages of Challenge. Anders Swenson reviews Judges Guild's Verbosh, which he considers a good investment for the money. Swenson also positively reviews Chaosium's Gateway Bestiary.

David F. Nalle's "Variable Alignment System" is yet another take on this venerable topic, this time presenting two point scales (Karma and Loyalty) to track a character's progress along the Good/Evil and Law/Chaos axes. It's fine, I suppose, but seems unnecessary for most people. Steve Perrin's "Cult of the Tiger" is another Gloranthan cult for RuneQuest (and the source of the issue's cover, I believe). Lewis Pulsipher's "Place for Adventure" is a short article, outlining nine unusual locations that might serve as adventure locales, such as animal burrows or giant bee hives. 

This month's Gigi D'Arn column includes some intriguing tidbits. There's a lot of talk about movies, such as the shelving of plans for a D&D movie, along with rumors about Dragon Slayer, The Last Unicorn, and Conan the Barbarian. The comments from the latter are somewhat dismissive, though it's fascinating, from a historical perspective, to learn that filming on Conan was delayed due to the death of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, where the movie was to be shot. There's also talk of a supposed "D&D/AD&D Companion" that will include lots of historical information on weapons and armor. I have no idea what Gigi is referring to here and it makes me wonder if there was ever any basis for the rumor in the first place.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Strike a Pose

Marc Miller (Origins 1980),
from Different Worlds #9