Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Retrospective: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

I was a TSR fanboy, but I was also something of a snob when it came to products released under the banner of plain old Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say, D&D minus the adjective "advanced." To me, that was "kiddie D&D" and unworthy of my attention. At the same time, I had my weaknesses and one of them was new campaign settings. So, when TSR released the first module in its line of D&D Gazetteers in 1987, I was more than a little intrigued, despite its connection to non-advanced D&D.

My contradictory interest in The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was rooted in the fact that it was part of the "Known World" (later Mystara) sketched out in The Isle of Dread, a module I'd used to good effect when it was first released (again, despite my elitist suspicion of D&D – my standards were frustratingly inconsistent in my youth). I was also curious to see what Aaron Allston might do with the region first mentioned in the D&D Expert Rules, since the module boasted of providing "a complete historical, economical [sic], geographical, and sociological overview" of the Grand Duchy and its inhabitants. It was a tall order, to be sure, but the thickness of the supplement – 64 pages – and its inclusion of a "full-size, four-color map" of Karameikos and two of its major settlements gave me hope that it would be worth the purchase.

The module is divided into two sections. The first part is the gazetteer proper, covering the history, politics, and society of the Grand Duchy, including descriptions of its most important locales and NPCs. The second part, which is very short, provides ideas for adventures set in and around Karameikos for a variety of levels of play, from 1st level all the way to 36th. Together, the two sections provide a lot of information for the referee to digest, but they also include lots of inspiration too. Scattered throughout the module are numerous maps for use in play, like typical taverns and manor houses. This is in addition to the large, poster-sized map of the Grand Duchy, its capital city of Specularum, and the frontier town of Threshold. 

Riffing off the details first put forward in the excellent adventure, Night's Dark Terror, which is set in Karameikos, Allston paints a portrait of the Grand Duchy as an analog to one of the eastern European satellites of the medieval Byzantine Empire (here represented by the Empire of Thyatis). Karameikos is rough and tumble sort of place that is slowly in the process of becoming more settled and orderly, but with enough enemies, both internal and external, to keep it interesting for D&D adventurers. In many ways, Karameikos is a nearly perfect setting for the game, since it's just settled enough to provide bases from which characters can operate and just wild enough that there's plenty of scope for exploration (and looting). The place has a frontier feel to it that makes it very easy for the PCs to carve out domains of their own under the suzerainty of the Grand Duke.

Of course, that also means that Karameikos is a bit on the vanilla side. Beneath the Slavic veneer of the place, it's your typical fantastic medieval realm with the full panoply of D&D flourishes: knights, monsters, allied demihumans, thieves, etc. There's likewise a faux Christian Church to which clerics can belong, in addition to dark, secretive cults up to no good. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. As I mentioned above, it's a very solid set-up for a standard model of a D&D campaign and there's enough information here to save the referee a lot of trouble when it comes to framing his adventures. However, if you're hoping for something different, or even just off the beaten path, you'll likely be disappointed.

And I was. I didn't hate The Grand Duchy of Karameikos; that's too strong an emotion for a product like this. Instead, I was simply unimpressed and, as a result, avoided the other Gazetteer volumes that followed in its wake (with the exception of The Northern Reaches, released in 1988). I simply assumed that all the subsequent volumes would be similarly paint-by-numbers in their content – an assessment I would later learn was gravely mistaken and that would lead to my not reading the other volumes in the series until many years after the fact. Live and learn, as they say!

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

My Top 10 Favorite Imaginary Settings (Part II)

As I prepared the second part of this list, what struck me is that three of the top five entries are roleplaying game settings. Thinking on it, I suppose that only makes sense. I spend a lot more time exploring imaginative settings through roleplaying than I do through simply reading stories set in them. In any case, this was a useful exercise for me, since it helped me to understand better the things I find most attractive in imaginary settings. Readers will notice certain commonalities between my favorites, though I think there's also a fair degree of diversity too.

Part I can be found here.

5. Zothique

Of all the settings created by Clark Ashton Smith, Zothique is by far my favorite. I was first introduced to Zothique through his short story, "The Empire of the Necromancers" and it very rapidly became one of my favorite imaginary settings. Evoking melancholy and ennui, as well as making ample use of mordant humor, one might call it the Clark Ashton Smith-iest of all his imaginary settings. I've derived a great deal of pleasure from reading stories that take place on the Last Continent; several of them are regular reads that I return to year after year.

In some respects, Zothique is quite similar to Vance's Dying Earth, in that it's really our Earth in the impossibly far future, when sorcery and congress with extra-terrene entities are now facets of everyday existence. However, it lacks the technology-as-magic (or is that magic-as-technology?) conceit of the Dying Earth, focusing instead on the return of black magic and alien gods as a consequence of mankind's enervating boredom as it awaits the end of all things. Zothique drips with a decadence that is equal parts repulsive and enchanting – heady stuff, especially for someone whose life is as staid as mine.

4. Lankhmar
You can be forgiven for thinking I meant Nehwon, but I can assure you that I mean Lankhmar, the City of the Black Toga and home base of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The truth is that, for the most part, I don't find the world of Nehwon all that interesting. Indeed, I'm not even certain that Leiber found it all that interesting himself. Lankhmar, on the other hand, is endlessly fascinating and is practically a world in itself, with its dark, winding streets, remarkable locales, and even more remarkable inhabitants. It's not for nothing that Leiber's best stories all take place within the city's walls.

Lankhmar is the setting that first taught me the potential a single well-described place could hold. Leiber ably demonstrated that there's absolutely no need to create an exhaustive fantasy world to tell amazing stories. Bring a single city to life and you have everything you need to present many tales of adventure. Lankhmar is also probably why I've long had a fascination with cities and city-states in fantasy, as well as why I hope one day to referee a campaign set entirely within a city. I haven't done it yet, but, if I do, you can be sure there will be more than a little Lankhmar in the proceedings.

3. Glorantha

Even a few years ago, I doubt Greg Stafford's Glorantha would have made it onto my top 10 favorite imaginary settings, never mind my top 5. For a long time, my early experiences with the setting made it difficult for me to recognize its brilliance. Recently, though, Glorantha has risen considerably in my estimation, thanks in no small part to my having had the chance to play in a couple of RuneQuest campaigns that allowed me to experience the setting on its own terms. The result was a re-evaluation of both the setting itself and what Stafford was attempting to do with it.

If D&D's default idiom is pulp fantasy, then RuneQuest's is mythology. Glorantha has a mythic feel, like the world of Greco-Roman myth but with numerous unique and, dare I say, modern twists on them that make it feel genuinely unique. Stafford was a keen student of myth, religion, and spirituality of all kinds and that shows in the cultures, societies, and beliefs of Glorantha. It's a thoroughly engaging place, all the more so, I think, because that seems to have been the intention. Through their characters, players are supposed to grapple with the meaning of myth and legend, even to the point of potentially rewriting them through their characters' actions. And to think I once dismissed it as too "Californian."

2. Tékumel

Some of you will no doubt have expected that Tékumel would take the top spot on this list and I can't blame you for thinking so (though those who know me well will not be surprised by my actual top choice). I was a relative latecomer to Tékumel, only really discovering it in the early '90s, through a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to the setting of Empire of the Petal Throne. Once I discovered, I was hooked and became a lifelong devotee. Recent revelations have not dimmed my love for the setting nor weakened the enthusiasm of myself or the players of my ongoing House of Worms campaign, which barrels on toward its eighth year of continuous play.

My fondness for Tékumel is based on several factors, the chief being that it's not a vanilla setting. Instead, it's a complex, detailed world whose main inspirations are a variety of non-European historical cultures. Despite this, it's not nearly as difficult to understand as some have claimed and can, in fact, be enjoyed by roleplayers of all stripes. I also love Tékumel for its blending of science fiction and fantasy, something that you'll see in many of the settings on this list. And despite the claim that the setting is so detailed that there is no room for individual creativity, I have found just the opposite. Rather than being an impediment to my own creativity, the detail has served to inspire me, often in unexpected ways. I've had more fun refereeing my Tékumel campaigns than I have almost any other – high praise from a gamer who's been playing for more than four decades.

1. Third Imperium
If you correctly guessed that the Third Imperium would be at the top of this list, congratulations, you know me and my tastes well. I regularly tell people that, when it comes to RPGs, "D&D is my first love, but Traveller is my true love." A big part of the reason why I feel that way is because of the game's "official" setting. Players older than I remember a time when Traveller, like Dungeons & Dragons, was simply a rules set without a setting of its own. For them, Traveller remained a game of "science fiction adventure in the far future," while, for me, it's always been "science fiction adventure in the Third Imperium."

My fondness for the setting is born of several factors. The first is the deft way that Miller and his colleagues at GDW borrowed and riffed off elements of the great sci-fi writers of the '40s through '70s to create a setting that was simultaneously familiar and original. The second is that I've spent more time playing and refereeing in the Third Imperium than I have in any other imaginary setting. In many ways, the Third Imperium is home and I know it like the back of my hand. Finally, my first professional writing credits were for Traveller in the 1990s, which, in turn, introduced me to a number of others who subsequently became some of my oldest and dearest friends. I can think of no better marker of excellence than that.

2467 is Now

White Dwarf: Issue #51

Issue #51 of White Dwarf (March 1984) features a cover by Iain McCaig, an artist many will know from his work in the film industry, as well as his album covers. The issue is also notable for its editorial by Ian Livingstone, in which he states that the magazine continues to expand in size (and price) and that it would soon be available at newsstands. The expansion of its availability is important, I think, because it's an indication of the relative popularity of RPGs in the UK at the time. On the other side of the Atlantic, I don't believe I ever saw a copy of White Dwarf – or Dragon for that matter – at a newsstand, but that's probably just a reflection of differences in the British and American periodical markets at the time.

"Gifts from the Gods" by Thomas Mullen is, according to its subtitle, an examination of "religion and magic in AD&D." The two-page article is an interesting and thoughtful one. Mullen points out the confused nature of the cleric class, drawing inspiration as it does from Christianity and various flavors of paganism. He proposes that referees should give greater thought to religion in their campaigns and modify the cleric class to accord with whatever he decides. This might necessitate altering the cleric's abilities, restrictions, and spell list. It's hard to disagree with what Mullen suggests here. By this point in D&D's history, I suspect his perspective was becoming much more widespread among the game's players (and even designers) and likely encouraged TSR's decision in Second Edition to alter the presentation of the class.

"Open Box" kicks off with a review of the Cthulhu Companion, which gets decently high marks (7 out of 10), with the reviewer grousing that the supplement is mostly of use to Keepers rather than players. Chaosium's Superworld, a game I've still never seen, let alone played, gets the same score and compares the game favorably to Games Workshop's own Golden Heroes (a game I did own and play). FGU's Daredevils receives a score of 8 out of 10; that seems frankly high to me, though Daredevils is probably one of the better designed RPGs FGU ever published. Reviewed along with the game itself is the second Daredevil Adventures collection (the first being included in the Daredevils boxed set), earning a score of 7 out of 10. Wrapping up the reviews is Knight Hawks (8 out of 10).

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" discusses a number of frankly forgettable contemporary SF and fantasy books. Much more interesting in my opinion are his thoughts on how "terribly inbred" the world of publishing is and how much influence "The Old Boy Network" has on what is published and what is not. Nearly four decades later, I gather not much has changed in this regard, at least when it comes to "mainstream" publishers, though desktop publishing and print-on-demand have begun to make it possible for authors to sidestep the apparatus of the old publishers and make their work directly available to readers. It's an amazing development in my opinion and one of the few unalloyed goods to come out of wired age.

"Watch Out, There's a Thief About" by Richard Hanniwell introduces thieves for use with Warhammer Fantasy Battles. It's a fun little article, particularly if you have fond memories of what Warhammer was like before it started to take itself too seriously. "All in the Family" is another bit of RuneQuest fiction by Oliver Dickinson that follows the adventures of Griselda and her comrades in the city of New Pavis. "Extending UPPs for NPCs" by Bob McWilliams is a Traveller article, in which the author suggests adding four new characteristics to help the referee better describe NPCs. They are: Loyalty, Determination, Charisma, and Luck. The intention behind all these new characteristics is that they take some of the burden off the referee in deciding how a NPC might behave in a given situation. For example, Loyalty indicates how likely a NPC is to stick by his employer, while Determination measures how likely he is to give up when a task becomes too difficult. While I appreciate the intent behind this article, I'm not entirely persuaded this is the best way to achieve its intended goal.

"The Black Broo of Dyskund" by Ken Rolston is, by its own admission, a "cavern crawl" for use with RuneQuest. Reminiscent of Snakepipe Hollow, the scenario is a deadly one, filled with lots of dangerous enemies devoted to Chaos, including a rune priest of Thanatar. Rolston states that the adventure is intended to be a companion piece of sorts to Cults of Terror and I think it certainly succeeds on that score. It's an impressive piece of work that presages Rolston's stint as the developer of RQ during the days its renaissance at Avalon Hill

"A Ballad of Times Past" by Dave Morris and Yve Newnham is an AD&D scenario for characters of 4th-5th level. Like several previous AD&D adventures in the magazine, this one takes place in its own setting, one reminiscent of late Dark Ages Britain and where magic is much scarcer than it is in traditional D&D settings. The scenario itself, which involves a quest to protect a dragon, is a bit heavy-handed in places, particularly when it comes to lengthy passages of NPC dialog. Nevertheless, it has a very distinct flavor of its own that's worthy in its own right. I found myself wishing there were additional scenarios set on the island of Beorsca.

"Creatures in Exile" by Paul Harden is a translation of the creatures and characters of Julian May's The Saga of the Exiles into AD&D terms. Never having read these books, I can't comment on how faithfully they're presented. I will only reiterate my long-standing amazement at how often articles like this one are published. I've never cared much about using D&D to play in a literary setting myself, but it would seem this is a common desire. "RuneQuest Economics" by Russell Massey teases out the implications of the costs of various items and services in Glorantha, with an eye toward tweaking them in the name of "realism." This, too, is a fairly common type of article in gaming magazines and one I likewise have little interest in myself – to each his own.

Naturally, we get new installments of "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers," all of which I continue to enjoy. There's also "A Page of Many Things," an odd collection of short articles. One presents information about dungeon carts (including a schematic) for the hauling of treasure, another rules for drowning in D&D, and lastly a thief-themed word search. Odd though this medley is, I'm sympathetic to the editor's need to plug holes in each issue's layout with little bits of text that might also be of interest to readers. Having done this myself many times while preparing a new issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume, I can hardly pass judgment.

With this issue, White Dwarf is settling down into a comfortable rhythm in terms of content and presentation. No longer is the magazine solely devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. Most issues now contain a wider variety of material for a wider variety of games. Likewise, there is a new generation of writers appearing in the bylines, some of whom will go on to become significant members of the hobby in the years to come. While not as anarchically creative as its early days, White Dwarf remains an excellent periodical during this time and well worth re-visiting. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

My Top 10 Favorite Imaginary Settings (Part I)

My recent retrospectives of both Dragonlance Adventures and Greyhawk Adventures got me thinking about my favorite settings for roleplaying games, which, in turn, got me to thinking about my favorite imaginary settings in general. Before long, I realized that I had the makings of a couple of posts in which I listed, in order, my favorite imaginary settings, along with some thoughts on how I first encountered them and why I still like them. Like all my previous lists of this sort, this one is intentionally personal. It's not intended to pass judgment on these or any other imaginary settings in any absolute sense. If your favorite isn't to be found here, that only means that you and I have different tastes, nothing. I doubt there will be many surprises here for long-time readers, except perhaps the order in which I rank the various settings I've chosen. 

10. Middle-earth

Growing up in the 1970s, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth was probably the most well-known example of literary fantasy in popular culture. The Rankin-Bass cartoon of The Hobbit was released in 1977, with Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings coming out the following year. This is also the decade of the Brothers Hildebrandt Tolkien calendars and the Ballantine paperbacks with covers featuring Tolkien's own artwork. Consequently, it would have been nigh impossible for me not to have been pulled into the orbit of one of greatest fantasy settings of all time. 

Tolkien invested Middle-earth with a richness of detail that has, I think, become a model for every creator who's followed in his wake, even those who explicitly reject his particular take on fantasy. I know that's true in my own case, which is why I include the setting in this list. However, my fondness for Middle-earth is a distant and somewhat cold one – respect might be a better word to describe it. There's much I admire about Tolkien's creation, but very little I've directly emulated in my own (admittedly paltry) efforts, hence why I rank it lower than every other setting I'll discuss.

9. Barsoom

Mars, as envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is one of the oldest science fiction – or fantasy; take your pick – settings of lasting significance, inspiring innumerable writers (and scientists) to consider what life might be like on planets other than our own. I can't quite recall when I was first exposed to Barsoom, but it's been a setting I've loved for almost as long as I can remember. In my younger days, I simply thrilled to the exploits of John Carter, as he struggled mightily against a wide variety of nefarious antagonists, none of whom possessed an ounce of his courage or honor. Nowadays, I'm much more interested in Burroughs's worldbuilding, which is surprisingly rich and deep.

Barsoom is a great example of an adventuresome setting, by which I mean one where almost every detail exists to provide fodder for tales of derring-do. That undoubtedly limits the scope of Barsoom somewhat, but I can't say that bothers me much. Sometimes, all you want out of an imaginary setting is a fun environment for exciting stories and Barsoom provides that in spades. Considering the importance of the Red Planet to the creation of the hobby, I'm not the only person who thinks so.

8. The Known Worlds of Fading Suns
This is the first (but not the last) roleplaying game setting to appear on this list and with good reason. Since its appearance in 1996, I've enjoyed the 51st century of this "futuristic passion play," both as a referee and as a writer. Much like Barsoom, the Known Worlds are an adventuresome setting, perhaps even more explicitly so, since it was created for use in roleplaying game campaigns. This means that (also like Barsoom), the setting doesn't stand up to close scientific scrutiny, despite the fact that it's supposed to take place thousands of years from now in our world. It's closer to a fantasy setting in many ways and I have found that most objections to one or another aspect of it are best met by explaining that.

On the other hand, the Known Worlds are almost unique among futuristic settings in the pride of place they give to philosophy, religion, and spiritual matters. This is a setting, like Frank Herbert's Dune, that recognizes that mankind will bring religion with him as it travels the stars and, if anything, will only become more influential because of it. That's catnip for people like myself, who take great interest in questions of this kind, especially since the setting isn't interested in providing answers to those questions but rather occasions to ask more of them against a back of interstellar adventure.

7. The Hyborian Age

The 1970s was also the decade in which the works of Robert E. Howard managed to break into popular culture, thanks in no small part to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic book series. Though I of course read the comics, I was even more devoted to the short stories and novellas that I found on a spinner rack in my local library. Through them I became acquainted with the prehistoric Hyborian Age in which the Cimmerian lived. A heady mix of real world history and Howard's own flights of fancy, the Hyborian Age was simultaneously familiar and alien to me, which made it all the easier for my youthful self to fall in love with it. 

My appreciation for the setting only grew with age. I read REH's own essay about the Hyborian Age and his thoughts on its creation and immediately understood what I had only dimly grasped previously, namely, that real world history and cultures could be used to create something that nevertheless felt fresh and exciting. There is no need to create entire worlds from whole cloth, nor is there any shame in borrowing from the examples of the past. The trick is in using these raw materials imaginatively, as Howard had done, to present something that was a compelling back drop for adventure.

6. The Dying Earth
I've often said that science fiction is my natural medium. Despite that, I've spent more time roleplaying in fantasy worlds than in science fiction ones. Given that, I suppose it was inevitable that I'd fall in love with Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Set untold eons in the future, the Dying Earth is a setting in which science has become indistinguishable from magic and has changed the face of the planet – and its inhabitants – forever. In some ways, it's an ideal setting for someone with my conflicting interests and experiences, allowing me to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. (I'm sure the fact that D&D's magic system is based on that of the setting endeared it to me as well.)

The other thing I adore about the Dying Earth is its overall feel: cynical, exhausted, and mysterious. You never know what you're going to find over the next hill or whether the traveler with an extra-broad smile you meet on the road is a friend or a foe. It's a place that keeps you guessing, sometimes until it's too late to extricate yourself from the trouble in which you've now found yourself. It's the stuff of enjoyable stories and captivating adventures.

Taking D&D Out of the Dark Ages

An advertisement for Mattel's Dungeons & Dragons Electronic Labyrinth Game from issue #51 of Dragon (July 1981).

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Seed from the Sepulcher

Nowadays, Clark Ashton Smith is known primarily for the stories written as part of his various literary cycles, such as those of Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique. That's quite understandable, given the general excellence of those series (Zothique being a particular favorite of mine), but it's important to remember that he also wrote a great many more stand-alone pulp stories that are every bit as good. If one were to judge quality solely on the basis of popularity, then one of Smith's best yarns is "The Seed from the Sepulcher," which has been included in more anthologies than anything else he ever wrote (more even than "The Return of the Sorcerer" or "The City of the Singing Flame," two other stories often judged to be among his greatest efforts). 

Originally appearing in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales (which also featured a Conan story by Robert E. Howard), "The Seed from the Sepulcher" tells the story of "James Falmer and Roderick Thone, professional orchid-hunters," who along with their two native guides, "had been following an obscure tributary of the upper Orinoco" in Venezuela. 

The country was rich in rare flowers; and, beyond its flower wealth, they had been drawn by vague but persistent rumors among the local tribes concerning the existence of a ruined city somewhere on this tributary: a city that contained a burial-pit in which vast treasures of gold, silver and jewels had been interred together with the dead of some nameless people. These rumors were never first hand, but the two men had thought it worthwhile to investigate them.

Shortly before the start of the story, Thone had fallen sick and Falmer, curious about the supposed ruins, had gone ahead in a canoe with one of the guides, leaving the other to tend to his comrade. Falmer returned three days later, having found the ruins. He described them as "a queer sort of place, pretty much as the legends describe … Just a few crumbling walls overgrown and half-displaced by the forest trees, and a few falling pillars netted with lianas." As for the rumored treasure, there was none and disappointment had left Falmer taciturn and morose, which struck Thone as quite unlike his friend's usual demeanor.

Falmer, even during extreme hardship or jungle illness, had been heretofore unquenchably loquacious and cheerful. Now, he seemed sullen, uncommunicative, as if his mind was preoccupied with far-off things of disagreeable import. His bluff face had grown hollow – even pointed – and his eyes had narrowed to secretive slits.

Stricken with fever, Thone is in no mood to argue with Falmer when he states that he wishes nothing more than to head back to the Orinoco and home. "I've had all I want of this trip," he adds.

As Thone grew healthier, Falmer in turn seemed to sicken, much to his concern and that of the two guides, who watched him, "as if with some obscure expectancy." Falmer's sleep becomes turbulent and, with each passing day, he became stiffer and more sluggish. Yet, "there was no fever and the symptoms were wholly obscure and ambiguous." Later, Falmer "shook his head at intervals with a sort of shuddering motion that was plainly automatic and involuntary … After a while he began to moan quickly, as if in pain or delirium."

They went on in this manner for several hours; the heat grew more oppressive between the stifling, airless walls of the jungle. Thone became aware of a shriller cadence in the moans of his sick companion. Looking back, he saw that Falmer had removed his sun-helmet, seemingly oblivious of the murderous heat, and was clawing at the crown of his head with frantic fingers. Convulsions shook his entire body, and the dugout began to rock dangerously as he tossed to and fro in a long paroxysm of manifest agony. His voice mounted with a ceaseless high, unhuman shrieking.  

Thinking quickly, Thone orders the boat ashore so that he can come to the aid of his afflicted comrade. Though he had no idea what afflicted him, he gives Falmer a dose of morphine. which eases his suffering and ends the convulsions, at least for the moment. He then takes the opportunity to examine Falmer's head.

He was startled to find amid the thick disheveled hair a hard and pointed lump which resembled the tip of a beginning horn, rising under the still unbroken skin. As if endowed with erectile and resistless life, it seemed to grow beneath his fingers.

Needless to say, Thone is horrified by this revelation but has little time to contemplate its implications. The morphine had sufficiently dulled Falmer's pain that he became "more his normal self than at any time since he return from the ruins" and began to talk, "as if he were anxious to relieve his mind of some oppressing burden."

"The pit! The pit!" said Falmer. "The infernal thing that was in the pit, in the deep sepulcher! … I wouldn't go back there for the treasure of a dozen El Dorados … I didn't tell you much about those ruins, Thone. Somehow it was hard – impossibly hard – to talk.

Falmer's newfound lucidity enables him to relate to Thone all that transpired while he explored the ruins – including the origin of his bizarre malady and it's horrific.

It's easy to see why "The Seed from the Sepulcher" is one of Clark Ashton Smith's most popular stories. The tale is chilling and plays off common fears about one's body being invaded or taken over by something. Consequently, it contains a few genuinely unsettling moments that Smith describes with obvious relish. When I re-read the story in preparation for this post, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me, particularly in the latter part of the story, once Thone (foolishly) had decided to return to the ruins to see for himself the source of his companion's dreadful malady. If you have a little time to spare, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Wrestling with God

How have I never seen this piece of Jack Kirby art before?

It's Kirby's take on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel described in the Book of Genesis – and it's amazing. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Half-Orcs Were a Mistake

Wanted: For the Crime of
Gygaxian Naturalism

Despite Gary Gygax's repeated assertion that his conception of Dungeons & Dragons owes little to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (which he nevertheless included in Appendix N), he sure did borrow a lot of individual elements from the novel! Orcs are regularly cited as the prime example of this peculiar phenomenon and rightly so, I think, because, as a distinct type of enemy, they are largely without any significant mythological precedent prior to the publication of Tolkien's tales. At the same time, orcs are, at base, little more than man-shaped monsters in service to Evil, not unlike similar creatures found in northern European folklore and in the pulp fantasy stories that proliferated in the first half of last century. 

The same, however, cannot be said for the half-orc, references to which can also be found in The Lord of the Rings. The precise nature of half-orcs in Middle-earth is unclear, partly because I don't believe Tolkien ever settled the question of the nature of orcs, having changed his mind several times on the subject. What we can say for certain is that Tolkien's half-orcs – or "goblin-men," as he sometimes called them – were creatures that, while generally orcish, looked enough like Men that they move among them without attracting much comment. Half-orcs were thus useful as spies by the forces of Evil.

Half-orcs don't exist in Dungeons & Dragons prior to the publication of the AD&D Monster Manual in 1977, where there's a brief discussion of them at the end of the book's entry for "orc." There, Gygax states that

As orcs will breed with anything, there are any number of unsavory mongrels with orcish blood, particularly orc-goblins, orc-hobgoblins, and orc-humans. Orcs cannot cross-breed with elves. Half-orcs tend to favor the orcish strain heavily, so such sorts are basically orcs although they can sometimes (10%) pass themselves off as true creatures of their other stock (goblins, hobgoblins, humans, etc.).

This sounds a lot like the broos of Glorantha, does it not? In any case, the Players Handbook a year later gives us a a bit more information about them. Here, Gygax reiterates that

Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels are sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human. 

The remainder of the PHB's description is given over to game mechanics, with little else stated about the nature of half-orcs or the place within the implied setting of AD&D. We do learn that, with the exception of humans and halflings (!), all other playable races hate or have antipathy for half-orcs. This makes sense, given half-orcs' preference for classes like thief and assassin, marking them as having criminal and antisocial tendencies of a most unsavory sort. I have no idea why Gygax felt the need to include orc-human hybrids as a playable race in AD&D, though I suspect that, like half-elves, which first appeared in Supplement I to OD&D, he did so to appeal to the fans of The Lord of the Rings among early gamers. I think this was a profound mistake, one that has haunted D&D ever since. 

I say this because orcs are monsters. According to the Monster Manual, they "are cruel and hate living things in general." Likewise, "they take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc.)." They're not people in the same sense that, say, humans, dwarves, or elves are – or at least that's how I think they were initially conceived. Unfortunately, Gygaxian naturalism upended that particular apple cart and we discovered that orc lairs contain noncombatant females and young. No longer is an expedition into the Caves of Chaos a simple matter of defending the Realm against Evil; now it's an exercise in the mass murder of the defenseless.

The existence of playable half-orcs only complicates the matter further. It might just be possible to squint one's eyes and imagine that even baby orcs are an existential threat to the Realm of Law and Goodness and therefore fit only for extermination. Once you allow playable orc-human hybrid characters who are not required by the rules to evil, let alone restricted from being good, you open the door to viewing orcs (and, by extension, all humanoid monsters) as people on par with the more traditional player character races. From there, you're well on the road out of the adventuresome pulp fantasy world D&D has long evoked and heading toward … something else entirely.

Far be it for me to suggest that there's anything inherently wrong with this approach to fantasy. Indeed, there might well be something genuinely fun and compelling about treating humanoid races as one might treat alien species in an episode of Star Trek rather than as ravening Chaos-spawn that bubble up from the black blood of the Earth to wreak havoc across the Realm of Man. However, for those of us who like fighting orcs (and goblins and gnolls and …) without pangs of conscience, I think it's important we keep them genuinely monstrous and inhuman. Doing this necessitates, among other things, abandoning the idea of playable half-orcs. They were a grave mistake back in 1978 and they've only become more so in the more than four decades since.