Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What the Future Holds

It's New Year's Eve, the usual time when amateurs can choose to indulge in dipsomania or prophecy (or both!). Being something of a teetotaler myself -- except when it comes to very expensive champagne -- I choose prophecy. My record on this score isn't great, but it's better than most and at least I won't have a hangover tomorrow for having indulged in it tonight.

Consequently, what follow aren't exactly predictions. I'm not going to assign dates and times to anything. Neither am I going to say that either of my statements will occur. Rather, what I'm "predicting," if that's the word, is that 2009 will be the year that'll determine whether the much-discussed old school renaissance fulfills its promise or proves to be just another bout of gaming nostalgia in fancy dress. By my lights, at least one of two things must happen in 2009 for the old school renaissance to have legs outside the thousand or so people who read this blog:

1. New Product: With Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC 2.0, and Swords & Wizardry out there and freely available to any and all comers, we're now at the point where, reasonably, someone ought to use one (or all) of them to create new product. By "new product," I don't mean adventures; we have lots of old school adventures already. Neither do I mean campaign settings or monster books or collections of spells and magic items; we have tons of that stuff too. No, what I mean is something genuinely new, something that hasn't been done before (or at least recently) and that shows off the unique pleasures of the old school in a way we haven't seen (again, at least recently). This new product (or, dare I hope, products?) might be part adventure or part campaign world or part monster book, etc. but it wouldn't just be those things. It can't be or no one is going to care.

If the old school renaissance has one fatal flaw, it's that it's much too easy to dismiss it as simple nostalgia. And the reason it's too easy is because, like the poor Scholastics whose subtle philosophizing and fine distinctions looked like foolishness to people who weren't steeped in the quaestiones quodlibetales culture, we're too insular and self-absorbed to be understood, let alone listened to, by a gaming culture that, for good or for ill, has changed in some very profound ways. To reverse this situation and revitalize the Old School will require someone among us to produce something that's genuinely new and that nevertheless embodies the best of our preferred style of gaming. We can't just keep doing the same stuff we've done for the last 30 years -- not because that stuff isn't "timeless," but because that stuff has already been done, over and over. The closest we've seen in recent years is, I think, Rob Conley's Points of Light, but it's only a first step and the journey ahead is a long one indeed.

2. Big Name Adoption: The second thing that needs to happen is for a big name game company -- one with good retail penetration and distribution -- to show that old school is cool. To date, most old school products have been self-publishing ventures or sidelines by smaller publishers. There's nothing wrong with that, but the reality is that such products aren't going to reach gamers who aren't plugged in to the back alleys of the gaming world and the old school community probably doesn't even qualify as a back alley. We're a niche within a niche and, while we have a lot of admirers among the bigger players in the industry, that admiration only gets us so far.

Goodman Games has put its toes in the water with products like Points of Light and The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. If they catch the popular imagination, Goodman could well become exactly the vehicle I'd like to see. Likewise, it's possible that Necromancer Games, once it sorts out exactly what it wants to do in the future, could play a similar role, although I think the odds are less, given Clark Peterson's stated preference for supporting the latest edition of D&D, regardless of its pedigree. Much as I like Goodman and Necromancer, I'd much prefer to see a company like Paizo step up and promote the old school in some way. Paizo is uniquely placed to show that old school is cool. Even better would be WotC itself, but the design of the new edition of D&D suggests to me that that's not likely, at least not in a way that would benefit the old school community noticeably. Still, much as I dislike the current direction of the game, there's no question that there are some clever designers behind it, so anything is possible and I'll be the first to say I was wrong if WotC publishes The Big Book of Traps that puts Grimtooth's to shame in its fiendishness.

I expect 2009 to be a topsy-turvy year in general, so who knows what the future holds?

Retrospective: The Caverns of Thracia

The Caverns of Thracia by Paul Jaquays is a good example of why Judges Guild is remembered so fondly by so many of us who started gaming in the 70s. Published in 1979, Thracia is both a large dungeon and a campaign setting in its own right. While perhaps not large enough to be called a true "megadungeon," the four levels of the caverns are nevertheless expansive and filled with a wide variety of humanoid factions -- a few of them mutually antagonistic -- which contributes greatly to the feeling of dynamism the module evokes. This is a "living" environment that puts paid to the notion that old school dungeons are static places with monsters statically side by side without any interactions between them.

Even more significant, from my perspective, is the diversity of environments within this module. Firstly, there is the Lost City of Thracia itself, a surface ruin that is the start of the characters' explorations. Beneath it lie four levels, several of which have sub-levels and special room complexes that are only reachable through certain areas within the larger levels. In addition, there are multiple connections -- shafts, chutes, stairs, and other more exotic means -- that contribute to the maze-like feel of the entire place. The Caverns of Thracia is very non-linear; there is no "right" way to explore its depths and no central "set piece" locations. This is a style of dungeon design that we just don't see anymore and that's a pity, because I think gamers are missing out on the unique pleasures of exploration that can only come when the dungeon environment itself is as much of a challenge as the monsters, tricks, and traps contained within it.

I have a lot of fond memories of The Caverns of Thracia. It was one of the few Judges Guild modules I ever played in my youth. My friend Mike's older brother had a copy and more than a few of our characters died horrible deaths while exploring its labyrinthine levels. But we had fun doing it, because the pseudo-ancient Greek atmosphere of the place, combined with its memorable encounters -- like the cult of Thanatos, the incarnation of Death -- spoke to our dreams of being Indiana Jones. I was eventually inspired enough to create my own Egyptian-flavored version of The Caverns of Thracia and, while that dungeon thankfully hasn't survived, it was an important moment in my education as a budding referee. I have Paul Jaquays and Judges Guild to thank for that; I wish similar lessons might be imparted to today's generation of gamers.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Upper Works Response

Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works writer and developer Jeff Talanian dropped me an email in response to my recent review. He was kind enough to give me permission to post it here for everyone to read. He writes:
Thank you for taking the time to review Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. I appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing your opinions with your usual articulate and thoughtful manner. I must bear full responsibility for most of your content-related criticisms, for I was provided much latitude in the design and development of Gary's famous work, for good or ill. I understood the expectations were high, and I accepted the responsibility knowing that my resources were limited and that Gary's health was in a severe decline; notwithstanding, I peppered him with emails throughout the process, seeking his advice in matters small and large. Essentially, James, I did what I feel was my best work at that time, given the circumstances. I am proud of the work, and I make no excuses for all the warts CZ:UW no doubt bears. Noting your criticisms (not all of which I agree with, of course!), those of Allan Grohe, and other gaming peers whom I respect, I hope to turn my design and development weakness into strengths so as to produce better adventures in the future. Again, thank you.
I would also like to thank Jeff for all the hard work he did in trying to do justice to this project, particularly given the circumstances under which he no doubt worked. Although I am less pleased with the end result than I had hoped I would be, I remain glad to have picked up The Upper Works. There's a lot of good contained within its pages and I'll certainly be swiping bits of it for my own megadungeon, which I mean to be a high compliment. In addition, I have no doubt that, without Jeff's tireless labor, we'd never have seen as much of Castle Zagyg as we did. We are all in his debt for that. I sincerely look forward to his future products, as I have every reason to expect great things from him.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: The Maker of Universes

First published in 1965, Philip José Farmer's The Maker of Universes is the start of an entire series of pulp fantasy books generally called "the World of Tiers." These stories are very much in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels and other similar stories, in which a man from 20th century Earth is transported by mystical means to another world in which he finds himself uniquely strong, intelligent, and irresistible to the exotic women of his newfound home.

It's classic wish-fulfillment fantasy, but there's no denying that Farmer has a real knack for it. The Maker of Universes describes the adventures of Robert Wolff, an aged World War II veteran and linguist, leading a dull and unsatisfying life, who discovers a doorway to the World of Tiers -- a series of artificially constructed worlds stacked on top of each other, at the topmost level of which dwells its Lord, who rules it (and may have created it). Upon arriving in the World of Tiers, Wolff regains his youth and vigor and sets off to overthrow the Lord and end his tyranny. Along the way, he has many unusual adventures and meets a cast of memorably quirky characters, some of whom return in later novels of the series.

I don't recall any specific elements from this book that turned up in Dungeons & Dragons, but the general tenor of the novel certainly matches the pulp fantasy tone that I contend is at the heart of the game. In addition, it's another example of a story involving a fantasy world connected to our own, a common theme among the books Gary Gygax cited as important influences on him and the game. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I become about what this means for interpreting D&D and the Gygaxian conception of it. I'll probably return to this theme in a future post. For now, though, I can't shake the feeling that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

REVIEW: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (Part III of III)

As I noted in Part II, I like Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. I believe it's a very fine product and well worth the money I spent on it. I also think it's a fitting capstone to Gary Gygax's life and career, even if it's a somewhat melancholy one. I say "melancholy," because TUW is a textbook example of opportunities missed and promises unfulfilled. While it is still, by any measure, a worthy product and a truly Gygaxian one, it could have been better than it was. There's a host of "could have beens" associated with this product and I'd like to talk about several of them to give a better context for my final review of TUW.

1. Timeliness: As we now know, TUW will be the last product of the Castle Zagyg line published by Troll Lord Games. That it was also, by most standards, also the first product in the line to attempt to make good on what most fans expected from it only makes this fact harder to accept. I understand that at least some of the delays in getting TUW to press were not TLG's fault. A combination of factors, no doubt including Gary's failing health, contributed to its tardiness. By the same token, had the projct been better managed from the start, with a realistic timetable and a fewer about-faces in terms of content and format, there's a chance we might have seen more than TUW in the four years since the project was first announced. A good portion of my dissatisfaction with TUW stems from the fact that, after all these years, it's all we've managed to see of the megadungeon I had hoped we'd have seen by now.

2. Appearance and Organization: Being an old schooler, I'm quite accustomed to amateurish products and indeed have a certain affection for them. At the same time, there are many companies out there that have managed to produce attractive and well organized materials without having the resources of Wizards of the Coast. TUW should have been treated like the prestige product that it clearly is. Its organization should have included at the very least an index and better cross-referencing and I don't think it's asking too much in expecting an overview of the entirety of the Castle and its levels. TUW is packed with information -- which is a good thing! -- but it's not particularly user friendly, especially compared to products like Rappan Athuk Reloaded or Castle Whiterock, both of which are larger and yet easier to use. Likewise, TUW's box is flimsy; mine is already splitting after very little use and its pasted-on cover is starting to peel and crack. All these complaints are minor in themselves and I'd have quite happily overlooked them, but, in aggregate, they contribute to the impression of a product made with less care than it ought to have been.

3. Historicity: I had hoped that Castle Zagyg would have taken an approach closer to Rob Kuntz's products, such as The Living Room and The Original Bottle City. In those products, Kuntz not only presented a reconstruction of material from his days as co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, but also commentary on the origins of this material and how it was used, including reminiscences of events from those days. In some cases, this made the material very "modular," which is to say, disconnected from its original environment, but it also made the material far more useful for referees hoping to drop it into their existing campaigns. Furthermore, it made the material of terrific interest to people whose primary attraction to it is in gleaning insights into the early days of the hobby, not to mention details of one of the oldest fantasy campaigns in existence. Granted, there was never much chance that the Castle Zagyg line was going to adopt this approach. Anyone who'd read Yggsburgh could have seen that. Gary himself stated on numerous occasions that he didn't favor treating the Castle as a "historical" product. I think this was an error in judgment on his part, if only because I don't think historicity need get in the way of gameability. Indeed, I think a greater emphasis on historicity would have made the material of wider interest and greater gameability, particularly for old schoolers such as myself. Again, it's probably unfair to judge TUW too harshly because it didn't adhere to a model that its creator rejected, but I can't deny I held out hope that he might have changed his mind in the course of writing it.

4. Completeness: In itself, TUW contains everything it promises. It does detail all of the Upper Works of Castle Zagyg. Unfortunately, the Upper Works aren't where the Castle "lives." They're, at best, a tantalizing glimpse of what lies beneath them, a sideshow that briefly holds our attention before we move on to bigger and better things. Jim Ward notes that, in the original Greyhawk campaign, the Upper Works occupied very little of the players' attention, because the subterranean levels were far more lucrative and intriguing. I find it hard not to feel the same way. Were it not for the fact that the Upper Works are all that have been described, I rather suspect that most adventuring parties would imitate their Lake Geneva predecessors and delve deeper, lured on by the promise of sights more exciting than endless humanoid barracks and store rooms. To be fair, there is much more to the Upper Works than these things, but, taken as a whole, the feeling I come away with is that TUW describes only a handful of truly memorable encounters and a whole lot of filler intended to keep players busy until such time as the Real Dungeon is published. Alas, it never will be, at least not by TLG -- and that's deeply frustrating.

As you can see, my complaints are, in large part, extraneous to the actual product itself, having more to do with what I wish had been the case rather than what is. For me, TUW, like the entire Castle Zagyg line, is timid and mundane when it should have been daring and otherworldly. TLG and Gary clearly decided to "play it safe" in presenting the Castle and I can't shake the feeling that this approach was unwise. Had TUW (and Yggsburgh before it) treated us to lots of commentary, historical context, and vintage Gygaxian lunacy, I would likely have deemed the entire line a glorious failure cut short by the vagaries of licensing. As it is, what we have is a solid -- dare I say "workmanlike?" -- product with occasional moments of brilliance. TUW has a kind of watered-down, washed-out feel to it, as if it were a copy of a copy of a copy. You can still see the artistry of the original piece of art, but it's muted compared to what it must have looked like fresh from the brush of the Master. Instead of being grateful that the original was preserved, however badly damaged it was from the toll of years, I found myself thinking it far less impressive than the stories I had read of it from those who saw it in its glory.

My hope is that Gygax Games, now that it has reclaimed the license, will take a new tack in any future publication of materials relating to Castle Greyhawk. There are many valid approaches a company could take that would, I think, do justice to this most famous of megadungeons. My own preference is for an approach similar to that adopted by Rob Kuntz in his own work, with additional input from members of the old Greyhawk campaign, where possible. This approach would almost certainly run counter to the tastes of modern gamers, but then I don't think Castle Greyhawk was ever likely to appeal to modern tastes and it was a fool's errand to ever think it could. Perhaps the best approach is to treat Castle Greyhawk/Zagyg primarily as a document of historical interest rather than as a complete, ready-to-play "mega-adventure." Such an approach would be truest to the spirit of the Lake Geneva campaign back in the day and also the most realistic as a publishing project. Anything more would, I fear, reduce Gary's legacy to a mere brand -- which isn't to say it won't happen. Even TLG was heading in that direction, as they dubbed the line "Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg."

As far removed as we are in time from the days of the Greyhawk campaign, it's well-nigh impossible to produce a definitive version of the Castle that fulfills 30+ years of hopes and dreams. It would be best, I think, not even to try to do so and it's here that TUW's reach exceeds its grasp. By aiming for a playable Gestalt approach to the megadungeon, it winds up being less than the sum of its parts, at least as far as I'm concerned. It's lacking both in the expansiveness necessary to make me overlook its disconnection from history and in historical depth to make me overlook its smallness. For some, these are probably not flaws and the middle of the road approach adopted in Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works hits a sweet spot that neither of my preferences would have done. I certainly recognize that my own tastes are idiosyncratic and far from widespread, even among old schoolers, most of whom seem to like this product far more than I do. Even I, for all my complaints and nitpicks, can't grade it too harshly. I remain unmoved from my repeated assertion that I am glad I own this and find much good in it, but I am equally unmoved from my belief that, as the final work from the pen of the Dungeon Master, it's disappointing on numerous levels. Gygax Games has one more chance to fulfill the promise this megadungeon holds. Let's see if they do so.

Final Score: 3½ out of 5 polearms

Sunday, December 28, 2008

REVIEW: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (Part II of III)

As I noted in Part I, Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works consists of six staple-bound booklets and three glossy maps. I'd like to comment first on the physical qualities of these items before diving into a more detailed discussion of their contents. I think it's fair to say that TUW is by far the best looking and presented product Troll Lord Games has ever made. It's very clear to me that they quite correctly saw this boxed set as a prestige product and made every effort to avoid the past mistakes of earlier TLG offerings, many of which are legendary in their production missteps. That's not to say that TUW is entirely free of the gaffes I've come to expect from TLG -- there are typos, omissions, and other editorial infelicities to be found throughout, but none that I came across struck me as anything more than the kinds of errors one might reasonably expect from a product of this size and scope. Cory M. Coserta is listed as the editor for TUW and he deserves a debt of thanks for his work on it.

The five booklets containing the descriptions of the Upper Works all use the same workmanlike two-column layout that TLG seems to use for all its products. It's not pretty but it's quite serviceable, particularly given the density of the text itself, which uses a very small typeface. The text is broken up by black and white art drawn by TLG stalwart Peter Bradley and Jason Walton. Of the two, I found that Walton's work was by far more to my liking. There's a sameness to Bradley's pieces that reminds me a bit of Elmore's later work, whereas Walton's pieces have a "rougher" and slightly cartoonish look that somehow struck me as more appropriate to the subject matter. Ironically, Bradley's color work for the covers of the booklets were much more in a vein I like. Art, of course, is highly subjective, so I certainly won't hold my own opinions against TUW.

On the other hand, I will hold cartographic errors against TUW. Aside from lots of minor but inconvenient issues, such as inconsistent map symbols, there are a number of missing or misnumbered locations. Likewise, there are places where the maps contradict the text or where the maps were drawn in a way that I found difficult to follow. In a location-based product of this size, I would have hoped that greater care would have been taken to ensure that the maps were made as exactingly as possible and that their presentation would aid the referee in their use. The sense I get, though, is that this project was just a little too big for TLG's resources and, while they put forward a solid effort, it still wasn't quite as professional as TUW demanded.

Two more brief points before proceeding: TUW includes neither an overview of the entire Castle nor an index. In themselves, neither omission is ruinous, but their lack contributed to the "drip, drip" in the back of my brain, slowly wearing down my enthusiasm for this product. An index would certainly have made using TUW much easier and an overview of the entire Castle would have given some much needed context to the material we were given in the boxed set. Combined with the unnecessary contrivance of the "Curse of Fog & Frogs," this made me wonder exactly how much of Castle Zagyg had been completed at the time TUW was published.

1. Mouths of Madness: This is the first of the six booklets included with TUW. 44 pages in length, it details the wilderness surrounding Castle Zagyg, including the eponymous Mouths of Madness, a collection caves in which dwell several different types of humanoids and other monsters. If that sounds remarkably like the set-up for Keep on the Borderlands, I'm sure that's no accident. Despite the nostalgia this elicited, I found Book 1 to be one of the weakest bits of TUW, consisting mostly of repetitive humanoid encounters. There are a number of memorable bits -- the ogre's cottage, the gateway to Barsoom -- and several references to fabled locales (such as the Black Reservoir), but these were few and far between. I suppose it didn't help that TLG had already sold me this booklet in the previously-released Eastmark Gazetteer, but I can't say I found much here that excited my imagination or inspired me.

2. Ruins of the Castle Precincts: This 48-page booklet was much more to my liking, both because it deals directly with the Castle's grounds and because the encounters within it were varied and generally interesting. There is a goodly supply of tricks, traps, and diversions amongst its monster encounters, as well as snippets of Greyhawk lore (with the serial numbers filed off, of course). It's here that you catch glimpses of the whimsy and mercilessness that are Gygaxian trademarks. There's also a fitting -- if heavy-handed -- tribute to Gary himself in the form of a goblin cobbler that seems all the more poignant in the wake of his death.

3. East Wall Towers: At 20 pages, this is the shortest of the booklets, but it hits well above its weight category in terms of allusions to Greyhawk lore. Here we encounter the brothers of the Crimson Hand, as well as a shrine to a "celestial deity" that includes a number of nice twists and turns.

4. Castle Fortress: This 44-page booklet is another excellent one, detailing the ruins of Zagyg's old surface fortress. This area of the Castle contains a goodly mix of encounters, some of them quite memorable and challenging. According to the introduction, which includes quotes from Lake Geneva campaign regular (and Gamma World designer) Jim Ward, these ruins received very little exploration in the original campaign, as the subterranean levels had "more and bigger loot," to quote The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. Consequently, the material here is potentially quite new, in the sense that it has never before been even hinted at in earlier accounts of the Lake Geneva adventures. I found this booklet held my attention for quite some time, as I read and re-read it for details I might have missed. There's lots of inspiration to be found here.

5. Store Rooms: Another 44-page booklet, it's a mixed bag, with several interesting encounters and far too many rooms filled with humanoids barracks, armories, and storage chambers. It's probably unfair to have expected anything more from it, given its name, but I did feel a mite disappointed. I'm a fan of Gygaxian naturalism, as you know, but this section of TUW proved fairly dull because of it. The book concludes with many new magic items, monsters, and a fully-statted rival adventuring party, the latter being a very nice old school touch that I greatly appreciated.

Maps & Illustrations Booklet: 36 pages in length, 20 of them is devoted to maps of the Upper Works. I've already mentioned my feelings about them above. The remainder is a series of 33 illustrations (all by Jason Walton) that are presumably intended to be shown to players at appropriate times, after the fashion of the illustration booklets of TSR modules of old. I was very taken by many of these pieces, as they nicely highlight the whimsical and deadly nature of the Castle. Just looking through them is a terrific antidote for anyone who, like me, tends to look down on the unique pleasures of funhouse dungeons. In some ways, I found it the most inspirational portion of TUW.

Taken as a whole, TUW didn't shake that "drip, drip" feeling I noted earlier. Part of it was that my own expectations for this boxed set were unreasonably high. I had hoped that we'd actually get to see something of the fabled dungeons, not just the areas immediately above them. Clearly, that was never the plan and I can't hold TLG accountable for that. Gary Gygax likewise decided that, rather than attempt to recreate one of several versions of Castle Greyhawk from the past, he would instead create a new castle that was a distillation of all of them that was at the same time none of them -- a kind of Gestalt. This was certainly not my own preference, but, again, I can't blame TLG for this, since it should have been clear, after having read Yggsburgh, that the best I could hope for was an "impressionistic" approach to the Castle and its levels.

Even so, TUW felt "small" and I don't just mean in the sense of its expanse, although it certainly did seem far smaller in size than I'd have expected. Rather, it felt as if there was a great deal missing from it -- its "heart," if you will. What we got in this boxed set certainly had lots of Gygaxian flourishes to it. It was hard not to recognize the spirit of the Dungeon Master hovering above it. Yet, it also had many other hovering spirits and, while I can't quite put my finger on all of them, their presence at all made me feel that TUW wasn't as good as it could have -- should have -- been.

It's not as if there's not a lot to like here, because there is. I know I'll be swiping portions of it for use in my own Dwimmermount campaign. However, I was never moved to try to and run TUW straight out of the box. Indeed, I found TUW wanting compared even to the notes that loremeister Allan Grohe has assembled on his webpage. Certainly, TUW is more "complete" in the sense of containing more statted up encounters, treasures, and so forth, but there's a very real sense in which that attempt at completeness works against it. For one thing, TUW isn't complete; it's only one very small part of a much larger megadungeon that still hasn't seen publication yet. For another, it doesn't invite the kind of tinkering and personal modifications that, say, Rob Kuntz's Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign products do, which perhaps says more about my own expectations than it does about the weakness of TUW, but there it is.

In the end, I like Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. It's a worthy product and one I'm glad to own. But I don't love it; it didn't knock my socks off and I had hoped that it would. Again, maybe that's unfair, which is why the final part of this review will be a discussion of what I had hoped I would see and what that means not just for this product, but for any future publications of Gygax-derived material.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

REVIEW: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (Part I of III)

Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works -- or, more precisely, Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works -- is the coda that brings the symphony of Gary Gygax's game writing to a melancholy conclusion. Consisting of six staple-bound booklets (varying in length from 20 to 48 pages) and three glossy maps in a large box, The Upper Works (hereinafter abbreviated TUW) is available from Troll Lord Games for $44.95 until the end of December 2008, after which TLG's license to publish and sell it and other Gary Gygax-related products ends. This had made TUW an instant collector's item for devotees of the late Dungeon Master. And collector's item it ought to be, for TUW is a remarkable, if flawed, piece of work. These flaws do not, I think, diminish the remarkable achievement Gygax and his protégé, Jeff Talanian, have given to the gaming world, but they do contribute to the lingering sense of time wasted and promises unfulfilled that swirl around Gary's gaming legacy.

Gamers have been waiting to see the fabled levels of Castle Greyhawk since 1980 at least, when Gygax indicated that TSR would be publishing them in an upcoming module. Since then, no such module has ever appeared, although numerous products supposedly connected to Castle Greyhawk have been published. Gygax was involved in the writing of none of them and the relationship of even the best of them to the megadungeon of the original Lake Geneva campaign is tenuous at best. Consequently, news that Troll Lord Games would be publishing a series of products detailing the renamed "Castle Zagyg" was met with great excitement. That not only Gary Gygax but also Rob Kuntz, co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, was actively involved in writing these products only heightened the anticipation many felt. At long last, it seemed as if the fabled Holy Grail of fantasy roleplaying was about to be revealed to the world.

Alas, such hopes proved to be misplaced. The first Castle Zagyg products appeared in 2005, consisting of the 250-page hardcover Yggsburgh by Gygax, detailing a large settlement near Castle Zagyg and the surrounding wilderness, and the 40-page softcover module Dark Chateau by Rob Kuntz, detailing the ruined and abandoned former abode of the Mad Archmage himself. Anyone who read these early products with clear eyes could have seen warning signs that the Castle Zagyg project would likely never see completion nor would it fulfill the fondest hopes of gamers. Yggsburgh, while a worthy product in many respects and full of trademark Gygaxian goodness, offered little to nothing in the way of new information about the fabled Castle nor about the campaign whose centerpiece it was. Dark Chateau hinted at much but was ultimately constrained by the fact that it was quite clearly a "space filler," a bone thrown to gamers while they chomped at the bit for the main course of Castle Zagyg itself.

It took two more years before additional Castle Zagyg products appeared -- the East Mark Gazetteer and the "City Expansions" series -- but none of these new products detailed the Castle and most of them contained not a word of Gygaxian prose, instead focusing on the ever more minute details of Yggsburgh. TLG in fact planned to produce 19 separate products describing each of Yggsburgh's districts. Of these, only four were ever published. Again, it was an omen of things to come and in more ways than one. Along the way Rob Kuntz removed himself from involvement with the project, with several explanations from several sources being offered for this turn of events, but, in retrospect, it seems most plausible that it was disagreements about the direction of Castle Zagyg that were the most pertinent. When TUW finally debuted at GenCon 2008, I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised. I honestly never expected to see any more Castle Zagyg material, especially since Gary had died almost six months beforehand. I saw no reason to doubt that Castle Zagyg would disappear into the same black hole as the Castle Keeper's Guide and other such announced-but-never-materialized TLG products.

I didn't attend GenCon this year and so I waited to see TUW in one of my local game stores or available for order through an online retailer that didn't treat shipping to Canada as if it were shipping to Antarctica. I never saw either occur and so bit my tongue and ordered directly from TLG at the exorbitant shipping costs they charged to get it to me. Even at that price, I was glad to pay it, because I doubt I would otherwise have ever seen TUW. Fortunately, TLG was prompt in shipping me my copy and it arrived not long after my having ordered it. Despite being in a box, my copy of TUW was not shrink-wrapped, which at first worried me that it might not be intact. My worries proved unfounded, but, when compared to companies like Necromancer Games or Goodman Games, both of which have produced expensive boxed sets over the last few years, I can't help but be a bit disappointed that similar care wasn't taken with TUW as they showed with their products. After all, TUW was clearly meant to be a flagship product for TLG and Castles & Crusades and yet it certainly didn't appear to be treated as such.

Perhaps it's a small thing and I shouldn't think to much of it. Nevertheless, the lack of shrink-wrap suggested to me a kind of slapdash approach that I feared might carry over to the contents of the boxed set itself. Given the history of the Castle Zagyg project up till the release of TUW, I think my concern was justified. In Part II tomorrow, I'll return to this question at length as I discuss the actual contents and presentation of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. In Part III, I conclude my review with my thoughts on the place of Castle Zagyg in the gaming legacy of Gary Gygax and what the future might (or ought to) hold for Castle Zagyg now that Gygax Games has rescinded its license to Troll Lord Games.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thank You

Thanks to everyone who's given me advice and suggestions regarding Tunnels & Trolls. I've already been given a copy of the 7th edition rules to examine by a friend and have ordered a copy of the 5.5 rules from Flying Buffalo, as well as several solo scenarios. I'd like to try and get as full an experience of the game as possible, so I can dispel any misapprehensions I have about it. I suspect that, while it probably won't be quite up my alley, I will learn a great deal from giving the game a second look after all these years.

Everything I've seen suggests the T&T community is every bit as vibrant -- and old school -- as the OD&D community. There's a lot we have in common, not least of which being our reverence for the Old Ways in the face of brandification. Indeed, T&T holds a lot of fascination for me right now, because, by not being a huge mass market success, it was better able to hold on to its original spirit and approach than was D&D. In many ways, T&T represents a path not taken for D&D, at least in how it's been published and supported over the last 30+ years. I can't help but be a little jealous that D&D didn't enjoy a similar fate.

In any case, I'll be posting my thoughts and experiences with Tunnels & Trolls in the weeks and months ahead. D&D will probably always be "my" game, but I now have the feeling I'll appreciate T&T's unique virtues far better than I ever could have as a younger person. Thanks to everyone who set me on this path.


Kieran Forest has started a new blog dedicated to the development of his upcoming Swords & Wizardry/OD&D setting, Xothique. As its name suggests, it's based on Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique cycle, but uses a different spelling to make it clear that it's not a canonical take on these classic weird tales, but rather one suited for use as a gaming setting. I have to admit I'm pretty excited by the prospect of this. I'm a huge fan of Smith -- he's probably my favorite of the Big Three Weird Tales writers, for reasons I've mentioned before -- and I once pursued a license to produce a series of RPGs based on Smith's works. I eventually abandoned the idea, because of the odd relationship between CASiana Literary Enterprises (Smith's literary executors) and Arkham House, but that's probably a topic for another day.

In any case, I wish Kieran great success with this project and will certainly be following it with interest.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

I recently stumbled across this image on the Gygax Games forums and thought it an appropriate Christmas greeting for the blog and a reminder of the many fine people who helped build the hobby during the Golden Age. The image originally appeared in issue 11 of The Dragon (December 1977) and was apparently used as a Christmas card by TSR at the same time. The piece was illustrated by Dave Trampier (shown trying to grab his hat) and also includes caricatures of Gary Gygax (seated next to Tramp and smiling for the camera), Tom Wham, who's peering over at the precariously balanced Dave Sutherland, while Jake Jaquet reads, peacefully oblivious to Tim Kask's poor flying sleigh driving skills. Rob Kuntz is parachuting away from this madness and the poor fellow falling headfirst is Joe Orlowski, who was an editor and manager at The Dragon in its early days.

I'd like to extend my good wishes to all my readers this Christmas season. May you all enjoy a peaceful and joyous holiday.

Lux fulgebit hodie super nos: qui natus est nobis Dominus: et vocabitur Admirabilis, Deus, Principes pacis, Pater futuri saeculi: cujus regni non erit finis.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Advice Requested

Having spoken to enough people, I now convinced I need to give Tunnels & Trolls another shot. As I noted earlier, my disdain for it is based, at least in part, on unthinking prejudice and I'd like to correct that.

So, if anyone can point me toward what is generally considered the "best" edition of the game, I'd appreciate it. I'd be even more appreciative if said edition was one still available for purchase. I know that in recent years there have been at least two different editions published, but I'm not up on the differences between them, let alone knowledgeable enough to know which one would give me the "purest" experience of T&T's unique virtues. I'm sure someone among my many astute readers can point in the right direction.


The OD&D Planes

Serendipity seems to strike a lot in the blogging world, with lots of people riffing off the same basic themes and making many similar posts. Over at Demons & Dragons, Jarl Frå Oslo posted an image I'd just seen yesterday as I was re-reading early issues of The Strategic Review. It's from an article by Gary Gygax in issue 6 called "The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons and their Relationships to Good and Evil." It's a very fascinating article, because it's a glimpse into Gary's mind as he's expanding the threefold alignment structure of OD&D into the fivefold structure we see in Holmes.

Even more interesting, from a historical point of view if no other, is the aforementioned image, which doubles as an alignment graph and a map of the planes as Gary then conceived of them.

Notice the names: Heaven (not "Seven Heavens"), Paradise (not "Twin Paradises"), Elysium, Limbo, the Abyss, Hades, Hell (not "Nine Hells"), and Nirvana. There is also no plane associated with Neutrality, which is telling, I think. Notice too the beings listed as exemplars of the four cardinal alignments: Saint, Godling, Demon, and Devil. (What exactly a "godling" is I do not know, but I have some guesses)

I hope I'm not alone in thinking that this simplified structure, reminiscent of the more convoluted version we get in AD&D, is just keen. Like many aspects of OD&D + Supplements, I find that the end result is a kind of proto-AD&D or "AD&D Lite," and that's exactly the vibe I want in my games. In looking at this illustration, I was reminded of the planar structure Paizo adopted for its Golarion setting, which is eerily similar. Knowing Erik Mona's love for the old school, I'd not be the least bit surprised if this article was an inspiration when he and his crew were designing Golarion, but I have no proof of that. Even if it wasn't, I'm tickled to see some commonality between a 30 year-old article and contemporary game design. That doesn't happen everyday, alas.

The Implicit Christianity of Early Gaming

One of the many interesting ways that Dungeons & Dragons differs from its literary forebears is in the matter of religion. Pulp fantasy, by and large, is unconcerned with the subject. Priests are generally portrayed as hypocrites at best and outright villains at worst. Likewise, the actions of the gods, if they occur at all, are mysterious and easily written off by the skeptical as mere chance. This clearly isn't the case in D&D, where, thanks to the inclusion of the cleric, religion has always played a role in the game.

Granted, the cleric owes the better part of its existence to Hammer horror films, but, if you read OD&D, you can see that the class quickly evolved beyond its origins as a mere vampire hunter-cum-medic. The influence of historical medieval wargaming on the game shouldn't be overlooked. Everyone remembers Chainmail because of its Fantasy Supplement, but Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax didn't write these rules in order to facilitate miniatures battles between dragons and elves but instead to recreate the warfare and technology of the European Middle Ages. Gygax, by his own account, was very keen on medieval history, at least on the military side of things (no doubt the source of his pole arm-philia). Given this, is it any wonder that the armored, mace-wielding cleric bears a strong resemblance to the religious knights of the Crusades?

If you read OD&D carefully, you soon notice that a lot of the paraphernalia associated with clerics has Christian origins. The equipment list, for example, includes wooden and silver crosses, not the "holy symbols" of AD&D and later editions (Interestingly, there are no crucifixes, which I think is significant). The cleric's level titles include a number of specifically Christian terms (vicar, curate, and bishop). The illustrations of clerics in OD&D -- and even early AD&D -- always show them dressed in obviously Christian priestly garb. And of course many of the cleric's spells draw on Christian (and Jewish) religious writings and folklore. Indeed, the cleric's focus on defense and protection spells is, I think, more evidence of the Christian origins of the class. What's even more telling is the fact, even as late as Eldritch Wizardry, there are few (if any) explicit references to gods in OD&D. There's much talk of demons, devils,and, tellingly, saints, but gods aren't much talked about until Supplement IV's release in 1976.

I once asked Gary Gygax directly about the question of why this was so and he explained that he felt it unseemly to include anything too explicitly Christian in a mere game, even if he assumed a kind of quasi-Christian or crypto-Christian underpinning for the whole thing. This is also why his demons and devils used somewhat obscure names rather than very familiar ones. All the old school love for statting up Satan/Lucifer was something Gary didn't feel was proper. It's the same reason why, even in late AD&D, we get planetars, solars, and devas but never "angels." Interestingly, the original Blackmoor campaign, as I understand it, had a Church, complete with a hierarchy, but no named gods. Again -- and someone can correct me if I'm mistaken on this -- there's an assumption of a quasi-Christianity lurking in the background.

Reading Chivalry & Sorcery as I have been, there's a bit more explicit assumption of Christianity there, but it's still stated in a somewhat circuitous fashion -- an oddity given the great detail given to things like ecclesiastical structures, beliefs, relics, and so on, not to mention the lengthy bestiaries of demons (including Lucifer himself). In the case of C&S, the impression I get is that its authors simply assumed that their readers wanted their games to include lots of quasi-Christianity, since it was more "realistic" than the henotheism of most fantasy RPGs. I know that, in my early days of gaming, my friends and I all tacitly assumed that clerics were Christian priests -- heck, I thought monks were as well -- and that, somewhere, behind all the monsters and magic, the Lord of Hosts was lurking.

We never really talked about this assumption or dealt with it in any direct way, but we neither did we question it. It was an odd kind of Christ-less Christianity, more concerned with laying the smackdown on evil than with turning the other cheek or taking up one's cross, except in the most vague of senses. The paladin was an unambiguously Christian knight for us and indeed Lawful Goodness we associated with this unspoken religion that had bishops and cathedrals and holy water and everything else a young boy saw as being "essential" to medieval Christendom.

As time went on and our sense of D&D changed, this implicit Christianity became less important, but it never fully faded away, because it just seemed to us that there was just no other way to look at the cleric and the paladin except in the context of quasi-Christianity. Nowadays, I'm probably too immersed in swords-and-sorcery to fall into this perspective again, but I am now more firmly convinced than ever that early gaming, far from being "pagan," was in fact shot through with Christian belief, practice, and lore. It was always a kind of "fairytale Christianity" broadly consonant with American generic Protestantism rather than anything more muscular, but it was there and it's never really died, even if all the post-1e editions of D&D have tried to varying degrees to remove all evidence of it. I find it fascinating to remember this, if only because, as I spin off in flights of pulp fantasy fancy, it's good to be reminded that D&D owes its origins to more than just that style of fantasy and is in fact a goulash of unspoken and contradictory inspirations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Disenchantment of the World

Robert Fisher recently made a nice little post that reminded me of a thought I'd been having as well. In it, Robert quotes someone -- from ENWorld of all places! -- who notes that, "how versatile and multi-functional so many of the magic items [of AD&D] were. They were powerful, and they were odd, and fascinating, and most important of all a lot of them could do all kinds of things." The commenter adds that "By comparison so many of the magic items of more recent editions are bland, plain, uninspired, and uninspiring. It’s like using a piece of technology from the eighties or something. The items are overly specialized, technical, usually limited to one specific function, top-heavy in design and capabilities."

I definitely think there's something to this. Whenever I read my little brown books, I'm constantly struck by how much more, well, magical the magic items seem to be. One of the reasons is because, more often than not, the descriptions of the item contains almost nothing in the way of explicit mechanics. They're suggestive of mechanics but they provide no unambiguous way to handle their use in play. They're mostly flavor text that doubles as game mechanics and so, as I read these entries, I find myself thinking, "What does that mean?" and "How would that work in play?" My answers to these questions almost always result in items that aren't just pieces of magical technology but something much more intriguing.

Take, for example, the old standby -- and something even I will admit is a rip-off from Tolkien -- the elven cloak. This is what OD&D has to say about it: "Wearing the Cloak makes a person next to invisible." Next to invisible? What does that mean? Contrast this to AD&D, whose description of the item, now dubbed the cloak of elvenkind, is much more specific:
A cloak of elvenkind is of a plain neutral gray which is indistinguishable from any sort of ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when it is worn, with the hood drawn up around he head, it enables the wearer to be nearly invisible, for the cloak has chameleon-like powers. In the outdoors, the wearer of a cloak of elvenkind is almost totally invisible in natural surroundings, nearly so in other settings. Note that the wearer is easily seen if violently or hastily moving, regardless of the surroundings.
The description then goes on to give specific percentage chances of how invisible the wearer is, from 100% in heavy growth in natural surroundings to 50% while underground and illuminated by the continual light spell. I'm not keen on this degree of specificity, but, even with it, there's still some wiggle room for the referee -- and players! -- because what constitutes "heavy growth" as opposed to "light growth" is a matter of opinion. You can see, though, that, even with all the expansive physical/metaphysical description of the cloak, its functioning ultimately comes down to a D100 roll.

Third Edition, as it so often does, pares down Gygaxian flavor text and reduces AD&D's baroque mechanics to banality: "This cloak of neutral gray cloth is indistinguishable from an ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when worn with the hood drawn up around the head, it gives the wearer a +5 competence bonus on Hide checks." Fourth Edition is even more laconic: "Gain an item bonus to Stealth checks equal to the cloak’s enhancement bonus." There's not even a nod to flavor text.

I fully understand why D&D's descriptions of magic items have developed the way that they have, but that doesn't mean I have to approve of it. In my opinion, the so-called "Christmas tree effect" is not a consequence of there being too many magic items in D&D (though I have no objection to making them rarer). Rather, it's the result of reducing magic items to being a collection game mechanics that always and everywhere work in the same way. If an elven cloak is always a flat +X bonus to skill check Y, then of course the item becomes problematic when combined with other bonuses gleaned from other sources, thereby lending credence to the absurd notion that magic items need to be "reined in."

I grow ever more convinced that the quest for "objectivity" and "balance" in roleplaying games is the surest way to bleed all the magic out of them, as well as to create an audience that then perceives any "imbalance" as a flaw requiring yet more corrections and re-tunings to overcome. Certainly this approach sells more books and helps give further justification to "Sage Advice" columns and the like, but at what cost? "Game balance" is a chimera and not the cool three-headed variety. To embrace this is one of the keys to appreciating and enjoying old school play. It's something I embraced with great joy and I've never looked back.

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Lest Darkness Fall

My distaste for the harm L. Sprague De Camp wrought to the reputations of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft notwithstanding, there's no denying that he was an important figure in the early days of fantasy and science fiction and that his writings greatly influenced Dungeons & Dragons. De Camp is almost unique among the writers Gary Gygax listed in Appendix N in that his name appears not once but twice -- once alone and a second time linked to that of his writing partner Fletcher Pratt, with whom he co-wrote the Harold Shea stories. (Pratt, of course, is the only other author whose name appears twice)

Consequently, it'd be a grave mistake to overlook the De Camp books listed in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide. Among them is 1941's Lest Darkness Fall, originally published in 1939 as a short story in Unknown magazine. Like many of the books that influenced D&D, Lest Darkness Fall is the story of a modern person transported to another world -- in this case, 6th century Italy -- who, through a combination of modern know-how and determination, changes this other world forever.

The modern person of De Camp's tale is Martin Padway, an American archeologist, who, after using his knowledge to introduce unheard of inventions (brandy, printing press, newspapers, telegraph) and thereby make himself wealthy, becomes involved in the politics of Ostrogothic Italy. Over the course of the novel, Padway's actions change history by stabilizing the Ostrogothic kingdom, beating back the Byzantines, and even preventing the foundation of Islam. What's interesting is that Padway never once considers the consequences of his actions in the past, even though they will undoubtedly destroy the future from which he came. I confess that De Camp tells the story with such good humor and verve that I didn't much care about such things, preferring instead to enjoy the novel for what it is: an amusing tale well-told. Harry Turtledove, contemporary master of alternate history, agrees and credits Lest Darkness Fall for igniting his interest in history and, by extension, alternate history.

Alternate histories and parallel worlds are a significant part of the pulp fantasy heritage of Dungeons & Dragons. They've largely been lost in the game's modern incarnations. Indeed, I can't recall any specific connection between a D&D world and our own in anything published in over 20 years. Once upon a time, that wasn't the norm: adventurers regularly encountered dimensional castaways from 20th century Earth or raided the British Museum in search of the Mace of St. Cuthbert. I miss things more than I realized, which is why I plan to do my part to restore this aspect of D&D's heritage in my own campaigns.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Light Bulb

Over at Greyhawk Grognard, Joseph has written a terrific post on megadungeons as "campaign tent poles," by which he means that a megadungeon serves admirably as the thing that "holds the rough up" of a campaign, even if there are -- and should be -- other things under that rough. That is, a megadungeon is a terrific foundation on which to build a campaign, but, being the foundation, it pretty much demands that you build something else on top of it in order to use it to its fullest. Clearly, both the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns operated in this fashion, being focused on the exploration and looting of a megadungeon, but expanding beyond it as the demands of campaign events and player desire demanded it.

I've become ever more convinced that a "tent pole" megadungeon is pretty much a sine qua non for an old school campaign. Dungeons & Dragons was written, after all, with megadungeons in mind and I don't think you can really get the most out of the game if you avoid the whole concept. In thinking about this, I realized two things. First, there's never really been a properly presented old school campaign setting, because none that I know of have ever given us the megadungeons around which they revolved. It seems to me that, if I were an old school publisher looking for a "killer app," it'd be a well-done megadungeon and surrounding wilderness, done in a way that fosters sandbox/hexcrawl play. Second, I've now realized that my growing dissatisfaction with AD&D 2e stems in part from the fact that few of its many and much loved campaign settings had much scope for a tent pole megadungeon. Or rather, megadungeons are possible in them, but they weren't generally aspects of the setting that official support encouraged. Consider:
  • Al-Qadim: A megadungeon might work in this setting with some work. It'd be a bit odd, given the socio-cultural nature of the setting, but there are enough ruined cities around in the desert that I could imagine it.
  • Birthright: A megadungeon in Cerillia would really shift the focus of the campaign away from the power politics for which it was created.
  • Dark Sun: Actually, this setting probably could have handled a megadungeon. Indeed, there was even a boxed set, City by the Silt Sea, that featured the ruined city of Giustenal that could have been presented as a megadungeon. Alas, it was instead used as a springboard for advancing a execrable metaplot. More's the pity.
  • Dragonlance: I have a hard time imagining a megadungeon on Krynn, but perhaps I'm too biased to consider the possibilities.
  • Planescape: I can't even begin to imagine what a megadungeon campaign in the Planes would be like.
  • Ravenloft: The megadungeon would probably work least well in this setting of all those I've listed.
  • Spelljammer: Interestingly, the Spelljammer itself was effectively a megadungeon and even got its own boxed set detailing it. Unfortunately, it was as bland as white bread and it was clear that TSR wasn't all that keen on doing much more with the concept.
On second reflection, it's more apparent to me that most of the 2e settings could be retooled to support a tent pole megadungeon, but the reality is that none were presented that way back in the day. That makes it appear in my memory as if they were much less amenable to D&D's origins than they actually were. That said, I never encountered anyway who attempted to run a megadungeon game in Cerillia or Athas and fans of these settings never mention their utility as the backdrop for megadungeon exploration in their paeans to them. So, while I'll concede that I've been more unfair to them than I ought to have been, the fact remains that 2e was an era that moved away from tent pole megadungeons as a principle of setting design and that still irks me even years later.

In any case, I think the tent pole megadungeon is, despite its antiquity, something we've never really seen on the publishing side of things. That may be because it's inherently un-publishable, but I'm not convinced of that. Indeed, I'm starting to think that a tent pole megadungeon might in fact be a rare example of an old idea that could catch fire again. The difficulty, of course, is in how its presented and in resisting the urge to over-detail and brandify the megadungeon to the point of uselessness. Some ideas are swirling in my head and I'll chat about them later, probably after I've reviewd Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. Having now read through the entirety of that module, I have some very clear ideas on what works and what doesn't and where the approach taken in that product went awry and why. They're lessons I've taken to heart while working on Dwimmermount and I'll elaborate on them soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Plot Thickens

I'm not a regular visitor to the Gygax Games website, in part because the recent announcements regarding the disposition of Gary's unfinished gaming projects left me ill at ease. From the looks of it, the whole thing smacked of a money grab on the part of Mrs Gygax, perhaps egged on by third parties who felt they could take better financial advantage of her late husband's legacy. Nevertheless, I paid a visit to the site yesterday and noticed that a Holiday Greeting, signed by Mrs Gygax, appeared on its front page. Reading through it, I noticed a number of interesting things that, while far from making everything plain, do cast a slightly different light on recent events.

After reminding everyone that it's been nine months since Gary died, Mrs Gygax adds that "I want you all to know, Gary and I discussed his wishes for his works prior to his passing and I am following the road map he left for me. Many of you are unaware how close we were, I was devoted to him." This is intriguing. Firstly, I think it's good to see Mrs Gygax laying claim to this message. Whether or not she actually wrote it, the fact remains that, by speaking directly to the point that what is happening is happening because her husband wanted it to be so, she helps to dispel rumors that she has no idea what is going on and is being manipulated by others. Gail Gygax is now a known quantity rather than some abstraction in the background. Secondly, her mention of a "road map" implies that she's acting on the wishes of Gary himself and it's vital she get people to believe this.

Now, I personally have no difficulty at all in believing that Gary, in the months leading up to his death last March, got all his affairs in order and discussed with his wife what he wanted to be done with his various properties and projects. I recall Gary's frequent allusions to his eventual demise on various message boards as early as the summer of 2007, if not before. I think it highly likely that he did in fact produce some kind of a "road map" for his wife to follow. What is unclear and probably always will be is the actual content of this road map and the extent to which Mrs Gygax is following what is laid out in it. By that I mean that I can believe Gary might have laid out what he wanted to see done with the Castle Zagyg project after his death, but I'm not certain that he specified, for example, that the license be revoked from Troll Lords and given to someone else. I'm not saying it's impossible (and I'll expand my thoughts on this shortly), but I'd like to see more evidence.

Mrs Gygax further explains her role: "To that end, after Gary passed, I asked Spencer Wright and Jon Creffield to help me. They have given freely of their time, we should all thank them. I am grateful for their help. They are not advising me what to do, but helping to maintain the integrity of the IP and continue its development." I've italicized the key bit there. Again, Mrs Gygax says the buck stops with her and, by implication, that it stops with the road map that Gary laid out before his death. She then concludes with these words:

Gary would want us all to be kind to each other during this time of transition and especially kind to each other during this holiday season. After all, that’s what his life was all about – creating environments for the enjoyment of others –

I plan to continue his mission.

That conclusion rings very true. I didn't know Gary Gygax personally -- we were, at best, infrequent email correspondents -- but I like to think I understood him. In recent years, he was a much more pacific and less cantankerous personality. He remained strong-willed, even opinionated, on many topics, but he was also much more giving and indeed forgiving than popular caricatures would have us believe. He had a keen sense of his role in the hobby and he was genuinely -- and regularly -- touched by the outpouring of affections he engendered. Consequently, toward the end, he seemed to me to be very interested in fostering fun and enjoyment and ensuring that it was those things that were his legacies.

What is now very clear to me is that Mrs Gygax has decided to step out from the shadows a bit and boldly state that what is happening now is happening in accordance to a plan she is following, a plan laid down by Gary before his death. I think it was important that she do this, but stating it does come with some risks, not least being the likelihood that many might not believe her. After all, while he was alive, Gary spoke highly of Troll Lords and, so far as anyone knows, never considered pulling the Castle Zagyg license out from under them, despite all the delays and missteps that were undoubtedly their fault and not his own. As I'll explain in my upcoming review of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, late as it was, the product shows many signs of having been rushed and less well produced than it ought to have been and surely Gary knew this would be the case. Yet, he continued to work with the Trolls without any public hint of displeasure or unhappiness. So why would Mrs Gygax now revoke the license when Gary never did so during his lifetime?

I have no answer to that question. I suppose it's possible that Gary was simply unwilling to pull the trigger on such a move because of his personal affection for the Trolls. On the other hand, why set up his wife to look like the bad guy after his death? Whatever else he was, Gary was no coward and I find it hard to imagine he'd planned to go to the grave without voicing his dissatisfaction like that. This is the part of the whole affair that still rankles me, not because I think it impossible that someone else might do a better job with Castle Zagyg -- depending on what approach is taken, it's quite possible, in my opinion -- but because it seems somehow "un-Gygaxian." As I say, I didn't know the man personally, so I could be wrong; I hope, though, that, if he had genuine problems with the Trolls, he'd have made them plain while still alive. Indeed, it's also possible that he did and it was because of this that he instructed his wife to pursue other avenues for the project after his death.

We may never know the truth, but there's now more evidence to sift through that might get us closer to it. I'll be paying careful attention to what happens next and will have some additional thoughts relating to this when I complete my own review of The Upper Works.

Another Old School Tradition

I know it's not fashionable to discuss such things, but I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the prejudices I have retained about certain old school games and the gamers who played them. I've mentioned before that I had a double initiation into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980 through my friend Mike's metalhead older brother and the grognards who hung around the hobby shops I frequented. Besides teaching me the rules of D&D -- or at least their interpretation of those rules -- they also taught me a few "truths" about other games and the people who played them.

Some gamers mistakenly think that "edition wars" and "badwrongfun" are somehow unique to these modern times, but I'm here to tell you that's just not the case. Pretty much from the moment I entered the hobby, I learned that, even among gamers, there were "guys like us" and "weirdos." Weirdos were the ones who played games we didn't play and that no one we knew played or, if we did know them, we knew them to be somehow mentally and/or morally deficient and thus exactly the sort of sub-human who'd play "those games."

What were "those games?" As I said, they were any game we didn't play, but three in particular stick out in my mind:
  • Chivalry & Sorcery: Playing C&S probably only counted as a venial sin, because most of us back then had succumbed to the temptation to try and make D&D "more realistic" or at least "truer to medieval history," whatever that meant. C&S -- or so we were told, as none of us ever actually played the game -- was a game for real geeks, the kinds of people even my friends and I would shun. They were the pocket protector and taped-up glasses crowd, as opposed to the "normal" guys we all perceived ourselves to be. Thanks to one of my readers, Richard, I've finally got my hands on a copy of C&S and will be reading it with great enthusiasm. My first impression, based only on a cursory scan of it, is that my old prejudice, while perhaps overly judgmental, wasn't that far off. C&S does appear to be too complicated by half, but then I didn't expect anything less from the company that brought us Space Opera.
  • RuneQuest: Even my friend's metalhead brother thought RQ was too trippy. What I remember most were his rants about how it had anthropomorphic ducks -- "How can you take that seriously?" he would ask -- and that "everyone can use magic." I never actually played the game for any length of time myself until the star-crossed days when Avalon Hill published its third edition, but I remember reading about it in White Dwarf, which seemed obsessed with it. RQ gamers were generally considered "hippies" who had "done too many drugs" and so we didn't have anything to do with them. When I finally did play the game for myself, I found it hard to fathom what all the fuss was about back in those early days.
  • Tunnels & Trolls: T&T was the game for guys who "couldn't hack D&D." It was widely considered a "joke game" and even more ludicrous than ones with duck men in it. I did get a chance to play T&T at the time and I'll admit that I hated it. Even now, I still bristle at the spell names and the tongue in cheek way a lot of it is presented. I have a greater appreciation fo some of its rules and presentation, but it's definitely not a game for me. I'm not sure it's a "joke," but it's nevertheless much more "jokey" than I like my RPGs to be.
It's very interesting looking back on those early days and remembering that there were cliques and camps and sects even back then. That seems to be the nature of fandoms of all sorts, particularly large and popular ones. In those bygone days, when roleplaying was a fad, pretty much everyone I knew gamed and the bulk of us all played D&D (or Traveller), so those who didn't do so were quickly branded as oddballs.

There's a rich irony there, given that gaming, even in its heyday, was never cool or treated with the same respect as being a good athlete or good student was (it's worth noting too that not every gamer I knew was a genius; many of them were downright dim academically). But dividing our fellow gamers up and putting them into categories we could exclude just seemed to be the natural thing to do. It's something that's unfortunately stuck with me all these years and, though I try to fight against it, the old prejudices do bubble up to the surface from time to time.

Now, I'm not advocating the notion that games, being mere entertainments, automatically defy meaningful criticism or that we ought to like them all without qualification, out of misplaced solidarity -- the "we're all gamers here" syndrome. As I stated above, I still think Tunnels & Trolls is more than a little silly and thus not worth my time and could argue at some length in defense of my opinion. That's not the same thing as saying that everyone ought to feel the same way about it or any other game. What I do advocate is reasoned discussion about the relative merits of many games, because I think such is possible. It's also the reason why I don't bow to the notion that "old school" is a phrase empty of meaning. Simply because there is disagreement about its meaning doesn't prove that it has no meaning. To my mind, it only proves that we need to discuss the phrase more in order to refine its meaning, but then that's my way with most things.

In any case, reflecting on my past prejudices is a valuable exercise and highlights some of my blind spots and misapprehensions. Not every negative opinion I have of certain games is based purely on prejudice, but some of them are and I'm working on overcoming those that are. I can't make any promise that I'll succeed in my efforts, but do know that I am working hard at it, which is really all I can do.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dwimmermount Takes Shape

The first session of Dwimmermount is scheduled for this Sunday and the PCs are starting to take shape. So far we have a cleric of Tyche, a gravedigger turned fighting-man -- he uses a pick axe as his weapon, naturally -- a dwarf, and an elf. It's a little more demihuman-heavy than I'd originally expected, but I'm willing to roll with the punches on this one. At this stage, the likelihood that any one of these characters will live to second level, let alone higher, is slim, so I'll worry about the long-term implications of so many non-humans later, if it should become an issue.

On the subject of elves, like all OD&D referees, I need to decide how to handle them. Swords & Wizardry takes a middle road, noting that elves "may choose, on any given day (perhaps when the moon rises) whether to use the capabilities of a magic-user, or of a fighting-man. As a result, the adventurer has two alternate class to-hit bonuses and saving throws, depending upon whether he donned steel that day or summoned up the power to cast spells." While this lends a quirky, fey quality to elves -- and that's a good thing! -- I prefer a different approach: Elves are multi-class characters and before each session, the player of an elf must decide whether he is acting primarily as a fighter or as a magic-user. Which che chooses governs his "to hit" rolls and saves and all experience earned goes toward that class. Regardless, an elf may use any weapon and may cast spells provided he's not wearing non-magical armor.

More on Dwimmermount later.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

REVIEW: Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom

Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom is a 13-page PDF released by James Mishler's Adventure Games Publishing and selling for $3.00. Describing the worship of the Aesir (and Vanir) gods, this product is the first in the "Faiths of the City State" series for use with AGP's Wilderlands of High Adventure setting, but it's generic enough that it'd be useful in any setting that includes the Norse pantheon. Likewise, though Forn Sidthr written with Castles & Crusades in mind, makes no specific references to C&C's game mechanics, thereby making it easy to use with any fantasy RPG, old school or otherwise.

The product begins with a one-page overview of the religious life of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The overview gives a good sense of the riotous polytheism of the City State and, by implication, the Wilderlands as a whole by introducing five ranks to measure one's devotion to a particular faith: irregular, regular, semi-exclusive, initiate, and priest. What's nice about these ranks is that, in addition to providing context for the setting, they also include practical guidelines about what level of religious devotion qualifies one for each. It's a small thing, admittedly, but I appreciated it, since, as we'll see shortly, there are consequences to whether one is devout or lax in his observances.

Five pages are devoted to Old Custom itself, with information on the religion's history, deities, symbols, hierarchy, and so forth. There's also a section detailing the Forn Sidthr's beliefs and dogma. Again, this information is presented very practically, with eye toward how it can be used in play. This is not an abstract flight of fancy into fantastical theology but rather a brief but specific discussion of how adherents to the Old Custom behave -- or are expected to, at any rate -- and what this means. I also appreciated the way that these five pages gave a sense of the Forn Sidthr as being a unified pantheon with a proper "church." All too often, fantasy games have no notion of ritual, hierarchy, or doctrine, treating religion as individualistic and atomized, with no regard for how its various pieces fit together. Forn Sidthr nicely avoids that error, but without committing the concomitant error of getting bogged down in pointless detail.

The last six pages of the PDF are devoted to a discussion of the afterlife and the disposition of the soul of a follower of the Old Custom. In it, we're introduced to a new system that tracks the virtues and sins of members of the faith, so that the referee can keep a running tallying that determines the fate of a character's soul after death. The section catalogs the major and minor acts that earn one approbation or condemnation in the eyes of the Aesir and gives a table that enables the referee to see what happens to your character should he die at any given point. Depending on his faithfulness, he could be rewarded with a seat at Odin's table in Valhalla or cursed to wander the earth as an undead draugr -- or anything in between. The table also shows how effective raise dead and similar spells will be on a character whose soul is in each category, which I found to be an excellent bit of forethought on Mishler's part.

I can find almost nothing to dislike in Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom, except perhaps its somewhat pedestrian three-column layout, but that's a small quibble, because, boring though it may be, the layout is nevertheless easy on the eyes and free from errors. This is an excellent product and a good example I think of how much Mishler has learned since he began publishing his Wilderlands products. Earlier products tended to be a bit too "heavy" on minutiae for my liking, whereas his more recent endeavors have been eminently "practical" in their approach. They don't skimp on details by any means, but the details are carefully chosen for maximum utility. That is, they're useful in play and not just as bits of trivia that gamers can swap while talking about playing rather than actually doing so. For me, this quality is exactly what old school gaming products should possess and Mishler has shown he understands it well. I continue to be very impressed with AGP's PDFs and look forward to future releases with great anticipation.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Retrospective: Dungeonland

When you insert this module into your campaign, do so without alerting the players. That is, they will not see a white rabbit and a rabbit hole anywhere, nor will they discover a looking glass to pass through. I have tried these methods, and they put players on guard immediately. Conceal this module within the body of your game material. At a convenient point—for you, not for the party—have them fall into a pit or have a passageway suddenly become a perpendicular shaft. Then have them descend, ever so slowly, into the “front door” of Dungeonland.
Published in 1983, Dungeonland, like so many of the modules written by Gary Gygax in the last few years of his time at TSR, is a throwback, an atavism, a reminder of the early days of the hobby. I'm not sure one can necessarily draw any conclusions about Gary's opinions on the state of the game he helped created almost a decade earlier, but I think it's interesting to note that, just as the Hickman Revolution was building up a head of steam, the Dungeon Master was producing not one but several modules that ran counter to the adventure design principles in vogue at the time.

Dungeonland -- an obvious pun on "Wonderland" -- sits on the faultlines of a couple bugaboos of gaming and, like many similar modules, one's reaction to it is a good indication of how in tune one is with the pulse of the early hobby. First and foremost, module EX1 is a classic "funhouse" module. It has no rhyme or reason; there is no grand explanation for how or why Dungeonland exists, except that Gary Gygax felt, as have many other old school referees, that Lewis Carroll's imaginary world serves as a great inspiration for a whimsical, if deadly, adventure. Second, Dungeonland is clearly meant to challenge the player, not his character. Throughout the module, there are many places where the standard rules of D&D don't apply, leaving the characters without recourse to their usual bag of tricks. The only way to overcome such circumstances is for the player to be clever, using his wits and his knowledge of Carroll's tales to assist him. It's an adventure that actually invites players to engage in the heinous sin of "meta-gaming," because, many times, it's the best chance one's character has of surviving. In short, Dungeonland is a module that mocks "immersion" and adds a much-needed layer of nuance to one's understanding of what naturalism is and is not.

I've noted before that I have never been a huge fan of funhouse dungeons, but I've always liked Dungeonland (and its sequel, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror). Perhaps it's because, as a child, I found the stories of Alice's adventures simultaneously awesome and terrifying. Wonderland truly is a wonder -- an alien landscape following its own bizarre "rules" and shot through with a darkness that, even as a kid, I found strangely compelling, even as I was horrified by it. I don't have to imagine why Gary Gygax found the idea of throwing his players into a D&D-ified version of the same to be such a grand jest. Likewise, fan of the Harold Shea stories that he was, I imagine it seemed perfectly reasonable to him that there existed a dimension parallel to Greyhawk that was based on a twisted version of Lewis Carroll's creations. Couple that with the opportunity to engage in painful punnery and gallow's humor and suddenly the whole venture seems to have been tailor-made for Gary's unique talents.

I have a hard time imagining a module like Dungeonland being written today, at least outside the old school movement. Indeed, even within the old school community, there are probably lots of people who would look askance at it. EX1 is a concatenation of opposites: at once light-hearted and deadly, literary and low-brow, and, above all, supremely challenging. Run in the spirit in which it was written, players will be hard pressed to come out of this adventure with their characters intact. An adventure like this was already a museum piece in 1983, at the close of the Golden Age. How much more of a curiosity would it be regarded 25 years later? There is no story to Dungeonland -- except the story of a book most gamers have probably never read -- and no attempt to provide anything more than a dangeous romp that players can, if they succeed, take pride in having beaten. I can still tell you many stories of my own players' adventures in Dungeonland, right down to how some of their characters died, which is a pretty good indication of how memorable Dungeonland is. How many modules published in its wake, no matter how finely crafted, can say the same?