Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Posts Tomorrow

I'll likely be incommunicado tomorrow, since I'll be going on a school trip with my son. There's also (in theory, assuming the cable company actually comes when they're supposed to) some work being done to fix my poor phone and Internet connectivity lately. That might take my offline for a while, but I'll resume posts and comments once things settle, which I hope will be sooner rather than later.

Retrospective: The Morrow Project

As I think I've mentioned before, when I was a kid, there were certain games that had a mystique associated with them. This mystique wasn't always a good thing; sometimes it was a bad thing, as in the case of, for example, Chivalry & Sorcery, which my friends and I deemed "too complex" and "unplayable." Looking back on it, I realize that most such games were ones we didn't play or didn't know people who played and so either assumed were "bad" games or "elite" ones -- games so amazing that only a special few gamers were worthy to play them. TimeLine Limited's 1980 post-apocalyptic RPG The Morrow Project fell into the latter category.

Unlike Gamma World, which was my post-apocalyptic game of choice, The Morrow Project had a reputation for being "realistic." In retrospect, this reputation was ill-deserved, but, back then, games that fetishized firearms and military gear were typically considered realistic, even if, as in TMP's case, they also included "undead" beings reanimated by radiation. I think TMP's reputation was also based on its premise: the characters are all cryogenically frozen soldiers and scientists who awaken 150 years after a nuclear holocaust destroyed civilization as we know it. As a premise, it's a good one, since it allows the players to portray people not unlike themselves who are thrown headlong into a world gone mad where they're expected to try to lay the groundwork for a rebirth of civilization. This gives both players and referees a straightforward frame of reference and structure on which to build a campaign.

The Morrow Project suffered somewhat from having a fairly uninspired game system, except where combat was concerned, where the aforementioned gun fetishism comes into play. But like a lot of games from those days, gamers overlooked rules inadequacies because the world it described was a compelling one. Living nearly 30 years later, it's hard to remember just how plausible a nuclear holocaust seemed to many people, particularly young men. While I certainly didn't live in perpetual fear of World War III, I didn't discount its possibility and I spent many hours imagining what my life might be like if such a thing did occur. What made The Morrow Project so attractive was that it simultaneously acknowledged my youthful fears and assuaged them by giving us a chance to play men and women from the present trying to save the future. Even now, I find the scenario it paints a powerful one.

TimeLine Limited still exists, albeit under different ownership. There have been plans for a 4th edition of The Morrow Project for some time, but they have yet to see the light of day, owing, I suspect, to the limited resources of the current owners. That's too bad, because a revamped version of the game, with simpler but expanded rules and an updated setting could be just as compelling today as it was back in 1980. Fear of nuclear annihilation may not be as common as it once was, but most of us, I think, still worry about the future and the possibility that our actions today might create not a better but a worse world. Games like The Morrow Project speak to that possibility in an engaging way, which is a pretty good goal for any roleplaying game in my opinion.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Lost" Gygaxian Classes

As I reported yesterday, Randall at RetroRoleplaying found a number of "lost" D&D articles, written by Gary Gygax and Len Lakofka, which appeared in Lakofka's Diplomacy fanzine, Liaisons Dangereuses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I printed off many of the articles he found and have been reading them with great interest. Of particular note, to me anyway, were issues 74 and 76 (September 14, 1976 and December 14, 1976, respectively), each of which included D&D classes I'd never seen before.

Issue 74 describes the Pyrologist or "Fire User," a magic-user sub-class specializing in, as you'd expect, fire magic. There are many interesting things about this class, which, in some ways, resembles the more well-known Illusionist. Firstly, pyrologists seem to have strong clerical connections, as it's noted that they "may also progress as clerics," although the text adds the cryptic qualification "but they must do so in separate campaigns," whatever that means. Though both good and evil pyrologists are possible, evil pyrologists can advance higher as clerics (8th level as opposed to 6th). Speaking of alignment, there's a note that fire users "are always highly Lawful" and, from the text, it's made clear that this applies to both good and evil members of the class. Elves may become pyrologists, but, if they choose to do so, they "may not later choose to be an Illusionist, Alchemist or normal Magic User though Fighter and Thief are still available" as options.

Like illusionists, pyrologists have their own spell list, including a large number of new spells, many of which I've never seen before. Some re-appear in other contexts under different names, so Gygax mustn't have forgotten about the class, even if he never updated to AD&D. I'm not sure I'd use the class as written in my own campaign, but it's intriguing nonetheless. For one thing, it's a potent reminder of the days before D&D had been rationalized, when neither its designers nor players balked at special cases and one-off rules. I'm actually a big fan of pre-2e "specialist magic-users" and deeply regret that we never got to see Gary's proposed savant class for this reason. I feel strongly that 2e's approach to the concept was deeply wrong-headed and it's a pity subsequent designs have followed its lead rather than that of classes like the illusionist and pyrologist.

Issue 76 is, in many ways, even more interesting, since it tackles "dwarves & hobbits & magic." The article provides rules for hobbit druids (who "may advance separately as a Druid and a Thief"). Interestingly, such multi-class druid/thieves "fights as a Thief but has saving throws as a Cleric," which is highly suggestive about the mechanics surrounding multi-class characters in the old days. Both hobbits and dwarves may also be clerics or cleric/fighters. Both races are limited to 7th level and many of their spells, including healing, cures, and raise dead, are either less effective or ineffective against races other than their own. This puts comments about dwarf clerics who "can cure and resurrect their own" in Greyhawk in a new light.

Issue 76 also gives us the dwarf craftsman class, which gains "abilities" as it advances through levels. Abilities have levels, like spells, and a craftsman character must choose which ability he wishes to learn from a list. Unlike spells, many abilities can be used more often than once per day, although some are similarly limited. Abilities range from low-level ones like "Wedge Door" and "Dig Trench" -- both obviously useful in dungeoneering -- to high-level ones like "Summon Earth Elemental" and "Make Mithril Coat." It's an interesting concept for a class and one I'd actually be keen to see someone use in a game. If nothing else, the craftsman provides a good model for creating other "semi-magical" classes or indeed even classes distinguished by specific "abilities." Heck, part of me ponders and alternate thief class based on the craftsman.

Two final comments: First, throughout both articles, the term "character" is never used; the word "figure" is used instead. Second, I am amazed that, in a fanzine devoted to Diplomacy, there was so much D&D-related content. Taken together, these two things reveal the extent to which D&D took the wargaming community by storm in the mid-70s.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yet More Gygaxiana

Randall over at RetroRoleplaying has links to even more early articles by Gary Gygax about D&D, this time from Len "Leomund" Lakofka's old Diplomacy fanzine, Liaisons Dangereuses.

Awesome stuff.

Gygax in Europa

This is old news to some, but I thought I ought to make mention of it here nonetheless. An old article by Gary Gygax, entitled "How to Set Up Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaign -- And Be Stuck Refereeing It Seven Days Per Week Until the Wee Hours of the Morning!", was recently unearthed. It appeared in a European wargaming fanzine called Europa in the April 1975 issue. Gary's article appears on pages 18-20 and is quite fascinating from a historical perspective, both in terms of his discussion of how he designed his own campaign and because it's from a very early period, before D&D's popularity reached its eventual heights. Gygax also describes, albeit sketchily, the 13 levels of the original Castle Greyhawk and their inhabitants.

The other thing of interest here is that the article is clearly written by "Gamer Gary," as opposed to "TSR Gary." That is, it's written from the perspective of one gamer to another rather than being full of pontifical pronouncements by someone looking to sell you new products. Gamers who entered the hobby after 1979 or so probably have little to no experience of "Gamer Gary" and even I sometimes forget about his existence. It's nice to be reminded of him from time to time and this short article does that very well, in addition to its other more obvious uses.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Nine Princes in Amber

I'll admit upfront that I've never been a big fan of Roger Zelazny's "Chronicles of Amber." I've read the series -- at least the part of it published in the 1970s -- and found it intellectually interesting, but something about its characters and plots just didn't click with me. That's certainly no crime; lots of very good books aren't to my taste. The only reason it bugs me in this particular case is because Gary Gygax included the series in Appendix N as an influence on AD&D. Likewise, I enjoyed Jack of Shadows, also by Zelazny, which shares similar themes with the "Amber" books, thus making my own lack of enthusiasm all the more peculiar.

The series kicks off with 1970's Nine Princes in Amber, which is the one book of the original five I enjoyed without qualification. The book begins with a man named Carl Corey who finds himself in a secluded medical clinic, unable to remember who he is or how he got there. In time, he learns that he was the victim of an automobile accident and that he was sent to the clinic at the expense of his sister. This information convinces Carl to escape the clinic and seek out his sister, hoping it might shed further light on his situation.

When he finds his sister, she addresses him by another name -- Corwin -- and his reluctant to let him stay with her. She does, however, which enables Carl/Corwin to come across a strange set of Tarot-like cards, through which he sees people and images associated with his life, a life he still cannot remember. In addition, he's contacted by a brother, Random, who asks Carl/Corwin for his protection and in turn offers to take him back to a place called Amber. Since Carl/Corwin has no idea what is going on or why, he agrees and soon finds himself in a strange reality, where he and his family (including eight brothers, of which Random is only one) wield remarkable powers and are forever plotting against one another for control.

Nine Princes in Amber has a lot going for it, chiefly the mystery of Carl Corey's identity and its connection to what he perceives to be happening to him. It also includes some fascinating speculations regarding alternate realities and Chaos, themes that recur not just in Zelazny's other works, like the aforementioned Jack of Shadows, but in a lot of late 60s/early 70s fantasy. In retrospect, it's this that I think appealed to me most way back when and it's this that still appeals to me even now. The style of fantasy the "Amber" series represents is one that seems largely to have fallen into disfavor as the 1970s wore on and the influence Tolkien -- and his pastichists like Terry Brooks -- became ever greater. Although Gygax's published writings betray comparatively little influence by authors like Zelazny, he continued to express admiration for their writings and several of his unpublished projects, such as Shadowland, might have taken D&D in a more Zelaznian direction.

I personally see the influence of Zelazny over Tom Moldvay's classic Castle Amber, perhaps unsurprisingly. As a younger person, I was confused by the title of this module, which recalled Nine Princes in Amber, despite having nothing to do with the novel overtly. Yet, its contents, while explicitly tied to the Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith, nevertheless seemed very "Amber"-like to me. The Amber family is filled with a variety of ambitious, Machiavellian personalities and their rightful head, Stephen, has been "murdered" by his family and whose salvation depends on items obtained in an alternate reality. Certainly the connection between Moldvay's work and Zelazny's is not strong, but it's there, I think, and I'm surprised more people don't seem to comment on it.

Regardless, the "Chronicles of Amber" (the first five books anyway; I can't comment on the later ones) are worth the read, if only to mine for ideas. They're definitely quirky in their sensibilities, but that's a positive thing in my estimation. D&D -- and fantasy gaming in general -- could use more quirkiness these days.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Geezer Wisdom

I've been trying to get an interview with Mike "Old Geezer" Mornard for months now, but it always seems something comes up to throw a wrench into those plans. Fortunately, Mike is very active on a number of forums and regularly posts reminiscences of his days in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign. Here's a recent one Jim Raggi pointed out to me, which I think provides some insight into the Old Ways:
I played a Magic User in Greyhawk .. THE Greyhawk... for a while. Up to 6th or 7th level when I retired him because I was tired of him and went back to my 8th level fighter.

My favorite adventure was as a 1st level MU. I had heard about an entrance to the 3rd level of Greyhawk and went down.


With 3 HP and a Charm Person spell.

Just me.

A 1st level MU.

In Greyhawk Castle.

With Gary Gygax reffing.

I hit 2nd level at the end of the night with enough XP to be one shy of 3rd.

I ran, I snuck, I threw lanterns (fire, oil, and a handle in one convenient package!), I ran, and I ran some more.

It was still one of the best single evenings of gaming I've ever had.

So, I have heaps and heaps of "no fucking sympathy" for people who complain it's boring to play a low level MU.

REVIEW: Tharbrian Horse-Lords

Tharbrian Horse-Lords is the first Player's Guide for Adventure Games Publishing's Castles & Crusades-based "Wilderlands of High Adventure" setting. The product is available in two formats: a 22-page PDF costing $5.00 or a 36-page digest-size booklet costing $7.00. This review is based on the PDF, so I cannot comment on any changes made to the print version, if any. Like most previous AGP Wilderlands products, Tharbrian Horse-Lords is text-dense and without any illustrations. The layout is a simple two-column one that's easy to read and the text is both clear and well edited.

Of course, it's the actual content of the product that matters most and Tharbrian Horse-Lords offers plenty of content, most of free of game mechanics. This makes it very easy to use with game systems other than C&C, although some sections of it are written as expansions to the variant barbarian class presented in Barbarians of the Wilderlands 1. The Horse-Lords of the title are a barbarian culture best described as "Celtic Mongols." That is, their culture reminded me of an amalgam between the continental European Celtic peoples (primarily the Gauls) and central Asian horse nomads. While ethnologists among us might balk at this, I found the mixture easy to grasp, which suggests that players would find it equally easy to portray a Tharbrian as a character.

The bulk of the product describes the history, society, and culture of the Tharbrians, sometimes in more detail than I felt necessary. However, since each section only adds to one's overall sense of what Horse-Lord culture is like, it can be argued that additional detail is never a bad thing. This is clearly a taste issue; for myself, I prefer broader strokes in my gaming products, with less specific information and more general ideas that I can use as a springboard. This is particularly true in the case of settings like the Wilderlands, which has always been a "big tent" setting, whose most detailed areas were still very sketchy compared to those of contemporary settings.

I worry somewhat that, given the amount of information provided in this product about one barbarian nation, the Wilderlands of High Adventure will soon find itself weighted down in canon, no matter how well written and interesting. And it is interesting. James Mishler has described the Tharbrians in sufficient detail that I can easily imagine playing an entire campaign within their roaming lands, making this product almost a mini-campaign setting within the larger Wilderlands. In that respect, it's quite remarkable and the level detail it provides is exactly right. Given that, perhaps I should clarify my worry somewhat: taken in itself, I think Tharbrian Horse-Lords strikes a good balance between too much and too little detail; taken as part of a larger whole, I see a trend toward fleshing out every nook and cranny of the Wilderlands and that remains worrisome to me. But, as I said, it's a matter of taste and many gamers will find eight paragraphs of information about the Tharbrian diet exactly the sort of information they need in their campaigns, while I find it a bit too much.

I can say, without hesitation, that Tharbrian Horse-Lords is an excellent product, well written and interesting and a good companion to the other Wilderlands product AGP has published to date. The key here in gauging one's own interest in it is whether you deem the approach Mishler has adopted in those other products as felicitous or not. I personally find them a little information-heavy at times, but I realize not everyone shares my preferences. For me, the glory of the "classical" Wilderlands is its lack of detail, which makes it easy to remake the setting in any way I choose as the situation demands. Mishler's Wilderlands of High Adventure variant presents a particular interpretation of that setting and then fleshes it out in increasing detail. That's not a bad approach and, as I feel compelled to reiterate, Mishler does so excellently; it's just not my preferred approach. Whether it is yours will determine how you feel about Tharbrian Horse-Lords.

Presentation: 5 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking for a fully-fleshed out barbarian culture to use in your game.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in fantasy ethnography

Friday, September 25, 2009

No Levels

I sometimes wonder what RPGs would be like today if OD&D hadn't included the concept of levels or indeed any kind of experienced-based advancement system. With the exception of Traveller in its original form, I'm hard pressed to think of any RPG that doesn't include some way for characters to improve over time. I don't necessarily think any kind of improvement is an inherently bad idea -- obviously not, given my love for D&D -- but I do think that the idea of gaining "experience" through adventuring is one that's sometimes had a negative effect upon the development of roleplaying games, making them all, ultimately, about becoming more powerful over time, with "power" being defined largely in game mechanical terms.

In the aforementioned Traveller, your PC begins the game as skilled as he's likely ever to be. Acquiring new skills or improving existing ones is remotely possible by going to school, but it's a slow process, as in the real world, and it effectively takes the character out of play for long enough that very few people ever bothered with it. Consequently, "advancement" in Traveller was measured by the goals a character achieved, whether they be becoming a rich merchant prince, exploring a new world, or establishing a potent mercenary company. Players became better at playing their characters over time, but their characters didn't become mechanically more effective as a result of having played dozens of adventures. This made it a lot easier to create adventures, as there was no mechanical necessity to "ramp things up" when dealing with characters who'd been around a while.

D&D just wouldn't be D&D without levels and the concomitant increase in mechanical potency. I have no particular interest in changing it, but I do think many of the frustrations I have with, say, adventure paths, are a direct result of the rather stark differences between low and high-level characters in latter day versions of D&D. That's why I prefer versions of D&D where the rate of advancement is both slow and less steep; it keeps things closer to a "human" level and makes it easier to avoid the temptation to turn everything into an epic struggle. Still, I do wonder whether a RPG without "leveling up" in some form would even be able to capture an audience nowadays. Is the concept so integral to what people think of when they think of roleplaying games that they couldn't imagine a game without it?

Little Colored Books

James Mishler of Adventure Games Publishing has just produced 11 booklets that reproduce his PDF products in printed form, some of it for the first time ever. I have to admit I'm very fond of the smaller format of these booklets. Having spent the last nine months using the little OD&D books in my Dwimmermount game, I am completely convinced of the the superiority of this size, which is small enough to be able to keep at the table without cluttering it up. Plus, they're very handy for carrying around with me as I travel. I'd love to see more publishers adopt the format, so kudos to AGP for doing so.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When D&D Is Awesome

I've been having a blast with my play by post Dwimmermount campaign over at Original D&D Discussion (and, yes, I have another update for the face to face campaign to post soon, but I've been distracted lately). Refereeing for two parties totally over 20 players is a bit of a handful, especially when it comes to combat, but it's also been extremely rewarding and oddly nostalgic. I remember well the days of parties consisting of 10 or more characters (plus hirelings) and, while I doubt I'd ever be able to handle so many players around a single table, there are also distinct pleasures that come from watching all these different personalities interact with one another. It's already a very different dynamic than the 3-5 players I've come to expect as the norm over the last 10 years or more.

In any case, one of the two groups just finished their first combat -- against a dozen spiders -- and they did so both successfully and with panache, taking only a small amount of damage in the process. In celebration, one of the characters, a dwarf with the awesome name of Puggy Two-Cups, burst out into the following song:

In Mountains tall and caverns deep
We met the spiders and bade them sleep
How much deeper must we creep
Before we drink our booze?

We Dwarfs were bold, our weapons danced
The Gobbies won themselves some fans
The Humies didn't soil their pants
Now can we drink our booze?

Pull down the bodies and check 'em for pay
Then toss them aside, we'll be on our way
Save the prayers for another day
We must drink our booze!

No wonder I'm enjoying this so much. Keep up the great work, guys. I'm having a blast.

Level Limits

In pre-Greyhawk OD&D, dwarves were limited to 6th level as fighting men, halflings were limited to 4th as the same, and elves could progress no higher than 4th level as fighters and 8th level as magic-users. Supplement I loosened things up a bit if a demihuman character had exceptional ability scores. Dwarves with 18 Strength, for example, could reach 8th level as fighters, while Elves with 18 Intelligence could reach 9th level as magic-users. In general, though, the trend was to limit demihumans to 9th level and below (with thieves being a notable exception to this rule).

It's my belief that level limits were intended to serve two purposes. First, since demihumans got a number of abilities that humans lacked (infravision, improved saving throws, etc.), level limits were an early attempt at "balancing" their advantages against humans' lack of same. Now, as I think I've made clear over many months, I'm not a big fan of the balance über Alles school of game design and find it almost always makes a RPG less fun rather than more fun. Moreover, OD&D already possesses a means of balancing the varying abilities of characters -- variable XP charts. If one believes that the abilities of elves, dwarves, and halflings are good enough that they ought to exact some kind of "penalty," why not use XP as a means of representing this?

This is the approach that Moldvay Basic opted for in its particular interpretation of race-as-class. Elves and dwarves -- though not halflings -- require more XP to gain a particular level than do their human counterparts. It's a decent solution, I think, although the treatment of halflings undermines the logic behind it somewhat. Halflings get a number of advantages, most notably excellent saves, and yet their XP charts are identical to those of human fighters. Their main drawback is that their advancement is capped at 8th level, the lowest level limit of all the demihuman races. The halfling thus throws a wrench in the notion that there was any kind of consistent philosophy behind the demihuman XP charts.

The second purpose behind level limits, I believe, was genre emulation. Most of the pulp fantasies that influenced Gygax and Arneson didn't include lots -- or any -- non-humans as major protagonists. Non-humans were rare, exotic beings, far more likely to be talked about but never seen. The idea of a largely demihuman adventuring party (Tolkien's works to the contrary) was likely seem as peculiar. By making demihumans more limited in their progression, I suspect it was hoped that they'd prove less attractive and thus less numerous. The limit of halflings to 4th level, for example, has always struck me as the authors' way of saying, "Well, sure, you could play one of those hobbit guys, if you really want, but they're not really cut out for adventuring."

As I've played OD&D more extensively, I've come to some conclusions about all of this. Firstly, I like race-as-class a great deal and see it as a good way not only to keep non-humans strongly archetypal but also as a way to more implement the variable XP idea that Moldvay didn't seem to have followed through with. Secondly, I don't think level limits are a good way to discourage people from playing elves or dwarves or whatever. If the referee wants to limit the number of demihumans in his campaign, then he should simply do that: limit them. That's what I've done in my home Dwimmermount campaign. Dordagdonar, for example, is the only elf the characters have ever encountered. Even in a large city like Adamas, elves are exceedingly rare and he often raises eyebrows when he meets people who've heard of the existence of elves but never had the occasion to actually meet one.

Of course, Dordagdonar's uniqueness cuts both ways. Elves in my game are generally reclusive and stay out of worldly affairs. For whatever reason, Dordagdonar is different; he breaks a lot of the stereotypes about elven behavior, spending all his time with "ephemerals," as he does. Consequently, I don't plan to limit his level. Like his human companions, he can continue to progress indefinitely, although I do use a different XP chart to represent his abilities. Mind you, in OD&D, level advancement is slow and I doubt the characters in the campaign will ever see much beyond 9th or 10th level anyway, so it's largely a moot point.

In the end, I can't say level limits do a lot for me. I don't hate them or think them an abomination against "good" game design, but I also don't see their elimination as necessarily problematic. Far worse in my opinion is the ubiquity of demihumans, which destroys a lot of the flavor I associate with OD&D's literary influences. Having a party consisting largely of, say, elves bugs me more than the possibility that the single elf allowed in a campaign might one day reach higher than 8th level. But then I'm weird that way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Retrospective: Legion of Gold

Legion of Gold is the only Gamma World module I've ever used. Sure, I owned lots of them, but I never actually ran them as written. Instead, I just swiped a few ideas from them and incorporated them into my own campaign. Not so with module GW1, which formed the basis for one of my longer running Gamma World campaigns back in the day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have an inordinate amount of fondness for this particular adventure.

Written by none other than Gary Gygax himself (with the help of his son Luke and Paul Reiche III), Legion of Gold is a mini-sandbox in 32 pages. Set in a post-apocalyptic version of southern Wisconsin -- "Jen City" is Lake Geneva and "Horn" is Elkhorn, for example -- it consists of three "mini-adventures" and a larger location associated the eponymous Legion of Gold that's menacing the Barony of Horn. Like the best D&D modules, this one sets up a situation and then throws the PCs into it without any presumptions about how they will react or what the "right" thing to do may be. Characters are thus free to make their way as their players see fit, with plenty of material to aid the referee in handling it.

I know there are Gamma World fans out there who don't like Legion of Gold. They see it as insufficiently wild and woolly, which, for reasons I don't quite understand, is how many gamers view Gamma World. Certainly the game supports that style of play and there are plenty of bits in it that suggest a slightly less than serious approach, but, like D&D, Gamma World can be interpreted in a variety of ways, not all of them semi-comedic and/or over the top. For myself, Legion of Gold set the tone for how I've always played the game: post-apocalyptic pulp fantasy with science fiction trappings. I won't go so far as to say I treat Gamma World seriously -- how can you when there are humanoid rabbits that turn metal to rubber with a touch? -- but I try to treat all the setting's oddities not as opportunities for overt humor so much as occasions to emphasize just how weird the post-Fall world actually is.

That's the other thing I adore about Legion of Gold: the funky art, much of it courtesy of Erol Otus. If ever there were an artist born to draw Gamma World illustrations, it was Erol Otus. His work on this module unnerved me a great deal as a kid and, looking at even now, it's hard not to find the Buggems really creepy in that nightmare-come-to-life kind of way. Bill Willingham did some great work here too, although, as usual, it tends a bit more toward the "superheroic" than I prefer in my gaming art.

Regardless, I consider Legion of Gold a classic. Somebody needs to do something similar for Mutant Future. Jeff Rients did something close in issue 6 of Fight On! but I'd still love to see a full-bore module in the style of Legion of Gold. Guess I have another project to add to my list of things I never get round to doing ...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speaking of Greg Costikyan ...

Here's a presentation he recently gave about the value of randomness in game design. Be warned: it's long and a bit rambly, but it's definitely interesting, especially if, like me, you see randomness as an essential feature of games rather than an accidental property of "primitive" designs.

Solomon Kane Movie Review

Courtesy of the Cimmerian, here's a link to one of the first reviews I've seen for the Solomon Kane movie we've all been hearing about for months now.

I wish I could say I was at all surprised.


It is hard for those of us who grew up with wargames, who loved them, who spent so many years studying them and taking them seriously as works of scholarship and art, it is hard for us to acknowledge this. We keep on hoping for some last minute reprieve, some renaissance; how could so much effort, so much inspired work, go for nought? How can it be that all of our labors will be forgotten? Yet it is so: whole artforms, whole genres grow and disappear. Where now is vaudeville? Radio drama? The air story? Perhaps board wargaming will survive in some form, greatly diminished from its glory days, as have poetry and the western; but that is all that can be hoped for.
In one of those odd bits of synchronicity, I was reading the above earlier this morning just as it was being linked to in another forum. With Fall finally upon us, I suppose it's natural to think about senescence and death and, for those of us in the RPG hobby, especially those of us who picked up our first polyhedral dice in the late 70s, the shade of our hobby's "old brother" -- wargaming -- looms very large.

Costikyan's essay is a little out of date, since wargaming has in fact had something of a renaissance in recent years, though it's a fairly modest one, driven largely by hobbyists. The days of selling 50-200K copies of a hex-and-chit Civil War or World War II games are long gone and they ain't ever coming back. But, from what I gather (not being a wargamer myself), there are now more games available from more small companies than there have been in some time. That's a Good Thing™ for guys who love wargaming as a hobby.

I think this offers an instructive example for us in the old school renaissance. I won't go so far as to say that traditional roleplaying's future will be the same as that of wargaming. Nevertheless, I remain committed to the notion that our hobby's previous glory days -- in the sense of mass market popularity and success -- are gone, unlikely ever to return, except through some unexpected wave of nostalgia for the 80s. I'm perfectly fine with that and, much as I'd enjoy seeing traditional roleplaying take off in a big way again, I don't expect it. And I don't think there's some "magic bullet" RPG publishers could find to change the course of history.

As Costikyan writes, lots of entertainment forms rise, fall, and effectively disappear and roleplaying as it was constituted in its Golden Age may be one of them, but that has almost zero effect on my continued enjoyment of it, since, so long as there are others who share my particular idiosyncratic passions, I don't really lack for anything. I'm not a big corporation that needs to make tons of money off gaming nor am I a salaried employee of same whose livelihood depends on huge sales. Except for the fact that I'm older and thus have less free time overall, I'm enjoying gaming as much as I ever have.

I won't go so far as to proclaim that today is a new Golden Age by any means, but it's a pretty good one. There's lots of cool stuff happening on my side of the fence and it's enriched my OD&D gaming considerably. And even if there weren't, the best part about this hobby is that you really don't need anything beyond the rules (and even they are optional) and some people to play with. Beyond the people who sit around my table each week, I don't owe anyone else anything, least of all game companies. With the notable exception of Paizo, I don't think I've bought anything from a long-established game company in about two years and I don't see that changing anytime soon. It's a really liberating feeling, honestly. If every game company with more than 2 employees ceased to be tomorrow, I wouldn't be adversely affected one bit and that's how it should be.

In short, I'm very happy with my gaming these days and have been for some time. I don't care if what I do is appealing to a wide audience and neither should anyone else. The value of any hobby is the personal enjoyment one derives from it and I get a heck of a lot of it from gaming. End of story.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of these days, I should probably rename this weekly feature of the blog, because novels like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland really do need to be discussed, but they're by no means "pulp fantasy," at least as I usually use the word. Ah well. Written by an English mathematician and logician named Charles Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll -- a complex linguistic pun on his own name) and first published in 1865, the novel has proven extremely influential in the development of the literary genre we now call "fantasy." Indeed, for many English-speaking people, the novel, or some adaptation of it, is one the first encounters we have with a fantasy tale, at least a memorable one. And Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is nothing if not memorable. 

 I can still recall my own first reading of it as a boy, from an old edition my mother had in our basement, which included illustrations by John Tenniel and consequently seared into my brain ever since. That's because the novel wasn't written as what we'd today call a "children's book." That's not to say it's unsuitable for children, but Carroll didn't publish the story solely to appeal to children. Consequently, its language, imagery, and characters are quite sophisticated and, on many levels, unsettling. That's what sticks with me after all these years: all the things I read in this book that made my young mind uneasy -- not frightened exactly, although some of it was frightening, but shaken and excited. 

I think that's part of the book's lasting appeal. It's very hard to read it without thinking strange thoughts and considering odd possibilities. I hesitate to say it's a "mind expanding" novel, as that's a mite more pretentious than I wish, but there's no question that it does expand my sense of what fantasy is and could be. Speaking personally, that's a good thing, since I need little pushes into the phantasmagoric realm from time to time. My own tastes in fantasy tend to be more staid and conservative, so Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a much needed tonic. I doubt I'll ever be much of a surrealist, but novels like this help me see the value in such an approach. 

Gary Gygax obviously agreed, since he included trips to Wonderland in his old Greyhawk campaign, a tradition many other gamers have observed over the years as well. It's not hard to see why. Stripped of its specific details, the novel is the story of a person from our world journeying into a fantasy realm where the laws of reality are different. That's a standard trope of many genuine pulp fantasies, such as Burroughs's Barsoom stories, and one that was strongly influential on the development of D&D, despite the lack of citation in Appendix N. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland shows, I think, that fantasy can be intelligent without being stuffy and that there's no reason why we shouldn't let our fantasies differ greatly from our everyday experiences. Those differences can be both wondrous and unsettling at the same time and the retreat from both qualities can make fantasy -- and fantasy gaming -- all the poorer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part III)

10. A number of gamers of a certain temperament seem to have developed a particular dislike for your sage of Shadowdale, Elminster, which I've always found a bit odd, given my memories of his early appearances in your Dragon articles. What do you make of this reaction?

Years ago, I was somewhat hurt by it, being as I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the “old storyteller” figure, the mouthpiece in a DRAGON article that let me say “There’s talk around the village of trolls being seen in yon ruins” as opposed to the omniscient author style that in those days would have forced me to say: “There are two trolls in Room A and one lurking behind the coffin in Room B, and their hit points are . . .”

In play, he did much the same thing; he was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs, or who would come wandering along to save their behinds almost by accident in a dungeon when they’d gotten near death and knew no way out - - but who would become VERY irritating, very fast, if they started to rely on him to do anything for them.

It was TSR who wanted me to portray Elminster at GenCon (after an early seminar in which I’d demonstrated how I played quite a few Realms NPCs, voices and mannerisms and all), and it was TSR who wanted me to write novels about him (left to my own devices, I would NEVER have used him as a main character, only as a sort of briefly-seen, often-absent Tom Bombadil-like supporting character). Instead, he’s become the “signature character” that my book editors always demand I write about (just as Bob Salvatore is always asked for more Drizzt books), presumably because there’s a silent majority of book-buyers who LIKE to read more about him.

The gamers who say he always gets the girl and therefore must be my Mary Sue/Bobby Sue character are entirely missing the point; I created almost ALL of the major Realms NPCs, of all ages and races and genders, and when I did so was a skinny young nerd without a beard. :}

Left to my druthers, I would never have had Elminster at center stage, so the accusation that he upstages Player Characters would not have arisen (and never has, in my “home” campaign). He was certainly over-exposed in Realms products, for a long time more or less by company directive (I poked fun at that in one of my books, in a narrative where El doesn’t appear at all, EXCEPT when a character grumbles that he always shows up to save the day or at least take all the credit for doing so, and on cue, I had a portrait on the wall change its face to Elminster’s and wink at the reader, unnoticed by any of the characters in the story).

I think a lot of the anti-Elminster stuff started (long ago) because Greyhawk fans and Dragonlance fans saw the Realms as “replacing” their worlds, and wanted to attack its main characters. As a greedy gamer who wanted ALL the settings supported (I was a fan of both those settings) and who saw far more of what went on inside the company than most “just plain gamers” out there, I never saw the Realms that way at all, and understood far more about sales and how THEY influenced what got published than the fans who wanted to fight setting-versus-setting wars.

These days, I often encounter very young gamers who sneer at Elminster without ever having read a word of one of my novels about him - - which means their dislike of him is an opinion they’ve picked up from older gamers and adopted so as to be “one of the gang” or “cool.”

I would quite cheerfully never write another word about Elminster, if I could still go on writing about the Realms. On the other hand, ELMINSTER IN HELL is the one Realms novel (of them ALL, not just mine) where senior sf writers I respect greatly have made a point of telling me how much they liked it; one of them even said, “You almost committed literature, there!”), and in my recent novels - - the new one that’ll appear in 2010, in particular, entitled ELMINSTER MUST DIE! - - I’ve been using him to explore what it means to get old and feeble and nigh-powerless, and face death or falling from prominence or both.

On the other hand, I’ve had Realms writing assignments I liked less than writing about Elminster - - like writing about Volo!

11. As a setting, the Realms has a reputation for being "epic," with world-shattering events and grandiose plots. Yet, based on your old articles and the anecdotes I've heard in various places, your home campaign seemed very "localized." Is that an accurate description?

Yes, my home campaign is always focused on the PCs, and was always very down-to-earth. After twenty real-time years of play, the most powerful of the Knights of Myth Drannor (the main band of PC adventurers) reached (gasp!) 9th level. However, they really LIVED and earned their levels, and had great fun doing it, and I made sure the Realms always seemed “alive” around them by having lots of news and rumors of events going on several kingdoms away, in the background. There were plots atop subplots atop conspiracies, but nothing “Realms-shaking.” No gods slaughtering gods, nothing like that - - that’s a function of the published Realms, and decades of “arms race” one-upmanship amongst authors and game designers (some of the former and all of the latter on staff at the publisher, at the time), all trying to have a bigger and better epic. The first two editions of the game “played best” when PCs were 3rd to 12th level, and that’s the “sweet spot” that my players never left. They weren’t interested in character stats, but they WERE interested in their characters achieving fortune, influence, and success (NOT fame) within the game world, on a local level (“No thrones for us, but we can by gum govern a dale better than anyone else!”) . . . and luckily, that’s what I was interested on, too.

However, hand me a novel writing assignment, and sure enough, I was supposed to write NOT about a stable boy or minor courtier, but about the royal family, and not about Joe Lackspell, but about Elminster. There’s no blame to be assigned here; because everyone making the decisions was striving for what would be most popular and therefore sell best; I just disagree about how quickly one should scale the heights of power (I’m more about forty years of slow “power creep,” heh heh).

12. Are there any Realms-related topics you've never had the chance to discuss in your published work that you wish you had?

Sure, lots of them. Trade routes, major commodities traded and the entire system (warehouses, who ships stuff and how, who hoards or attempts to control local prices, how much guilds and nobles profit thereby, are dragons and other powerful, long-lived, intelligent monsters influencing or taking part in trade, and so on). Where are certain goods produced (and are therefore plentiful and cheap) and where are they most scarce and in demand (therefore both expensive and in short supply).

Too much detail to some gamers, sure, but if a DM’s job is to entertain his or her players, and my players LOVED having “day jobs” outside adventuring, and making investments, and going shopping, and playing local politics, and manipulating guilds and local traders for their own profit, than that’s information that sure needed exploring for my own game; why not share it?

I once tried to get a Sword Coast merchant shipping game (sail your ship or fleet up and down the coast from port to port, moving around these little cards that are cargoes; even if you don’t want to play it, you can use it in a D&D campaign to keep track of voyage times, available ships in port, where someone you’re chasing who bought passage aboard a ship is, and so on) into DRAGON as a special inclusion, but it got nixed on cost grounds.

Also, what are the daily lives of non-humans like elves, gnomes, halflings, kobolds, et al like? The furnishings in their homes? Their cuisine, how they store food and treat wastes, their stories (books? ballads?); all of that.

And the big one: what’s it like to be a priest in the major faiths of the Realms? Creed, taboos, what you wear, how you live, church aims and directives, what those in power high in the church are REALLY up to, where your daily living comes from, ALL the religious rituals, both daily and special festivals/special rites; all of that. A cleric/priest should be a LOT more than a “fighter who can heal.”

13. What projects are you working on nowadays?

I mainly can’t say, due to NDAs (contracts forbidding me to talk), but it’s no secret that I’m working on a new Elminster novel (working title ELMINSTER MUST DIE!) for publication next year. Or that I’m co-writing a series of rules-neutral roleplaying game supplements from Goodman Games, ED GREENWOOD’S FANTASTIC WORLDS. The first volume, covering castles, keeps, and fortifications, should be out next spring, and future books are planned on world-building, city design, mythology, and more.

My novel “Falconfar” (the third and concluding book in the FALCONFAR trilogy) should be released in March 2010 from Solaris (just purchased from Black Library by Rebellion, and published in the United States by Simon & Shuster).

I’m writing a new column of short “usable in your campaign” Realms pieces in DRAGON (in the D&D Insider part of the Wizards of the Coast website), and have a short story, “The Many Murders of Manshoon,” in the forthcoming (January 2010) Wizards of the Coast anthology “Realms of the Dead.”

I also have an essay in the forthcoming “Family Games: The 100 Best” (edited by James Lowder and published by Green Ronin Publishing). My short story “A Good Night To Watch Detroit Burn” was JUST published in the post-apocalyptic sf anthology “Grants Pass” from Morrigan Books, and I wrote a eulogy for Gary Gygax (creator of the Dungeons & Dragons® roleplaying game) and a short story, “Saving The Elf Princess Again,” for the recent DAW anthology “Gamer Fantastic,” edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes.

I’m just finishing editorial work on ED GREENWOOD PRESENTS WATERDEEP, a series of mass market paperback original novels by other authors (some of them novices), set in the city of Waterdeep in the “new” (4e, post-Spellplague) Realms. All of the books (including titles from rising stars Steven Schend, Jaleigh Johnson, Erik Scott de Bie, and Rosemary Jones) have impressed me, thus far.

I’m also having fun contributing creatively to KOBOLD QUARTERLY, to a new sf combat card game called HEROBITS, and to the “Pathfinder” game rules and associated Golarion fantasy world setting from Paizo, Inc.

There’s a lot more, but I can’t talk about it yet. By the way, as a Canadian, I wince at all the “Ed Greenwood” this, and “Ed Greenwood” that; to those disgusted ay my hubris, please remember that PUBLISHERS choose titles, not writers (I think the only Realms title of mine that has yet gone straight into print unchanged was “Spellfire,” and it got swiped immediately by the publisher for use for a card game!).

14. Do you still get the chance to roleplay?

I do, though I’m so busy juggling a day job (I have worked in public libraries for thirty-five years now) and a busy writing career (usually I manage to publish two or three novels, half a dozen short stories, a dozen or more game columns or articles, and a few gaming sourcebooks, every year) that I have less and less time to sit down and really enjoy long play sessions. At conventions, I often run one-shot Realms adventures, and of course participate in various hush-hush playtests of forthcoming game scenarios or rules.

Friday, September 18, 2009

OSRIC Supplemental: Open Call for Contributors

Kellri posted the following over at his blog:
Preliminary work is getting under way on the Knights & Knaves Alehouse for a new book tentatively entitled the OSRIC Supplemental. Discussion right now is centered on what material will & should be covered - including wilderness travel & hazards, planar cosmology, magic item & spell creation, mass combat, strongholds, aerial combat, sample dungeon maps and more.

In keeping with the spirit of OSRIC, this will be entirely an open collaborative project by and for fans of Gygaxian 1e AD&D. If you've always wanted to write for your favorite game, have a talent for creating old school maps and artwork, or just want to give us your two cents worth now is your chance. Come on over and dive in!
I'm tempted to submit something to this myself, but we'll see if time allows it. Regardless, it sounds like a very exciting project and I'll certainly be paying close attention to it, especially with Kellri acting as compiler and editor. His Old School Encounters Reference is a work of genius and one of the best things ever to come out of the old school renaissance. I have little doubt that OSRIC Supplemental (or whatever it winds up being called) will be every bit as excellent.

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part II)

7. Does that mean then that your own Realms campaign was very "light" on the use of rules of any sort? I ask because I'm fascinated by the different ways gamers incorporate random elements into their games -- things beyond the ability of either the players or referee to anticipate beforehand.

Yes, it was rules-light from the viewpoint of, say, someone who plays D&D tournaments at GenCon, and expects everything to proceed “by the book.” (And I speak as the guy who won the Best Player award in the AD&D Open at GenCon in 1984, which won me a nice trophy that came wrapped in . . . yup, diapers.)

A DM’s job is to entertain their players (because the play sessions are eating time out of their lives), and the DM should tailor style of play and content (HOW the game is played, from casual chatter or football-quarterbacking to ham acting with funny voices and Shakespearean vocabulary or even costumes, and WHAT happens: hack and slash or intrigue and solving mysteries, urban or wilderness, subterranean or undersea, pirates or paladins, etc.).

Well, MY players loved to roleplay (acting), and so do I, so I played the NPCs to the hilt, and prepared for hours beforehand and afterwards, knowing my players wanted to find out which NPC was related to which other NPC, what scandals had gone on in this village thirty years back, and so on and on and on . . . so I gave it to them. They always wanted to TALK to everyone, and there were nights (six or seven hours of play, with a tea-and-chips-and-chip-dip break in the middle) when no player character even drew a weapon; it was ALL intrigue and roleplaying conversations, confrontations, investigations, trade dickering, and so on. Hack and slash seldom interested us (though when battle did come, all the frustrations were let loose!), and as DM I wasn’t trying to “win” any fights against PCs, so I tended to always give them initiative unless they walked into a trap or bowmen with arrows ready at, say, a city gate, but during battle I kept the pace up by demanding swift answers (like a rapid-fire auctioneer) to “What’re you doing this round? Ten-nine-eight-seven-six . . .” and they’d better blurt out something, or I’d move on. So it was almost all acting, and almost no rules. Which was great for newcomers to the game enjoying the play sessions; they were never intimidated by the thick rulebooks. If someone jumped in to defend themselves with a rule, I automatically “gave in,” and so was never seen as an adversarial DM, so we settled into a playing style that suited us. Not for everyone, but it’s what OUR group collectively wanted. Players could always DEMAND we apply rules in a particular combat or encounter or situation, and I would comply, but we tended to find doing so ate up so much time that we could have more fun “ham acting” in, that we kept such occurrences very rare and for very important situations.

8. It's interesting that your home games are so rules light given the number of spells, magic items, monsters, and character classes you've designed over the years. Do you see any contradiction in this?

No. Few “newer” gamers realize how things were in the early D&D hobby; how EVERYONE read DRAGON and memorized or near-memorized every word of most articles therein, plus every word of the published rulebooks.

I wanted to encourage good roleplaying by having players whose characters were faced with a spherical monster with eyestalks NOT say, “well, it’s either a beholder or a gas spore, so . . .” and NOT pick up a horn in a dungeon treasure hoard and say, “Horn of bubbles or Horn of Valhalla?” Or “That enemy wizard just cast a fireball, so he’s gotta be X level or higher! Right, we’ll—“

Likewise, this NPC stranger your character is facing could have all sorts of abilities and powers your PC has never seen before (because, yes, players back then memorized things right down to monk and bard level abilities, too, so they could right away shout “Aha! This guy’s a monk of X level!”).

One of the best ways of doing this was to increase the number of look-alikes and magic item and spell choices so NO ONE could keep track of them all. This dumped players out of min-maxing, using-their-omniscient-rules-knowledge mode back into playing their character in the world, as their characters face the unknown. Makes the game more gripping, forces better roleplaying, and makes it all more fun for those already in the habit of roleplaying.

As I said earlier, I didn’t think doing this was quite “fair” to my players unless my creations (monsters, magic items, or spells) had been published (vetted by other designers AND giving the players a chance of having read them), so I sent them off to DRAGON. I seemed to have a knack for crafting these things, so they wanted more. LOTS more. So I wrote more. :}

It was all great fun, I was having a ball (and so just kept going), and from time to time editors were giving me assignments to write more of this or that (they still are; I just sent off a batch of new monsters yesterday).

As for the home campaign - - well, a DM’s job is to entertain his/her players, and my players loved detail, really immersing themselves in the Realms, and all the plots and subplots adventurers will uncover if they settle into a large town, wayside dale on a major trade route, or city. So that’s what our play sessions were filled with, and why it’s really hard to try to convey the “feel” of the “home” Realms campaign to other gamers - - unless they “sit in” with my original players.

I make no apologies at all for the layer upon layer of exhaustive detailed Realmslore (which I still provide in answer to gamer queries in my thread in the Chamber of Sages at that’s built up in over thirty years of play, because that’s what my players wanted. Others can take or leave just as much of it as they want; I’ve always thought that if you’re paying me or any other freelancer for providing something you as DM could do for yourself, given time, that we should give you MORE than you need, so you get your money’s worth and more. If we go too far, ignore what doesn’t suit you - - but we never want to shortchange you.

9. How much of the material you produced in Dragon had its origin in your personal campaign? I ask because, as a younger man, I always appreciated the "lived in" feeling that articles like "Pages from the Mages," "Seven Swords," and "Six Very Special Shields" evoked.

My “home” Realms campaign generated a lot of what became articles, because I had SUPERB roleplayers who always wanted to find out more about the world around their characters (so when playing the characters, they frequently talked to old folks or librarians or sages to find out old lore, and even asked questions like detectives to try to piece together “the truth” when they thought clergies, rulers, or guilds weren’t telling them what was actually happened), and because ethically I felt it was only fair to hit my players with new monsters, spells, magic items, poisons, and so on AFTER I’d published them in DRAGON. For one thing, EVERYONE who played D&D read or tried to read DRAGON in those days (even if only by standing in a hobby shop, paging through issues), so whatever a player could remember of what they’d read helped to simulate what their character “might have heard” in life, and so “felt fairer” to me (and of course the editors had examined my writing and could “fix” anything way out of balance or misworded; I don’t recall them ever doing so, but I felt they had the “stamp of approval.”) The Featured Creature (later Dragon’s Bestiary) columns even carried a little note at the bottom saying the monsters published in them were “as official” as anything in the rulebooks, so I got to contribute to the game!

By the way, the titles of almost all DRAGON articles were chosen by the editors, not article writers.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ken St Andre Interview

My latest column for "Days of High Adventure" in The Escapist is an interview with Tunnels & Trolls creator, Ken St Andre. Ken answers some questions about the origins of T&T, game design, and related topics. It's one of my better interviews, I think, and there's more of it to come, since Ken provided -- and is still providing -- me with more material than I could use for the article. Expect to see more here at Grognardia in the days to come.

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part I)

As I mentioned in my retrospective yesterday, I've been a fan of Ed Greenwood for a long time, having enjoyed his many articles in the pages of Dragon. It was here that I first heard of the Forgotten Realms, long before anyone at TSR had the bright idea to turn into an official AD&D campaign setting. I was therefore very gratified when Ed agreed to be interviewed here, resulting in what is probably the longest interview I've yet conducted, the first part of which appears below.

Ed has agreed to answer any questions readers might have as a result of something he said in this interview. Feel free to post them in the comments and I'll collect them all at the end of the series and pass them along to him for reply. When he gets round to doing so, I'll make another post or two in which I'll share his answers.

1. How did you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

From my very earliest memories, the house I grew up in, and those of grandparents and uncles and aunts I visited, were full of books, music, adult converse, and games. From cribbage to chess, various NATO strategy games to euchre to checkers, we played games constantly. Back in DRAGON #218, in the First Quest column, I told the story of how a remarkable young woman named September, who soon died of cancer, introduced my group of school friends to Dungeons & Dragons, then in its fledgling stages (1975, also when I attended my first GenCon, Gencon 8, in Lake Geneva). I started running and playing in campaigns a little later, in 1978 (and my next GenCon was number 13; after that, I missed a few years, then attended GenCon 17 and every one since).

I first started reading DRAGON regularly, devouring its contents each month, with issue 19. An incomplete rule and a mismatch between the number of armies for one kingdom between the counter sheet and the rules in the TSR fantasy boardgame DIVINE RIGHT spurred me to write my first article for DRAGON, a short suggested errata piece for the game, but the editor held onto that piece for a later (issue 34) “theme” issue on the game. In the meantime, I had started creating monsters for the game (I’m still designing them, and did so many that for a time, I was known at TSR as “the Monster Man”), and the monster known as the Curst was my first publication in DRAGON, in issue 30. It was closely followed by the Crawling Claw in 32, and by then I was flooding the magazine with articles, which soon led to my being named Contributing Editor (an unsalaried title) and starting to write not just what struck me as interesting, but assignments from the editors (like the Ecologies articles).

2.. You mentioned Divine Right, does that mean you're a fan of military/political simulation games?

I’m a fan of all sorts of games, military/political simulation and otherwise, from DIPLOMACY to WINTER WAR. I’m not fond of games that take days or weeks to play, or that have rules so complicated that actual lawyers have to spend hours puzzling them out, or games where knowing Arcane Rule 336(b) will result in a guaranteed win for one side, always. I’m also not fond of games that experts can enjoy but a novice feels lost or bullied or unhappy when playing with experts (from contract bridge on up through various board, strategy, and card games - - and yes, I include the later editions of MAGIC: THE GATHERING in this, wherein all the instants and interrupts and mutable lands and all the rest resulted in a game great for tournament enthusiasts but no longer fun for your Mom and Dad to try to learn).

However, give me something NOT entirely governed by the luck of the cards or draw or whatever, and that has a cool terrain board with strategic roads, bridges, or other areas, and I’m in. Everything from MYTHOS (the card game) to BATTLE OF BRITAIN (the West End games one-player game) to AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE or ELEFANT HUNT. What I lack is time and opportunity, not enthusiasm.

3. What do you recall most about the early days of the hobby?

Mimeographed and photocopied “homemade” adventures, APA-zines like ALARUMS & EXCURSIONS, and because I lived in Toronto, the stores Mr. Gameway's Ark and later The Battered Dwarf. More than all of these, however, it was the general sense of community, despite poor communications and lack of money on the part of most local gamers. We drove long distances for get-togethers in strangers’ basements and public libraries we’d never heard of or seen before, just to get together with other gamers. There were no local conventions for roleplaying. Wargames, yes, but roleplaying, no.

4. As I understand it, you first conceived of the fantasy setting that would become the Forgotten Realms when you were still a child. How much of that original creation survived as the Realms was developed in later years?

Yes, I was six when I first thought of the Realms and started writing (short stories) about it. Almost all of my original creation and concepts survived as the Realms was published, although a lot of it still hasn’t seen print (and probably won’t, now, with the “time jump” between the 3e Realms and the 4e Realms), though my Moonshae Isles were replaced by an existing “Celtic/matter of Britain” campaign Doug Niles, a TSR staff designer of the time, had been working on, and there have been many additions (such as Kara-Tur) or recastings of my largely-offstage kingdoms like Unther and Mulhorand to more closely resemble real-world historical (or “Hollywood historical”) settings.

The great majority of the Realms map, cities, countries, and characters you read about are my creations, and a fair amount of them predate the D&D game.

5. Do the Realms have any literary antecedents? That is, are there are any particular books or authors who strongly influenced you in the creation of the setting?

Yes and no. No, no authors strongly influenced me in the creation of the setting. However, the setting was born out of my love of all sorts of fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, that I read voraciously in my youth. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tales influenced me in that when reading the new ones as they first appeared in the pages of FANTASTIC, I noticed they were stand-alone episodes but took place in the same setting, and that by reading a bunch of them, one learned more and more about the setting without the stories ever stopping to really turn and impart information about the world. I borrowed that idea in my fledgling Realms stories, which concerned the aging, wheezing, sly old crook of a merchant, Mirt the Moneylender (based on Falstaff, Poul Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn, and Guy Gilpatrick’s Glencannon), traveling along the Sword Coast from port city to port city - - usually a step ahead of creditors and foes who wanted to put swords through him!

However, I drew on everything fictional I loved (Dunsany, Zelazny, and many, many more) to imagine the sort of fantastic world I’d like to visit, and then wrote about it.

6. In those early days, what would you say was the relationship between the D&D rules and the Forgotten Realms? That is, did the nature of the rules dictate how you developed the setting or did you bend the rules where they were incompatible with your own ideas?

I didn’t worry about rules at all; I was concerned about presenting the world (which predated the game, and most of the time was already detailed in, say, a city or the lineage of a ruling family or local legends, before the game rules came along) in full detail, so it could “seem real.” In many instances, describing the world for a TSR printed Realms product pointed out where there were gaps in the game rules (oops, we have nothing to help DMs with, say, poisonous gases blown by winds across a battlefield), but when you see “hard” rules in a Realms game product, they were almost always written by a staff designer from my detailed notes of the situation. I developed the 2nd Edition character stats “shorthand” for the game, purely to save wordcount when co-writing the FR ADVENTURES hardcover, but my “development” of the setting predated the game, so game rules couldn’t dictate it. What DID influence the development of the published Realms was TSR’s wants and needs for specific elements (“We need a pirate ship setting; where in the Realms would we find one? Where would Conan-like barbarians come from? Do you have a larger city we could publish?”) for the unfolding game line. I have designed, including writing rules, for the first three editions of the game, but have always been a freelancer rather than an employee of the game’s publisher.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Retrospective: Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

I've often said that, as a group, we gamers have very short memories. Worse than that, though, are selective memories, which we also possess in abundance. I bring this up in the wake of the still-ongoing debate raging in the comments of my recent post about the D&D/AD&D Chronology. 1987 saw the release of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, which, for some, is as much of a harbinger of The End as I consider the release of Dragons of Despair to be. While I understand some of the ire directed at the setting, I nevertheless remain committed to the notion that the original boxed set describes a world whose old school pedigree is no less "pure" than that of Greyhawk or Blackmoor.

Granted, the treatment of the Forgotten Realms as a brand, by both TSR and WotC, has often been less than ideal, to put it very charitably. Indeed, Jeff Grubb's introduction to the DM's Sourcebook to the Realms (one of two books contained in the boxed set) makes this quite plain:
About midsummer of 1986, TSR was shopping for a new world. We had experience in world-building under our belt, with two versions of the WORLD OF GREYHAWK™ campaign setting, and the creation of Krynn, home of the DRAGONLANCE Saga. This time, we were after something different; a world that we could continue to develop over the years that will follow, and set all future AD&D game modules into. A place where a variety of talented individuals could all contribute to its creation and its development. Rather than one view, a combination of views that would grow and develop through adventures, sourcebooks, short stories, and books.
Please take note of the of the bolded section in the quote. As it turned out, TSR did not in fact set all future AD&D modules in the Realms, but they certainly made a good effort at it, producing reams of Realms-related products over a very short period of time. In the process, they certainly gave the impression that AD&D and the Forgotten Realms were synonymous, an impression that left a bad taste in the mouths of D&D fans.

Coming as this did so soon after the ouster of Gary Gygax from TSR, a mythology has grown up around the Realms that I think is both untrue and unfair. If one examines the Campaign Set on its own merits, it's not much different than what was found in the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set. There's more room given to NPC descriptions, it's true, but the vast majority of those NPCs are 9th level and below -- precisely the sorts of people with whom an average adventuring party would likely interact. There are a handful of higher level NPCs, including the much-reviled Elminster, but their descriptions make them appear almost as "scenery," no different than describing noteworthy cities or landmarks. There's little implication that Elminster or Khelben Arunsun are traveling the world, righting all its wrongs. If anything, the implication is exactly the opposite: evil in the Realms is too strong for any one person or group of persons to overcome, which is where the PCs come into play.

I think it's here that one of the largest fault lines lies for those who dislike the Realms. The Realms in unambiguously a world in need of "heroes," not merely "adventurers." A Realms character is far less likely to be venal and self-interested, doing good more by accident than by design. As a fan of morally ambiguous protagonists, I can certainly appreciate this critique of the Realms, even if I don't find it a damning one. Not all fantasy literature is Howardian/Leiberian swords-and-sorcery and not all swords-and-sorcery tales exist in a moral vacuum. There is room for a type of fantasy where fighting evil is the primary focus.

The problem, I think, is that, when the Realms made their debut, TSR attempted to push the setting as its sole vision of what D&D was and should be. You either signed on to it or you were left out in the cold. At least that's how it appeared to many gamers, who soon resented the Realms and its popularity, all the while forgetting that much of what they disliked about the setting had more to do with TSR's marketing than with any essential qualities of the setting itself. If one looks carefully at the original boxed set, what you find is a wild world beset by evil, where communication and travel are slow and local problems loom far larger than epic, world-shattering plots.

Ed Greenwood's own campaign was far more localized than was Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign, for what it's worth, and the power level of the PCs much lesser to boot. And this is all quite clear in the original boxed set, whose treatment of most topics is sketchy and suggestive rather than definitive. It's a superb sandbox setting for heroic fantasy. Now, not everyone wants a heroic fantasy sandbox and there's nothing wrong with that. However, I think it unfair to expect the Realms to be Greyhawk or Nehwon or the Dying Earth; it was never intended to be. What it is is the product of a longstanding D&D campaign, played by real people, which puts it head and shoulders above many later beloved TSR settings who owe their origins solely to finding new ways to squeeze yet more money from the game's fanbase.

If I sound defensive on this point, I apologize. I make no bones about the fact that I have been a fan of the Realms since I first read Greenwood's articles in Dragon. His setting always struck me as the kind of campaign I wish I had run -- not just the setting itself, although I did love it, but also the group of regular, steady players whose characters grew slowly over time and many exciting adventures. That doesn't blind me to the fact that, over the years, the Forgotten Realms product line has included many, many silly things and has thrived on a constant stream of auctorial one-upmanship in an effort to sell more supplements and novels. But I don't think that has any more bearing on the quality of the original Campaign Set than does the existence of the Rose Estes Greyhawk novels (or, for that matter, the later Gygax-penned "Gord the Rogue" books) have on the World of Greyhawk.

Critics often forget that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set was the last campaign setting released for First Edition. Though the 2e era is where the Realms were flogged to death, it was 1e that gave birth to it and that's quite visible in the product itself, if one cares to read it with unbiased eyes. In reviewing my copy for this retrospective, I found myself able to forget all that came after it and enjoy it for what it is: a huge, wide-open setting drawn in broad strokes, just waiting for individual referees and players to fill in the details -- exactly what a good campaign setting should be.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Praise of "Silly" Names

In preparing my online Dwimmermount campaign, I was reminded of something I missed about so many of my campaigns of old: "silly" names. Now, by "silly," I don't necessarily mean absurd or ludicrous names, like Groucho or Sneezy, although names like that are among those I seek to praise in this post. Perhaps a better word is "inappropriate," although even that isn't quite right.

You see, I have this strange notion that a character's name is important. All characters should have names, even in old school games with a high mortality rate. Naming one's character is one of the things that separates even combat-intensive RPGs from wargames, which is why I'm insistent on every character's having one. I also feel a character's one is one of the few things a player can freely give to his character without having to take into account dice rolls, game mechanics, or any other external factors. Like parents naming their child, a player's choice of name for his character is a statement and I think it's almost always better if that statement can be made without any strings attached.

That's why I don't hand out a list of "acceptable" names to my players or vet their choice of name, even if I don't really like it or consider it somehow peculiar. I do this, first, for the reasons I stated in the previous paragraph and, second, because experience has taught me that "silly" names generally resolve themselves over time. Characters with purely joke names don't last long, because their players tend not to care even minimally about them. They make foolish mistakes and engage in self-destructive actions and, before long, Zippo the Fire Mage is no more.

Of course, that doesn't always happen, especially a character with a silly name somehow manages to survive in spite of it all. In such cases, the player starts to treat them as something more than a random collection of stats and, once in that state of mind, they start to think differently about the character. That's one of the parts of gaming that really intrigues me: the moment when a character is "born" from a collection of random game statistics. Many characters never truly come alive, but enough do that I enjoy watching it happen.

What I have noticed is that, once it does happen, the player of such a character starts to attempt to rationalize everything about his character, so that it "makes sense." If the character has a genuinely silly name, the player will try to rationalize that too, claiming it's a nickname or nom de guerre or creating a backstory to explain it. I never insist on such things to start, since there are no guarantees in my games and characters might well not live long enough to justify such effort, but neither do I discourage them. My feeling is that characters are made in many different ways and some of the best ones I've ever encountered came into being weeks or months after their first appearance, once they'd had a chance to get a few adventures under their belts and become more than just Fighting Man #6 or The Thief.

Rationalizing silly names is made easier if the referee keeps his campaign setting only as detailed as it needs to be for play. Too much detail means that players must conform their characters to the world from the start and, except in very specific circumstances, that's not something that interests me anymore. I'd much rather give a wide berth to my players and then worry about fitting their characters into a grand scheme later, if ever. Besides, one of the joys of old school refereeing is rolling with the punches and making things up on the fly. Finding ways to incorporate silly names into a campaign setting is pretty small beans, when you think about it, and, much like rolling randomly for many things, silly names can sometimes be a good way to shake a referee out of a rut, encouraging him to think differently, even whimsically, about his game. That's always a good thing.

I may be biased, of course, since several characters from my old campaigns had silly names that, over time, ceased to be silly as the character survived and developed beyond being a collection of numbers on a sheet of paper. Likewise, I know all too well my predisposition toward stolid seriousness. Silly names are good medicine for my soul and help remind me that I'm just playing a game. The point is to have fun, after all, and if one of my players has fun by calling his character's henchman Justin Case, who am I to argue? Indeed, why would I even want to argue? Looking at the earliest RPG campaigns like Blackmoor and Greyhawk, silly names were pretty much par for the course. Silly names don't necessarily imply silly campaigns and, even then, so what? I think we could all use a lot more silliness in our lives.

And so I salute the memories of Morgan Just(ice), Hercles, Ogla O'Dell, Ichabod Duck, Theinberger the Thief and his brother Weinberger, Dalastie Dave, and countless others I have forgotten. My gaming was all the better for the existence of these characters.