Monday, November 30, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Deryni Rising

As often happens, I'll discuss a book in this series that can't, by any reasonable definition, be called "pulp fantasy." Nevertheless, I discuss the book because I think it played a role in the development of the hobby, despite its being very different in style and content from most of the other books that inspired early gamers and game designers. In some case, it's precisely because these books are so different that I include them. They provide a counterweight to the vast majority of what I talk about here, a reminder that the early hobby was in fact a welter of conflicting ideas and approaches, not all of which agreed with one another.

A good case in point is Katherine Kurtz's 1970 novel, Deryni Rising. Set in the imaginary medieval realm of Gwynedd, the novel tells the story of Prince Kelson Haldane as he attempts to claim his rightful throne as king of Gwynedd after the death of his father. Complicating matters is the fact that Kelson is opposed by a powerful sorceress who wishes to claim the throne for herself and whose magical abilities all but guarantee her victory. Kelson's father, the previous king, had held off this pretender through his own magical abilities, which Kelson lacks. The prince must then unravel the mystery of his father's powers in order to succeed him and take his place as Gwynedd's ruler.

Gwynedd is one of the Eleven Kingdoms, a collection of medieval feudal realms, some of which are clear analogs of places in the real world, while others are less obviously so. There are many other analogs to real world institutions, most notably the Holy Church, an inexplicably Christian church, complete with most of the trappings of medieval Catholicism, including ecclesiastical Latin (though there does not seem to be a Pope). Just how and why this fantasy world managed to produce so close a copy of medieval Catholicism is never explained and it's something that never really sat well with me, as the world of the Eleven Kingdoms is clearly not our world or even an alternate version of it. This is made particularly clear by the inclusion of the Deryni, a race of human beings with natural psychic/magical abilities and who are often treated with suspicion, if not hatred, in many of the Eleven Kingdoms.

Deryni Rising is the first of many books set in this world, one that clearly found lots of fans in the early days of gaming. I can't say I'm among them, unfortunately. I have always found them difficult to like, but then I've never enjoyed books that borrow heavily from the real Middle Ages while at the same time changing many elements of the period without any concern for the ramifications. I'm probably in the minority on this score, given the success of George R.R. Martin, whose books seem to be spiritual descendants of Kurtz's (albeit with a great deal more sex and violence). There's little question that the Deryni novels inspired lots of gamers, who took their approach to world design as a model to emulate. These worlds run in parallel to the swords-and-sorcery-inspired worlds that I prefer, but they're no less a part of the heritage of the hobby, even they weren't especially influential on Arneson or Gygax. Still, I can't deny their place at the gaming table and think it worth reading a book or two in the series to get a taste of what they're like and why people fell in love with them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

CAS in the LA Times

Reader Matt pointed me toward a recent review of The Return of the Sorcerer, a collection of Clark Ashton Smith stories. It's always nice to see pulp fantasy writers discussed in the mainstream press. I've noticed a trend lately to treat many of the giants of pulp fantasy much more equitably and this review is a good example of that. Here's to many more!

Dungeon Map Help (Again)

Once again, I need someone with cartography skills who'll help me render a decent map of a single dungeon level. I'm doing another level for Fight On!'s "The Darkness Beneath" and the toughest part for me is the map of the level. I could draw it by hand, but I find my own scrawls bad enough for my own use, never mind for the use of others.

Ideally, I need someone who can turn around a map quickly and enjoys a bit of leeway in their instructions. This would be purely volunteer work, but the end result would appear in a future issue of Fight On! with full credit and you'd be free to do whatever you want with the map afterward.

If anyone can help me, just drop me a line through the email address to the right. Thanks!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Original City-State Reproduction for Sale

Bill Owen, one of the founders of Judges Guild, is selling reproductions of the original map of "No Name City," which would go on to become the City-State of the Invincible Overlord. The map sells for $25 and will be limited to 144 copies, signed by Mr Owen and Bob Bledsaw Jr.

Here are a few details from the above page:
This is a full-size (exactly 36.05x43.9") REPRINT of a one-of-a-kind blueprint I made of Bob Bledsaw's artwork for the as-yet unnamed Overlord's "no-name" city made the spring of 1976 before Judges Guild was officially started July 4, 1976. Bob had drawn a spectacularly detailed and large (the original single sheet is 36x44" with margin and the city state maps were later in 4 pieces totalling 34x44" in size). It was my job to find a printer locally that could photograph or render somehow the map without having to redraw it. The problem was that the colored markers Bob had used had variable outcomes in "black & white"*.

We probably made several blueprint copies at different intensities as evidenced by the ballpoint number written in the corner "13" (shown on picture #6)**... but this was the lucky one, the 12+ maps have been lost (probably because this was the best balance of grayscale that we could get and through out the others). The yellow and red markings tended to turn nearly black (see the back alleys which are muddy to black) while the blue and green markings pale or disappeared. I put numerous days into visiting printers, blueprint shops etc. trying to find a process that would

Another proof that the original was the oldest copy made of the original artwork is that there are not yet typeset names anywhere. Those were added after Bob had redrawn all the walls in black ink freehand in one night! The plastic-based artwork which was, again, full-color ended up being cut into 4 pieces so that it could be photographed in a 23x29" camera... and then lost by the printers :( this is the oldest rendition of the city map and largest.
I've grabbed a copy for myself already, but I figured this would make a great Christmas present for a lot of readers of the blog. Get 'em while you can.

Dwimmermount and Plot

A number of people have commented on how much things seem to have "changed" in the Dwimmermount campaign as a result of the events in Death Frost Doom. Indeed, some have raised the specter of a "story" being introduced into the campaign. How to explain this?

There are several things at work here. Firstly, my own personal disdain for "story" is not a disdain for a coherent series of events that, in telling, follow logically from one another. Rather, it's for planning out that series of events beforehand without regard for player decisions or the vicissitudes of random dice rolls. The events of Death Frost Doom were not inevitable. For one, the players could have -- and indeed nearly did on a couple of occasions -- simply abandoned the crypts and moved on without precipitating the release of the undead horde upon the world. Had they done so, the campaign would have continued as it had. The Thulian "doomsday device" is but one of a great many "story seeds" I've placed throughout the campaign and it's by no means a privileged one.

"Story seeds?" I'm not sure what else to call them. Hooks perhaps? Basically, I litter the campaign world with the places, items, and characters, each of which has the potential for altering the campaign in various ways. Some might do so in big ways and others might do so in small ones, but all have the potential to lead to what, in retrospect, will be called "stories." But I cannot, until the players interact with those seeds and until dice are rolled give an accounting of "what's going to happen." There are no scenes planned out, no turning points designed, no climactic battles prepared, and certainly no expectations that this or that must happen in order for things to turn out "right."

The undead horde released from the crypts is the culmination of several story seeds I placed earlier in the campaign. It most definitely is part of a story now, but it didn't have to be. The story seeds relating to the fall of the Thulian empire, the cult of Turms Termax, azoth, the quest for immortality, and others all intersected in the way the players chose to explore Death Frost Doom, but there was no necessity that that had to happen. Even now, there are literally a dozen or more story seeds the players have either chosen to ignore or haven't yet interacted with in any significant way and any one of them could lead to yet more "stories." Similarly, just what the consequences of the undead horde will be is unknown, even to me. I have several possibilities in my mind -- that's the job of a good referee, after all -- but I don't favor one over the others and, even if I did, the X factors of player choice and the randomness of dice militate against my being able to ensure that any one possibility happens "as it should."

All of this is a long-winded way of agreeing with Rich Marshall's comment that "The advocates of pre-scripted storylines believe that without predetermined ends, overarching stories are impossible. They believe that if you allow the players' actions to create the story, chaos will ensue instead and no story will be possible." I am not in the slightest opposed to the idea that even old school RPGs include "story." Rather, I believe old school gaming generates stories -- many stories -- through play rather than through explicit referee planning beforehand. I can pretty much guarantee that, if I had a different group of players, the campaign would currently be quite different, if only because their dice rolls would have led to different outcomes and thus different decisions in response to them. That imaginary alternate campaign would likely have different stories and, to my mind, that's as it should be.

Dwimmermount and Preparation

Based on the comments to my last Dwimmermount post, it's clear there's some interest in my discussion certain aspects of how and why I do things in my campaign. So this post will address one of the questions I often get asked: how do I prepare for my weekly games? My answer is that I don't really prepare at all, but let me explain.

I am a very seat-of-the-pants kind of referee (aka "improvisational referee," aka "lazy referee"). I don't spend hours each week preparing for my sessions, at least not in any formal way. I do think about upcoming sessions, but I don't spend huge amounts of time poring over game books and making extensive notes in advance. Mostly, I just think about what my players have already done and consider what they will likely do next so I can be ready to pull things together when they -- or the dice -- push a session this way or that.

Now, to be fair, before the campaign began, I did do a fair bit of prep work. I pulled together maps from various sources and supplemented them with my own so that I had a rough structure for the first 5 levels of Dwimmermount. In play, I often change the maps on the fly, as I get new ideas, so those maps are, like so much of my prep work, guidelines rather than the Gospel truth. I also partially filled those maps with monsters and treasures, using the tables in the OD&D books. However, I also fill some over the course of play, reacting to player actions, my own ideas, and random rolls of the dice. Traps are a little different, as they're harder to invent off the cuff, so I typically prepare them in advance. The same goes for what M.A.R. Barker calls "Saturday night specials" -- those unique and memorable sections of the dungeon filled with mysteries, puzzles, enigmas, and unusual dangers.

I love random tables and use them often. Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets are a godsend and I keep mine close at hand. I also have a list of "appropriate" names I use for new NPCs introduced through play, although I sometimes let the players name them, since it alleviates some of the "sameness" that can occur when only one person (i.e. me) is the source of all names. I keep little scraps of paper with notes and ideas on them. I refer to them when I'm at a loss for how to proceed and need some inspiration. A number of things in the campaign that are now important arose because I put a sentence or two down on a piece of paper and I read them at just the right time to egg me on.

So, as you can see, I'm a pretty slapdash referee. My main gifts are a fairly quick mind in being able to react to unexpected turns of events and a complete lack of worry about "doing it wrong." And, honestly, both these talents can be learned and I would argue must be learned if you want to play an old school game for any length of time. Most of what happens at my table is spontaneous in the sense that it arises out of the confluence of my players and I interacting with one another and the random results of dice. I also have a lot of handy resources to draw upon to aid and inspire me when I run into a creative "dry spell" during play. That helps immeasurably. And of course it helps that OD&D is so simple mechanically that you can easily "conjure up" an entire lair of orcs and the combat that ensues from invading it without the need for any prep work whatsoever.

I should add that I am blessed with very good players, who not only share my sense of the game but whose ideas are inspiring to me. The Dwimmermount campaign is very player driven and thank goodness for that. The campaign might well have died if its success rested solely on my shoulders and I think that's true of most good RPG campaigns of any sort. It's particularly so in old school games, I feel, because they eschew "story" as a framing device. Without extensive player input and decision making, the twin terrors of referee railroads and aimless wandering rear their ugly heads and both are, in their own ways, surefire campaign killers. So, as Dwimmermount prepares to enter its second year of play, I must thank my players for all the fun they've given me through their great characterizations, creative decisions, and willingness to roll with the punches when necessary. The campaign wouldn't be the same without you.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The other day, after I'd expressed dismay at the upcoming Dante's Inferno video game, I was told that there had in fact been a film based on Inferno. It was an Italian-made silent film from 1911 entitled simply L'Inferno. As luck would have it, the film was recently reconstructed, using footage from the Library of Congress and British Film Institute to supplement existing prints of the film from other sources, many of which were not complete. The entirety was released in 2004 on DVD and, thanks to Amazon, I was able to obtain a copy, which I sat down and watched yesterday.

The film is a little over an hour long (71 minutes, to be precise) and I sat there the entire time rapt. I don't know how often you've watched silent movies, but I've become a big fan of them over the years and L'Inferno only solidifies my affection for them. There's something very primal about images without spoken dialog. That's particularly true in films like this one, where the images are so bizarre and frequently unsettling. Silent films, I also find, showcase a style of acting that ceased to exist once talkies became common. It's an almost-pantomime style that reminds me a bit of the way opera singers behave when they're on stage. On one level, it looks patently ridiculous, but on the other hand, the melodramatic, easily telegraphed emoting of these actors strikes a chord somewhere deep inside me. It's hard to explain, but, on some level, the very unreal nature of the way they're behaving makes it seem more real to me. I admit that sounds like nonsense and maybe it is, but there it is nonetheless.

Regardless, it works exceedingly well in this particular case, because the images onscreen are so fantastical. I have been a huge admirer of The Divine Comedy since college. For a long time, I was quite obsessed with the work and, even now, I find it haunts my imagination. Though I prefer Purgatorio to the other two parts of the work, there's no question that Inferno makes for the best spectacle. And what spectacle this early Italian film provides! The special effects are, frankly, amazing for their day and, again, their obvious artificiality -- their unreality -- made them much more affecting for me. It's similar to the way that I find the original Night of the Living Dead much, much more frightening than any of its successors. The rough, almost unfinished look of it strikes me as more realistic and thus more terrifying.

It's hard for me to judge how accessible this film would be to those unfamiliar with Inferno. There are dialog cards between some of the scenes, but they're short and often cryptic if you don't already know the poem. For myself, seeing the various flashbacks the damned tell to Dante, explaining how they wound up in Hell, was very moving. Piero della Vigna's tale of being falsely accused of treason, punished by blinding, and suicidal despair at never again being able to see the sun, for example, remains indelibly in my memory, as does the horror of Count Ugolino forever gnawing on the head of his enemy, Archbishop Ruggieri. I noted too that the film includes Mohammed among the damned, his chest torn open as punishment for the sin of schism (medieval Christians believed Islam to be not a separate religion but a breakaway from Christianity). I somehow doubt the video game will include such a detail.

All in all, L'Inferno is a remarkable movie, hewing very closely to the source material but nevertheless being a satisfying experience in its own right. I remarked to my wife that it would still make an amazing film today, although I suspect its worldview is too alien to most modern people and would thus have to be "updated" before Hollywood would even consider it. If so, I'd rather this 1911 masterpiece be the only film treatment of it we ever see.

More Cimmerian Goodness

Over at The Cimmerian, Brian Murphy posts a nice takedown of Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh," perhaps Moorcock's most famous windmill tilting expedition against the work and legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The funny thing is that I rather enjoy Moorcock's literary creations -- I'm busily re-reading some of his later Elric stories right now -- but I tend to think his literary criticism is shoddy at best. Unlike many, I won't engage in amateur psycho-analysis of the man and impute jealousy to his career-long denigration of Tolkien. A more likely explanation, I think, is that Moorcock, like a lot of people, simply never really understood Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is not in fact a simple work and a surface reading of it will undoubtedly leave one with many misapprehensions about it and its author, misapprehensions I think Moorcock has consistently demonstrated in his shallow critiques over the years.

In Moorcock's defense, I imagine that Tolkien was so temperamentally opposite himself that understanding him would probably prove quite difficult. It's little wonder he didn't really get either The Lord of the Rings or Tolkien. In addition, I get the sense that Moorcock believes it's the duty of authors to "challenge" the status quo and, in fantasy, Tolkien is very much the status quo (even if, ironically, the ideas his books champion are not). Combined, these two facts make it all but inevitable that Moorcock would engage in his long-running Quixotic crusade against the good professor. That doesn't mean there's a lot of merit to the crusade, as Brian Murphy quite ably shows in his post.

Speaking only for myself, I read Tolkien voraciously as a younger person and enjoyed it well enough, but didn't really fall in love with his writings until comparatively recently. Like Moorcock, I engaged these books only on a surface level and failed to appreciate just what Tolkien was doing and why. Older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I better see Tolkien's project for what it was and stand in awe of it. It's a pity Moorcock can't do the same, but we all have our blind spots, so I can't be too harsh in judging him, even if I do wish he'd at least recognize that his reaction to Tolkien is a personal one and not necessarily a reflection of anything in the man's writings.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dwimmermount, Session 23

Session 23 was short on action but high on information gathering, which is only reasonable, as the PCs were very much in the dark about many things. Although they had promised Cyrus that they would take him (and his coffin) to Dwimmermoun in exchange for his having helped them escape the catacombs beneath the cabin, Dordagdonar suggested they not follow through with it. This is another area where my implementation of Death Frost Doom differed from the adventure as published: there was no magical component to the oath they swore to do as Cyrus asked. I felt it preferable that the PCs not be bound to keep the promise they'd made if they did not wish to do so, although I was prepared to visit (non-magical) misfortune upon them as a consequence for any duplicity on this score. A magical oath seemed, in context, too heavy-handed a tool and so I abandoned it.

As I said, Dordagdonar saw no need to keeping their promise and indeed saw Cyrus as a threat to be disposed of. During daylight hours, he was immobile and at their mercy. They could easily have destroyed him. This didn't sit well with Brother Candor, who, in addition to be unhappy at the prospect of breaking a promise, felt that even so evil a being as Cyrus had a role yet to play in the world. He was certain that Tyche, as mistress of fate, was teaching him something through this dilemma and so he argued against destroying Cyrus. A compromise was reached, whereby a stake was put through the vampire's heart to immobilize -- but not destroy -- him. The party then set out for Adamas to consult with Saidon, archivist of the temple of Typhon, hoping he'd have some information to aid them.

Saidon was, as ever, happy to see them, particularly since they brought him Thulian spoons -- and a ladle -- they pilfered from the catacombs. The PCs requested access to his library of Thulian history books, hoping to find information about Cyrus. Of course, they didn't wish Saidon to know precisely what they were looking for, so they requested lots of books on a variety of historical subjects, hoping to muddle the issue, in case the old man got a bit too nosy.

Looking through the books, they discovered that Cyrus Haldeion had once been a general of the Thulian empire. He was extremely successful, putting down many rebellions against Thulian rule, and popular. He was also a vocal critic of the cult of Turms Termax, which he believed had bent the empire to serve its purposes rather than the common good. So great was his dislike of the cult that, when faced with a harangue by Hierophant Oriseus, a local Termaxian leader, he slew him in a rage. His actions made him a traitor to the empire and he was executed. Of course, the PCs knew his "execution" did not in fact happen and he was instead cursed with undeath as a vampire and placed within the catacombs for reasons unknown -- perhaps to lead the zombie horde that lay slumbering within them.

Armed with this information, the PCs then chartered a riverboat and took Cyrus' coffin on board. They removed the stake to interrogate him. Needless to say, Cyrus was unimpressed with them, sneering at their betrayal and noting that "honor obviously has lost all meaning since the fall of the empire." Brother Candor asked him to reveal just what he intended to do in Dwimmermount, but Cyrus refused to answer. He said he'd held up his end of the bargain and was at the PCs' mercy. They should either do as they had already promised to do and take him to Dwimmermount or they should destroy him now. He would answer no further questions nor be in any way helpful to them until they demonstrated their good faith.

Cyrus' words clearly pained Brother Candor, who started to feel that perhaps they had done the wrong thing by coming to Adamas. He went to consult Morna, high priestess of Tyche, and ask her advice on the matter. He explained the presence of the zombie horde, its likely movement toward Adamas, and the mystery of Cyrus. Morna had very little advice to offer, suggesting only that Brother Candor do what he felt was most in accord with the Lady's will. The cleric had come to believe that Cyrus would not have been allowed to exist for so many centuries after his natural lifetime if he did not have a role yet to play. He noted his antipathy toward the cult of Turms Termax, a common enemy with the PCs, and soon decided that Cyrus should be returned to Dwimmermount as promised.

Before he could do that, Morna recommended they speak to select members of the Senate of the city to inform them of the situation and ask their assistance. As a member of the Senate, she could get them an audience. The Senate was naturally shocked and horrified to learn of the imminent zombie invasion. Worse still, they disliked the possibility that there might be more such zombie crypts hidden about the countryside, perhaps close to Adamas. Dordagdonar offered to lead a small scouting party to attempt to locate any signs of the horde and to see if they could uncover evidence of yet more crypts. Brother Candor meanwhile wanted to return to Dwimmermount to release Cyrus, as promised. The Senate was none too keen on this notion but agreed as Brother Candor argued emphatically that the vampire could yet be of use if he felt the PCs were trustworthy.

By means of a teleport spell, he knocked three days off his travel to the megadungeon. Once there, he removed the stake and set Cyrus free. The Thulian general thanked Brother Candor for showing him that there was still some glimmer of honor left in this benighted age. The cleric asked him if he knew more about these zombie crypts. Cyrus admitted he did. They were put in place by the cult of Turms Termax to ensure that any who brought down their empire would pay the ultimate price for their arrogance. Once active, a horde would slay all living things in its path and move toward the nearest crypt it could find and active it, so as to add to its strength and numbers. Cyrus opposed this plan and had been attempting to stop its implementation when he slew Hierophant Oriseus. He told Brother Candor the location of all the crypts he knew about -- including two beneath Adamas. With that, Cyrus disappeared into Dwimmermount, saying that he felt he and Brother Candor would meet again some day.

Brother Candor road back to the city-state to pass along what he now knew to the Senate, which had already authorized a large military force to face the incoming zombie horde. Dordagdonar having found no signs of crypts outside the city, he and Brother Candor resolved to lead a team into the sewers and catacombs of Adamas to find the two crypts there and deal with them -- somehow -- before the incoming horde's presence activated them and through the city-state into chaos.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Poul Anderson

Had he lived, today would have been Poul Anderson's 83rd birthday. Anderson is a favorite author of mine, both for his historical fantasies, such as The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, and for his science fiction works, particularly the Van Rijn/Falkayn and Flandry series. My own SF RPG, Thousand Suns (which I am busily revising), is strongly influenced by Anderson's SF tales, so I feel a particular debt to him.

As you'd expect, The Cimmerian offers up a fine tribute to Anderson and notes some similarities between him and Robert E. Howard.

On Sub-classes

Having been primarily an AD&D player in my younger days, I retain a fondness for most of the sub-classes included in the Players Handbook. As I've immersed myself more fully in OD&D, though, I have come to see the proliferation of sub-classes introduced in the Supplements and The Strategic Review as blurring the notion of what a "character class" is. How to reconcile these two positions?

At present, I consider all classes beyond the original three to be "specialists" and, except in the case of the thief (whose status is still unclear despite years of wrestling with it), very specific specialists at that. I've already talked about how paladins into my setting. Druids are a secret society made up of former clerics of Lawful gods, who now oppose Law and Chaos in equal measure. Illusionists are members of an esoteric school of magic and assassins belong to a hidden brotherhood.

I simply don't like the idea of "generic" sub-classes, preferring instead that they all be tied to some aspect of the setting. I feel this way for several reasons. First, it means that, by and large, most PCs and NPCs will belong to one of the Big Three classes. Second, it means that, if a player does wish to portray a member of a sub-class, he's signing on to a large number of "social" restrictions/demands to make up for his character's increased power compared to members of the base classes. Finally, I genuinely think most of the "standard" sub-classes pretty much demand some kind of in-setting context to work. I don't think the paladin or the monk or even the assassin, as written, are archetypal enough to be used without some hook with the setting I'm using. If a player just wants to play a "holy warrior," he can be a cleric or even a zealous fighting man. If a player just wants to be a guy who kills for money, he needn't be a member of the assassin sub-class, which, to my mind anyway, is something much more specific.

So, I do like and would allow sub-classes. I just think they need to be uncommon and bound to the setting better than they are in baseline OD&D.

Retrospective: Space Opera

I make no bones about the fact that, when it comes to science fiction RPGs, I was and remain a Traveller man. Traveller was, after Gamma World, my first SF RPG, and the one I undoubtedly played the most. My first professional writing credits were for Traveller and the first game industry professionals I ever met in the flesh were associated with the game (at the 1991 Origins convention in Baltimore, where I had dinner with Marc Miller, Charles Gannon, and the Japanese translators of Traveller). To this day, when I think of "science fiction roleplaying games," Traveller is the gold standard by which I measure all others.

Though first, Traveller wasn't the only SF RPG out there. In 1980, Fantasy Games Unlimited released its own entry into the genre, Space Opera. Rarely has a RPG gotten a title so evocative and apropos, for, unlike Traveller, Space Opera was unambiguously -- and clearly unashamedly -- an "unserious" game. By that, I don't mean it was a jokey or silly game, only that it had no pretensions to being a "deep" game, ripping off, as it did, just about every bit of SF its writers could get their hands on. As you can see from the cover image, this is a game where Flash Gordon, Chewbacca, Ming the Merciless, Barbarella, and assorted aliens can meet in a cantina and go adventuring among the stars without the petty concerns of rhyme or reason. In concept, it's about as coherent as Dungeons & Dragons but, like D&D, it has the potential to transcend its schlocky origins and become its own weirdly appealing thing.

Alas, Space Opera never could reach such heights of gaming enjoyment because its rules were terrible, possibly unplayable. Though written during what I call the Golden Age of Gaming, Space Opera nevertheless evinces a Silver Age obsession with complexity and I dare say "realism." Character generation is a long and tedious process, involving a combination of random rolls, derived attributes, and player choice. Unlike Traveller, where even a fairly experienced character can be generated quickly, doing the same in Space Opera could easily take 30 minutes or more, especially if you're not very familiar with the system. Combat involved multiple rolls for each attack: to hit, to determine where one hits, to penetrate armor, and to determine extent of injuries. Space combat was even more complex -- as were most of the game's systems.

Now, as you should know by now, I don't see anything wrong with multiple sub-systems within a game. Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that one of the hallmarks of old school design, as opposed to nostalgia games, is that they are built upon multiple, separate sub-system that work in unison rather than a single universal mechanic. Space Opera falls down, I think, because its various sub-systems don't work in unison. Instead, they give the impression of a Frankenstein's monster, sewed together from bits and bits pieces scavenged from here and there without any regard for what the end result would be. A friend of mine, who's played more Space Opera than I ever could stomach, suggested that the game was written by a committee of people who were each given a separate section of the game to write and who didn't like each other very much. As it turns out, he's almost right. According to FGU's Scott Bizar, Space Opera was written by correspondence by several authors who'd never met one another; it shows.

Nevertheless, Space Opera had a slew of supplements between its initial release and 1985. Of these, the Space Atlases are the most interesting, for it's here that you get a sense of the glorious cheesiness of the game's official setting, which I can only describe as "kitchen sink SF." You remember those guys in high school who used to argue about whether the Enterprise could defeat an Imperial Star Destroyer? They went on to write the Space Atlases, where the United Federation of Planets -- yes, they call it that -- can fight Space Nazis, Space Soviets, and the Space Viet Cong/Mongols, not to mention the Bugs from Starship Troopers. There are Vulcans and Kzinti too, along with many other ideas torn bleeding from the bodies of science fiction books, movies, and TV shows.

To be fair, Traveller's official setting is also highly derivative, swiping heaping helpings of ideas and terms from H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle, among others. But Traveller somehow managed to hide its sources better and its rules were simple enough that you could very quickly get into enjoying the game itself so that its derivativeness faded in importance. Space Opera never managed to achieve that degree of unity, largely because its rules are such a mess. I think that's a shame, because a gleefully schlocky SF RPG is a wondrous thing to play.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Paladins of Dwimmermount

Lots of gamers make the claim that the paladin class, first introduced to OD&D in Supplement I, doesn't fit well with the other classes. While I certainly see the logic of this claim, it's not one I share. I consider the paladin's pedigree in the game at least as solid as that of the thief and since, as I've discovered, a great many gamers will defend to the death the sanctity of the thief as a "core" class of the game, I think I'm on pretty solid ground here.

Now, it's true that, if one is going to treat Dungeons & Dragons as solely a product of gritty swords-and-sorcery, there's not much precedent for the class. For all my championing of the pulp fantasy roots of the game, even I don't argue that S&S is the only influence on OD&D. From the beginning, D&D's been assimilating all kinds of imaginative literature, to the betterment of the game's "DNA," in my opinion. It's a stronger game for having a more diverse genetic background, although that does sometimes mean its various parts don't always interact well with one another.

The paladin is a good case in point. The uptight, "do-gooder" image of the class is at odds with the way most D&D characters are played. That's part of why I suspect the class has a "bad reputation" with many gamers: a paladin in the party cramps their style. And of course playing a paladin properly is quite difficult, particularly if the referee is going to be a stickler when interpreting the lawful goodness of the character's actions.

My Dwimmermount campaign takes most of its cues from swords-and-sorcery literature. On first blush, paladins wouldn't seem to have a place in the setting. In actual fact, as my players are about to discover, paladins played a key role in the setting's history by spearheading many of the rebellions that overthrew the Termaxian-dominated Thulian empire. The Thulians had a state religion -- the Great Church -- made up of the temples of all the Lawful deities. That religion was subverted by the Termaxians once they rose to power, as Turms Termax had no clerics of his own. Instead, clerics of other gods were devoted to their own gods as aspects of Turms. In this way, the whole Great Church came to serve the cult of the Man-Become-God.

Paladins serve no known god. Indeed, they generally consider all gods to be, at best, merely powerful otherworldly beings and, at worst, demons masquerading as divinities. Paladins serve only Law, which they consider synonymous with Goodness. They take particularly umbrage at gods who claim to be Lawful and yet subvert Law for evil ends, like Typhon. Paladins travel the world singly or in pairs, spreading their particular interpretation of Law and rooting out cults devoted to Turms Termax, which they consider particularly dangerous, moreso even than the temple of Typhon. Interestingly, paladin do not shun those who do not share their beliefs, even Termaxians. Instead, they seek them out and often join their adventuring parties, hoping to use their unique abilities and charisma to sway the wayward to their cause.

No one knows where paladins come from, although rumors persist of a hidden fortress called simply "The Palace," from which they are sent out into the world. Likewise, paladinhood is not something one can aspire to; it is simply something one is. These facts, coupled with their penchant for traveling incognito makes paladins a mysterious group about whom many tall tales and legends have sprung up. Given their rarity and secretiveness, most people have no idea whether any of the stories are true, only that paladins are unusual fighting men, unlike any others in the world.

Spell Levels

My nine year-old daughter occasionally plays in my Dwimmermount campaign when she's not distracted by other activities. Her character, Iriadessa, is a 3rd-level magic-user. She's frequently confused by the way that spell levels don't map on to character levels. I have to admit I share her frustrations. Although three decades of playing D&D has made it second nature to say "Oh, you have to be 9th level before you can cast 5th level spells," it nevertheless rubs me the wrong way.

If I had my druthers, I'd probably rework the spell list so that spell level corresponded better to character level, but I suspect it'd take a lot of work to do right and, even then, would somehow not feel right. Anti-intuitive this convention clearly is, but it's such a longstanding one that changing it would probably step over some imaginary line in my brain and push it toward the dreaded category of "not D&D." Funny how that works sometimes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Speaking of Missing the Point ...

Here's an animated trailer for something calling itself Dante's Inferno, which, I gather, is based on a video game rather than on part I of The Divine Comedy.

Believe it or not, I do try to be open-minded about stuff like this, but reducing one of the great works of Western literature and spirtuality into a cartoonish -- and no, I'm not talking about the animation -- action movie is a step too far for me. Movies can't even do justice to pulp fantasy, so it's little wonder they'd treat Inferno in this fashion.


A Nod from the Cimmerian

Deuce Richardson, over at one of my favorite blogs, The Cimmerian, has done me an honor by devoting an entire post to my recent column at The Escapist. In his post, Mr Richardson takes issue with my assertion that the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien were not a primary influence on Dungeons & Dragons. This is a topic I've covered before and I know it's a controversial one in many quarters. I will simply reiterate here that my position is not that Tolkien's works had no influence on D&D, only that that influence was largely superficial, restricted mostly to some broad fantasy concepts, which Gygax and Arneson gleefully pilfered.

I don't deny that many D&D staples, such as the demihuman races, for example, are largely unthinkable without the influence of Tolkien. What I do deny, though, is that D&D would be impossible to imagine without the influence of Tolkien. I think a "de-Tolkienized" D&D is quite conceivable and, to my mind, much more philosophically coherent. Even if one doubts the veracity of Gygax's frequent claims about the degree to which the good professor influenced him, the simple fact of the matter is that Gygax clearly misunderstood Tolkien and his writings. He rather famously described The Lord of the Rings as an allegory about World War II, clearly ignorant of both Tolkien's feelings about allegory and that the story the novel tells predates the 1939-1945 war.

Tokien is, in my opinion, simply one influence among many that shaped early D&D. The game, after all, sprang up in the midst of the pulp fantasy revival of the late 60s and early 70s, when books that Gygax had read as a younger person were once again being made available to the mass market. That's why I find it quite credible that authors such as Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Merritt, all of whom Gygax regularly cites, had a far greater influence on him and the game he co-created. (Dave Arneson muddies this question somewhat, as players in his Blackmoor campaign attest to its strong Tolkien influences).

In the post, Mr Richardson also postulates that Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar and The Dwellers in the Mirage had more influence on Gygax than the books I alluded to. I'm willing to concede that point in principle, but I can only say that Gygax himself most frequently cited The Face in the Abyss, Creep Shadow, Creep!, and (especially) The Moon Pool as his favorite Merritt books. Again, I suppose it comes down to the extent to which one is willing to take Gygax at his word. I may be more credulous when sifting through his comments than I ought to be and, if so, I welcome correction. That said, I'm far from convinced regarding Tolkien and I look forward a future post on the subject by Mr Richardson, something he suggests he may tackle sometime later.

Until then.

You Know You're Old When ...

... other gamers unironically talk about the release of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in 1991 as "back in the day."

OD&D Spell Levels

So, yesterday, while playing the latest session of my Dwimmermount campaign -- I'll post a recap tomorrow, most likely -- the characters paid a visit to Morna, the high priestess of Tyche in Adamas. She's 9th level, making her one of the highest level characters in the campaign to date. While the PCs interacted with her, I was idly flipping through my OD&D reference sheets, when it suddenly struck me that there are no spells above level 6 in the LBBs.

Now, I already knew this was the case. I've been playing this campaign for nearly a year now and I'd been immersed in OD&D for far longer than that. Yet, somehow, I guess this fact had never really sunken in. I'm very fond of the Greyhawk supplement to OD&D and use a lot of its contents. Since its the origin of spell levels 7 through 9, I suspect I just naturally elide that material into my recollections of the LBBs. Plus, years of playing AD&D has probably warped my brain in a similar fashion. I simply assume that magic-user spells go up to level 9 and cleric spells to level 7.

Anyway, as this revelation started to sink in during play, I began to consider the possibility of not allowing the existence of spells above level 6 in my campaign. Odds are the PCs will never rise high enough to be able to cast such spells anyway. Both MUs and clerics need to be 12th level to reach such power and I simply can't imagine the characters ever amassing sufficient experience to achieve it. Without levels 7 through 9, there'd be no wish, limited or otherwise, no mass X spells, no symbols, power words, or holy words, no gate, no astral spell, no restoration, and no raise dead fully. The result would be a game that was recognizably D&D but without most of the spells that are regularly deemed "world breaking" or that undermine the seriousness of death and energy drain. Likewise, the planes would be much more inaccessible and distant, making travel there more remarkable (or even non-existent). In short, limiting spells to levels 6 and below would go a long way toward bring OD&D more in line with the kind of fantasy that appeals to me most these days.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Land of Unreason

The writing duo of Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp were, according to Gary Gygax, great influences on Dungeons & Dragons, particularly in the form of the Harold Shea "Enchanter" series. In my opinion, the collaborations of these two authors were generally better than their solo works. I suspect it's because each author reined in the worst aspects of the other when working in concert. A good case in point is 1942's Land of Unreason, a terrific story about a contemporary American who finds himself transported to the land of Faerie.

The book's protagonist is Fred Barber, a diplomat living in Yorkshire, England during World War II. On the night of Midsummer's Eve, when Barber's hosts leave out a bowl of milk as an offering to the fairies, he decides to make light of the custom by swapping the milk for scotch whiskey. As a consequence of his jest, the fairies who come for the milk become intoxicated -- and more than a little perturbed at his actions. They kidnap Barber, spiriting him off to Faerie, where he's taken to the court of King Oberon to answer for his deed.

Oberon offers Barber a chance to return to his own world if he will first atone for his crime by undertaking a mission on behalf of the fairies. He's to go off into the Kobold Hills -- the source of many magic weapons -- and determine if an ancient enemy of the fairies has returned. Barber reluctantly agrees and sets off through the bizarre landscape of Faerie on his mission. While doing so, he meets all manner of equally bizarre characters and his interactions with them, not to mention the quest itself, set the stage for revelations about the nature of Barber's own existence.

Land of Unreason is a fun book. Its depiction of Faerie is one I particularly enjoy, for this otherworldly land functions according to its own weird logic, one that is largely alien -- and often inimical -- to visitors from our reality, like Barber. Its inhabitants are, by turns, helpful, seductive, and terrifying. One gets the very real sense that mortal men were not meant to dwell in Faerie, something I much prefer to the dewy-eyed romanticism one often sees associated with fairies. I'll also admit that I'm a sucker for tales of modern men transported to fantasy realms, a trope that was once a staple of the genre but now seems to be less common (though it hasn't disappeared entirely). It's well worth a look if you've never had the chance to do so.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dwimmermount, Session 22

My apologies for the long delay between posting session reports. Here it is, the day before Session 23, and I'm only now posting details of last weekend's session. Better late than never. I should point out that this report includes lots of spoilers about Jim Raggi's Death Frost Doom, since I had been using that adventure as the basis for my last few sessions. Last weekend, we completed the adventure and, while I did change quite a number of elements from Raggi's original, enough similarity remains that, if you're the sort of person who doesn't want a module "spoiled" for them by reading details of someone else playing it, you should stop reading now.

At the end of the last session, the party decided to return to Zeke's cabin to re-supply and rest. Brother Candor was keen to pray for find traps, which he hoped would make things easier for them as they continue to explore the catacombs beneath the old cabin in the elven vale. Iriadessa decided, once again, to remain behind, thinking it safer to stay with the crazy old trapper than to venture into a dungeon that was apparently once the lair of Thulian necromancers. So, after a while, the remaining party returned to the dungeon, better armed for what awaited them -- or so they thought.

As they determined last time, there was no way to proceed except through the room that was blocked by a weird, coral-like "plant" whose brittle "branches" impeded their progress. The plant made a peculiar, low-pitched, whistling noise, but the PCs couldn't determine its purpose. With some reluctance, they decided that, to move forward, they had to break their way through the plant. They attempted to do so as little as possible, but its brittleness, combined with the way its branches had spread in the room, made this difficult. They wound up destroying it almost completely, leading Brother Candor to soon notice that the sound the plant had been making had ceased. This concerned him.

Moving ahead, they discovered numerous rooms bolted from the outside. Some of them included inscriptions in Thulian on the outside, indicating that they held the remains of various deceased Thulians, often with impressive titles. Both Dordagdonar (thanks to his helm of comprehend languages) and Brother Candor (thanks to an enchanted jeweler's loop) were able to read these inscriptions. Again, in most cases, there was evidence that the deceased were no longer among the merely dead -- banging on the doors from the inside, moaning, etc. The party dutifully investigated these rooms, almost none of which provided a real danger. Brother Candor is 5th-level and thus able to automatically destroy and turn all undead up to the power of a wight. Amusingly, the one room containing an undead creature potentially dangerous to them was the one they did not enter, opting instead to investigate another nearby room.

This room was filled with mist and, upon closer inspection, a simple coffin filled with earth. This immediately worried the PCs, particularly once the mist started to coalesce into the shape of a middle-aged man dressed in simple but very refined clothing. Speaking in Thulian (which only Dordagdonar understood), he explained his name was Cyrus, a former military commander of Dwimmermount placed here as the result of a "political disagreement" with his superiors. He impled that his disagreement had something to do with his resentment toward the influence of the Termaxians. In any case, Cyrus added that he was trapped within the room in which they now stood and asked the PCs' help in taking him -- and his coffin -- to another location. When the party asked why they should help him, he told them simply that they would need his help to escape now that "you've silenced the song." It was at this point that Brother Candor almost immediately realize that destroying the plant-thing had caused something bad to happen.

Cyrus elaborated on his cryptic comment, explaining that this entire underground complex was one of many placed at hidden locations throughout the Thulian empire. Filled with "sleeping" corpses, they could be awakened, creating an "army of the damned" that would rise up and slaughter the Thulians' enemies, provided "certain protocols were put into action," namely the destruction of the plant-thing whose sounds kept the dead from awakening. These underground sites were a final defense by the Thulians, a kind of dead man's switch that would ensure that anyone who brought the empire low would suffer for doing so. Of course, history doesn't record any hordes of undead rising up to attack the Thulians' enemies, so that means the plan failed for some reason or other -- or had until the PCs interfered.

Dordagdonar kept very careful records of how big each crypt was in the underground complex. He also noted how high the corpses were stacked. Quickly calculating, he estimated that this complex alone held nearly 11,000 corpses. Rising up, especially if they acted as a single unit, which Cyrus assured them they would, they would be a formidable force. The PCs determined they had to do something and so accepted Cyrus' offer with some reluctance. He asked that they take him and his coffin to a location within Dwimmermount that he'd reveal once they were within the dungeon. In exchange, he'd aid them against the undead now swarming the complex and implied he'd also answer some questions about Dwimmermount, the Thulians, and the Termaxians. Brother Candor in particular was not happy about making a deal with a being they assume to be a vampire, but they had little choice.

Cyrus proved to be an impressive warrior, aiding the party in fending off waves of zombies. He enabled them to escape and they in turn brought his coffin to the surface. They then made their way toward Muntburg until the daybreak was approaching. At that point, Cyrus retired to his coffin and the PCs plotted about what to do next. They assume that Cyrus will betray them at some point, but they also need him for the information he holds. Likewise, with ravening undead soon to be scouring the countryside, he may prove useful. The session ended as they debated their next course of action, with the main options being traveling to Dwimmermount as planned, heading instead to Adamas to seek out Saidon, or heading to Yethlyreom to implore the necromancers there for aid in defeating the zombie horde they accidentally unleashed.

Needless to say, this was a superb session and one whose consequences will set the tone for many more sessions to come. Those familiar with Death Frost Doom will note I made a few changes to the original. These were last minute changes as I was inspired during play and realized how I could connect several elements of the campaign so far into a cohesive whole. I'm actually rather pleased how this all turned out, as it gives me several outlets for ideas I wasn't sure how I'd introduce into the campaign. I'm very much looking forward to the next session.

Sad News

Havard, over on his blog, is reporting that Richard L. Snider, a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign -- he played The Flying Monk -- and co-author with Dave of Adventures in Fantasy, died earlier this week. That's very sad news, as Richard, along with his brother, John, were important figures in the prehistory and early history of the hobby. The loss of yet another person associated with those halcyon days only underscores the need to learn more from those who were around back then and are still with us today.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, November 20, 2009

North American Oerik

I recall reading a post somewhere, in which the author did a very nice job of pointing out the cartographic connections between North American and the Oerik continent of Oerth. Does anyone recall seeing this somewhere? What I recall had illustrations to go with it and, in light of my earlier post today, I'd really like to be sure I hadn't imagined the whole thing.


Unsolicited Advice

Suppose you're a large RPG company with a penchant for "re-imagining" beloved games and campaign settings. Suppose, too, that you happen to hold the rights to the campaign settings of not one but both the creators of the first and best-selling roleplaying game of all time. How do you best leverage your rights to those settings in a way that simultaneously doesn't deviate from your commitment to make things "fresh" and does justice to the 30+ years of history associated with those settings? Well, if the decision were mine to make, this is what I'd do: become more Roman than the Romans.

Let me explain what I mean. Both Blackmoor and Greyhawk have at least part of their origins in the Domesday Book map of the Castle & Crusade Society of the International Federation of Wargamers. Issue #13 of that periodical included an early version of Blackmoor, well before OD&D was ever published. Theoretically, both the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns existed in the same "universe" established by the C&C Society map. Echoes of this reality can be seen in the existence of a northern realm of Blackmoor within the World of Greyhawk and of a "Great Kingdom" in each -- a formerly good and noble realm that fell to evil and despotism and against which several nations rebelled. Likewise, there's also a Duchy of Ten(h) in each setting, whose name, legend has it, derives from its existence in section 10 of the C&C map, which was parceled into "land grants" to be given to C&C members to develop on their own.

Of course, the histories of Blackmoor and Greyhawk are more complex than that -- convoluted even -- but the point remains: they share a common origin. So, if I were going to "re-invent" these settings in a way that might grab the attention of both contemporary gamers without any knowledge of the hobby's past and old timers for whom honoring the past is important, I'd go back to square one. I'd find some way to recreate the old C&C map, place both Blackmoor and Greyhawk on it, and do my damnedest to reconcile them or at least integrate elements of both, along with new material that draws inspiration from the originals.

The result would, of course, be something new and even, to a certain extent, ahistorical but its newness and ahistoricity would at least derive from a careful examination of the origins of both of these seminal campaign settings. I'd probably go ahead and get in touch with as many people who were involved in these campaigns in their formative stages and let them tell me stories about those early days. I'd mine every bit of information I could get my hands on and use it as a springboard for creating a hybrid Blackmoor/Greyhawk that would satisfy the twin demands for "freshness" and respect for the past. Grognards would still grumble, of course -- that's what we do -- but this time the grumbling would be about how I'd failed to respect later publications, not that I'd failed to respect the prehistory of these settings, the crucibles out of which our entire hobby was born.

So that's the cockamamie plan I'd undertake if I held the rights to both Blackmoor and Greyhawk and didn't just want to rehash what we've seen over the last 30 years. I'd go back to the original sources of all this stuff and make the case that I was being super-true to the past by taking my cues from stuff that's largely been forgotten, even among grognards. It might not work, but at least it'd be genuinely different.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Books That Founded D&D

My November column at The Escapist, "The Books That Founded D&D" is now posted. I expect most of it is old hat for regular readers of this blog, but you might want to check it out anyway.

Frog Men

Anyone out there know a good source of "frog men" miniatures? You know, weird Lovecraftian-style batrachoid creatures after the fashion of the bullywugs, deep ones, or kuo-toa.

Review: Stonehell Dungeon

For some time now, the old school community has been obsessed with the twin pillars of early gaming: sandboxes and megadungeons. So great has our obsession been that it's attracted the attention of gamers outside our little echo chamber. It's not uncommon to see discussions of both cornerstones of the Old Ways in parts of the online world philosophically and stylistically far removed from our own. That's a testament, I think, not just to our enthusiasm but also to the power of these concepts. Even 35 years after OD&D burst onto the scene, both sandboxes and megadungeons remain viable, enjoyable ways to experience fantasy roleplaying.

Last month, I wrote a post entitled "Schrödinger's Dungeon," in which I argued that a published megadungeon was an impossibility, or at least very difficult to do in a way that adequately captures this uniquely old school adventure locale. As if in response, Michael Curtis of The Society of Torch, Rope, and Pole, and one of the founders of Three-Headed Monster Games, has released Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls. Written for use with Labyrinth Lord, Stonehell is a 134-page product, available as a softcover book for $13.00 and a PDF for $6.50. A six-page preview, which presents one-quarter of one level is available here, as is a free seven-page supplement, The Brigand Caves.

Before proceeding with a more in-depth review, let me cut to the chase and say that Stonehell is very good. Michael sent me a copy of it two weeks ago and I read it with great pleasure. I had been a fan of his megadungeon back when he posted bits of it on his blog; I even incorporated portions of it into Dwimmermount. Seeing it all collected in one place, polished and expanded, made me very happy and Stonehell deserves to be well-received in the old school community. That said, it's not perfect and, much as I like it, it hasn't changed my mind about the inherent difficulty in publishing a megadungeon. Stonehell probably comes closest to meeting my challenge but it still falls short, not for lack of imagination -- Michael clearly has that in abundance -- but because the demands of presentation have in my opinion constrained its design.

Stonehell consists of five dungeon levels, which we are told is but a portion of the huge underground complex. A later product will include yet more levels. As it is, these five levels consist of more than 700 individual rooms, more than enough to keep players busy for a long time. Each level is conveniently divided into quarters, each quarter using the One-Page Dungeon format originated by David "Sham" Bowman. That convenience is a double-edged sword, because, while it does make these dungeons much easier to use in play, it also tends to make each level feel less organic. Within each quadrant, the maps are often quite cleverly done, with many different possible paths of exploration -- a key feature of old school dungeons. However, the bridges between the various quadrants are typically quite limited, often with just a single connection between them. Likewise, there are very few sub-areas that straddle more than one quadrant, which gives an unfortunately self-contained feel to each of section that undermines any sense of level cohesion.

At the same time, the One-Page Dungeon format has the advantage of keeping each room description short and sweet -- a sentence or three at most. I found myself reminded more of the spare presentation of Castle Blackmoor in The First Fantasy Campaign than the expansive one of Castle Zagyg and that's a plus in my opinion. Such a spartan presentation pretty demands that a referee has to add his own ideas to the mix, if only to provide flavor and context. Again, this is a good thing and goes a long way toward ensuring Stonehell doesn't feel too "canned," which is to say, a pre-programmed adventure lacking room for the creative sparks that differentiate a megadungeon from a mere one-off dungeon lair. Indeed, Michael Curtis helpfully points out in his introduction many areas where the referee can inject his own ideas into Stonehell, another way in which this product differs from nearly every previous attempt at putting a megadungeon into print.

It's difficult to do full justice to Stonehell, because of just how much is included within its covers. In addition to the levels themselves, there are dozens of new monsters, spells, and magic items. There are also tables for rumors and wandering monsters, dungeon background information, advice on customizing the whole thing, and adventure seeds. In combination, it's a pretty impressive piece of work, made all the more impressive by how compact it is. There's quite simply a lot of ideas here and I'd wager that, even if one doesn't use Stonehell whole, there's a profusion of material that's easily adaptable to other circumstances. As I noted earlier, I have already swiped stuff from Stonehell for my Dwimmermount megadungeon and I suspect I will do so again now that I have more material from which to choose.

In the end, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form, certainly the best to come out of the old school renaissance (although Stefan Poag's The Mines of Khunmar certainly bears serious consideration, if only for its maps). It's chock full of good ideas and, if nothing else, should provide a good model and inspiration for those looking to create their own megadungeon. I certainly hope that's the case anyway, because, while Stonehell is remarkably open-ended and flexible, it is nevertheless a very particular kind of megadungeon rather than an example of what all megadungeon are or ought to be.

Michael Curtis makes no such claims, of course, but part of the reason why I believe the megadungeon resists easy publication is its idiosyncratic nature. Megadungeons, much like the term "old school" itself, defy easy definition and attempts to jam them into a single mold (or group of molds) do them a grave disservice. There's no one-size-fits-all formula for producing or presenting a megadungeon and Stonehell is but one example of how a referee might do it. It's a rather good one, admittedly, but it still has its weaknesses, chiefly the rather artificial structure of its maps, which are much too rational and compartmentalized for my taste. I prefer megadungeons to be a lot more wild and woolly, with lots of sub-levels, side levels, chutes, and elevators rather than a neat stack of levels descending infinitely into the depths.

If I could sum up this product's weaknesses in one word, it'd be "caged" -- as if there's a wild, raging animal of creativity shackled by too strict an adherence a schematized format. What I'd like to see in follow-ups to Stonehell is a breaking of those shackles, if not wholly casting aside the artificiality of the One-Page Dungeon, at least a loosening up of its structure so that not all levels are made of the same number of pieces and stack neatly one top of one another. Michael Curtis demonstrates repeatedly in this product that he has a superb imagination; I'd love to see what he's capable of when he's freed from any constraints. Whether he can do that will, I think, say a lot about whether a megadungeon truly does defy easy publication.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking for a ready-to-run megadungeon or ideas to swipe for your own megadungeon.
Don't Buy This If: You'd rather design your own megadungeon.

Interview: Len Lakofka (Part III)

Here's the third and final part of my interview with Len Lakofka.


13. Can you please explain the publication process for L3? My understanding is that you had performed extensive revisions and expansions to the original version but that TSR then either lost them or never used them, or something like that? Do you have any plans to "fix" L3 and to make your updated/expanded final version available?

I sent TSR L3 at same time as L1 and L2. They edited L1 and L2 and we talked back and forth. Then the dark days came and L3 went into a bottom drawer to rot for 20 years.

Of course AD&D had evolved significantly in 20 years. So I went through the laid-out material and updated it. (I don't recall my editor's name... sorry). We were on the same page. Then someone lost the whole thing. They did not tell me they lost it of course. So it went to print and someone else edited it and put stuff in. I had no input. Could I tell you what was put in? I don't think so. I don't think I have the orginal layout and the changed material either.

14. You created a large number of spells for OD&D for Supplement I: Greyhawk, various PC/NPC character classes and spells in fanzines, as well as the whole of the Suel Pantheon for the published Greyhawk campaign. Your contributions to the game via "Leomund's Tiny Hut" were also quite extensive. What do you consider your most valuable additions to the game, and why?

Actually it's something that didn't happen. In the orginal AD&D manuscript (typed double space -- about 800 pages or so) Gary had said that if a person was held (via hold person) he/she had to make a system shock roll! I said to Gary that this would become a "Little Finger of Death." Certainly many NPCs as well as a few characters would have a Constitution score of 14 or lower. A system shock would kill quite a few folks. Since hold person is a 2nd-level cleric spell and 3rd-level magic-user spell, those spell casters needed very little experience to gain access to the prayer/spell. A gaggle of four 3rd-level clerics all throwing hold person at once on the same person would have a very high chance of not only holding him but killing him/her as well. I talked Gary out of it.

15. Given the vast number of rules expansions and additions that you created over the years, can you please describe how your D&D games evolved from when you first discovered the game, and then through your correspondence with Gary, into writing for TSR? Were you playing a proto-AD&D in some form, for example, or were your games always very OD&D-based (or Holmes Basic based, etc.)? Did you regularly use variant rules like spell points, or other variant sub-systems of your own creation?

I stuck to D&D which became AD&D. I wrote quite a few pages that ended up in the Players Handbook and DMG, with Gary inspecting each and tweaking it, as was his wont. As I played D&D, I discovered so many things that were not really explained. How did you get trained for a new level being one of those.

I was at the playtesting of Chainmail (without the fantasy supplement). TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) became the parent of the D&D booklets with time. I played the fantasy supplement of Chainmail on Gary's sand table. It was a simple developement to take it to pen & pencil.

16. From your perspective as one of the key originators and developers of the AD&D system, what words of wisdom would you share with the Old School Renaissance readers, tinkerers, designers, and publishers: words that would speak to your vision for the best possible legacy for D&D?

Well I was there at the beginning but I was not in Lake Geneva. So I had some influence but not a tremendous amount. I got my finger in the pie and no one bit it off. I got a lot of freedom in Dragon. For some number of years I put my stuff in. How much went into later editions or other people's games I have no way of telling. Now and then I hear someone tell me they used this and that but the vast majority of readers never said anything.So who knows?

17. Are you still active in the hobby today?

I have written modules "L4 and L5" and await publication from Dragonsfoot. I will begin L6 once L4 sees actual print. I do not play in any campaign at the moment.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

REVIEW: Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the old school renaissance is seeing the large number of house rules and variant interpretations of OD&D that are used in individual campaigns. From my perspective, each campaign should be as unique as the referee who runs it and the players who participate in it. Some of the best old school blogs include not only listings of house rules but also discussions of the rationales behind them. I find material of this sort endlessly fascinating, since it's a latter day example of the kind of idiosyncratic creativity that was commonplace in the early days of the hobby. It also helps put paid to the notion that the old school movement supposedly marches in lockstep according to one rose-colored tune.

One of my favorite blogs is Delta's D&D Hotspot, written by Daniel Collins. Dan's been posting his thoughts about D&D online for a long time -- far longer than most -- and he's been playing OD&D even longer. I consider him one of the more thoughtful and experienced commentators on OD&D out there and, even when I disagree with his opinions, such as giving saving throws for any spell that has potentially negative consequences, I'm always interested in his explanation of why he holds that opinion. His musings on his blog and elsewhere have often caused me to re-evaluate my own thoughts, which is a remarkable feat, given how hidebound I can be. In short, Daniel Collins is someone worth listening to.

On his blog, Dan's been discussing his version of OD&D, which he calls "Original Edition Delta" or "OED" for short. OED nicely boils OD&D down to its essentials, clarifying some rules without eliminating the need for referee judgment calls and rationalizing other rules without eliminating the charming quirkiness of the original game. Again, I don't agree with all the choices he's made, but OED is nevertheless a version of OD&D I'd enjoy playing and I've pilfered a few ideas from it in my own Dwimmermount game.

So, when Dan released Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells, I was intrigued. What did he have in store? As it turns out, Book of Spells is an 18-page product (available in both print and PDF formats) that presents, as fully open content, all the magic-user spells of 6th level and below presented in the little brown books, with select additions from Supplement I. Dan did this for a couple of reasons. First, it fills the void left by the removal of legal OD&D PDFs by Wizards of the Coast earlier this year. Second, it gives players of magic-users (and referees) a "spellbook" they can easily consult during play rather than having to flip through an entire rulebook for just a few specific pages.

What's most remarkable about the spell descriptions is that, with very exceptions, they're no more than three lines of text long, including information on range and duration. Most of the descriptions eliminate "negative" statements and limitations, on the notion that OD&D magic should be rare and potent and that the primary determinants of what it can and cannot do are player ingenuity and referee adjudication. This results in a very bare bones presentation, but one that is strangely inspiring to those of us who see OD&D not so much as a complete game in itself as an invitation to create one's own game from its piecemeal rules.

Book of Spells is an admittedly specific book and I can't say it's a "must-have," particularly for those who already own the LBBs + Supplements. However, it's nevertheless a very fascinating take on OD&D magic-user spells, one that strips away the limitations of later editions, concessions to convention play, and other needless worries that have emasculated D&D magic over the last 30+ years. Reading Book of Spells is like reading a recently-unearthed ancient text, one free from later glosses so that it can be read with new eyes.

Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells consists almost entirely of dense text, with only four illustrations (counting the cover) to break it up. It is, however, very readable and well edited. It's also a bit expensive considering its length but that's hardly a damning critique of what is a useful and inspiring product. I don't expect it to set the old school gaming world on fire, but I do think it could occasion quite a lot of fruitful discussion about the power and utility of magic in OD&D, even among those who are already playing the game. That's a pretty remarkable feat in my opinion.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking for a concise presentation of OD&D magic-user spells free from later accretions.
Don't Buy This If:
You prefer more expansive (and restrictive) spell descriptions.

Retrospective: The Secret of Bone Hill

Published in 1981, The Secret of Bone Hill is the first module in the L-series, so designated either because it was set on the World of Greyhawk's Lendore Isle or because it was written by Lenard Lakofka, a long-time contributor to Dungeons & Dragons and a regular columnist to Dragon magazine. Whatever the case, L1 is, in my opinion, an under-appreciated classic, a low-level introductory module that nicely occupies a middle ground between The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands. Allow me to clarify.

The Village of Hommlet is often praised -- and criticized -- for its mundanity. Hommlet is Exhibit A of Gygaxian Naturalism in action. Nearly every inhabitant of the village is given a name, a personality, and a place within its little society. Likewise, the nearby moat house dungeon is subdued, with a semi-realistic ecology and suffused with a sense of foreboding rather than blatant evil. Keep on the Borderlands, on the other hand, offers very little in the way of context. The titular keep is a lone outpost of undefined civilization, beyond which there exists only the wilderness and the forces of Chaos who dwell within. It's almost purely fantastical in conception and the Caves of Chaos are frequently cited as an example of bad dungeon ecology, with numerous antagonistic humanoid tribes existing cheek by jowl with one another.

The Secret of Bone Hill presents the town of Restenford, which is as well imagined as Hommlet, complete with unique names and personalities for even the most minor of NPCs. In addition, there are maps aplenty for the town and its buildings, making it very friendly to referees who give their players the freedom to wander about the place as they wish. Surrounding Restenford is a dangerous wilderness filled with bandits, humanoids, and other threats. And of course there's Bone Hill itself, home to numerous undead, including such foul things as ghoulstirges, stirges who paralyze as well as drink blood. Bone Hill is a dangerous place, one that beginning adventurers ought to avoid until they've gained sufficient experience to tackle its horrors.

To my mind, the beauty of module L1 is the way it combines the mundanity of Hommlet with the otherworldly fantasy of the Caves of Chaos. Much as I love B2, it sometimes feels a little too de-contextualized -- perhaps by design -- but I find I like context for my adventures, particularly low-level ones. Hommlet and Restenford are both very good "home bases," whereas I don't find the Keep particularly compelling, a problem made all the more obvious to me in my own Dwimmermount campaign, where Muntburg is a close relative of the Keep in terms of depth and detail (which probably explains why both the players and myself prefer to visit Adamas, even though it's farther away from the dungeon).

Bone Hill is a weird place. During the day, bugbears hold it, while, at night, they cede control to the undead who rise up from their graves. This fact gives it a peculiar vibe for me and one that I think helps the module considerably. And the number and strength of the surrounding creatures, both at Bone Hill and elsewhere, ensures that PCs have good reason to spend a lot of time in Restenford, getting to know its inhabitants and their peculiarities, rather than just treating the town as "flyover country" they can simply ignore. The result is a terrific dynamic that I've always liked and that has probably informed my own campaign design as much as anything else.

If you haven't read The Secret of Bone Hill in a while, I recommend you do so. I think you'll find it better than you remember its being and a genuine classic of the early 80s.

Old School Art Podcast

The latest Ninja Mountain podcast includes a round table discussion about old school D&D art, with former TSR staff artists Erol Otus and Jeff Easley. The discussion is promoting the upcoming release of The Dungeon Alphabet by Michael Curtis.

It's well worth listening to, if only to hear the voice of Erol Otus talk about his art, his influences, and what he takes to be the important elements of old school art. It's also quite fascinating to hear -- and I know this will fan some flames in various quarters -- Jeff Easley say that he (and Larry Elmore) had never played D&D before they were hired by TSR, whereas Erol Otus notes that he was a huge D&D player, perhaps too much of one, according to his comments.

In any case, check it out.