Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Speaking of Spanish Language News ...

Pedro Gil over at the Spanish old school blog Aventuras en La Marca del Este has passed along word that a new retro-clone, based on Labyrinth Lord, is in the works. The game, which will be released in a boxed set that includes a 150-page rulebook, a referee's screen, and dice. Here's the art from the box cover:

And here are a couple of character illustrations from the rulebook:

As you can see, this is going to be a very attractive product, with lots of excellent artwork. There's the possibility of an English language translation of the game in the future, but, for now, those of us who don't read Spanish will have to be content with merely admiring the game rather than actually playing it.

Another Conan Pic

Here's a scan from a Spanish language magazine posted at the official Robert E. Howard boards. I can't read Spanish very well, so I'm not certain that the accompanying article provides much insight about the film, but the photograph is interesting.

I say "interesting," because, like all such photos, it lacks the context necessary to make a proper judgment about it, other than a gut one. And my gut continues to tell me that Jason Momoa might well be a better Conan than I anticipated but that whatever virtues he possesses will likely be wasted on a B-grade sword-and-sorcery movie that has little of Robert E. Howard in it. Much like James Purefoy as Solomon Kane, the 2011 film may well have an actor who could have, in a less compromised production, portrayed something like a genuine Howard character.

I do hope to be proven wrong, however; I simply don't expect I will be.

Skills I Can Live With

Despite suggestions to the contrary, I don't "hate" skill systems or think they're anathema to old school game design. Rather, I don't see a lot of point in having a skill system in a class-based RPG, since they're either redundant or, worse yet, undermine the logic of classes. Consequently, when I play a class-based game, I generally assume that members of a given class can be expected to know about things related to that class. So, magic-users are knowledgeable about arcane lore and clerics are conversant in theology, etc. Specific character concepts, such as an illiterate, back woods wizard or a scholar-turned-fighting-man, might lead me to rearrange my assumptions a little, but, overall, I prefer to stick with them and view such specialized knowledge through the lens of character classes and run with it from there.

Now, over the course of my Dwimmermount campaign, the players have occasionally expressed an interest in their characters' learning something, such as a foreign language. Gaztea, Brother Candor's thief henchman, is in the process of learning Ancient Thulian, for example, and she's also experimenting with basic alchemy by virtue of the fact that we'd established she was a failed wizard's apprentice turned criminal (and has 17 Intelligence to boot). Since there's no formal way to handle the acquisition of such knowledge in the game, I've been winging it, expecting that time, money, and a tutor are what's needed for learning.

Then, just recently, I was re-reading my copy Empire of the Petal Throne and I saw a rule I'd forgotten about. Section 420 of the rulebook includes rules for "Original Skills," which are background skills not unlike the secondary skills of AD&D. At creation, a player rolls percentile dice to determine how many such skills his character starts with and from what categories. EPT has three categories: "plebeian," which covers ordinary arts and crafts, like baking and tailoring, "skilled," which covers more advanced arts and crafts, such as animal training and ship-building, and "noble," which covers very specialized knowledge requiring considerable study to acquire, such as alchemy or mathematics.

There are several things I like about EPT's "original skills" system. First, with very few marginal exceptions, the skills don't undermine the class system but rather complement it. Second, there's no universal mechanic associated with skill use. Possession of the skill brings with it no mechanical expectations; indeed, many of these skills have no means of resolution beyond referee fiat. And the skills that do have mechanics are tied closely to level, which I find quite agreeable. Finally, the system includes a means of acquiring new skills -- actually, it includes two. The first is based on level, as it's assumed characters will acquire new skills from various categories as they increase in level. The second is through the expenditure of time and money, with plebeian skills taking 2 months and 1000 gold pieces to learn, while noble skills take 6 months and 10,000 gold pieces.

EPT's system isn't without flaws and when/if I adopt it for use in my Dwimmermount campaign, I'll likely make some changes to it, but, taken as a whole, it's an approach to the question of specialized knowledge of which I approve. It's built to work in concert with the skill system without either weakening class archetypes or introducing mechanics uncongenial to my refereeing philosophy. I'm glad to was reminded of it.

Retrospective: The Challenges Game System

Most gamers, I hope, know that Tom Moldvay was the editor of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, as well as the writer (co-writer) of two of the greatest D&D modules of all time, The Isle of Dread and Castle Amber. Some of them may also know that he wrote a RPG about world-hopping called Lords of Creation (which I hope to discuss in this space sometime soon). But how many realize that he wrote an 8-page restatement of AD&D in 1986 under the name The Challenges Game System? I was dimly aware of the existence of this game, although I can't say for certain how I was made aware of it or precisely when. Regardless, I'd never actually seen a copy until this week, thanks to a reader of this blog.

Challenges appears to have been self-published by Moldvay through a company called "Challenges International Inc." It's a thin booklet consisting of 8 pages of rules and charts, some endpapers, and a cover. In its brief introduction, Moldvay explains that Challenges
offers an easy-to-play alternative to fantasy game systems which are becoming increasingly complex. All of the basic information needed for play is organized into 8 pages instead of scattered among hundreds of pages of several expensive books.

The Challenges Game System is intended to be a foundation. Game Masters and players can add whatever they like to the system. They can change any rules they want. But the 8 page guide will still remain a basic reference aid, a place where essential information can be quickly found.
I liked the cut of Moldvay's jib to begin with, but this introduction only increased my affection for him. Succinct and without pretense, the introduction is unambiguous on the side of those who see published rules as guidelines for the creation of a roleplaying game fashioned to one's own taste.

Of course, reading through Challenges, it's also unambiguous that Moldvay is taking aim at late era AD&D 1e. The system presented in its 8 pages is largely identical to that of AD&D (with a few interesting wrinkles), stripped down to its essentials and presented far more coherently. Characters have six ability scores: Muscle, Dexterity, Stamina, Willpower, Wisdom, and Charisma. These are generated by rolling 2D6+6 nine times and choosing the best six rolls, arranging them as desired ("Player characters are heroes, not average individuals," Moldvay notes to my disappointment). Scores of 18 -- which would be more likely under the suggested method of random generation -- get a further percentile roll to distinguish them, much like exceptional Strength in AD&D, except that it applies to all ability scores. Ability modifiers are not rationalized -- they vary by ability -- but, outside of the highest percentile scores, they're fairly small, generally +1 or +2.

Challenges presents five classes (warrior, sorcerer, cleric, thief, and mirager -- an illusionist) and five races (humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and hobbits, the latter of which Moldvay claims is based on "British folklore" and makes no reference to Tolkien whatsoever). Races are mostly cosmetic in their differences, with a few gaining special level-dependent detection abilities, infravision -- yes, that term is used -- and, in the case of dwarves, a penalty to Luck rolls, which is the Challenges equivalent to saving throws and is a single score, as in Swords & Wizardry. Classes are simple and straightforward in their presentation, with individualized XP charts. Characters start with maximum hit points (+ Stamina bonuses, if any). Thief abilities are generalized into "Thief Skills" and "Stealth," each governed by a level-based percentile score. Spells are highly simplified -- a line or two description reminiscent of OD&D's presentation.

Combat is where Challenges differs intriguingly from AD&D. All classes have a base attack number, which is what they must roll on 1D20 to score a hit, thus eliminating the need for combat charts. This number is modified on the attacker's side by Muscle or Dexterity, as appropriate. On the defender's side, it's modified by Dexterity and armor. Initiative, however, is a simple 1D6 affair, modified by Dexterity. As optional rules, the amount by which a character exceeds or misses his target number can have additional effects, from bonus damage to dropping one's weapon. Bonus damage also introduces the concept of "wounds," which are persistent combat penalties until healed in order to simulate injury without overly complicating the system.

Challenges also includes rules for turning undead, monster attacks, and multi-classing. It lacks any rules for equipment beyond armor and some basic weapons and includes no example monsters or treasures, the implication being that most of these would be described in adventure published for the game. So far as I know, there was at least one, possibly two, such adventures published, but I have never seen them, so I cannot comment on their contents. As presented, Challenges is not quite a complete system, but, if one has other D&D materials handy, it'd be easy to fill in the gaps.

I suspect that's what Moldvay assumed players would do, which does make one wonder why he bothered to produce this guide book at all. That's not a knock against Challenges, to which I am rather favorably disposed, but I wish I knew more about the circumstances under which this RPG was produced and what Moldvay's plans were for it. As it is, it's close enough to AD&D that I'm not sure it'd stand up to an assault by TSR's legal department, so what was he thinking? On the other hand, as a distillation of AD&D -- a kind of "AD&D Lite" -- it's quite well done and a reminder of how, in practice, many of us played 1e. Nowadays, I have Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so there's little need for something like Challenges, but Moldvay was doing this in 1986, years before anyone else. It's a fascinating historical artifact and a reminder to me, as if I needed one, that Tom Moldvay was a clever and imaginative guy and it's a pity he doesn't get lauded as often as he most assuredly deserves.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

AD&D's Most Enduring Rule

One of the strange little oddities of AD&D is that the 1978 Players Handbook does not offer any explanation of how to generate ability scores for a character, except to note that "Each ability score is determined by random number generation" and that the Dungeon Masters Guide provides "several methods of how this random number generation should be accomplished."

Now anyone who'd played OD&D might reasonably assume that one of those "several methods" would include a straight 3D6 roll, but such an assumption would be misplaced. The DMG explains that
While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have short life expectancy -- which tends to discourage new players, as does have to make do with some character of a race and/or class which he or she really can't or won't identify with. Character generation, then, is a serious matter, and it is recommended that the following systems be used. Four alternatives are offered for player characters.
These four methods are:
  • Roll 4D6, drop the lowest (or "one of the lowest," interestingly) die from each roll, and arrange as desired.
  • Roll 3D6 twelve times, pick the six highest, and arrange as desired.
  • Roll 3D6 six times for each ability and retain the highest score for each ability.
  • Roll 3D6 in order a number of times sufficient to generate 12 characters and choose the most desirable set of ability scores.
As you can see, 3D6 in order isn't among the methods offered in the DMG to generate ability scores. Now, obviously, there's nothing to prevent one from using such a method, but it's clear, as per the text quoted above, that such a method is deemed a source of potential discouragement and a creator of "marginal" characters. If history is any guide, it would seem that most D&D players agreed with the DMG's advice, to such an extent that 4D6-drop-the-lowest became the implicit standard way to generate ability scores, a position it still seems to enjoy today.

Conan the Barbarian: The Musical

Several people sent me links to this today, so I thought I'd share it. I have to admit I found it quite hilarious.

A Fond Desire

You know what I'd really like to see? A good movie about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Pretty much every one I've seen to date is revisionist nonsense of one sort of another, but then that's Hollywood for you. It's probably too much to expect something reasonably close to Malory (or even Geoffrey), isn't it?

Summer of the Shrooms

So far, this Summer has alternated between being cold and wet and hot and humid. Consequently, I've noticed an inordinately large number of mushrooms springing up on everyone's lawns in my neighborhood. Mushrooms are funny things. They are indelibly linked in my mind with fantasy but they're weird in that they have a dual association. On the one hand, they can be whimsical things associated with fairies and pixies and, on the other, they can be the noisome evidence of rot and decay.

I also tend to associate mushrooms with classic artist Erol Otus, whose illustrations included more than their fair share of fungi, but he was far from the only D&D artist who made regular use of mushrooms in his work. My first -- and favorite -- D&D module was Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown and it famously included a garden of giant mushrooms, an area that's become a fixture of my imagination when it comes to envisioning dungeons. Of course, D&D itself is filled with fungi and fungal monsters, from shriekers and violet fungi to myconids, ascomoids, and basidironds. It's a fascinating thing and one I've found myself considering many times this Summer.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Appendix N 2.0

Appendix N gets a lot of play round here, as I consider it an important key to understanding Gary Gygax's vision of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, I've been reading Gary's Mythus RPG, with special attention given to volume 2 of that game, Mythus Magick (possession of which I owe to Norman Harman -- thank you). In the end of that weighty tome, Gygax included a section of the bibliography entitled "General Fantasy Fiction Reading by Author," which lists the "author's favorite authors or inspirational sources."

This list is slightly different than the one included in the Dungeon Masters Guide, being somewhat more extensive. It's also noteworthy in that Gygax includes one or more asterisks after several authors' names, An asterisk denotes "a particularly high recommendation," with more asterisks indicating greater fondness than those with fewer (or no) asterisks. Let's take a look at the authors included in the Mythus Magick list (which dates from 1992, thirteen years after the publication of the DMG). Bolded entries indicate authors not found in the DMG list. Asterisks are as presented in Mythus Magick.
  • Abbey, Lynn
  • Anderson, Poul ****
  • Anthony, Piers ****
  • Asprin, Robert
  • Barker, M.A.R.
  • Bellairs, John
  • Brackett, Leigh
  • Brooks, Terry
  • Burroughs, Edgar Rice
  • Carter, Lin
  • Chalker, Jack L.
  • Cherryh, C.J.
  • de Camp, L. Sprague
  • de Camp, L. Sprague & Pratt, Fletcher ****
  • Eddings, David
  • Farmer, Phillip J.
  • Fox, Gardner
  • Gardner, Craig Shaw
  • Gygax, Gary
  • Haggard, H. Rider ***
  • Hambly, Barbara
  • Hickman, Tracy & Weiss, Margaret
  • Howard, Robert E. *****
  • Lanier, Sterling ***
  • Leiber, Fritz ***
  • McCaffrey, Anne
  • Merritt, A. *****
  • Moore, C.L.
  • Moorcock, Michael ****
  • Offutt, Andrew J.
  • Pratchett, Terry
  • Saberhagen, Fred ****
  • St. Clair, Margaret
  • Sims, John
  • Springer, Nancy
  • Stasheff, Christopher
  • Stewart, Mary
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.
  • Vance, Jack ****
  • Wagner, Karl
  • Weinbaum, Stanley
  • Williamson, Jack
  • Weiss, Margaret
  • Zelazny, Roger ****
Comparing the two lists is an interesting exercise. The 1992 list includes a great many more -- mostly lesser, in my opinion -- authors but most of those authors seem to have had little influence on Gygax. In the DMG, he claims that "the most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt." In the new list, de Camp & Pratt (who are always linked), REH, Leiber, Vance, and Merritt all still rank highly in his estimation, while Lovecraft is entirely absent (an oversight perhaps?), along with Frederic Brown, August Derleth, Lord Dunsany, Andre Norton, and Manly Wade Wellman.

On the other hand, Poul Anderson, Piers Anthony, H. Rider Haggard, Sterling Lanier, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, and Roger Zelazny have all been elevated to the level of significant influences on him. Some of these names make sense to me. I have always felt that Anderson's influence was overlooked, in part becaue Moorcock's reformulation of his Law vs. Chaos scheme is more widely known among gamers. Likewise, I grow ever more convinced that H. Rider Haggard and other Victorian adventure writers were a seminal and unacknowledged influence on D&D. The others strike me as a bit odd but Gygax has been consistent in naming them as influences, so perhaps I'm merely missing obvious points of contact between their literary output and Gygax's fantasies.

The only name missing from the 1992 list that I expected to be there is Glen Cook, whom Gygax had championed as providing a terrific literary model for D&D since his Black Company appeared in 1984. Like Lovecraft, I suspect this is an oversight rather than a deliberate omission. It's also worth noting that Gygax includes his own name along with those other fantasy authors, which can be interpreted as arrogance, a wry joke, or even a commentary on the extent to which Gygax, like D&D itself, came to be chasing his own tail when it came to creativity.

Dungeon Blocks and Me

One of my readers asked me a question about how I use the Hirst Arts blocks in play and whether my use of them interrupts the flow of a session. I thought it an interesting enough question that I'd make a post about it.

To really answer this properly, you have to understand how I run a game session. I'm not what you'd call a deeply "immersive" referee. I am big on describing things, sometimes at great length, but I don't do it in a way intended to "transport" the players into the game world. I address them as if they were their characters -- using "you" rather than "your character," for example -- but there's an implicit understanding that this is an artifice. I've never been a huge proponent of the "theater of the mind" approach to refereeing. I prefer to maintain a distance between myself the game world and it's a distance my players maintain as well.

No doubt this will disappoint some people, but there it is. My players and I freely "break character" and shift back and forth between the game world and the real one, in order to kibitz, ask and answer questions, and just socialize. I'm not a referee who demands the full attention of my players and they often are perusing books, jotting stuff down in notebooks, and so forth while I'm holding forth at the head of the table. That's pretty much how I've always played and I'm comfortable with it. Amateur thespianism is a rare occurrence in my groups and, when it does occur, it's more a matter of whim than planning beforehand. In short, we never forget we're playing a game, even when I'm portraying some NPC giving an impassioned speech to the PCs.

So, when the characters are exploring Dwimmermount, I'll roughly describe what they see, using vague terms first -- "It's a cave approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep with a passageway heading off to the northwest and another one heading to the south." -- and then providing more specific details as the characters enter the room and start poking around inside of it. Dordagdonar's player is mapping this out on graph paper and I'll give him more accurate information for his map once the PCs have taken the time to fully explore an area. Concurrently, we're often using our Hirst Arts blocks to create a rough-and-ready representation of the area. Note that I said "representation." We have a lot of blocks at our disposal but not enough to show every possible room/cave/area with 100% accuracy. Sometimes -- often -- we just have to make do with "good enough."

When this mapping and block building is happening, we're generally not "in character" except in the sense that I try to describe things as the characters would see them. That means leaving out details or elements that they haven't looked for or wouldn't notice without special effort. But the mapping and building are both activities in which the players are involved rather than their characters, if you understand what I mean. I have never worried about maintaining a "mood" or "atmosphere" while playing; that sort of thing either happens or it doesn't in my experience and assembling a dungeon room from plaster blocks no more breaks it than does rolling dice or ticking off damage on a character sheet does. Or rather, it can break the mood but it doesn't have to. As I said, I don't aim to manufacture mental states in my players through dialog or description. Sometimes it happens anyway and sometimes it doesn't but I have comparatively little ability to achieve either end by design.

I don't mean to repeat myself but I'll say again that my group never loses site that we're playing a game, so putting together a dungeon doesn't disrupt "the flow" any more than any other aspects of the game rules. We keep ourselves at a certain distance from what's going on in the game, simultaneously being observers outside the events of the session even as we're also participating in those events from the inside. This is the most natural way to play for me. I can't really imagine immersing myself so much in the game world that I feel like I'm really there. Neither can I look down on everything like a game board and treating the characters as mere pawns to be pushed around. This is a middle ground between the two approaches and it's the one that, in my limited experience, makes the game most accessible to newcomers who might otherwise worry about "doing it right" without reducing it to a level of abstraction that bleeds away any personal investment in what's going on.

I hope that made sense.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Double Shadow

"The Double Shadow" by Clark Ashton Smith is a story of Poseidonis, the last outpost of Atlantis, after the rest of the fabled island-continent has sunk beneath the waves forever. Smith told Donald Wandrei that it was a personal favorite of his and H.P. Lovecraft praised it as "full of vivid colour & creeping menace, & with an atmosphere worthy of E.A.P." Despite this, "The Double Shadow" had difficulty being published, with Weird Tales rejecting it in 1932. It was accepted by rival periodical, Strange Tales, but the magazine folded before the story could be published. Smith then re-submitted it to Weird Tales, where it was again rejected, leading him to self-publish it, along with several other of his stories, in 1933. The twin blows of the deaths of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft made Weird Tales more receptive to Smith's submissions and, at his insistence, the magazine finally published "The Double Shadow" in February 1939, nearly seven years after he completed it.

The story relates the events leading to the doom of its narrator, Pharpetron, an apprentice of the great wizard Avyctes, with whom he has studied for years.
Together, we have delved more deeply than all others before us in an interdicted lore; we have solved the keyless hieroglyphs that guard ante-human formulae; we have talked with the prehistoric dead; we have called up the dwellers in sealed crypts, in fearful abysses beyond space. Few are the sons of mankind who have cared to seek us out among the desolate, wind-worn crags; and many, but nameless, are the visitants who have come to us from further bourns of place and time.
As you can see, Smith is at his best in this story, combining his gift for prose poetry with his command of archaic vocabulary. The rhythm of his words carries the reader along effortlessly, painting an enthralling picture of decaying Poseidonis and its jaded sorcerers plumbing the depths of esoteric knowledge in an effort to stave off the ennui that has overthrown the rest of their dying culture. I am reminded of his story of Zothique, "The Empire of the Necromancers," except that, instead of reading like a dark fairy tale, "The Double Shadow" is more immediate and personal, perhaps due to its first person narration.

In his quest for ever greater mastery of the arcane, Avyctes dares to delve beyond anything he has ever done before:
Well had it been for Avyctes -- and for me -- if the master had contented himself with the lore preserved from Atlantis and Thule, or brought over from Mu and Mayapan. Surely this would have been enough: for in the ivory-sheeted books of Thule there were blood-writ runes that would call the demons of the fifth and seventh planets, if spoken aloud at the hour of their ascent; and the sorcerers of My had left a record of a process whereby the doors of far-future time could be unlocked; and our fathers, the Atlanteans, had known the road between the atoms and the path into far stars, and had held speech with the spirits of the sun. But Avyctes thirsted for a darker knowledge, a deeper empery; and into his hands, in the third year of my novitiate, there came the mirror-bright tablet of the lost serpent-people.
The mention of serpent people never bodes well, as Kull discovered, and as Avyctes and Pharpetron also learns after exerting great effort to solve the mystery of their ancient tablet -- "the formula for a certain evocation, which, no doubt, had been used by the serpent sorcerers." Alas, "the object of the evocation was not named" and "there was no corresponding rite of exorcism nor spell of dismissal." Despite Pharpetron's anxiety at these facts, Avyctes nevertheless proceeds with the rite, boasting
"I have called up, in all the years of my sorcery, no god or devil, no demon or lich or shadow, which I could not control and dismiss at will, And I am loath to believe that any power of spirit beyond the subversion of my spells could have been summoned by a race of serpents, whatever their skill in demonism and necromancy."
Such arrogance seals the fate of Avyctes -- and Pharpetron too -- but the story of that fate is one well-told. Smith's unique talents as a writer are powerfully on display here and "The Double Shadow" moves along at a brisk pace. Despite the archaism and formality of its characters' speech, it never once feels forced or stilted. Instead, it comes across as a suspenseful record of actual history, relating dire events from the distant past. Its a superb effort and one of Smith's masterpieces. I recommend it without hesitation.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

V&V Now Available

The classic superhero game by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, Villains & Vigilantes, is now available for purchase as a 62-page PDF from Monkey House Games. This latest edition of the game (called version 2.1) is the same as the 1982 edition, with some corrections and rules additions, along with new art. It sells for $7.50.

I've already snagged a copy for myself and will likely be posting a review of it sometime soon.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gamer ADD and the Campaign

While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed.

--E. Gary Gygax,
Forward [sic] to Volume 1 of OD&D,
1 November 1973
I thought of this quote recently as I looked back on my gaming thoughts of the last couple of months. As you probably noticed, my mind was racing around to a lot of different games, particularly those produced by Chaosium and FGU, and I was beginning to think about the possibility of putting Dwimmermount on hiatus for a while and trying something different. Most gamers are familiar with this behavior; online, it's often called "gamer attention deficit disorder" and it reflects the tendency of many gamers to flit from one game to another with reckless abandon, never staying fixed on a single one for any length of time.

This is a behavior to which I was particularly prone during the 1990s, which, not coincidentally also corresponds to the period during which I was most disenchanted with this hobby. Back then, I took an interest in a new game every couple of weeks or months. Unsurprisingly, I didn't actually play anything for very long, assuming I even got to play at all. I ran various one-shot adventures and several short-lived attempts at campaigns, but none of them ever had any staying power. Now, I wasn't unique in this sort of behavior. Indeed, back then it seemed to be the norm, at least amongst the gamers with whom I had any regular contact. And I sometimes get the sense that this behavior became widespread enough that it's now treated as the norm. That is, most gamers expect to play a different game every few months and the idea of years-long campaigns is viewed with either bafflement or derision, but perhaps I overstate the situation. That's why I thought of this quote by Gygax. If you read OD&D, it's pretty clear that there's an assumption that the game would be used primarily for campaign play rather than for one-shots or a bunch of disconnected adventures here and there. I think many of OD&D's supposed "shortcomings" make much more sense when viewed through this lens, but that's a topic for another day.

Dwimmermount began its life as an experiment, an attempt to wipe the slate clean and approach an old game with fresh eyes. Along the way I've learned a lot of things, but the one lesson that I keep coming back to is how difficult it is to properly understand, evaluate, and appreciate old school gaming outside of the context of a lengthy campaign. And by "lengthy," I don't mean 10 or 12 sessions but many, many more than that. Dwimmermount will have its 43rd session tomorrow and I still consider the campaign quite "young" and not wholly self-sustaining yet (though it's getting there). That's why I'm glad I didn't give in to the urge to interrupt my group's regular sessions with another game or games, even though the siren song of RPGs like RuneQuest or Stormbringer was strong (and still is to a certain extent). In my experience, very few campaigns survive hiatuses and, even those that do generally suffer as a result, their original momentum having been slowed or at least diverted.

None of this is to say that I plan to run Dwimmermount forever. More to the point, I am sure that, for one reason or another, the campaign will inevitably end, as most campaigns do, but I'm in no hurry to see that happen. My players and I are having too much fun and I'm learning a lot from the experience. I don't think that 5+ year-long campaigns with the same group of people were ever the norm, but they used to be something gamers talked about, if only as an ideal. The Dwimmermount campaign is better for my looking on that as an ideal, I can tell you; it's some of the best D&D I've ever played. That's why I plan not to give into gamer ADD when it rears its head again -- even if giving, say, Hawkmoon a whirl would pretty cool ...


Greg Gillespie over at Discourse and Dragons has created an awesome new online resource for old school referees. Called Meatshields!, it's a random hireling generator for use with your favorite old school fantasy RPG. The generator produces a list of potential hirelings, providing name, race, hit points, gender, and alignment, along with a brief background (like "street thug" or "aspires to knighthood"), notable features, and possessions/knowledge -- just enough detail for the referee to turn spear-carrier #23 into a unique individual rather than just a collection of game stats.

I absolutely love Meatshields! and wish I'd have had access to it when I started the Dwimmermount campaign. Now that the characters are all between 4th and 6th level, hirelings are becoming less common (though henchmen are still kicking about), so I doubt I'll get as much use out of this as I would have a year ago. Still, it's great to have it available should the need for quickly generating a bunch of hirelings arise again.

Great stuff.

Actual Play Follow-Up

I find the comments to my various Open Friday posts quite interesting, because often people attempt to intuit why I asked the question, assuming that it was a "loaded" question, asked with a certain end in mind. Now, as it turns out, I frequently do have a certain end in mind, but it's typically not the one people assume.

In the case of yesterday's question, I asked because I've been working on the Dwimmermount book I'll be releasing this Fall. In its original conception, the book was meant to include six levels of the eponymous megadungeon, along with some rules modifications to Labyrinth Lord that are reflective of how I play the game, as well as new monsters, spells, magic items, and little snippets of other material generated through play. Now, every time I talk about my campaign, I get lots of questions asking me for more information about things I've not yet detailed, since they haven't yet been relevant to the campaign. There's clearly a high degree of interest in, for example, dwarves, elves, the cult of Turms Termax, and so on. I could very easily satisfy the interest in some of these questions by including wholly new material in the book that elaborates on what I've already created and there's a part of me that feels the compulsion to do so.

At the same time, I remain firmly committed to the notion of "just in time" world building. I create details as needed rather than long in advance of their use in the campaign. Anything more than that is, in my view, a betrayal of one of the foundational principles of the Dwimmermount campaign, which I intended from the start to be a kind of "stream of consciousness" exercise in creativity. As I've noted before, I can fall all too easily into the habit of creating reams of details about a setting, details I create solely for my own amusement and that have minimal -- or no -- impact on actual play. I've made a real effort not to go down that path for this campaign setting, which is why I can't tell you about the weather patterns of the world or the inhabitants of places no character has ever visited or shown any interest in researching. I can't even tell you the name of the world on which Dwimmermount is located, since I've never had cause to call it anything other than "the world."

So, in the process of putting this book together, I'm trying to do something similar: include only material that's arisen out of actual play. I'm not fleshing out the setting more in the book than I have in the campaign, despite the clear interest in my doing so. I hope this isn't too much of a disappointment to potential buyers. There's still going to be a lot of stuff in here, but it's not going to a grand compendium of The Truth™, since I only come to know the truth through play, not through planning and forethought. I asked the question yesterday, because I was waffling a little bit about whether to change my stance on this and include never-before-used setting material. Now, I'm more certain than ever that sticking to my original vision is the best one.

Empty Rooms

One of the things I have done religiously while creating my Dwimmermount megadungeon is abide by the rules presented in Volume 3 of OD&D for the distribution of monsters and treasure. There are several reasons I've done this, but chief among them is that these rules ensure that about two-thirds of the rooms on each level contain no monsters. That means, for example, that of the nearly 70 rooms on the first level of Dwimmermount, only 23 of them will have occupants.

That leaves 47 "empty" rooms for the characters to explore. Of course, a lot of these other rooms aren't really empty at all, since they might contain tricks, traps, clues, unguarded treasure -- 1 out of every 6 unoccupied rooms has it according to the rules -- and just plain inexplicable things. My experience over the last 18 months of running a megadungeon-centric campaign has been that it's often the "empty" rooms that are the most memorable, as it's here that the players, through their characters, interact most immediately with the game world. Furthermore, empty rooms help build tension and mystery, both of which are vital to the long-term success of a campaign.

Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, a game of exploration. Dungeon delving is a quest for loot and knowledge and, far from being the focus of the game, combat with the inhabitants of the dungeon is but one possible obstacle standing in the way of the characters' goals. That's why it's important that dungeons, especially megadungeons, have lots of empty rooms. It's a practice I fell out of over the years and whose importance I only understood fully as I immersed myself in OD&D. Now, it's hard to imagine stocking a dungeon that isn't mostly "empty."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Open Friday: Actual Play

I feel that, with few exceptions, the best RPG products released since the beginning of the hobby have their origins in actual play by their designers. They may not be slavish, one-to-one reproductions of what the designer and his players did when they used it in play, but they're nevertheless heavily informed by what they did.

So, here's the question: if you discovered beforehand that a given product was something its designer had never played, would that affect your interest in it? Do you think it's important that game designers use their own products or do you think it's possible to design a good game or game product without the designer's personal investment in it? (Note: I'm not talking about a lack of playtesting so much as the idea of a product's being created for reasons other than immediate personal interest by its designer, if that distinction makes sense)

I'm off for the day, as usual. See you tomorrow.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another Conan Pic

This one, again, came to my attention from the official Robert E. Howard forums.

I'm uncertain if this image is from a movie poster or some other promo image or what, but it's clearly heavily photo-manipulated. Again, I have very mixed feelings about the look of this. I can only say that it's certainly a dynamic (if peculiar) image and a departure from the way Conan was portrayed in the John Milius film. Whether this means it'll be any closer to Howard, I don't know.

Once again, time will tell.

REVIEW: Advanced Labyrinth Lord Screen

Back in the day, you weren't really a referee if you didn't use a screen of some sort to hide your maps, notes, and sometimes dice rolls from the players in your game. Consequently, I owned a lot of such screens, my favorite being the Dave Trampier-illustrated Dungeon Master's Screen published by TSR. When I started up my Dwimmermount campaign in early 2009, despite my willingness to draw heavily upon my own gaming beginnings, I never once seriously considered using a referee's screen. Part of it was simple practicality: referee's screens traditionally take up a lot of space, space I didn't have to spare at my dining room table, especially when I laid out the dungeon in Hirst Arts blocks. Another part of it was philosophical, for lack of a better word; my refereeing style these days is much more conversational, so a screen between me and the players would be an impediment rather than an aid.

Still, I took great interest in the appearance of the Advanced Labyrinth Lord Screen designed by Shane Mangus. One of the really fascinating things about the old school renaissance is the way that older "technologies," of which the referee's screen is certainly a prime example, are being embraced again and improved upon. I may not use referee's screens myself but that didn't mean I wasn't interested in seeing how someone approached the concept in 2010. You can see what Shane did below, thanks to this cool little embedded Scribd application.

As you can see, Mangus has packed a lot of useful information onto three 8½" by 11" pages. Pretty much all of the tables and charts you'd need in play can be found here, along with others that are helpful but hardly essential. That's something previous screens have done too, but what I like about this one is how easy it is on my aging eyes. I don't find the charts difficult to read and their arrangement is quite logical, so that, for example, all the combat charts are on a single page. It's a small thing, admittedly, but small things are important when considering aids for running a roleplaying game.

The Advanced Labyrinth Lord Screen is, of course, intended for use by referees running Labyrinth Lord campaigns that make use of the Advanced Edition Companion, but it'd work just as well in campaigns that don't make use of the AEC. It's available as a free downloadable PDF (the link is above), so you'll need to print it out for yourself onto sheets of cardboard to use of it as a screen. Of course, you could do like I have and simply print the pages off onto paper and keep them handy as a reference sheets for use at the table. I'm still unlikely to use a referee's screen at my table, but I always have a use for well-done reference sheets and Shane Mangus has produced some of the best I've seen for use with Labyrinth Lord. I'd love to see him make some follow-ups that use a similar format but include things like spell lists or quick monster stats -- a kind of modern day Ready Ref Sheets.

Not that I want to pressure him or anything ...

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Get This If: You play Labyrinth Lord and want to cut down on the time spent looking for charts while playing.
Don't Get This If: You don't play Labyrinth Lord or possess a photographic memory.

First Official Conan Pic

According to a post on the official Robert E. Howard forums, the first authorized photograph of Jason Momoa as the Cimmerian from the upcoming Marcus Nispel-directed film has been released. You can see it below:

Purist quibbling aside, I can't complain overly much. Momoa certainly looks more like my conception of Conan than Arnie did, but then my main beefs about this film haven't been centered on Momoa (though, to be fair, I really have no idea if he's got the acting chops to pull off this role). If the rest of the film were similarly "good enough," I'd consider it a victory. I don't have high hopes in that regard, based on what we know of the movie so far, but it's possible the script and story are better than has been reported elsewhere, so I'm doing my best to adopt a wait and see attitude, even as my gut tells me that I'm going to be sorely disappointed.

Grognard's Grimoire: Cloak of the Ulfhethnar

The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.

Cloak of the Ulfhethnar: This cloak is made of an intact wolf skin, carefully removed according to a well-guarded occult formula. When worn, the cloak grants the wearer the ability to turn into fearsome half-man, half-wolf creature. In this form, the wearer retains his normal hit points but gains an armor class of 4 (even if this is worse than his ordinary armor class), the ability to bite for 2d4 points of damage, a movement rate of 180' (60'), and an immunity to normal weapons, being harmed only by spells, silver, and enchanted weapons. While in wolf-form, wearers can use normal weapons and cast spells. Wearers of the cloak are not not true lycanthropes and are thus unaffected by wolfsbane. Likewise, they cannot transmit lycanthropy to those they attack, regardless of how much damage they inflict upon them.

The cloak of the ulfhethnar has one additional quality that makes it very attractive to the immoral and degenerate. For each hit point of an intelligent being slain and eaten by the wearer while donning the cloak, he extends the length of his current age stage (see Advanced Edition Companion, p. 23) by one day. There is no limit to this extension, meaning that, with the regular slaughter of intelligent beings, a wearer of the cloak of ulfhethnar can prolong his life indefinitely. There is an additional cost, however. Every time the wearer transforms himself into wolf-form, there is a cumulative 1% chance that his alignment will shift permanently to Chaotic and regard all intelligent beings as little more than potential fodder for his increasingly ravenous appetite. A remove curse spell cast by a Lawful cleric of 9th level or higher can reverse this effect.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Retrospective: Alma Mater

In the annals of this hobby, there are only a handful of RPGs that can claim to be "notorious" and 1982's Alma Mater is one of them. Written by Steve Davis and Andrew Warden and published by a company called Oracle Games in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Alma Mater is one of those games about which most people have strong feelings one way or the other. Subtitled "the high school roleplaying game," it takes its inspiration, according to the authors' acknowledgments from "movies like American Graffiti, Animal House, Grease, Meatballs, and Prom Night, as well as the television series The White Shadow." Almost anyone who grew up in the 70s to early 80s probably understands these references immediately, which are important to keep in mind, as Alma Mater is very much a product of its time.

The game came with a warning on its back cover, indicating that it "deals with mature subject matter and is not suitable for children under 14 years of age." The introduction also stressed this point, noting that it "contains some rather mature subject matter, especially in regards to sex and drugs. We are not making a stand for or against either, but both are common in modern high schools." It's because of this that the game enjoys such notoriety -- as well as its illustrations, including many by old school legend Erol Otus (who drew the cover illustration depicted here). At the time, some within the hobby were scandalized by Alma Mater, with its rules for drug addiction, pregnancy, and constructing explosives in chemistry class. Reading it now, though, I find it more puerile than scandalous, with many of its more sensational elements reflective of Hollywood's depiction of high school than anything occurring in reality.

That said, the idea behind Alma Mater is not without merit. Its basic premise -- creating a fresh high school student and then playing out his or her high school career, with success points garnered in academic, general, and social areas -- is an intriguing one. Indeed, I am surprised no other games covering this subject have ever been written so far as I know. Alma Mater characters have seven randomly generated attributes that determine their qualifications to enter one of seven classes: average, brain, cheerleader, criminal, jock, tough, and loser. Each class grants access to certain skills and, sometimes, special abilities. Skills cover most of the activities that teenagers would likely engage in, as well as those that cinema and TV shows suggest they do. There are rules for combat, random encounters, doing homework and taking tests, dating, getting sick, and many other aspects of high school life. Taken together, they provide a good framework for adjudicating most of the events and activities of one's high school years. Alma Mater also include sample high school (called Central High) and an adventure.

I never owned Alma Mater back in the day, but I knew others who did. It had an aura of "dangerousness" about it, because it was difficult to acquire -- you had to order it direct from the publisher, as I recall -- and lots of people thought it would bring the hobby into even greater disrepute. And of course it had all those naughty Erol Otus pictures in it, which, I'll be perfectly honest, I found far more disturbing than titillating. Otus is the perfect artist for fevered dream fantasies but not my first choice when it comes to depicting salacious scenes of Hollywood-style high schools. Having later had the chance to examine it very thoroughly -- I've still never actually played it -- I can't shake the feeling that, had it not been for the uproar it caused, no one would remember it today. It's a fairly mediocre implementation of a potentially clever idea, hampered by its self-serious attitude about its subject matter, an attitude that's all the more odd given the unreality of the world it depicts.

Except for Erol Otus, I don't recognize the names of anyone associated with this game and I didn't even realize that its publisher was Canadian until I recently re-examined the 48-page rulebook. I can't shake the feeling that there's some great history associated with the game's origins and publication, but, if so, I've never come across them. Instead, all I recall are the denunciations the game received at the time and the way that certain rebellious teenaged gamers, like my friend's older brother, cherished their copies. It'd be very interesting to learn more about this odd little game and the circumstances behind its creation.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grognard's Grimoire: Knocker

The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.

Dwarf, Knocker

No Enc.: 2d6
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 1+2
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: As weapon
Save: D1
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: VI, XX
XP: 27

Knockers are aberrant, insane beings accidentally created through an error in the carving process by which dwarves propagate their kind. They are wild-eyed, almost feral demihumans of similar stature to their dwarven kin but much thinner and with somewhat sharper features. Their skin is pale and they favor unkempt clothing and armor that weirdly enables them to blend in with stone, granting them the ability to hide in shadows in such surroundings on a roll of 1-3 on 1d6 (and surprising opponents with the same probability).

Consumed with a lust for gold, gems, and precious metals, knockers hate other dwarves, against whom they wage constant guerrilla warfare. Fortunately, they similarly hate most other creatures, which means they rarely have allies in their war against their kin. Foolhardy and mad, most knockers do not have a long life expectancy. Those that do survive grow more powerful as a result. Consequently, 50% of all knockers encountered with be 2nd-level Dwarves and, in a group of 10 or more, there will always be a 4th or 5th-level Dwarf amongst them. Knockers favor the use of polearms and axes and rarely use missile weapons. All knockers radiate an aura of confusion (as per the 4th-level magic-user spell of the same name) and anyone who comes within its 30' radius must save vs. spells or suffer its ill effects for 12 rounds.

By all rights, there should be no more knockers than there are gnomes -- likely fewer given the lives these savage beings lead. Yet, somehow, there are more. Indeed, in some subterranean areas, knockers inexplicably exist in very large numbers, suggesting that either there are other means of creating these beings than through an error in carving or they have a means to reproduce themselves. There are longstanding rumors that knockers steal inert dwarves and transform them into more knockers, but no evidence of its truth has ever been found.

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Top of the Class (various)…………….…………………3
Bird-Men of Hyperborea (Jeffrey P. Talanian)………...…8
Knights & Knaves (SilverFish)…………………………..9
Spellslingers for Hire (James A. Smith)…………………11
The City-State of Khosura, Part I (Gabor Lux)....………12
Inter-Session Events (J.E. Badelaire)……………….…..24
Purchasing Potions (Eric Minton)……………………...25
The Hobgoblin God’s Crown (James Quigley)…………27
In My World… (Calithena)…………………………….40
Den of Villainy (Antii Hulkonnen)……………………..43
Education of a Magic User (Douglas Cox)……………...44
GBH (Peter Schmidt Jensen)…………………………...45
The Singing Cave (Mark J. Allen)………………………46
The Contemptible Cube of Quazar (Johnson & Lynk)…47
New Jersey After The “Big Whoops” (Adam Thornton).48
Creepies & Crawlies (Zak S.)…………………………...49
Ten Dooms of the Icy Wastes (Chris Robert)………….52
The Yellow Forest (Jerry Stratton)……………………...58
Tables for Fables (Age of Fable)……………………….63
Post-Apocalyptic Crafting (Lawson Reilly)……………..64
Dungeon Modules: Riverwalk (Geoffrey O. Dale)……...65
Two Tribes (Kelvin Green)…………………………….69
The Temple of Thek (Baz Blatt)………………………..73
Random’s Assortment (Random, Jensen, and Ant)……..77
Caves of the Beast Mistress (Tavis Allison)…………….79
Interview w/ Paul Jaquays (Ciro Sacco & Allen Varney)..90
The Darkness Beneath (Jeff Rients)……………………96
Merlyn’s Mystical Mirror (McKinney & Pookie)………104
The End of the World (Del Beaudry)…………………109
Witches of N’Kai (Caleb Jensen)……………………...113
Grognard’s Grimoire (Eric Minton)…………………...114
Artifacts, Adjuncts, & Oddments (Reed & Barber)……115
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Fight on!

Dwimmermount, Session 42

Session 42 saw the characters exploring Level 5 of Dwimmermount, after having descended to it by means of an elevator they discovered on Level 4. Their initial survey of the level made it clear that they'd already been down to this level by means of a teleportation device earlier in the dungeon, a fact made all the more certain by the detailed maps and notes Dordagdonar has been keeping since they started their expedition. Consequently, the party was very wary. They knew that Level 5 was home to a goodly number of Termaxian cultists, along with their werewolf allies, and that the Termaxians were both magically potent and in telepathic communication with one another. Thus, an attack against a single group of the cultists would almost certainly result in the appearance of more cultists in fairly short order.

Consequently, much of the session was spent carefully examining the area of Level 5 in which they were currently located, paying attention to means of entrance and exits. The party rightly felt that the best course of action was to proceed into those areas from which they were least vulnerable to an attack on multiple fronts. Unfortunately for them, this was no easy task; there were many entrances, doors, and corridors in their immediate vicinity. Barring extreme luck on their part, they would likely have to be on their guard at all times.

Both Brother Candor and Dordagdonar possess rings of invisibility (yes, I am aware that this makes me a bad person). They decided to scout ahead invisibly to get a better sense of where danger might lie. As it turned out, a large room not far away was occupied by a Termaxian adept and four soldiers wearing azoth-infused armor. A plan was formulated: Brother Candor would cast silence 15' radius into the midst of them, thus preventing the adept from casting spells, while Dordagdonar would send a fireball at them. Of course, they'd both then be rendered visible, but they hoped that their plan would result in sufficient chaos that they'd not suffer to much for it.

Things went somewhat as planned, with the adept retreating to a corner of the room out of view, while the much-harmed warriors closed in to engage in melee. The rest of the party rushed to the defense of their comrades and battled ensued. It did not last long, though, as Dordagdonar quickly tired of combat and cast a stinking cloud on the group. None of the warriors made their saving throws and thus doubled over, retching and coughing. They were soon dispatched before they had the chance to move out of the cloud.

This left the adept alive, but, as the stinking cloud would still be active for several more rounds, no one in the party could dare to pass through it to get to him. Brother Candor's earlier fear proved correct, as the party saw three werewolves and three more Termaxian adepts rushing down a corridor from another room -- alerted by the stranded adept, no doubt. The party pulled back to brace themselves and to break line of sight on the adepts. The werewolves put up a fight for a few rounds, but were eventually slain. In death, their bodies reverted to those of human beings wearing nothing but wolfskin cloaks (that were later confirmed to be magical in nature).

The other adepts, however, did not make an appearance, prompting Dordagdonar to again become invisible and sneak down the corridor to see what was happening. The adept were no longer in sight; in their place was a young white dragon slithering down the hallway toward the party's position. This was the dragon they'd seen earlier in a room that was likely close by, so Brother Candor and company were distressed at the prospect. Dordagdonar, meanwhile, was skeptical and advanced toward the dragon so that he could use his wand of paralyzation on him. This he did, but the wand seemingly had no effect upon it, which only heightened his skepticism. Now visible after having used the wand, he swung at the dragon with his sword, scored a hit, and the it disappeared, revealing itself to be the illusion he suspected it to be.

The disappearance of the dragon was a cue for the Termaxian adepts, who'd used their own invisibility spells to hide themselves to come into view, pelting the elf with magic missiles and nearly slaying him (I believe he came within 1 or 2 hit points of death -- never let anyone tell you magic missile is a useless spell!). By this time, Brother Candor and the rest of the party had arrived to fight the adepts. A melee followed, with several other near-deaths, but the whole thing ended with the use of hold person, which resulted in all three adepts being easy pickings for the party.

At this stage, the PCs were low on hit points and spells but the decision was made to press ahead at least a little more. Several other rooms, including one with a spring-loaded arrow trap, were explored before the party found a filthy, rank room that was home to at least three trolls. Needless to say, this frightened them quite a bit. Trolls are tough opponents even when fully prepared for them, but the party was not. Rather than face them, they quickly tossed down several flasks of oil, ignited them, and retreated back to the elevator to make their way to the surface for re-supply.

Spam, Marvelous Spam

Anyone else's blog being hit with a massive amount of spam in the comments to old posts? I've never been convinced that spam was an effective way to sell anything, but, assuming it was, would attaching a comment to a post that's over a year old be the best way to do so?

Yet More on Dwarves and Gnomes

(I'm pleased to see that these posts have struck a chord with a lot of people, judging by the unexpectedly large numbers of comments and emails I've been getting in relation to them. I'll also confess to some surprise at the amount of "scientific" thinking being applied to the question of dwarven reproduction in my campaign setting, both because it's not a mode of thought I typically employ when designing a fantasy setting and, more importantly, because there are many unknown variables that make such extrapolations difficult, if not impossible, to make reliably. I mention this not to discourage such discussion, which I actually enjoy, but only to point out that one is likely to reach very different conclusions than I have -- to the extent I have any conclusions at all -- given the differences in our methods of world creation.)

Here are some additional facts on dwarves and gnomes:
  • Judging by the immense sizes of dwarven strongholds, many of which are now completely abandoned, there was once an extremely large population of these beings. Some of the largest such strongholds could likely have housed millions of dwarves, whereas now most are home only to thousands.
  • The one-son tradition doesn't seem to be based wholly on superstition. There's evidence that, in the past, dwarves routinely created more sons and strife resulted. The dwarves refer to this time simply as "the Tumult" and note sadly that dwarves turned against not only each other but also the Makers (the mysterious god-like beings some non-humans revere rather than the gods of Men). Once order was restored, the Makers forbade the dwarves to have more than one son each or dire consequences would ensue.
  • The dwarves say that, as bad as having a knocker for a son is, much worse can result from a second or subsequent son carved in violation of the Makers' dictum.
  • Unlike elves, dwarves are not immortal. In time, they will revert to the stone out of which they were carved but the process takes close to a millennium for most dwarves.
  • Gnomes occupy an odd place in dwarven society, being simultaneously a source of embarrassment, for the line of dwarf with a gnome in it will inevitably die, and pride, for gnomes are what enable the dwarves to create the enchanted items that maintain their dwindling society.
  • Consequently, most gnomes are kept hidden away within dwarven strongholds; outsiders rarely hear of them, let alone see them.
  • Needless to say, gnomish adventurers are extremely uncommon.
  • Many gnomes believe that there is a way for their kind to reproduce and work hard toward finding the means to do so.
  • There are many tall tales of gnome-only enclaves in the southern lands, who are self-sustaining after having discovered the means to propagate themselves.
And that's pretty close to the extent of what I currently know about dwarves and gnomes. Since, so far, the campaign has not focused at all on dwarven society, I'm frankly surprised that I know even this much, but it's a topic that's obliquely related to several other aspects of the campaign, such as the quest for immortality and the identity of the Makers, so I've given it a little bit of thought.

REVIEW: Oubliette #1

I find myself in the unusual circumstance of having read and reviewed issue 2 of the old school fanzine Oubliette before having read issue 1. Unlike a novel or movie series, reading a periodical out of order won't spoil any surprises or make it harder to enjoy earlier issues, but it does give one a slightly different perspective. In this case, what's most evident is how much Oubliette has improved in the span of a single issue. Make no mistake: issue 1 is very good indeed, well worth the $2 cost for this PDF. Nevertheless, I did feel a certain sense "regression" as I read the first issue, as if I were going back in time to see a tall building before it had gotten very far off the ground.

Issue 1 is shorter than its successor (only 35 pages instead of 50) and its content "rougher," feeling a bit more like a first draft than the content of issue 2. Even so, there's a palpable energy to the content; it's clear that everyone involved in Oubliette is enjoying himself and wants to share that enjoyment with others. A good example of this is the 9-page "Halfling Proof Fence," which, while described as a "tournament-style adventure" is more like a competitive miniatures game using the Labyrinth Lord rules to simulate goblins pursuing escaped halfling slaves, with the player whose goblin achieves the most points in this endeavor being proclaimed champion of the tribe by the goblin chieftain. The adventure cleverly employs wandering monster tables and other random elements, along with geomorphic maps, to represent the varied challenges of chasing down escaped halflings through a subterranean environment. There are also two pages of counters for use with "Halfling Proof Fence."

Like issue 2, there are installments of "Monster Club," providing inventive ways to use standard monsters, in this case trolls and (as you might expect) goblins. A 3-page overview of the "Inheritance" campaign setting is provided and, while it's probably not to everyone's taste, it's well done and contains some interesting ideas. Also included is a partial map of the campaign area on which I was delighted to see Michael Curtis's Stonehell as a location. There's also a short article providing common sense advice on "Designing House Rules for Labyrinth Lord," along with some examples of its principles in action. In a similar vein there's a treatment "Alternative Subdual Rules for Labyrinth Lord," which I quite liked. "Improvised Traps" offers an elegant system for characters who wish to create traps on the fly. The "Good Shop/Bad Shop" feature details "The Rentalist," a business where one can rent specialized magical items for a fee. Rounding out the issue are reviews and the first installment of "The Song of Sithakk" fiction serial.

Issue 1 is, as I said, a bit more rough around the edges than issue 2, but it nevertheless possesses most of its successor's best qualities, such as the aforementioned infectious energy and delightfully quirky illustration style. At $2, one can't really complain about its price, even if, after the excellence of issue 2, issue 1 pales looks a little less impressive by comparison. Taken in its own right, though, issue 1 of Oubliette is a good value, with lots of inspiring material. It's definitely a first effort, with all that that entails. Still, I'm happy to recommend it to anyone looking for new ideas to add to their Labyrinth Lord campaigns, or indeed any old school fantasy game.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for more ideas and resources for use in your old school fantasy campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You'd prefer to come up with your own ideas rather than using those of others.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow Kingdom

August 1929 marked the first appearance of Robert E. Howard's original barbarian hero, Kull of Atlantis, when the story "The Shadow Kingdom" appeared in the pages of Weird Tales. Considered by some to be the first true swords-and-sorcery story as we now understand the genre, "The Shadow Kingdom" shows us Kull after he has already ascended the throne of decadent Valusia, the greatest of the Seven Empires of the pre-cataclysmic Thurian Age, which precedes Howard's more well known Hyborian Age.
Not on the Topaz Throne at the front of the regal Tower of Splendor sat Kull, but in the saddle, mounted on a great stallion, a true warrior king. His mighty arm swung up in reply to the salutes as the hosts passed. His fierce eyes passed the gorgeous trumpeters with a casual glance, rest longer on the following soldiery; they blazed with a ferocious light as the Red Slayers halted in front of him with a clang of arms and a rearing of steeds, and tendered him the crown salute.
Despite the exultant shouts that greet Kull and his soldiers as they return home from war victorious, not everyone in Valusia is pleased:
"Kull! Ha, accursed usurper from the pagan isles." -- "Aye, shame to Valusia that a barbarian sits on the Throne of Kings."

Little did Kull heed. Heavy-handed had he seized the decaying throne of ancient Valusia and with a heavier hand did he hold it, a man against a nation.
More worrisome than such sinister whispers against him is the news that Ka-nu, an advisor to the king of the Picts, the traditional enemies of Kull's own Atlantean people, has requested a private audience with Valusia's barbarian ruler. Though suspicious, Kull puts aside his prejudices against the Picts and agrees to this meeting, going alone to meet with Ka-nu, a "soft and paunchy" old man seemingly "fit for nothing except to guzzle wine and kiss wenches!" After the two men feel one another out, Ka-nu comes to the point:
I see a world of peace and prosperity -- man loving his fellow man -- the good supreme. All this can you accomplish -- if you live!"
Ka-nu warns Kull of a plot against his life, fomented with the help of Baron Kaanuub of Blaal, a former rival of Kull who still seeks the throne of Valusia for himself and his shadowy allies. To ensure that Kull does not die -- and a glorious future along with him -- Ka-nu promises to send along a bodyguard, a Pictish warrior named Brule the Spear-slayer, who will stand with Kull against the secret enemies who seek his death. As a show of good faith, he entrusts Kull with a green gem stolen from the Temple of the Serpent, possession of which means execution. If what he has said is untrue or if he in any way betrays him, Kull need only accuse Ka-nu of the theft of the gem and be rid of him. This gesture on the part of a Pict intrigues Kull and agrees to his plan, even though there is much the barbarian king still does not understand.

What follows is a superb fantasy tale that includes equal parts palace intrigue, feats of derring-do, and eldritch horror. It's a heady combination that, while sharing many similarities with Howard's later work on Conan, nevertheless strikes a different tone, one that is more melancholy and thoughtful about the inevitable decline of civilization than many might expect.
"You are young," said the palaces and the temples and the shrines, "but we are old. The world was wild with youth when we were reared. You and your tribe shall pass, but we are invincible, indestructible. We towered above a strange world, ere Atlantis and Lemuria rose from the sea; we still shall reign when the green waters sigh for many a restless fathom above the spires of Lemuria and the green hills of Atlantis and when the isles of the Western Men are the mountains of a strange land.

"How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, the bird of Creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"
Kull himself is similarly melancholy and thoughtful despite his rough heritage. He cares about Valusia and her people and acts accordingly. His willingness to believe Ka-nu and accept Brule as his companion is motivated as much by a desire to see that his kingdom does not fall into the hands of evil men -- or worse -- as by his desire to save his own life. Kull is thus a sympathetic figure and one with whom I found it easy to identify. He's also a subtle counterpoint to Conan, another barbarian turned king of a civilized but decadent people. Though both are unmatched warriors, Kull lacks Conan's bombast and bluster. Kull also seems less interested in the pleasures of this world, being more focused on ideals and a sense of duty to others. No one could mistake the two characters, despite some surface similarities between them.

I've seen it said, with some merit, that a writer's earliest works are often his best, even if they lack the polish and sophistication of his later efforts. I think this holds true for "The Shadow Kingdom," which I like a very great deal. The writing is a bit more stiff and formulaic in it than in, say, most of the Conan stories, but I think its characters and ideas are very strong and possess a kind of inchoate energy to them that I sometimes find lacking in the lesser Conan tales. Perhaps I'm biased because I find Kull more like myself than I find Conan, I don't know, but I genuinely love this story, which, regardless of its position in Howard's overall literary corpus, is a great story in its own right and well worth a read.