Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Copyright All rights reserved by spilth

(To be clear: I did not make this jack o'lantern -- the actual creator is linked through the copyright statement of the photo above)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Open Friday: Lazy Birthday

In addition to being my weekly day off, it's also my birthday, so I hope I can be forgiven if I don't have a topic for discussion this week.

Regular posting will resume tomorrow, as usual.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Masks of Nyarlathotep Re-Released -- in Hardcover

The classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep, has recently been re-released by Chaosium in a limited edition hardcover format. If you follow the link, you'll see a photograph of the book and it looks very nice indeed. At $44.95, the price is quite reasonable, but it's a little too rich for my blood at the moment, particularly since I'm not running a Call of Cthulhu campaign. If I were (or if I were independently wealthy), I wouldn't hesitate to snag a copy. If you're at all interested in this gaming masterpiece, get a copy soon, since there will only be 1000 of these produced.

A Most Overlooked Rule(s)

By me anyway:
Secret passages will be located on the roll of a 1 or a 2 (on a six-sided die) by men, dwarves or halflings. Elves will be able to locate them on a roll of 1-4. At the referee's option, Elves may be allowed the chance to sense any secret door they pass, a 1 or 2 indicating that they become aware that something is there.
As the player of Dordagdonar in my Dwimmermount campaign will happily tell you, I keep forgetting that, in OD&D, an elf's simply passing by a secret door merits a roll by the referee to determine if they sense its presence. But I'm even more forgetful of the fact that an elf, if actively looking for such a door, can find one on a roll of 1-4 on 1d6. Indeed, I'm so "forgetful" of this fact that i don't think I've ever used the rule.

I fear this is a case where my having played AD&D for some long in my younger days made me forget something I should have remembered from Holmes (which, as the Blue Book usually does, preserves a rule from LBBs). In AD&D, elven passive perception of secret doors is reduced to 1 in 6, while active perception is reduced to 1-2 in 6 (except for concealed portals, which is 3 in 6 -- can anyone explain how a "portal" differs from a "door" in this case?). Interestingly, Moldvay/Cook does not follow OD&D in its treatment of elves and secret doors, presenting instead something akin to AD&D (1-2 on 1d6 chance) but without any explicit provision for the passive perception of secret doors.

Anyway, I'm going to try very hard to keep these rules in mind in the future. It's one of those things I periodically remember and then forget again and I always feel bad about it afterward, since there is an elf in our campaign and I'm sure the party has missed more than its share of secret doors because I can't seem to get this simple rule through my head.

S&W White Box: An Appreciation

In the midst of my work on the Dwimmermount book I'm trying to finish up for publication early next year, I often find myself idly flipping through the books and games I have close at hand. Recently, I've found myself spending a lot of time re-reading the Brave Halfling edition of Swords & Wizardry: White Box. Over the last few weeks, I've come to think that it's probably the most under-appreciated product of the old school renaissance, which is why it's a pity that it wasn't released more widely.

Marv Breig's redaction of Matt Finch's original rules was well done to begin with, but Jesse Rothacher's layout for the BHP edition makes it shine in a way that the initial version did not. Likewise, the artwork, from Mark Allen's covers to the interior pieces by Matt Finch, Edward M. Kann, Jeff Preston, and Chad Thorson, add to what's already a terrific (and reasonably priced) introduction to old school gaming -- probably the best one there is.

I'm often critical of the ways that Swords & Wizardry deviates from OD&D and I won't deny that they still bug me a lot, particularly given the way the game is advertised as "0e," but the fact remains that White Box is an amazing piece of work nonetheless. It's a wonderful, unpretentious, and accessible little game and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone who's never roleplayed before. So, my hat's off to everyone involved in its creation. Here's hoping Brave Halfling is successful enough to get it back into print again soon. It'd make a great Christmas gift for friends and family interested in finding out more about this crazy hobby we all love.

REVIEW: The Inn of Lost Heroes

The Inn of Lost Heroes by Peter C. Spahn is a 38-page adventure module written for a party 0f 3-6 Labyrinth Lord characters of 3rd-5th level. Of course, it can easily be adapted to other class-and-level fantasy RPGs and, with some work, one could use it with other fantasy games as well. Released as a PDF for $4.95, the module uses a simple layout and sparse but effective black and white art. The text itself is clear and free from any obvious editorial omissions, while its maps are functional. In terms of overall presentation, The Inn of Lost Heroes isn't going to wow anyone, but it's eminently usable and that counts for a lot in my book. More importantly, the content of the module is excellent, as I'll now discuss.

As its name suggests, The Inn of Lost Heroes is a location-based scenario, set entirely within the Inn of Heroes, a rest stop laboring under a curse as a result of a past tragedy that took place there. In this respect, the module reminds me somewhat of my own The Cursed Chateau (and, of course, my own inspiration, Castle Amber). In each case, a potential difficulty is in getting the player characters to the location of the adventure, since they might well be suspicious about entering it. That suspicion is somewhat easier to overcome in the case of The Inn of Lost Heroes as the adventure takes place in what appears to be an ordinary roadside inn, no different than any other.

Once inside, though, the characters will eventually realize that appearances can be deceiving. As a result of the inn's curse, the building shifts between three different realities: the living world -- the "real" world, though one that still shows evidence of the curse's effects -- the burning world, and the ash world. Each world operates under its own rules and part of the challenge of the scenario is adapting to those altered rules. In addition, each world alters the appearance and nature of the various rooms of the inn, all of which are described in some detail throughout the module. Consequently, the inn is effectively three different inns that all use the same map. Keeping the differences straight is an important part of using the adventure effectively and I suspect many referees will require some preparation beforehand in order to do so. Though intended as a one-shot scenario, The Inn of Lost Heroes is definitely not what I would call a "ready to run" module and referees would be well-advised to read through it several times in advance of actually using it.

As in his previous module, Spahn's great strength is in providing dozens of encounters for the referee to use in running this adventure. Each version of the inn comes with a collection of encounters -- some keyed, some random, some event-based. Certain encounters are more detailed (and important) than others, but they all contribute greatly to the sense of the inn as a place rather than merely as an adventuring locale. Likewise, they give the referee an extensive toolbox with which to make the module his own, using what elements he wishes, dropping others, and crafting new ones to suit the particulars of his current campaign. It's an approach I've really come to appreciate, because, even though I enjoy very bare bones adventure modules, there are times when I need some inspiration to get my creative juices flowing and both of Spahn's modules released thus far do just that. Also included with the adventure are a couple of new magic items and several new monsters.

All in all, The Inn of Lost Heroes looks like a great deal of fun. It's imaginative in its conception, easily adaptable to almost any fantasy campaign setting, and looks to be a real challenge for the ingenuity of the players -- all the qualities I associate with the best old school modules. If I have a complaint about this adventure, it's that it's organized in a way that requires either extensive notes beforehand or lots of flipping through its pages in play. I'm not sure that this could have been helped, given the three different worlds in which the scenario takes place, but it's frustrating nonetheless. For that reason, I reiterate the need to read and re-read The Inn of Lost Heroes to get a solid command of its contents if one is considering running it for one's gaming group. That quibble aside, it's a very good offering and one that's perfect for a Halloween-inspired gaming session. I recommend it most highly.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a lower level supernatural-themed adventure that can be easily dropped into any campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in lower level adventures, regardless of their theme or ease of adaptation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whatever Happened to Iriadessa?

Among the stranger emails I get are those asking me for more information about either the characters in my Dwimmermount campaign or the players -- or both. As a general rule, I don't say much about my players beyond what they do at my table, since, unlike myself, they've wisely chosen to retain some semblance of privacy and I have no intention of violating that. With regards to their characters, I'll admit to some bafflement as to why anyone would care to know more about, say, Brother Candor or Dordagdonar, at least any more than I reveal through my session reports (which reminds: I'm two sessions behind on those and need to get cracking). But what I've discovered is that, thanks to those session reports, a lot of readers have come to care about these characters, after a fashion, and that's a testament to how well played they are by my players.

And, of course, as many of you probably know, one of my players is my nearly 11 year-old daughter, who plays a young magic-user Iriadessa. Several people have asked me recently why she's not been mentioned in recent session reports and I replied that I'd actually make a post about that sometime soon. "Soon" is a relative term, especially this month, when I'm more harried than usual, but I had a bit of time this afternoon and decided that now would be as good a time as any to discuss what's up with Iriadessa and why she's not been mentioned lately.

The short answer is that my daughter doesn't play in the Dwimmermount campaign any longer. She never came to me and said she didn't want to play any more; rather, she simply stopped coming to the table with the rest of the group when we began. Early on, I figured it was because she had other things to do. My daughter's always reading two or three books at a time, she writes stories, draws comics, plays with her younger brother, and of course has school work to do too, in addition to lots of other activities I can't recall right now. So, her failing to appear at the table wasn't something that immediately struck me as something permanent and I didn't think much of it.

After two or three sessions, though, I started to wonder what was up and asked her. Now, my daughter, much like myself, is inclined to be evasive when faced with questions that could hurt someone's feelings and I could sense that she was worried that her answering me honestly might do just that. I assured her that wouldn't be the case and she simply explained that she "wasn't interested" in the game anymore. Naturally, I wanted somewhat more specific answer than that and followed it up with some gentle prodding. After some effort, a couple of things became clear: her lack of interest had nothing to do with the game rules we were using but from the style of game we were playing. By this, I mean that she found the game a little too "tense" for her liking. Her character Iriadessa had never actually died, but she'd come close several times and many other characters, including beloved NPCs, had died and she wasn't fond of that. Iriadessa's cowardice and unwillingness to explore the dungeon were the source of much amusement in the campaign, but they reflected a very real worry on the part of my daughter that her character (or someone else's) might die.

What's fascinating is that, in the weeks since, when my players and I have discussed other games, she's expressed interest in playing them. We were, for example, talking about superhero RPGs, reminiscing about a Star Wars game, and musing about Mazes & Minotaurs and all of these struck her fancy. So, it's clear to me that my daughter isn't disinterested in roleplaying games so much as disinterested in the campaign I'm currently running. And I know that she's not disinterested in D&D, since I'd previously run a game for her and my wife that she liked a great deal more. Of course, that campaign was much more focused and "quest-driven," since, at the time -- she was younger -- I thought it important to provide an overt structure for her to latch on to. Likewise, a series of quests dispensed by others matched her literary inspirations for fantasy, making it much easier for her to get into things.

As I assured my daughter, I'm not disappointed she's dropped out of the campaign and she's of course welcome to return at any time she wishes, should her feelings change. I know she listens in on events at our table every week and she often discusses them with me after the fact, so her disinterest is of a very specific sort. I'm glad she's not forcing herself to keep playing out of a sense of filial obligation when it's not to her liking, even though I did enjoy sharing my world with her. Chances are I'll probably start up a new campaign for her that's more in the vein she enjoys, perhaps a lighthearted superhero game. Heck, my son might even join in on that one, so I'm taking this as an opportunity rather than a setback in the cause of introducing more people to the hobby.

Retrospective: Starfaring

While Ken St. Andre is probably best known for having created Tunnels & Trolls, the second roleplaying game in history (or, around this blog, for co-creating Stormbringer, which I consider one of the best, if not the best, swords-and-sorcery RPGs ever written), he's also responsible for having created the second science fiction roleplaying game in history, Starfaring. Published in 1976, Starfaring beat Traveller to the market by a year and only missed being the first SF RPG of any sort by a few months (that honor instead going to Metamorphosis Alpha). In any case, Starfaring was the first RPG to deal with interstellar travel and exploration, being very much in the vein of the original Star Trek, even if its approach and tone are much more lighthearted.

Indeed, I suspect that, much like Tunnels & Trolls, Starfaring is regularly dismissed as being a "joke game," because it doesn't take itself too seriously. This is a game, after all, that begins by quoting J.B.S. Haldane's famous epigram about the universe being "stranger than we can imagine" and following it up with "Oh yeah?" And of course the game isn't helped by the fact that it is "outrageously illustrated" (according to the credits) by Ernest Hogan in a cartoonish and satirical style that reminds me of a drug and sex-fueled version of Tom Wham. St. Andre's own introduction admits that he "had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination," while also stating that "if you don't like the artwork, that's your problem." One's reaction to Starfaring is likely colored very strongly by one's reaction to its artwork, or at least one's ability to take the game on its own merits regardless of what one think about Hogan's illustrations.

I mentioned earlier that Starfaring is very much in the vein of Star Trek. It postulates a future some 600 years hence in which humanity has discovered interstellar travel and psi powers -- both due to alien technology, the latter having been actualized through the use of a drug called LSDX-6000 -- and is now traveling the galaxy in search of both habitable planets (Earth being polluted and overpopulated) and "star crystals" that are used to power high technology. As a game, Starfaring makes a number of assumptions that differ greatly from most other RPGs. First, the game seems intended to be played with just one GM (or Galaxy Master) and one player (or Ship Master) at a time. There could well be multiple Ship Masters in the same campaign, but the structure of the game itself strikes me as if it would be difficult for all of them to be playing the game at the same time. Second, a Ship Master, as his name suggests, portrays not a single character but the entire crew of a starship, from the captain on down to its most expendable security guard. It's an interesting approach and makes sense in context, but I imagine many gamers today would find it unsatisfying.

Character creation is, as is fitting for a game where a player portrays many characters, simple and straightforward. The default setting assumes that humans are the primary characters, but it's also possible to play androids, robots, aliens, and "shell people," which is to say, an intelligent being whose consciousness has become disembodied and is now contained within some type of technological device (Think "Spock's Brain," however painful that may be). Far more detail is given to ship design, since, in many respects, it's the player's ship that is the real character in Starfaring. In the game's setting, planetary governments dispense loans (at 20% interest -- this was published in the 1970s, after all) to parties interested in exploring space for fun and profit. Thus, a player can build as big and as expensive a ship (or as small and inexpensive) as he likes, but he is expected to pay off at least half the loan after 3 missions, funds being acquired from bounties offered for the discovery of habitable and/or useful worlds. If the loan can't be paid off in a timely fashion, the creditor seizes the ship and the player must start anew.

As you can see, Starfaring's basic setup is an odd mixture of roleplaying and (possibly competitive) simulation. It's a mixture I actually find rather intriguing, but then that's probably because I like the idea of players having to manage domains, armies, and organizations. Being such an early design, Starfaring would likely require a lot of referee adjudication and house ruling to fulfill its potential, but that's true of OD&D too, so I don't see it as a problem. Likewise, the game rules, though brief (under 60 pages) include lots of random tables for creating star systems, planets, and alien life forms. There are also discussions of starship combat, psi powers, equipment, hazards (both in normal space and "subspace"), so the referee has a lot of ideas to draw upon, even if the rules that accompany these discussions are often cursory almost to the point of non-existence.

I never owned or played Starfaring back in the day. In fact, I'd never even heard of it till it was long out of print and only recently managed to see a copy of it. One day, I'll try to hunt down a copy for myself, as I think it's in a style of RPG that hasn't gotten a lot of development over the years. Nowadays, I suspect some would call Starfaring an example of "troupe style play," but I'm not sure that describes it quite rightly. Starfaring actually strikes me as having a great deal in common with freeform wargames from the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games whose DNA mingled with that of miniatures wargaming to produce OD&D. Consequently, I think Starfaring represents a path not taken and one I'd like to explore more fully if I can ever snag a copy of the thing at a reasonable price. Certainly, by today's standards, it's a sketchy and whimsical little game, but it's also a very imaginative one whose basic structure is worthy of closer examination, appreciation, and perhaps emulation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Holmes's Appendix N

Dr. Holmes, of course, didn't have an actual Appendix N, but he did digress briefly in his Fantasy Role Playing Games to give the reader his thoughts on the literary inspirations of both D&D in general and his own campaigns. This digression, I think, ought to viewed side by side with the even briefer comments made on the subject in the Blue Book, where he lists Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, Fox, and Greco-Roman mythology as the game's main inspirations.
Literary inspiration for the worlds of fantasy role playing games comes from many sources. The fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and Chivalry & Sorcery are based on myth and fairy tale. The field of literature is dominated by the work of one man in this century: J.R.R. Tolkien. Without the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, fantasy role playing would not have found the wide public it now enjoys. Despite this, most fantasy games are closer to the wild, bloodthirsty worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and L. Sprague de Camp. The magic system of Dungeons & Dragons is partly derived from the books of Jack Vance. De Camp's The Compleat Enchanter discusses magic as a separate kind of reality with its own rules of logic. As a Dungeon Master, I have drawn extensively from the works of A. Merritt, Andre Norton, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Rider Haggard.
As he so often does, I think Holmes strikes the right balance here, pointing out that, while D&D really has more in common with swords-and-sorcery literature in the vein of Howard and Leiber, it was the wide popularity of Tolkien's works that laid the groundwork for the fantasy roleplaying fad in the late 70s and early 80s. I think this squares well with Gygax's contention from 1974 on that the direct influence of Tolkien on D&D was superficial, while its influence on many gamers was significant.

Holmes Maps

My birthday is this coming Friday and my good friend and business partner Richard sent me a very kind gift in the form of a copy of Dr. J. Eric Holmes's 1981 book Fantasy Role Playing Games. I'll likely be talking a lot about this book in the coming weeks as I work my way through it, but, having just flipped through it, I came across two images I had to share here:

I have no idea if these maps can be attributed to Dr. Holmes himself, although they certainly look similar to the dungeon map in the Blue Book (another map that may well not be the work of Holmes -- does anyone know its origins?). Regardless, these maps are interesting two me for a couple of reasons. First, they're keyed directly on to the map itself. This is a practice that seems to have been pretty commonplace in the old days. I can recall doing it on some of my earliest dungeons too and I believe that we have evidence that Gygax and Arneson both did this, at least to some degree.

Second, these maps are small, much like the map in the Blue Book. Nowadays, it's taken as Gospel that old school dungeons were megadungeons -- huge, sprawling campaign dungeons that could never be cleared and acted as the axes around which entire campaigns revolved. I certainly don't mean to dismiss that megadungeons of this sort existed, but I suspect, like many things in the old school renaissance, the prevalence of such megadungeons is probably exaggerated. I don't think it's for nothing that there are no published examples of megadungeons in the early days of the hobby, when most modules presented smaller "lair" dungeons. Likewise, none of the older guys I knew back then ran a megadungeon-based campaign. Instead, their campaigns were filled with many dungeons, some of them many levels deep but I don't think could compare to Castles Blackmoor or Greyhawk in terms of their size and scope.

In any case, the maps in Fantasy Role Playing Games are intriguing. I'm going to be reading the book closely to see if any sections of it discuss the creation of dungeons, with an eye toward trying to extract from it any insights into either Holmes's own philosophy of dungeon building or a more general sense of how referees at the time looked at this endeavor.

Worlds without Magic Missiles

Recently, Sean Robson posted over at his blog about "the tyranny of magic missile," by which he meant the way in which the introduction of this now-iconic spell in Supplement I forever changed the way D&D was played and how D&D players conceived of the magic-user class. Since Sean uses Swords & Wizardry: White Box as his clone of choice -- it's by far my favorite version of S&W too -- he doesn't have to contend with the existence of this spell and is enjoying the salutary effect its had on his sessions.

Even though I have introduced magic missile into my Dwimmermount campaign, I actually share Sean's perspective on the matter and somewhat regret having moved beyond the spell lists in the LBBs to include those from Greyhawk. I think there's a lot to be said for keeping to the lists in Volume 1 of OD&D, both in terms of game play and esthetics. That said, I don't think all the spells introduced in Greyhawk are problematic or game-changing. Here are my thoughts on a handful of the spells I do think alter the dynamic of the game in ways I don't much care for:
  • Legend Lore: I prefer that forgotten knowledge only be obtainable through research, which is to say, scouring old libraries and visiting far-off locales. Spells like this obviate the need for lengthy journeys across the setting -- and thus adventures.
  • Monster Summoning: I am deeply ambivalent about this collection of spells. On the one hand, conjuration is a classic wizardly trick, but, on the other hand, there's something about the ability to summon -- and control -- monsters to do a magic-user's bidding without any strings attached that doesn't sit right with me.
  • Silence 15' Radius: Depending on how one interprets the spell, this is potentially game changing. I've allowed its use in my campaign, but wish I hadn't, or at least I wish I had interpreted it more narrowly than I did.
  • Speak with Dead: I am ambivalent about this spell too. Again, a lot depends on how its interpreted and, while I am generally happy with the way I've allowed it to be used in my campaign, I have issues with it esthetically, particularly in campaigns, like mine, where the nature of life after death, including its reality, are open questions.
Though I do use spells from Supplement I, I haven't yet acknowledged the existence of spell levels beyond those in the LBBs and I'm far from certain I ever shall. Truth be told, I actually think the existence of spell levels higher than 5th for clerics and 6th for magic-users do more to change the game than most of the new spells at levels 1-6. It's at those higher levels that the complexion of the game takes a turn toward unrelenting high fantasy, with implications for the nature of a setting that would (or should, at any rate) have a profound impact on it.

Now, I'm sure one could create a setting that followed through on those implications -- most D&D setting do not -- but my gut tells me that such a setting would be very different than the default pseudo-medieval/ancient world most referees and players assume when they hear the words "Dungeons & Dragons." And I'll admit that I'm skeptical that such settings would be very workable as places to adventure in the conventional ways, but I am notoriously small-minded. Regardless, I don't feel any compulsion to allow spells of levels 7-9 in my Dwimmermount campaign. The range of power presented in the LBBs is quite sufficient for my purposes and I've actually come to think the introduction of those higher spell levels led to a lot of later mischief that the game would have been better off without (such as the notion that magic-users were "overpowered" and that other classes needed to be beefed up in order to keep pace).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Warriors of the Red Planet Blog

Al over at Beyond the Black Gate has started up a second blog to discuss and promote his upcoming sword-and-planet RPG, Warriors of the Red Planet, which is, in his words, "Old School Pulp Sci-Fantasy in the vein of Burroughs, Kline, Moorcock, and Brackett. Old School Rules in the vein of Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord."

I'm really looking forward to this one. Check it out.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Festival

Even though it's actually set during Christmas-time, I always associate H.P. Lovecraft's short story, "The Festival," with Halloween. That's probably because I first read it in an old Ballantine collection one October in 1981 or '82 and was incredibly taken with it. Written in 1923 and published in the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, the story is very short but is remarkably powerful, having a very evocative beginning, such as this section that has long stuck with me:
It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.
In that section, Lovecraft nicely outlines the entire theme of "The Festival," namely, the unnamed narrator has returned home to Kingsport (based on Marblehead, Massachusetts, a visit to which HPL called "the high tide of my life") to participate on an ancient festival his family has kept for untold centuries. Of course, the narrator, being an outsider who's never been to the home of his ancestors, has no idea just what this festival is or why it is so important. He knows only that it is important enough that he has been summoned to this dilapidated seaside town from far away and that he must hold true to the ways of his forefathers.

The story itself is a trifling thing, one of the more insubstantial of Lovecraft's tales, which is no surprise given the early date of its composition. Beyond the central mystery of the true nature of the festival the narrator's family celebrates at Christmas-time, there's not much of a plot. And aside from the inclusion of the Necronomicon, "The Festival" doesn't have much to offer aficionados of the Cthulhu Mythos. However, what this short story possesses in abundance, and why it's stuck with me all these years, is an air of antiquity and menace, particularly the former.

Lovecraft's visit to Marblehead made such an impression on him because, in the words of his biographer S.T. Joshi:
Lovecraft felt himself united with his entire cultural and racial past. The past is real -- it is all there is; and for a few moments on a winter afternoon in Marblehead the past really was all there was.
That's an experience I understand myself, given my own antiquarian tendencies, which probably explains why, as I get older, despite the vast gulfs between HPL and myself when it comes to our world views, I nevertheless have ever greater sympathy for him. In "The Festival," HPL does an astounding job of conveying the way that the past can weigh upon the present. Of course, this being a Lovecraft story, that past has a decidedly sinister cast to it, or at least an inhuman one, as he makes plain near the very beginning of the story.

That probably explains why the story frightens me. Given Lovecraft's own proclivities, I think it a testament to his craft that he was nevertheless able to present something he dearly loved -- the past -- in such a horrific light. The narrator of "The Festival" thinks only that he's participating in a family tradition and gives little thought to the nature of the tradition or why it is so important to have been passed down from father to son for untold generations. He knows only that it's "important" and gives little thought to it beyond that. Thus, his shock, upon learning the truth, is all the more potent and offers up a subtle rebuke to those of us who revere the past without any real understanding of it or why it might have been cast aside.

Lovecraft assuredly wrote better stories than "The Festival," but this one will always be a favorite of mine. I find it difficult not to read it and be affected by it, both emotionally and intellectually. And, as Halloween approaches, I am reminded of my younger self, nearly 30 years ago, reading this story for the first time and forever being changed by it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Down in the Dungeon

On Friday, which is my now-standard "day off" (even though I frequently don't blog much on Saturday or Sunday either), Dan over at The Dungeoneering Dad wrote to me about his having come across another blog that included artwork scanned from a book he'd never heard of -- Down in the Dungeon -- that included some artwork he thought I might like.

As I told him in my reply, Down in the Dungeon is a book I remember very well from my early days in the hobby. It was published in 1981, two years after I'd started roleplaying, and was written -- I use the term loosely, since there's not much text, as I recall -- by Rob Stern and illustrated by Don Greer. Here's the cover:

My friend's metal head older brother, of whom I've spoken many times before, had a copy of this book in his basement bedroom. Whenever said brother was out of the house, which was often, my friend would sneak into his brother's room and borrow this book for us to look at. We were endlessly fascinated by these illustrations and spun all sorts of stories about them, even incorporating bits and pieces of them into our ongoing campaigns.

Zarakan's Dungeon (which, if I remember rightly, is the ostensible "setting" of Down in the Dungeon) became a fixture of at least one campaign, using maps like this as inspiration for its layout:
Many of the pieces in the book seem to have been cribbed from a heady stew consisting of Frank Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrand, and Ralph McQuarrie. For example, take a look at this illustration of a fantasy tavern and compare it to some Star Wars concept art by McQuarrie for the cantina on Tatooine.

Some will no doubt turn up their nose at this stuff and, on some level, I understand why: the artwork in Dungeon in the Dungeon is highly derivative, to put it charitably. Yet, at the same time, there's a strange vibrancy to it. This is the same kind of crude charm I continue to find in the earliest products of the hobby, back before TSR was employing guys like Elmore and Caldwell to "professionalize" (aka blandify) the look of its books.

Down in the Dungeon
is clearly the product of an obsession with fantasy and fantasy roleplaying and an omnivorous one at that. There's no attempt to create a unified look for a "brand" at work here, just the gleeful abandon of mad love, one that unashamedly appropriates whatever's at hand to illustrate a new form of entertainment that doesn't yet have a consistent iconography, let alone a corporate-approved one.

And, ultimately, I think that's what I so love in the early artwork of D&D, raw and amateurish though it is in the eyes of some: it's revolutionary. It's an attempt, however fumbling, to give expression to something genuinely new. We call it "D&D fantasy" today, with a sneer on our lips, but, back then, even in 1981 when this book was published, it couldn't yet be reduced to a formula and a checklist of elements. Though cobbled together from disparate parts, like Frankenstein's monster, it nevertheless managed, somehow, to be more than its origins -- and just what it was hadn't been worked out yet.

It really was a brave new world, a portal to a place no one had ever been before and I consider myself lucky to have been there early enough to have passed through it with my friends (and their older brothers).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Open Friday: Scary Images

I've said before that I think fantasy ought to be frightening. When I'm trying to get myself into the right frame of mind for presenting some horrific creature or scene in my campaign, I often think on images that frighten me. One of the ones that never ceases to give me the creeps is a spider descending on a thread. For some reason, that just sends shudders down my spine (above and beyond the simple fact that I am very arachnophobic -- even putting this image on the blog took some bravery on my part).

So, I'm curious: what images do you find frightening and yet inspirational?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

REVIEW: Oubliette #4

It's the Fall and time for another issue of Oubliette, this time issue #4 of the PDF fanzine for Labyrinth Lord and other old school fantasy games. Like its three predecessors, the current issue is a quirky collection of musings, adventures, house rules, and other resources of interest to anyone playing a class-and-level RPG. Editor Peter Regan once again pulls double duty as a writer, producing a significant portion of issue #4's massive 80 pages (of which 34 pages are the 'zine proper and the rest "goodies" that I'll discuss presently), with additional contributions by Roland Depper and Lam McGra. Artwork throughout is by The Marg and remains as delightfully "raw" as it has since the premier issue last Spring.

The new issue begins with an editorial that rather aptly likens the old school renaissance to a well-done "reboot" of a beloved movie franchise: a lot of the same as before, yes, but hopefully taking full advantage of hindsight to avoid the pitfalls of the past. I rather like this analogy. An amusing cartoon presents four "Buckets of Legend," magical pails that actually could be used as treasure if one doesn't take one's game too seriously. "Monster Club #6" gives us a collection of humanoid, monster, and animal zombies, complete with stats, to complement issue #3's discussion of skeletons. "Weapons Test" is a simple adventure intended as a test bed (pun intended) for using the firearms rules from previous issues, although it could easily be reworked as a straightforward scenario about humanoid raiders if one does not wish to include firearms in one's campaign. "Monster Club #7" provides very useful rules for scaling monsters, which is to say, creating larger or smaller versions of existing creatures. It's very well done and easy to use and, in my experience, something that's much needed.

A new installment of "Present Arms!" provides rules for monster-based firearms, a topic that so rarely gets covered in fantasy games that include such weapons. "A-Hunting We Will Go" is an encounter with wood goblins that can be dropped into any wilderness adventure. "PC for PCs" is a humorous article re-imagining The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief as if it were written to be sensitive to the feelings of "stature-enhanced beings," complete with a hilarious illustration. "Purist to Puerile" ranks the various interpretations of orcs on a scale that rates Hârn's gargun as the most "pure," while Citadel's comedic orks as the most "puerile." Sadly, my beloved pig-faced orcs rank only slightly below Citadel's -- a travesty, I say! "Seven Magical Mirrors" provides just that, some of the quite interesting and sure to be added into Dwimmermount when I find a place to do so. A handful of reviews and another installment of the fiction serial "The Song of Sithakk" rounds out the 'zine proper.

After that, we're treated to 45 pages of supplemental material, starting with 13 pages of magic-user spell cards. These cards, which come nine to a page, include all the rules for every MU spell from levels 1-9 in space approximately the size of a business card. It's such a simple little play aid and yet I know well how useful such things can be. The remaining pages of supplemental material include pregenerated PCs for "Weapons Test," along with stand-up figures to represent them. These figures can be used alongside the large print-out battle map also included in this section. Oubliette has, since its inception, been very fond of providing aids for using battle maps in play, something that I think sets it apart from many other products of the old school renaissance, which, as a whole, tends to downplay or even eschew the use of miniatures to adjudicate combat.

Oubliette #4 is a strong issue and well worth the purchase, especially at its paltry cover price of $2. The spell cards alone are probably worth that much and, even if one is only inspired by the other articles rather than using them as-is, it's a worthwhile acquisition in my opinion. According to an ad in issue #4, the next issue will be released at Christmastime and will feature a "new look." I look forward to seeing it, although I do hope that the revamped Oubliette will continue to possess the same kind of raw, rough energy that its first four issues have in abundance.

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


So, the other day I was reading issue #23 (October/November 1980) of Judges Guild's The Dungeoneer Journal. In it, there's a lengthy interview with M.A.R. Barker by Rudy Kraft. A lot of the questions and answers are old hat to anyone who's knowledgeable about Tékumel and Empire of the Petal Throne, but one exchange really stuck with me:
Judges Guild: Do you do much playing of characters as opposed to Judging?

Barker: I've never played a character.
Common sense would, of course, dictate that what Barker meant was that he'd never had what we typically call a player character in his Tékumel campaign. Certainly, he's played characters -- non-player characters -- over the course of his campaign, many of them in fact! However, he's never created a character who was his rather than part of the world in which other people's characters adventured.

What's interesting is that Professor Barker's answer is the one I'd generally give too. Back when I first started gaming, we all considered it a no-no to both play and referee in the same campaign. That's why we generally had several campaigns running at any given time. If I wanted to play D&D rather than run it, then I'd do so in someone else's campaign, not the same one I was running for my friends. When I read about the Lake Geneva Greyhawk campaign, I always thought it odd that Gary Gygax was both a player and a referee in it. Somehow that seemed to be "cheating."

In the early to mid-90s, I did play in several campaigns where referees also had characters of their own in the same campaigns. The results were uncongenial enough that I continued to feel the practice was one to be avoided rather than embraced. One of the biggest issues I encountered was the tendency of the referee to treat his PC as an important NPC and use him as a central element to an adventure -- a way to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak. Looking back on those campaigns now, I honestly don't think they were improved by allowing the referee to pull double duty; indeed, I think just the opposite.

Now, like all such practices, I don't know that this has to be the case. I'm sure there are many examples of campaigns where the referee's also being involved as a player hasn't had dire consequences. Still, I can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong with it. I guess I just prefer a stronger separation between the roles of referee and player (in the sense of player-of-PCs anyway) than this seems to provide, but perhaps I've just been very unfortunate in this regard.

Retrospective: The Court of Ardor

As a younger man, I read Tolkien, of course; everyone I knew did. Being a fantasy roleplayer meant that you dutifully read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at least and many also read The Silmarillion (Christopher Tolkien not yet having published any volumes of The History of Middle-earth when I entered the hobby). I read them all, but I can't say I was much enamored of them. In fact, as stories, I found them all, The Hobbit included, rather boring. Now, I loved Middle-earth as a setting -- all the little details, languages, etc. But I didn't think much of the stories Professor Tolkien decided to tell about his world, which only goes to show, I think, how shallow my love for Middle-earth was back then.

Consequently, when Iron Crown Enterprises started producing RPG supplements describing the various lands and peoples of Middle-earth, I had very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I looked forward to reading even more details about the setting, but, on the other, I wondered, "What's the point?" I was never going to set a campaign in Middle-earth. The setting seemed much too focused on a particular set of stories that, at the time, didn't really excite my imagination all that much. I also wondered how many new details could possibly be included in these supplements. After all, Tolkien was dead and I already owned all the books he wrote about Middle-earth. What more could there be?

So, I ignored ICE's Middle-earth products initially. It wasn't until I saw advertisements in the pages of Dragon in 1983 for a supplement called The Court of Ardor that my interest was piqued enough that I considered buying a copy. Based on the ads, The Court of Ardor was filled with "ancient swamp ruins & island citadels held by dark elven lords and their fierce minions." That didn't sound like anything I remembered from Tolkien, yet here it was and released under ICE's Middle-earth banner, no less. So, I went off to the bookstore and picked up a copy, both excited and confused at the prospect of some place in Middle-earth that I'd somehow never heard of.

The Court of Ardor was written by Terry K. Amthor and filled with 62 pages of dense text and some gorgeous maps by Peter C. Fenlon. The supplement described a land far to the south of Middle-earth called alternately Ardor or Mûmakan, which was home to number of elven lords who had cooperated with Morgoth during the First Age. I remembered nothing of this from The Silmarillion and, though I'll admit my appreciation of the finer details of Tolkien's world were shaky at best, it struck me as strange, if not impossible, to imagine evil elves in Middle-earth. Stranger still was that these evil elves used magic associated with a Tarot-like deck of cards supposedly created by Morgoth himself. There were also peoples and places that had no connection to Middle-earth in the supplement as well, not to mention an epic plot line involving Morgoth's half-elven children and the continuation of their father's plan to destroy the Sun and the Moon.

As a kid, I was baffled by all this. The Court of Ardor was undeniably cool, but it was also undeniably inappropriate to Middle-earth. I couldn't figure out then (nor now) just how this product was ever released under the Middle-earth label, since, except for names here and there, it was seemed like it took place in its own fantasy world rather than in Tolkien's sub-creation. But it was also strangely compelling and while, in retrospect, I find it a little too over the top for my liking, it is quite well done and I can easily imagine how someone who took it up and ran with it would have a great campaign using it. I myself did not, mostly because, while I liked many of its ideas, I somehow found myself in the odd position of simultaneously thinking it didn't belong in Middle-earth and finding it too strongly associated with it to be able to use it.

I am led to understand that many elements from The Court of Ardor were later incorporated into a different ICE product, a non-Tolkien setting for RoleMaster called Shadow World. I've never seen that product, so I can't speak to how close the connection is, but it's interesting to consider that, once upon a time, a game company could even imagine inserting a wholly original setting into an existing one without any qualms. IPs tend to be much more tightly controlled nowadays; I doubt we'd ever see something like this again. Of course, I still have very mixed feelings about the fact that this was ever done. My appreciation of Middle-earth has increased greatly since 1983 and the inappropriateness of The Court of Ardor is even more apparent to me now than it was then. Yet, as I say, there's a strange power to this supplement and, like the various alternate takes on "Star Wars without the saga" making the rounds, there's a part of me that remains intrigued by a Middle-earth where Mûmakan, its evil elves, and epic plot lines fit right in.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Oh, Why Not ...?

A whole bunch of blogs, including Sickly Purple Death Ray, where I first saw it, are giving into the "15 Games in 15 Minutes" meme. Now, as a general rule, I hate this kind of stuff as much as I hate the term "meme," BUT I actually think this is an interesting one, because it's supposed to be a list of the 15 games that you've played that will always stick with you, which is to say, the ones that immediately come to mind when you start thinking about games. As I interpret it, these aren't supposed to be games that are necessarily your favorites or even the ones that most influenced your thinking about games, but rather than ones that come most quickly to mind (hence the "in 15 Minutes" part of the thing).

So, here are mine (in no particular order other than how they came to me, which probably says something):
  1. Dungeons & Dragons
  2. Traveller
  3. Call of Cthulhu
  4. Star Trek (FASA Version)
  5. Gamma World
  6. Pendragon
  7. Diplomacy
  8. Dark Tower
  9. Dungeon!
  10. Risk
  11. Axis & Allies (Milton Bradley version)
  12. Kingmaker
  13. Revolt on Antares
  14. Adventure (Atari 2600)
  15. Super Star Trek (old computer game I played on a TRS-80)
Those are the games that came immediately to mind. If I had more entries available, I'd probably have added a couple of other board and computer games I played a lot back in the 70s and 80s, but, reflecting on the ones I did choose, I think it's a pretty representative sample of the kinds of games I played a lot during my childhood and teen years. I suspect, if you asked me this question again in 20 years, I might include several more computer games, but I think it's too early to say whether any of them, including those I like(d) a great deal, will stand the test of time.

New "Whisperer in Darkness" Trailer Up

Thanks to Al Harron over at The Blog That Time Forgot for reminding me that the latest trailer for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's fan film adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness" is up.

Alas, it looks like the completed film won't be released until sometime in 2011, but the trailer suggests it'll be more than worth the wait. Once again, I find myself wondering, "Who needs Hollywood?" Certainly the HPLHS films don't have Oscar-winning performances but they do have respect for and fidelity to the source material, which is something I'll gladly pay good money to see. Would that we ever get a Conan film that's as faithful to its source material as the HPLHS's output to date ...

(And, apropos of my earlier discussion of CGI, "Whisperer in Darkness" seems to use it the way it ought -- sparingly. The mi-go shown in a couple of parts of the trailer looks good and contra Al, whose opinions I generally share on such matters, I don't think it's overexposed, but I guess time will tell. I have a hard time imagining, though, that this will be a bad production. Indeed, by the looks of it, "Whisperer in Darkness" could very well be the best adaptation of a Lovecraft story to cinema to date, which is both a testament to how awesome the HPLHS is and how pathetic the big movie studios are.)

Raggi Grabs Headlines -- Again

In case you haven't heard, James Raggi has again announced some very interesting news, namely that he will "will be releasing the Vornheim City Kit by Zak Sabbath of “Playing D&D With Porn Stars” and The Escapist’s "I Hit It With My Axe." Here's Zak's sales pitch:
The Vornheim City Kit will be a guide to the city that my campaign is based around, but way more than that, it'll be a tool for running open-ended city adventures anywhere. I'm not going to be Mr. PR here and claim I'm sure it'll have 'Everything You Need To Run A Campaign In A Fake Medieval Urban Setting' but I am sure it'll have everything I need, because this is actually the stuff I use when we play.

The Vornheim City Kit will feature: oddities of the city; maps of major locations; a souped-up version of the "urbancrawl" rules for creating fully-stocked labyrinthine streets while players are actually being chased through them; and loads of tables for creating taverns, merchants, libraries, decadent aristocrats, and other accoutrements of urban living in a split-column format allowing the DM to generate functional details on the fly or mix-and-match results during adventure prep in order to create more individualized environments.

The emphasis will be on creating instruments you can actually use, rather than burying the DM under masses of pre-imagined information. This won't be a big, fat, where-the-fuck-did-I-put-that-bookmark encyclopedia of every loose toothpick and manhole cover in the city. This will be a little book that you can put on your table and say to your players "Ok, it's Friday night in 1200 AD, what are we doing?" and be confident that you have an environment ready to roll with any punch the party throws. The pictures will be helpful, the maps will be clear, the tables will be fun to roll on, and it will all be easy to find."

The kit will also include notes and commentary on how the tools in the kit can or have worked out in actual play from James Raggi, Zak Sabbath, and the 'Axe' girls.

Look for it Winter 2011.
I don't know about anyone else, but I think this sounds like a really intriguing product, one I'm looking forward to seeing, if only because urban adventuring is a staple of swords-and-sorcery stories and it's not been well supported in the hobby in many years.

If the book is even half as good as it sounds like from Zak's spiel, then it's going to be very awesome indeed. I also expect this announcement will raise yet more eyebrows among those who were already clucking about Raggi's plans to publish Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa in an expanded, deluxe edition next year. Looks like 2011 is going to be a hopping year for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Here's hoping other old school publishers can produce some similarly cool stuff.

Longing for the Real

Released this month was The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which is an attractive -- and very expensive -- book by J.W. Rinzler that includes, among other things, photographs of the actual sets and props used in making the 1980 film. I don't own the book myself, but Vanity Fair has some images from the book on their website, including the one above.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I miss the days when movies didn't make extensive use of computer generated images. I believe that one of the reasons the original Star Wars holds up so well after more than 3o years is that it looks real, which, of course, it was. I mean, they actually built a life-size Millennium Falcon for that movie and there were sound stages turned into huge sections of the Death Star. And let's not forget all the amazing model work and the actors who actually donned makeup and masks in order to lend solidity to the alien beings they portrayed. They just don't make movies like that anymore.

Now, lest anyone think I'm a total Luddite, I think there is a place for CGI. I just don't think it ought to be the whole show. I was completely unimpressed with Avatar, which, while pretty, felt even more hollow than Lucas's prequels. The Lord of the Rings movies, especially the battle scenes, have not held up well at all and, to my biased eyes, already look dated and they're not even a decade old yet. Human beings are rightly enamored of technology, but it should always be used as a tool with which to create, not the creation itself. Too many movie makers nowadays seem to have forgotten that and the result is that it's rare that I see films I can genuinely believe I'll still be watching in 5 years time, let alone 30.

REVIEW: Blood Moon Rising

For reasons I've never completely grasped, there have always been far more low-level adventures than mid- to high-level ones. I suppose it has a lot to do with the fewer number of variables in play when dealing with 1st to 3rd-level characters compared to, say, 9th to 12th-level characters, especially in old school RPGs, where mechanical balance isn't a significant aspect of their design.

Now, I don't have anything against low-level adventures; it's just that, unlike those intended for more experienced characters, they have a much more limited utility. In most campaigns, characters aren't low-level for very long, meaning that a referee can likely only ever use a few low-level adventures. Furthermore, most low-level adventures seems to be cut from the same cloth: a bunch of inconsequential ne'er-do-wells comes upon an isolated settlement besieged by something in a nearby desolate locale and it's up to said ne'er-do-wells to put things to right.

Again, I don't have anything against this setup; it's a classic for a reason. But I hope I can be forgiven for not jumping for joy every time I see yet another new adventure module, no matter how well done, that adopts this basic structure. Fortunately, Peter C. Spahn's Blood Moon Rising actually takes a new tack, presenting, yes, an isolated settlement, in this case the town of Garanton, and, yes, it is besieged by something -- or, rather, will be, if the PCs don't act to stop it -- but comparisons end there. Much like The Village of Hommlet, in some sense, Garanton itself is the adventure, as Spahn has put a great deal of work into bringing it alive, providing plenty of information about the place and its inhabitants. Unlike module T1, though, Spahn has not presented the town in such exhaustive depth that one is bowled over by minutiae nor has he robbed the town of the possibility for expansion by the referee. Indeed, as presented, Garanton more or less demands that the referee flesh out many aspects of it, particularly if, as is likely, it becomes the home base of the PCs for an extended period of time.

What truly distinguishes Blood Moon Rising, though, is its timeline of events and encounters. The adventure takes place during the Feast of St. Garan, an annual five-day festival celebrating the victory of the saint (after whom the town is named) over evil lords who once ruled the land. The module describes many events and encounters that occur over the course of the Feast. Some of these events are keyed to specific days and times and others are random. All of them provide opportunities to roleplay, even those that pertain to the growing threat that threatens to engulf Garanton and its people. Normally, I'm not very fond of timeline-oriented adventures, as they have a tendency to be heavy-handed in advancing a plot rather than a sequence of events, if you can understand the distinction.

Happily, that's not a flaw in Blood Moon Rising, whose timeline really is just a sequence of events occurring during the Feast while the characters are in town. There's no expectation that the characters do anything whatsoever. The evil that threatens the town and surrounding countryside don't "explode" after a certain time, forcing the characters to take action if they do not wish it. There are clues and events that point toward the growing evil and the characters may choose to confront it. Or they may not. If they do not, there will be consequences for Garanton, but not necessarily for the PCs, who might well leave the sleepy village before things really come to a head.

And that's what I really like about this module: it's subtle. Spahn provides the referee with an excellent little sandbox setting -- a village and the surrounding countryside -- along with an equally excellent little event, filled with encounters and clues. But he trusts the referee and the players to make use of it as they will rather than forcing anything on them. The adventure presents a "real" world, which is to say, a world where things happen with or without the involvement of the player characters. However, those events, most especially the great evil lurking in the background, are sufficiently "slow burning" that the decision to act or not is truly up to the players rather than the rigid demands of a pre-scripted plot. Of course, PCs are supposed to be adventurers, so one assumes they will choose to poke around and investigate, but I appreciate the fact that the module doesn't assume they will and it's every bit as usable, even if they don't.

Released as $4.95 PDF, Blood Moon Rising is a very well done adventure module, one of the most interesting I've read recently. It's 32 pages in length and includes a new spell, magic item, and monsters, along with extensive NPC statistics, simple though serviceable maps, and lots of evocatively written encounters and locales. Spahn's writing is clear and well edited; I noticed no editorial or grammatical errors. David Griffin's artwork is limited and occasionally dark but suited to the subject matter. The maps, as noted, are merely serviceable but I'll admit that I wasn't much bothered by this, as it is the rest of this module that held my attention. Though written for Labyrinth Lord, I would take little effort to adapt it to most other class-and-level fantasy games and it would probably work quite well with RuneQuest or other old school fantasy RPGs without much trouble.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a low-level adventure/sandbox that's nicely open-ended and imaginative.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in low-level adventures, no matter how creative.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Great God Pan

I think it likely that H.P. Lovecraft, who thought very highly of Arthur Machen's 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, would object to my including it among the "pulp fantasies" I highlight in this series each week. Like Lovecraft, Machen, a Welsh writer known for his decadent, mystical worldview, did not consider his writings mere entertainments but rather expressions of his own unique philosophy. Unlike many, I don't consider the term "pulp fantasy" derogatory, since I use the term very broadly to describe works of the imagination intended for a mass audience that draw on eclectic sources for their own inspiration. Some pulp fantasies are undoubtedly mere entertainments (again, not a criticism), while others, such as the works of Lovecraft and Howard, can be appreciated as more. The Great God Pan certainly falls into the latter category.

That Machen should exert should a powerful influence over Lovecraft (who praises him profusely in his Supernatural Horror in Literature) is no surprise. The two men shared a great deal, perhaps chief among them being the "scientific" grounding of their weird tales. That is, both Lovecraft and Machen shared the belief that, far from liberating mankind from fear, science would in fact make him ever more aware of just how terrifying the cosmos actually was. It is this theme (among others) that The Great God Pan uses as its foundation and develops to remarkable effect.

The story begins as two men, Raymond and Clarke, discuss upcoming brain surgery to be performed on a young woman named Mary. Raymond wishes to perform the surgery in order to vindicate his theories about the universe:
"Look about you, Clarke. You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchard, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things—yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet—I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these 'chases in Arras, dreams in a career,' beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another's eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan."
The surgery goes off as Raymond intends and the consequences, though tragic for Mary, are exactly as he expected:
"She will awake in five minutes." Raymond was still perfectly cool. "There is nothing more to be done; we can only wait."

The minutes passed slowly; they could hear a slow, heavy, ticking. There was an old clock in the passage. Clarke felt sick and faint; his knees shook beneath him, he could hardly stand.

Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl's cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.

Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary's bedside. She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly.

The story then picks up years later, as several young men are dying under mysterious circumstances. The only connection between these deaths is that all of the men is a young woman named Helen Vaugh, who is described as "at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on." One need not read the story to know that the prelude to The Great God Pan, involving the surgery done to poor Mary, and the later events involving Helen Vaughn are also connected, but I won't say here the nature of that connection, for fear of lessening the impact of the tale.

What's impresses me still is that, even though the central mystery of the story is one we have likely seen before, given how often Machen is pastiched (mainly through the influence of Lovecraft, who himself took more than a few cues from his older contemporary), it still possesses great power. Like Lovecraft, Machen has a tendency toward unnecessarily complex constructions, purple prose, and somewhat flat characters, but his ideas are so vibrant that they overcome all these flaws. Reading The Great God Pan is an unsettling experience and I wish I could say precisely why. As I said, the story, though original, even scandalous, in its time, has been copied so often in the last century or more that one would think it would no longer pack much punch -- and yet it does. If you've never read it before, I recommend doing so; I'll be curious to hear if anyone else finds it as disturbing as I do.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

McKinney and Raggi Join Forces

As announced today, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess has come to an agreement with Geoffrey McKinney to release not only his upcoming Isle of the Unknown project, but also Carcosa in "an expanded, deluxe edition." McKinney and Raggi both have very strong visions for their respective old school projects, so the idea of the two of them joining forces in this fashion is certainly one of the most intriguing bits of news I've heard coming out of old school gaming in some time. I have decidedly mixed feelings about Carcosa, as is well known, and, from what I have gathered, the "expanded, deluxe" version will use the unexpurgated text of the book, so I suspect we may be in for another round of discussion when this new edition is released next spring.

Regardless, it's already looking as if 2011 will be every bit as interesting as 2010 -- which is saying a lot.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fight On! #10 Released

I'm sure a lot of you know this already, but some of you may not, so it's worth mentioning that the tenth issue of Fight On! has been released. The 140-page issue is available as both a PDF (for $7.00) and as a printed copy (for $9.99). Issue #10 is dedicated to the memory of Tom Moldvay and is filled with a wide variety house rules, musings, and adventures for old school RPGs.

I've got a copy of the PDF and will try to get a review of it up soon, but, from what I've read of it so far, Fight On! remains an excellent resource for anyone looking for ideas and inspiration for their campaigns. It's come a long way from that first issue back in the Spring of 2008, when it was less than a quarter the size of the current issue.

I'm glad to see Fight On! prosper, even if I've found most of my creativity these days goes into my Dwimmermount campaign and this blog, thereby leaving me with little to contribute to the 'zine. With the disappearance of OD&Dities again and the uncertain status of Knockspell, Fight On! (and Oubliette) is the only regularly produced old school fanzines of which I'm aware and it's encouraging to see it still going strong. Kudos to Ignatius Umlaut and his contributors for all their hard work and imagination!

Clerics versus Undead Monsters

As is well known now, the cleric was inspired, in large part, by the character of Dr. Van Helsing, as ably portrayed by Peter Cushing, in numerous Hammer horror films in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Consequently, the class's signature ability is not spell casting but its ability to "turn away" undead monsters, such as zombies, ghouls, and, of course, vampires.

As I noted in my earlier post on the subject, anti-clerics lack the ability to turn undead entirely in OD&D. This is a stance that, so far as I can recall, no other version of D&D adopts, not even Holmes, which otherwise does include OD&D's anti-clerics (or "evil clerics," as the good doctor calls them). AD&D, intriguingly, does not allow evil clerics to turn or destroy the undead, but they can neutralize or even command them. Moldvay/Cook/Marsh gives all clerics, regardless of alignment, the ability to turn undead, a stance also adopted by Mentzer.

Of all these options, I find the one adopted by Moldvay/Cook/Marsh and Mentzer to be the least satisfactory to me, as it makes all clerics equally efficacious against the undead, regardless of their deity (if any) and alignment. The implication seems to be that the simple fact that a character is a cleric is sufficient to have power over the undead. The AD&D position, meanwhile, is more coherent, inasmuch as alignment is significant, but it's also more dualistic (or perhaps "multipolar"), since it gives all alignments some power over the undead. OD&D, as noted, implies a "monopolar" reality, where Law, which is often equated with goodness, is the only force to which before which undead monsters flee.

Of course, in my Dwimmermount campaign, Law does not equal Good, or at least not all Lawful beings can be reckoned good ones, except in the narrow sense that they oppose Chaos, which seeks the destruction of all. The religion of Typhon, to cite a prominent example from the campaign, is a staunch defender of human civilization, a paragon of Law, but it also turns a blind eye to oppression and cruelty and supports strength as an indicator of rectitude. As in the LBBs, there are no non-Lawful clerics, excepting demon worshipers, which follow slightly different rules.

Given that all Lawful clerics, regardless of the deity they serve, can affect the undead, it seems clear to me that it is a cleric's Lawfulness, not his deity, that grants him this power, a position that carries with it cosmological implications I've embraced rather than shied away from in my campaign setting. Though there is no "church of Law," as we see in some early D&D materials, there is a Lawful cult, one that eschews the usual gods and personifies Law itself as a kind of Supreme Deity. This cult doesn't have clerics but rather paladins, who, interestingly enough, lack the ability to turn the undead (as in Supplement I), an oddity that I think helps to paint a delightfully muddled cosmology -- just the way I like it.


One of the easily overlooked aspects of OD&D is that all clerics are Lawful in alignment. At level 6 or below, Neutral clerics are possible, but those "of 7th level and greater are either 'Law' or 'Chaos'." Somewhat contradictorily, a later section of Men & Magic states that "there are Anti-Clerics ... who have similar powers to Clerics." As I read this passage, it means that "anti-clerics" are a distinct class of their own. They even have a different spell list from Lawful clerics (that includes no healing spells), as well as a unique spell -- finger of death. Likewise, they have no power over the undead as ordinary clerics do.

If one looks at OD&D from the perspective of AD&D or post-LBB editions of Dungeons & Dragons, anti-clerics are just another one of those oddities that doesn't seem to make any sense. But, as I've argued before, OD&D implicitly accepts a "fairytale Christianity," which it equates with Law and opposed by an equally storybook conception of Satanism/demon worship, which it equates with Chaos (often called "evil" in various parts of the LBBs). In such a context, anti-clerics are perfectly reasonable.

In my Dwimmermount campaign, there are anti-clerics, though I don't call them that, since, like the word "superhero" that OD&D also uses (and Chainmail before it), it somehow doesn't feel "right" to me. Actually, there's no single name for them, since these demon worshipers lack a unified organization, operating as part of dozens of different secret cults, each one dedicated to a different lord (or lords) of the Abyss. All, though, are wholly opposed to Law and devoted to the destruction of the present cosmic order, believing it to be a self-delusion and not at all representative of the great truth that only their masters know, namely that there are no gods and nothing awaits Man after death. Interestingly, elves believe the same thing, which is why many pity Man's brief pointless existence.

To date, I haven't done a great deal with anti-clerics in the campaign, mostly because the areas of the world the players have explored haven't really given me much opportunity to do so. The cult of Turms Termax remains the primary antagonist, although the Eld of Areon are shaping up to be important secondary opponents. This is fine by me. My feeling is that any campaign worth its salt should be larger than whatever the player characters are doing at any given time. The demon cults are out there, lurking in the shadows, and one day the party may cross swords with them. Or not -- that's for my players to decide.