Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

My nine year-old son is a big fan of the Nintendo Mario games and asked me to carve some pumpkins this year that reflected that. While my wife is out with the kids trick or treating, I'll be holding down the fort, giving out candy and watching Horror of Dracula on DVD.

Have a fun night, everyone!

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Amityville Horror

Despite its subtitle, Jay Anson's 1977 book, The Amityville Horror, is not a true story and thus I feel no compunction at making it today's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library. Even if one is credulous enough to believe the book's claims, The Amityville Horror was a significant tale of supernatural horror in a decade suffused with such tales, such as The Exorcist and The Omen, and thus a fit topic for this series. Indeed, I think it fair to say that this book is one of the most famous haunted house stories of the modern age, if not the most famous, both the medium of the book itself and 1979 movie of the same name (not to mention many TV shows, newspaper, and magazine articles).

According to Anson, in late 1975, the Lutz family of five moved into a Dutch colonial house on 112 Ocean Drive on Long Island, New York. Though worth considerably more, George Lutz paid only $80,000  for the home (plus an addition $400 for the furnishings it already contained), owing to the fact that it had an unsavory reputation. Thirteen months prior to the purchase, 112 Ocean Drive was the site of the murder of six people -- two adults and four children -- by Ronald DeFeo, Jr., a fact the Lutzes knew but decided didn't matter, since they liked the spacious home so much. Even so, the Lutzes asked a Catholic priest to come and bless the home, just in case.

The priest, Father Ray Mancuso, entered the house to bless it and found doing so uncomfortable. He eventually heard a voice telling him, "Get out!" At first, he kept his experiences to himself but eventually decided to tell George Lutz. Father Mancuso called the Lutzes and warned them against going into the room from which the voice he'd heard had come. As it turned out, the room had been the bedroom of two of the children murdered by Ronald DeFeo. Not long thereafter, Father Mancuso fell seriously ill, afflicted with a high fever and strange blisters on his body.

Over the course of the next 28 days, 112 Ocean Drive was host to numerous bizarre phenomena that suggested the house was haunted or demon-possessed. For example, swarms of flies appeared on the windows of some rooms of the house, despite the cold winter weather, while blood oozed from the walls in some places. The family members experienced nightmares, feelings of being touched by unseen forces, and, in the case of the youngest child, 5 year-old Melissa, repeated encounters with a pig-like creature with red glowing eyes whom the little girl called Jody. There were also spinning crucifixes, demonic visions, hidden rooms, inexplicable noises, and levitations. In short, nearly every cliché associated with haunted houses in modern times supposedly happened at 112 Ocean Drive, except of course most of these weren't clichés before the publication of The Amityville Horror. This is the book that started it all, right down to the house's having been built atop an Indian burial ground.

I was too young to read The Amityville Horror (whose title, incidentally, was chosen by Anson based on Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror") when it was first released, but, like most kids back then, I knew the story. In the late '70s, it was everywhere, part of the cultural landscape of that bygone decade and something that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. Even now, reading the book reminded me of all the feelings I had as a child. Despite the fact what Anson and the Lutzes perpetrated is one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century, the book is still powerfully compelling. There's a rawness and -- dare I say it? -- believability to its presentation that I find hard to resist, even though I know better. It's a fun and inspirational read and I don't deny that there are aspects to my The Cursed Chateau that I cribbed from The Amityville Horror. I'm sure I'm not that only gamer ever to do so.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Am Now Officially Old

© 1977-2011, Far Future Enterprises
When I was a younger man and played Traveller regularly, my characters tended to muster out at age 38. In this way, I was influenced by two things. First, the sample character, Alexander Lascelles Jamison (pictured to the right) ended his career at age 38. Second, 38 was the first year a character could potentially begin to suffer the degradation of his physical characteristics due to aging, which I can tell you from my own experience is pretty accurate. And, if you rolled well, you'd have a pretty decent character by age 38, with a good selection of skills and mustering out benefits.

However, random rolls being what they are, you didn't always get what you wanted by age 38. Maybe you missed out on a promotion and the benefit that came with it or you kept failing to receive a level in Jack-o-T. In such cases, I'd occasionally risk another batch of aging rolls, with an eye toward getting what I needed and mustering out at age 42, but that was my limit, because, to my mind, 42 was old.

Yesterday, I turned 42.

CORRECTION: 34 is in fact the first year that a character potentially suffers physical attribute degradation due to age, not 38 as listed above. I can only assume that the reason I then fixated on age 38 was because, in my mind, if you're still in your 30s, you're still "young," whereas anything over 40 was "old."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Open Friday: What Does It Mean?

Here's last Friday's poll again. It's nearly finished, as of the time of this posting, and its results are pretty overwhelming.

Of those who bothered to take the poll -- nearly 1800 people as of this moment -- 62% of them entered the hobby by 1984, with a huge contingent (42%) of them entering between 1980 and 1984. Those who entered between 1985 and 1989 and between 1990 and 1994 are neck and neck, with 13% each, which is healthier than I anticipated but still a significant drop-off from the all-time high of the early '80s and below even the 1974-1979 period. The Post-1995 periods are both small but that's exactly as I expected it would be.

But what does it all mean? The poll certainly isn't scientific and it's undoubtedly skewed because of where it appeared, but, even so, I continue to feel that it pretty accurately represents the history of the hobby: rapid growth during the late '70s, a high peak in the early '80s, and a gradual decline till the present day. I'm open to alternate interpretations, so, if you've got them, let me have them. Bonus points if you can present them in a polite and non-dismissive tone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Varieties of Old School

Just in time for Halloween, Goblinoid Games released the electronic version of its new zombie RPG, Rotworld (the print version comes out next month). I have a copy of the game and have been reading it on and off since last night. There's a lot to like about Rotworld, including its delightfully old school brevity -- a complete game in only 64 pages! -- but what I think most grabbed my attention about the game was its use of the Action Table rules found in Pacesetter's old RPGs, like Chill and Timemaster, the latter of which Goblinoid Games now not coincidentally publishes.

I can't say I was ever a huge fan of the Action Table rules or of any of the myriad of other similar rulesets that were everywhere during the mid-1980s. But, even so, I'm glad to see it revived for much the same reason that I'm glad to see Basic Roleplaying and other non-D&D-derived systems revived. As Dan Proctor rightly says in his foreword to Rotworld:
"old-school" occupies a lot of breadth, and other genres and systems should also be embraced. One of the great things about the 1980's was the proliferation of so many game systems and genres attached to them. Some of the games were more generic in genre, some were idiosyncratic and quirky. But all of them offered us a menu of options we could turn to when we were looking for something a little different. That's part of my mission as a publisher. I want to provide a menu of options.
I think that's both true and extremely well-said. Unlike some commentators, I think it's not only natural but healthy to see lots of new old school RPGs appear, each one a reflection of the unique vision -- and quirks -- of its creator. Mind you, I'm also not a big fan of either "universal" systems or the unmodified re-use of the same game system again and again, so clearly I'm weird. Regardless, take a look at Rotworld or some other RPG that has its own unique system and revel in its uniqueness. For a lot of us, that's a big part of what "old school" is all about.

Some More Dwimmermount Art

This time it's courtesy of Mark Allen, who's done so much excellent work for other old school products in the past. I was honored that Mark agreed to help me out with this and was extremely pleased by how this piece turned out. Enjoy!
©2011 Mark Allen

The Articles of Dragon: "A Couple of Fantastic Flops"

My own ambivalence toward the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian is well known. My overall feeling is that it's a decent enough sword-and-sorcery flick in its own right, but one should never make the mistake of confusing it with the Robert E. Howard creation on which it's nominally based. But, as negative as I might be about the film, it's nothing compared to what Gary Gygax wrote in "A Couple of Fantastic Flops," which appeared in issue #63 (July 1982) of Dragon. There, Gary lambastes Conan the Barbarian in the harshest of terms:
"Conan Meets the Flower Children of Set" might have been a better name for the film -- and if there is any resemblance between the cinema version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and that of Robert E. Howard, it is purely coincidental. The disappointment which began to grow inside me about one-quarter of the way into the film was not mitigated by anything which happened later on. In fact, bad became worse. I refuse to become involved in even a brief synopsis of the movie's story line.
He goes on to say, "If you have any respect for Conan as presented by Howard, then I suggest that you stay away from the theater or else be prepared for great disappointment." Gygax adds that "L. Sprague de Camp should have been ashamed to allow his name to appear in the list of credits as 'Technical Advisor'," which is particularly amusing when one considers how the man is currently regarded in the field of Howard scholarship. More damning than any of the above, though, is the fact that the article, as its name implies, reviews two fantasy films. In this case, the second film is the execrable The Sword and The Sorcerer, which Gygax declares to be "superb" when compared to Conan the Barbarian (though still "silly").

Also of interest in the article is the fact, according to Gygax, a D&D movie is "scheduled for release sometime in late 1984 or 1985." He goes on to say that
if the D&D® film isn’t of the quality of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I will not only blast it in a review similar to this one, but I will apologize to you as well. Meanwhile, don’t be turned off by what you see on the screen these days. Give us a chance to prove that the genre can be good!
This makes me wonder what Gary thought of the actual D&D movie we did finally get.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Help Requested

The first volume of the Dwimmermount Codex is done, but I've hit a little snag for which I'd like to seek the advice of someone who's very knowledgeable in the use of OpenOffice. If you know a lot about that program and would be willing to help, drop me a note at the email address list on my "About Me" page and let me know. I'll get in touch with you later today to ask you my question.


UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who emailed me with offers of assistance -- it was a lot of you. Thanks to the advice I was given, I was able to correct the problem I was having. If I need any further assistance, I'll know where to turn!

Retrospective: Beyond the Crystal Cave

Growing up in the early '80s, most of my friends were obsessed with Japan. This was, after all, the period when ninjas were all the rage in American popular culture, which was in turn reflected in the content of roleplaying games from the period. I, on the other hand, was much more interested in a different island empire, that of Great Britain. So, when TSR UK began to put out its own modules, to say that I was interested in them is something of an understatement.

I had hoped that the UK modules would somehow reveal their origins in Britain, though it was never quite clear even in my own mind what that might mean. The first one that I acquired, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, was an excellent low-level module that took a very different approach to its central conflict than I was expecting. I liked it a lot -- and still do -- but it didn't quite fulfill my hopes that it'd be "distinctively British" in a way that was recognizable to my younger self.

Consequently, I had high hopes that 1983's Beyond the Crystal Cave, written by Dave J. Browne (who'd worked on Saltmarsh), Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris might somehow possess something that'd set it apart as clearly being a product of the British Isles. There's no denying that the module is distinctive and quite unlike anything TSR had published previously, but, at least to my young American mind, I didn't sense anything uniquely British about it, a topic to which I'll return shortly.

Indeed, I found Beyond the Crystal Cave something of a disappointment. And how could I not? The module takes place on the unfortunately named Island of Sybarate, nominally located within the World of Greyhawk. On the island, the PCs learn of its history, particularly of the human magic-user Porpherio Profoundeus and his lover, the half-elven princess Caerwyn, who, in a secluded vale beyond a crystal cave, created a beautiful garden as a place of seclusion for themselves. Two years before the PCs' arrival to Sybarate, the daughter of the island's governor and her lover eloped together and somehow gained access to Porpherio's Garden. There the governor hopes they still remain, though every effort to find them to date has met with failure. He offers a 10,000 gp reward to anyone who would undertake the search for them. Assuming the PCs accept his offer, the adventure truly begins.

The area beyond the crystal cave is, effectively, a pocket dimension, as it functions according to its own rules. Many magical spells, for example, either do not work or have diminished effects. On the other hand, druids will find their abilities increased, owing to the weird sylvan environment on the other side. Numerous creatures, generally of a woodland sort, can be found too and many of them present puzzles and riddles to the PCs, in addition to the more usual challenges. Solving these puzzles and riddles yields great rewards, not least being the bypassing of combat, an action that the module's notes to the referee state will grant full experience points for "defeating" the creatures in question. Consequently, Beyond the Crystal Cave is a module for thinkers and talkers, not fighters, or at least thinkers and talkers will have a far easier time of it.

Back in '83, I didn't have a lot of use for this module. I never ran it -- I still haven't -- and I couldn't conceive of a circumstance where I might. I kind of regret that now, since, while Beyond the Crystal Cave is no masterpiece, it'd have been a useful reminder that, sometimes, the best course of action isn't combat but something else. That said, I think the module overdoes it a little bit, making it entirely possible to navigate most, if not all, of the adventure, without every once having to swing a sword or cast a spell. I personally prefer a mix of solutions to obstacles rather than privileging a single approach again and again (and, yes, this applies equally to combat).

With the eyes of experience, I'm still not convinced that the UK modules couldn't have been written by non-British writers. However, it's also clear to me that they are different. They all possess a very unique atmosphere, one that feels simultaneously more historically-grounded and yet also more fantastical. It's seemingly paradoxical, I know, but it seems as apt a summation as I can muster. Likewise, there's a greater sense of a world outside the adventure itself, a place that goes on even without the actions of the PCs and that might be affected, for good or for ill, by their actions. It's a species of a naturalism, I'd say, but not necessarily of a Gygaxian sort, because its "rules" seem to be subtly different. Just what those rules are I can't yet say, but it's a topic to which I'll be returning again in the future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Holmes Annoyance

My introduction to Dungeons & Dragons (and to the hobby itself) was through a copy of the Basic Set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes. The edition I owned didn't included dice -- it had chits and a coupon for dice -- and module B1, In Search of the Unknown. According to the Acaeum, that means I owned either the fifth or sixth editions of the set.

My original copy of the game was long ago destroyed. The box was crushed, I took the rulebook apart, and module B1 fell to pieces from so much use. When I was in high school, my father stumbled across a dusty copy of the game in a hobby store and picked it up for me. I was quite pleased, because I'd wanted to replace it, but, in those pre-eBay days, replacing old games wasn't easy to do. Unfortunately, the copy my father found was a later printing and included B2, The Keep on the Borderlands as its intro module. In any event, sometime over the last two decades, I misplaced that copy.

Since then, I've been trying to find a good replacement copy for my Holmes boxed set. This is much harder than I had expected. Most of the copies I come across have B2 rather than B1. Even worse, most of them are in terrible condition. I don't expect a mint copy by any means -- nor would I likely shell out the money needed to purchase one -- but I would like a copy that doesn't smell of mildew or have Coke stains all over its contents.

So, with my birthday coming up this coming weekend, I thought I'd ask if my readers could help me locate a decent copy as a present to myself. I can't justify paying exorbitant prices for something that is largely a nostalgic indulgence. However, I would like a decent reader's copy that includes module B1. Looking online, they seem to be scarce, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong places. Any pointers would thus be greatly appreciated.

The Articles of Dragon: "Pages from the Mages"

Ed Greenwood catches a lot of grief among a certain segment of the old school community, usually for things for which he was not himself responsible. Perhaps these old schoolers associate his Forgotten Realms campaign setting with 2e and 2e with the regime that ousted Gygax or ... something. It's always been rather unclear to me what crimes against gaming Greenwood was supposed to have committed, especially when my earliest memories of his name are indelibly connected to articles like "Pages from the Mages," which appeared in issue #62 (June 1982).

The article presents four "long-lost magical manuals" -- the tomes of powerful and famous magic-users, each of which is unique in some way. All four books are given a name, a description, and a history in addition to a list of their contents. Every one of these entries made these librams much more interesting than just a simple catalog of, say, the spells they contained or the magical effect they conferred upon their reader. Thus, we learn that the eponymous author of Mhzentul's Runes was slain at the Battle of the River Rising and that Nchaser's Eiyromancia contains not one but two heretofore unknown spells.

Greenwood's articles always impressed me with their feigned depth. That is, they seemed to be part of a rich and complex setting, whose every little nook and cranny had been detailed beforehand so that he could just pluck them from his mind and present them whenever required to do so. As I learned later, this is a parlor trick, one that I learned to perform in time, too, but it doesn't make me any less fond of "Pages from the Mages" or its later sequels. In the span of comparatively little space, Greenwood provided readers with not only some new magical items to insert into their own games but models for how to make almost any magic item a locus of information about a campaign setting and, by extension, an inspiration for adventure.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Clerics of Dwimmermount

Reading the comments to my earlier post about XP requirements, I was fascinated by the discussion of the proposed reasons why clerics might not be very attractive to many players. My fascination is in part based on the fact that I consider clerics to be one of the most potent of all character classes in any edition of Dungeons & Dragons with which I'm familiar. In OD&D, it occupies a kind of middle place between the fighting man and the magic-user, being a tough and skilled melee combatant who's also gifted with (albeit limited) spellcasting ability, not to mention unique power against the undead. Why that wouldn't be more appealing I'm not sure, but then I frequently play clerics.

Some commenters have suggested that the lack of appeal has to do with the perception that clerics are nothing more than "heal-bots," a term borrowed from video games, particularly MMOs. If that's the way clerics are viewed, then I suppose I understand their lack of appeal. In my Dwimmermount campaign, one of the things I tried to stress is that clerics are extraordinary agents of their faiths. They're not priests in the traditional sense and they operate largely outside the hierarchies of their temples. It's a distinction that D&D was very bad at making from the beginning, especially when you look at the level titles used in OD&D and AD&D.

For my campaign, priests (who are a separate, non-adventuring class -- an idea inspired by both Jeff Rients and Rob Conley) handle the day-to-day operation of temples and staff the bureaucracy that support it. Clerics, on the other hand, are special and, for reasons both both obvious and subtle, are sent off into the wider world to act quasi-independently on behalf of their faith. Their level titles (which were inspired in part by Fr Dave's post here) are listed in the Dwimmermount Codex as follows:
I'll grant that this is a small, largely cosmetic change, but it's done wonders in helping to establish the cleric as something other than the guy who stands in the back and heals.

XP Requirements as (Dis)Incentive

Over at Jeff's Gameblog, Mr Rients has a nice post up today about Paul Crabaugh's Dragon article on "Customized Classes." Crabaugh's article presents a system for creating new character classes or modifying existing ones. One wrinkle in the system is that it never once recreates the XP requirements for the standard B/X D&D classes. In every case, trying to build one of the standard classes using the article results in XP requirements that are either less than or greater than those presented in the rulebooks, usually by a significant margin.

Jeff suggests that Crabaugh, rather than proposing a poor system, is in fact using it to critique the standard XP requirements. It's an interesting thesis and I think he's probably on to something. However, I still have a problem with Crabaugh's system and indeed most other build-your-own-character-class systems I've seen. The problem is that the system seems to assume that XP requirements are intended solely (or at least primarily) as a means of balancing the relative power of each class at first level. On this understanding, a thief takes so few XP to reach second level compared to, say, a fighter, because a thief is such a pathetic class at 1st level. Similarly, all the demihuman classes require more XP than their human-only counterparts as a way of compensating for their racial abilities.

I'm not convinced that's the truth of it. If that's the case, then why does the supremely wimpy magic-user require more XP to reach 2nd level than the hardy fighter in standard D&D? Likewise, why does the cleric, which is in many ways a "fighter plus," require less XP to reach 2nd level than either the MU or the fighting man? Crabaugh's system would suggest that the XP requirements in standard D&D are way off base and ought to be corrected by lowering those of the magic-user and increasing those of the cleric. That's a perfectly reasonable approach if you believe the sole/primary purpose of the XP requirements is to introduce some kind of rough balance between the classes.

For my part, I prefer to see the XP requirements play a different role: providing (dis)incentives for playing certain classes. For example, I'm told that, in many campaigns, it's hard to find players willing to take on the role of the cleric. I personally find this baffling, as the cleric is a pretty mighty class, but there it is. Might not the more favorable XP requirements make the class more attractive to some players? Similarly, could not the comparatively high XP requirements of the magic-user be a "warning" of sorts, intended to dissuade those looking for an easy-to-play class?

I should note here that all of the above is pure, undiluted ex post facto rationalization for a bunch of XP benchmarks that were, in all probability, made up without any rhyme or reason, or at least not as much as we might wish. My general feeling is that, in practice, the differences in XP benchmarks don't mean a lot till you're in the mid to high levels anyway. Likewise, I'm pretty dismissive of trying to balance one class against another based on some "objective" calculus, since, especially in an old school game, so much of any character's effectiveness depends heavily on his player and the referee. That's not to say I don't find articles like Crabaugh's interesting and occasionally useful, only that, as I get older, I find I care less and less about the fact that the buff cleric needs 500 XP less than the fighter, while the weakling MU needs 500 more.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Durandal

On the one hand, it's mildly encouraging to ponder that, in 100 years time, some currently fashionable writer I can't stand won't even register with the readers of 2111 (assuming there are any). On the other hand, it's equally disappointing to consider that authors who were highly regarded in the past are often unknown today. A good case in point is Harold Lamb, a multi-lingual American pulp writer with a keen interest in the cultures and histories of Asia.

Over the course of a writing career that spanned a half a century, Lamb wrote many short stories and novels, in addition to working with Cecil B. DeMille as an advisor and screenwriter for several historical films. Lamb's stories usually took place in Asia, often with Asian protagonists from lands as diverse as Mongolia, India, and Aghanistan. This is in addition to his Cossack stories that take place on the Asian steppes in the 16th and 17th centuries, which were among the best known in his lifetime and highly influential on other writers. He also wrote a number of tales set during the Crusades and these, too, were influential, particularly on Robert E. Howard, whose Cormac Fitzgeoffrey stories owe a lot to them.

"Durandal" is an example of one story set during the Crusades. Originally published in the September 26, 1926 issue of Adventure, it introduces the reader to Sir Hugh of Taranto, a Frankish knight fighting against the Turks in support of the Byzantine emperor. While fighting at Antioch, however, the Franks are betrayed by the Byzantines, resulting in a slaughter that leaves only Sir Hugh alive, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious warrior. This warrior not only saves the Frank's life, he also gives to him a sword with which to defend himself -- none other than Durandal, the unbreakable sword of Roland, the paladin who once serve Charlemagne and was himself betrayed by an ally while fighting against Saracens in Spain. Sir Hugh vows to avenge himself and his comrades on the Byzantines, some of whom are pursuing him in an effort to ensure that word of their emperor's treachery is never revealed.

"Durandal" was joined to two other short stories about Sir Hugh, along with new linking material, in a 1931 fix-up novel also called Durandal. Regardless of the version, Lamb is a joy to read. His characters are not caricatures, even the antagonists and his knowledge of and love for history comes through quite clearly. That said, "Durendal," like nearly all of Lamb's stories, is not a product of a cynical age. Instead, it lauds honor, nobility, and courage in the best tradition of heroic literature, making it an excellent "palate cleanser" after a regular diet of more roguish pulp fantasies.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Yesterday's Poll

After over 1300 (!) responses so far, I think the results are pretty clear: close to two-thirds of my regular readers entered the hobby in the first decades of its existence, which more or less corresponds with the era I call "the Golden Age of D&D." That's hardly a surprise given the focus of this blog, but it is interesting that the results I've gotten so far mirror those from an earlier poll on ENWorld from 2006, as pointed out by Delta.

It's interesting because ENWorld in 2006 was the center of the online D&D III universe. If you hung out there back then, chances are you liked and played 3e. Fourth edition hadn't been announced yet and the old school renaissance barely existed. Yet, even there, the vast majority (60.36%) of those who participated in the poll entered the hobby by 1984. Again, the results there are hardly scientific, but I don't think it's untrue to say that ENWorld's audience and mine aren't identical, even if there's undoubtedly overlap. Yet, the results of the two polls are fairly similar nonetheless.

What that suggests to me is two things. Firstly, D&D's status as the 800-lb. gorilla of the hobby was probably the result of a non-replicable fad. Barring some completely unforeseen turn of events, tabletop roleplaying is never again going to be as popular as it was in the first decade of its existence (and especially between the years 1979 and 1984). Secondly, the success of 3e was in large part driven by older gamers returning to the hobby after a long absence, not by the creation of hordes of new gamers. That's not to deny either the incredible feat that WotC accomplished in 2000 or that there were new gamers created in the wake of 3e. However, I think both those things tend to get exaggerated by gamers still running on the warm fuzzies Peter Adkison generated by saving Dungeons & Dragons from oblivion after the near-death of TSR in the late '90s.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Open Friday: When Did You Enter the Hobby?

Partially as an experiment and partially out of genuine interest, I'm making this week's Open Friday post a poll (which I hope I configured properly below): when did you enter the hobby? Feel free to use the comments to provide additional context or detail to your vote, if you wish, but what I'm curious about is the overall temporal skew of the regular readers of this blog.

Update: I realize it's still very early, but, so far, the poll is skewing almost exactly the way I expected it would, particularly the huge surge in the 1980-1984 period. The only thing I didn't that strikes me as odd is that the 1990-1994 period has more votes than the 1985-1989 period, though, in retrospect, I can easily see why. But it's still early, so things could change.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thinkin' 'bout Dwimmermount

I'm waiting on a single piece of art for the first part of the Dwimmermount Codex that I've been showing off over the last couple of weeks. Once I have it, I can make the final tweaks to the text and layout and then send it off to for sale. In the meantime, I've also been working on the second part -- Monsters & Treasures -- and that's coming along nicely, too. And since deciding that doing things myself is probably the fastest way to get it done to my satisfaction, the months-long logjam on Petty Gods has also broken. I'll have more to say about that unduly delayed project over the weekend, but suffice it to say that there will be an early Christmas present waiting for old school fans this year. There's also Thousand Suns, too, and I'll have more to say about that once it's ready for sale.

I've also been giving a lot of thought to the publication of the Dwimmermount megadungeon. It's something I very much want to do and, judging from the comments and emails I get regularly, it's something a lot of people want to see. So, it's not so much a question of if or even when so much as how. I mean, the dungeon is done. I have all my notes and maps and other write-ups. Turning that stuff into something others can use is the issue. For example, I'm a terrible mapper, as I've admitted many times before. To produce a Dwimmermount project, I'll need to pay someone to do the cartography for me and good cartography costs money. Likewise, I'd like to include artwork, both for purely esthetic reasons and also to illustrate some of the more interesting sites in the megadungeon. That, too, requires money to hire people with skills I lack in abundance.

Ultimately, money is the biggest hurdle. Unlike Petty Gods, which was never conceived as a for-profit project, the Dwimmermount megadungeon product would be for sale. If I'm going to ask others to pay for what I've written, it goes without saying that I'd, in turn, pay those who lent their talents to assist me in bringing the megadungeon to print. And, having been a freelance writer in the RPG biz in the past, I know all too well how poorly it treats creatives, especially artists. I don't want to contribute to that sad history, which is why Dwimmermount will likely need to wait till I've accumulated a bit of cash through the sale of stuff I can produce on my own.

On the plus side, I have a very clear idea of how I plan to present the megadungeon. My model is Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown -- all the rooms in the dungeon are described, but there's also a high degree of customizability, allowing each referee to place whatever monsters and treasures he wishes into many of the room. This, coupled with the ability to expand the maps through the use of geomorphs and self-contained sub-levels, would turn Dwimmermount at least partially into a "design your own megadungeon kit." But, as I said, I'll need a lot of maps to do this right and I can't map to save my life. The other neat part of what I have in mind is the inclusion of integral sandboxes for the worlds of Areon, Kythirea, and Ioun, since there are active portals to all three of these worlds on Level 3A. Those worlds have generated a lot of interest in Dwimmermount over the last couple of years, so their inclusion seems a no-brainer to me.

That's where things stand at the moment. In between my other work, I've been transferring my notes into legible formats and trying to get a sense of how many maps and how much art I'd like to have for this Dwimmermount product. Then I can start to assess how much it'd all cost to produce in the manner I'd like. I suspect it'll be enough that completing it will be a long-term goal -- that is unless one or more of my regular readers is a millionaire with money to burn. A guy can dream, right?

That Old School Religion

Recent days have seen quite a few posts on various blogs that I read discussing the potentially contentious issue of the relationship between Christianity and Dungeons & Dragons. I don't have a lot to add to those discussions, in part because I actually already wrote about this topic a long time ago and also because I think Stuart Robertson has already spoken what I think is the real truth of the matter: D&D is "a cultural Borg ... that rolled around borrowing from just about every source it encountered." Understood this way, D&D's Christian elements aren't much more deep (or shallow, depending on one's point of view) than those of any other religion or belief system from which the game borrowed.

The main thing about this topic that I'd say remains of interest to me is that, in the late '80s, when TSR whitewashed D&D in an effort to avoid criticism from some quarters, it was, in some ways, simply extending Gygax's own belief that there were topics he considered inappropriate for inclusion in a mere roleplaying game. Consider that, despite the inclusion of lots of devils and demons in the game, there were never any official stats for Lucifer/Satan. Likewise, when Gary felt the need to balance out the minions of cosmic evil with minions of cosmic good, he didn't call them "angels" but rather "devas," "planetars," and "solars." And, while there are crosses aplenty, there are never any crucifixes. Granted, the motivations behind what Gygax did and what TSR later were quite different but the effect was largely the same: to keep the game's Christian element largely superficial.

None of this is intended to deny that there are undeniably Christian elements in D&D, but I don't think those elements bring with them many doctrinal/theological assumptions -- or at least not many more than, say, the horn of Valhalla or rakshasas do for Norse paganism or Hinduism. And I've never had any problem with that.

The Articles of Dragon: "Without any weapons ..."

There's a certain machismo that goes with playing 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Players try to outdo one another in boasting about which of the game's arcane sub-systems they used by the book when lesser men cribbed from Moldvay. Armor class adjustments? Speed factors? Material components? Segments? Psionics? The benefits of wearing a helmet? I've known many AD&Ders who did indeed crow about their having used these sub-systems without modification. Heck, I've used them all at various times. But the one sub-system I almost never see anyone boast of having used as presented was unarmed combat.

AD&D's unarmed combat rules, with its distinctions between grappling, pummeling, and overbearing were a source of continued vexation to me as a younger man. I longed to have simple, workable rules to handle the inevitable barroom brawls that would break out in the course of a campaign and yet I couldn't make heads or tails of the rules in the DMG. I mostly wound up using the standard combat system and improvising the effects of bare-knuckled punches and the like -- that is, until I read Phil Meyers's "Without any weapons ..." in issue #61 (May 1982) of Dragon.

I really liked Meyers's rules, which were intended to be easy to use and abstract, just like melee combat in D&D. They were certainly a lot easier to use than those in the Dungeon Masters Guide at any rate! I used to keep a photocopy of the rules folded up inside my DM's Screen (along with critical hit tables from another issue of Dragon) and used them often in play. In retrospect, Meyers's rules are still fairly complex, especially when compared to later alternatives; they were just simpler than the official rules -- and made more sense to boot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Black Destroyer

Earlier in the week, I spoke glowingly about what a great gift to the old school community the D20 SRD is and I mean that. Of course, the SRD's not a perfect document; there are some oddities in its contents. Many classic AD&D monsters, like the mind flayer, the beholder, and the carrion crawler, were omitted and, while that's annoying, it's also understandable, since these are all original to the game.

Also among the monsters the SRD did not include was the displacer beast, pictured to the right in an illustration by Dave Trampier. Though it could be argued that the displacer beast is strongly associated with Dungeons & Dragons, it certainly cannot be argued that it is original to it. As any science fiction fan worthy of the name could tell you, the "displacer beast" is just a rip-off of the coeurl, which first appeared in A.E. van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer" and later incorporated into the 1950 fix-up novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which is where I first encountered the creature.

Because the SRD lacks a displacer beast, retro-clone publishers have had to make up their own versions, like Labyrinth Lord's phase tiger, to fill the void. Amusingly (but unsurprisingly), Paizo decided to circumvent the whole problem by going straight to the source and getting permission to include the coeurl itself in Part 4 their Legacy of Fire adventure path. There's a note of thanks to the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency, which represents the Van Vogt Estate, as well as explicit mentions of the stories in which the coeurl appeared, in that volume of Pathfinder.

Even though I have less than zero interest in playing the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, when I hear about stuff like this, it's hard not to admire the guys and gals at Paizo. They not only know but honor the literary heritage of Dungeons & Dragons. Their love for pulp fantasy and science fiction is palpable. Would that it were more widespread.

Continuing Today's Art Theme ...

... here's a link to the always-interesting blog, Monster Brains, whose post today includes some very high-quality scans of pages from the The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, illustrated by famed underground comics artist Greg Irons. I've talked about the Coloring Album before but the accompanying images were usually small and only a portion of the page from which they came. The post linked above presents the artwork in its full glory and it really is something to behold, if you've never seen it before.

Thanks to Jason Juta for the pointer.

"Lost" Tramp Artwork

It's always fun to come across a piece of old school art you've never seen before, especially when it's by an artist like Dave Trampier. Not long ago, I was given a collection of old issues of Polyhedron, whose issue #5 (April 1982) includes the following illustration:
Has anyone else ever seen this before? Obviously, it's an homage/parody of Dave Sutherland's famous cover to module B1, In Search of the Unknown, but I have to wonder about why it was drawn and when. One of the things I find most interesting about this piece is how much the three figures remind me of some of the characters from the Wormy strips. Of course, it's also a reminder of just how sad it is that Tramp left the industry -- and art -- for good.

Retrospective: Psi World

I have a very strange relationship with roleplaying game published by FGU. I rarely actually played them -- and when I did, I generally found them far less satisfying than I had hoped they would be -- but I was always interested in them. I'm not entirely sure I can explain why. Were I to guess, I'd say it was because FGU games always gave the impression of being "serious." By that I only mean that they knew what they were about and made no excuses. They didn't pander to the lowest common denominator and they certainly didn't try to appeal to kids. When I first entered the hobby, such things were important to me, however superficial they might appear in retrospect.

A good case in point is Psi World, which came out in 1984. Subtitled the "Role Playing Game of Psionic Powers," Psi World was written by Del and Cheron Carr and "takes place in our world, the Earth, in the not too distant future." It postulates that sometime in the next 10 to 50 years, a minority of the world's population manifests psionic abilities and whose existence has thrown society into turmoil. The game assumes either that the psionically gifted are hated and oppressed by the government or that the psionically gifted are attempting to use their powers to manipulate society to their own ends -- or something in between.

The game thus seems to have been intended as a platform for exploring a number of social and political issues -- exactly the kind of "serious" subject matter I associated with FGU back in those days. Of course, Psi World contains next to no guidance to the referee on how to use these issues to generate adventures. The bulk of the game's short rulebook is devoted character generation, combat, and psionics. Its world building chapter is a joke, devoting the bulk of its scant pages to sample prices for goods and services. The sample adventure included in the boxed set does little to rectify this oversight, concentrating as it does on fairly low-key events that don't provide much more meat for the referee (or players) to chew on.

Needless to say, this was a huge disappointment to me. I very much like the idea of a game focusing not just on psionic powers but on the various "What if?" scenarios that might arise in the face of their appearance. Unfortunately, Psi World isn't that game. Instead, it's a pretty bland skill-based FGU game that offers little that I couldn't cobble together myself from games I already own. That was even the case in 1984, when I was a lot less experienced at kit-bashing rules and there were a lot fewer rulesets from which to choose. Looking back, I find myself wondering why Psi World was published, since it offers very little that's original or distinctive. Even its psionics rules, which ought to be the game's crown jewels, aren't particularly noteworthy, which may be Psi World's greatest disappointment.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Growing up as I did in the ancient days before either home video or cable TV were ubiquitous, my first encounters with cinematic sci-fi was watching old films on Saturday afternoons. A lot of these films weren't particularly good, but many of them, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet to mention just two, were and they played an incalculable role in forming my imagination. Even now, more than three decades later, the influence of those SF movies remains powerful, such as my fondness for the theremin.

The theremin, in case you've never heard the word before, is an electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by the Russian inventor Lev Termen, known in the West as Léon Theremin, after whom the instrument is named. Here's a video of the man himself demonstrating its use:

During the 1950s, the theremin was used a great deal -- some would say overused -- in science fiction films, which is why I so strongly associate its distinctive sound with the genre. It definitely has an otherworldly quality to it that conjures up alien vistas for me. I understand that to many other people, the theremin sound represents cheesy sci-fi and so they abominate its use. I can understand that. Watch enough Ed Wood-level schlock and there's a good chance you'll hate the theremin, too. Not me, though. In fact, I'd like to hear it used more often.

(As an aside, it's worth mentioning that the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet did not make use of the theremin. Instead, composers Louis and Bebe Barron made that movie's music completely electronically, which is to say, without the use any instruments beyond electronic circuits, whose noises they then manipulated by playing them backward and forward and otherwise modulating them to produce the desired sounds. Considering that they did this nearly a decade before the invention of the first synthesizer, it's a pretty impressive accomplishment.)

The Articles of Dragon: "The Jester"

"NPC classes" were a staple of Dragon during the years I read it regularly. I put the words in scare quotes, because I assumed then, as I do now, that the claim that these classes were intended "for NPCs only" was made with a nod and a wink. During the first few years after I entered the hobby, it was hardly unusual to run into guys who played ninjas or duelists or time lords, even though not one of these classes was recommended for use as player characters. I'm pretty sure I allowed a ninja in one of my old campaigns and I was probably guilty of allowing some others as well, but, by and large, my players were never long interested in any of these novelty NPC classes to play them for very long.

That goes double for the jester, which was introduced in issue #60 (April 1982) in an article by Roger E. Moore. I mean, it's easy to see the appeal of a ninja -- especially back in the early '80s, when they were everywhere -- but the jester? What's the appeal there? Perhaps I'm simply humorless and unimaginative but I have a hard time imagining either an adventuring jester or a need for a NPC class based around juggling, tumbling, and minor spellcasting. For what it's worth, neither did my players back in the day, though one player did threaten to create a gnome jester ...

Nowadays, I've softened my stance considerably regarding variant character classes, whether intended for PCs or NPCs. I don't personally see a lot of need for many of them, but then I know lots of people in the old school world who don't see a need for any classes beyond fighting man, magic-user, and cleric, so there's room for disagreement on this score. I'll also admit that something I do like about the notion of NPC classes: that non-player characters don't necessarily have to follow the same rules as player characters. That's something more referees need to keep in mind, I think.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Old Dragon Day

The Brazilian old school game, Old Dragon, about which I've spoken before, is marking the one-year anniversary of its publication on November 5, 2011. To celebrate, there will be games being played all across Brazil. To participate, whether as a player or as a referee, visit this website and register.

Though I (obviously) won't be able to participate in this, I'm very pleased to see events like this. If nothing else, it's a reminder that the old school renaissance knows no borders.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Eaters of the Dead

Eaters of the Dead is a short -- less than 300 pages -- novel by Michael Crichton, published in 1976. Subtitled "The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922," it's not technically a fantasy, at least not in the sense of including magic and (non-human) monsters. I suppose it could be rightfully called a historical fantasy, since the events it depicts not only didn't occur in the history of our world, they're also not likely to have been able to occur -- unless our understanding of the world is very mistaken. On the other hand, Crichton is very good at presenting unlikelihoods in a plausible way to make for entertaining stories and Eaters of the Dead is very entertaining.

As its subtitle suggests, the novel presents itself as if it were a translation of an actual medieval text that preserves details of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's journeys amongst "the Northmen," which is to say, the Vikings. These Vikings kidnap him while he is part of an embassy between the Caliph of Baghdad and the king of the Bulgars and it's this event that provides the frame for most of the novel. Crichton carefully maintains the pose that all he is doing is presenting a real historical text by providing footnotes and occasional editorial commentary to explain details missing from the original source material. In addition, Eaters of the Dead doesn't read like a contemporary novel; it's much more akin to a classical or medieval travelog, like The Histories of Herodotus or The Travels of Marco Polo. There is a narrative in the novel, but it's a meandering one that spends a lot of time discussing the customs of the alien peoples Ibn Fadlan meets on his journeys.

Of course, Crichton's ruse is helped by the fact that there really was an Ahmad ibn Fadlan and he did journey far north of his homeland, though not as far as he is depicted as having done in the novel. Likewise -- and this is where the novel takes a turn into pulp fantasy -- the heroic quest on which Ibn Fadlan finds himself is nowhere to be found in recorded history. While he is among the Vikings, their leader Buliwyf learns that an ancient foe has reappeared and threatens his father's kingdom. Furthermore, an oracle tells Buliwyf what must be done.
Then into the hall entered the old crone called the angel of death, and she sat beside Buliwyf. From a hide bag she withdrew some bones -- whether human or animal I do not know -- and these bones she cast upon the ground, speaking low utterances, and she passed her hand over them.

The bones were gathered up, and cast again, and the process repeated with more incantations. Now again was the casting done, and finally she spoke to Buliwyf.

I asked the interpreter the meaning of her speech, but he did not attend me.

Then Buliwyf stood and raised his cup of strong drink, and called to the assembled earls and warriors, making a speech of some good length. One by one, several warriors stood at their places to face him. Not all stood; I counted eleven, and Buliwyf pronounced himself satisfied with this.

Now also I saw that Thorkel appeared much pleased by the proceedings and assumed a more kingly bearing, while Buliwyf paid him no heed, or showed any hatred of him, or even any interest, although they were formerly enemies a few minutes past.

Then the angel of death, this same crone, pointed to me and made some utterance, and then she departed the hall. Now at last my interpreter spoke, and he said: "Buliwyf is called by the gods to leave this place and swiftly, putting behind him all his cares and concerns, to act as a hero to repel the menace of the North. This is fitting, and he must also take eleven warriors with him. And so, also, must he take you."

I said that I was on a mission to the Bulgars, and must follow the instructions of my Caliph, with no delay.

"The angel of death has spoken," my interpreter said. "The party of Buliwyf must be thirteen, and of these one must be no Northman, and so you shall be the thirteenth."

I protested I was not a warrior. Verily I made all the excuses and pleadings that I could imagine might have effect upon this rude company of beings. I demanded that the interpreter convey my words to Buliwyf, and yet he turned away and left the hall, saying this last speech: "Prepare yourself as you think best. You shall leave on the morning light."
What follows after this is the true story of Eaters of the Dead and, as I said, it's an enjoyable one, at least I found it so. Without spoiling the novel, I'll say only that what Crichton offers up is a retelling of a classic fantasy story of Western literature but disguised and rooted in history. Naturally, there are a lot of flaws in his effort, not least being that the story classic story on which Eaters of the Dead is based was likely written before the events of the novel take place, though there is enough scholarly disagreement about it that Crichton can make his case nonetheless. Regardless of its real world accuracy, it's a fun book and one that could easily inspire plenty of roleplaying adventures.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Worth Remembering

In working on the second volume of the Dwimmermount Codex, I often found myself poking around in the D&D III SRD, since there are some monsters and magic items in it that don't appear in other retro-clone products (at least so far as I am aware). What I discovered -- or, rather, was reminded of -- was just how much of the DNA of OD&D and AD&D made it into 3e. I'm not just talking about the ideas of those earlier editions; I'm also talking about the actual words used to present those ideas. For example, fireball is described as "detonat[ing] with a low roar," which is exactly how Gygax described it in the Players Handbook. I could cite dozens of other examples just like that.

Stuff like this is why, for all my many problems with 3e, I'm still grateful for the role it -- and the SRD/OGL combo -- played in preserving and transmitting the ideas and words of previous editions, for which every one of us involved in the old school community should be grateful. Were there not a strong family resemblance between D&D III and the TSR editions we all love, the creation of the retro-clones would have been that much harder to accomplish, perhaps even impossible. We've been given an amazing gift, one that only seems more amazing as the years wear on.


Looks like my monitor has decided to die on me, so at least some portion of today will be spent trying to find a cheap but reliable replacement. Such fun.

The Goblinoids of Dwimmermount

With the first volume of the Dwimmermount Codex nearing completion, I've been turning my attention to the second volume, Monsters & Treasures. Yesterday, I got my first piece of art from it (from Kelvin Green) and it perfectly captures the distinct appearances and personalities of the goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears of my Dwimmermount campaign. Enjoy!
©2011 Kelvin Green

Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Man's Nostalgia

By now, I'm pretty sure everyone in the old school community is very much aware of Goodman Games's upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, which is currently in open playtest and is on schedule for a February 2012 release. I haven't paying as close attention to the playtest as I'd intended to, in part because I've got my own projects to work on. But another part of my inattention is that, while there's a lot I do like about the DCC RPG, there's also a lot I don't and, perhaps more importantly, I'm not really in the market for another fantasy roleplaying game right now. So, I keep half an eye on DCC RPG's development, checking in every now and again to see how things are unfolding.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the game line's development are the upcoming adventure modules to support it. Take a look at the covers of a couple of them:
Those are both really awesome, right? They scream pulp fantasy in a way that adventure module covers haven't since I first entered the hobby. That they're reminiscent of the covers of both Weird Tales magazines and 1970s paperback novels, without being apes of either, is also a point in their favor. For me, they hit that sweet spot between nostalgic evocation and unique vision.

On the other hand, this does nothing for me. Indeed, it almost looks like a parody cover.
It looks like a crossover between Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser -- and while that's probably awesome in some people's eyes, I find it silly. Of course, even sillier in my opinion is another DCC adventure module:
Now, winged apes are cool and, of course, Michael Curtis is even cooler, but basing an adventure off Tramp's iconic DMG illustration? That's not so cool. I find myself uncomfortably reminded of some of those HackMaster adventures of old, the ones that turned me off them to such a degree that I never bothered to give the game a fair shake. That's what Emirikol Was Framed! does for to me: it turns me off DCC RPG and it's not even out yet.

I'm just one guy, of course. I'm sure many other old schoolers looked at those second two covers and pumped their fists in enthusiasm. They looked at them and found them as delightfully evocative as I found the first two. Nostalgia, just like esthetics, is a funny thing; one man's "delightfully evocative" is another man's "Hell, no!" I bring this up not as a criticism of DCC RPG at all. Despite my own qualms, I'm actually glad that Goodman Games has decided to forge ahead with a game that looks like it's the product of a clear and idiosyncratic vision of fantasy. It's hard not to applaud that, even when it's not wholly something I would have done -- but then, that's part of the point.

A Hargravian Oddity

I'm not an uncritical admirer of Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire series. There's a lot of creativity in the pages of these books, but also a lot of nonsense. Despite that, I find myself regularly re-reading them, because, like the LBBs, I regularly find new things in them that I'd either not noticed before or that I had noticed and somehow had forgotten. Last night, when I was paging through the "General Notes on Monsters, Combat and the Like" from the original Arduin Grimoire, I came across this odd little note:
6. All fireballs and other offensive area effect weapons, have their damage points divided among all of those that are caught inside its limits. That means that if there are 4 people caught in a 6 dice fireball that does 20 points of damage on the dice roll, then each of the four takes 5 points of damage if they fail their saving throw, and 3 points (2-1/2 rounded up) if they make their save, NOT 20 point [sic] each!!!
Among old schoolers, Arduin has a reputation for being both gonzo and deadly, so I was bit surprised to read the passage above, because it severely weakens the power of spells like fire ball. It's also an interpretation of area effect damage in D&D that I don't think I ever encountered back in the day. That's not surprising, since I didn't start playing till late 1979, by which point AD&D had been released and this issue, among others, had been definitively clarified. But back in '77, using only the LBBs, Hargrave's interpretation wasn't implausible (though examination of Chainmail would have shed further light on the matter).

I won't be adopting Hargrave's interpretation in my own campaign, but I like reading about rules variants like this. One of the great things about OD&D is the way that it unintentionally demands judgment calls and interpretations to make it playable. And Arduin, for all the things about it I dislike, is nevertheless a terrific example of one referee's "deciding how [he] would like it to be, and then mak[ing] it just that way!" 

Table of Contents

As a further preview of the nearly finished first volume of the Dwimmermount Codex, here's the table of contents.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Open Friday: Fear and Horror

It being October, my thoughts naturally turn to horror and fear. Mind you, I'm a big fan of horror and suspense movies, so it's not unusual for me to be thinking about such things. Of course, I'm also (obviously) a fan of roleplaying games. What I've concluded is that, unfortunately, RPGs aren't a very good -- or, at least, very reliable -- medium through which evoke feelings of horror and fear (or, indeed, any particular emotion). That's not to say that it's impossible to have a creepy or edge-of-your-seat gaming session, but there's no way to ensure this.

In truth, that doesn't bother me at all. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the quest for genre emulation is one of the great banes of our hobby, so the fact that no RPG can guarantee an emotional response of any type isn't a cause of concern. But there have been times when I have played or refereed RPG sessions that did elicit feelings of horror or fear from the participants. Such times are easily replicable; they can't be reduced to a formula, let alone a set of mechanics.

So, for today's question: have you ever had a game session that was memorably frightening or horrific and, if so, was there anything you or your fellow players did that contributed to this feeling? Or was it just one of those things that happened without any real explanation?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Cantrips: Minor Magics for Would-Be Wizards"

The appearance of a new article by Gary Gygax was always a special treat for me. Back in March 1982, when issue #59 of Dragon was published, I was still very much enthralled by the idea that Gary's word was law when it came to Dungeons & Dragons. Needless to say, I ate up articles like "Cantrips: Minor Magics for Would-Be Wizards" and dutifully incorporated them into my campaign -- or, rather, I tried to.

The problem was that, much as I liked the idea of 0-level spells, they simply never caught on with any of my players. And, really, who can blame them? Even at an exchange rate of four cantrips per 1st-level spell, they aren't particularly attractive, at least not to an adventuring magic-user. I honestly can't recall a single time that a player ever made use of a cantrip. For that matter, I don't think I ever made use of them for NPCs either.

Looking back on it now, I recognize a couple of things. First, I think Gary came up with cantrips because they were a natural outgrowth of his world-building. That is, he'd given a lot of thought to what a magical society would be like and the existence of minor spells to teach neophyte magicians seemed perfectly logical. Second, I think Gary had tired of dungeons and much of his thinking was occupied with the world outside them. If you look at his output from at least 1981 on, what you see are rules expansions and elaborations that make more sense if one imagines a campaign where dungeons are, at best, a sideshow compared to other adventuring activities. In such contexts, cantrips might have a place.

This specific article didn't undermine my devotion to Gary Gygax; as I said, I liked it a great deal. But it was one of the first times where something Gygax wrote went over like a lead balloon in my gaming group and that was significant. For that reason alone, this article was a significant one for me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Historical Armor

The other day I was browsing the website of the Sierra Toy Soldier Company, specifically its Medieval Knights Collection. Their products are much too expensive to even consider buying, but they're nice eye candy. They've got a very wide selection of stuff and I found myself wasting way more time just staring at its images than I ought to have done.  Plus, how can anyone not waste time on a website that includes 54mm miniatures of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Jacques de Molay at the stake?

Anyway, the website reminded me of just how much I like the look of historical armor. It's one of the things I like most about David Sutherland's early D&D artwork: his fighting men and clerics are usually wearing armor that, while it probably wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny by medievalists, is nevertheless close enough for my purposes. There's a "groundedness" to this sort of armor that I actually think helps to heighten the fantasy elements of the game, something that I think has been missing in it since the 2e era at least.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mark Allen is doing a historically-armored fighting man for me in an illustration that will accompany my first Dwimmermount release ...

Retrospective: Shadowlord!

My post last Friday about Dragonmaster elicited some commentary that reminded me of another fantasy-themed game I used to enjoy as a younger man: Shadowlord! Shadowlord! was a Parker Brothers boardgame published in 1983 intended for 2-4 players. It was took place in a weird fantasy/sci-fi amalgam setting once ruled over by the benevolent Starmaster, whose power to move planets and create starships from dust was contained within a mystical Power Stone. The Starmaster hoped, upon his death, that one of his four children, the Masters of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, would take up his mantle and use the Power Stone to continue to rule the universe wisely. Unfortunately, when the Starmaster finally did die, it was not one of his children but the evil Shadowlord who seized the Power Stone, which he used to rule as a nigh-omnipotent tyrant.

It's an interesting set-up for a game, in which each of the players takes the role of one of the four Element Masters and attempts to wrest the Power Stone from the Shadowlord and hold it long enough to win the game. As they attempt to do so, players recruit followers -- warriors, merchants, diplomats -- each of which has not only a special ability based on their class but also a card with a name and illustration. Again, it's easy to see why I had such a fondness for this game: it had a lot of great components, including the first use of non-standard dice outside of an RPG that I can recall. Shadowlord! used d8s for its resolution mechanics.

Ultimately, though, what I remember most about Shadowlord! is the way that it unabashedly mixed wizards and spaceships with reckless abandon. Back in 1983, this was a novel concept to me. Back then, people often used the term "science fantasy" or "space fantasy," but that was usually in reference to something like Star Wars, which was for all intents and purposes science fiction, merely of a very non-rigorous sort. Seeing characters dressed like wizards or elves and flying around in spaceships was something else entirely. Or at least it was to me, but then it was long ago established that I have a limited imagination.

It's been years since I looked at Shadowlord! let alone played it. I played it a lot back when I first got my copy and enjoyed it. It'd be interesting to play it again someday and see if it still holds up after all these years.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Lust ... Rising

It's not for nothing that S.T. Joshi's H.P. Lovecraft: A Life is lauded as a great biography of the Old Gent. I've read the thing from cover to cover several times (this summer being the most recent time) and I always find something new and insightful in its pages. I really can't say enough good things about it. So, when I discovered that Joshi had written a second biography of HPL -- and a two-volume one at that -- I was dumbstruck.

I Am Providence was apparently published last year and I had no idea. That's probably a good thing, since I would have been awfully tempted to buy it. Still, at $100, it's a bit pricey for me, especially when I already have his earlier biography. On the other hand, biblio- and Lovecraft-ophile that I am, it's so very enticing. And my birthday is coming up too ... Damn.

Naming Your Campaign

I was chatting with Victor Raymond the other night and he noted how common it used to be to name one's campaign. You didn't ask your friends, "Hey, you want to go over to Bob's place and play D&D tonight?",  you said, "Hey, you want to go over to Bob's place and play in his Everwhen campaign tonight?" When I was younger, I remember the older guys used to talk this way and so it was something I consciously imitated. It made sense, too, since I'd always read about Gary Gygax's "Greyhawk campaign" and, much later, Ed Greenwood used to speak of "Forgotten Realms campaign" in the pages of Dragon. Plus, gamers were always saying stuff like, "In my Emaindor campaign, I don't allow Neutral-aligned clerics" or "In my Dark Realms campaign, I allow half-elves to take up any class."

Until Victor reminded me of this, I'd forgotten about this phenomenon, even thought I've actually talked about it before, if only obliquely. My gut instinct is that naming one's campaign is a way of clearly establishing it as its own unique thing. Sure, the referee may use the D&D rules, but those rules are subservient to the campaign itself, as imagined by the referee. So, if the referee doesn't like demihuman level limits or wants to introduce level 10 spells for magic-users, he does so and no one gives it much thought, because this is his campaign. I'm always gladdened when I see this tradition of old continued today. It's a small thing perhaps, but I like the practice of naming one's campaign and all that it implies.

The Articles of Dragon: "A Special Section: Dwarves"

For issue #58 (February 1982) of Dragon, I'm going to cheat a little -- well, a lot -- by focusing on not just one but four different articles. I think it's justified, though, because the articles cover closely related topics and three of them were written by a single author, the inestimable Roger E. Moore, in those days not yet the editor-in-chief of Dragon. "A Special Section: Dwarves" is also an important collection of articles, one that, in my opinion, marks a turning point in the history of D&D. Indeed, it's a collection that makes me wonder if perhaps the Silver Age didn't begin sooner than I have suggested in the past, for these articles were extremely influential and ushered in not just explicit follow-ups by Moore himself, but also a growing codification of not just D&D's non-human races but many other aspects of its fictional milieu.

The first of the four articles is "The Dwarven Point of View," which presented a psychology of the dwarves, explaining aspects of their thoughts process and, by extension, the society and culture that arose from them. "Bazaar of the Bizarre" featured two new (and forgettable) dwarven magic items, while "Sage Advice" answers a battery of increasingly nitpicky questions about dwarves. "The Gods of the Dwarves" is probably the most well-known of the four dwarf articles in issue #58, if only because it was officially canonized by Gary Gygax, who included it in his 1985 Unearthed Arcana expansion to AD&D. I'll also never forget "The Gods of the Dwarves" because it included an illustration depicting Berronar, the dwarven goddess of safety, truth, and home, with a beard:
I've long had a fondness for this piece of artwork, both because I relentlessly used it to bludgeon those who denied that female dwarves had beards (in contravention of both Tolkien and Gygax -- so you know it had to be true!) and to emphasize that dwarves weren't just short, stocky humans. They were, effectively, an alien race and to expect them to conform to human ways was absurd, not to mention demonstrating a severe lack of imagination.

When this quartet of articles was released, I adored them and made every effort to incorporate as much of them into my ongoing campaign as I could. Nowadays, I have much more mixed feelings about them, chiefly because they, almost certainly unintentionally, became the fount from which subsequent discussion of dwarves flowed. That is, later writers -- and even TSR itself -- treated Moore's ideas as normative, the result being that, as the '80s wore on, the portrayal of dwarves in D&D became less diverse. At the time, I didn't care; indeed, I was very happy with "official" information on dwarves and all the demihuman races, because I wanted my campaign to conform to the conceptions of my betters in the hobby. In retrospect, though, I feel less happy with these articles and wish their influence had been more limited.