Monday, April 30, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cup of Golden Death

The seventh installment of Gardner Fox's series about Niall of the Far Travels appeared in issue #38 of Dragon (June 1980), in a short story called "The Cup of Golden Death." As with so many of its predecessors, this one begins in medias res, just as Niall, still in the employ of King Lurlyr Manakor of Urgrik, and traveling with Maralia, high priestess of the god Humalorr, uncovers a cup buried in the ground.
His huge hand went out to the sand, brushed more avidly at it. The tiny grains flew away, disclosing a rounded bit of metal. The breath came short and fast now to his lungs; excitement was awash inside him.

"Maralia!"” he bellowed.

A girl came running across the flat moorland, her red hair glinting in the sunlight. She wore a thin, short skirt and a vest, and little more. The vest was held together by silver chains, and it was decorated with silver thread that bespoke her rank as high priestess of the god-being, Humalorr.

She fell to her knees beside him, her eyes hungry at the sight of that which he had partially uncovered. Her tongue came out to moisten her ripe, red lips.

"“Have you found it? Is it the—cup of the god?”"

Niall grunted. "“Who knows? I’'d stake my life on the fact that it’s a ceremonial cup of some kind, but whether it belongs to your god or not, you yourself have to decide.”"
Niall seeks the cup, because of its rumored ability to heal any ailment. His master, Lurlyr Manakor, "lay in a deathlike trance" of unknown origin and would surely die without its aid, or so claimed the king's physician, who'd tried every other remedy at his disposal but to no avail. Of course, like all pulp fantasy barbarians, Niall distrusts magic of any kind and believes the cup to be a bane rather a boon. Nevertheless, he does as he is commanded, keeping his eyes open for evidence of treachery.

And a good thing, too! Maralia has other plans for the cup, owing to the plans of her master, the high priest of Humalorr.
Yet she was sworn to do what had been whispered into her ears by the high priest short days ago, when they had been last in Urgrik. Niall was to go with her to the moors of Lurydia. There they were to find the ancient cup which once had been used by the wizard. Yellixin, in the ancient days when there had been a citadel standing where they now knelt.

After that— --
Maralia swallowed. She was to kill Niall and bring the cup back to the high priest, to Aldon Hurazin himself. And Aldon Hurazin would hide the cup so that it might not be used to save the life of Lurlyr Manakor.
From this conflict between Niall and Maralia -- or, rather, her superior, the high priest Aldon Hurazin -- regarding the cup does the whole of this story flow. It's a very good story, in my opinion, both for the relative complexity of its plot and for the picture it paints of the nature of magic and the gods in Niall's world. Naturally, one should not expect philosophical depth or profundity from a pulp fantasy such as this one, but Fox nevertheless manages to elevate this tale above mere swordplay and spell slinging. I think "The Cup of Golden Death" is one of the best stories in the series for sheer entertainment value, as well as the way it continues to raise the stakes in the unfolding saga of Niall's adventures.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Chainmail Dragons

If anyone out there has access to first edition (1971) of Chainmail, published by Guidon Games, I have a question for you: is the information on the various colors of dragons and their powers included in the Fantasy Supplement? The third edition copy I have (1975) includes those details, but, since it postdates the release of OD&D, it's clearly not reliable evidence that Chainmail is in fact the source for D&D's dragon types.


I wanted to quickly draw everyone's attention to the Old School Fantasy Miniatures Amateur Press Alliance, the first issue of whose journal I recently received in the mail and have been enjoying immensely. OSFMAPA is, as its name suggests, a group of enthusiastic fans of "pre-slotta" (i.e. without plastic bases) miniatures from the 1970s and 1980s. These are the miniatures I remember from my introduction to the hobby and the ones I still associate with old school gaming. Their Journal, which appears three times a year, includes a wide variety of articles about such miniatures, along with plenty of images of them. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing many of the Grenadier and Ral Partha minis I owned as a younger person.

OSFMAPA also maintains a blog here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Terminological Oddities

One of the many fascinating things about reading early RPGs is discovering peculiarities in their vocabularies. For example, lots of people have commented on the use of the word "throw" for "roll" in games like Empire of the Petal Throne and the Holmes-edited Blue Book. In between all my Dwimmermount writing, I came across another one.

I've been reading my copy of The Complete Warlock, published in 1978 by Balboa games explicitly as "a major D&D variant." The Complete Warlock is a codification of house rules that originated at the California Institute of Technology in 1975, making it one of the earliest variants of OD&D and thus a window on the dawn of the hobby.

While I'll have more to say about Warlock soon, one of the things that struck me about it was its use of percentile dice, which it calls "00-99" dice. What a strange formulation! Equally strange (to me anyway) is that the rules consider a result of "00" as the lowest possible result, below "01." In combat, for example (which uses a percentile system), a roll -- or should I say "throw?" -- of "00" is always a hit, while a roll of "90-99" is always a miss.

It's a small thing, admittedly, but completely contrary to my own experiences. In the Blue Book, there's a section on how to use dice and it explicitly identifies as a roll of "00" as being "100." That's why pretty much every game I ever played back in the day did it, but then I didn't start playing till late '79, by which point even D20s numbered 0-9 twice were already fading into the mists of history.

GangBusters News

Rick Krebs, creator of GangBusters, is seeking input on the possibility of revising this classic Roaring '20s RPG for re-release. Head on over to his blog to let him know what you think.

Dungeon! Returns

As most of you probably know, there was a flurry of rumors over the last few days about reprints of D&D and D&D-related products from Wizards of the Coast. Many suspected these rumors were just that -- rumors -- and dismissed them as hoaxes. As it turns out, at least one of them was not a hoax and it's the one that's of most interest to me: a new edition of Dave Megarry's classic boardgame Dungeon!

Dungeon! holds a special place in my heart, because it, along with the Holmes Basic Set, were the two TSR products that introduced me to the hobby in late 1979. I still own a copy of the later (1981?) printing of the game somewhere, but I can't find it and so have been hoping to find a cheap, second-hand copy for a long time -- so far to no avail. I think Dungeon! is both a fun game and a terrific lead-in to D&D. It gladdens me to see that WotC is reprinting this in the Fall and I'll happily plunk down some money for a copy to play with my family.

I'm also happy to see that WotC is clearly associating the game with D&D and is including more iconic D&D monsters in the game. I think that's a brilliant idea. It's also evidence, I think, that maybe, just maybe, there's actually a strategy in place to attract younger people to the hobby. Even if there's not, I'm still grateful that Dungeon! is coming out of mothballs for a new generation. Bravo, WotC! Keep the reprints coming.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Go Figure

I've not been paying much -- as in, almost any -- attention to developments regarding the latest version of WotC-era Dungeons & Dragons, so, despite all the requests I've received to weigh in on the subject, I have nothing worthwhile to offer regarding Monte Cook's departure from its design team. What I do find interesting and think is worth talking about is the rumor, as yet unconfirmed, that, in addition to the AD&D reprints in July, WotC is also reprinting v.3.5 in September. If that's true (and I've seen nothing official one way or the other), I think it's a good move on WotC's part.

Here's the thing, though. I still don't understand the purpose behind "D&D Next" or whatever the heck it's going to be called. I think, at this stage, WotC (and D&D itself) would be better served by keeping several versions in print or at least available via print-on-demand, with some portion of each version's support materials also available. Further support (i.e. "new stuff") could be provided by third-party licensees or some similar scheme. Meanwhile, WotC itself can concentrate on other fantasy games (board, video, online, etc.) that use the D&D "brand name" and that could potentially reach a much wider audience than any tabletop version ever could in this day and age.

My feeling is that no tabletop version of D&D is ever again going to sell well enough to be considered a "success" by Hasbro. To them, D&D is a woefully underperforming brand, considering its name recognition. The time and energy being spent on yet another edition, particularly one with the Quixotic goal of uniting the fanbase, could be much better spent making other types of D&D-branded games with true mass appeal. But what do I know?


There seems to be this persistent notion online that Second Edition AD&D was the best-selling edition of D&D ever. Do people believe this because it's their favorite edition, because there were so many products for it, or for some other reason? I have no particular love for 2e, it's true, but neither do I hate it. Even so, the idea that it was the best-selling edition of the game seems, in light of the facts, highly unlikely.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game

After spending the last two weeks talking about two D&D-branded products I didn't own, I thought it only right I talk about one that once was in my possession. Produced in 1981 by Mattel (who also produced the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Intellivision cartridge and Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game), the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game was a small handheld electronic game that featured a LCD screen and three buttons. In the game, you play a warrior who is searching a dungeon for an evil dragon to slay before time runs out and he is sealed forever inside the labyrinth. The dragon could only be slain by a magic arrow that is randomly hidden somewhere in the dungeon. Also hidden randomly are the dungeon itself, along with pit traps, bats, and (on one difficulty level) a magic rope that enables escape from pit traps.

The game itself is pretty primitive by today's standards, but, back in 1981, it was fairly impressive -- or at least I thought so. As you can see from the box top pictured above, the LCD screen showed a dungeon intersection in a quasi-three-dimensions, along with indications of directions in which you could explore further. Each intersection also had a number and letter designation, so you could make a map as you searched. The dungeon itself consisted of 100 squares arranged in ten rows of ten. However, the dungeon wrapped onto itself, so if you went beyond the edge in any direction, you'd reappear at its corresponding opposite edge.

Gameplay was fairly limited and somewhat frustrating -- but in a good way. That is, the frustration I experienced tended to egg me on to try again rather than drive me away from playing further. The frustrations, though, were many. Falling into a pit marked the end of your quest if you didn't have the magic rope. If you did have it, you lost it afterwards and had to locate it again in some random room. Bats could carry you off to another location on the map. And of course there was the countdown clock that marked the passage of time. To win, you had to be fast, attentive, and lucky. You could do everything "right" and still lose, because of random factors beyond your control.

Nevertheless, I loved this game. I can't say it felt much like D&D, though. In fact, I find it fascinating that all three of Mattel's licensed D&D games involved dragons as the main (or only!) opponents, something that, despite the RPG's name, has never been the case. Likewise, two of the three games involve warriors who can use only arrows to defeat their foes. Consequently, these games always felt slightly "off" to me as a player of the roleplaying game, but then I suspect none of them were created by people with any real knowledge of the source material. Instead, they were just riding an existing fad to sell electronic games (which were themselves a fad in their own right).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Epic Heroica

This past weekend I played in a massive, six-player game of LEGO Heroica that combined three different sets into a single playing area. Three of the players were children and three adults.
I wasn't sure how well the game would work with so many people and so large a set-up, but it went just fine, if slowly. The biggest "flaw" in Heroica is that its gameplay is very random, heavily dependent on what you roll on the dice. For example, most of the characters' unique special abilities only come into play 1 out of every 6 rolls, which is a shame, because those abilities are rather neat.

Mind you, it's a kids' game, so randomness is to be expected. Still, every time I play this game I keep thinking how easy it'd be to create an "advanced" version that is just a step or two removed from a real RPG. In my opinion, if WotC's serious about improving the lot of D&D in the mass market, they ought to be looking at games like Heroica to lay the foundation. Seriously. There's every other kind of LEGO these days. Why not Dungeons & Dragons?

The Articles of Dragon: "History of a Game That Failed"

Issue #99 of Dragon (July 1985) featured an article by David F. Godwin entitled "History of a Game That Failed." I don't ever recall reading it, though I'm sure I must have, when I first got the issue in the mail if not at some time later. Re-reading it in preparation for this post was an enlightening experience, both for what the article might have said about gaming culture at the time of its publication and how I react to its contents now.

The article contains Godwin's reflections on being "soft-hearted enough to want to see the PCs survive and do well" to the point that he "was no longer playing the AD&D game. [He] was shooting fish in a barrel." I must confess that I was very surprised to see an article like this appear in an issue of Dragon published in 1985, since my recollection of that time was of an era when being "soft-hearted enough to want to see the PCs survive and do well" was not just increasingly commonplace but de rigeur.

Intriguingly, the first "tip" Godwin passes along as a result of his past failure is "Feel free to fudge." Though he introduces this tip with a story of how he pretended to roll low on an attack that would have killed a PC, he is quick to point out that fudging rolls "doesn't have to be in favor of the players." He adds that it is the referee who is the final arbiter of what is and is not true in his own campaign. Never let an errant dice roll or players quoting chapter and verse from a rulebook lead you to think otherwise.

Tip two is "Just because it's in a module doesn't mean it's so." In particular, he's talking about the strength of opponents and the amount of treasure and magic items. I must admit I find this tip odd, because, even in my worst letter-of-the-law days of gaming, I never felt that the contents of a module was sacrosanct. However, Godwin claims that he did think they were and it took him some time to realize that it was acceptable to alter what was written in adventure to suit his own campaign.

Tip three is "Be exceedingly stingy in handing out magic items." This tip is apparently near and dear to Godwin's heart, because he discusses it at length, providing lots of examples of magic items he feels are exceedingly powerful, or at least problematic if the referee is not careful. To be fair, he's not opposed to placing powerful magic items in the hands of PCs; he simply thinks the referee needs to conscious of the potential for mischief such items bring with them. This is a fair point and many an inexperienced referee commits this mistake.

Tip four is "Don't let your players have a continuous commune spell." By this he means that the players should be kept in the dark as often as possible, since knowledge is what gives the referee his edge -- including the properties of magic items. Godwin stresses the limits even of spells like identify and encourages the referee to take full advantage of it.

Tip five is "Do not allow a character to become more powerful than a chugging locomotive." Here he's talking specifically about ability score inflation, both through magic items and spells.

Tip six is "If they wish for the moon, don't let them have it." I'm actually surprised that, in 1985, there was still a need to talk about all the delightful ways wishes can be used to turn the tables on the players, but apparently there was.

Tip seven is "No, you can polymorph your henchman into Odin." You know, I had no idea until very recently that polymorph was apparently such a troublesome spell for a lot of D&D gamers. I honestly don't recall a single time it's ever given me grief as a referee, since the spell description I remember is pretty clear about its limitations.

Tip eight is "Be careful playing with fireballs." Sure.

Tip nine is "Be reasonable in awarding experience points." Godwin here encourages referees to use the "equivalent hit dice" system from the Dungeon Masters Guide, which is an oft-forgotten element of AD&D. It basically compares the value of the characters' levels against the hit dice of the monsters they defeat and then adjusts the value of the XP gained up or down accordingly. The system is intended, like its rough equivalent in OD&D, to put the breaks on gaining easy experience points through killing much weaker foes in large numbers. Again, this has never been a problem for me personally, but I fully support slowing the rate of character advancement.

Tip ten is "Go easy on the poor deities." That this needed to be said at all is sad.

Tip eleven is "Beware the many-headed hydra." Here Godwin is discouraging allowing one player to play more than one character in an adventure at the same time. That's just common sense.

Tip twelve is "Avoid an adversary relationship with your players." Godwin notes that it's inevitable that referees and players will be at odds, since players are always trying to pull fast ones on their referees:
It would be a wonderful world if players were so conscientious and so willing to risk their characters for the sake of a good time that they never looked at the Dungeon Masters Guide, the modules, or even "Dungeon Master advice" articles (such as this one) in magazines. It would even be nicer if they did not look up monsters in the Monster Manual, FIEND FOLIO Tome, and Monster Manual II whenever they confronted them. Maybe you can forbid this sort of activity during the playing of an adventure, but you can't control what players do on their own time. And never underestimate the ingenuity of players. I once had a player justify looking in the Monster Manual during play by saying that his character carried around a bestiary in his backpack!
Despite this, try and make it clear to your players that your iron-fisted rule is all in the name of fun, to ensure that the game remains challenging for all.

That's a lot to digest, but I think it provides a fascinating snapshot into at least one slice of the hobby back in 1985. Some of it comports well with my own recollections, while other parts of it feel like the author is describing a game in an alternate reality. I suspect this reaction will be true for a lot of my readers as well.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Historical Gaming

Within the first couple of years of my entering the hobby, my friends and I firmly established a trinity of roleplaying games as our go-to games: D&D (for fantasy), Traveller (for science fiction), and Call of Cthulhu (for horror). These were the three games we probably played the most and they were, in my case anyway, the three games whose approaches and focuses most strongly influenced my conceptions of gaming in their respective genres. Beyond that trinity, we played a lot of other games, but comparatively few of them were ever played with sufficient frequency or passion to vie with the Big Three. One of those that came the closest, though, was Gangbusters, about which I've spoken before. We played that RPG a lot and had a heck of a time with it.

I recently had occasion to think about Gangbusters and other games based on real-world history and, as I did so, I wondered why none of them had ever achieved wider popularity. I love history of all kinds; games like Gangbusters and Boot Hill sent me scurrying off to the library to read books about the time periods in which they were set. To this day, I am a fan of both gangster movies and westerns in part because of having immersed myself in these things in order to understand these games better. I suspect I am not the only kid who did this.

What's funny is that, in 2012, I can't think of too many "straight" historical RPGs that are in print and actively supported. As I said, I love westerns and have got a partially completed old school western RPG sitting on my hard drive, but it doesn't include rules for aliens or zombies and it's not set in an alternate history where the Confederacy won its independence. Yet, if you look around, those things are pretty much par for the course. Even the terrific, if rules-heavy, Aces & Eights, takes place in an alt-history rather than the real world and that saddens me.

It also makes me wonder if it's because gamers today simply don't have an appetite for historical RPGs that aren't anachronistic or genre-bend. And so Saloons & Shootists stays on my hard drive ...

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cube from Beyond

Issue #36 (April 1980) saw the sixth literary appearance of Gardner Fox's barbarian sellsword, Niall of the Far Travels, in a short story delightfully titled "The Cube from Beyond." I'm honestly not sure why, but magical/mystical cubes are commonplace in pulp fantasy and science fiction, from De Camp and Pratt's carnelian cube to the "queer, smooth cube" of "The Challenge from Beyond" to the Cosmic Cube of Marvel comics fame. So this installment's title -- and content -- places it firmly within a well-established tradition.

As the short story begins, Niall is still the commander of the armies of Urgrik and is pursuing the magician-king Thavas Tomer, whose stronghold he and his army have breached. Thavas wishes to elude capture and uses every trick at his disposal to throw off the relentless barbarian. When at last his tricks seem to have been exhausted, he flees up some stairs, with Niall close on his heels.
He came at last into a small room, the windows of which looked out over the city and the plains stretching in all directions beyond it. Thavas Tomer was standing beside a large blue cube dotted with a myriad of bright little specks that looked like imprisoned stars.
The magician-king was tall, almost as tall as Niall. He was broad of shoulder and lean of waist; he looked more like a warrior than a magician. There was a cunning smile on this thin lips.
“No more, Niall,” he rasped. “I flee no further.”
“Then surrender.”
Thavas Tomer laughed: harsh, mocking laughter it was, as he drew himself to his full height. “You can never make me surrender, general. Na, na. I have a way to get away from you, even here and now, with you so close.”
His laughter rang out as Niall started forward. With the ease of a trained athlete, Thavas Tomer leaped upward to the top of that big cube— and began to sink into it.
Recognizing the cube as an object of sorcery, Niall decides to take it with him, as a spoil of war. He returns to Urgrik, parading it through the streets, before he presents it to his liege, King Lurlyr Manakor, who congratulates him on having "done what no other man could do." The king wants nothing to do with the cube and gives it to Niall, who takes it back to his own palatial home, where it sits for several months, with no sign as to its true nature.

Despite this seeming inactivity, Niall remains fascinated by the cube. He seeks out his friend, the sage Danko Penavar, to see if he had ever heard of the cube and its strange powers.
Almost under his breath, the old man whispered, “I have heard of it. In very ancient tomes have I come upon faint hints of it, fearful references to that cube.”

He shook his head until the white hairs of his head and beard swayed lazily. “Never did I think to lay eyes upon that thing. I believed it lost forever.”
“Well, what is it?’

“It was created long and long ago by a great magician. It is a universe unto itself, that cube. It is protected by secret sigils and enchantments that have long since been forgotten.”

“Not by Thavas Tomer, it seems.”

The old man smiled wryly. “I wonder where he found it? Where he discovered the way in which to make it work for him?’

“Can I go into it, as Thavas Tomer did?”

Danko Penavar scowled. “You would be advised not to. I know nothing of what might await you inside that thing-always assuming there is a way into it. For you, I mean. It would be best for you to forget the cube—and Thavas Tomer.”
Needless to say, Niall doesn't heed Penavar's words and instead intends to enter the cube and find Thavas Tomer -- and whatever else is inside it.

"The Cube from Beyond" is another fun tale that takes some hackneyed pulp fantasy ideas and presents them engagingly. As I've said many times now, this seems to have been Gardner Fox's great gift, one that ought to be of particular interest to referees of RPGs. All too often I hear jaded gamers cry out for "originality," a quality that, if it even exists, is vastly overrated in my opinion. Far more interesting, I think, is to see well-used concepts, situations, and characters presented with cleverness and flair, something that Fox does exceedingly well. "The Cube from Beyond" is a terrific sword-and-sorcery romp that proves once again that just because a story has been told before doesn't mean it can't be retold in an enjoyable way.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dan Proctor's Blog Has Moved

Dan Proctor, proprietor of Goblinoid Games, has asked me to pass along the word that his personal blog has moved to a new location. His former blog has been removed and all of its content transferred to the new one. Please take the time to update your links and bookmarks accordingly.

Authorial Voice

Last night, before bed, I was reading my copy of Starships & Spacemen, which is a charming little RPG pastiche of Star Trek published in 1978 by FGU. Currently, the game is available from Goblinoid Games, either as a PDF or as a printed book (hardcover and softcover). I call S&S "charming" in large part because of the way it's written. The rulebook is clearly the product of a single person, using his own voice. Rather than coming across like a technical manual, S&S evinces the idiosyncrasies and quirks of its author, Leonard H. Kanterman. For example, in the section about naming characters, Kanterman states:
In our playtest group, we had some fun naming the non-player security guards after game designers, giving the low attributes (especially in intelligence), and ordering them into the jaws of death.
Some might see this aside as petty and "unprofessional" and perhaps it is on some level. But you know what? I don't care. In fact, I rather like it, if only because it's clearly reflective of the mind of the game's author, revealing his quirky sense of humor (among other things). I personally think there could be worse trends in the hobby than seeing a return to rulebooks that include stuff like this.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Open Friday: Old School Revival

Leaving aside questions of money and copyrights, what old school -- by which I mean "pre-1985" -- roleplaying game would you most like to see revived for the 21st century and why? Feel free to provide additional details about what you might change in the game (if anything) to update or otherwise alter it to make it more accessible to contemporary gamers.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Speaking of Video Games ...

My recent posts about licensed D&D games in fields beyond tabletop gaming reminded me of another RPG that was going to get a licensed video game: Tunnels & Trolls. The game never came out, but I do remember seeing advertisements for it, like this one:
Tunnels & Trolls was supposed to be released for the ColecoVision system, which, at the time, was a pretty impressive machine. Two brothers in my circle of friends had it, one of whom was the first person I ever met who owned a copy of T&T. I'm pretty sure that, had the game come out, he would have gotten it.

California Gamin'

I had a delightful conversation with Victor Raymond last night, a considerable portion of which was devoted to discussing a seeming oddity of the early hobby. As I've mentioned many times before, I was "initiated" into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980 by older gamers, some of whom had been wargamers before OD&D was published in 1974. From them, I picked up a number of prejudices about the "right" way to play RPGs, one of which was that, while house rules were fine, there was a limit to how much you could/should change a game before you had house ruled it out of existence. I took me years to shake off this idea -- or, rather, not to care about it -- but I nevertheless think there's some validity in it.

This idea carried with it a disdain for "California games," which the older guys held up as paradigmatic examples of "what happens when you change too much." In particular, they seemed to have huge chips on their shoulders about RuneQuest and, especially, Arduin. Now, leaving aside the substance of those early grognards' opinions of the games, it is interesting to consider, as Victor and I did last night, that, within a few years of OD&D's release, California was the origin point of not just one but three different major variants to Gygax and Arneson's creation. (The third being Warlock, about which I had never heard until a few years ago).

Now, back in the days of my youth, I just took the word of my elders at face value -- after all, they were in high school or college. I never saw a copy of Arduin and my direct contact with RuneQuest was limited until the '90s. Having rectified this over the last few years (and having become more familiar with Warlock, too), I'm not sure there's a common thread that can connect Arduin, RuneQuest, and Warlock as "California games." For example, RQ and Warlock certainly share a similar fascination with "realism" in combat that probably owes its ultimate origin to medieval re-enactment (the SCA started in Berkeley, remember), but Arduin doesn't feel the same way. Likewise, RuneQuest drips with the need for a "coherent" setting steeped in the logic of myth and legend, something neither Arduin nor Warlock seems to care about.

So, I'm not at all convinced there really was such an animal as "California gaming," as I once was taught. On the other hand, I do find it really intriguing that California was a hotbed for D&D variants in the '70s in the way that the East Coast didn't seem to be (though someone who knows better can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). Was this just a function of its large population? Its extensive university system (Warlock was created at CalTech)? Something else? I'm not sure there is a single, definitive answer to this question, but it's a question worth asking nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game

Though video games existed in the late '70s and early '80s, they were still limited enough in their capabilities that they didn't exercise the same kind of pervasive influence they seem to nowadays. Consequently, I still consider the era of my late childhood and early teens, which, not coincidentally, corresponds with my introduction into the hobby, to be "pre-digital." At the same time, it was clear even then that the times they were a-changin', as evidenced by the large number of odd hybrid "electronic" games that I can remember. Many of these games were basically boardgames that used primitive computers for a variety of purposes, from randomization to bookkeeping to providing an unseen opponent against which to play. A terrific example of this can be seen in Milton Bradley's Dark Tower, about which I've written before.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, TSR lent the Dungeons & Dragons name to an electronic game produced in 1980 by Mattel. Mattel, you'll remember, would later produce video game cartridges for its Intellivision system that were also tied to D&D (or, rather, AD&D). Called a "computer labyrinth game," it consisted of a large electronic "board," metallic pieces to represent two warriors, a dragon, and a treasure, and plastic pieces used to represent the walls of a dungeon. The walls of the dungeon (or "labyrinth," as the game calls it) were generated randomly by the game and could only be discovered by exploration. Each square of the board had a touch-sensitive pad on it. As you moved your warrior, the board would beep in various tones to indicate what you discover, including the walls of the labyrinth. Thus, as you moved across the board, you were also mapping out the dungeon with plastic pieces.

The goal of the game was to discover the treasure hidden within it and take it back to your "secret room," which was a player-selected starting point. Guarding the treasure was the dragon. The dragon began the game asleep in his lair, but he would "awaken" if the game detected any warrior within a few squares of his location. Once awoken, the dragon would then begin to seek out the nearest warrior and attempt to wound him. The dragon could fly and thus go over walls and other obstacles that a warrior could not. Every time he successfully finds and attacks a warrior, that warrior's movement rate per turn is lessened and he must return to his secret room immediately. Take four wounds, though, and your warrior dies and you are out of the game (or lose, if you are playing it solo).

Limited though it was by today's standards, the game nevertheless had a lot of versatility and options. There was, for example, a "basic" and "advanced" version of the game, with the advanced version adding secrets doors, for example. There was also player vs player combat, something that inevitably occurred, since there was only one treasure. Stealing it from the other player was thus an acceptable way to win. As noted above, the game could also be played solo -- you against the computerized dragon. That feature alone made it extremely enticing to me, though I never owned a copy myself. The game retailed for close to $50 in 1980, which was a princely sum. My friend -- the same one who owned the Intellivision -- had a copy, though, and so I played it as often as I could.

The Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game would likely not hold my attention for long these days, except as a curiosity. Still, I retain a great fondness for it, mostly because it's an artifact from a bygone age, back before video games were ubiquitous and when "electronic" was an adjective that described The Future.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Very inspirational"

It's not every day that you get an email from Erol Otus saying that the subject material of his latest illustration, which you provided, was "very inspirational." I'm over the moon.

I won't say what -- or who -- is depicted below, since that'd spoil the fun of finding out, but I will say that I'm extraordinarily happy with the way it turned out.
©2012 Erol Otus

The Articles of Dragon: "Mutant Manual"

Since this blog could hardly be accused of intellectual rigor, I trust no one will object to my choosing the "Mutant Manual" as the "article" I wish to highlight from issue #98 (June 1985) of Dragon. Written by Randy Johns, Douglas A. Lent, John M. Maxstadt, William Tracy, and James M. Ward, the "Mutant Manual" was a 12-page insert that detailed 17 new mutants for use with Gamma World.

To say that I adored the "Mutant Manual" is a bit of an understatement. Along with only a handful of other articles, it became a permanent addition to my "referee's binder" in which I kept maps, notes, and photocopies of useful articles from Dragon, White Dwarf, and elsewhere. In the case of the "Mutant Manual," though, it wasn't a photocopy, but the original itself, which I carefully removed from the center of my copy of issue #98. Since I generally preferred to keep my copies of Dragon "pristine" -- a shock, I know -- the fact that I removed the "Mutant Manual" was a high tribute.

I'm not sure I can really convey why I liked it so much. Were I to describe any of its constituent mutants, like the flying squids, armor-plated rhinos, or post-apocalyptic sasquatches, I doubt most readers would find them particularly interesting and perhaps rightly so. Back in '85, though, I appreciated having a source of new mutants to throw at my players when we played Gamma World. Creating good monsters takes time and imagination, as many entries in the Monster Manual prove. You need more than a name and some game statistics to create a worthy monster -- an indescribable something that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

In my opinion, this is particularly the case with regards to Gamma World, where it's all too easy to take some normal animal, roll a few times on the mutations tables, and think you're done. More often than not, this led to some utterly ridiculous creatures that I could barely take seriously myself, let alone my players. So, having some ready-made mutants that weren't immediately laughable was invaluable to me. Whether others might deem the "Mutant Manual" a success in this regard is a matter of opinion, of course, but I loved it and still strongly associate it with the my fondest memories of Gamma World.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Shadow of Solomoriah

Was this ever actually produced?

DCS was the Man

One of the great joys of my having recently acquired those old pastel-covered AD&D modules is seeing pieces of artwork I've never seen before. Apparently, a number of illustrations were dropped in the later printings, many of them by David Sutherland, like this awesome piece from Descent into the Depths of the Earth:
It's commonplace nowadays, even outside old school circles, to sing the praises of Dave Trampier and Erol Otus, and rightly so. But there doesn't seem to be quite as much affection expressed for Dave Sutherland, which I think is a pity. Sutherland may have lacked the moodiness of Tramp or the weirdness of Otus, but he nevertheless had a unique and memorable style, one that continues to influence my conception of Dungeons & Dragons to this very day.

"Fit Only for the Trashcan"

I was looking at issue #19 (March 1982) of Chaosium's Different Worlds this morning. I almost always find Different Worlds fascinating because, even when I don't like its articles or disagree with its editorials/reviews, it offers a window on a gaming scene in which I never really took part. As I'm sure I mentioned here before, I was a TSR fanboy back in the day; all other game companies were also-rans in my estimation, Consequently, the gaming "culture" into which I was introduced was largely colored by the (in retrospect absurd) position that TSR was God and Gary Gygax was his prophet. Certainly I played other games by other companies, sometimes, as in the case of Call of Cthulhu, very devotedly, but I had little direction connection to -- and even less understanding of -- gaming cultures based around different principles. So, for me, reading Different Worlds (much like reading White Dwarf) is an invaluable corrective to the somewhat limited perspective into which I'm prone to lapse.

Anyway, in the aforementioned issue, there's a review of Deities & Demigods by some named Patrick Amory. I've noted before my own dislike of this AD&D volume, so I wasn't at all taken aback by Amory's complaint that "Deities and Demigods fails quite seriously to deliver anything much more than a scale-up Monster Manual." That pretty much mirrors my own view. More fascinating, though, I think is the following extensive critique, which I reproduce here in full:
What Deities and Demigods should have included is a detailed discussion of what characters in a reasonable fantasy world would have normal contact with: the trappings of religion, ceremonies, beliefs, the interactions of these beliefs with culture and society, and not the butchering of gods like Odin and Loki into mere 300-400 hit points monsters.

Instead, descriptions of some of these points is almost non-existent. Say the authors in their preface, "The name of the deities and heroes ... and many of their personality traits are plain for everyone to discover for themselves ..." What this translates to in English is this: the most obscure deities are given complete statistics for a D&D melee, without the slightest touch of personality, description, beliefs, or even place within the legends.

Deities and Demigods contains monsters, not religions. What is included here is not of the slightest use to anyone in the FRP market and should be avoided like leprosy. The careless butchering of ancient legends, the lack of any details useful for creation of religion in a normal campaign, and the encouragement of the insertion of yet more higher-level monsters for the worst kind of fantasy gaming makes Deities and Demigods fit only for the trashcan.
As reviews of gaming products go, this is a pretty harsh one. The only aspect of the DDG Amory praises is its "high-quality components." Even as someone who has no use for Deities & Demigods, I find the three paragraphs quoted above to be over the top, but I suspect that, besides antipathy toward TSR (which had existed from early on the hobby's history and was growing steadily throughout the '80s), Amory's review is reflective of a different gaming "culture" than the one I knew. I hesitate to say it was a "West Coast" one, since I know nothing of the reviewer's background, but it nevertheless comports with the caricatures I was taught about "Californian roleplayers" who played "hippie" games like RuneQuest.

I bring this all up not to condemn either Deities & Demigods or the reviewer (let alone different approaches to presenting divine beings in RPGs), but mostly to note that, while we may all talk about "the hobby" as if it were a singular, unified thing, it's not. From fairly early on, there were several different approaches to roleplaying and they existed side by side, though not always amicably. So, I don't think it's surprising that, nearly 40 years on, those different approaches not only continue to exist but have multiplied to the point where even a term as seemingly straightforward as "old school" can be the source of confusion, acrimony, and angst.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Eyes of Mavis Deval

The fifth (of ten) short stories featuring Gardner Fox's Niall of the Far Travels appeared in issue #33 (January 1980) of Dragon, in a short story entitled "The Eyes of Mavis Deval." Interestingly, this is the first short story in the series that didn't receive the cover image. I'm not sure much can be made of this, since some of the subsequent short stories do get cover images (though not all of them), but it's worth noting nonetheless.

This installment in Niall's saga begins, as so many of its predecessor did, with a girl, the Mavis Deval of the title, whom Niall first spots on a dais in a slave market and to whom he is inexplicably drawn.
It was her eyes that drew his stare as he sat astride the high-peak saddle of his stallion, there on the edge of the huge slave market. They were a brilliant green, those eyes, and it seemed to Niall of the Far Travels as he looked, that there was a tiny flame glowing in each pupil.

Niall stood in the stirrups, lifting his giant body upright. Clad in the silver chainmail of his rank as High Commander of the armies of Urgrik, with the scarlet cloak hanging from his wide shoulders, he was ignorant of the men and women who turned to regard him.

All he was aware of was the girl.
This story continues the tradition of Fox's previous ones in that, while not necessarily a direct sequel to the previous story in the series, it nevertheless follows it in clear chronological order, unlike, say, Howard's Conan tales, which bounce back and forth across the whole of the Cimmerian's life. Speaking of Conan, Fox's description of Niall's actions toward the slave girl and of the barbarian's lifestyle sets him apart from his inspiration.
Niall paced the black stallion slowly over the cobblestones of the city, wondering at the eldritch impulse that had made him buy this girl. He owned no slaves, he did not believe in slavery, though it was practiced everywhere in his world. Well, that was easy enough to handle. He would free the girl, give her some gold, and send her on her way.

And yet—

There was something about her that appealed to him. He had never paid much attention to women, except for a tavern girl now and then, to assuage the hungers of his flesh. Perhaps it had been the sort of life he had, wandering here and there across his world, that had made him lead this almost monastic life.
To read of any pulp fantasy character as having led an "almost monastic life" is unusual, all the moreso when the character in question is a mighty-threwed barabrian. It's little things like that endear these stories to me, despite their lightness. Gardner Fox may not be the most original of writers, but he nevertheless imbues his pastiche work with imagination, playing with one's expectations and reworking familiar characters and plots into things that somehow transcend their origins.

Hating slavery and having "no room in [his] life for a girl," Niall intends to free Mavis Deval, after he has given her some decent clothes and some money to make her way in the world. Oddly, Mavis has no desire to leave Niall's side, which arouses the barbarian's suspicion. She attempts to use her considerable charms to win his affection but to little avail; he still wishes to free her and have her out of his life. Realizing this, the girl then reveals that she knows the location of "a very big treasure," whose location she learned from men speaking on the caravan on which she traveled with the other slaves.  

This piques Niall's interest, but, even so, he is wary and decides to consult with a wizard of his acquaintance, Danko Penavar. When he tells the old man about the treasure Mavis mentioned, Penavar warns him against seeking it.
“It is not good, that treasure, Niall. Be advised. Forget about it.”

Niall grinned. “But there is a treasure?”

“Oh, yes. But it is cursed. Sisstorississ himself lays claim to it, and Sisstorississ is a jealous god.”
Niall had run afoul of the snake god Sisstorississ in an early story, which inflames his curiosity about the treasure rather than dissuading him from seeking it. After consulting with the wizard, he then sets out, with Mavis Deval, to the hills of Kareen, where she claims the treasure lies. Niall fully expects a nasty surprise to await him, but he is at least prepared for it -- or so he thinks.

As I said earlier, "The Eyes of Mavis Deval" isn't a particularly original story, at least in terms of its basic ideas. Yet, Gardner Fox does a superb job of taking a well-worn plot and stock characters and imbuing them with lively interest. Like the previous entries in this series, this is a fun story engagingly told, displaying more than enough cleverness to hold my attention. I liked it a lot.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Giant Kingdom

I recently acquired a copy of the reprint of the Holmes-edited Blue Book that appeared in WotC's Silver Anniversary Collector's Edition, published in 1999. I was reading it last night before bed and came across what I thought was a typo peculiar to it in the "Foreword to the Original Edition."
From the map of the "land" of the "Great Kingdom" and environs -- the territory of the C&C Society -- Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of "Blackmoor," a spot between the "Giant Kingdom" and the fearsome "Egg of Coot."
Clearly, "Giant Kingdom" is an error, since I was sure it must have originally read "Great Kingdom." So I figured that the error must have been an artifact of WotC's reproduction process, perhaps the use of OCR software or something. But, when I looked at my TSR copy of Holmes, I found the exact same phrase, "Giant Kingdom." This sent me running to my copy of Volume 1 of OD&D, since I was now starting to wonder whether it, too, referenced this mysterious "Giant Kingdom." If so, it meant I'd somehow not noticed it all these years and it made me wonder just what this "Giant Kingdom" was.

Alas, the original foreword has the phrase "Great Kingdom" in place of "Giant Kingdom," as I'd suspected. This disappoints me a little, since, if "Giant Kingdom" had been there, it would have suggested a hitherto unknown aspect of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Still, it's an interesting error and the fact that it's unique to Holmes makes me wonder how it happened.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sample Dwimmermount Page Spread

Things are progressing rather nicely with regards to Dwimmermount. With just a little over a day till the end of the Kickstarter, pledges have topped $40,000, which is four times the original goal. This means that, not only will there be a thirteenth level of the dungeon in the final product, but there will also be an illustration booklet after the fashion of those TSR included in classic modules like Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and Hidden Shrine of the Tamoachan.

I'll have more to say about the illustration booklet soon, but, right now, I wanted to share with a very small sample of the layout to be used in the final product. Adam Jury, the very talented guy who made Thousand Suns look like a million bucks, is once again working his magic and the result is one I like one very much. Nothing you see here is final, including the text, but it ought to give some idea of the approach we've adopted, including the use of sidebars to highlight important information. As the layout is finalized, I'll be sharing additional peeks, but I was so pleased with how things are already progressing that I wanted to show it off.
You can see two more sample pages over at Adam Jury's blog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Worthy Projects

With the Dwimmermount Kickstarter winding in its final days -- and I, once again, would like to thank everyone who's helped to make it such a success -- I'd like to take the time to point out three other Kickstarters that might be of interest to my readers.

The first is Joe Bloch's A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore for his superb old school "what if?" RPG, Adventures Dark & Deep. Though I don't play any form of AD&D myself, I'm nevertheless greatly impressed by Joe's game, which is an attempt to imagine what second edition AD&D might have been like had Gary Gygax remained at TSR to complete it. A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore is a kind of stand-alone extract of the larger game, presenting new character classes, spells, monsters, and magic items to be used with your favorite class-and-level fantasy RPG. I have a lot of respect for Joe. He's not only extremely knowledgeable about matters AD&D and Greyhawk, but he's a really good guy to boot.

The second is the Myth & Magic Player's Guide. Myth & Magic is another project pertaining to 2e AD&D, though in this case it's a retro-clone of TSR's published 2e rather than an imaginary Gygaxian one. Again, I'm not a 2e guy, but I know many of my readers look back on it with great fondness. Plus, I'm one of those weirdos who considers 2e an old school RPG, whatever my opinion means, so it's more than deserving of a mention here. From what I have seen, this is going to be a very impressive piece of work and I wouldn't be surprised to its Kickstarter do quite well before it's over.

Finally, there's the Ogre Designer's Edition from Steve Jackson Games. This is something a lot of people have been waiting for and I'm glad to see it finally come to pass. I am, unfortunately, saddened that actual, physical copies of this new edition will only be available to backers located in the US. That means SJG won't be getting any backing from me, alas, but, at the rate this Kickstarter is tallying up its pledges, I don't think they need my $100 -- too bad for me, though.


So, as I said the other day, I snagged copies of the original pastel-covered 1978 editions of Gary Gygax's G-series modules. Since I personally had only ever owned the later compilation, reading these has been educational. The most obvious thing I've taken away so far is a realization of just how expensive these modules were.

I bought the bulk of my D&D modules back in 1980-81. As I recall -- and my memory may be faulty -- I paid about $6.00 each for these things, which were generally between 26 and 32 pages in length. That price works out to be around around $15 in today's money, taking into account inflation. The G-series, on the other hand, sold for about $4.50 each in 1978 (actually $4.49 for the first two and $4.98 for the third one). That also works out to about $15 a pop in today's money, so the relative price of modules remained pretty constant from 1978 to 1981, at least.

But here's the thing: the first two G-series modules were only 8 pages long. $15 for 8 pages! That's a lot of money, isn't it? G3 is a little better, coming in at 16 pages, but, even so, it's not a lot of module for the price, especially when compared to the modules published after I entered the hobby. The other realization from this? Gaming stuff nowadays (generally) isn't overpriced; in fact, a lot of it is probably underpriced, at least when compared to how much gaming products cost back in the late '70s and early '80s.

Now, I'm sure someone will no doubt come along and present all sorts of arguments that you have to take into account this or that or the other thing before you can really compare prices between two different years. Sure, I accept that. Even so, how many of us would be willing to shell out $15 for an 8-page adventure these days? Not many, I'd be willing to bet. The truth is we get a lot more game material for our buck nowadays than we likely did in our youths.

Retrospective: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Intellivision)

I've noted several times on this blog that roleplaying became a huge fad in a largely pre-digital world. Sure, there were video games, even in 1974 when OD&D made its debut, but they were, by and large, "toys," which is to say, nifty gadgets to distract one from real games. That's not to say I wasn't utterly enthralled by the idea of video games; it's just that the reality of video games in the late '70s and early '80s, had yet to live up to our wildest dreams of what this type of entertainment should provide.

A good case in point is the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons cartridge released in 1982 for Mattel's Intellivision game system. Now, I didn't own an Intellivision, since it was extremely expensive (around $300, as I recall), but my best friend in 7th and 8th grade did. This friend was also, not coincidentally, someone with whom I regularly played D&D. So, when we heard that there was an AD&D game cartridge for the Intellivision, we knew we had to play it.

And, sure enough, we did. My friend got a copy and, on one of my many sleepovers at his place, we spent a lot of time playing through it. Unfortunately, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a single-player game, so we had to take turns playing it. I was never very good at using the Intellivision's rather bizarre controllers, so I tended to die a lot, which led me to spending most of my time watching my friend play. It was probably just as well, because Advanced Dungeons & Dragons wasn't a very good game, even by the standards of 1982. In fact, if it hadn't been for the AD&D logo on box, I'm not sure either one of us would have been very interested in it.

The premise of the game is that your character -- a little stick figure archer -- is described as follows in the game manual:
Your object is to acquire the two halves of the ancient Crown of Kings, hidden deep within the caverns of the legendary Cloudy Mountain. To reach the treasure you must cross a hostile land. The obstacles are numerous. Your resources are courage, cunning and three arrows. The rest you must find and fight to obtain. If you survive the wasteland and the creatures of the caves, you will have traveled out of danger into even greater peril. For each half of the Crown of Kings is guarded by terror - the Winged Dragons keep their endless watch.
The game thus involved both wilderness and dungeon exploration, as your character wandered across the game world to find items that'd allow you to circumvent wilderness obstacles and thereby bring yourself closer to the caverns on Cloudy Mountain where the pieces of the Crown of Kings could be found. Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking: "That doesn't sound so bad." And, looked at from a certain angle, that even sounds vaguely like a D&D adventure, right down having to trek across dangerous wilderness to reach the dungeon full of treasure.

The game had two big problems in my opinion that offset any charm it might otherwise have possessed. The first was that your character could only use a bow and arrow. No other weapons were available; the axe you find is intended to chop down trees. This made for very frustrating combat, especially since it was very easy to run out of arrows. The second problem was that the monsters were painfully generic: rats, bats, snakes, spiders. There were some demons and dragons in the game, too, but they had no real connection to anything in AD&D. Like everything else in this game, their only "connection" to the RPG was a logo someone slapped on it.

In 1982, given the state of video game technology, it probably wouldn't have been possible to produce a game that bore much more than a crude resemblance to any form of D&D. I suppose Sir-Tech Wizardry, which was released a year before this one, probably came the closest to replicating the D&D experience into a primitive digital form and even it wasn't quite right. Mind you, even in 2012, no video game can compete with sitting around a table, rolling some dice with your friends, so maybe it's no knock against a game made in 1982 to say it also falls short of that sublime experience.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

REVIEW: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Judging from the novels I've been sent to review over the last year, people must think I really enjoy Arabian-flavored swords-and-sorcery. As it turns out, I do, though I'm not sure whether I've ever really talked about my fondness for this fantasy sub-genre on this blog before, so now's as good a time as any.

I suspect my first exposure to Arabian fantasy was through the medium of the 1958 film, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which I must have seen on television when I was a young boy. That hooked me on the genre, as did the releases, in 1974 and 1977, of two more Sinbad movies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, both of which I remember seeing in the theater. All of these films featured the stop-motion animation of the brilliant Ray Harryhausen, which was also in my beloved Jason and the Argonauts. Later, I read various translations of the 1001 Nights, in addition to "Oriental" pulp stories I found in old paperback collections from my local public library. None of these influences gave me much insight into the real history and culture of Near and Middle Easts, but they planted the seeds of my later investigation into those topics.

Thus, to say that I was a very receptive audience for Saladin Ahmed's debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a bit of an understatement, especially as last year's Desert of Souls had already whetted my appetite for more Arabian fantasies. Now, I don't want to compare the two novels, since they're actually quite different from one another, but there are two aspects that are similar enough to warrant comment. First, each novel focuses on an adventurous duo whose association reminds one of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though, in the case of The Throne of the Crescent Moon, the duo eventually becomes a trio. Second, each novel is, by the standards of contemporary fantasy, quite short, with Ahmed's novel being a delightfully slim 274 pages.

There the similarities (largely) end. Whereas Desert of Souls is a historical fantasy, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a full-on fantasy, taking place in an imaginary land known as the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. This land, whose greatest city is Dhamsawaat, is a fantastical analog of the medieval Middle East, which immediately sets the novel apart from most of the others you'll find in its section of the bookstore. This gives Ahmed a great deal of latitude in presenting both the setting and its characters, such as its senior protagonist, Dr Adoulla Makhslood, an older man who is "the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat." Ghuls are nasty magical monsters employed as minions by evil sorcerers and Adoulla has spent his life battling them -- and those who create them. As the novel opens, he is hoping to retire and allow his apprentice, the novel's second protagonist, the dervish Raseed bas Raseed, to assume his duties.

Of course, there'd be no story if Adoulla actually did retire. Instead, the aging ghul hunter receives a desperate message from his unrequited love, Miri Almoussa, who begs him to look into the murder of her niece and her husband, indicating that "it was neither man nor animal that killed them." Though stung by the fact that Miri did not come to make her request of him in person, Adoulla nevertheless agrees to go on one, last adventure for her sake. He and Raseed then set off to investigate this tragedy, in the process meeting the novel's third protagonist, Zamia Badawi, the last of her band and gifted by God with lion-shape. Together, these three characters attempt to solve not only the mystery of the death of Miri's niece but also a greater mystery that threatens the political stability of Dhamsawaat.

I really enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon, which not only has a lively, quick-moving plot but, more importantly, many well-drawn and believable characters, not least of all Adoulla Makhslood. It's rare to see a fat, bearded, and balding man portrayed heroically in a sword-and-sorcery tale such as this one; it helps, of course, that Adoulla is as charming as he is erudite. But Adoulla is not alone. Both Raseed and Zamia feel like real people, with all the quirks and contradictions one expects. The book is also noteworthy in its positive presentation of religion. The society of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms is suffused with religiosity in a way that's generally absent from a lot of medieval European-style fantasy. It's not just window dressing added by the author but an integral part of the setting he's created. I really appreciated that.

My only real complaint about the novel -- and it's a small one -- is that it tends to ramble and lose focus from time to time. I suspect this has to do with the fact that Ahmed wants to show off as much of his world as he can, even when it slows the pace of the building action or otherwise interferes with structure of the narrative. As I said, it's a small thing and because I so enjoyed the setting, I mostly didn't care about the unexpected pauses that pop from time to time. Indeed, some readers may welcome this respites from the relentless pacing that carries the story along once Adoulla accepts Miri's request.

In any event, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a great read and one I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys Sinbad movies, 1001 Nights, and the medieval Middle East. I can't wait for further volumes in what has already been declared an ongoing series.

Which One are You?

My son is very fond of a series of comic books called Stone Rabbit, the most recent installment of which is entitled Dragon Boogie. The series focuses on an as-yet-unnamed rabbit (his not having an official name is a sly running joke throughout the series) and his animal friends, as they imagine themselves having adventures after the fashion of different genres of books and movies. Dragon Boogie, as you might expect, tackles fantasy, which would have been amusing in itself, but what made it particularly funny to me was the way the comic segued into its fantasy narrative.
©2012 Eric Craddock
I mentioned this section to my older daughter, who has played D&D with me in the past, and said how funny I found it. Without missing a beat, she then asked me, "So, which one are you?"

To clarify, my question -- and my daughter's -- is in reference to what the turtle says in the last panel on the bottom right.

The Articles of Dragon: "Sticks, Stones, and Bones"

I fear that it will seem as if I have a special dislike for articles by Stephen Inniss, since, a little over a month ago, I had some harsh words about another one of his articles, there's good reason for this fear. This time, Mr Inniss provides us with a lengthy article -- and tables -- to aid the referee in dealing with "improvised and impromptu weapons." Published in issue #97 (May 1985), "Sticks, Stones, and Bones" is intended to fill in what the author deems a significant lacuna in AD&D's rules. He explains his purposes better than I ever could:
The Players Handbook lists more than forty different weapon types, covering nearly every combat weapon invented before the gun. Doubtless, those that haven't yet been detailed will be added as the scope of the AD&D game system increases, but a whole area of armed combat has yet to be touched on: the game has no rules for the combat use of items which aren't designed to be weapons. In fact, so great has been the concentration on designed weapons that even the commonplace rock has been ignored in the official tables.
One wonders how AD&D players survived for so many years without official stats for the commonplace rock! If that sounds unbearably sarcastic, my apologies; it's just that I find it difficult to imagine that any referee or player would be the least bit bothered that Gary Gygax had omitted to include rules for rocks in his Players Handbook. Indeed, the entire notion that referees might need a six-page article with ten different tables to adjudicate a character picking up a broken bottle to use in a bar fight strikes me as absurd. And yet that's exactly what we get. The author even provides a separate table specifically for "rock-like items," so that the referee can properly distinguish between bricks and whetstones, saucepans and skillets.
Am I being too harsh here? I don't think so. Certainly I understand that a player might wish, in the course of play, to have his character employ an unconventional weapon and in such a case the referee would need to come up with some statistics for that weapon. That's what a referee does, right? However, given the large number of weapons already described in AD&D, how hard would it be to find a rough and ready equivalent rather than having recourse to several new tables just to determine that, say, a chamberpot does 1-2 points of damage per hit?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Classic Adventures

It occurred to me that some of you might be wondering why, other than nostalgia, I'm trying to get all the G and D-series modules, especially since I no longer play AD&D. That's a good question and one I asked myself as I grabbed each one. I didn't take long to come up with an answer, though, and it's this: because they're classics. Now, "classic" is such a vague term and can be applied to almost anything simply by virtue of its being old. A lot of mediocre stuff from twenty or thirty years ago gets labeled "classic" now in an effort to make it saleable in the 21st century. But that's not what I mean in this case, because there are plenty of TSR-era modules that I'd never call "classic."

No, I call them "classic" because they're very good adventures, some of the best ever published for the game, and the foundations on which so much later was built, perhaps most importantly the shared memories of an entire generation of D&D players. I mean, here we are, in 2012, and I need only say "Eclavdra" or "King Snurre" to my fellow gamers and I'll get not merely displays of recognition but stories about their own characters' adventures fighting the giants and drow. Heck, the very fact that the drow remain one of the most iconic elements of D&D to this very day is proof of how seminal these modules were to the history of the game.

This, of course, brings me to a fundamental paradox of D&D fandom, especially on the old school side of things. On the one hand, many old schoolers instinctively poo-poo the idea of adventure modules, seeing them as, at best, pointless ("I can make up my own adventures") and, at worst, cynical ploys to make -- oh no! -- money ("Shouldn't you give this away?"). On the other hand, so much of the collective experience of early gaming is tied up in the fact that we all bought and played the same modules. Our shared history belies the claim that modules are a waste of money and that anyone who buys them is an unimaginative clod. Rather, modules played a very important role in shaping and promoting the game.

That brought me to a final thought, or actually a question: did later editions have classic adventures? When I think of 2e, for example, I think of settings, not adventures. But maybe there were classic adventures from that era, ones that were widely played and inspirational and I just missed them since I was increasingly disengaged from the game at that time. Now, I did play a fair bit of 3e prior to 2007, but I honestly can't remember any adventures of note for the game, with the possible exception of Green Ronin's Death in Freeport. I certainly can't recall any official WotC 3e modules being very good, let alone memorable, but maybe my impressions are skewed.

Pure Indulgence

Back in the early '90s, I wasn't playing much D&D anymore. In fact, I was pretty sure that I wasn't ever likely to play D&D ever again. So, in my stupidity, I sold off a fair number of the D&D modules I'd owned since the early 1980s. Among them were all the modules in Gary Gygax magnum opus, the Giants-Drow series. Needless to say, I have come to regret this foolishness greatly, as I consider these modules the finest ever written for Dungeons & Dragons, in particular module D3, Vault of the Drow.

By sheerest good fortune, I recently managed to reacquire modules G1, G2, G3, D1, D2, and even Q1 (which I don't actually like all that much but am happy to have for the sake of completeness). If you look at the module codes in the previous sentence, you'll notice two things. First, I have acquired the original releases of these modules, not the later compilations of them. Second, I am missing D3.

Being the obsessive individual that I am, I want to get my hands on a copy of Vault of the Drow in good condition. But, being the obsessive individual that I am, I also want that copy to match the covers of the other modules in the series I've recently acquired. That means I want D3 with the 1978 pastel cover featuring artwork by Dave Sutherland, not the later one with an Erol Otus illo (awesome though it is). I've been looking around to try and find one without much luck. Most of the copies I've found are either in rather bad shape or, more annoyingly, charge an arm and a leg to ship to Canada, which I've never understood. While I'm quite willing to pay good money for 30+ year-old module in good shape, I'd rather not pay stupid amounts in shipping.

So, if anyone out there in the ether can point me toward a copy of this in good condition that I can buy, I'd appreciate it. I'm not a collector, so the copy needn't be pristine. On the other hand, if I'm going to pay good money for a used gaming product, I'd like it to have all the pages intact and be devoid of writing and other deformations.

Thanks in advance!

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Thing from the Tomb

The next installment in Gardner Fox's saga of Niall of the Far Travels is "The Thing from the Tomb," which appeared in issue #23 (March 1979) of Dragon. What's interesting about this series is that, unlike Robert E. Howard's Conan tales, they're told in chronological order. Fox implies that Niall has other adventures between the published short stories, but each of them clearly takes place after the one that preceded it. Consequently, when we meet Niall at the beginning of "The Thing from the Tomb," he's still in the employ of King Lurlyr Manakor of Urgrik, as he was in "The Stolen Sacrifice." This time, though, he's the supreme commander of the king's armies and is leading a large number of his troops into the Balakanian Desert, where he's on an inspection tour of the forts that dot this desolate area.

While traveling, Niall encounters a wounded veteran, whom he quickly moves to aid. When asked what happened to him, he replies:
The man opened his eyes.
“Death,” he whispered. “Death came in the night and —” He choked and his eyes closed. Niall leaned closer, his arm about the man, half lifting him as if to ease him of his pain.
The soldier smiled, nodded. His eyes opened once again. “Beware the fort. They’re all dead, inside it. Only I got away. Crawled. Crawled until I—could crawl no more.”

His hand closed on Niall’s wrist. “Beware the thing in the fort. It cannot — be killed . . .”

The man shuddered and writhed as pain ate inside him. He gasped at the hot desert air and stared upward into the face of the man who bent above him.

“It began when they were di-digging . . . digging to find more water. They — uncovered an old-tomb. And then . . ."

The man shuddered once more, violently, and then his body sagged. Niall looked down at him with pity in his eyes. Pity and — admiration. If this man had not struggled and fought to crawl out this far away from the frontier fort, he and his men would have ridden into untold danger.
It's a fairly clichéd beginning to what is my least favorite of these stories so far, but one that nevertheless continues to develop Niall's character in ways that clearly distinguish him from Conan and his many literary doppelgangers. That, for me, is what makes "The Thing from the Tomb" worth reading, despite the weakness of its story.

After meeting the veteran, Niall decides to head off — alone — to investigate the fort from which the dying man came. When his lieutenant questions the wisdom of this, the barbarian explains, "I am one man. I may discover what the thing is that has killed. One man may hide where many cannot. Besides, now that I command the armies of the king, mine is the duty to protect them." This explanation makes no sense whatsoever in my opinion. But it sounds noble, establishing that Niall takes his responsibilities as commander seriously. More importantly, it separates him from a huge number of professional soldiers, thus making it possible to place him in credible danger.

In time, Niall learms that the Balakanian Desert was once the realm of Sosaria Thota.
 “A most famous witch. Some said she was the daughter of a demon, She ruled this part of the world with cruel fingers. Kings and emperors paid her fortunes to have her cast spells for them.”
I do not think I'm surprising anyone by revealing that Sosaria Thota is not in fact dead and that she is "the thing" mentioned in the short story's title, whose awakening led to the destruction of the desert fort. When Sosaria meets Niall, she is impressed by his honesty when he says that he would slay her to protect Urgrik. She then asks him of the current state of the world and commands him to show it to her. Niall reluctantly agrees, hoping that he might find a way to destroy her, as he originally intended. How he goes about this is the true meat of the story.

As I said, "The Thing from the Tomb" is fairly weak as a story. Too much of its narrative happens simply because it must or else Gardner Fox can't advance his plot. At the same time, I find myself sufficiently interested in Niall and his world that I am willing to put aside such concerns and allow myself to be carried forward. Whether a reader is able to do that will probably determine whether or not they, too, will enjoy "The Thing from the Tomb."

Saturday, April 7, 2012


It's rare that I actually buy RPGs anymore, let alone pre-order them, but that's what I did with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. I was initially very skeptical of the game and its approach, as you may recall from some of my posts about it in the past. That feeling didn't dissipate once the open playtest began last year. Over time, though, my opinion softened considerably and in fact I've come around to seeing the advent of DCC RPG as a good and worthy thing. Mind you, I'm one of those guys who actually sees value in anyone and everyone publishing their game, even if that game is "just another clone." Now, DCC RPG is not just another clone, but the principle is the same for me: publish for yourself and don't worry about anyone else.

I bring this up because, yesterday morning, I received word that the PDF of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game was available for download for those of us who'd pre-ordered the game. So, I happily snagged a copy and, while I was too busy yesterday to have much of a chance to do more than glance at it, I've been spending this morning reading it more intently. I'll have more considered thoughts on the thing, after I've digested it more thoroughly, but let me say this right now: I'd like to play this game.

Again, this is a rare thing; by and large, I've already got all the RPGs I need and am not in the market for any more. But DCC RPG looks like a lot of fun to play, like an extremely well-read and much more self-aware version of HackMaster -- and I mean that as a very high compliment. Will it replace Labyrinth Lord as my go-to game for fantasy? Nope. Can I imagine playing a multi-year DCC RPG campaign with my gaming group? No. Heck, I'm not even sure that's possible. Are either of those things strikes against DCC RPG? Not in the slightest.

Seriously, this is a very well written and presented game that knows what it's about and gives it to you. It won't be to everyone's tastes and I consider that a good thing. We already have enough lowest common denominator mass market entertainment as it is and Goodman Games should take considerable pride in not having given us more of the same.