Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Vacuous Grimoire

From page 155 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) by Gary Gygax:
A book of this sort is totally impossible to tell from a normal one, although if a detect magic spell is cast, there will be a magical aura noted. Any character who opens the work and reads so much as a single glyph therein must make 2 saving throws versus magic. The first is to determine if 1 point of intelligence is lost, the second is to find if 2 points of wisdom are lost. Once opened and read, the vacuous grimoire remains, and it must be burned to be rid of it after first casting a remove curse spell. If the tome is placed with other books, its appearance will instantly alter to conform to one of the other works it is amongst.
If I ever publish a fanzine, I'm calling dibs on The Vacuous Grimoire as its title.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #4

Issue #4 of Ares appeared in September 1980. What immediately strikes me about it is its cover by Joe Jusko. Jusko, for those unfamiliar with his name, is a comics artist whose work graced the pages of Heavy Metal and, even more famously, Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan in the '70s. Jusko's presence here is very much in line with what we've seen previously in Ares, whose first issue featured a cover by Howard Chaykin (Jusko's mentor). SPI seemed interested in tapping into existing fantasy and science fiction esthetics rather than cultivating their own distinctive ones. This is in contrast with what TSR seemed to be doing at the same time. Longtime readers of this blog undoubtedly know the approach I prefer.

Related to this topic, editor Redmond Simonsen begins issue #4 with a piece, where he explains original vision of Ares and how that vision is being modified in response to feedback they've received from subscribers. He says:
We designed Ares as a cross between a literary magazine and a gaming magazine -- an attempt to create something unique, aimed at helping the two story-telling forms (writing and gaming) to lend their strengths to each other. Because of the base from which SPI operates, however, our natural audience for Ares is more game-oriented than fiction oriented. This doesn't mean the typical Ares reader doesn't want to see good fiction in his magazine; it's just that he wants the game related material to dominate.
I find this paragraph fascinating, as I think it confirms my sense that, as the hobby grew outside its initial audience, it became a lot less focused on the fantasy and science fiction literature that initially inspired it.  In this issue, there's only a single piece of fiction (see below), "Hillsong" by Jayge Carr, and it's considerably shorter than those in the first three issues. The shift toward more gaming-oriented material is also in evidence in John Boardman's "Science for Science Fiction" installment. This time, rather than talk about how some hallowed element of sci-fi was impossible according to "real science," he instead offers up about a dozen brief science articles about topics that could inspire sci-fi scenarios. This is definitely a better approach, but it still falls somewhat flat in the inspiration department. More interesting is Susan Schwartz's "Facts for Fantasy," which does the same thing as Boardman's piece but with more verve. She draws on myth, legend, and history to present new locales, monsters, and artifacts that can inspire fantasy gaming. It's still a little dry but it's a step in the right direction.

"Eye of the Goblin" by David Ritchie is a short piece of "fiction" that's supposed to illustrate a DragonQuest combat. I say "fiction," because it's more of an extended vignette than a true short story and it's not an especially good one, being a typical example of the "gaming fiction" that would come to prominence later in the decade. "Arena of Death" by Simonsen and Ritchie is a standalone gladiatorial combat game derived from DragonQuest. It can easily be integrated into DQ adventures and campaigns or treated as a wargame in its own right. Reading it I was reminded of just why I could never get a DragonQuest campaign off the ground in my youth: its combat rules are just too complex for my feeble mind. Accompanying "Arena of Death" is an article by John Greer on "The Weapons of Arena of Death," which presents stats and historical information about various medieval and ancient weapons.

The issue includes book, movie, and television reviews, many of which are quite lengthy. The one that immediately caught my eye was the review of the PBS series, Cosmos, which I adored a younger man. It's stuff like this that really helps to put Ares into a wider context for me in a way that Dragon rarely did. Ares seems much more engaged in the wider world beyond the hobby, while Dragon was very cramped in its approach, concentrating largely on the hobby and, even more specifically, on TSR's own offerings. Snarky reviews of fantasy RPGs also continue in issue #4, starting with Chivalry & Sorcery, which is, surprisingly, treated with respect for its "original concepts." Nevertheless, the reviewer recommends using it primarily as a resource for other games rather than as one to be played in itself. Dave Arneson's Adventures in Fantasy make out even worse: "The price is high, the graphics are terrible, the rules are worse." Yet, the reviewer still finds the game "fun" in actual play. Closing out the issue is an article describing "DragonQuest Tournament Combat," which is intended to streamline play when time is of the essence.

It's been very interesting reading these issues in order, both because I'd never read many of them before and because I can see the magazine evolving in response to its readers. SPI was always very good at paying attention to what its fans said, so this should be no surprise to anyone who knows the company's history. Ares is also a window on a part of the hobby I didn't know and rarely interacted with during my formative years. Reading the magazine has thus been an education for me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was one of the first stories by H.P. Lovecraft I ever read and it baffled me. It baffled me not because its content was difficult to understand -- though it does ramble quite a bit -- but because it was not at all what expected from Lovecraft. Prior to entering the hobby, I don't believe I'd ever heard his name. Once I had, many of the older fellows with whom I'd become acquainted sang his praises as an unsurpassed "horror" writer and a huge influence on many of gaming's early designers.

So, naturally, I made my way to library to grab any book by Lovecraft that I could. Among those volumes was the book pictured here, a 1943 Arkham House-published collection of some of Lovecraft's tales, including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Though completed in 1927, Lovecraft never submitted it for publication in his lifetime and, indeed, felt "it isn't much good," as he admitted in a letter to Wilfred Talman. Consequently, the version that appeared in 1943 was based on a largely-unedited rough draft, which may explain some of its disjointedness.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is an odd tale -- "a picaresque chronicle of impossible adventures in a dreamland," as HPL himself described it in the same letter quote above. At over 40,000 words, it rivals At the Mountains of Madness in terms of length. I'd also argue that it rivals At the Mountains of Madness in terms of being one of Lovecraft's greatest -- or at least, most ambitious -- works. That's not an opinion everyone shares. Many critics consider The Dream-Quest to be without much merit, seeing it as yet another ape of Dunsanian fantasy without many redeeming features. I won't deny that it owes much to Lord Dunsany, as all Lovecraft's dreamlands tales do, but I think it's a mistake to see it only as yet another knock-off of the Irish writer. That's because I consider the novella to be a valedictory tale, where Lovecraft not only bids farewell to Dunsany but lays the groundwork for the next phase of his writing career.

For this tale, Lovecraft brings back his dreaming hero and alter ego, Randolph Carter, who'd appeared in three previous stories.
Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods, a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.
What follows is a record of Carter's attempts to find the "majestic sunset city" of his dreams. This quest includes visits to the Enchanted Wood, to Oriab Isle aboard a black galley, to Celephaïs, and, at last, to the Cold Waste, where Kadath lies. Along the way, he meets the rodent-like zoogs, the cats of Ulthar, ghouls, fellow dreamer King Kuranes, moon beasts, and many, many wondrous and terrifying creatures. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is a veritable catalog of the beautiful and the weird, often coming so quickly, one after the other, that it's difficult to really appreciate any of them, or the care with which Lovecraft describes them. That's probably the biggest fault of the novella: it contains so much that it demands a more coherent narrative structure from which to make sense of it all. Without, the reader is left reeling.

Yet, I can forgive that, partly because I like catalogs of the beautiful and the weird, especially when drawn so artfully as Lovecraft does here. However, the ultimate reason for my forgiveness is the conclusion of the tale, when the messenger of the gods, Nyarlathotep himself, explains to Carter the true identity of the city he has seen in his dreams:
"For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston's hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset, of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love. And there is antique Salem with its brooding years, and spectral Marblehead scaling its rocky precipices into past centuries! And the glory of Salem's towers and spires seen afar from Marblehead's pastures across the harbour against the setting sun.

"There is Providence quaint and lordly on its seven hills over the blue harbour, with terraces of green leading up to steeples and citadels of living antiquity, and Newport climbing wraithlike from its dreaming breakwater. Arkham is there, with its moss-grown gambrel roofs and the rocky rolling meadows behind it; and antediluvian Kingsport hoary with stacked chimneys and deserted quays and overhanging gables, and the marvel of high cliffs and the milky-misted ocean with tolling buoys beyond.
"Cool vales in Concord, cobbled lands in Portsmouth, twilight bends of rustic New Hampshire roads where giant elms half hide white farmhouse walls and creaking well-sweeps. Gloucester's salt wharves and Truro's windy willows. Vistas of distant steepled towns and hills beyond hills along the North Shore, hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode Island's back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn. These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself. New England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last these endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.
 The world of Randolph Carter's dreams is not in some faraway place, but right before him, in the familiar places he loves and has loved since his childhood. Perhaps it's because I know so much more about Lovecraft's life that I find this passage so powerfully moving, erhaps it's because I, too, feel the pull of my past and an attachment to the places of my youth or perhaps it's because I'm middle-aged and feel more keenly than ever the weight of the past, I don't know, but I consider it one of the truest things Lovecraft ever wrote and enough to earn The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath a place among the pantheon of my favorite stories.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Open Friday: "Niche" Games

Last night I had the chance to play my first session of Dungeon Crawl Classics (I'll talk about it at greater length tomorrow) and I had a blast. As I said then, DCC RPG is a game that really won me over, despite my initial skepticism, because it was clearly not written to be a mass market crowd pleaser. That is, it's not a "generic" fantasy game, but instead comes with all sorts of mechanical, esthetic, and gaming cultural (e.g. the coolness of Zocchi dice) assumptions that not every gamer is going to share -- and indeed many will actively dislike.

Despite, I think DCC RPG is a great game. Indeed, I think much of its greatness comes from the very fact that it was designed with a niche audience in mind rather than a broad one. So, my question for today is this: what is your favorite "niche RPG?" By this, I mean a game designed for a small, specific audience that understands and appreciates its quirkiness in a way that a mass audience never could.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Arduin Education

As I admitted years ago, I long held an unthinking prejudice against Dave Hargrave's Arduin books, a prejudice I still haven't wholly overcome, even if I've made great strides in that regard. Even if, ultimately, Arduin "isn't for me," I have started to appreciate it in its own right and have found that, despite the stolidity of my imagination, little bits of Hargravian has seeped in over the last couple of years.

I own the first three volumes of the Arduin Grimoire series and nothing more. What I'd like to hear -- from fans of Arduin, not its detractors -- is whether there are any subsequent volumes or related products that you think might be helpful to me as I continue my education. Are volumes IV-IX worth owning? What about Hargrave's dungeons? The modern Arduin books by later authors? Let me know what you think.


Feelings Occasioned by Dice

I got the last of the Zocchi dice I ordered so that I'd be set to play in my first game of Dungeon Crawl Classics tomorrow night (you can be sure I'll post about the experience later). I couldn't find a complete set that included everything I needed, so I had to get a few of them separately. Likewise, I'd been told that the "standard" D7 doesn't roll very well, so I got a D14 numbered 1-7 twice instead. And, to be honest, I didn't like the looks of the D7s I saw anyway, though the modified D14 I got is no prize, being large than I expected.
I know, for a lot of people, the use of all these additional dice types is a big turn-off. When I first heard about it, I thought it was a bit gimmicky too. Plus, the cost of assembling these dice was not insignificant, especially when compared to how cheaply one can acquire a full set of "ordinary" polyhedrals these days.

Having said that, I want to be honest: it was a lot of fun assembling this new collection of dice. In fact, hunting down all these weird dice reminded me a lot of what it was like in early 1980 finding my first set of polyhedrals. As you may recall, I started with the Holmes set. My copy included chits, not dice. I knew what the dice were supposed to look like, since I'd seen pictures of them and my friend's older brother had some, but I wanted my own. Finding them in suburban Baltimore at that time was no easy task, at least not for a kid who was as yet unaware of the existence of hobby stores that stocked RPGs.

The process of finding that first set of dice is something I'll never forget. It's not only one of my early RPG-related memories, but it reminds me of an aspect of the hobby that's very important to me -- initiation. Finding those dice was like a quest for the Holy Grail. Bringing them back to my friends and showing them off was proof that I'd ascended Mt. Olympus and returned. It was a rite of passage that showed I was now a full member of the fraternity of gamers. I suspect that this was a big part of the initial attraction of the hobby to me -- I felt like I was joining something "mysterious" and "elite."

I'm sure that sounds silly to a lot of people reading this, especially those who either didn't have a mentor who brought them into the hobby or who entered it by way of miniatures wargaming long before annoying kids like me appeared on the scene. For me, though, it's a fond memory and one that Goodman Games has not only conjured up but helped me to relive, if only a little. To my mind, that's what more contemporary RPG publishers ought to be trying to do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Crazy Idea

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not necessarily advocating the rule modification I'm presenting below. It's intended more as an illustration of a broad concept I've long wanted to make work, but that I've never quite managed to do so. Basically, the concept is this: high ability scores should be a double-edged sword. That is, they should come with benefits and drawbacks.

This is hard to do in D&D, since ability scores, as they have evolved over the years, have become ever more important to a character's effectiveness in play. Originally, though, the three "prime requisites" -- Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom -- had (almost) no mechanical role in the game except providing an adjustment to earned experience. Thus, the only difference between having a fighting man's having a Strength 15 and a Strength 10 is that the former score grants a small XP bonus, presumably on the notion that a fighter with higher Strength has an easier go of his chosen profession and thus advances more quickly.

Recently, though, I started to wonder if perhaps its made more sense to give an XP bonus to characters with low prime requisite scores. The idea behind this is that a low Strength fighting man who survives, despite his inherent weakness, learns more than would his high Strength counterpart. Granted, this makes a lot of assumptions about the nature of experience points, not to mention the role that having a high ability score plays in gaining XP, but it seemed like a very elegant way to achieve what I wanted -- a negative consequence to having a high ability score. I just flipped OD&D's experience adjustment chart and got this:

Prime Requisite Score
Experience Adjustment

I should add that, if I were to use this chart, it'd be in conjunction with Supplement I's expanded ability score charts. The whole reason I want there to be some negative effects associated with high scores in the first place is because Greyhawk makes certain scores so useful at high levels that it almost necessitates that every character of certain classes will now have high scores. I'm fine with that, but I want a trade-off of some kind, even if I'm far from convinced that this crazy notion I've presented here is the trade-off I'm looking for.

Ares Magazine: Issue #3

Issue #3 of Ares appeared in July 1980. It begins with an editorial by Redmond Simonsen, in which he praises the recently-released film, The Empire Strikes Back, about which more will said later in the issue. Personally, I find this interesting because it puts this issue in immediate historical context. I would have been preparing to enter the sixth grade at the time and had been playing RPGs -- D&D primarily -- for less than a year. I hadn't even started reading Dragon yet.

As in the previous two issues, this one includes not one but two pieces of fiction. The first, "The Whispering Mirror," is a fantasy tale by Richard Lyon and Andrew Offutt. The second, "Final Notes," is, for lack of a better word, a "weird tale" by Michael Edwards. Neither is particularly noteworthy in itself, but, as I've remarked before, it's fascinating that Ares devoted so much of its brief (40) page count to fiction. "Space Wars" by John Prados is another "real science" science fiction article, this time devoted to space-based weaponry. Though the article retains some of the fun-deflating concern with realism of its predecessors, it does so more matter of factly, without the glee that seemed to animate the others. Also, the article evinces concern in multiple places about the real world dangers to peace and humanity's very survival if space becomes militarized. In historical context, it makes more sense, but I can't deny that it strikes an odd tone in a magazine published a wargaming company.

 Issue #3's integral wargame is called "Barbarian Kings" and was designed by Greg Costikyan and Redmond Simonsen. The game, for two to five players, is "a simulation of the Red Age of political and military turmoil on the island continent of Castafon situated in the northern quadrant of the Fira Ocean on the planet Hypastia." That description, right there, nicely encapsulates so much of what I feel about SPI's fantasy efforts -- bold yet tone deaf. Each player assumes the role of a "provincial king" hoping to use his power and influence to bring enough provinces under his control to achieve victory. The game includes human troops, as well as orcs, elves, and dwarves (as well as "whale folk" and "war frogs"). Magic exists and works mostly on a "high" level, which is to say it's mostly strategic, aiding or impeding actions on the map of the world. Combat, movement, and resource management are all fairly simple and straightforward, even to a guy like me who's far from a wargamer.

Eric Goldberg presents reviews of numerous games in his signature snarky style. His first review is dedicated to Steve Jackson's In the Labyrinth, which he calls "as good as any FRP system currently available commercially." Of the second edition of RuneQuest, he is more critical, seeing it as simultaneously a step forward from D&D (and its "odious" level-based system) but also unnecessarily complex in other places and with systems that "don't mesh together as nicely as one would hope." He also criticizes its price and its cover artwork, which he says depicts "a somnolent girl dressed for a Marquis de Sade Costume Ball proffering an oversized tortilla to a ravenous, deformed gila monster." His brief review of Tunnels & Trolls largely dismisses it as a "puff-piece." He concludes by reviewing all three volumes of AD&D, the Dungeon Masters Guide having been out less than a year by this point. Goldberg is mostly negative about AD&D, saying that, rather than correcting the "previous rules maladies" of OD&D, AD&D made the situation much worse. He instead recommends that, "if the reader is interested in investing in D&D as the most prevalent FRP game, bu the collector's edition and Greyhawk, and ignore the rest."

Concluding the issue are brief book reviews, along with reviews of several movies, including The Empire Strikes Back, to which Simonsen referred in his opening editorial. The reviewer praises the film for taking Star Wars in new directions and for its "grimness." Reading through the review, it almost seems as if the writer actually disliked Star Wars for having "the tension ... of an Erroll Flynn film" and being "light" -- precisely the qualities that made the original such a huge hit in the first place. But then it wouldn't be an Ares magazine review if it didn't pour on the macho posturing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Coming of the Sword

Issue #55 (November 1981) was the last issue in which a story about Gardner Fox's Niall of the Far Travels appeared. There are a number of things that are interesting about this final appearance of the Northumbrian barbarian. First, Kim Mohan, in his editorial, calls the stories of Niall "one of DRAGON's specialties." Then, he apologizes for the fact that it had been nearly a year since a new story had appeared, adding that it was Dragon's fault, not Fox's. Second, the story that appears in this issue, "The Coming of the Sword," is out of sequence from its predecessors. Instead of picking up after the last one, this new -- and, as it turns out, final -- one presents us with the tale of Niall's very first adventure, when he was a young man. Now, presenting the adventures of a sword-and-sorcery hero out of chronological order has a long pedigree, going back to Conan the Cimmerian at least, but I find it odd in this case, because it's different from what Fox had done in all his previous stories.

Of course, we'll never know if this represented a change in direction for the Niall of the Far Travels series, since it was the last one ever published. After "The Coming of the Sword," no more appeared, either in the pages of Dragon or elsewhere. I'd love to know why that was the case, but I suspect it's a mystery without any easy answer (unless, of course, Kim Mohan could be prevailed upon to remember what happened -- assuming he even knows). Even without that knowledge, "The Coming of the Sword" is a strange story. I say "strange" in that it not only shows us a younger, less experienced Niall but it shows him in his homeland, which comes across as a Norse pastiche, right down to invocations of Freya, Thor, and Wodin. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but previous installments in the series were filled wholly imaginary deities with no connection to our world.

The story tells of Niall's discovery of a beautiful woman frozen in the ice. While he stares in awe at her, he hears a voice in his head say: "Free me! free me, man of the outer world! free me — and know my
gratitude!" Naturally, he decides to follow her wishes and spends hours attempting to chip away at the ice that contains her. He eventually succeeds and the woman awakens, claiming to be Clovia, the queen of Helios, a realm of which Niall has never heard. This causes Clovia to realize that she must have been imprisoned within the ice for untold years and that her captor, "a magician ... out of the East," must likely be dead by now. Still, she hopes that he homeland of Helios still exists and asks Niall to act as her bodyguard as she makes the long journey there. She promises him riches and fame in her service, both of which get Niall's attention. He had already decided to see more of the "warmer world" anyway, so he agrees to accompany Clovia.

The remainder of this lengthy story concerns the travels of Niall and Clovia as they seek out Helios. Along the way, they encounter numerous dangers, which not only help to establish the barbarian's skill at arms but also serves to highlight just how much the world has changed since Clovia's time. As the duo get closer to her homeland, it becomes ever less likely that Helios has still survived the centuries. Yet, Clovia still holds out hope and Niall does not abandon her, instead forging ahead into the unknown, in the process showing him a wider world beyond the northlands from which he came. We begin to see him become the character we saw in earlier entries in the series.

With that, the Niall of the Far Travels series comes to a close. There's one story left that I have not read, but I'll rectify that soon. When I do, I'll make a post about it. All in all, I enjoyed the series. Not every entry was pure gold, but many were fun to read, filled with well-imagined scenes and engaging characters. It's a pity the series ended so abruptly. It's even more of a pity that these stories have never been collected together under a single cover. I think they'd make a great read for fantasy gamers looking for inspiration.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

In Less Controversial News ...

... the Awesome Dice Blog has a post up about the History of Dice, from about 3000 BC to the present, complete with an illustrative graphic.

Selling Out

For those looking for further evidence that I've sold out to the Man, here's a link to the second of a series of articles Wizards of the Coast has asked me to write about the history of Dungeons & Dragons and its various elements (literally, in the case of the first article).

Alas, for the conspiracy theorists among my readership, this does not mean I've had any connection whatsoever with "D&D Next" (have I mentioned how much I dislike that name?). In fact, if what I've heard about the "online playtest agreement" one needs to sign to participate in the upcoming playtest is true, I won't even be involved in that.

Despite that, I do want to say that WotC pays well, pays quickly, and has been almost completely hands-off in the process of writing these articles. I haven't been asked to change what I've written or insert plugs for 4e products or anything of the kind -- quite the opposite in fact! That they're willing to pay me to write articles about stuff that doesn't directly translate into sales of any product they're currently selling has earned them my respect, if not my love.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Open Friday: Open Playtest

Next Thursday, May 24, is the day Wizards of the Coast is supposed to release the first playtest documents for "D&D Next" (how I loathe that name) to the public. I've heard some disappointing this regarding how "open" it will actually be, which, if true, will keep me away from participating myself, despite my curiosity. Nevertheless, I'm curious how many readers of this blog are interested in participating, so use the poll below to let me know. Feel free to use the comments to elaborate on your answer, especially if you chose "I'd Like to, but ..."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Speaking of Doing It Yourself ...

For some time now, I've been meaning to introduce my readers to the excellent Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog, and not just because I don't think there can be too many allusions to Poe in the hobby. What's terrific about it is its laser-fine focus on "game-ready Weird Gothic fantasy bits for old-school D&D and OSR-style fantasy games." Even if you're not interested in running a full-bore Weird Gothic fantasy campaign, there's an abundance of lootable ideas on the blog, which is written by Jack Shear. You can see many of his ideas by downloading a free PDF compendium of them or by purchasing expanded versions of the same in either a softcover or hardcover format form I've ordered a copy for myself, because it's really excellent stuff.

Appendix O

One of the final sections of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is entitled "Appendix O: OSR Resources," whose last paragraph says the following:
To the many and varied OSR publishers, I offer one comment. As Grognardia marks its fourth anniversary in 2012, the OSR has re-published a plethora of variants on the core D&D concepts. The target customer is offered no shortage of retro-clones, adventures centered on goblin raiders, excursions into the underdeep, and genre-based campaign settings. I started work on the volume you hold in your hand because I believe the time has come to break the chains of D&D convention and step back one era further, to the original inspiration of Appendix N, beyond the confines of genre assumptions. DCC RPG offers a free license to third party publishers who wish to publish compatible material. Even if you choose not to take advantage of this license, I ask you to consider moving past the boundaries of “TSR mimicry.” The time has come to offer our shared customer something both new and old-school.
What Joseph Goodman says above is a sentiment I regularly hear in various quarters. I don't exactly disagree with what he says, but I do think, based on experience, that it's a little naive. Firstly, here's an awful truth RPG designers don't want to hear: a significant majority of gamers only care about D&D. It was the first RPG and, nearly 40 years later, it's still the most popular (I consider Pathfinder to be D&D for the purposes of this discussion). Whether they play LBB-only OD&D or multi-splatbook, computer-assisted 4e, D&D -- and, more importantly, its broad conventions -- is what people think of when they think of "roleplaying games." Heck, that's as true of video games as it is of tabletop ones, so I don't expect there's a huge demand for games that challenge the prevailing paradigm. That's not to say no one wants something different; I simply don't think there's anything wrong with sticking with and preferring an approach that's deeply, deeply ingrained in the hobby.

Secondly, I think people misunderstand nostalgia. These people throw the term around dismissively -- "Oh, you only like that out of nostalgia." Now, even if that criticism were true, so what? People can and do like things for all kinds of reasons. Ultimately, all that matters is that they like them. If someone likes D&D and its conventions (or anything else) because it reminds him of early days in the hobby, what's so wrong with that? Underlying the critique of nostalgia is the notion that we should only like things for "serious" reasons, which is to say, reasons that others can not only understand but agree with. It's an odd criticism in my opinion, since I suspect most of us like all sorts of things for no reason other than that we like them. When I say I like the taste of a certain food or the way a certain piece of music makes me feel, I have no expectation that anyone else will agree with me. At the same time, I'm not deluded in using words such as "like" or "feel" to describe what I'm experiencing.

Thirdly, and lastly, I think the word "new" gets overused, mostly by the jaded. By that I mean that the cry for "the new" is often a function of what one has experienced. Sure, for many gamers who've been playing for three decades, "goblin raiders" or "excursions into the underdeep" may be old hat, but not everyone has been playing for that long. For a lot of younger and/or less experienced folks, The Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet is new. And, for us older and more experienced players, seeing a new spin on these old adventures can be just as fun. This isn't intended as a rebuke to anyone seeking something different, but I do think the cult of the new is frequently selfish and myopic.

I suspect this post has gotten a bit away from me. I really appreciate what Joseph Goodman did with DCC RPG. I think it's a fantastic game and a big part of its fantastic-ness is that he made a game that appealed to him. That's why I find the paragraph I quoted above a little grating. I'm sure there are some folks involved in the OSR who've written stuff not out of personal interest but because they thought it's what others wanted them to write, but their numbers are probably very, very small. There's not enough fame or fortune in this to not follow your heart and do what it commands of you. My advice to anyone who feels that there's "too much" of X and "too little" of Y in the OSR is to go ahead and make it themselves. That's why Joseph Goodman did, to great success, and that's what nearly everyone else in this corner of the hobby is doing, so why not you too?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Retrospective: Mach: The First Colony

You know you're talking about an obscure roleplaying game when it's nigh impossible to find a stock image of its cover. Mind you, until very recently I wasn't 100% certain Mach: The First Colony had ever been published. I remember seeing advertisements for it in many issues of Dragon back in the early '80s and I thought it looked intriguing, but I never saw it on the shelves of any game store I visited. The artwork of the advertisement, coupled with the tagline "A role playing game of soldiers of fortune in a New World," made it seem right up my alley. I've long thought that a RPG taking inspiration from the European exploration and conquest of the western hemisphere had potential. Strangely, comparatively few games have ever done this, so perhaps I'm alone in thinking this way.

Regardless, the way Mach (originally published in 1983) presented itself in those Dragon ads of old made me think that perhaps it might be the game I was looking for. So, when I saw a cheap copy on eBay recently, I snapped it up greedily and awaited its arrival with anticipation. Never having seen Mach "in the flesh," so to speak, I had no idea what to expect. I had only my teenaged memories and my own fevered imagination to draw upon and, as I've learned over the years, it's rare that reality holds up to one's long-held expectations, especially expectations formed long ago and without a firm foundation.

Mach appears to have been the brainchild of a single person, Michael Lange, in whose name the game is copyrighted and who wrote two of the three short books included in the boxed set. There are no credits listed anywhere in the game, so I can only assume that Lange is also responsible for the numerous black and white illustrations found throughout. That's, frankly, one of the most remarkable things about Mach; the game has a unified and interesting esthetic that makes it stand out when compared to what most RPGs looked like at the time of its publication. I found myself reminded of Jorune, which only makes sense, as you'll see.

The "New World" mentioned in Mach's tagline is literally true. Despite appearances to the contrary, Mach is not a fantasy game but a science fiction one. It postulates an alternate reality where, in the 1970s, alien beings called the Abla arrive on Earth and explain that cascading supernovas would soon destroy the planet. Being incredibly powerful and benevolent, the Abla offered to transport as much of Earth's population as they could, along with some Terran animals, to another planet, called Mach, safe from the supernovas' destruction. The Abla explained that Mach was not uninhabited and that humanity would be sharing it with three other humanoid species: the Bane (large, strong, and dimwitted), the Palir (psychics), and the Tofus (highly intelligent and diplomatic). The Abla stipulated that no firearms or schematics for such would be transported to Mach and asked humanity to avoid interfering with the development of the other races.

Naturally, the Abla's plans didn't work out and humanity cleverly circumvented all of their stipulations. Within 200 years of arriving on Mach, mankind had spread across much of Mach, enslaved the Bane, learned psychic "sorcery" from the Palir, and began to make firearms again. This resulted in wars and upheavals that shook the planet, creating an unstable situation that only became more unstable when evidence of an ancient Machic civilization is unearthed -- a civilization with extremely high technology. Where are the Abla in all of this? Good question. Mach doesn't really explain what happened to the Abla; they seem to disappear from the scene after saving humanity. I found this odd, though not surprising, since their continued presence would have been a hindrance to the kind of setting the game's creator clearly wanted.

Rules-wise, Mach comes across as a fairly typical '80s RPG: highly detailed and overly fond of tables. The game system itself is nothing special -- skill-based and percentile dice-oriented. There are lots of skills, though, many of which have their own subsystems for use. Because humans outnumber all other species by a significant number, playing another species is possible only if a player rules well on a random chart. The game provides a fair bit of detail on Machic societies and cultures, in addition to information on native and transported life forms. It's thus a fairly complete "tool kit" for the referee to use in creating his own campaign. Indeed, Mach is explicitly written to have no default setting except in the broadest sense. The referee is expected to establish the specific details of "his" version of the planet, right down to the locations of settlements and their relationships.

Consequently, Mach isn't a very newbie-friendly game, a fact that it acknowledges several times. It's designed for "experienced" roleplayers looking for a challenge. Even given that, it stills seems to me to be incomplete as is, more like the sketch of an interesting idea rather than something more complete. Admittedly, I haven't played the game, so perhaps my initial impression is mistaken. Compared to other humans-transported-to-another-world games, like Empire of the Petal Throne or Jorune, Mach is a bit lightweight and its setting doesn't quite hang together. Throw in the needlessly complex rules system and it's a recipe for disappointment. I'd had high hopes that Mach: The First Colony was a forgotten classic of the hobby. Instead, it looks to me more like a labor of love whose enthusiasm far outstripped its content.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #2

Issue #2 of Ares appeared in May 1980, kicking off its content with a piece of fiction. Entitled "The Inn at World's End," this short story is by Richard Lyon and Andrew Offutt, the latter well-known for his work as editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series, the third volume of which appears in Appendix N. This is followed by a second piece of fiction, "Child of the Wandering Sea," by Jayge Carr. I personally consider it fascinating that a gaming magazine from 1980 included not one but two pieces of fiction in its pages. Even Dragon, where fantasy fiction was a staple for many years, rarely included more than one story per issue.

Killjoy scientist John Boardman returns, along with a colleague, James Smolen, to offer up two articles on extraterrestrial life. The first, "An Exozoological Sampler," offers up six creatures from other worlds. Accompanying the article is another "Alien Life Forms," which is an overview of scientific speculation at the time regarding the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. Boardman and Smolen suggests that life may be quite common among the stars but intelligent life exceedingly rare. Likewise, they suggest that any such life may be so unlike human beings as to be difficult to come to any understanding with -- not exactly the stuff of good gaming!

This issue's complete game is The Wreck of the B.S. M. Pandora by James Dunnigan, Redmond Simonsen, and David Ritchie. The game concerns a crashed survey ship, the Pandora, which is transporting alien life forms to human space for study. The game, for one to five players, simulates the efforts of surviving crew members to recapture the escape life forms, repair their ship, and get it back into space so that it can reach its intended destination. It's actually a neat little game, both for its schematized representation of the ship and its clever system for determining the reactions of alien life forms to different crew members, based on their behavior.

There's a lengthy article by L. Sprague de Camp, "Conan: Illusion and Reality," about which I've written before. To call it next to worthless is an understatement. However, it is a reminder of the state of Howard studies prior to the renaissance that occurred in the later '80s and especially in the 1990s. But for a handful of stalwarts, I don't think too many people take De Camp very seriously as a scholar or interpreter of REH, thank goodness.

As in the premier issue, a significant portion of issue #2 is taken over by reviews of all kinds: books, movies, and games. The reviews this time around are less snarky but generally no more positive. On the other hand, they're longer and more detailed. So, when Eric Goldberg deems Magic Realm to have "fall[en] flat on its face" in trying to its lofty design goals, he at least explains why he feels it has failed. Still, after re-reading this issue, it's hard to shake the feeling that the crew at SPI were difficult to please -- either that or they just liked to complain ...

Monday, May 14, 2012

An Interview with Ken St. Andre

One of the early staples of this blog were interviews with important figures in the history of the hobby. One noteworthy figure whose did not appear here was that of Ken St. Andre, perhaps because I'd already interviewed him over on The Escapist. Even so, as the creator of the second published roleplaying game, I felt there was lots more insight Ken could impart and so I asked him if he'd consent to another interview. He graciously agreed, even though my questions this time were a bit more personal and demanding than those I'd asked him before. The full text of that interview can be found below. 


1. I've read elsewhere that, as a boy, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan was one of your earliest literary heroes, followed later by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. What was it about these characters that so inspired you?

Do you think it could be that opposites attract?  I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women.  I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life.  Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible. Or maybe it was just that all the old Tarzan movies were shown on Saturday afternoon television in Phoenix.  From the movies I discovered the books, from the books I discovered the comics. Escape fiction is my preferred reading material.  You can’t really get any bigger escapes than the exploits of Tarzan and Conan.

2. Unlike a lot of early roleplaying game designers, you didn't come from a background in wargames. Do you think this helped or hindered you?

Well, I don’t think that’s strictly true.  I did a lot of gaming in elementary school, high school, and college.  I played the Avalon Hill wargames back in the day.  I even had a friend in high school named Mike Watters who was into miniatures, and we would get together once in a while, and refight World War II-style battles with model tanks and rubber soldiers.  I started the chess club at Maryvale High School and was its first president back in 1965.  I learned to play Diplomacy in grad school in 1974 including variant Diplomacy, and I created several Diplomacy variants including Hyborean, Young Kingdoms, and Barsoomian variants.  And others.

But I wasn’t much of a miniatures wargamer in the mid-70s.  I hadn’t played anything like that since high school back in 1969.  I was a big fan of swords and sorcery, and of comic books in general.  I was dreaming of being a full-time professional science fiction writer.  Because I wasn’t a minis gamer, and I’m still not, I didn’t know or understand the mini-traditions embodied in early D&D.  Not understanding, I rebelled, and rebellion spawned Tunnels & Trolls.  I guess I’d say not having that miniatures background helped.  If first edition D&D rules had made any sense to me, there probably never would have been a Tunnels & Trolls.

3. What were some of the aspects of miniatures wargaming that you  didn't understand or didn't like and sought to work around when  designing Tunnels & Trolls?

Ah, James, you give me far too much credit.  When I wrote the first edition of T&T in a red-hot creative frenzy to get the ideas for character creation, monster-fighting, medieval weaponry, and jokey spells down on paper for the first time, I didn’t give a single thought about miniatures.  At the time I had never even seen anyone play That Other Game.  To me, the whole game took place in the theater of my mind.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I had gone to some gaming conventions and actually seen people playing That Other Game that I realized how dependent on miniatures those gamers actually were.  All I knew was that moving in terms of inches didn’t make any sense to me.

4. As I understand it, you originally wanted to call T&T Tunnels & Troglodytes but were overruled by your players. Since then the troll has become the mascot not only of the game itself but of you personally. What is it that you find interesting about trolls, as presented in T&T?

Back in 1975 there was a popular rock and roll song called Troglodyte, or else a group by that name.  I thought it was a tremendously funny word.  Trogs are cave dwellers, and here was this game about exploring caverns and dungeons.  Who would be there to greet our bold explorers?  Troglodytes, of course! 

Well, the Tunnels & Troglodytes name was laughed out of the room the first time I mentioned it at one of our Friday night gaming sessions.  I think it was artist Rob Carver—he who did the illos for the first edition of T&T--who suggested Tunnels & Trolls instead.  It’s not that I was really drawn to trolls—the troll thing sort of jumped up and said, “take me, I’m available”.  There’s a lot of material available in literature about dragons, but relatively little about trolls.  Having gotten stuck with trolls because I wanted the alliterative title for the game, it has just become more and more my thing to champion them.  Maybe because I’m not much of a winner in real life, I’ve always been one to cheer for the underdog.  When you compare trolls to dragons, who comes off as the underdog?  Yeah, trolls do. 

People don’t understand that trolls are not just one kind of monster in T&T.  The word troll could mean a lot of different things to the old Scandinavians.  Inspired by Tolkien, trolls usually means rock trolls in Tunnels & Trolls, creatures of living stone.  Yeah, Tolkien’s trolls were flesh and turned to stone when struck by sunlight, but what if being stone didn’t really stop them?  There are many different kinds of trolls in T&T:  rock trolls, meat trolls—those made of flesh—ice trolls, water trolls, wolf trolls, spider-trolls.

5. Long ago, you described the setting of Tunnels & Trolls as "The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of bad guys thrown in." I have to admit that that's a really evocative description. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?

Tunnels and Trolls happened because I was a huge fan of swords and sorcery fiction.  Robert E. Howard was my favorite writer of all time, closely followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.  I wanted to be a writer.  I wanted to be a swords and sorcery writer more than anything.  Along came this new style of gaming that was all about my favorite kind of fiction.  Conan, Tarzan, Aragorn, the Gray Mouser, and Elric are all heroes. They battle tremendous odds and win.  For them it was never about wargaming—never about achieving superior numbers and power and then crushing the foe.  It was about one vs. many—about defeating the odds, and triumphing despite adversity.  I identified with those heroes because in a way I always saw myself battling against the odds.  I wanted T&T to be that kind of game—a game for heroes.  And so, I never really made any attempt to balance things out.  As a player in a frpg, the odds should be against you.  Cope with it!  Triumph anyway!  That’s what makes a game memorable and fun.

6. Does that mean you have no interest in questions of game mechanical  "balance" when creating adventures for T&T?

I wouldn’t say no interest in mechanical balance of the game, but not very much.  Obviously the challenge has to be appropriate to the power of the delvers, but not really.  It’s a self-correcting thing.  If the GM always makes adventures that are too hard for his players, the players should get wise and quit gaming with that guy.  I like to think that T&T is more about actually role-playing through situations.  Liz Danforth used to call it role-playing as opposed to "roll-playing."

So one rule I made for the sake of balance was that no character type could have a Speed multiplier greater than one.  I want all the Kindred types to be on more-or-less equal ground when it comes to reaction time, because super speed is perhaps the greatest super power around.  But aside from that, there really aren’t any limits in terms of game rules as to what a player or a GM can do.  Another unbalanced rule is that the G.M. is God—he/she can do pretty much whatever they want to make the adventure work.  My in-game bosses and dungeon-masters are gods.  Gristlegrim the Dwarf God, Lerotra’hh the Death Goddess, Arahk Gnahk, the culture bringer of the uruks and many another.  Deus ex Machina—yes, all the time.  Game balance is, in my humble opinion, good for people who want little internally consistent models that run on their own power.  You wind up with things like Knights of the Dinner Table where the GM is so tied up in rules that he must follow that I’m surprised they ever manage to get through an adventure.

Some T&T players have worked out rules for balancing the toughness of the monsters in their adventures to the size and toughness of the adventuring party.  Good for them!  I don’t do that, and you won’t see those formulas enshrined in the official T&T rules.  My number one rule is “What’s reasonable under the circumstances?”  Is it a swamp full of Goblins with one Goblin about equal to one first level delver?  So, if I have six delvers, do I limit myself to attacks by only six or seven Goblins?  Goblins in the wild are like other hunter-gatherer peoples.  They do their hunting alone or in small groups—large groups scare away the prey.  Our six delvers meet some fishergoblins in the swamp.  The odds are six to two.  Goblins don’t have a chance if they stand and fight.  That’s okay.  Later, our delvers stumble into a goblin village with 40 active adults living there, and make them mad.  Now the odds are 40 to 6 in favor of the Goblins.  I’m not going to balance these encounters out so that our 6 delvers always meet about 6 goblins.  What’s reasonable?  Not, what balances?

7. You're among only a handful of early RPG designers who not only still owns and controls the game he created nearly 40 years ago but is actively involved in its continued development. How did this happen? Did you make a conscious effort, back in 1975, to ensure that T&T remained in your hands?

Yes, I did make that effort.  Back in 1975, when Rick Loomis first had success with selling my extra copies of T&T at a game convention, he offered to buy it from me outright—for some trivial sum I can’t remember.  I didn’t have any money at the time, and I might have been tempted, but I was thinking like a writer.  I considered it to be writing even back then.  I had gone to the trouble of getting copyright forms, filling them out, and sending them to Library of Congress with my copyright in the first edition.  I wanted royalties.  I knew what had happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with Superman.  I knew they had lost control of their creation.  I had no idea whether T&T would ever amount to anything, but just in case it did, I wanted my name to be attached to it.

Then again, perhaps T&T has never been important enough to cause anyone to make a serious attempt to take it away from me.  It’s not like Hasbro ever came and offered me any money to give up the rights.  Heck, if a big game compnny offered me $100,000 or more, I”d sell my copyright in a heartbeat.  I don’t suppose you get credit for resisting temptation if you’re never tempted.  (grin).

And anyway, I don’t really control T&T.  I’m associated with the game because I never quit writing, playing, and promoting it, but I don’t believe I own it.  Tunnels & Trolls has a life of its own.

8. Though you're most well known as the creator of Tunnels & Trolls, my personal favorite design of yours is Stormbringer, which you co-wrote with Steve Perrin. Can you briefly describe how you wound up working on this game?

Greg Stafford and I are friends from way back.  The rpg I most admire is Runequest—it’s brilliant, wacky, individual.  We talked to each other and gamed together once in a while at California gaming cons like DundraCon.  Somehow I heard that Greg had gotten the rights to do a game based on the Elric stories of Michael Moorcock.  I was then, and am now, a big fan of Mr. Moorcock.  I wrote to Greg and talked to him on the phone and simply asked to do the game.  Rudy Kraft was also interested in doing it.  We both submitted proposals for the kind of game we would write.  Greg picked mine, and assigned Steve Perrin as editor on the project.  Steve was a big help to me in writing the game.  He contributed a lot of good ideas, and I wound up suggesting that he get a co-credit as game author, although I did almost all of the writing.

9. Are there any gaming or gaming-related projects you've not yet gotten  the chance to do but would like to?  That's it.

There are so many gaming projects that I would have liked to do, or wanted to do and didn’t get the go-ahead on.  When Magic: the Gathering first came out I very quickly came to see the possibilities of such a game.  I really wanted to do a T&T cardgame based on the Magic the Gathering paradigm.  I created my own card dungeon—Gristlegrim--with each room described in just enough detail to allow the Game Master to flesh it out and roleplay encounters within them.  I made a deck of monster cards of varying toughness to use against the delvers in a random fashion.  I envisioned not my ugly hand-written prototype, but a slick set of dungeon “tiles” and monster cards and trap cards and magic cards and weapon cards and treasure cards that could be mixed and matched in infinite combinations, all playing under the basic T&T rules which could also be summarized on a couple of cards.  Quite a few companies have done such projects now, but I swear to you, James, that I had the idea for it ten to twenty years ahead of everyone else.  We couldn’t do it.  Printing card decks was/is expensive.  Flying Buffalo didn’t have the money for it.  I certainly didn’t.  Window of opportunity passed and it never happened.  I even toyed with the idea of collectible monsters and weapons à la MTG.

Another game I wanted to do and still want to do is a simple dice game called Fantasy Armies.  The basic idea is that each fantasy race is represented by a different kind of dice.  Human would be D6 creatures with numbers ranging from 1 to 6 on the sides.  Dwarves might be D4 creatures, but the numbers would all be multiples of 2, so a face would not have a 1, 2, and 3 on it, but would have 2, 4, and 6.  Another face would have 4, 6, 8.  The third face would show 6, 8, 10, and the fourth would show 8, 10, 12.  I had it all worked out for more than a dozen different races.  No one but me seems to like the idea. 

I have dozens of ideas for games I’d like to do.  Some spin off from T&T, and others have nothing to do with it.  I had a game idea based on E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman novels called Lords of the Spectrum—mostly about warring fleets battling each other in interstellar space.  It will never see the light of day. 

I guess I’m lucky to have had as much success as I have had with games like Tunnels & Trolls, Monsters! Monsters!, Stormbringer, and Wasteland.  I can’t really complain if all my ideas don’t come to fruition.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Open Friday: Real, Fun Quotes

I wanted something fun for today's Open Friday question, so here it is: what's the most amusing in character quote you can remember from a game session? To make it a little more challenging, let me stipulate that I'm looking for quotes that can be enjoyed without any context. So, all I want is a quote without any setup or explanation.

For example, here's one I'll never forget:
"Chim-pan-zees wan-na be free!"

Thursday, May 10, 2012

At Last!

Retrospective: Buffalo Castle

I've noted many times before on this blog that one of my great regrets as a gamer is that there are games about which I had irrational prejudices back in the day, prejudices based largely on what the older guys I knew said about the games in question. While I eventually came to realize that the "wisdom" those older guys imparted was often half-baked, their influence over my opinion nevertheless remained for a long time. For that reason, I was unforgivably snobbish toward Ken St. Andre's Tunnels & Trolls for far too long, considering it a "silly" knock-off of Dungeons & Dragons. I know better now.

And yet, like RuneQuest, T&T was -- and is -- a roleplaying game that fascinated me, even as I turned my nose up at it. Even now, I'm not entirely sure why that was. Some of it, no doubt, was a symptom of my formerly regular bouts of dissatisfaction with D&D. In the past, I used to find some aspect of Dungeons & Dragons annoying or uncongenial and I'd start to look about for alternatives to it. Another part of it, I think, is that Tunnels & Trolls seemed to exist in its own little world, by which I mean that its players and authors alike were quite content to simply do their own thing without apology. Don't like T&T? Think it's a "joke game?" Fine, whatever. Your loss. I've never met an evangelical T&T player, the kind of guy who goes on and on about how great his preferred game was, let alone how much better his game was than yours. They were always live and let live and, even in my younger, stupider days, I found their attitudes attractive.

That's probably why, despite my frequent protestations to the contrary, I'd occasionally looked in on T&T to see how the other half lived. This was made even easier when a friend of mine bought a copy of the fifth edition boxed set sometime in the mid-80s. Though I questioned his wisdom in "wasting" his money on such a purchase, I was secretly glad he'd done so, because I knew it'd give me the chance to read the T&T rulebook at length on my own, something I'd never done before, instead relying on furtive glances at it in stores or at local game gatherings. This helped me begin to overcome my irrational dismissal of the game (though the spell names still rankled, I can't deny), though not enough that I'd embrace the game in any lasting way.

In addition to the rulebook, my friend's boxed set also contained an adventure called Buffalo Castle. Buffalo Castle is a solitaire dungeon, first published in 1976 and written by Rick Loomis. It is, so far as I know, not only the first solitaire dungeon for T&T but the first solitaire dungeon of any type in the hobby, predating the Fighting Fantasy books by six years, which is quite an achievement. (The first Choose Your Own Adventure book was written in 1969, but did not see publication until the same year as Buffalo Castle; I have no idea if Loomis had seen a copy when he wrote his solitaire or even if the idea of solo adventures originated with him.) My old dismissiveness initially returned for a time, seeing solitaire dungeons for "real" RPGs (as opposed to gamebooks) as somehow beyond the pale, but my curiosity was powerful and I eventually borrowed Buffalo Castle from my friend and played it.

I can't, in truth, say that Buffalo Castle is an amazing adventure. It's a rather limited -- and small -- dungeon crawl designed to be played only by fighter characters (no magic allowed). There are only about 150 entries in the whole 32-page book, most of them only a sentence or two long. Yet, there was something strangely compelling about it nonetheless. A surreality perhaps? This was a dungeon, after all, where you can find not only bored trolls guarding chests but also octopi and, yes, an enraged buffalo. There are deathtraps galore, as well as treasures like magic aspirin and diplomas from the Buffalo School of Dungeon Delving. This was nothing like the dungeons TSR published or that I imitated so studiously in my own games. This was different.

I wasn't sure that I actually liked what made Buffalo Castle (and, by extension, T&T) so different from what I was used to, but I wasn't sure that I didn't like it either. The whole thing was so bizarre, so odd, that I don't think I ever sorted out my feelings toward it, except that I was pretty sure T&T was never going to replace D&D in my gaming group. And so it was. As I got older, though, my gaming style and preferences changed and I often found myself including bits of incongruous humor and weirdness in my adventures here and there, generally without rhyme or reason -- something to break up the staid seriousness that is the primary color of my imagination. Such oddities are still spices in my porridge rather than the main ingredients, but they're there nonetheless and, once upon a time, they weren't.

Looking back now, I can't help but wonder if the seeds for this change were sown by T&T and Buffalo Castle without my realizing it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wizards' World

If there's a guy in the old school community these days who's doing more than Dan Proctor to preserve old RPGs, I'd love to know who it is. Over the past couple of years, Dan has acquired the rights to Starships & Spacemen, TimeMaster, and Sandman, in addition to publishing my favorite retro-clone, Labyrinth Lord. His latest acquisition is Wizards' World, a fantasy roleplaying game published in 1983 by a tiny outfit called Fantasy Worlds Unlimited (not to be confused with Fantasy Games Unlimited).

While in some ways nothing more than someone's AD&D-inspired house rules, there's nevertheless a charming enthusiasm to Wizards' World that serves as a reminder that there's no more primal way to show one's love for this weird hobby than by publishing your own RPG, no matter how derivative some might see it as being. I've been enjoying reading my copy of it, with its funky races (metamorphic dwarves, demon halflings, vampires) and strange sub-classes (attacker, defender, destroyer), among many other delights. It's a window on another time and I'm very grateful to Dan for not only making games like this available once again in their original, unadulterated forms but also in making them more widely available nowadays than they probably ever were at the time of their original releases.

Ares Magazine: Issue #1

I've noted before that, during the time I subscribed to and most actively read Dragon, I found the Ares section to be consistently one of the magazine's high points. Part of it was that I'm first and foremost a science fiction fan, so the articles in that section naturally appealed to me. A bigger part, I think, was that the articles in the Ares section were, generally speaking, better written. Having re-read those sections over the last few months, I'm pretty sure I'm not seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Because of space considerations, Ares articles were lean and to the point; there was no room for authorial flights of fancy or rambling musings. They were almost all "meat." It helped, too, that there was a smaller pool of writers for the Ares section than Dragon generally and those writers were ones whose styles and content I found congenial.

Given my fondness for the section back in those days, it wasn't hard to imagine that I'd seek out copies of its predecessor, the "magazine of science fiction and fantasy simulation" published by SPI between 1980 and 1982. I figured that, if one small section called Ares was so enjoyable, what would a whole magazine called Ares be like? Unfortunately, in Baltimore in the early '80s, finding copies of Ares magazine wasn't easy, at least in the circles in which I traveled. There were only a couple of places I frequented that carried many SPI titles and, even then, their selection was more limited than that of local favorite, Avalon Hill. Nevertheless, I did manage to obtain a few copies of Ares back in the day and have subsequently filled out my collection. For the next few months, I'm going to be looking briefly at each issue and highlighting those sections that make an impression on me.

Issue #1 appeared in March 1980, with a cover by comics legend Howard Chaykin. That's pretty awesome any way you slice it. The issue begins with an editorial by the late Redmond Simonsen, in which he explains why Ares was founded, noting that
Fantasy, science fiction, and simulation gaming share a common cord of connective tissue: the constructed world. To a greater degree than any so-called "mainstream" fiction, works of science fiction and fantasy imply or explain worlds much more dependent upon the product of the imagination -- worlds inherently more poetic or allusive thereby.
Simonsen goes on to make a connection between Ares and SPI's other magazine, Strategy & Tactics, suggesting that, where S&T serves the historical side of things, Ares will serve the fantastical. It was definitely an ambitious vision and I can't help but wonder how well received it was by the larger gaming populace. As I said above, Ares wasn't widely known in my neck of the woods prior to its appearance in the pages of Dragon, but I have no idea if that was at all typical.

Next up is an Asian-themed fantasy short story called "Dragon ... Ghost" by M. Lucie Chin. Following that is a science article by John Boardman, Ph.D. entitled "No, You're Not Going to the Stars." The article discusses all the reasons why the ways space travel, as portrayed in science fiction, are impossible or unlikely. Boardman wrote many articles of this sort throughout Ares' run and, while fascinating, they all have a distinctly "party pooper" feel to them, like that annoying kid in school who enjoyed pointing out anachronisms in historical films and TV shows so as to ruin other kids' fun. Then there's another piece of fiction, "Gangsters," by Henrik Nordlie.

The main attraction of issue #1 is WorldKiller, a complete wargame "of planetary assault." Like Strategy & Tactics, every issue of Ares included a complete game of some sort, with rules, maps, and counters. Considering the cover price of $3.00, that was a pretty good deal. WorldKiller was designed by Simonsen and is fairly brief in terms of rules, though it's still written in the largely impenetrable (to me) SPI house style of using numbered cases to distinguish between sections (e.g. 1.1, 1.1.2,, etc.).  The remainder of issue #1 consists of short, snarky reviews of books, movies, and games by the SPI staff. Interestingly, a significant number of the game reviews are of SPI products, though, perhaps inevitably, they are reviewed with less condescension and vitriol.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ghouls About Town

The ever-amazing Russ Nicholson just completed a piece of artwork for Dwimmermount, depicting two ghouls -- technically, ghasts -- from the colony of them that infests levels 2A and 3A of the dungeon. Unsurprisingly, he did a superb job and I look forward to seeing what else he creates for me in the weeks to come.
©2012 Russ Nicholson

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Lure of the Golden Godling

Though the Niall of the Far Travels series consists of ten short stories, I own only nine of them. The eighth installment, which comes between "The Cup of the Golden Death" and today's entry, is entitled "Out of the Eons" and appeared in the premier issue (August 1980) of a TSR periodical not many people remember, Dragontales. Dragontales was an anthology of short fiction that, so far as I know, did not last more than a couple of issues. I remember seeing copies of it in bookstores and hobby shops in the early '80s, but I never picked one up for myself. Consequently, I won't be discussing "Out of the Eons" here, though I will be making an effort to try and find a copy at some point in the future.

The ninth Niall story, "The Lure of the Golden Godling," appeared in issue #44 of Dragon (December 1980), begins with the barbarian walking the night streets of the city of Urgrik, where he comes upon what appears to be a man -- or a body -- lying motionless on a cobblestone street. Examining the shape closer, Niall soon realizes that it is neither a living nor a dead man at all, but rather a golden statue bundled up in some cloth:
It was no more than a foot high, and had obviously been carved by a master craftsman. It showed something amorphous, almost shapeless, yet possessed of some strange, other-worldly power. Its rounded eyes seemed to peer upwards at Niall, as though promising him untold wealth and power even as a tiny voice whispered soothingly inside his brain.

Niall growled under his breath. He did not like these mysterious manifestations of the many gods that infested his world.
Despite his distaste for anything having to do with the gods, Niall decides to hold on to the idol, which he reckons to be solid gold. He takes it back with him to his palace in the city and, before he reaches it, he is set upon by a beautiful young woman. The woman, who identifies herself as Thayya, begs Niall to give her the statue: "Come with me and you shall be rewarded," she says. The northern warrior senses a trap -- indeed, he hopes it is a trap, as he's in the mood for adventure -- but nevertheless agrees to come with Thayya.

Niall's instincts are correct. Though the young woman tries to ply him with gold and other enticements in exchange for the statue, when he falls prey to neither, she calls on assassins to try and slay him.
Niall bellowed with delight. His great sword came up into his hand and he swung it like a scythe. A head toppled from a neck, and then Blood-drinker was burying its keen blade into a shoulder, half severing it.

The Far Traveler moved like a cat. He was half across the room even as he was freeing his blade from bleeding flesh, lifting it to swing again, and then again. At each stroke of that shining steel, blood spurted. Heads were cloven, arms were sheared. Only now and again did he use his blade as a shield to deflect the blows that were aimed at him.

Niall was in his glory, with the ring of steel in his ears and the sight of armed men coming at him. For this he had been born, to fight—and to fight even harder against such odds.

He heard Thayya urging on the men amid whispered prayers to whatever gods she worshipped. She was backing slowly toward the door, eyes big with terror, as she saw how Niall fought.

Niall wanted to reach her, to take her with him to answer questions. But the mercenaries who fought him seemed to detect what it was he wanted. They flung themselves before him; they gave up their lives to protect the woman.

Thayya moved toward the doorway and slipped through it, closing and bolting the door behind her. Niall growled low in his throat, hurled himself even more savagely at the men who still faced him.

They went down before his blade until he was the only thing standing in the room. As the last man fell, Niall shook himself and lowered his sword. He moved toward the thick door that blocked the path deeper into the building. It was barred, bolted.

Niall shrugged. The woman was long gone.
Needless to say, Niall decides to find out more about both the golden statue and Thayya, a quest that takes him not just far away from Urgrik but involves him in the machinations of the very gods themselves. Ultimately, that's what makes "The Lure of the Golden Godling" such a compelling read. Gardner Fox does a lot to flesh out the gods of Niall's world -- their relationships, their petty feuds and jealousies, their need for human worshipers -- and this goes a long way, I think, it distinguishing this series from others of its kind. There's good reason Niall wishes to avoid having anything to do with the gods and "The Lure of the Golden Godling" makes the reader see the wisdom in his stance. It's a fun story and a very gameable one, too, something that a great many tales of gods and men are not -- another point in its favor.