Friday, June 29, 2012

Open Friday: Homages

On one of the levels of Dwimmermount, there's the following:
44. Blue RoomDevoid of almost any contents, this room is completely tiled -- walls, floor, and ceiling -- in dark blue. In one corner can be found a small scarab-shaped brooch. The brooch is non-magical but does have some strange, curving symbols written on it that utterly elude even spells like read languages to decipher. The brooch might fetch 100 gp to a dedicated collector of the arcane.
I wrote that as a small and (I hope) unobtrusive homage, one of several scattered throughout the dungeon to people and games I like and admire. This practice is a long pedigree, with many old school products doing similar things.

So today's Open Friday question is a little more open-ended than usual: Do you like such homages in your gaming materials? If not, why not? Do you use them yourself in things you're writing or running? What are some examples of which you're particularly proud?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Retrospective: The Mystic Wood

Perhaps because I grew up in Maryland, Avalon Hill loomed large in my early days in the large. You could find its "bookshelf games" nearly anywhere you went, from toy stores to department stores to greeting card stores and even weirder places. AH's large boxed games were everywhere in the late 70s and early 80s, at least in my neck of the woods.

However, I first became acquainted with them long before I started gaming myself because my friend's father and his older brother owned a bunch of them and I remember staring in wonder at them as I looked up at them on the shelf. To a child's eyes, Avalon Hill games looked important and serious, an impression that was probably helped by the fact that so many of them seemed to be based on history, particularly the Civil War and World War II.

Consequently, when I grew older and started playing RPGs, I retained a strange fondness for Avalon Hill games, even though I never really caught the wargaming bug. Still, I bought quite a few of these games, in part, I think, because I saw owning them as a sign that I was now "part of the brotherhood." In retrospect, this mindset looks more than a little foolish, but I was an awkward, bookish teenager without much experience of the wider world, so I hope I can be forgiven my desire to belong to something I perceived not only to exist but to be worth belonging to.

Now, as I said, I was never much of a wargamer; I don't have the patience for it and neither strategy nor tactics come to me naturally. So, when I decided to purchase an Avalon Hill game as a token of my having "leveled up," I inclined toward its fantasy offerings, such as 1982's The Mystic Wood, designed by Terence Peter Donnelly. As I understand it, the Avalon Hill edition was in fact the second edition of the game, the first having been published by a small outfit called Ariel Productions, but I didn't know this at the time. What I did know was that The Mystic Wood was a game about knights going on quests in an enchanted forest and that was good enough to pique my interest.

The two is designed for two to four players, each of whom selects one of five knight characters to play. These knights, one of whom is a woman -- Britomart from Spenser's The Faerie Queene -- each have a quest associated with them, which constitutes their victory condition. So, for example, the knight George needs (obviously) to find and slay the dragon, while Perceval needs to find and leave the forest in possession of the Holy Grail.

The game's "board" consisted of nearly 50 tiles, about half of which represented the titular mystic wood, while the other half represented the "earthly" wood, gates, and a tower. The tiles were placed face down and only revealed as players moved their knights across them. Depending on the type of tile revealed in play, certain things could happen, determined by a draw from a deck of random events. These events include the discovery of useful items, potential companions, and enemies. Items and companions aid you in your quest, while enemies must be defeated. If a knight is himself defeated, he is stripped of all his items (he keeps his companions) and is imprisoned within the Tower tile until he can roll high enough to escape, kind of like the Jail space in Monopoly.

The it's a fairly simple game, The Mystic Wood was actually a lot of fun, so much so that I regret having given away my copy years ago. I suspect my children would enjoy playing it, since it has the right mix of randomness and strategy, combined with an evocative fantasy theme. I fear, though, like most of those long-gone Avalon Hill games, finding an intact copy at a reasonable price will be a worthy quest in itself.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #8

Issue #8 of Ares made its debut in May 1981, featuring another cover by John Pierard, this one featuring a depiction of Odin, Thor, and Vidar as they prepare to do battle on the Plain of Vigrid. It's not a particularly good illustration in my opinion, looking more than a little stiff and goofy, but perhaps I'm insufficiently appreciative of its virtues. Much better, I think, is Pierard's interior art accompanying the first article, "Ragnarok, The Mythic Story of the Twilight of the Gods" by Susan Schwartz, which provides "historical background" for this issue's integral wargame. Also by Schwartz is another installment of "Facts for Fantasy," along with more of John Boardman's "Science for Science Fiction."

Justin Leites offers up a game variant, "Pandora's Link," which shows how to connect the two games, Voyage of the Pandora with Wreck of the Pandora. Given the similarity of the two games in terms of rules and subject matter, this makes good sense. David Ritchie provides another installment of "DragonNotes" for DragonQuest. Speaking for myself, I find these articles do little to enthuse me about trying to grasp the rules of DQ, as they seem even more persnickety than those of Chivalry & Sorcery, which is saying something. John Butterfield previews SPI's SF RPG, Universe, through another short "Designer's Notes" article. This one includes reference to the game's planetary generation system, which is one of my favorite parts of the game and something I seriously considered swiping for Thousand Suns.

Ragnarok: The Twilight of the Gods is a wargame by Darryl Esakof and Redmond Simonsen (of course!) dealing with the ultimate battle between the Aesir gods and the giants led by the traitorous Loki. Its map represents the Plain of Vigrid, the Norse Megiddo, where the two forces will engage in warfare. Two things stand out about Ragnarok. First, there's the unique powers of the various "heroes" on each side. For example, Thor can throw thunderbolts and his hammer, Mjolnir, has special traits as well. Second, the Aesir are more personally powerful than the giants, but fewer in number. The trick for the giant player is to try to get as many giants into play as quickly as possible. However, giants can enter Asgard only by means of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, and the more giants brought across it at a time, the greater the chance the bridge will collapse and thus cut off the giants from their fellows.

As is so often the case, just before SPI releases a product of its own, there's a review of its competitors. Since issue #9 will feature Universe's starship combat rules, Steve List gives reviews for eight different starship combat games already on the market. These are: Starfall, Dark Stars, Time Lag, Warp War, Starfire, Starfire II, Starfleet Battles, and Starfleet Battles Expansion #1. Though a lot of the reviews are negative, they seem evenhanded to me rather than snarky hatchet jobs I've come to expect in Ares. Eric Goldberg also reviews Dark Stars as well as Quirks and these reviews are also uncharacteristically positive and sedate. The same can be said of Christopher John's movie reviews of Scanners, Hangar 18, and Starblazers and Greg Costikyan's many book reviews. I can't help but wonder if this seeming shift will last and if it was the result of an editorial mandate based on reader feedback.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reprints, Reprints

For those few of you who haven't already heard the news via other blogs, here it is: Wizards of the Coast is reprinting not just the Gygaxian AD&D rulebooks next month, they're also reprinting the v.3.5 books in September.

I have no insights into WotC's motivations, so I won't hazard a guess as to why the company is doing this. I'll only say that I'm glad of it, even though I'm not a fan or player of 3.5e. My fond dream would be to see WotC reprint and (at least minimally) support several versions of Dungeons & Dragons. I think that's be the ideal way to pay homage to the game's nearly forty year history. It'd also be an ideal way to regain the trust and interest of gamers who are devoted to an earlier edition. Goodness knows I'd be much more likely to buy reprints of certain older products than I ever would be to buy 5e.

Now, I don't expect that either the 1e or v.3.5 reprints are anything but one-time events, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tomb

H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors I first encountered because some of the older guys I know who played D&D claimed that "the game is based on his stuff" or some variation thereof. So, taking them at their word, I sought a collection of his stories at my local library. What I found was a copy of an old Ballantine anthology called The Tomb and Other Tales, which, as it turns out, contained a lot of Lovecraft's early, less overtly cosmic stories. As a result, my initial impression of HPL was that was a 20th century Poe -- not a bad thing in itself but certainly not what I had been led to believe about him based on the comments of my elders in the hobby. I simply couldn't see much of a connection to D&D and wouldn't until the release of Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium in 1981, when I again return to the Old Gent's works.

Even so, those early stories stuck with me, particularly "The Tomb," which was not only the lead-off story of that collection but the very first example of Lovecraft I ever read. I must have been 10 or 11 years old when I did so and, while perhaps not one of Lovecraft's greatest works, it nevertheless had an effect on me. "The Tomb" was written in 1917, but didn't appear in print until 1922, when it was published in the March issue of a periodical called The Vagrant. The story begins as the first-person narrator introduces himself:
In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.
My name is Jervas Dudley, and from earliest childhood I have been a dreamer and a visionary. Wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances, I have dwelt ever in realms apart from the visible world; spending my youth and adolescence in ancient and little-known books, and in roaming the fields and groves of the region near my ancestral home. I do not think that what I read in these books or saw in these fields and groves was exactly what other boys read and saw there; but of this I must say little, since detailed speech would but confirm those cruel slanders upon my intellect which I sometimes overhear from the whispers of the stealthy attendants around me. It is sufficient for me to relate events without analysing causes.
I don't think it's a stretch to suggest there's a bit of autobiography going on here, or at least idealized autobiography, with Dudley a stand-in for Lovecraft. At the same time, the fact that the narrator admits to being committed to an insane asylum calls into question almost everything he says, including the details of his life and personality. In any event, Dudley soon reveals to the reader the extent to which he is unwilling to acknowledge a distinction between the real and unreal by becoming obsessed with a mausoleum he finds in the woods behind his ancestral home.
I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.
      The vault to which I refer is of ancient granite, weathered and discoloured by the mists and dampness of generations. Excavated back into the hillside, the structure is visible only at the entrance. The door, a ponderous and forbidding slab of stone, hangs upon rusted iron hinges, and is fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago. The abode of the race whose scions are here inurned had once crowned the declivity which holds the tomb, but had long since fallen victim to the flames which sprang up from a disastrous stroke of lightning. Of the midnight storm which destroyed this gloomy mansion, the older inhabitants of the region sometimes speak in hushed and uneasy voices; alluding to what they call “divine wrath” in a manner that in later years vaguely increased the always strong fascination which I felt for the forest-darkened sepulchre. One man only had perished in the fire. When the last of the Hydes was buried in this place of shade and stillness, the sad urnful of ashes had come from a distant land; to which the family had repaired when the mansion burned down. No one remains to lay flowers before the granite portal, and few care to brave the depressing shadows which seem to linger strangely about the water-worn stones.
It doesn't take a close reading of the text to anticipate that this tomb will play a central role in the plot of the short story, as Dudley becomes more and more obsessed with it, to the point that he sleeps outside in the woods just to be near it. Eventually, as a result of a dream, Dudley seeks out the key to the chains and padlocks that keep the tomb closed. When he finds the key, it's located, strangely, within the attic of his own home, which only makes him wonder more about the tomb and its contents. Naturally, Dudley cannot resist the urge to open the lock and enter, which is when the story really begins.

Re-reading it, I still have a great fondness for "The Tomb," an opinion Lovecraft himself apparently shared, even as he disavowed many of his earliest efforts in later years. It's very effective in its evocation of mood, particularly of loneliness, isolation, and creeping madness. I suspect that's why it's stayed with me all these years. Though clearly influenced by Poe (and, to a lesser extent, by Stevenson), it stands up well in its own right, especially in the way that it plays with questions of materialism and the supernatural, two themes to which HPL will give greater attention in his more mature works.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Oubliette #8 Available -- for Free!

As he usually does, editor Peter Regan has made the PDF of the latest issue of the excellent Labyrinth Lord fanzine, Oubliette, available for free for a limited time. A print version, along with a print compilation of issues 5 through 8 will be available later this month.

For those interested in its contents, issue #8 includes:
  • Tales from Hell Cartoon
  • Editorial
  • The Maslow Dungeon 
  • Monster Club #14: The Death Gate
  • The Lands of Ara - Special Feature
  • Newland Campaign Setting Part III: Factions in the Forest
  • Monster Club #15: Newland Bestiary Part II
  • Forest Mini-Adventure: The Kobold & Goblin Resistance
  • Forest Location: Moot Point
  • Forest Mini-adventure: The Bloodbeard Bugbears
  • Forest Mini-adventure: The Burnt Tree Clan
  • Monster Club #16: Dungeon Random Encounter Tables: Levels 7-8 
  • Goblin Quest Cartoon
  • Fanzine Frenzy
  • Found Familiar: The Cat 
  • What's in the Oubliette? Reviews
  • Mouse Watch Cartoon
  • The Song of Sithakk Part 8 
I'm very fond of Oubliette, which reminds me of the best stuff White Dwarf did back in the day. The artwork by The Marg in every issue is especially delightful and gives Oubliette a style all its own. Check it out if you haven't already done so.

Retrospective: Gamma World Referee's Screen

I've never been a big fan and, therefore, user of referee's screens. Part of this is practical and part of it is philosophical. On the practical side of things, it's rare that I have a space at the gaming table large enough to accommodate a referee's screen, something that's been true most of my gaming career, with the exception of the days when we used some friends' ping-pong table in their basement. Even then, I wasn't particularly fond of the screen because it reminded me too much of the worst kinds of referees I'd seen. These were the confrontational, us-vs-them guys who took pleasure in killing PCs left and right. And while their use of referee's screens was neither a cause nor likely even a symptom of their unpleasant ways, I nevertheless came to associate the two.

Of course, being a kid, I nevertheless bought a lot of referee's screens; I just rarely used them. Mostly, they sat folded amidst my books and notes. Occasionally, I might crack one open to look at a table I hadn't memorized, but that was rare. I bought them out of a combination of obligation and a desire for whatever additional goodies came packaged with them. I say "obligation" because, as a younger person, I took it as my "responsibility" to have a referee's screen, even if I rarely used it. After all, I was the referee. Silly, I know, but there it is.

On the other hand, the goodies makes more sense, especially in the case of the Gamma World Referee's Screen, which was released in 1981. The screen had two things going for it that make it memorable even today. First is the glorious cover art by Erol Otus, which, to my mind, is an iconic image of what Gamma World is all about: a Mohawked techno-barbarian and her mutant sidekick watching a trio of freakish enemies make use of an ancient highway, while a weird creature flies overhead and a ruined installation can be seen in the distance. I've said before that Gamma World suffers a lot in people's imaginations because it was often illustrated in a way that reduced it either to banality or (worse) comedy. Otus's cover didn't do that, instead giving the setting a queer majesty that overflows with possibilities. I adore it.

The second thing that makes this screen memorable is the 6-page "mini-module" included with it. Entitled "The Albuquerque Starport" and written by Paul Reiche III, it's also an example of something  that gives Gamma World its due. One of the things that's often misunderstood is that Gamma World's apocalypse happens in the 24th century, not the 20th. That's why there are blaster pistols, robots, and other examples of space opera tech littering the ruins of North America. That's also why so many of buildings and other structures from the past still exist more than a century later -- they're made from high-tech materials that could withstand both the weapons of the Apocalypse and the effects of time and tide. Consequently, the post-holocaust world Gamma World depicts isn't bizarre, not just to the characters but to the players. I think that adds a lot to the game's appeal and sets it apart from (and above) most other RPGs in the same genre.

"The Albuquerque Starport" provides an example of what I mean. As its name suggests, it takes place at an old starport buried under the New Mexico desert, complete with a working space shuttle. Exploring the starport, players find all sorts of funky stuff that serves as a reminder that the pre-disaster world was not our own. More importantly, there's that space shuttle that can rocket the PCs away to an orbiting space station infested with "plague zombies." These unfortunate creatures are all the remains of the visitors and crew of the station after they contracted the interstellar Canopus Plague and exist only to infect more living beings with their deadly malady.

The space station is thus, for all intents and purposes, a haunted house and I've found it a surprisingly effective locale, especially as the characters likely have no concept of "space," let alone space travel. I also like the way that it expands the Gamma World setting by implying that, before the End, mankind had expanded beyond the Earth to other worlds and encountered who knows what. In my own campaign back in the day, I used this thin suggestion to introduce some surviving interplanetary colonies that were beginning to take an interest in Earth once more, much to the chagrin and delight of the planet's battered inhabitants. This was also totally unexpected by my players, which is as it should be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Faith without Works

Over the last year, there's been a dearth of posts here about my roleplaying. That's because, for the most part, I haven't been roleplaying with my regular group as much I had in the previous years. There are a lot of reasons for this, most of them quite banal (schedules, players moving, etc.), but that doesn't change the fact that my roleplaying has been much more limited since last summer. Now, I've still been gaming -- mostly boardgaming -- but that's not now and never has been the focus of this blog. And, as I said here long ago, simply talking about RPGs when you're not playing them is pointless.

Fortunately, the 21st century affords us multiple ways to roleplay, one of which is through the magic of the Internet, specifically Google+. I gave G+ gaming a whirl for the first time during the Dwimmermont Kickstarter and I enjoyed it a lot -- so much so that I've been doing it ever since, often as a player. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game I'm playing in each week is run via Google+ and it's been a blast.  I haven't this much fun playing any RPG in a long time and I look forward to each new session. It's also taught me, I think, that there's not a whole lot of difference between gaming face to face and gaming via video chat. There are differences, of course, but, so far, they're just that, differences, rather than things I'd call better or worse than playing in the traditional way.

I bring this up because, in addition to playing, I've also been refereeing on Google+. I run two campaigns, one set in my Dwimmermount megadungeon and one in M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel. Until now, I'd been a little hesitant to talk about these campaigns, because I wasn't sure they'd "take," which is to say, I wasn't sure they'd last. I know enough people are already skeptical of the idea of gaming via video chat as it is that I didn't want to add more fuel for that fire. But things have gone well enough in both campaigns that I'm quite confident that they're going to last. Consequently, I'm going to start sharing the goings-on in these campaigns via session write-ups, like I used to do with my original Dwimmermount campaign. If my players agree, I might even post a video transcript of one or more of our sessions for others to see.

I won't begin regaling you with session details just yet; I'll save that for another post. Instead, I wanted to talk briefly about my Tékumel game, which is using the Empire of the Petal Throne rules published in 1975. I've run a Tékumel game before, back in the mid-90s, but that was using a different rules set (Gardásiyal, if anyone care) and I had a somewhat different mindset toward the setting. For that reason, I was more than a little nervous about starting a new campaign. I was out of practice, had never used EPT before, and was taking on a large number of players, almost all of whom were Tékumel neophytes. What was I thinking?

I was thinking two things, actually. First, I wanted to honor the memory of the recently deceased Professor Barker. I have become ever more convinced that the man was an unheralded genius of our hobby, a founding father deserving of accolades to rival those of any of the hobby's more widely acknowledged leaders. Second, I wanted to show that, far from being "inaccessible" or "too weird," Tékumel isn't any more difficult to get into than Dungeons & Dragons, despite all the unfamiliar names. This is a topic about which Victor Raymond has written at some length elsewhere, but I felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was and that meant running a game for a bunch of people for whom Tsolyáni was not a second language.

You know what? It's succeeded brilliantly, far moreso than I'd ever hoped. Most campaigns in which I've played usually take several sessions before they find their feet. With EPT, it happened almost immediately, much to everyone's pleasure. I opted for the default barbarians-off-the-boat-from-the-southern-continent approach. Thus, there's good reason for the characters to be largely ignorant about the intricacies of Tsolyáni society and culture. This gives me the opportunity to slowly initiate the players -- and myself -- into these complexities bit by bit. No one is expected from the get-go to know much of anything really, which has made our sessions both revelatory and fun. Far from confirming the absurd caricature that the uninformed make about Tékumel gaming, we've shown it for the fraud it is.

So, in the days and weeks to come, expect both session recaps and new gaming material spawned by these two campaigns. I've missed being able to write posts of those sorts; to me, they're the fruits of what this hobby is all about: playing.

Ares Magazine: Issue #7

Issue #7 (March 1981) of Ares features a cover by John W. Pierard, depicting a scene from Rescue from the Hive, the integral game included in this issue. Pierard created art for a number of sci-fi magazines, including Asimov's, so he's in keeping with the trend in Ares to employ non-gaming artists to do the magazine's covers. I don't know if that says anything about Ares or SPI, but it certainly lends a very different esthetic quality to the magazine, especially when compared to the Dragon issues I remember reading as a kid.

Speaking of art, issue #7 marked the debut of a "Gallery" feature in which a science fiction or fantasy artist shows off a single piece of text-free color artwork. The idea behind the new feature was that it simultaneously provided an illustration to inspire gamers and served as an advertisement for up and coming artists. In this issue, the artist in question is Tom Kidd, whose name is unknown to me in any other context.

Issue #7 also saw an increase in coverage of DragonQuest. In addition to David Ritchie's "DragonNotes" column (which answered rules questions and provided errata), he, along with Redmond Simonsen, provide a complete adventure, entitled "The Housse of Kurin." The adventure is described as a "capsule adventure," meaning its fairly short and limited in scope. Its focus is on an attempt to rescue some prisoners from the stronghold of a bandit named Kurin, making it very combat-heavy. Still, its maps are terrific (like all DQ maps in my experience) and there was clearly a lot of thought put into the tactics of the bandits and their allies, which would probably make it exciting to play (assuming, unlike me, you could actually your head around DragonQuest combat).

There's more "Facts for Fantasy" and "Science for Science Fiction." I appreciate the intention behind these regular features, but, for the most part, I don't find them especially inspiring. As mentioned earlier, this issue's wargame is Rescue from the Hive by Nick Karp and Redmond Simonsen (seriously, did this man do everything related to Ares?). The game focuses on an attempt to free two Terran hostages being held by a radical faction of the insectoid Znon race. The most intriguing aspect of the game is that Znon queens are telepathic and control their minions remotely, which gives them certain options and advantages in play. In addition, the queens can attempt to mind control Terran rescue units, throwing the Terran player's plans into chaos. Also, Znon units are placed on the map face down to simulate the fact that, initially, the Terrans have no idea what they'll be facing or where. Henrik Nordlie provides some fiction to accompany the game.

John Butterfield has a short article providing some designer's notes to the upcoming RPG, Universe. Meanwhile, Eric Goldberg offers two positive reviews(!) of Japanese themed RPGs, Bushido and Land of the Rising Sun. Naturally, there's a negative review, too, this time of a game I've never heard of before -- The Complete Fantasist. Goldberg writes:
Every once in a while a reviewer will come across a product so truly awful that he has no qualms about savaging it in print. It is an even rarer occasion when he will reconsider a stinging attack, because he is afraid people will think less of him for admitting that he read and/or played the product in full. I resolved for the New Year to be courageous and tell of my suffering through The Complete Fantasist, in hopes that unsuspecting gamers would not accidentally subject themselves to such inhumane treatment of their sensibilities.  
Never having read The Complete Fantasist, I can't say whether Goldberg's introduction above is warranted, but it's amusing to read nonetheless. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Free RPG Day Haul

I never had much use for Free RPG Day in the past. I didn't have anything against it, but the start of the promotion coincided almost exactly with the beginning of my disinterest in what "mainstream" publishers were producing, so I never had any reason to give it any heed. This year was different, though, because I knew Goodman Games was producing a 16-page booklet containing two adventures for Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game and I wanted to snag it.

So, I set off to a couple of local game stores and succeeded in my quest. I also grabbed a copy of Columbia Games's map of Hârn (which, to be fair, I already owned, but I can never get enough maps), as well as some funky dice from Q-Workshop. I didn't find  anything else that was of interest to me, but I'm very happy to have gotten the map and the DCC RPG module.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Open Friday: White Whales

I mentioned the other day that, for a long time, GDW's Azhanti High Lightning was a product of which I could never managed to obtain a copy. I'm curious to know if anyone else has a similarly elusive "white whale" gaming product that they've hunted for and never managed to acquire. If so, share it in the comments below.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mail Call

DCC RPG and Me

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've joined a regular Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game group on Thursday nights, playing via Google+ with Jason Sholtis and Will Douglas as my (regular) fellow adventurers and Shawn Sanford as our Judge. Shawn started us off with the recently-released 0-level module, Sailors of the Starless Sea, so we all generated four new characters. I elected to use the awesome online character generator over at the Purple Sorcerer Games website. This resulted in my playing a healer named Dalmas (with 8 Stamina), a merchant named Fortin (with 16 Intelligence), a hunter named Marin (with 6 Personality), and a smuggler named Talon (with 16 Luck and a +2 bonus to missile fire damage rolls). My compatriots were a similarly motley collection of misfits, the two most memorable being a disbarred elven barrister and a ditch digger named Joe.

Like the Zocchi dice, I've heard a lot of complaints about the fact that DCC RPG expects a new campaign to begin with a ridiculously large group of 0-level characters (four per player), all of whose attributes -- from ability scores to occupations to starting equipment -- are determined randomly and whose chances of surviving the "funnel" are slim. DCC RPG assumes that player characters are not born but made in the fiery crucible of their first adventure. It is expected that each player will lose one or more of their initial four characters and that it is one of the survivors (if any) who will then become the player's character thereafter.

It's an admittedly unusual approach and one in sharp contrast to the ever-increasing resilience of characters in Dungeons & Dragons over the years, but I have to say it works for me. Over the course of our sessions thus far, watching these 0-level nobodies try to win using the stacked deck placed before them has been remarkably enjoyable. Our first combat began as a decidedly Keystone Kops affair and I fully expected our little band to be slaughtered. But that's not what happened. Instead, a string of lucky rolls made several characters, including my hunter and smuggler, start to look competent and we survived without a single fatality. This emboldened us to venture further into the abandoned keep whose tower was reputed to hold forgotten wealth and whose walls might hide the answer to the riddle of why so many inhabitants of the village below were disappearing.

Our second combat didn't go as well for us; one of our number died, cloven in twain by a beastman's axe. Thanks to some well thrown flasks of oil, the rest of us managed to survive, though, simultaneously fearful of the dangers within the keep and all the more curious to take them on. As fragile as we knew we were, we made use of stealth, guile, and cowardice to proceed without endangering ourselves any more than we had to -- and it was fun. 0-level PCs have no classes. They have little money and thus little gear. We had no magic or healing at our disposal. All we had were our wits and luck to rely upon, resulting in a session that was both tense and lighthearted at the same time. Subsequent sessions have proven just as delightfully tense, including our most recent one where we lost several characters to a tentacled beast in an underground lake that initially seemed impervious to our attacks.

I'm really enjoying DCC RPG. I look forward to playing each Thursday night, which probably says as much about the Judge and my fellow players as it does about the game. But I am finding the game a great deal of fun and that's no accident. I think DCC RPG works so well for me because it's very clear about what it is and what a player can expect from it. For example, by making each player roll up four characters to start, it highlights in big red letters that this is a game where characters die. A lot. Consequently, players quickly come not only to expect random, senseless death but even enjoy it, much in the same way that I've noticed veteran Call of Cthulhu players come to expect and enjoy the inevitable insanity and/or grisly deaths of their characters.

That said, DCC RPG isn't for everyone and I can easily imagine that not every gamer will find it as enjoyable as I have come to. It's a very specific kind of game with a very specific style. If you're not into that style, you won't have any fun with the game. That's not a fault of the game nor is it a fault of the gamer and I think that it's important to realize that. Not every RPG is written for every player. As niche entertainments, I personally think RPGs would be better off if they weren't designed with the frankly implausible goal of attracting a huge audience. That's just not going to happen in 99% of the cases, so it's foolish to assume otherwise. Make the game you want to make and let it find its own audience; that's the mantra I'd prefer RPG designers followed. It won't result in many (or any) games that everyone will enjoy, but it will result in many more games that some people will enjoy, which is far preferable in my opinion.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Deep in the Most Shallow of Ways

I was going to write a full-blown review of Prometheus, which I saw last weekend, but I don't really have the wherewithal to do so. The movie's been hashed and rehashed so many times since its release in Europe two weeks ago that I'm not sure I have anything insightful to add. So, in lieu of my own review, I offer instead the following quote which comes close to summing up my feelings:
Ridley Scott may have the technical craft polished to an almost absurdly accomplished level, but the script itself feels like the stoned-at-3:00 AM musings of a first-year philosophy student.  It is deep in the most shallow of ways, asking some of the biggest questions of our existence with a puppyish enthusiasm and without even the vaguest hint of an answer.

It's easy to draw comparisons between this film and "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Scott seems to be inviting those comparisons with his first image here, an almost-direct quotation of Kubrick's movie.  The difference is that Kubrick didn't graft the Hollywood structure onto his examination of the moments where life has taken a quantum jump forward in complexity and sophistication.  He had enough faith in the strength of what he was doing that he told a very unconventional version of a narrative.  But anything he raised as a question in that movie, he answered.  If you think "2001" is in any way "vague," you need to see it again.  That is a movie where every piece of information you need from it is contained within.  Although I enjoy "2010" as a piece of mainstream science-fiction, it is very much the dumb cousin of the first film.  It spells things out, or tries to, in a way that is almost insulting after how carefully constructed "2001" is to reveal it secrets to a patient and inquisitive audience.  Unfortunately, "Prometheus" is far more "2010" than "2001."

Gary Gygax on Fantasy Battles

Once again, Chris Kutalik has pointed me toward a post over at the excellent Vintage Wargaming blog where there's a scan of an old article by Gary Gygax from The Wargamer's Newsletter. In this case, it's from issue #127 (October 1972) and he discusses how best to represent various monsters and fantasy characters using model extant at the time. The article's also interesting because Gygax notes, as he later would elsewhere, that he does not consider Tolkien to be "authoritative" when it comes to fantasy -- an opinion that's all the more interesting because it predates the publication of D&D and thus cannot be dismissed as a disingenuous dodge.

Retrospective: Azhanti High Lightning

I suspect that nearly every gamer has at least one, if not several, "Moby Dick" products -- something they've been chasing after for a long time but have never managed to get hold of. I have quite a few such products, one of the longest standing being GDW's Azhanti High Lightning by Marc Miller and Frank Chadwick. Because it was published in 1980, before I started playing Traveller, I don't believe I ever saw it in any store I visited. If I did, I certainly didn't realize what it was, let alone desire to purchase it. That's because it came in a big box and looked little like any of the other Traveller products I'd seen, even though, as you can see from its cover, it's clearly a sci-fi product and even mentions Traveller in its subtitle.

Azhanti High Lightning consists of a 44-page rulebook, a 44-page supplement, several sheets of deckplans, and cardboard counters. According to the rulebook's introduction, it's "a game of close-action combat between individuals on board a large military starship," namely a vessel of the 60,000-ton Azhanti High Lightning class of cruisers. The rulebook consists primarily of a modified version of Traveller's combat system (pared back in some places, expanded in others) and some scenarios. As a stand-alone game, Azhanti High Lightning is about running battles aboard a starship, whether those battles are the result of boarding actions, hijacking, alien attack, or something else. In that regard, I never found it particularly interesting. Rather, it was the supplement and -- especially -- the deckplans that made it so appealing.

Taken together, Supplement 5 (Lightning Class Cruisers) and the deckplans provided the referee with a wealth of information about these large military vessels. This was like catnip to me. When I was a kid, I remember drooling over deckplans of the Enterprise from Star Trek and I kept that memory in mind when I started playing sci-fi RPGs. Certainly other games included deckplans, but they were always very small and/or "unrealistic," whereas the plans for the Lightning-class cruisers were neither. Just seeing them filled my head with all sorts of ideas about running a "big ship" military campaign rather than the already-standard "tramp freighter" approach.

The problem was that, while I knew of the existence of Azhanti High Lightning from reviews and advertisements, I could never find a copy to buy. The first time I ever saw a real copy was at a local game gathering, where some older guys were playing Traveller. I spent a good portion of that gathering staring at the maps rather than playing games with my friends and the other assembled gamers. I knew then that, if I ever found a copy, I'd make it mine. Alas, I never did or at least I never did at a reasonable price. As the years dragged on, Azhanti High Lightning's value shot up considerably and nowadays, if you can find an original copy in decent condition, it sells for $100 or higher -- far more than I'd ever pay for a product I'd be unlikely to use.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #6

Issue #6 (January 1981) of Ares is a strange issue, or at least a very different issue from the five that preceded it. As Redmond Simonsen notes in his editorial, "The content of the magazine is orienting itself more toward the game in the issue." By this he means that there are far fewer articles in this issue than in previous ones (there's also no fiction piece). Instead, a significant portion of its 40 pages are devoted to supporting Voyage of the Pandora, a science fiction game by John H. Butterfield and Simonsen himself, which he calls "a very distinctive and novel game system" using "programmed paragraphs" -- in short, a choose-your-own-adventure approach to solitaire gaming.

The first article proper is called "Pandora Tech" by Michael E. Moore and provides details of the Ares Corporation Titan-class biological survey vessel Pandora. It's a short "non-fiction" article in support of the issue's included game. This is followed by another installment of "Facts for Fantasy" by Susan Schwartz and "Science for Science Fiction" by John Boardman, both of which try to present real world facts and ideas as inspirations for gaming. I've never found any installments in either series particularly good, but they're both considerably better than Boardman's pieces on why beloved sci-fi concepts don't work according to "real" science. There are a couple of negative film reviews, one of which is for Flash Gordon, the now-much beloved campy pulp romp starring Max Von Sydow. There's also a ranty article by David J. Schow complaining about the cost of everything in movie theaters, from the tickets to the snacks. I can only imagine what Mr Schow would think about the state of movies in 2012.

Voyage of the Pandora itself is a rather fascinating game. The game simulates a four-month long expedition by the interstellar survey ship Pandora as it visits a variety of planets, seeking out new life. The player must utilize the ship's resources, including crew, to achieve certain objectives during the allotted time and with minimal loss of the ship's resources. Like all SPI games, I find its level of rules complexity somewhat high, especially for a game of this length. Still, I can't deny there's something compelling about its presentation, particularly its use of 232 paragraphs to act in the role of a referee to adjudicate all the encounters and events the player might experience. The game also uses a set of small hex maps and 100 counters, along with record sheets of various kinds, to handle other aspects of play.

There are a few book reviews by Greg Costikyan, including one for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which he loved. A second installment of "Quick Combat" for DragonQuest (by Justin Leites) also appears, along with "DragonNotes," a new feature devoted DQ. Rounding out the issue are game reviews by Eric Goldberg, including a review of GDW's Azhanti High Lightning, which he praises "Since [it] has many resemblances to a design of which I am proud."

As I said, issue #6 is a strange issue. One of the things that made SPI unique as a publisher was the way they solicited -- and reacted to -- feedback from their customers. Consequently, Ares feels very much like a work in progress. Each issue is different, as its staff attempts to produce something that meets the demands of its readers. That's certainly commendable behavior but it also gives the magazine an "up and down" character that makes it hard to get a handle on it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: At the Mountains of Madness

With the recent release of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel-but-not, Prometheus (more about that later), there's been a lot of talk about H.P. Lovecraft's novella, At the Mountains of Madness -- and with good reason. Serialized over the course of the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories, At the Mountains of Madness is not only a science fiction story, but, like Prometheus, one that suggests that extraterrestrial beings played a role in the origins of mankind. Whereas Prometheus is set on an unexplored planet far from Earth, HPL's tale is set on what was, in his day, the last unexplored portion of Earth, namely the icy continent of Antarctica.

From a young age, Lovecraft was fascinated by the Antarctic. Likewise, he was very fond of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, some of whose action takes place in the southernmost continent and which Lovecraft had called "disturbing and enigmatical." Consequently, it's not at all surprising that he would eventually write his own Antarctic tale, though its scope and content likely had other inspirations, including Lovecraft's own earlier story, The Nameless City, which appeared in 1921 and sometimes considered to be the first work of the Cthulhu Mythos. At 40,000 words, it is Lovecraft's second longest work of fiction (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward being the longest) and is generally regarded as among his most successful works as well, deftly combining the cosmic themes of his previous works with an explicitly non-supernatural approach to presenting them.

Like so many HPL stories, At the Mountains of Madness is told in the first person from the perspective of a survivor of a doomed expedition, in this case William Dyer, a geology professor from Miskatonic University. The expedition was to the Antarctic with the purpose "of securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent." Thanks to "the remarkable drill devised by Professor Frank H. Pabodie of our engineering department," the expedition uncovers some peculiar fossils that stirs the biologist of the expedition, Lake, to lead a party to the northwest of the main group in search of additional samples. While doing so, he discovers huge mountains over 35,000 feet in height ("Everest out of the running," he reports via radio), more fossils, and, later, the frozen remains of bizarre creatures:
"Objects are eight feet long all over. Six-foot, five-ridged barrel torso three and five-tenths feet central diameter, one foot end diameters. Dark gray, flexible, and infinitely tough. Seven-foot membranous wings of same color, found folded, spread out of furrows between ridges. Wing framework tubular or glandular, of lighter gray, with orifices at wing tips. Spread wings have serrated edge. Around equator, one at central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges are five systems of light gray flexible arms or tentacles found tightly folded to torso but expansible to maximum length of over three feet. Like arms of primitive crinoid. Single stalks three inches diameter branch after six inches into five substalks, each of which branches after eight inches into small, tapering tentacles or tendrils, giving each stalk a total of twenty-five tentacles.
"At top of torso blunt, bulbous neck of lighter gray, with gill-like suggestions, holds yellowish five-pointed starfish-shaped apparent head covered with three-inch wiry cilia of various prismatic colors. "Head thick and puffy, about two feet point to point, with three-inch flexible yellowish tubes projecting from each point. Slit in exact center of top probably breathing aperture. At end of each tube is spherical expansion where yellowish membrane rolls back on handling to reveal glassy, red-irised globe, evidently an eye.
"Five slightly longer reddish tubes start from inner angles of starfish-shaped head and end in saclike swellings of same color which, upon pressure, open to bell-shaped orifices two inches maximum diameter and lined with sharp, white tooth like projections - probably mouths. All these tubes, cilia, and points of starfish head, found folded tightly down; tubes and points clinging to bulbous neck and torso. Flexibility surprising despite vast toughness.
"At bottom of torso, rough but dissimilarly functioning counterparts of head arrangements exist. Bulbous light-gray pseudo-neck, without gill suggestions, holds greenish five-pointed starfish arrangement.
"Tough, muscular arms four feet long and tapering from seven inches diameter at base to about two and five-tenths at point. To each point is attached small end of a greenish five-veined membranous triangle eight inches long and six wide at farther end. This is the paddle, fin, or pseudofoot which has made prints in rocks from a thousand million to fifty or sixty million years old.
"From inner angles of starfish arrangement project two-foot reddish tubes tapering from three inches diameter at base to one at tip. Orifices at tips. All these parts infinitely tough and leathery, but extremely flexible. Four-foot arms with paddles undoubtedly used for locomotion of some sort, marine or otherwise. When moved, display suggestions of exaggerated muscularity. As found, all these projections tightly folded over pseudoneck and end of torso, corresponding to projections at other end.
"Cannot yet assign positively to animal or vegetable kingdom, but odds now favor animal. Probably represents incredibly advanced evolution of radiata without loss of certain primitive features. Echinoderm resemblances unmistakable despite local contradictory evidences.
"Wing structure puzzles in view of probable marine habitat, but may have use in water navigation. Symmetry is curiously vegetablelike, suggesting vegetable 's essential up-and-down structure rather than animal’s fore-and-aft structure. Fabulously early date of evolution, preceding even simplest Archaean protozoa hitherto known, baffles all conjecture as to origin.
Not long thereafter, inclement weather ends radio contact between Lake's party and the main expedition led by Dyer. After a day without further word, Dyer becomes worried and decides to go, along with several others, to find out what has become of his colleagues. What this second party discovers is that Lake and all those with him, save one, were not merely dead but killed.
The crowning abnormality, of course, was the condition of the bodies - men and dogs alike. They had all been in some terrible kind of conflict, and were torn and mangled in fiendish and altogether inexplicable ways. Death, so far as we could judge, had in each case come from strangulation or laceration. The dogs had evidently started the trouble, for the state of their ill-built corral bore witness to its forcible breakage from within. It had been set some distance from the camp because of the hatred of the animals for those hellish Archaean organisms, but the precaution seemed to have been taken in vain. When left alone in that monstrous wind, behind flimsy walls of insufficient height, they must have stampeded - whether from the wind itself, or from some subtle, increasing odor emitted by the nightmare specimens, one could not say.

But whatever had happened, it was hideous and revolting enough. Perhaps I had better put squeamishness aside and tell the worst at last - though with a categorical statement of opinion, based on the first-hand observations and most rigid deductions of both Danforth and myself, that the then missing Gedney was in no way responsible for the loathsome horrors we found. I have said that the bodies were frightfully mangled. Now I must add that some were incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion. It was the same with dogs and men. All the healthier, fatter bodies, quadrupedal or bipedal, had had their most solid masses of tissue cut out and removed, as by a careful butcher; and around them was a strange sprinkling of salt - taken from the ravaged provision chests on the planes - which conjured up the most horrible associations. The thing had occurred in one of the crude aeroplane shelters from which the plane had been dragged out, and subsequent winds had effaced all tracks which could have supplied any plausible theory. Scattered bits of clothing, roughly slashed from the human incision subjects, hinted no clues. It is useless to bring up the half impression of certain faint snow prints in one shielded corner of the ruined inclosure - because that impression did not concern human prints at all, but was clearly mixed up with all the talk of fossil prints which poor Lake had been giving throughout the preceding weeks. One had to be careful of one’s imagination in the lee of those overshadowing mountains of madness.
Though unsettled by what he has seen, Dyer is nevertheless keen to unearth what happened to Lake and his companions, which spurs him to further exploration. This, in turn, leads to a series of discoveries that shake Dyer to his core and that form the bulk of the novella itself.

At the Mountains of Madness is, in my opinion, a triumph, though not a flawless one. While Lovecraft clearly did a great deal of research to provide verisimilitude, there are occasions where the mask slips and I found my credulity stretched to its limits. Ironically, I think it's precisely because HPL did such a fine job in most respects that his infelicities seem all the greater. Even so, the novella succeeds in presenting a vast canvas onto which he paints a masterpiece of cosmicism. It's hard to gauge Lovecraft's success nowadays because the story he tells has influenced and been imitated by so many other stories in the decades since that its impact is artificially lessened. But make no mistake: without At the Mountains of Madness, we'd likely not have the "ancient astronauts" mythology that's become a regular feature of so much of pop culture. Thus, it's not only a worthy read in its own right but a seminal one as well.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

For Your Consideration

I'm sure, by this point, a lot of you are tired of hearing about more crowdfunding campaigns, but, after the success I enjoyed in my own, I feel I have an obligation to do so, especially when I think they're particularly worthy projects. Today, I present you with three, all three of which involve people I consider friends and all-around good guys.

The first is for the second edition of Goblinoid Games's Starships & Spacemen, an old school take on science fiction roleplaying on the Final Frontier (*wink, wink*). The second edition is not only revised and expanded but compatible with Labyrinth Lord, which increases its utility greatly, particularly for referees who like to throw phasers into their dragon's hoards.

The second is for Brave Halfling's Appendix N Adventure Toolkit series of modules in support of Goodman Games's Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. This looks to be a fun collection of adventures for DCC RPG. Plus, John is one of the nicest guys in the hobby and it's always a pleasure to see what he has in store.

The final one is for an unusual project called The Shadow Out of Providence: A Lovecraftian Metatext, which is a fancy way of saying it's a book comprised of two short stories and a play that it focuses on "Lovecraft the writer, the thinker, and the cultural phenomenon, rather than the sliver of his work on which most writers fixate." Old schoolers may find it of interest both because one of the contributors is Tim Hutchings of PlaGMaDA. In addition, the legendary Erol Otus is contributing artwork, two of which I reproduce below.

Lost Pelinore

Among the old school blogs that I read regularly, there's recently been an upsurge in interest in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and how its present reputation may in fact be a reflection of the game's post-Enemy Within development rather than where it began. I find this very fascinating, because, even though I was never a player of WFRP, I love delving into the origins of things. One of the really intriguing notions put forward by Coopdevil over at FightingFantasist is that Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play owes a lot to the Pelinore setting created for TSR UK's Imagine magazine.

Not being a WFRP scholar, I can't speak to the truth of that. However, this notion has at least reminded me of the existence of Pelinore and Imagine. I'm fortunate enough to own a nearly complete collection of the magazines, thanks to a friend who gave them to me a few years ago, knowing my interest in gaming history. Imagine's a great window on a part of the hobby's history of which I know very little directly. I think that needs to change ...

Well Done, Sir!

As a general rule, I don't like making posts that are just links to posts by others, but, every now and again, I'll make an exception.

This post, about a simple thing one man did to strike a blow for old school gaming, is such an exception.

The Past is a Foreign Country (Take Four)

Perhaps it's the death of Ray Bradbury that's occasioned this thought, but, when I think of all the ways that my children's world of the imagination is different than the one of my youth, what stands out most is that they have no expectation that men will one day walk on the surface of Mars or have colonies in space. Growing up in '70s, manned exploration of the solar system -- and beyond -- was an almost unquestioned assumption among not just children but many adults as well. While I don't remember the last Apollo mission in 1972, I do remember vividly the Apollo-Soyuz mission from 1975, not to mention the landing tests of the space shuttle Enterprise in 1977. These were events that profoundly affected me as a young person and no doubt explain why, even today, I still consider myself a "science fiction guy" rather than a fantasy one.

What's funny, though, is that, back then, manned space travel wasn't just the stuff of science fiction; it was real. When I was in school, I think we watched nearly every space shuttle launch between 1981 and 1983, stopping everything and bringing out these old TV sets for the occasion. For my children, though, space travel is almost completely science fictional. It's something that only happens in books and movies and video games, but not in the real world. The Apollo program and the space shuttle mean about as much to them as listening to soap operas on the radio meant to me as a child -- relics of a past they never knew and will never completely understand.

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and saw a not at all implausible projection of what men might be doing in space when I was 32 years old. Yet, here I am, living in The Future my friends and I dreamed about in the '70s and it's not at all like we were promised. I won't go so far as to say it's worse, but it is a different, less romantic future than I had hoped for. Much as it saddens me that my childhood dreams of Moon bases and space stations haven't come to pass by now, I think it saddens me more that, for my children, such ideas are nothing more than dreams and unlikely ones at that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Marvin the Mage!

Let's be honest: there were times when the only reason to read Dragon was for its comics. During the time that I regularly read the magazine, "comics" mostly meant Dave Trampier's transcendent Wormy, though I can't deny that I often enjoyed What's New with Phil & Dixie by Phil Foglio. And while it was long gone by the time I came on the scene, I knew of (and greatly enjoyed) J.D. Webster's Finieous Fingers thanks to a compilation TSR published sometime in the early '80s. What all these comics taught me was that our hobby is a funny one -- not just "funny strange" but "funny ha-ha." This was an important lesson, since then, as now, I tend toward the overly serious. Seeing a dragon playing snooker or a wizard wearing Foster Grants was a valuable reminder that it's just a game.

Which brings me to Marvin the Mage!, Jim Wampler's web comic about a Chaotic Neutral wizard who'd rather use his magic to help him cheat at cards than to explore dungeons, much to the chagrin of his comrade Tarrin the elven thief. It's a fun comic that mixes satire about the hobby with the kind of in-game antisocial behavior that longtime gamers will immediately recognize. I've certainly been enjoying it and I suspect many of my readers will, too. Give it a look when you have the chance!

RIP: Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

"You must write every single day of your life... You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads... may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world."

Retrospective: Conan Role-Playing Game

In my opinion, one of the things TSR did right during its existence was produce a wide variety of roleplaying games rather than endlessly churning out material for Dungeons & Dragons. There are several reasons why I think this is so, the most important of which is that these new games provided an outlet for players and game designers alike to try new things without feeling the need to inflict their desire for novelty on D&D. By this I meant that a great many of the slings and arrows D&D suffered over the years have been the result of people getting bored of its ways of doing things and then trying to change it to suit different tastes. Far better in my opinion is to play or to create new games specifically that speak to those tastes.

In my early years in the hobby, my friends and I regularly stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons when we felt the call of a different genre or even style. TSR happily provided us with plenty of other games from which to choose -- Gamma World, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Top Secret -- as did other game companies. We rarely stayed away from D&D for long, but I think our regular "sabbaticals" from it helped keep us interested in it over the long term. I still think that way today, which is why I see it as a good thing for a group to play many different RPGs (so long as it doesn't give way to the dreaded "gamer ADD").

I bring this up because one of the last non-D&D TSR roleplaying games I remember buying was 1985's Conan Role-Playing Game. Designed by David "Zeb" Cook, it's a complete game in a single box, consisting of a 32-page rulebook, a 16-page reference guide, and a 48-page guide to the Hyborian Age. I remain amazed at how often TSR produced RPGs whose rulebooks were 64 pages or under; it's frankly a thing of beauty -- all the moreso because, in most cases, these games didn't need to be any longer. Conan was a fairly "light" game, using a series of six "talent pools" to adjudicate every action a character takes in the game. The pools are broad in nature (Prowess, Fighting, Endurance, Knowledge, Perception, and Insight), under which are more specific talents that represent areas of unusual skill, like Brawling for Fighting or Reading/Writing for Knowledge. Talent checks are resolved using percentile dice and compared to a color-coded result chart, as was the style at the time. In cases where a character is attempting to do something an NPC is opposing (combat, for instance), two talents are compared, with the opposing talent subtracted from the active one to determine what line on the chart to read. Though the rulebook didn't do a particularly good job of explaining all this, in practice, the system was quite easy to use.

For my friends and I, though, what made Conan such a fascinating game, aside from its source material, was its character creation system, which encouraged players to think about who their character was and how he fit into the Hyborian Age. The "character folio" (i.e. record sheet) included a section entitled "story" with a series of blanks for the player to fill in, like Mad Libs. So, it would say "(Character Name), (Sex) of (Father) and (Mother), was born in the land of (Homeland). (Character Name) grew (Appearance). As a youth, (Character Name) learned (Talents)." And so on. The idea is to frame one's character abilities into something that is coherent, interesting, and fitting for an adventurer in a Robert E. Howard yarn. It's a simple thing really, but I can't stress how revelatory this approach was to my friends and I. We found it so much easier to get into the spirit of things this way.

Of course, it probably helped that Conan Role-Playing Game was clearly a labor of love on the part of David Cook. His fondness for the stories of Conan is well known and this game is like a love letter to the tales of the Cimmerian. For example, the game's magic system is mechanically loose and difficult for characters to master, with many opportunities for both disaster and long-term consequences. This is, of course, as it should be, for magic in the Hyborian Age is usually a dark affair not to be trifled with. This didn't stop one of my friends from creating a sorcerer character, named Talon after the twisted bird-like claw he had on one hand -- a reminder of his playing with things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Just as well presented is the game's setting, which is presented in the form of a faux notebook written by an archeologist named Ervin H. Roberts who was convinced that there was "an age undreamed of" in prehistory. It's a little silly, of course, but in a good way that I think encourages fun rather than hinders it.

I vaguely recall that TSR produced a handful of modules of to support Conan Role-Playing Game (in addition to those produced for AD&D), but I may be misremembering. Regardless, I don't believe the game did very well for the company, or at least it didn't do well enough, because it wasn't on store shelves for long. I think that's a shame, because Conan was well-presented, straightforward, and fun. It could never replace Dungeons & Dragons in the eyes of my friends and I, but that's hardly the benchmark by which a game ought to be judged. Unfortunately, I think that's exactly the benchmark TSR used, which is why most of their non-D&D RPGs had extremely short lives. A pity.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Before There Was Greyhawk

Chris Kutalik of Hill Cantons fame pointed me toward a blog post over at Vintage Wargaming that includes scans of pages from issue #116 of Don Featherstone's Wargamer's Newsletter. In that issue (November 1971), Gary Gygax reports on a Chainmail miniatures battle called "The Battle of Brown Hills." The battle is between the forces of Chaos, led by the warlock Huldor ap Skree, and those of Law, led by Count Aerll. Of particular interest are the various Greyhawkian and proto-Greyhawkian names scattered throughout the report. It's a fascinating read for anyone interested in the prehistory of our hobby.

Ares Magazine: Issue #5

Issue #5 of Ares appeared in November 1980, with a cover by Barclay Shaw, a science fiction artist probably best known for the paperback covers to many of Harlan Ellison's books. Again, it's interesting to note that, in contrast to Dragon, which tended to use new or specifically gaming artists, Ares looked to established sci-fi and fantasy illustrators for their covers. Of immediate interest is Redmond Simonsen's editorial, where he notes that he is "preoccupied with realism rather than fantasy," which is why this issue sees the return of "another pessimistic Boardman piece on space travel." I must admit that I find it baffling that the editor of "the magazine of science fiction and fantasy simulation" admitted to preferring realism to fantasy, though it's hardly a surprise. I've commented before that the early issues of Ares almost express a disdain for anything but the hardest of the hard sci-fi, which probably limited its appeal. Goodness knows that I'd never have picked up Ares in 1980 if I'd have known about it because of this peculiar editorial quirk.

The issue begins with a "historical background" piece called "The Dark Tower of Loki Hellsson: A History of the Citadel of Blood" by Nick Karp. The article provides some details on the structure that forms the settings for issue #5's integral wargame. Following it is "Dark Stars and Dim Hopes," the aforementioned John Boardman piece about space travel and "why you're still not going to the stars!" Boardman continues to do what he does best: poking holes in hallowed science fiction ideas about how mankind might reach other worlds. In "Miniature Spaceships," Michael Willner offers a brief look at recent miniature releases for use with SF RPGs and wargames. Greg Costikyan reviews several books, most notably Glen Cook's pre-Black Company series, which Costikyan hails as "bright and original." There's also a very short piece of science fiction called "Bypass" by Edward Michaels, continuing the trend toward lessening the amount of original fiction appearing the magazine's pages.

Citadel of Blood takes up close to a third of the magazine. It's a wargame version of a dungeoncrawl by Nick Smith and Redmond Simonsen -- or, rather, a series of raids by "a mixed force of Free People," seeking to enter the eponymous fortress and lay claim to its treasures. Citadel of Blood is set in the same world as SPI's earlier fantasy game, Sword and Sorcery, about which I know little, so I can provide no comment on how well it fits into that context. I'll note only that, by the looks of it, the setting is a pretty standard vanilla fantasy, with humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs, but with occasional oddities, such as the "demi-cronk" race, whatever that is (an in-joke, I presume). The game looks very intriguing, I must admit, reminding me of either a much more complex version of games like Dungeon or of D&D itself boiled down to a tactical simulation.

Susan Schwartz provides more "Facts for Fantasy," tidbits from history, myth, and legend to inspire fantasy gaming. John Boardman reappears again with "Science for Science Fiction," which does something similar, only with an emphasis on real world science. A large ad announces an open call for submissions for a monster book to support the recently-released DragonQuest. So far as I know, such a book was never released, but my knowledge of DQ is admittedly sparse. "Film & Television" offers up reviews of movies and TV shows, including an inexplicably glowing one of the Roger Corman space oepra Battle Beyond the Stars. In "Games," Eric Goldberg reviews both Traveller and Space Opera. Though not without his criticisms (particularly of its science), Goldberg nevertheless calls Traveller "the finest commercially available role-playing game." I am hard pressed to disagree. Space Opera he also praises for the "serious attention" it pays to science, though he ultimately deems the game "unworkable." He concludes with the comment,
If only the attention paid to science fiction in Space Opera could be combined with the smoothness of the Traveller game, sf role-players would need not look any further.
Perhaps it's cynical of me to think so, but I suspect that comment is meant to lay the groundwork for the announcement of SPI's own science fiction RPG, Universe, in a future issue.

Monday, June 4, 2012

My Latest Acquisition

As a general rule, I have very bad luck when it comes to eBay auctions for old school gaming products. Part of it is that I'm not a collector; I'm not willing to pay absurd amounts of money for a rulebook or module just for the distinction of owning it. At the same time, I prefer that anything I do pick up be in decent condition -- not mint, mind you, but usable without falling apart in my hands. The combination of these two facts, therefore, conspire against me and I've seen more than my share of RPG finds slip through my fingers because I won't plunk down large sums to acquire them.

Fortune sometimes smiles on me, though, as it did recently. I was, at long last, able to obtain a terrifically well-preserved 1987 Games Workshop printing of Chaosium's Stormbringer RPG for a song.
For those of you too young to know this, back in the '70s and '80s Games Workshop often produced amazing hardcover editions of American RPGs for the UK market. Besides being hardcovers, they often incorporated supplemental material along with the rulebook, creating a unique "complete" edition that gave you everything you needed under one cover. This Stormbringer volume, for example, also includes The Stormbringer Companion, too, along with full color art plates.

It's easy to forget that, early on, Games Workshop acted as a mail order service for British gamers who wanted to get hold of the latest releases from North America. Later, they produced UK editions of popular games, such as this one and a Call of Cthulhu third edition I also possess. I still consider some of these editions to be the best ever made for their respective games, which is why I like to snag copies of them when I can do so at a reasonable price. This copy of Stormbringer, as you can see from the photo, is in superb condition. It's binding is still strong and the pages are clean. The only flaws are some slight whitening along the spine and the careful removal of four perforated character sheets at the back.

I was incredibly lucky to get hold of this one. I think I'll need to find some way to run it this summer, if only as a one-shot or short campaign.


In LBB-only OD&D, dwarves can rise no higher than 6th level as fighting men, halflings can rise no higher than 4th level in that same class, and elves can reach 4th level as fighters and 8th level as magic-users. Greyhawk increased the level limits of all available non-humans, considerably in some cases. For example, halflings were unlimited in their advancement in the new class of thief. AD&D continued this trend, with every race being capable of unlimited advancement in at least one class (usually thief) and the level cap for other available classes somewhere in the range of 8-10 (halflings being the prime exception -- I guess Gary really didn't like the little guys). And of course Unearthed Arcana further expanded the options and scope of advancement for demihumans.

Equally interesting is what the 1981 B/X rules do for demihumans. First, they pare down OD&D's post-Greyhawk options for demihumans to a single racial class. However, in each case, the racial class has a level limit much higher than the limits found in OD&D (or even AD&D in most cases). For instance, a dwarf can rise to 12th level in his fighter-inspired racial class, while elves can reach 10th and halflings 8th -- all more than what's generally possible in either OD&D or AD&D. It's only in the matter of thievery that B/X severely curtails the advancement of demihumans compared to other versions of D&D.

I bring all this up because, over the last four years, a lot of virtual ink has been spilled in the old school community about demihuman level limits and their supposed rightness or wrongness. I used to be of the opinion that level limits were worth defending on two main grounds, one historical and one philosophical. The historical is that all versions of the game prior to 2000 included them, so, therefore, they're part of the game's heritage. The philosophical is, I admit, an ex post facto justification that it subtly discourages the play of non-humans and thereby keeps the game humanocentric, as Gygax intended.

I'm no longer convinced that the philosophical justification holds much water, particularly in light of the fact that every version of the game after 1974 has continually upped the level limits on demihumans across the board. Likewise, if one really wishes to limit the number of demihumans in a campaign, there are simpler ways to do so, such as making them NPC-only or requiring, as some old school RPGs did, a roll on a random table to see if one can play a demihuman, with the table weighted heavily in favor of humans.

The historical argument holds more weight for me, though not as much as it once did, in light of the continual increase in the level limits over the years. More importantly, as a practical matter, I'm not sure the level limits really matter. In my OD&D-flavored Labyrinth Lord (which closely follows B/X) campaign, the lowest level limit for non-humans is 8 for goblins (since they're modeled on halflings) and, after more than two years of play, no character has yet reached level 8. My recollection of the good ol' days is that it was uncommon, even when we played nearly daily, for PCs to get much higher than 9th or 10th level, meaning that neither dwarves nor elves would feel the bite of level limits, generally speaking.

I get the desire to want to limit demihumans in some way compared to humans; I really do. However, recent experience has taught me that it's, ultimately, not a big enough deal to worry about unless one's intention is simply to play the game as originally conceived without alteration. Otherwise, I have come to see level limits as a distinction without a difference -- a way to rein in demihuman "power" without actually doing so in a way that matters for the vast majority of D&D campaigns.

So, if it makes everyone who hates level limits happier to know they've won me over, enjoy. I am defeated and recant of my past errors. You ascending AC heretics, on the other hand, I'm still at war with you.

A Hargravian Coincedence

I'm not a regular reader of RPGnet, but I do read Shannon Appelcline's "Designers & Dragons" column from time to time, since he's often done some terrific work presenting the early history of the personalities and companies of the hobby. His latest column discussed the pre-history of Grimoire Games, which published Arduin. In it, he briefly mentions a fact about the life of Dave Hargrave, creator of Arduin:
Dave Hargrave got into RPGs through a variety of different paths. He first heard of roleplaying in 1968 at the Military Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland — prior to his work with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
What's interesting to me is that Hargrave was stationed at Fort Holabird in 1968. Among other things, Fort Holabird was -- it no longer exists -- was home to the Army Intelligence School, where my father was sent upon entering the military. The year? 1968.

Now, I realize that a lot of soldiers were stationed at Fort Holabird, especially since it was also home to an Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station and this was during a period of escalation in the Vietnam War. The odds of my father and Hargrave knowing one another, even though they were both stationed at the same post and were enrolled in the Military Intelligence School at the same time, is small. Still, it's an amusing thought.