Monday, July 30, 2012


As I write this, there's just a little over 24 hours left till the end of James Raggi's "Grand Adventure Campaign" on Indiegogo. Of the original 19 adventure pitches, two have funded so far -- those by Jeff Rients and Vincent Baker -- but several others stand a good chance of funding too, most notably Kelvin Green's "Horror Among Thieves." Kelvin's is a particularly interesting one, not only because he's a great guy and the subject matter of his adventure is intriguing, but because (in the words of Raggi):
If Horror Among Thieves does NOT fund, LotFP will still be publishing the adventure. It won’t necessarily be on the same timetable as if it were to fund, but we’ll put it out.
Anyone contributing $10+ to the campaign will get the adventure PDF, WHETHER OR NOT THE CAMPAIGN FUNDS.
Anyone contributing $20+ to the campaign will get the physical book, WHETHER OR NOT THE CAMPAIGN FUNDS.
Monte Cook also contributed an adventure to the campaign, "The Unbegotten Citadel," and anyone who contributes $100 or more to get it funded will receive a free PDF copy of Cook's Ptolus, which is itself worth $60.

There are several other freebies and special deals for contributors to this campaign -- too many in fact for me to keep track of. If you want to keep abreast of them, your best bet is to head over to James Raggi's blog, where I have little doubt he'll be posting like crazy between now and 11:59 PM Pacific Time on July 31, 2012.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tale of Hauk

For reasons I've never quite been able to ascertain, Gary Gygax singles out the third volume of the Andrew J. Offutt-edited anthology series, Swords Against Darkness, for special mention in Appendix N to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. This isn't to say that Swords Against Darkness III isn't worthy of inclusion -- it includes stories by Ramsey Campbell, Tanith Lee, and Manly Wade Wellman, not to mention Poul Anderson's essay "On Thud and Blunder," which ought to be enough to qualify it by almost any standard -- but I can't help but wonder what it was that made it so memorable to Gygax. I say this because the first volume, published in 1977, contains a similar lineup of authors and is, to my mind, just as good as (or at least no worse than) its successor.

A good case in point is Poul Anderson's "The Tale of Hauk," a short story based on Scandinavian legend. The titular hero, Hauk Geirolfsson, is a "chapman" -- a trader -- who has traveled far and wide beyond the northern lands of his birth. Hauk is often gone for years, visiting places and seeing things of which his people have never dreamed. Despite this, his father does not think especially well of him, seeing trading as no profession for a Norseman. At one point, a female friend of Hauk asks him about his manner of life.
"So you grow mighty as a chapman, Hauk," Alfhild teased. "Have you never gone in viking ... only once, only to please your father?"

"No," he answered gravely. " I fail to see what manliness lies in falling on those too weak to defend themselves. We traders must be stronger and more war-skilled than any who seek to plunder us." A thick branch of driftwood, bleached and hardened, lay nearby. Hauk picked it up and snapped it between his hands. Two other men would have had trouble doing that. It gladdened him to see Alfhild glow at the sight. "Nobody has tried us twice," he said.
Anderson thus makes it clear that, while Hauk is unlike others of his people, he is still a stout warrior and a brave one, too, having faced more than bandits in the course of his many travels. Geirolf, his father, is now an old man who can no longer go viking, as he once did. Embittered, angry, and fearing "straw-death" -- death in his bed rather than in battle -- he has taken to insulting and challenging all whom he meets, in hopes of rousing them to strike and kill him. He does this repeatedly to Hauk, but his son ignores his affronts.

While away on yet another journey, Hauk's father dies in his bed. Because of his manner of death, Geirolf cannot be buried in his ship, but is instead placed in an ordinary earthen grave. This does not sit well with his spirit, which rises as a "drow" and begins to wreak havoc on his people. When Hauk returns, his family and friends turn to him, assuming that, in his travels, he might have learned of a means to deal with such a threat. "I am no wizard," he replies. "If the gods themselves would not lay this ghost what can I do?" The remainder of the story deals with that question and how Hauk decides to answer it.

Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors, so my judgment when it comes to his work is likely impaired. Nonetheless, I don't think I exaggerate when I say that "The Tale of Hauk" is one of his best short works of fantasy, not so much for its story -- though its story is quite compelling -- but for its use of language. Among Anderson's many interests was what English might sound like bereft of its non-Germanic word borrowings, culminating in his 1989 essay on atomic theory called "Uncleftish Beholding."  "The Tale of Hauk," though from an earlier date, was written in a similar vein and, rather than being whimsical, the style suits it perfectly, making it at once easily readable but also evocative of another time and place. As Offutt says in his own introduction to the piece:
If the language of this story isn't the way scholars think the tales of Scandinavia should be translated -- they're wrong. If you don't promptly fall in love with the language -- you're wrong.
That may be a bit strong of a sentiment, though only a bit. For myself, I adore the way Anderson tells this tale; his use of largely "Anglo-Saxon" words lends it a unique sound and rhythm that, along with its story of filial piety and a society in transition, makes it well worth a read.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mini Surprise

I have quite a few things to share over the next few days, but, in the meantime, enjoy these photos of a surprise gift I received when I swapped some RPG books with someone.
I remember when these miniature reprints were released back in 1999, but I never acquired any at the time. I wasn't really playing D&D anyway, let alone first edition AD&D, so I didn't see any point in purchasing these things. Now that I own a couple, I regret my shortsightedness, especially since, as I recall, there were also miniature reproductions of the Moldvay/Cook boxed sets. Those would be awesome to own, don't you think?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Retrospective: Ravenloft: Realm of Terror

Normally, I like to restrict my retrospectives to products released prior to 1984 or thereabouts, both because I consider these years to be the Golden Age of the hobby (and Dungeons & Dragons in particular) and because that was the era of my "innocence" as a gamer, before I had any sense of what was really going on at the companies that made my favorite games. From time to time, though, I'll make exceptions and talk about materials produced after 1984 that were particularly noteworthy in some way or another, if not for the hobby as a whole, at least for me personally. One such exception is 1990's Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, written by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday.

By 1990, I wasn't actually playing much D&D anymore. I'd largely moved on to other games, partially out of fatigue -- I'd been playing Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another for more than a decade -- and partially because I wasn't a huge fan of AD&D's second edition, released in 1989. The reasons for my dissatisfaction are many and varied and not particularly germane to this post. Suffice it to say that, while I did buy plenty of Second Edition books and supplements over the course of its existence, I rarely used them to play. Mostly, they were things I read instead of gaming, which is a pretty sad commentary on how I approached my supposed hobby during a lot of the 1990s.

In my defense, I can only say that I was not alone in this regard. Indeed, my personal experience suggests that a great many formerly active gamers largely became mere readers -- and avid ones at that -- of gaming material in the '90s, which may well explain the proliferation of different settings for AD&D throughout that decade. Ravenloft was one of those settings and, while I remain ambivalent about the adventure module that spawned it, I nevertheless saw enough potential in the setting that I happily bought the boxed treatment of it when I saw it. The boxed set consisted of a 144-page softcover book, four large maps, 24 cardstock sheets, and a transparent overlay to be used in conjunction with the maps, since, back in those days, TSR felt that including some means of determining distance on the maps themselves somehow detracted from their appearance. (No doubt I read too much into things, but I see such a style vs. substance decision as indicative of a lot about the 2e era).

Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was basically an attempt to create a Gothic literary setting/sourcebook for AD&D. It was precisely this that appealed enough to me that I bought it in the first place. I was -- and am -- a big fan of Gothic literature, or at least many of the themes and elements derived from it, many of which were present in D&D from its first publication. Consequently, the notion of explicitly playing up those elements and themes struck me as a worthy endeavor. And, for the most part, I think Realm of Terror did a decent job of doing just that, with rules modifications to classes, spells, and magic items, as well rules for curses, fortune telling, the seduction of evil, and more. There were also essays on Gothic literature and how best to use it as inspiration for adventures and campaigns.

In 1990, this was all rather heady stuff to me. Aside from superhero RPGs (and Call of Cthulhu), there wasn't a lot of straightforward emulation of literary sources in the hobby, at least not as I experienced it. Even then, it was often done in a rather hamfisted fashion, whereas Realm of Terror seemed to be a lot more "sophisticated" and "thoughtful" in its approach. If nothing else, it gave greater consideration to the difficulties of running a horror-based D&D campaign, something even the original Ravenloft module never quite managed to do in my opinion. It's also worth noting that Realm of Terror predates the upsurge of interest in horror RPGs that followed in the wake of Vampire: The Masquerade and its sequels and imitators, thus making it a trailblazing product in many ways.

That's not to say that, looking back, it fully succeeds in its goals. In my opinion, Realm of Terror suffers from two opposite sins. First, despite the rules modifications it presents, it's still fundamentally a D&D supplement and many aspects of D&D militate against the emulation of horror literature of any kind, let alone the emotionally charged horror of the Gothic type. Second, while I appreciate -- now more than ever -- the attention paid to the literary inspirations of the setting, I do think there's a bit too much emphasis placed on emulation, to the point where it subtly encouraged a kind of railroad-y playstyle that became to dominate later products in the line. Now, neither sin is insurmountable in my opinion and neither takes away from the genuinely groundbreaking nature of Realm of Terror, at least to my much younger self.

One of my queerest gaming eccentricities is that I own nearly all every Ravenloft-related product ever produced. I consider them some of the most inspirational gaming materials I own, even though I think most of them are deeply flawed either in content or presentation (or both). Yet, even the worst of them contain a spark of something I find compelling, from which I can derive good ideas for use in my own adventures and campaigns, which is, frankly, a rare and laudable thing. Nowadays, I find a similar spark in Jack Shear's superb Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog, as well as 164-page compilation of much of its contents available in softcover or hardcover through Even if you were never a Ravenloft fan as I was, the blog and the compilations are well worth your time and good examples of some of the best stuff the OSR is producing these days.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Erol Otus Wizard

I'm going to be away for a couple of days, so more scans of the artwork from the 1982 French edition will have to wait till later in the week. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this image of a wizard by the inimitable Erol Otus from the boardgame, Dungeon!, as requested in the comments to my previous post.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

French D&D Images

As promised, here are some scans of a few pieces of artwork from the 1982 French edition of Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay. What you'll notice is that a great many of the images below are re-imaginings of pieces that appeared in the original 1981 English language version, like this one:
The original version of this from the 1981 edition is almost identical, right down to the numbers shown on most of the dice, so why bother commissioning a new piece?

Goofy though it is, I actually really like this illustration by Jim Holloway. There is a comparable illustration in the 1981 edition, but it depicts two people (one male, one female) imagining themselves as D&D characters, not one, and neither looks anything like this fellow, who seems a truer representative of the cohort of gamers entering the hobby via the Basic Rules.
This looks to be another Jim Holloway piece, depicting what I suspect are meant to be a thief, an elf, and a dwarf. It's wholly original and has no antecedent in the 1981 edition.
This is Larry Elmore's version of the famed alignment illustration from the 1981 book. I can't be certain, but I think it had previously appeared elsewhere, perhaps in an issue of Polyhedron, but my memory is faulty after three decades.
Here's another reworking, this time of Erol Otus's wizards arguing over who gets which magic items from their latest haul. While the entirety of this piece by Larry Elmore (so far as I can recall) never appeared anywhere, the female magic-user on the left makes several appearances in the 1983 Frank Mentzer-edited Basic Set.

There are many more illustrations in the French Basic Rules I can share if there's sufficient interest in seeing them. I picked the ones above because they struck me as interesting and because the majority of them are either direct re-imaginings of things found in the 1981 English version or depict similar things. I find myself wondering why all the interior artwork is new and unique to this edition but the Erol Otus cover painting was retained. Regardless, I find it helps give the 1982 French version a flavor all its own that distinguishes it from the original work from which it was derived.

Inc. Articles on TSR

Reader Markus Siebler passed along a couple of links I thought I'd share, since they provide fascinating looks back on the history of the hobby. They're both from the February 1982 issue of the business magazine Inc. The first, "TSR Hobbies Mixes Fact and Fantasy," talks about the phenomenal growth of the company since its incorporation in 1975. I found this quote from the particularly amusing:
In their business explorations, TSR's owners and managers have been called upon to use many of the skills that are required to play Dungeons & Dragons. "I quit playing the game about two years ago to get some objectivity," says Kevin B. Blume, 30, chief operating officer."I love to play, but it wasn't that difficult to forego. Now I'm playing a much larger game called business. That's why we're intuitively good businessmen -- because games are a great way to learn."
The second article, "Why TSR Hobbies Is So Profitable," includes an income statement for fiscal 1981, which reveal the company had net sales close to $10 million, which would have been a significant amount 30+ years ago.

The articles are short and filled with self-congratulatory puffery on the part of TSR (there's no mention whatsoever of Dave Arneson, for example), but, even so, it's fascinating stuff, not least because it was written as the company was still riding high. However, it wouldn't be very many years in the future before the company's fortunes were quite different, posting a net loss in revenue and having to lay off large numbers of its staff.

Hulks & Horrors

With so many excellent old school crowdfunding campaigns under way these days, it's easy to miss some of the smaller ones, such as John Berry's Hulks & Horrors, which he describes as  
a classic dungeon crawl experience with a mashup of gonzo sci-fi and space opera tropes from the golden ages of the genre, with a touch of good humor, shocking horror, and good old fashioned fun
The basic premise of the game is described at some length on the game's webpage, but I thought the following section might be useful in sparking the interest of regular readers of this blog. Berry writes:
Set in a galaxy left almost stripped of sentient life by an ancient and horrific plague, in Hulks and Horrors players take on the role of troubleshooters and private explorers called "surveyors," contracted to explore distant worlds, and given full license to kill and loot whatever they find there. Players in H&H will encounter a host of dangerous foes, from plague horrors, to indigenous beasts, to rogue surveyor crews.

Hulks and Horrors takes its inspiration from the classic science fiction and fantasy roleplaying games of the 70s and 80s, particularly the works of Gygax, Moldvay, and Ward, as well as the pulp science fiction of comics, TV and film, and artistic works from the likes of Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean, and magazines like Heavy Metal and 2000AD.
If that sounds at all intriguing to you, hop on over to the campaign's Indiegogo page and consider making a pledge.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dungeon! Memories

Among the other treasures from the early days of my gaming I've recently recovered is my copy of TSR's Dungeon! boardgame. This is not the copy with which I learned to play and was thus introduced into the hobby but rather a later version I picked up for myself, the one with the awesome cover by Jim Roslof:
My daughter has been eyeing the box with some interest, in part because of the (Willingham?) illustrations on the side, depicting the various character options:

It's interesting that only the illustrations of the elf and wizard change from side to side. It's also interesting to see that Dungeon! preserves the "hero" and "super hero" terms that first appear in Chainmail and baffled me as a kid. My daughter is similarly baffled, especially after she noticed a monster card called "Evil Super Hero." "Wouldn't that be a 'super villain'?" she asked. Speaking of monster cards, here are a selection that made a big impression on me as a young person:
Though these aren't the same cards as those included in the version of Dungeon! I played back in 1979, they contain several of the creatures whose odd names stuck with me. Black pudding (pictured upside down above -- ugh!) is one I remember thinking notably peculiar, though green slime and purple worm also left a mark on my imagination.
As the years wore on, my friends and I continued to play Dungeon! To spice things up, I created new monster cards, based on creatures from D&D I thought should be included. I typed them up -- back in those days, I used a typewriter for everything -- cut the pieces of paper to the appropriate size and then used double-sided tape to affix the paper to existing cards I wouldn't miss (I felt there were too many vampire cards, for example, so a lot of them were re-purposed for new monsters).

Dungeon! remains one of my favorite boardgames. I actually think it holds up very well, despite its age, and could serve as an excellent introduction to D&D for younger players. That's why I'm heartened to see that Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the game in the Fall. Here's hoping they haven't tinkered too much with the rules, since a big part of what makes the game work is its simplicity and ease of play.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

May the Dice Be With You!

On a couple of occasions I've told the story of how I landed a free copy of the French language edition of the Tom Moldvay-edited Basic Set in the Fall of 1984. Thanks to my mother, I now have this copy in my hands again and I've spent a portion of the day looking through it -- it's been quite the trip down memory lane! Here's a photo of the box:
As you can see, it uses the same cover as the original 1981 set, even though it was published in late 1982. Here's the title page, which is slightly different:
What's interesting about this page, aside from Gygax's inscription to me, is that the illustration is a Jeff Easley reinterpretation of the original Bill Willingham piece. Next up is the cover of the French version of The Keep on the Borderlands.
This one has a new illustration by Jim Holloway. Also in the box are the French versions of Palace of the Silver Princess and The Lost City, but both of them use them same artwork as the English language originals. Here's the title page of module B2:
There's a second inscription by Gygax, along with another Holloway illustration that I don't recall ever seeing before and that appears to be a variation on the Jim Roslof piece from the version of the module I own. Flipping through these books I noticed quite a few reinterpretations of iconic scenes from the Moldvay rulebook by later artists, including a couple by Larry Elmore. It makes for an odd visual experience, since I "recognize" many of the illustrations, even though they're done in a different style by a different artist.

I'll probably have more to say about the 1982 French Basic Set in the coming days.

Retrospective: Star Trek Tricorder/Starship Sensors Interactive Display

My love for FASA's Star Trek the Roleplaying Game is well-known. I don't think the game is without flaws by any means, but what I appreciate about it is how well it -- and many of its supplementary products -- captured the spirit and feel of Gene Roddenberry's science fiction vision. Consequently, my friends and I played the heck out of the game when it was released back in 1982. We also purchased a fair number of the supplements FASA cranked out for it, including this oddity, the Star Trek Tricorder/Starship Sensors Interactive Display. published in 1984.

Designed by David R. Dietrick (who produced the visuals and the original concept) and William John Wheeler (who wrote the actual game mechanics behind it), the Display was a two-sided cardboard sleeve with an illustration of a tricorder on one side and a computer panel on the other. Each side had a series of small windows cut out of the sleeve. These windows were associated with cardboard wheels that were attached to the sleeve with brass fasteners. By spinning the wheel, a different entry would appear in the window, such as "Bird/Avian" or "300" or "Romulan." There was also a larger window at the top through which cardboard strips with pictures (inserted into one side of the sleeve) could be viewed.

The idea behind the tricorder was that the Display could be used to simulate a character's use of a tricorder or a sensor panel aboard a starship. Whenever a skill roll was attempted in the game, depending on the result (and the overall rating of the character attempting it), the referee would consult a 16-page booklet included with this product. There, he'd find charts listing "data" that he could then impart to the player by stating, for example, "Turn Wheel A to 23," which would result in the player learning that the object being tracked was "moving laterally." As there were four wheels, plus the larger window display, more data could be imparted for more successful skill rolls, thereby simulating what a character might learn from a particular adept use of technology.

The Display is not without flaws, the most significant being that the information listed under each data wheel didn't always follow a logical sequence or progression, meaning that, until the referee gained some facility with the information, he might have to spend some time looking on several lists to find just which wheel contains "silicon based" or "a billion." Likewise, there were limits to how much detail the Display could impart with just four wheels and one window. Extremely specific information, never mind concepts unique to a referee's adventure or without precedent in previous Star Trek episodes/movies, had to be imparted "the old fashioned way" rather than by recourse to the Display.

Despite that, I really liked the Display. It certainly made playing the science officer more fun. In the past, it was fairly typical to see something like the following:
Captain: Science officer, what do your sensors show?
Science Officer: (rolling) [To referee:] I got a 35; what do they show?
Referee: There's a starship of unknown design fleeing the system at Warp 3.
Science Officer: [To captain:] There's a starship of unknown design fleeing the system at Warp 3.
In short, the science officer was reduced to being a parrot or, worse yet, cut out of the dialog entirely as the referee simply imparted information that, in the game, only someone using the right device could know. With the Display, the referee could pass along information to the science officer "secretly," thereby giving him the chance to reveal what he has discovered. It's a small thing perhaps, but I generally found it added fun to the game, even if it had its drawbacks and limitations. I'm not usually one to recommend the use of props in a tabletop roleplaying game beyond really basic things like mock newspaper articles and similar documents, but the Star Trek Tricorder/Starship Sensors Interactive Display is a rare exception I happily make.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #11

Issue #11 (November 1981) is another tightly focused issue, with its integral game, Albion: Land of Faerie, forming the nexus around which everything else revolves. The issue kicks off with a "background" piece called "A History of the Third Fomorian War" by David J. Ritchie, which provides details on the setting of the aforementioned wargame. This setting is a fantastical one inspired by, but not bound by, the myths of the British Isles, particularly those of Ireland. It's not intended to be "true" to those myths so much as to borrow liberally from them for names, ideas, and situations. Author Diana Paxson provides a piece called "The Power Points of Albion" that talks about sites of mystical energy, which, while not strictly intended for use with the issue's game, nevertheless covers some of the same ground.

The issue also includes an Arthurian tale inspired by some lines from Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale. Entitled "Chichevache" and written by Ian McDowell, it involves an encounter with the eponymous creature whose diet consists only of good and noble wives and is thus, according to medieval legend, always hungry. Greg Costikyan ruminates on the design of solitaire games in "You Against the System." Costikyan also reviews several books, most notably Dream Park, which he likes a great deal. John Boardman and Susan Schwartz appear once more with their regular "Science for Science Fiction" and "Facts for Fantasy." Schwartz's entry focuses on matters Celtic, in keeping with the overarching theme of issue #11.

Christopher John reviews Heavy Metal rather critically, proclaiming it "an uneven, empty movie" that he found less engaging than Disney's The Fox and the Hound. I'm no fan of Heavy Metal myself, but that strikes me as both a harsh and ludicrous judgment. Eric Goldberg savages the SF RPG Star Patrol, calling it a "failure." Nevertheless, he also notes that it "displays flashes of brilliance," for which reason it might prove useful as "an accessory for Traveller, Space Opera, or Universe." He goes on to say that
Role-playing is an elastic enough genre to permit a game to fail at its stated goal and to succeed at something else.
I think there's some truth to that, which is why I now find myself ever more keen to track down a copy of Star Patrol for myself. Goldberg also looks at Arms Law and Spell Law, deeming both less than ideal, with his worst criticisms saved for Spell Law. I couldn't help but feel that some of his criticisms seemed to stem from the fact that ICE had clearly written its rules with D&D in mind, an affront in the eyes of the designers of SPI, who regularly take potshots at TSR and its products whenever possible -- future events will make this ever more ironic.

Gerry Klug pens this issue's "DragonNotes," and, with the help of Nick Karp, Klug also writes "Designer's Notes."

Albion: Land of Faerie is a lengthy wargame, taking up 16 pages, not including its map and counter sheets. The game depicts a battle between the Fomorians and the Faeries, whose conclusion ushers in the end of the age of magic and the rise of the age of Man. By my admittedly pathetic lights, Albion seems rather complex, with rules for weather, attrition, and refits, in addition to the expected rules for movement, command control, and combat. The game also treats magic items and enchantment, as one might expect. The game definitely looks intriguing, but it's also pretty intimidating to folks like me.

I didn't enjoy issue #11 as much as issue #10, perhaps because I'm not as enthusiastic about Celtic-inspired fantasy as I am about science fiction, but, even so, this was a well-done and presented issue and closer to the kind of thing I'd have liked to see in a gaming magazine back in the day.

Looking in on The Manor

As I've mentioned before, I'm really enjoying Christian's Loviatar fanzine -- so much so in fact that I've been keeping my eye on several other fanzines popping up across the old school scene. One of these is The Manor by Tim Shorts of Gothridge Manor fame. Issue #1 came out in May, I believe, and I happily devoured its contents when I first received my print copy (the only way to enjoy fanzines, in my opinion). I've been meaning to make a little post about it for several weeks now, but one thing or another has kept me from doing so, much to my embarrassment. Life's been fairly busy round here, as regular readers may have noticed, but that's no excuse not to spread the love about Tim's delightful little fanzine.

Issue #1 is 24 pages in length and is available either in print or PDF. As I said, I much prefer the print edition, but I'm a Luddite who derives considerable pleasure from holding a book in my hand, so take that as you will. The issue begins with a brief introduction by Tim, where he lays out where he's coming from in writing and presenting The Manor. Of particular interest to me was his the section where he says:
I do this for fun, not to change minds or challenge gaming philosophies. I roll dice, laugh, and try to make my funny voices sound convincing.
I like that a lot and I'm glad Tim placed it in his introduction.

Following it is a "micro adventure" called "The Salt Pit," in which the characters are asked to investigate (naturally) a salt pit in which a mysterious creature has recently taken up residence, thereby disrupting the mining done there and placing the livelihood of a family in jeopardy. It's a very simple scenario and perhaps nothing we haven't seen many times before in various forms, but I like the little touches Tim added to breathed life into it. Immediately afterwards is a D12 table by Jason Sholtis called "There's Something Shiny in the Troglodyte Dung Heap," which is just what it says.

There's a fascinating little article called "Rural Pennsylvania: Ghoul House," which details a creepy house in Mercer County that's home to a lich. I like the idea behind this article, but it's a little short for my taste and it's unclear what game it's meant to be used with. The stats look like those for Swords & Wizardry; however, it's a modern-day locale. More successful and clear, I think, is "20 Random Forest Encounters." Like "The Salt Pit," the basic premise isn't something we haven't seen many times before, but it's filled with clever little tidbits that bring the encounters to life. The same is true of "Street Vendor: Oren's Boots," which describes a boot shop run by the eponymous Oren and his wife, Laura. Also described is a friend of Oren (and his mysterious past) and a selection of adventure hooks.

Issue #1 of The Manor is a solid premier issue, one that highlights what I like most about Tim Shorts's approach to gaming, namely his interest in investing even the most basic scenarios and encounters with little inspirational details, whether it's the magic potency of spiderwebs found in the forest, the grave of a beloved pet, or uses for bugbear hide. These all add interest to what might otherwise seem like well worn, even banal, gaming elements. It's my hope that, as further issues of The Manor are released, we'll see Tim continue in this vein, improving on the foundation he's established in the first issue.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tritonian Ring

The name of L. Sprague de Camp isn't held in particularly high regard these days among admirers of Robert E. Howard and understandably so. While there's no denying that De Camp did play a role -- and an important one at that -- in the popularization of Howard's work, especially his Conan tales, it's equally true that he played an even bigger role in the popular misunderstanding not only of the Cimmerian but also of his creator. Unlike a few of REH's more rabid defenders, I attribute neither malice nor jealousy to De Camp's treatment of him. Rather, I think it's simply that De Camp was so different, intellectually and emotionally, from Howard that, even as he recognized the Texan author's brilliance, he could never come to appreciate him on on his own terms. Instead, he continued to view him through the lens of his own worldview -- and often found him lacking.

Solid evidence in support of this thesis can be found in one of De Camp's own swords-and-sorcery offerings, The Tritonian Ring, which first appeared in the Winter 1951 volume of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, paired with H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Though that pairing might seem odd -- and it is on several levels -- it also makes some sense, too, once you recognize that De Camp intended The Tritonian Ring to be a work of historical rather than pure fantasy. The "Pusadian Age" in which the story is set is intended to be a prehistoric time of our Earth, before both magic and the gods had lost their potency. In this respect, it's very similar to Howard's "Hyborian Age," except that De Camp based his fictional past on what he considered a surer footing, including a study of the pre-Ice Age geography and ancient accounts of the distant past, such as Plato's depiction of Atlantis. The Pusadian Age is thus a "realistic" attempt to present a forgotten time of magic and adventure -- in short, one better suited to a mind like De Camp's.

The Tritonian Ring takes places on the conjoined landmass of Europe, Asia, and Africa he calls Poseidonis and identifies with the mythical Atlantis. Despite its mythical origins, De Camp nevertheless tries to ground this far-off realm in plausibility, so he presents readers with a society and culture that, while magical, has not mastered technology beyond the ability to work bronze. In fact, the appearance of iron and iron-working is the pivot on which the entire story turns, as iron, the reader learns, is "the thing the Gods most fear." As is the case in many legends, iron is opposed to magic, blocking it and weakening it. De Camp expands on this idea and explains that even the gods are powerless before this strange new metal, which is being sought by the king of the northern kingdom of Lorsk in order to advance the position of his own realm. Seeing this as a threat, the gods urge the monstrous gorgons to attack Lorsk, hoping to dissuade its king from his wild path. Instead of backing down, the king sends his own son, Vakar, on a quest to find the iron that will save Lorsk and foil the gods' plans.

Vakar's quest forms the bulk of The Tritonian Ring and it's a remarkably fun read. De Camp is an engaging, witty writer and that comes through in even his worst novels. The Tritonian Ring, though, is one of his better efforts, in part, I think, because his Pusadian Age is interesting and well-drawn, with a logical culture and cosmology. The conflict that De Camp postulates between the rise in the use of iron and the end of the "old ways" is engaging and a good source of drama. It also, I think, reflects where De Camp's own sympathies lay. Unlike Howard, who viewed barbarism as both natural and inevitable, De Camp instead sees Progress­™ as mankind's true destiny. Prince Vakar, for example, does not hear the voices of the gods in his head, in contrast to most of his contemporaries and he looks with disdain on tradition and long-held customs, seeing them as impediments rather than aids to humanity's growth. He comes across as a 20th century rationalist of the sort De Camp himself admired. That's not a criticism: I think much of the book works well precisely because Vakar is a "man ahead of his time." Vakar is just as much of an exemplar of De Camp's own worldview as Conan is of Howard's -- and therein lies the gulf between these two men.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

REVIEW: Weird Adventures

I've had a copy of Weird Adventures for a while now and have started writing a review of it several times, but something has always stopped me. That something is my own inability to describe it concisely without resorting either to banalities or oh-so-clever bunkum: "Putting the pulp back into 'pulp fantasy'!" or "The setting Eberron dreamed it could be!" And yet, those two descriptions, overstated though they might be, do accurately reflect some of the brilliance of Weird Adventures. I say "some," because there's so much in this 165-page book that I still have a hard time getting a handle on all of it. Consequently, this review will be by turns rambling and effusive ("How's that different than most of your reviews?" I hear some of you saying), often both.

Written by Trey Causey of the blog From the Sorcerer's Skull, Weird Adventures is "an exciting RPG setting" that's system-neutral but clearly intended to be used with old school D&D and its clones and simulacra. The book is mostly free of any game mechanics or statistics, but, when it does present them, it adopts Swords & Wizardry-style agnosticism toward those things, like Armor Class, that divide the Church of Old School. This means that, to get the most out of Weird Adventures, a referee is going to need to do some preparation beforehand; this is not a "ready to use" product, though the amount of preparation needed is probably pretty small.

As you've probably already guessed, Weird Adventures draws its primary inspiration from tales of pulp adventure. This is something many games and gaming products have done before, but what sets Weird Adventures apart from them is that it does so to provide a fantasy setting. That is, the world of Weird Adventures is not Earth during the 1930s but rather one that is both similar to and different from it. Its similarities are some broad details -- geography and history -- while its differences are more specific, from names ("Meropic Ocean" instead of "Atlantic Ocean," "Ealdered" instead of "Europe," "Freedonia" instead of "Texas," etc.) to the existence of magic and non-human races. The result is a world that is at once familiar but alien and, in my opinion, a vastly better canvas for fantastical adventure than the typical alternate histories and parallel Earths that plague many prior attempts to produce settings inspired by the pulps.

The book consists of five chapters and an introduction. It's written in a breezy, conversational style and utilizes a two-column layout that's easy to read. Throughout there is art. both vintage and original, that nicely sets the mood, along with "props" -- advertisements, newspaper clippings, maps -- that also contribute to a real sense of place. At the same time, I can't deny that it's a lot to assimilate, in large part because there are enough divergences from our world that, unless one has a good memory, it's easy to assume something remains as it does in our world when in fact it does not. That's not necessarily a problem; Weird Adventures isn't the kind of game product that encourages, let alone demands, a strict adherence to its "canon." But Causey has done such a thoroughly delightful job in presenting his pulp fantastical vision of the 1930s that I'd feel bad about forgetting even small details.

Weird Adventures focuses on the nations of Zephyria (the Western Hemisphere), with a particular emphasis on The Union (the USA), though the lands of Borea (Canada), Zingaro (Mexico), and Asciana (South America) are also treated, if much more briefly. The bulk of Weird Adventures consists of an extended gazetteer of The Union's many regions, from New Lludd in the northeast to southern New Ylourgne on the Zingaran Gulf to Yronburg in the Midwest and San Tiburon in the West. Scattered throughout this gazetteer are the descriptions of unique locations, NPCs, random tables, adventure seeds, and similar inspirational ideas to give players and referees alike a sense of just what you can do with the setting. It's a good approach, I think, though, as I noted earlier, there are few (if any) game stats, so you're left to your own devices in figuring out the effects of bootleg alchemicals beyond the "purpureal ether" given as an example.

An even larger gazetteer (close to 80 pages) is devoted to the City of Empire, more commonly known as simply "the City," this world's version of New York. In addition to maps of the city's five constituent "baronies" -- Empire Island, Rookend, Marquesa, Shancks, and Lichmond -- there are descriptions of 42 unique locales. Many of these descriptions cover not just the basics of the locale but also their history, inhabitants, and ideas for adventures set there. I found this gazetteer even more charming than the previous one, because Causey was able to show us in greater detail how all the various elements of this setting fit together into a whole. Like any good old school game writer, though, he provides lots of examples to spur individual creativity. I wasn't even considering the possibility of using Weird Adventures in any way, but, reading through just its descriptions of its ethnic enclaves, I couldn't help but be inspired. I mean, who wouldn't want to set a hardboiled detective adventure in Little Carcosa?

Concluding the 165-page book is a selection of "Weird Menaces," monsters unique to the setting of Weird Adventures. These are presented in a mechanically minimalist way, but with lots of inspirational flavor. So, in addition to crabmen and gatormen, there are hit fiends, hill-billy giants, lounge lizards, pink elephants, and reds (evil promoters of the diabolical philosophy of "communaltarianism"). Like everything else in this book, it's a fun selection of opponents that draws equally on pop culture, urban myth, and real world history for inspiration. It's good stuff and offers a near-perfect example of how to present monsters that tap into the imaginations of players so that they are more than just lists of meaningless statistics.

If the foregoing makes it sound as if I thought Weird Adventures flawless, you're pretty close to correct. My only substantive criticism is that, by opting for a largely system-agnostic approach, referees are left to their own devices in adapting this material. That's not a big deal for most old schoolers, but it could be a turn-off to some who prefer their game products more "plug and play." On the other hand, Weird Adventures is so cleverly conceived and attractively presented that I doubt many will care about such niggling details as game rules. What Trey Causey has done is give us a sumptuous melange of D&D fantasy, alt-history, Lovecraftian horror, and Smithian weirdness, served up with heaping helpings of myth and legend from every possible source and offered on a plate ripped from the pages of the pulps. I can't praise Weird Adventures enough; it's a superb gaming product and one of the most enjoyable things I've read in many a month. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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

Buy This If: You're a fan of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century and are looking for a setting that takes inspiration from all their ideas.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in pulp fantasy or gaming in the early 20th century.

Chainmail Alignment Chart

Since the topic has come up in the comments to my previous post, here's the version of the alignment chart that appears in my copy of Chainmail:
Looking at it, there's no question that the OD&D chart is modeled on the one from Chainmail but there are also a lot of differences between them, particularly when you look at the Neutral column.

LBB Alignment Chart

I was re-reading my copy of Volume 1 of OD&D the other day and I looked again at this famous chart:
Aside from Greg Bell's illustrations, what's fascinating to me is how many creatures appear in both the Neutrality column and either Law or Chaos. I'm particularly intrigued by some of those who can be either Neutral or Chaotic -- orcs, ogres, and minotaurs most notably.

In itself, it's no big deal, except that the chart also lists goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, and gnolls as irredeemably Chaotic with no exceptions. I can't help but wonder if there were a reason behind this or if it was simply done without any real thought, especially when you look at this later chart, which accompanied a Gary Gygax article from a 1976 issue of The Strategic Review.
Here orcs, ogres, and minotaurs are all unambiguously on the side of Darkness. Admittedly, the situation is complicated somewhat by the introduction of the Good-Evil axis to the alignment model, but, even so, there are no Neutral humanoid beings whatsoever.

As I said, this more than likely means nothing in any absolute sense. So much as D&D wasn't designed so much as happened. Even so, I find it worthwhile and often inspirational to take note of how various aspects of the game were presented at different stages of its existence. Being a Holmes baby, I have a certain fondness for the fivefold alignment scheme, even if it's not quite what I use in my home campaign. Likewise, the threefold system of OD&D is a little too simple for me, but that doesn't mean I can't find it a good source of ideas at times.

Ares Magazine: Issue #10

I readily concede that I'm neither a wargamer nor particularly well suited to SPI's style and presentation of their products (despite my decades-long fascination with DragonQuest and Universe). Consequently, my reviews of Ares magazine are undeniably skewed in their perspective, as I was not the target audience for this periodical. Still, I've been enjoying looking back on these issues and watching Ares evolve over time. I am told that was one of SPI's great strengths -- responding to the feedback data they assiduously collected in all of their products. That may explain why issue #10 (September 1981) is the first issue that actually feels like a gaming periodical rather than whatever it is that previous issues felt like.

The most immediately interesting thing about issue #10 is its cover, whose artist I recognized without having to look in the credits. That's because it's done by Timothy Truman, who, in 1981, wasn't yet known for anything other than RPG art and, even then, his credits were few. I mention this because, prior to this point, Ares had been illustrated primarily by "big name" sci-fi, fantasy, and comics artists rather than artists known solely from gaming products. Perhaps it's not as big a deal as I make it out to be, but it does represent a visible shift, esthetically, if nowhere else, in the direction of the magazine.

Issue #10 kicks off its renewed emphasis on science fiction gaming, first with a collection of designer's notes to Universe and other sci-fi gaming products, such as Star Trader. There's also a short story by Harry Harrison, "The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat," which ties into the issue's integral wargame. John Boardman and Susan Schwartz both reappear with their regular "Science for Science Fiction" and "Facts for Fantasy" features. Christopher John reviews several science fiction movies (positively, no less), including Outland -- a favorite of mine -- Escape from New York, and Dragonslayer. I've noted in previous installments that the reviews in Ares became generally more upbeat and less snarky as the issues wore on and that I applauded this shift. Amusingly, David J. Schow's "Media" column remained every bit as curmudgeonly. In issue #10, he writes about this newfangled thing, "home-subscription movie channels," which are delivered via "cable." While Schow sees potential in such channels, he nevertheless dismisses them as showing second rate movies and that the experience of watching films at home will never be as good as that in theaters except to the "indiscriminate." Greg Costikyan's book reviews are mostly of books I've never heard of, let alone read. Meanwhile, Eric Goldberg reviews Griffin Mountain, which he praises effusively, and The Lords of Underearth, which he also enjoyed.

Gerry Klug's DragonQuest adventure, "The Camp of Alla-Akabar," appears in this issue. I have a certain fondness for this adventure, as it was included in the Ballantine softcover version of DQ that I regularly checked out of the library in the '80s. Klug also pens this issue's "DragonNotes" feature, as well as "There's Only One Universe," which is yet another designer's notes article about Universe. Justin Leites offers expansions and variants for use with last issue's DeltaVee. Taken together, these sections constitute a significant amount of support for SPI's RPGs and I was glad to see it. As I said at the beginning of this post, issue #10 is the first time that Ares starts to feel like a gaming magazine rather than a strange mishmash of stuff thrown together "because that's what the kids like these days."

Concluding this excellent issue is Greg Costikyan and Redmond Simonsen's The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat wargame -- or "simulation," as it's called. The game ties into the Harrison short story included with the issue and details a space station whose computer has "gone berserk," placing its occupants at risk. The player takes the role of James "Slippery Jim" diGriz (aka The Stainless Steel Rat), who's been tasked to enter the station and deal with the problem. The game is intended for solo play, since it includes 225 "event paragraphs" that are read upon certain conditions, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. A second player can be added, taking the role of Jim's wife, Angelina, but the station's computer and robots remain "programmed" by the game itself rather than being controlled by another player. Like most SPI "simulations," The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat is complex, but, unlike so many others, it also looks like fun. I'm sorely tempted to try and play the thing, which is not a feeling I regularly get from SPI games.

All in all, I really liked issue #10. It feels like Ares is finally on solid ground and knows what it's about. That makes it all the more tragic that only a few more issues remain before the magazine ceases production entirely.

Monday, July 9, 2012

OSRCon 2012

I've mentioned this before, but, since it's only a little over a month away (August 10-11), I'm going to plug OSRCon, a two-day minicon held here in Toronto and dedicated to old school gaming. Like last year, Ed Greenwood will be one of the guests of honor, running an AD&D 2e adventure, as well as participating in a panel discussion. Also attending will be Tunnels & Trolls creator, Ken St. Andre, who'll be refereeing T&T adventures on both Friday and Saturday. Other games include Boot Hill, RuneQuest, Labyrinth Lord, and my own OD&D-based Dwimmermount sessions.

Registration costs $25 CAD and you can see the schedule of available games here. I had a lot of fun at last year's inaugural con and I have little doubt this year's will be just as enjoyable, particularly since Ken St. Andre will be there. Ken's a great guy and was there at the beginning of it all, so having the chance to talk with him and play in his game will be quite a treat. If you're anywhere near Toronto in early August, consider dropping by and joining us.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Horror Comics of the 1950's

Over the last few years, the phrase "Appendix N" has come to be widely used and understood within the hobby, in the process raising awareness of and appreciation for the pulp fantasy tales that inspired Gary Gygax in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. What I find intriguing, though, is how rarely anyone takes note of what Gygax says in the first paragraph of Appendix N, before the justly famed "Inspirational Reading" list. In that paragraph, Gygax notes that in addition to "tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerers and dauntless swordsmen," he was also inspired by "countless hundreds of comic books." He singles out "the long-gone EC ones" and further notes that they "certainly had their effect."

By "EC ones," Gygax was, of course, referring to those published by Entertaining Comics by William Gaines. Between 1950 and 1955, when EC published three noteworthy titles: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. All of these titles focused on horror stories, as one might expect, but most were presented with a grim sense of humor that made them more memorable than similar comics produced by other publishers. In addition, the artwork of EC's comics was ghoulishly vibrant, thanks to a variety of in-house and freelance talent. Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson are but two of the illustrators EC employed who would later go on to great acclaim within their profession.

EC Comics ceased publishing its horror titles as a result of mounting public criticism of the subject matter of many comic books, culminating in the formation of the Comics Code Authority, whose code made it increasingly difficult to publish the kinds of darkly humorous stories for which EC was known. By 1955, Gaines gave up on Tales from the Crypt and its siblings to focus instead on Mad. Consequently, EC Comics weren't easy to come by during the late 50s and throughout the 1960s. In time, though, there was a growing nostalgia for them, leading to reprints, the first of which, Horror Comics of the 1950's, was published in 1971.  Others would follow.

The local public library I regularly visited had a copy of Horror Comics of the 1950's -- in its children's book section, no less! -- and I vividly remember seeing it on the shelf. I was both horrified and entranced by its depiction of a man trapped in a mausoleum as a corpse opens up its coffin and rises from it. That was my typical response to things horrific as a child: I was frightened but I still wanted to look. I don't know how many times I looked at the cover of this book before I dared to open it, let alone check it out and take it home -- probably years. Eventually, though, I plucked up enough courage to do so and was instantly entranced. Sure, there was still plenty of stuff in it that unnerved me, even giving me weird dreams and nightmares, but I loved it nonetheless. As I got older, I made an effort to seek out more EC Comics and read them, too, an occupation that became a lot easier as the years wore on and more of these classic comics were reprinted.

Others more knowledgeable than I might be able to point which stories Gygax most remembered reading from his childhood and how they might have influenced his conception of fantasy. For me, EC Comics ushered in a lifelong fascination with the undead, with justly ironic punishments, and with black humor, all of which play prominent roles in the games I run. To say they were influential on me is an understatement. If you've never read any for yourself, go ahead and try to find a few. They're readily available nowadays and I think, even if they don't appeal to you, you'll find them a fascinating window on both the early days of comics and the hobby.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Towers of Krshal

Albert Rakowski, the mad genius behind the OD&D-in-space supplement, Terminal Space, has just released something new. Entitled Towers of Krshal, it's a 32-page collection of NPCs, random tables, and maps to aid referees in the creation and running of city-based fantasy campaigns. The book is available in both printed and electronic form through

I've not yet had the chance to look over the book extensively yet myself, so I cannot comment at any length just yet (a formal review will be forthcoming, once I get out from under the backlog of others I still need to post). However, I can honestly say that, if you liked Terminal Space and its approach and presentation, you'll almost certainly enjoy Towers of Krshal too. City adventuring is, I think, an overlooked aspect of fantasy roleplaying, so it's good to see more tools being produced to support it.

Project Yore

The reprints of the Gygax-penned AD&D rulebooks are due to appear in a couple of weeks. Even if you're not going to buy copies of these books, you might be interested in a little background on how they were made. If so, take a look at John Schindehette's article and be enlightened. It's actually a very fascinating article, since it discusses some of the logistical problems in doing a reissue of a book originally published before the advent of the personal computer.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #9

Issue #9 of Ares was published sometime after May 1981, when issue #8 appeared. I am assuming it was in July, since the magazine is bimonthly and issue #10 is dated September of that year. The lack of a publication date might be due to the unusual cover on this issue -- a "split screen" showing both a still from the movie Dragonslayer and the an illustration for DeltaVee, the issue's integral wargame. Issue #9 is also significant in that creative director Redmond Simonsen that "we've begun to include more game material in the issue," by which I presume he means less fiction and non-fictional background articles. Furthermore, as we'll see, DeltaVee is the biggest wargame included with an issue of Ares, therefore prompting additional changes.

Michael E. Moore kicks off issue #9 with a lengthy interview with Hal Barwood, the producer of the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer. It's a fairly interesting article, though not exactly revelatory to anyone who saw the movie or has read about it. I didn't see Dragonslayer when it was first released, but I did see it a year later as the second part of a double feature with E.T. I've always had a certain fondness for it, perhaps because nearly everything about it is charmingly earnest without degenerating into camp, like so many other fantasy movies from that era.

As part of the magazine's renewed focus on gaming, there's article consisting of playtester and designer notes for the science fiction wargame, The Sword and the Stars. At the same time, we also get another "science fact" article by John Boardman, called "Lasers in Space." Strangely, this one does not wholly poo-poo the idea that lasers could make viable weapons in certain contexts. This makes me wonder if perhaps Boardman was employed by the US Department of Defense to work on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Boardman's "Science for Science Fiction" returns, along with Susan Schwartz's "Facts for Fantasy." These articles remain as dry as ever. There is fiction in this issue, a short story by David J. Schow called "The Embracing" that I found utterly forgettable.

Christopher John provides movie reviews for several noteworthy films of the era, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, like all good people, he loves. He is more critical, though still positive about Superman II, while he raves about Excalibur, a movie about which I've always been a lot more ambivalent. There are also reviews of Knightriders and Clash of the Titans, both of which are generally positive. David J. Schow reappears in an odd article entitled "Back in the Stocks," in which he laments the loss of bookstores with extensive back stock, making it harder and harder to find the classics of the past, "the past" in many cases being only a few years prior. Greg Costikyan reviews several books, most notably the first two volumes of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, while Eric Goldberg reviews games, including High Fantasy and Adventures in High Fantasy. Goldberg, once again, seems far less snarky in his reviews than in previous issues, which is to be commended in my opinion.

We get brief -- a couple of paragraphs -- designer's notes for various SPI games, along with another installment of "DragonNotes," but the real attraction of issue #9 gaming-wise is DeltaVee. DeltaVee is not just a starship combat game for use with the Universe SF RPG, it's also the biggest game yet to appear in Ares -- so big that it was printed as a separate booklet rather than being inside the issue itself. Designed by John H. Butterfield and Redmond Simonsen, it's 16 pages long and very dense, far more dense than any of the starship combat systems with which I've regularly played. I have no doubt that its use of real world physics (hence its name) make for interesting gameplay, but nothing about it grabbed me enough to give it a whirl either now or back in the day, when I had a copy of the Universe boxed set that included it. Of course, I'd love to hear from gamers who did use DeltaVee, because I've always had the nagging sense that I gave up on it too easily.

Ares continues to change with every issue I read, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's great because it means that I never know what to expect, but that's also why it's a curse. You can clearly see Simonsen and SPI shifting ground, looking for the proper mix of material to include that will satisfy their subscribers and the wider gaming public. It's fascinating to watch, especially through the distance of time, knowing as I do that Ares, like SPI itself, was destined not to survive much longer.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Rats in the Walls

Though "The Tomb" was the first story by H.P. Lovecraft I ever read, it was actually another story from the same anthology I borrowed from the library that conjures up the strongest memories. "The Rats in the Walls" first appeared in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales and represents a "bridge" between his earlier Gothic-inspired narratives and his later Cthulhu Mythos ones. Here, Lovecraft joins stock Gothic features, like an ancient castle and fearful legends about the protagonist's ancestors, to more "modern" ideas, like evolution (and the possibility of its reversal), to lay the groundwork for so much of his later fiction. It's worth noting, too, that "The Rats in the Walls" is one of the first tales in which HPL specifies a roughly contemporaneous date for its events, thereby grounding it in "reality" rather than leaving it in some nebulous "otherwhen" like so many of his earliest efforts.

The story is a first person account by a Virginian named simply Delapore (we never learn his first name) of the events that occurred after he moved to England to take up residence at his family's ancient demesne, about which there were unsavory legends.
On 16 July 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labours. The restoration had been a stupendous task, for little had remained of the deserted pile but a shell-like ruin; yet because it had been the seat of my ancestors, I let no expense deter me. The place had not been inhabited since the reign of James the First, when a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.
With this sole heir denounced as a murderer, the estate had reverted to the crown, nor had the accused man made any attempt to exculpate himself or regain his property. Shaken by some horror greater than that of conscience or the law, and expressing only a frantic wish to exclude the ancient edifice from his sight and memory, Walter de la Poer, eleventh Baron Exham, fled to Virginia and there founded the family which by the next century had become known as Delapore.
Once he moves into Exham Priory, Delapore -- or de la Poer, as he starts to call himself, after the fashion of his forebears -- discovers that the locals hold him in suspicion, on account of his ancestors.
This leads him, with the assistance of a friend, Edward Norrys, to look more deeply into the history of the Priory and the de la Poer family.
Piecing together the tales which Norrys collected for me, and supplementing them with the accounts of several savants who had studied the ruins, I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted, and there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele worship which the Romans had introduced ...
Likewise was it said that the rites did not vanish with the Roman power, and that certain among the Saxons added to what remained of the temple, and gave it the essential outline it subsequently preserved, making it the centre of a cult feared through half the heptarchy. About 1000 A.D. the place is mentioned in a chronicle as being a substantial stone priory housing a strange and powerful monastic order and surrounded by extensive gardens which needed no walls to exclude a frightened populace. It was never destroyed by the Danes, though after the Norman Conquest it must have declined tremendously, since there was no impediment when Henry the Third granted the site to my ancestor, Gilbert de la Poer, First Baron Exham, in 1261.
Of my family before this date there is no evil report, but something strange must have happened then. In one chronicle there is a reference to a de la Poer as "cursed of God in 1307", whilst village legendry had nothing but evil and frantic fear to tell of the castle that went up on the foundations of the old temple and priory. The fireside tales were of the most grisly description, all the ghastlier because of their frightened reticence and cloudy evasiveness. They represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade would seem the veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations.
Finding out these and other facts only encourages de la Poer to delve further, as he is becoming near-obsessed with the mysteries of Exham Priory and, more immediately, his own family. It's around this time that the narrator begins to hear the "low, distinct scurrying, as of rats" behind the walls of his new home, even though neither he nor anyone else can find any signs of rodents in the Priory. Paying careful attention to the movements of these supposed rats, de la Poer concludes that they "were engaged in one stupendous migration from inconceivable heights to some depth conceivably or inconceivably below," which leads him into the cellars beneath Exham Priory, where he discovers Latin graffiti mentioning ancient deities even more sinister than Cybele. Nevertheless, he presses on, precipitating a revelation that brings the story to its fateful conclusion. 

Though "The Rats in the Walls" is far from Lovecraft's greatest work of fiction, it's still very enjoyable, having the virtues of being both short in length and direct in its presentation. It's also, as I noted, something of a bridge between his early work and his later output, which makes it a very good introduction to Lovecraft for those unfamiliar with his writings and themes. The story occupies a fond place in my memories because, when I had exhausted all the Lovecraft books I could find at my local library, my father took me down to the Central Library on Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore, to look for more. Not only did I find many more books by and about HPL, but I also discovered a recording of David McCallum reading "The Rats in the Walls," to which I listened several times before having to return it to the library. It's one of the few Lovecraft stories I've ever heard read aloud, which may be why it has stayed in my imagination for so long.

(It's also worth noting that "The Rats in the Walls" is the story that prompted Robert E. Howard to write a letter of praise to Weird Tales, a letter that was then passed on to Lovecraft, thus initiating a lengthy and voluminous correspondence between the two writers, from 1924 to 1936.)