Monday, August 27, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Among the images that symbolize the accomplishments of manned spaceflight is this one of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969. I was born just a couple of months after that historic event, so, to me, growing up, a lunar landing was never the stuff of science fiction. Rather, I thought it to be a small, first step toward a coming giant leap for mankind. Back then, I fully expected that, by the time the year 2000 (or, perhaps, 2001) rolled around, we'd have a moon base and be exploring the rest of the solar system, not with robot probes but with human beings like the courageous Neil Armstrong, who died last Saturday at the age of 82. And while I fully understand why that childhood dream has not come to pass, I can't deny that I'm still disappointed. Here's hoping that, before I die, I might once again marvel at the heroism of men walking on the surface of a world other than our own.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #13

Issue #13 of Ares (Winter 1983) is the first issue published by TSR after its acquisition of SPI earlier that year. I suspect that most, if not all, of the content of this issue was already in the slush pile when TSR took over, since, except for editorial (now written by Michael E. Moore instead of Redmond Simonsen), the magazine's usual stable of authors are all present. In that editorial, Moore talks about a few of the changes that'll be introduced in coming issues, starting with a stronger focus on science fiction gaming. Consequently, fantasy material will shift over to Dragon in order to distinguish better between the two periodicals. Moore also notes that future integral games will be less complex and more suitable to beginning players. He even goes so far as to criticize (in broad terms) the designs of previous games appearing in Ares. To say that issue #13 signals a sea change for Ares is an understatement.

Timothy Zahn offers up a short story, "Damocles Mission," illustrated by Timothy Truman (who seems to have done a lot of work for the last few issues of Ares). The story takes place in the future world of 1988 and depicts an encounter between the space shuttle Discovery and an unknown object that has entered our solar system. Susan Schwartz and John Boardman continue to write their respective columns, "Facts for Fantasy" and "Science for Science Fiction." An additional -- and lengthy -- science fact article, "The Space Shuttle: Reaching Beyond," by Walter B. Hendrickson, is also included. David Spangler's "StarTrader Game Enhanced" provides option rules to the game from issue #12. There are reviews of various board and computer games, most notably GDW's Fufth Frontier War.

Damocles Mission is also the name of this issue's integral game. It's a simulation of an expedition sent to explore the mysterious spherical object headed toward Earth. The game consists of a number of tiles, which represent systems aboard the alien object, and counters, which represent astronauts, equipment, and conditions. As the astronauts explore the object, investigating its mysteries, hoping to understand its nature and how to control it so that it can be steered from its collision course with Earth. Designed by Redmond Simonsen and Gerry Klug, I personally think Damocles Mission is complex and confusing in its presentation, despite my interest in its subject matter.

John Butterfield answers questions about the Universe RPG in a regular feature called "Universe Commlink." Gerry Klug gets a similar feature for DragonQuest called "Questing." There's another new review section devoted solely to "RP Gaming," which is welcome. Greg Costikyan continues to review books, including The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which Costikyan considers inferior to its predecessor but "still a very funny book." Gerry Klug reappears as the author of a "capsule adventure" for DragonQuest called "The Treasure of Socantri." It's actually a very interesting adventure with a delightfully swords-and-sorcery feel.

As I noted above, issue #13 marks a turning point for Ares, as TSR takes over and attempts to put its stamp on the magazine. While I know that SPI loyalists look on this change of ownership as a wholly bad thing, my own feeling, as an outsider, is that some of what TSR proposed to do with the journal was much needed. My biggest complaint about Ares is that it's such an unfocused, mixed bag of a periodical that it was hard to know what to expect with each issue. Likewise, the magazine regularly evinced an elitist, disdainful attitude toward so many things that reading it wasn't always a pleasure. TSR won't have many issues to show its plans for Ares before folding it up for good, but I have to say that I look forward to reading the next few issues to see what they do with it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Man Behind the Madness

I've always been fond of this photograph of H.P. Lovecraft, which was taken of him sometime in his twenties (I can't recall ever seeing an exact age or date attached to it -- someone can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). The primary reason I like it is that it reminds us that HPL was not always "the Old Gent." "Grandpa Theobald" didn't begin his life as a gaunt, middle-aged man.

Perhaps that's a small thing of which to be reminded, but I think doing so can serve a valuable purpose, especially today, on the 122nd anniversary of Lovecraft's birth. Like so many cultural icons, I think it's all too easy to forget that Lovecraft was a human being before he became a geek totem. He was born into a particular family at a particular place and time and he lived a life apart from his having been one of the supremely influential writers of the 20th century.

Too often, I feel, HPL the Man is forgotten in favor of HPL the Legend and, while I, of all people, certainly don't object to the lionization of Lovecraft, we must never lose sight of the person behind the writing. He had his virtues and his flaws, like all men do, and they both contributed to making him the writer that he was, a writer who continues to fascinate and frustrate more than a century after his birth. That's probably why, as I get older, I find myself reading and re-reading books about Lovecraft's life as much as books containing Lovecraft's stories. It's also probably Lovecraft's letters hold so much interest; even moreso than his stories, his correspondence opens windows into the man, warts and all.

None of this is meant to deny the lasting interest and power of Lovecraft's literary output, but I thought today, when so many of us will take a moment to praise HPL as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos and the father of modern horror, it'd be appropriate to remember him as more than that: a human being.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Quest of the Starstone

While C.L. Moore created numerous characters over the course of her decades-long writing career, her two most popular creations are the medieval French warrior Jirel of Joiry and the futuristic ne'er-do-well Northwest Smith. I've written about both of them before in this space and with good reason. I consider both Jirel and N.W. to be among the most memorable characters of pulp fantasy, right up there with John Carter and Conan. These characters are not only interesting in their own rights, but very influential to boot, becoming prototypes for later fantasy and science fiction characters (It's pretty clear, for example, that Northwest Smith served as a significant inspiration for George Lucas's Han Solo).

Given their popularity with Weird Tales readers, where both Jirel and Smith first appeared, it's little surprise that the two characters would eventually appear side by side in a single story. "Quest of the Starstone" was that story, published in the November 1937 issue of The Unique Magazine. This story was not written solely by Moore, but was a collaboration with Henry Kuttner, whom Moore would marry in 1940. Consequently, the story isn't, in my opinion, as good as the others about these characters, nor as good as later collaborations between Moore and Kuttner. That might be because the pair hadn't quite worked out the best way to combine their distinct talents, which gives "Quest for the Starstone" a "choppy," uneven feel. Moore's stories are usually brooding and introspective and, "Quest for the Starstone" is more of a straightforward romp and evinces a lot more humor than is typical in Moore's singular works.

What makes the story interesting, though, is its story, which I think nicely demonstrates how much our conceptions of "fantasy" and "science fiction" have changed over the last three-quarters of a century. As the story begins, Jirel is pursuing the warlock Franga in medieval France. Among his many magical artifacts is reputed to be the Starstone, which grants its possessor uncanny luck. Jirel succeeds in wresting it from Franga in a memorable exchange:
"Ha, behold it!" she screamed to the unanswering stone. "Son of a fiend, behold it! The luck of the Starstone is mine, now a better man has wrested it from you! Confess Joiry your master, you devil-deluder! Dare you show your face? Dare you?"
Over that empty corner the shadow swept again, awesomely from nowhere. Out of the sudden darkness creaked a door's hinges, and the wizard's voice called in a choke of fury,
"Bel's curse on you, Joiry! Never think you've triumphed over me! I'll have it back if I—if I—"
"If you—what? D'ye think I fear you, you hell-spawned warlock? If you—what?"
"Me you may not fear, Joiry," the wizard's voice quavered with fury, "but by Set and Bubastis, I'll find one who'll tame you if I must go to the ends of space to find him—to the ends of time itself! And then—beware!"
Since I've already revealed that this short story details the meeting of Jirel and Northwest Smith, one need not guess whom Franga will choose as his champion. Using his sorcery, the warlock travels to the future and finds Smith and his Venusian sidekick Yarol in a seedy tavern on Mars. It's in this section that Moore's melancholy writing comes to the fore, as she describes Smith's dissatisfaction with his life as an interplanetary smuggler. She also has him sing a few stanzas of the song "The Green Hills of Earth," a song whose title Robert Heinlein would borrow a decade later. Just then, Franga appears and makes Smith an intriguing offer:
"Are your services for hire, stranger?" quavered a cracked voice speaking in a tongue that despite himself sent Smith's pulses quickening in recognition. French, Earth's French, archaic and scarcely intelligible, but unquestionably a voice from home.
"For a price," he admitted, his fingers closing definitely on his gun. "Who are you and why do you ask? And how in the name of—"
"It will reward you to ask no questions," said the cracked quaver. "I seek a fighting-man of a temper strong enough for my purpose, and I think you are he. Look, does this tempt you?"
A claw-like hand extended itself out of the shadow, dangling a double rope of such blue-white pearls as Smith had never dreamed of. "Worth a king's ransom," croaked the voice. "And all for the taking. Will you come with me?"
"Come where?"
"To the planet Earth—to the land of France—to the year of 1500."
 So far as I know, this is the only time that the date of Jirel's time is ever explicitly mentioned in any of Moore's writings, which seem to make it canonical, but I must admit that the date doesn't sit well with me, mostly because Jirel's adventures seem to occur in earlier time. Regardless, Smith agrees to Franga's offer, mostly out of boredom, and he's instructed by the magician to steal the Starstone back from Jirel if he wants his reward and his way back to the future. The remainder of the story deals with what happens once Smith meets Jirel of Joiry and discovers that the situation into which he's been thrust is not quite as simple as he'd been led to believe.

As I said above, "Quest of the Starstone" isn't a great work, even by the standards of pulp fantasy. I like it nonetheless, since it reveals the much higher degree of permeability between literary genres in the past. Perhaps more precisely it reveals that, once upon a time, "fantasy" was a very broad genre, one that encompassed much more than wizards and dragons and included Martians and spaceships, too. Out of that broader conception of fantasy did games like Dungeons & Dragons grow, with its many references to Barsoom and robots alongside its reference to Conan and Balrogs. I won't say that I think nothing has been gained by stricter conceptions of genre, but I will say that I think some things have been lost.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

OSRCon: Dwimmermount, Session 1

Last Friday, I ran the first of two sessions of Dwimmermount at OSRCon here in Toronto. I'd done this the year before and, from that experience, I knew what worked and what didn't. One of the things that worked was doing all the mapping myself. I brought with me a dry-erase map to which I added details as the players explored the first level of the dungeon. I'm frankly terrible at giving out reasonably accurate map descriptions anyway -- I often wind up correcting the maps of my players out of shame -- so I felt this would save a lot of headaches at the table and ensure that things moved along at a brisker pace.

Last year, I used pregenerated characters and gave the players an objective for the four-hour session, like "Find the rumored dwarf cemetery on Level 1" or "Locate the portal to Areon on Level 3," thinking this would provide some useful focus. This year, I abandoned both, allowing players to create characters on the spot and to wander about with whatever purpose they made for themselves. I think both decisions were wise, particularly generating characters at the table, since many players had never used the OD&D rulebooks before and it gave them a chance to handle and peruse them not as artifacts of a hoary past but as, well, RPG books that are meant to be used. I did allow players to create 2nd-level characters, since I wanted them to plausibly be able to explore the second levels of the dungeon if they so desired (both groups did).

My Friday night game had two "celebrity" players: Greg Gillespie of Barrowmaze fame and Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls. Greg's presence was well known to me in advance and I really looked forward to having the chance to play with him, while Ken's appearance was quite unexpected. Shortly after I arrived at the con, Ken walked up to me -- he must have recognized me from my blog photos -- and asked if he could snag a seat at my game. I was more than a little surprised at this, since I was running D&D -- "That Other Game," as Ken calls it -- and didn't think he'd be very interested. Ken assured me he was interested, although he did express disappointment that I wasn't running "my" game, by which he meant Thousand Suns. I explained to him that attendees at OSRCon expected me to run Dwimmermount and he again asked if he could play. I said yes, knowing full well I was likely in for a ride, since Ken is well known for his impish personality, as well as his dislike of D&D and its rules.

In total, there were eight players at Friday's session and their characters consisted of a good mix of fighting men, magic-users, and clerics. There was a single elven thief, who was slain by a poison dart trap. He was replaced mid-game by a dwarf henchman (also a thief), who proved to be an unreliable scout, often claiming to have spotted no monsters up ahead when he really had. Needless to say, this led to chaos and hilarity at times. Two other characters ought to have died: a fighting man reduced to exactly 0 hit points but who was saved by the immediate application of a black sludge found in an alchemy lab that turned out to be a potion of healing and a 83 year-old magician who'd been carrying a slept gnome on his back. When a kobold spear struck the magician, his player asked if the gnome might have been struck instead. Quick recourse to the oracular dice yielded an affirmative and the MU lived to explore further.

Lots of things stand out about this session, most notably how cautious players become when they're playing in an avowedly "old school" dungeon. Likewise, there was a lot of creative spell use, particularly of charm person, which enabled the characters to take control of orcs on Level 2A and use them as guides, as well as cannon fodder. With the exception of the player of the dwarf thief and Ken St. Andre (about which I'll say more in a moment), the players worked very well together, forming a fairly cohesive team that not only relied on one another but worked to each others' strengths. Consequently, they managed to explore quite a lot of two levels in four hours and, I hope, had a good time doing so.

I called Ken "impish" above and that may be something of an understatement. Though the other players all created their own characters, Ken asked that I create his. I gave him a magic-user and that was probably a big mistake, since he continually balked at not only his spell selection but the very nature of D&D's magic system, attempting at many turns to get me to modify it to make it more like that of Tunnels & Trolls. When he saw that this was getting him nowhere, he took a different tack, turning his magician into a bloodthirsty combatant, leaping into battle and wielding his dagger with reckless abandon. Fortunately for him, the dice favored him and he didn't die, despite his foolhardiness. Later, he killed an orc, flayed it and wore its face as a mask, hoping to disguise himself as a monster. The tactic didn't quite work as he'd hoped, but neither did it hinder him, so he seemed content.

I can't deny that, in retrospect, I feel a little bad at how things unfolded with Ken. He and I have corresponded by email for a long time and I suspect he felt that, given our familiarity with one another, it was perfectly reasonable that he play as he did. He later remarked, on Saturday's panel, that he thought me a very good sport for the way I persevered under his constant barrage of wheedling. Of course, he also said that he felt it was the job of players to "give the referee opportunities to change his mind," but I wasn't in the mood to do that on Friday. The other players handled the situation well and didn't complain, even though it was clear at least a couple of them weren't pleased with what they, quite reasonably, perceived as a disruption. What saddens me most, I think, is that they've probably got a far worse opinion of Ken than they ought, but, given the circumstances, I don't blame them at all for feeling that.

All in all, I think my first Dwimmermount session this year was solid, but not as good as I'd have hoped it would be. On the plus side, I got the chance to meet a number of local folks interested in old school gaming and that's a victory no matter how you view it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

RIP: Harry Harrison (1925-2012)

Harry Harrison, science fiction writer and author of the Stainless Steel Rat series (about which I've written before), has died at the age of 87. I'd be lying to say that Harrison was one of my favorite SF writers -- his worldview was, for the most part, very different than my own -- but I nevertheless have a great fondness for him, so news of his death saddens me. My fondness comes from the fact that Harrison didn't take himself or science fiction too seriously. Most of his literary output was satirical or contained elements of satire, both of sci-fi and of the real world. For that reason alone, I think he's a writer deserving of approbation. My fondness also derives from Harrison's championing of the international auxiliary language of Esperanto, an adolescent fixation of mine that I was delighted to see represented in his stories. He will be missed.

Monday, August 13, 2012

OSRCon Photos

I'm still recovering from OSRCon, which ran last Friday and Saturday, but I thought it'd be worthwhile to post a few photos from the convention in the meantime. I had a blast, as I did last year. It was great fun to have the chance to play through Dwimmermount with a new batch of gamers (about which I'll talk at greater length soon), as well as to hang out with fellow guests Ed Greenwood, Ken St. Andre, and Lawrence Whitaker.

Here are a few of the highlights, with brief commentary:
This is from my Friday night session of Dwimmermount. I had seven players, including Ken St. Andre, who's off-camera to the left. I have to admit I was more than a little floored -- and intimidated -- when Ken asked if he could sit in on my game, given that I was running "That Other Game" (as he calls D&D). Needless to say, the session was extremely memorable and deserves a post of its own.
This is a shot of the map I draw on a dry-erase mat so as to speed up mapping during the sessions. We used miniatures mostly to identify marching order and the like, but I also think it added a bit of visual interest to play.
This is my Saturday morning Dwimmermount session, which also had seven players, including Brendan and Ram.
 Saturday afternoon saw a panel, on which Ed Greenwood and Ken St. Andre sat, telling tales of their early days in the hobby. I found this particularly interesting and I dearly wish there'd been a recording of it.
Here's me, looking typically goofy, on the same panel, seated next to Lawrence Whitaker.
Me, looking goofy again, along with my betters.
Ken St. Andre, proving that old school gamers aren't wimps, does a one-handed push-up right after the panel has ended.
On Saturday afternoon, I was lucky enough to play in a Forgotten Realms adventure refereed by Ed Greenwood. Ed really knows how to run a game and hold his players' attention. Much like my experiences with Ken, this is really deserving of a post of its own.
All in all, OSRCon II was a great success. We all owe a big debt of thanks to organizer Chris Cunnington and to the fine folks at the Lillian H. Smith library for making this happen once again. I know I'm already looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

French D&D Art Query

Is the above piece of art familiar to anyone who didn't first see it in the French language edition of Palace of the Silver Princess? I ask because I don't ever recall seeing it before, but I'm far from an expert on obscure D&D-related art. As you can see from the artist's signature, it's by Darlene, as is most of the art in the French version of module B3, nearly all of which is new to me. So, if anyone's seen this piece in another context, please let me know. I have quite a few more scans from my old French Basic Set and related modules to share, but I don't want to post any that aren't unique to them, which is why I'd appreciate some assistance with this.

Retrospective: Toon

The various "ages" I outlined way back at the start of 2009 were intended to apply only to Dungeons & Dragons (hence the title of the original post), but D&D didn't exist in a vacuum. It's true that its preeminent position probably insulated it from many of the trends and fashions taking hold elsewhere in the hobby, but I don't think it ever managed to avoid them entirely. So, when I wrote that the Silver Age of D&D (1984-1989) by "a growing concern for 'dramatic' coherence," I don't think it's at all unreasonable to suggest that that concern was already present in the wider hobby.

Now, "dramatic coherence" can be interpreted in many ways, but what I meant by it was something akin to "emulation," which is to say, the sense a RPG's rules ought to reflect -- even encourage -- play that reflects what goes on in the sources that inspired the game. A common knock against Dungeons & Dragons, especially nowadays, is that it doesn't in fact emulate its sources very well at all. My own feeling is that this is both a fair criticism and beside the point, because, while inspired by fantasy literature, D&D wasn't written with the goal of emulating its sources, at least not in any consistent way.

However, many others RPG were written with this goal in mind, the first one I remember encountering being Champions, since its rules, particularly for combat, were clearly an attempt to model the worlds of superhero comic books. Another good example of a RPG written with genre emulation in mind -- and a more successful one in my opinion -- was Toon, written by Greg Costikyan and published by Steve Jackson Games in 1984. Toon describes itself as
set in the crazy world of cartoons. In this world, anything can happen. The laws of physics only work when you notice them. Mice, rabbits, ducks, and moose all speak perfect English. Characters spend most of their time plotting to cheat each other, blow each other up, eat each other, or otherwise commit mayhem. But nobody ever dies!
What's interesting about the paragraph above is that while Costikyan is very clear about the intentions behind Toon, he also sneaks in a (largely) unspoken assumption: "the crazy world of cartoons" is like that of the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes. That's not a flaw; my friends and I certainly didn't see it as such when we bought and played the game. But, much like D&D, Toon's inspirations aren't as expansive as one might think. Rather than being "the Cartoon Roleplaying Game," as it titles itself, it's actually focused on emulating only a sub-set of cartoons, just as D&D looked primarily to a sub-set of fantasy literature for its inspirations.

Toon also stands out as a lot more meta-textual than I remember other RPGs as being. For example, the rulebook (which is 64 pages long, as God intended all RPGs to be) includes "A Special Message for Experienced Roleplayers," which I'm going to reproduce in full here, since it's quite unique for its time:
TOON isn't like any other roleplaying game you've ever known. In most RPGs, the idea is to plot and plan — to think before you act — and to make sure your character survives, thrives, and becomes more proficient at everything he or she does.
Survival? Who cares? You can't ever really die, so you've got nothing to lose by jumping right into the thick of things and having fun.
Think before you act? No chance. If you take the time to think every action through, the game's going to get bogged down and nobody will have any fun, The action in a TOON game should be fast — insanely fast. Remember, you're supposed to be a cartoon character. When was the last time you saw a cartoon character do something logical? ACT before you THINK.
Here's something else that's special about TOON: It doesn't matter how stupid, weak, or inept your character is. Poor die-rolling doesn't mean a bad character. Half the fun of TOON is failing . . . because of the silly things that happen when you fail! So "bad" characters are just as much fun — maybe more fun — than "good" characters.
So, to repeat:
Much of the foregoing is commonplace nowadays, banal even, but it wasn't in 1984, at least not to me. That's probably why I was so blown away by Toon and really wanted to play it. Here was a game that took emulation of its source material seriously while at the same time not taking itself (or roleplaying games generally) very seriously. It's hard to convey how revelatory that was to my teenage self. The only other game I had played that did something similar was Paranoia, released the same year and written, not coincidentally, by the same author.

None of this is to say that Toon is perfect, because it isn't. As a game, I think it's a bit schizophrenic, simultaneously providing lots of specific rules for certain activities (like breaking down doors and tracking, to cite two examples that come immediately to mind), while also encouraging the referee -- or Animator -- to ignore these and other rules in the name of "fun." Again, that's not really a criticism, so much as an admission of frustration on my part. Toon has one foot planted, albeit precariously, in the earlier era of RPGs and another in the new one that was aborning. So the game is neither fish nor fowl, which made it a lot harder for me, despite my keen interest in it, to get a handle on how it was meant to be played. I suspect the answer is "however you want to play it," but I've never been wholly convinced, then or now, that that's a satisfactory answer. At the very least, it's not an answer with which I'm always comfortable.

In the end, I rather like Toon, both for its subject matter and for its approach, despite the frustration it arouses in me. That probably says more about me than it does about Toon itself. There's no question I had fun with the game when I first got, as did my friends. Mostly, we were just winging it, using the rules as inspiration and suggestions for our own rather loosely-framed sessions of comic mayhem. I suspect that's exactly how Greg Costikyan imagined the game would be played and, since we enjoyed ourselves, I can't really complain, even if the game isn't one I have much desire to pick up again anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Never the Same

OSRCon is this coming weekend and, like last year, I'll be running a couple of sessions for folks interested in exploring my Dwimmermount megadungeon. I really enjoy doing this, because it's great fun to see how players who've never had the chance to delve into this megadungeon react to its inhabitants and mysteries. It's also great to see how I react to new players.

 In the four years since I created Dwimmermount, I've played with quite a few different groups of players. There's my home group, of course, but there are also gamers I've met at OSRCon and through Google+ (where I'm still running sessions biweekly, when real life doesn't prevent me from doing so, as it did recently). Though there are some players who carry over from one group to another, there are also a lot of new players, so they're experiencing the dungeon for the first time. So, not only are its chambers and monsters and traps fresh to them, they're also bringing with them different expectations about what Dwimmermount is like -- and those expectations color the way the interact with the dungeon. Those expectations also color the way I present the dungeon.

You've probably all seen this photograph of Gary Gygax's map and key to the first level of his Castle Greyhawk dungeon, right? What's noteworthy about that photo, aside from how labyrinthine Castle Greyhawk appears to be, is that Gary's key is incredibly sparse by the standards of published dungeons. I suspect (never having had the pleasure of playing with him) that Gary probably used that key as a starting point for describing Castle Greyhawk rather than as a definitive presentation of the dungeon itself. It's a combination of snapshot and mnemonic device to aid him in his refereeing. And while I am sure that many details of Castle Greyhawk remained the same no matter who Gygax was running through it, I also suspect that some details changed, or were at least presented differently in response to how his players reacted to what they encountered.

To the right you'll see a small portion of my horribly scrawled original notes for Dwimmermount. They're what I used when I first started to run the dungeon for my home group and they're still what I use when I run the dungeon at cons or on Google+. You'll notice that they don't contain a lot of information, often not even game stats. So you'll see "Junk" or "7 Orcs" rather than anything more extensive. I'd be lying if I said I wrote my key in this way for a principled reason. The truth is I was lazy and figured I'd add details later, as needed. After all, what was the point in writing up an exhaustive description of a room that contains only debris -- especially if the players never explored the room at all in play?

This has had two interesting side effects. Firstly, I never run Dwimmermount the same way twice, at least not exactly. The key says that Room 62 is an "audience chamber" with "throne, etc." and nothing more. In play, I always expand upon this description, adding as much detail as I think the current players desire. So, I'll almost always say that there's a wooden throne upon a dais in the room, along with some other trappings of authority, like rotting tapestries and the like. How much more I say beyond that depends on how interested my players seem to be in the room and its contents. In some sessions, I've described the throne in great detail, talking about the carvings upon it, as well as its current state of repair. In other sessions, it's the tapestries that get this kind of treatment, while in others still I may make note of something else entirely, like some broken spearheads in the corner of the room or a shattered shield. In each case, though, my description is based on my perception of the players' level of curiosity and interests. My various descriptions are probably all consonant with one another, but the words I choose to use vary, often considerably, from group to group.

Secondly, the process of converting my key into something useful as a published product has proven a far more irksome one than I had ever imagined. Mind you, I'd anticipated this problem years ago and so have no one to blame but myself. But the point remains: translating sparsely worded notes into something that not only makes sense to others but is thoroughly usable by them is harder than it looks, particularly when one has, as I have, come to appreciate firsthand the benefits of sparseness. Having run many levels of Dwimmermount numerous times with groups of different gamers has taught me to find liberation in a certain degree of vagueness, as it gives me flexibility to tailor the dungeon to whoever is currently sitting at the table with me.

Though I have no proof of this, I have begun to suspect that a sparse (and flexible) key is the sanest way to run a megadungeon, unless one is possessed of a uniquely powerful memory. With so many rooms on each level, many of which will be empty or at least without any contents of significance, does it even make sense to have highly detailed descriptions? I think the same can often be said of many rooms with inhabitants or other contents of significance. Needless to say, the process of turning my own megadungeon into a form for others has been -- and continues to be -- a learning experience.
The Art Gallery on Level 3A: The House of Portals ©2012 Eric Quigley

Ares Magazine: Issue #12

Issue #12 of Ares was released in January 1982, with a cover by Timothy Truman. The issue begins with an editorial by Remond Simonsen, in which he addresses what was apparently a common complaint about the magazine (and one I myself have voiced), namely, that Ares was "too conservative" and "too pessimistic" in the approach of its science articles. Simonsen replies that to view the science articles in this fashion is a "radical misinterpretation of the purpose and thrust of Ares science material." He suggests that there are three purposes to their science-based articles:
1.) Cause the reader to examine critically the easy assumptions of conventional SF; 2.) Provide data for reasoned speculation; 3.) Draw sharper lines between science fantasy, science fiction, and science fact (we do this not to discourage anyone from reading science fiction, but rather to increase our appreciation and understanding of these separate categories).
Simonsen goes further, saying that science fiction unconcerned with science facts is in fact "anti-science" and "anti-technological." "Ares," he says, "doesn't want to give you ... gee-whiz, empty-headed bull." Despite this stance, Ares would never shy away from publishing games that "fly in the face of scientific theory and fact," since such games were nevertheless fun. Speaking for myself, it was never the mere presence of articles on science fact that bothered me so much as their judgmental, hectoring tone -- much like Simonsen's own editorial.

As if to reinforce the magazine's editorial position, its first article is a lengthy one (5 pages) entitled "New Minds: The Promises of Artificial Intelligence," by Allan Terry and Frances Grimble. Needless to say, authors Terry and Grimble are decidedly negative in their estimation of A.I.'s prospects. David J. Ritchie provides a good article on "Adventures in Albion," which offers roleplaying conversions of some aspects of the wargame Albion: Land of Faerie from issue #11 for use with DragonQuest. Meanwhile, Greg Costikyan's "The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine" is, for me, the standout article of this issue and an example of the kind of article I wished Ares offered more often. The article looks at the possibilities for interstellar trade given certain technological and sociological assumptions. It's a fun article that equally employs real science, speculation, and common sense to present something that's interesting and, more importantly, gameable -- a far cry from so many of the articles in Ares.

There are "Designer's Notes" for numerous SPI games, including Universe. Timothy Truman provides a four-page comic called "Star Trader!" that's loosely connected to this issue's integral game. "Science for Science Fiction" and "Facts for Fantasy" are back, as one would expect, after Simonsen's editorial. Also returning are reviews of movies (Time Bandits), books (Lord Darcy Investigates, among others), and games (several Dwarfstar games and Champions, along with more). Gerry Klug presents new rules and errata for DragonQuest, while John Butterfield does the same for Universe.

The remainder of the issue is devoted to StarTrader, a science fiction simulation by Nick Karp. It's intended to simulate interstellar trade in the 24th century, with up to six players taking on the roles of merchant princes in command of fleets of trading vessels, plying their wares across many worlds. There are rules for hyperjumps, combat, salvage, smuggling, passenger transport, and trade (of course!), as well as those that cover high finance, reputation, and building new starships. StarTrader is quite extensive in its scope, without being too lengthy (it's under 20 pages). There are notes for using the game with Universe, which I think is terrific.

Issue #12 was the last issue published by SPI before the magazine -- and its parent company -- were acquired by TSR. Consequently, issue #12 feels in retrospect like a bit of a swan song for Ares. It's actually a pretty good issue, or at least one of the few that I liked more than I disliked. Even so, as Redmond Simonsen's editorial at the start shows, Ares under SPI continued to present itself as a "serious" magazine with a specific style and focus that were held up in contrast to "other" periodicals, both within the hobby and without. Even though this meant that I rarely enjoyed Ares unreservedly, I nevertheless have to admire how Simonsen and SPI stubbornly kept to their vision for the magazine.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Case of Identity

I've written about Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series before, but I like these stories well enough that I think it worth doing another post on them, this time dedicated to "A Case of Identity," which first appeared in the September 1964 issue of Analog. As I explained in my previous post, the Lord Darcy stories are, among many other things, homages to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes, albeit homages set in an alternate universe where magic works along scientific lines and has thus resulted in a very alternate 20th century -- one where an Anglo-French Empire ruled by the Plantagenet dynasty is the world's greatest power. Admirers of Doyle's works will no doubt remember that "A Case of Identity" is also the name of a Holmes mystery published in 1891. Other than the title, the similarities between the two stories are superficial, relating to the fact that, in each case, the detective protagonist is attempting to determine the whereabouts of a missing person.

In Garrett's story, finding the missing person is of such importance that Lord Darcy, chief investigator to Richard the duke of Normandy, is summoned to a meeting in which he is introduced to the Bishop of Guernsey and Sark, the elder brother of the Marquis of Cherbourg. 
The four men settled themselves, and the Bishop began his story. "My brother the Marquis," he said after a deep breath, "is missing."

Lord Darcy raised an eyebrow. Normally, if one of His Majesty's Governors turned up missing, there would be a hue and cry from one end of the Empire to the other—from Duncansby Head in Scotland to the southernmost tip of Gascony—from the German border on the east to New England and New France, across the Atlantic. If my lord the Bishop of Guernsey and Sark wanted it kept quiet, then there was—there had better be!—a good reason.
Darcy's instincts are indeed correct, as he soon discovers.
 The Bishop fiddled a bit more with his pectoral cross, then plunged into his story. Three days before, on the tenth of January, the Bishop's sister-in-law, Elaine, Marquise de Cherbourg, had sent a servant by boat to St. Peter Port, Guernsey, the site of the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Guernsey and Sark. The sealed message which he was handed informed My Lord Bishop that his brother the Marquis had been missing since the evening of the eighth. Contrary to his custom, My Lord Marquis had not notified My Lady Marquise of any intention to leave the castle. Indeed, he implied that he had intended to retire when he had finished with certain Government papers. No one had seen him since he entered his study. My lady of Cherbourg had not missed him until next morning, when she found that his bed had not been slept in.
It is those "Government papers" that make this mystery potentially problematic, as the missing Marquis had been working agents of the King-Emperor in tracking down a ring of Polish agents provocateurs operating within his domain. In the alternate universe of Lord Darcy's tales, Poland is the Anglo-French Empire's main rival for world supremacy, employing a large number of spies and hidden operatives to achieve by stealth what it cannot achieve through either diplomacy or outright conquest. A significant number of the Lord Darcy stories revolve around the Empire's rivalry with Poland, which gives them a "James Bond-ish" quality (or perhaps something similar to the World War II era Sherlock Holmes films like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, where Holmes and Watson battle Nazis).

"A Case of Identity" is not the best Lord Darcy story by any means, but I have a fondness for it because Garrett makes good use of the scientific magic of his alternate universe to present -- and solve -- a conundrum. There are, however, large digressions into the history and politics of the setting, digressions that, in truth, bog the story down, but, speaking as someone who enjoys the world Garrett has created, I don't find them as tedious as some might. Ultimately, I think "A Case of Identity" is most interesting as an example of clever world building rather than of clever drama or characterization. I recommend it wholeheartedly on that basis alone; I hope others might be able to look past its flaws to appreciate the magnificent world Randall Garrett has created.