Friday, September 28, 2012

Open Friday: Awesome Homebrews

One of the best things about the old school renaissance is its diversity: there are a huge number of folks out there doing all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff in their home campaigns. Precisely because there are so many, it's pretty much impossible to keep track of them all. That's why I'm making it a point today to direct your attention to a handful of people who've done awesome work in either presenting material from their homebrew setting or rules hacks they've made (or both). That they have all taken their games in such different direction is, to me, a feature rather than a bug (to borrow an overused phrase).

A lot of this stuff isn't what I would do, but, then, that's the point. Gaming awesomeness comes in a variety of forms and I want to highlight a few terrific examples of it. In the comments below, feel free to include links to examples of what you think are great presentations of homebrew setting information and/or houserules.

In Places Deep: Evan Elkins uses his blog to present not one but three different campaign settings -- Cuccagna ("The Tempest as written by Jack Vance"), The Dark Country (a Hammer Horror-inspired setting and home to Nightwick Abbey, "the Amityville Horror of megadungeons"), and Uz (a science fantasy in Earth's far future)

Legacy of the Bieth: Humza Kazmi has come up with a setting that combines a vaguely Abbasid/Almoravid era North Africa with the feel of a spaghetti western. If that's not one of the more awesome campaign pitches I've ever heard, I don't know what is.

Mutants and Magic: Paul Schaefer's Gamma Red Death World is set on Earth in the late 19th century after an alien invasion. This is a fairly new setting, so it's still being detailed, but I really like what I've seen so far.

People them with Monsters: Jeremy Deram presents Outland, which he describes as a "semi-gonzo kitchen sink setting." Outland was originally a D&D setting but has since migrated over to Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. You can see Jeremy's house rules on the site, as well as his excellent DCC RPG resources.

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque: Jack Shear's The World Between Setting is a Gothic fantasy that borrows from literature, folklore, fantasy, and horror. It's one of my favorite homebrew settings these days and strikes me as what Ravenloft could have/should have been.

The Wisdom Frog Croaks: Reynaldo Madrinan presents his Barovania setting, which, as you might guess from its name, is Ravenloft crossed with Japanese video games. It's not quite my cup of tea, but there's no denying that it's quite imaginative. Plus, I suspect my 12 year-old daughter would love it.

Untimately: Brendan S presents his Pahvelorn setting, as well as heaps of amazing OD&D rules variants and extremely useful resources, such as OD&D equipment post from this past summer.

Wampus Country: Describing Erik Jensen's Wampus Country setting is difficult, but if you were to think "D&D crossed with Oregon Trail," with lots of fairy tale stuff thrown in, you wouldn't be too far off.

I have lots more links like these to share and I will in future posts, but, as I said above, I'd like you to do the same in the comments below. Share links to the awesome old school homebrew settings and rules you've encountered on the web!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Memories of the British Old School

Recently, I posted news of the release of a second edition of the British old school RPG, Heroes. Though I've long known of the existence of the original Heroes game (published in 1979), I've never actually seen a copy. Reader Andy Staples, who has a blog of his own here, sent along a photo, pictured above, which shows what the original edition looked like, including the hexmap of its setting, the Oesterlands.

Andy also sent along some memories not just of Heroes but of what gaming was like on the other side of the Atlantic in the late 70s and early 80s. With his permission, I've posted his memories below, both because I think they're interesting in their own right and because they provide another perspective on the history of our hobby:
The book itself is typed and mimeographed or photocopied, staple-bound with some awful art. The whole thing - production, erratic rules, bad art - reminds me very much of Arduin Grimoire, and it's obvious that the thing was a labour of love. And I've kept my copy for very many years.
On our side of the Pond, there seemed to be a very ersatz approach to gaming in those days around '80, '81, even a couple of years later. Most of the games we had were American ones, with relatively high production values, but the homegrown games - and the homegrown approach - were much more humble. The barrier to enjoying, and even publishing, your games seemed to be more one of passion and dedication than money.
The move of my friends and I into roleplaying was a natural progression from the pen-and-paper puzzle or challenge games we played in the back of class at school. Noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans), boxes (a kind of primitive version of go), battleships (a schoolboy pen and paper game long before the American commercial version) and a game we just called War - drawing a coastline, placing guns, and flicking your pencil across the paper to see if the lin it made hit one of your opponents guns - it occupied us on rainy days or boring classes. We did this for a couple of years.
Eventually we came up with a game we called Mazes. As far as I know, this was an original development by us. You drew a maze and someone had to navigate their way through it. Then we added traps. Then an item you could pick up to avoid a trap - you could get past the fire if you had a fire extinguisher, for example. Then monsters: we used Daleks. If you'd found the machine gun, you could kill the Dalek before it got you, and your exploration continued.
Each of us drew mazes, and each friend in the group (there were about hald a dozen of us) would attempt to beat each maze. They got bigger and more complex.
Then came the summer holidays, and one of the gang came back in the Michaelmas (autumn) term with a game he pitched as "Mazes, but better". It was the Holmes edition of D&D. And it was Mazes, but it involved dice, and characters with different abilities, and monsters that were thought or weaker than other monsters. I was hooked. We all were. I knew what I wanted for my next birthday, and I got it: a copy of the rules for my own. It was Moldvay by that time. This was late 1981; it was my 13th birthday.
But fantasy didn't scratch all my itches. I wanted science fiction. No problem. I sat down to write a science fiction version - horribly, horribly plagiaristic, of course. Level-based pilots, fighters, space pirates and the like, all written up in the nicest roundhand I could muster in a fresh exercise book. I even changed my handwriting to make it look more professional. Before I finished writing up my awesome science fiction game, Christmas came, and in my local Woolworths (remember those days when chain and department shops made sure they had some roleplaying games in stock), I found an unpreposeessing little black box with something about the Free Trader Beowulf. I bought it and gave up my plans to be a game designer.
Within a year we'd been invited through one of the group to join a local wargaming group. These were working men (bluecollars, I think you'd call them) with a passion. We were tolerated there, I think. They really wanted to get us into a real hobby, and we were encouraged to play wargames with them. I enoyed the few games I played; a couple of our group loved them and became wargamers - a passion fuelled further when the first edition of Warhammer came out.
Wargamers seemed to have an even more ersatz approach to rules and games than we did. There were three or four men who enjoyed a game of Ace of Aces (in 3D, fixing biplane models to chemistry clamps), but almost all the rest of the wargames used homegrown club rules, which used a playing card resolution system. The rules - often very detailed - were handwritten and photocopied and passed around. I hope that in a folder somewhere I still have a copy of the medieval variant.
That's the kind of environment that games like Heroes and Laserburn developed in. Maybe it was similar in those first prints of Chainmail and OD&D. I don't know. If that's the case then we seem to have been several years behind the US in terms of professionalism - except for Games Workshop. By that time, White Dwarf was most definitely a prozine, and they carried the UK printings of Traveller and Runequest.
I find this all very fascinating, since it's at once similar and different from my own formative experiences, particularly with regards to wargaming, which I never really got into, even though I knew a lot of guys who did.

Thanks for sharing this, Andy!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Retrospective: The Book of Marvelous Magic

I have long had a love/hate relationship with The Book of Marvelous Magic. When it was released in 1985, I gleefully purchased it -- despite its being for "kiddie D&D" -- because it carried Gary Gygax's name on the front cover. I was, at the time, a rabid Gygaxian fanboy and the mere presence of his name was enough for me buy products sight unseen, as well as to look more kindly on them than I probably ought to have. A lot of Gary's late TSR output is  of a very different character than the stuff he wrote in earlier days. Some people like it; some don't. Even as a callow youth I recognized this, but I lacked the gumption to admit to myself that I was among the latter group. The end result was that I ended up with a lot of Gygax-penned products I wasn't really happy with.

Of course, The Book of Marvelous Magic wasn't just written by Gary Gygax. He shares the cover byline with Frank Mentzer and the dedication (written by Mentzer) thanks a large number of people "for their contributions," among them Mark Acres, David Cook, Tracy Hickman, Doug Niles, Penny Petticord, John Pickens, Gali Sanchez, Carl Smith, Garry Spiegle, and Skip Williams. Who contributed what is never delineated in the book, but my suspicion is that Mentzer wrote the bulk of the book, using his own ideas and those offered to him by others, including Gygax. Gary's name is on the cover precisely because, even in 1985, it was still a draw to players like me, even though his contributions were probably minimal (more knowledgeable souls can correct me if I am mistaken).

The Book of Marvelous Magic is a 80-page softcover book that details over 500 new magic items for use with Dungeons & Dragons (and AD&D -- more on that in a bit). These items are broken up into fourteen categories: amusements, animal-related items, apparel, cloth and related items, containers, foodstuffs, furniture, household items, jewelry and valuables, music instruments, oddities, paper and related items, tools and hardware, and travel items. Each of these categories has one or more percentile tables associated with it, to aid the referee in randomly rolling treasure. D&D magic items from the rulebooks are also included on these tables, which is nice.

The items presented in this book would qualify as "miscellaneous magic items" and are a mixed bag. Some are extraordinarily mundane, while others are bizarre. Some have punnish or esoteric names (both suggesting Gygaxian involvement). The vast majority, though, are interesting enough, if only in that they're new. One of the problems of playing D&D with long-time players is that it's hard for them to get excited about a bag of holding or gauntlets of ogre power anymore, since, to them, they're "standard" parts of the game. Having a larger pool of magic items to draw upon is thus always a good thing and I suspect a big part of the appeal of books like Unearthed Arcana to many gamers.

Over the years, my opinion of The Book of Marvelous Magic has been inconstant. After my initial excitement, I felt deflated, in large part because so many of the book's items simply reproduce the effects of a spell or class/race ability, while others are merely magical replacements for technology. Later, I came to appreciate the variety it offered, even if many of its offerings are less than inspired. Nowadays, I look on it more kindly, seeing it primarily as a fount of ideas from which I can steal -- and steal from it I have.

The book concludes with an appendix, where rules and guidelines are given for using it with AD&D. Re-reading it today is interesting.
The D&D and AD&D games are actually different games. Though both are role-playing games dealing with fantasy topics, many of the games' systems are entirely different. Each game contains spells, monsters, and other elements not found in the other.

The D&D game is easy to modify to your individual taste. When revised and expanded (editions published in or after 1983), some details were added, but the game as a whole actually became easier to modify. You may add more details, or change existing ones, with little fear of upsetting the game system as a whole. Options are often mentioned, giving the DM a choice of styles or details. For example, a monster's poison can be deadly, but guidelines are given for the DM who wants to change this to points of damage (or other effects) to make the game more enjoyable.

The AD&D game system is, as a whole, far more complex than the D&D game. Rules are given for more situations, and common situations are presented in more detail. Since the AD&D game is more complex than the D&D game, it is very difficult to modify properly. Any rule change may have far-reaching effects. Modifications usually involve very minor details, and rarely (if ever) change general principles. Additions must be compatible with existing details, and must thus be very carefully considered.
Back in 1985, I'd have seen this section as a vindication of my preference for AD&D over D&D, whereas nowadays, it's just the opposite.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #17

Last week, I erroneously proclaimed issue #16 of Ares to have been its last, since I'd never seen an issue beyond that one. Thanks to a kind reader, I now have, along with the two "special editions" TSR also produced during its time publishing the magazine. So, in the interests of completeness, I'll be looking at these three remaining issues over the coming weeks before bidding adieu to Ares. Afterwards, I'll start up a new series, focusing on the TSR UK periodical, Imagine.

Issue #17 is not dated. Instead, it's called simply "Final Issue," though, since issue #16 is listed as "Winter 1983" and the first installment of "the Ares Section" in Dragon is April 1984, it's safe to assume that it appeared sometime between January and April 1984. The cover art is by Mitchell O'Connell, whose artwork I so strongly associate with Pacesetter's Star Ace RPG. The interior layout of the issue looks even more like what we'd eventually see in the pages of Dragon, which only makes sense. For me, seeing it in a full-length magazine is somewhat thrilling, given my fondness for the Ares Section and my wish back in the day that Dragon expanded its coverage of science fiction even further.

The issue begins with an editorial explaining why Ares is ceasing publication:
Production costs (in terms of time, energy, and money), compared to the actual readership, were major factors; the circulation was not high enough to justify the workload in making it go.
This is hardly surprising, given the relative unpopularity of science fiction compared to fantasy in the gaming world. Likewise, the handling of TSR's takeover of SPI, while not done maliciously, was bungled, alienating a great many of the people who might otherwise have supported Ares. At the same time, I do think TSR genuinely tried to make Ares successful, even if some of the changes they made probably also alienated some of its existing subscriber base.

In terms of actual content, issue #17 includes an article called "Of Writers, Editors, and Horror Stories" by David J. Schow, in which he talks about his experiences as freelance writer. It's a fine piece for what it is, though it's an odd one to include in the final issue of Ares. Meanwhile, James M. Ward provides "Fun Among the Mutants," which discusses games and pastimes of the cryptic alliances of Gamma World. "Sword in the Dirt" is a bit of short fiction by Henry Melton, while Steve Winter's "Pancake Alley" provides guidelines for rally racing in Car Wars. "A Friendly Game of Hoople" is a second -- and lengthier -- piece of fiction (by Timothy Robert Sullivan).

The significant portion of issue #17 is taken up by "Mongoose & Cobra," an adventure for Universe written by Nick Karp. The adventure takes place in the Chara system, on the planet Gardenia, which has recently been menaced by space pirate attacks, which the characters are hired to deal with. For its length, I can't say I found "Mongoose & Cobra" particularly inspiring. Like so much material for Universe, there are a lot of good ideas here but they're presented in the driest, most unexciting way possible. William Tracy offers "The Zamra," which describes a racial weapon of the Yazirians from Star Frontiers. Carl Smith pens "Fire at Will!," which describes methods of using miniatures to play Knight Hawks. Marvant Duhon's "The Federation Strikes Back!" is an expansion to Universe's starship construction and combat rules.

"Sword and Sorcery in Supergame" is an odd article. Written by Jay Hartlove, it provides rules and advice on adapting Supergame to the fantasy genre. Supergame is apparently a superhero RPG, but I've never heard of it. I find it difficult to imagine that it had a very wide currency in 1984 either, so its inclusion here suggests that Ares had difficulty finding articles to publish in its pages. Rounding out the issue are a number of reviews of both books and games. Not included this time around is an integral game/simulation, making issue #17 different than all of its predecessors. I suspect that the cost a lot of the cost prohibitions that spelled the end of Ares stemmed from its integral games, so it's hardly a surprise to see it missing.

The story of Ares magazine becomes more interesting with each issue I read. It's quite clear that, ultimately, its demise was born in the great differences between the cultures, both corporate and consumer, of SPI and TSR. Even under the best of circumstances, it seems unlikely that the periodical would survive its takeover by TSR, which, as I've said repeatedly in this series, is a shame, since I think there was much potential in Ares.

Monday, September 24, 2012

REVIEW: Death Love Doom

Every now and then, I get something sent to me for review that I don't really know what to do with. James Raggi's adventure Death Love Doom is a good example of what I'm talking about -- not because it's "bad" so much as it's very far removed from anything I'd like have bought of my own accord. I'll explain what I mean by that shortly.

The copy I own is part of a limited print run of 200 and it's not, so far as I'm aware, available anymore. Instead, you'll have to content yourself with a 20-page PDF (plus two pages of maps) that sells for 3.00€ (about $4 US). The adventure looks similar to previous Lamentations of the Flame Princess efforts, using a simple two-column layout and a variety of "period" fonts intended to evoke the 17th century. The cartography by Jez Gordon, is both attractive and useful. The interior artwork is all the work of Kelvin Green and in his excellent signature style, though the subject matter is quite a departure for him.

On the other hand, Death Love Doom isn't a departure for James Raggi. If anything, I'd say it's probably the "Raggi-est" adventure he's written, being both an unrepentant finger in the eye of those who want roleplaying game products to consist entirely of stuff you can show your mother and a creative exploration of some of his own dark feelings. That probably sounds terribly pretentious and I apologize for that, but it's the most succinct way I can explain the visceral, emotional charge of revulsion I felt reading parts of this adventure. What I felt wasn't just disgust at something I found "icky," though. It was something else I couldn't quite put my finger on, which is a big part of why I initially didn't know what to do with Death Love Doom.

The adventure takes place entirely within the house and grounds of the Foxlowe family, who reside in London in the year 1625. That was the first of several curve balls thrown at me when I started reading. Unlike previous LotFP adventures, this one takes place not in a fantasy approximation of early modern Europe but in early modern Europe itself. Why he did this I have no idea, because, to my mind, there's no obvious payoff in having done so. At the same time, there's no difficulty whatsoever in stripping out the 17th century English references and running the adventure as a "straight" fantasy, so it's more a quirky authorial choice than a serious flaw, but it is odd.

At the start of the adventure, rumors are circulating that the wealthy Foxlowes, including Erasmus, the family patriarch and a successful merchant, have unexpectedly disappeared, possibly traveling abroad. The player characters can thus take the roles of either thieves hoping to rob their estate while it is presumably unoccupied or concerned locals looking to discover just what has happened to the prosperous family. Death Love Doom is thus a location-based adventure whose "plot," such as it is, has already occurred before the PCs step foot inside the Foxlowe house. Something has happened therein, something that has turned their residence into a veritable house of horrors, as the PCs will discover as they investigate it.

What they won't discover, at least not easily, is why the terrible things within the house have happened -- why all the members of the Foxlowe family have been killed in horrific ways or, worse yet, turned into even more horrific monsters. It's not completely impossible, but it does require a fair bit of luck and cleverness. Otherwise, Death Love Doom comes across as little more than grotesquerie for the sake of grotesquerie and that, I think, is Death Love Doom's biggest flaw. Reading the entirety of the module, I know what happened to the Foxlowes and why and it's a very chilling tale indeed. But the likelihood that the PCs will discover this is small. To them, there will be no rhyme or reason behind all the dissected children and genital mutilations and people with limbs cut off and sewn back on in the wrong places.

That's unfortunate, since it weakens the power of the module and contributes to the caricature of Raggi's adventures as being twisted and dark for no good reason. There's a very good reason behind the things the PCs encounter in Death Love Doom and knowing them makes this a much more satisfying (and unsettling) adventure. This reason is known only to a handful of NPCs in the adventure and the likelihood that they'll be in a position to share that information with anyone is not great. I suspect Raggi knows this; indeed, I suspect that the "mystery" of it all is part of the point. But, speaking as a referee, I find this a serious weakness.

Even knowing the truth behind the events of Death Love Doom, I'm not sure I could ever run the adventure. That's not a flaw in the module or its presentation so much as a statement of my own preferences. Death Love Doom is not for the squeamish; it's filled with a large number of disturbing images of the "body horror" variety, ably illustrated by Kelvin Green. This adventure is definitely not for the weak of stomach. Those who aren't so sensitive may nevertheless find it disturbing, since, well, it is. This is an adventure in the grindhouse style Raggi loves so much and should be judged with that in mind.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You like your adventures to be disturbing and horrific.
Don't Buy This If: You're squeamish and/or prefer your adventures with a "lighter" tone.

The Fall

Being outdoors in a natural environment turns my thoughts to fantasy, doubly so when it's the Fall. The kind of fantasy I tend to enjoy -- and play -- has an "autumnal" character to it. How could it not? The ubiquity of ancient ruins filled with forgotten treasures in Dungeons & Dragons suggests a setting on the wane, or at least one that has seen better days. It's post-Golden Age, sometime after the oceans have drunk Atlantis and the gleaming cities. There may be a new civilization on the rise, but it's a tawdry one squatting in the ashes of the glory that was Rome.

I suppose this is why some have claimed that fantasy is a fundamentally conservative genre -- conservative in the non-political sense of viewing the world as "fallen" in one or more ways. That's admittedly a viewpoint for which I have a lot of personal sympathy, so maybe it's all too easy to accept it uncritically. Still, as I say, D&D has all these dungeons lying about, so it's hardly a stretch to think of the kind of fantasy it presents -- and thus with which most gamers are familiar -- is colored in shades of red, orange, and brown.

Mind you, it's not just D&D that presents fantasy in this fashion. Three seminal influences on the game and its players do so as well. Robert E. Howard's "undreamed of" Hyborian Age is explicitly a time after a great cataclysm. The Third Age of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, though a time of great ferment, sees the waning of the elves and a general decline in the strength of Men. In the 21st Aeon of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, the Sun is, literally, dying and, along with it, much of man's accumulated knowledge. I could probably name many other examples, but my point (to the extent I even have one) isn't to "prove" that fantasy must view the present with some pessimism compared to the past, only that it's a very common and influential theme.

It's worth noting, too, that quite a few gaming settings are post-cataclysmic. Greyhawk's Oerth, Dragonlance's Krynn, and Dark Sun's Athas all clearly are, as is Empire of the Petal Throne's Tékumel. As eventually developed later, The Known World had an apocalypse in its past, as even the Forgotten Realms is filled with the rising and falling of civilizations as the result of periodic cataclysms (though few of these seem to have had any lasting effecst on the setting).

I'm not really going anywhere with this post; I'm simply thinking out loud. The weather has been quite chilly lately and the leaves of the maple tree on my front yard are starting to change color and fall and I've found myself musing about fantasy even more than usual.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

When fantasy film buffs think of the year 1977, chances are they probably think of Star Wars and rightly so; I know I do. But there was another movie released that year that I vividly remember seeing: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Back when I was a kid, it was not at all unusual for theaters to show older "classic" (and not-so-classic) movies as weekend matinees. That's how I managed to see films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). All of these movies featured groups of heroic adventurers -- as well as some unfortunate henchmen -- who journeyed out into a mysterious world populated by Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsters on some great quest. To say that these movies exerted an influence over my youthful imagination is an understatement. When I first discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I naturally drew on the ideas and imagery of these fantasy movies for inspiration. Needless to say, I felt vindicated in this when I purchased the AD&D Monster Manual in early 1980 and saw Dave Sutherland's illustration of the iron golem and realized that I wasn't the only one who did so.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three Sinbad movies, in part because neither its lead (Patrick Wayne) nor its primary antagonist (Margaret Whiting) are all that memorable. On the other hand, some of the supporting cast, particularly Patrick Troughton, who plays the Greek alchemist Melanthius, are very good in their roles. Jane Seymour is no Caroline Munro, it's true, but she more than acquits herself as Farah, Sinbad's love interest and the catalyst for this latest adventure of the famed sailor in ancient Arabia.

I've never really understood why this film was titled as it was. There is a saber-toothed tiger, which features prominently in the movie poster, but its presence is not central to the plot. The same is true of the cat-like eyes that the evil queen Zenobia possesses whenever she engages in some act of sorcery. It's long been a mystery to me, since the plot sees Sinbad on his way to attend the coronation of Prince Kassim, his friend and the brother of the woman he hopes to marry. When he arrives, he finds that Kassim's capital city is in chaos thanks to the machinations of Zenobia, who hopes to put her son -- Kassim's stepbrother -- on the throne instead. To effect this coup, she uses black magic to turn Kassim into a baboon. His sister, Farah, turns to Sinbad to help reverse this spell, believing that, in his travels, he might know someone with the knowledge to do so. Naturally, he does and so Sinbad, Farah, the cursed Kassim, and a crew of doughty seamen head out to find the one man in the whole world who might be able to save the prince, pursued by Zenobia, her son, and the memorable metal minion known as the Minoton.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, as Sinbad travels from place to place, encountering a variety of hazards and creatures, on his quest. Unfortunately, the creatures aren't particularly interesting, or at least they weren't for me as a child. There's the aforementioned saber-toothed tiger, frozen in a block of ice, the baboon Kassim, and a cave man (called a troglodyte here), in addition to the Minoton. Of these, the Minoton is perhaps the most visually intriguing, but he doesn't actually do much more than row Zenobia's ship. The baboon is extremely well animated; it's almost believable as an actual animal, but it's just a monkey, however fun it is to see him play chess with Jane Seymour. Couple the lack of creatures as exciting as the Hyrdra from Jason and the Argonauts or the multi-armed statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with the lackluster portrayals of both Sinbad and Zenobia and you're left with a less than satisfying fantasy film.

It's a shame really, because I think the overall plot of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is pretty good. Likewise, the character of Melanthius, as the only man with the knowledge to save Prince Kassim, is delightfully eccentric and engaging. He pretty much steals any scene he is in and I found myself wishing he were even more involved in the plot than he was. Still, there's enough in the movie to hold one's attention, so I'd never argue against seeing it. Compared to its predecessors, though, it's lacking a bit of "heart" and that prevents me from raving about it as I have other Harryhausen efforts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Unearthed Arcana Reprint?

This past summer, Wizards of the Coast released three premium reprints of the original Gary Gygax-penned AD&D rulebooks. These were well received by the old school community (despite the usual nitpicking), leading some to hope that perhaps this might presage the return of more AD&D books or even the game's becoming permanently "in print" again. While the latter seems like a pipe dream to me, eagle-eyed Joseph Browning has found confirmation that, yes, we will be getting another AD&D rulebook reprinted -- Unearthed Arcana in February 2013.

The choice of Unearthed Arcana is a strange one, given the relatively low regard in which it's held by most old schoolers. On the other hand, it carries Gary's byline (even though it contains work by others) and, unlike Monster Manual II, which is also by Gygax, it's player-oriented. Plus, the original Unearthed Arcana was renowned for the shoddiness of both its editing and its binding. If the reprint corrects both those issues, it'd go some way toward making it a more attractive buy.

I'd still rather that WotC reprint something like the LBBs or Moldvay/Cook, but I'm not going to complain about seeing more AD&D on the shelves of game stores. If anything, it suggests that the original batch of reprints must have sold decently enough. I can't imagine WotC would bother with a follow-up volume if the previous release had been a bust.

Rival Adventurer Detail, Take Two

After reading through the comments to my previous post, I went back to modified the description of the rival adventuring parties slightly:
Party #1 (0 Experience Points): The Five Delvers
The Delvers are a new adventuring party based out of Muntburg. Driven by equal parts curiosity and greed, they are not adverse to aiding other adventuers.

Asceline (Level 1 Neutral Female Thief) AC: 5 HP: 4
STR 10 INT 15 WIS 12 CON 13 DEX 17 CHA 13
Pick Locks: 17% Find/Remove Traps: 14 Pick Pockets: 23% Move Silently: 23% Climb Walls: 87% Hide in Shadows: 13% Hear Noise 1-2
Equipment: Sword, Dagger, Leather Armor, Backpack, Waterskin, Lantern, 4 Flasks oil, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, 50' Rope, Thieves Tools
Personality: Asceline is bold to the point of foolhardiness. Her charisma makes her a natural leader.

Fortin (Level 1 Neutral Male Fighter) AC: 4 HP: 8
STR 13 INT 12 WIS 12 CON 11 DEX 9 CHA 9
Equipment: Chain Armor, Shield, Sword, Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole
Personality: Fortin is the “strong and silent” type; he keeps his opinions to himself and does what he is told.

Rique of Tyche (Level 1 Lawful Male Cleric) AC: 5 HP: 6
STR 7 INT 12 WIS 13 CON 13 DEX 13 CHA 13
Spells: None
Equipment: Mace, Leather Armor, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Wooden Holy Symbol
Personality: Like many clerics of Tyche, Rique is addicted to danger. He sees exploring Dwimmermount as a reward in itself.

Lorenz (Level 1 Neutral Male Fighter) AC: 2 HP: 5
STR 14 INT 12 WIS 12 CON 5 DEX 14 CHA 12
Equipment: Plate Mail, Flail, Dagger, Short bow, Quiver of 20 Arrows, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, Small Sack
Personality: Lorenz considers himself Asceline's “protector” and will do anything to keep her safe.

Thonyn (Level 1 Neutral Male Magic-User) AC: 9 HP: 3
STR 10 INT 16 WIS 13 CON 14 DEX 7 CHA 9
Spells: 1-Charm Person
Equipment: Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, Vial of Holy Water
Personality: Thonyn is the least trustworthy member of the Delvers; he would betray his fellows if he felt he could gain magical power as a result.
Is this enough detail for the referee to hang his hat on? Or should there be more information about the party and the individuals who makes it up?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Retrospective: 1001 Characters

The question of what constitutes a "good" gaming supplement has always been a contentious one. Back when I first entered the hobby, I knew guys who thought adventure modules were a "rip-off," because they felt it was absurd to pay $6 for a dungeon when they could make up their own for free. They felt the same about setting material like the Judges Guild Wilderlands stuff and, later, The World of Greyhawk. For them, making up your own stuff was one of the joys of this hobby and they weren't about to pay anyone else to do it for them. At the same time, I knew other guys who'd gladly plunk down good money for maps and other materials designed by others, mostly to save themselves time they'd rather spend on other aspects of gaming.

I've gone both ways myself at various times, depending on the RPG and the time of my life. In my younger days, I didn't put much stock in gaming "utilities," since I'd just as soon make up everything myself. Nowadays, I appreciate those kinds of supplements a great deal more, since I don't have nearly the free time I did when I was twelve. Even so, there's still a part of me that will always rankle at the idea of supplements that do "too much" of the heavy lifting for referees and players -- "too much" being defined flexibly, of course.

Which brings me to the first supplement produced for GDW's Traveller. Published in 1978, 1001 Characters has no listed author, probably because it was "written" by a computer program. The 44-page booklet contains 136 examples of each of the game's six default career types: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, and the nebulous Other. In addition, there are 176 "chance encounters," like troopers, policemen, and thugs. Each character is described using two lines of text, as only Traveller can do. The character's rank (if any) is followed by his stats, age, number of career terms, available cash, and skills.

It's all very simple and straightforward, so much so that one wonders why the supplement was published at all. That's how I felt about it back in the day; I refused to buy it as a result. Now, to be fair, Traveller character generation takes time. Though quicker than most contemporary RPGs with their plethora of choices, it wasn't a simple matter to make up a merchant captain in Traveller, especially if you wanted to "do it right" rather than just eyeballing it, as I usually did. In play, I don't think my players ever questioned how plausible the stats were on any of the NPCs I made up on the fly or the likelihood that a merchant captain was only 38 years old. These kinds of details were unimportant to us and thus a book like 1001 Characters seemed, at best, superfluous and, at worst, a waste of money, just as those old grognards I knew had said.

The more mathematically inclined may have noticed that 136 times six plus 176 does not equal 1001. The missing nine characters in the book are examples drawn from science fiction literature. In many ways, they're the most interesting part of 1001 Characters, since they provide some insight into the literary influences on the game. The nine characters are: John Carter, Kimball Kinnison, Jason dinAlt, Earl Dumarest, Beowulf Shaeffer, Anthony Villiers, Dominic Flandry, Kirth Girsen, and Gully Foyle. Not a one of them is a character from a movie or TV show, which I think is significant, though hardly surprising to anyone who read Traveller closely.

(As an aside, it's worth noting that GDW printed more than 40,000 copies of 1001 Characters. How many of those sold, I don't know, but there aren't many RPG products today printed in that volume.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #16

Issue #16 of Ares, released in winter 1983 is the tragic final installment in this magazine's brief history. I say "tragic," because it's a really good issue -- well written and presented and filled with lots of very interesting articles -- that is also its final one. [EDIT: Apparently it's not; there is an issue #17 and I don't own it.] No more stand-alone issues of the magazine would be forthcoming after this one. Instead, Ares would become a section within Dragon.

Say what you will about TSR's treatment of SPI and its properties, but I can't help but feel that, when it came to Ares, TSR knew what it was doing. Issue #16 is a fully fledged science fiction periodical that provides just the right mix of speculation, fiction, gaming, and other features. It's almost exactly the kind of magazine I'd have enjoyed back in the day, so it's a double pity that I not only never read this at the time but that it was also, ultimately, a failure.

If  anyone at TSR knew, when it was putting this issue together, that it would be the last of its kind, they don't let on to that fact. The opening editorial, again by "The Editors," suggests that the magazine's "new look" and more focused content is the start of something big. There is no suggestion whatsoever that the periodical's days were numbered. Indeed, a new letters column is introduced in this issue, implying that, if anything, the folks involved in creating Ares had every reason to expect its continuance.

Gone this issue is John Boardman's "Science for Science Fiction" and I can't say I'm sorry. I liked the idea behind the column, but Boardman's authorial voice was to pessimistic and smug to hold my attention. This issue we're treated instead to "Galactic Empires" by Robert A. Freitas Jr. This lengthy article (8 pages plus a one-page supplement) uses a combination of history, sociology, psychology, and speculation to imagine what the foundation and maintenance of a galactic empire would be like. I can't say that it's "realistic" or based on "science fact," but it's a good and inspirational read. It's precisely the kind of thing I had always hoped we'd see in "Science for Science Fiction" but never did, because Freitas, unlike Boardman, hasn't let his skepticism win out over his sense of fun. Though not specifically a gaming article, it's nevertheless useful to referees and players of science fiction games.

Poul Anderson (!) provides this issue's fiction installment in the form of "Quest," a short story sequel (of sorts) to his famous The High Crusade. "Quest" is a fine tale about seeking the Holy Grail amongst the stars, and was included in the 50th anniversary edition of The High Crusade published back in 2010, if you're interested in reading it. David Cook provides this issue's integral wargame, also called The High Crusade, which simulates the battles between English knights and the soldiers of the instellar Wersgorix Empire, as depicted in the novel. It's a two-player game in which each participant struggles either to gain or maintain control over a multi-racial, multi-planet empire. As wargames go, it's fairly straightforward, its most interesting element being the inclusion of random events for both sides. These events, I suspect, play an important -- and unpredictable -- role in the progress of the game, making it harder to develop a "perfect" strategy for success. I'd love the chance to play it sometime.

"Return of the Stainless Steel Computer" by Ken Ramstead is a short expansion of the solitaire play options of the Return of the Stainless Steel Rat game from issue #10. Roger E. Moore offers "Creating Alien Races for Traveller Game Adventures," in which he talks about and gives an example of the process -- the unfortunately named Sydymites from Judges Guild's Ley Sector. The funny thing is that I had a photocopy of this article back in the '90s, when I was deeply involved in Traveller fandom, and used it as a template for creating my own alien races. Moore has second article, "Swords and Stars," which expands on the barbarian career option from Traveller's Citizens of the Imperium.

Greg Costikyan continues to review books, while Steve List does the same for games, including my much-beloved Star Trek The Roleplaying Game. Christopher John likewise review movies, most of which he hated, especially Krull and Superman III. I can't say that I disagree with his judgments on either score. David J. Schow talks about the process of creating movie novel tie-ins, which is actually quite interesting. Roger Raupp offers up the second (and last, as it turns out) installment in his science fiction comic, "Ringshipper."

And that brings us to the end of this issue and, unfortunately, the end of Ares magazine. As I stated when I began this series, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Ares during the time of its publication, so I never had the chance to read these back then. Doing so now has been enlightening, but it's also been mildly depressing, both because I think Ares had unrealized potential and because I am reminded of the deaths of many other gaming periodicals that I did read in those days. While the Internet provides a great deal of useful content, often for free, I'm enough of an old man to miss print periodicals and mourn their decline. That's why I am so pleased to see the rise of fanzines in the old school community and why I will be starting a new series next week devoted to another forgotten gaming journal of old.

Monday, September 17, 2012

REVIEW: Other Dust

While the OSR has produced fantasy games aplenty, the number of science fiction games has been relatively small. One of the most significant of these recent old school SF RPGs has been Stars Without Number, which is not only a fine game in its own right, but the first example of author Kevin Crawford's talent for producing extremely useful utilities for running sandbox campaigns. Very few other designers have produced such a wealth of material for the creation and maintenance of sandbox campaigns as Crawford and the fact that he keeps doing it, each time refining what he has done before and expanding on it, makes it all the more remarkable.

So, when I heard that Crawford was producing a post-apocalyptic sandbox game, my interest was immediately piqued. Called Other Dust, it's actually set in the same universe as Stars Without Number and focuses on what became of "Old Terra" after humanity traveled to the stars and the psychic catastrophe known as "the Scream" washed over all of mankind's worlds, including his world of origin. Other Dust is 208 pages long, available as either as PDF (for $19.99), a softcover book ($34.99), or a hardcover book ($39.99). Like previous releases from Sine Nomine Publishing, Other Dust presents its material using a densely-packed two-column format. Black and white line art is more abundant here and is generally used to better effect, though, as always, it's the text and not the illustrations or presentation that matters most.

There are twelve chapters in Other Dust, along with an index. The short first chapter ("The World Is In Ashes") is merely an introduction to the game's setting and conventions. The next chapter details character generation. Those familiar with Stars Without Number will find this familiar, with six ability scores identical to those of D&D and with the same range (3-18). Characters have classes (scrounger, slayer, speaker, and survivor), in addition to background packages. Classes provide attack bonuses, saving throws, hit dice, skills, and a unique ability, while background packages provide additional skills. There are also a variety of "training packages" associated with each class that provide further benefits. Characters can be further customized through rolls on mutation tables, if so desired, while starting equipment is entirely random.

Chapter three details mutations, which are described as the effects of nanites released by Terra's Highshine planetary disaster response system to deal with the aftermath of the Scream. Unfortunately, the Highshine system was perverted by a group known as the Crazed, so the nanites don't function as they were supposed to, instead warping bodies in unexpected -- and often detrimental -- ways. Most mutations come with drawbacks in addition to benefits and the game mechanics associated with them are pleasantly brief -- on par with first edition Gamma World or Mutant Future. Chapter four details the game's basic "systems," like combat, saving throws, advancement, and so on. Again, readers familiar with Stars Without Number won't find too many surprises here. Other Dust uses mechanics very similar to those of old school D&D and its clones.

Chapter five ("A History Writ in Dust") provides lots of broad details about the world before the End. The chapter not only shows how Old Terra fit into the larger setting of Stars Without Number, but what life was like on the planet. Similarly, the history of the two hundred years since the Scream is covered. These sections take up only seven pages of the entire book, but they're very useful in properly establishing what the game is about. Chapter six is dedicated to "Creating Your Wasteland" and provides extensive advice on how to create a post-apocalyptic sandbox campaign, complete with many, many random tables to assist the referee. It's here that Other Dust really shines, since each entry on the random table is given sufficient attention to inspire lots of ideas. It's fairly easy to create random tables, but far harder to give meaning to make those tables truly -- repeatedly -- inspirational, but Kevin Crawford has done so.

Chapter seven is about "Adventure Creation" and, once more, offers advice and random tables to aid the referee, along with random loot tables. This chapter is solid but not quite as inspirational as "Creating Your Wasteland," but that's hardly a criticism. Chapter eight describes "Groups and Enclaves" and is another inspirational chapter. Crawford breaks down power groups and settlements into various types (Cabals, Creeds, Polities, etc.) and then provides specifically tailored random tables for creating them for insertion into a campaign. Likewise, the strengths and weaknesses of each are quantified in ways that work with the game systems introduced elsewhere.

Chapter nine is devoted to "Equipment and Artifacts" and is as good as such chapters can be. Chapter ten is a "Post-Apocalyptic Bestiary" and provides both rules for creating opponents, in addition to plenty of examples of them. To my mind, that's the best approach to such things. Chapter eleven is a detailed Wasteland example called "The Bonelands," which represents one vision of what the northeastern coast of North America might be like in Other Dust. Chapter twelves contains "Gamemaster Resources," consisting of a wide variety of random tables, sample maps, encounters, and game stats. It's a good selection of material that will no doubt prove useful both in preparation and at the table.

All in all, Other Dust is a formidable post-apocalyptic science fiction RPG. Its greatest strength is the vast amount of support it provides for sandbox play -- from advice to random tables to fully-fleshed out examples. Indeed, I'd recommend the game on that basis alone. Whether you're playing Other Dust or some other post-apocalyptic game, the vast majority of this book's content is a treasure trove of good ideas and inspiration. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a lot of the material is just as useful for creating and maintaining a fantasy sandbox as a science fiction one. That Other Dust plugs into Stars Without Number is also to its credit, since it provides new avenues for adventure in that game. I'm hard pressed to find any weaknesses in Other Dust, since it does exactly what it set out to do: offer up rules for playing in and running a sandbox campaign set on a far future post-apocalyptic Earth. It's an excellent addition to the pantheon of RPGs, old school or otherwise.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a simple, flexible post-apocalyptic RPG that fosters and supports sandbox play.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in post-apocalyptic RPGs or in sandbox-style campaigns.

More on Relics

Earlier this year, I did a post about artifacts and relics after having seen an exhibition of a large number of them at my parish. It's a topic about which I have a lifelong fascination, aided in no small part due to the fact that Gary Gygax saw fit to include relics with miraculous powers in both OD&D and AD&D. So, when I read a blog post by the pastor of a parish in Louisville, Kentucky, talking about the reinterment of the relics of two third-century Roman martyrs there, I wanted to share it. Be warned, though, that what follows has nothing directly to do with gaming and I share it out of interest, as I know there are quite a large number of students of ancient and medieval history amongst my readers.
The saints being reinterred are Magnus and Bonosa, both martyred during the persecution of Septimius Severus in 207. According to tradition, Bonosa was a virgin arrested for her beliefs and Magnus a centurion who attempted to save her life. Both were thrown into Colosseum and met their deaths there. Their bodies were taken to the catacombs beneath Rome and later translated to a monastery in Agnani, Italy, where they remained the turn of the 20th century, when the monastery was confiscated by the Italian government and the order of nuns who resided there forced to leave. A pastor in the United States petitioned the Holy See for the relics and Pope Leo XIII agreed. The skeletons of the two saints were sent to Kentucky in 1901, where they've resided ever since.

Recently, renovations to the church (Saint Martin of Tours) where the relics were displayed provided an opportunity to remove them, examine them further -- there were CT scans done of the remains, for example -- and reinter them with greater solemnity. The photo above is one of many from the reinterment Mass at the church. You can see both saints attired in new clothing and placed on biers before the altar. They have now been placed in glass reliquary cases at the sides of the church.

Again, this has little to do with gaming as such, but it's fascinating stuff I thought worth sharing.

Rival Adventurer Detail

I've written about rival adventuring parties several times in the past. I've come to believe that this is an aspect of old school play that was lost over the years. Whereas OD&D in its various forms and even AD&D 1e included lots of examples in their rulebooks and adventures to reinforce the notion that rival adventurers were a common "hazard" of dungeon exploration, I can't recall a single example of such a thing from 2e on, though I'm sure that those with better memories can (and will) correct me on this point. That's why, when I started the Dwimmermount campaign, I made a specific point of creating NPC adventurers whom the player characters could encounter. At least two parties of these NPCs had an impact on the development of the campaign.

Over the last little while, I've been writing up these rival adventuring parties, along with some new ones, and I've found myself wondering just how much information a referee needs to use an NPC adventuring party, which is admittedly part of a larger problem of just how much detail is needed for any element of an adventure module/setting. I myself require very little detail. My personal notes are usually quite spare -- mostly words or phrases intended to jog my memory. In fact, I make up a lot of details on the spot, since this saves time and gives me more flexibility in play. I can't begin to remember the number of times I've changed my mind about things because of the roll of the dice, player decision, or even just whimsy.

However, I realize that not every referee plays like me. So, I'm trying to strike a good balance between too much and too little detail in presenting NPC adventurers. Here's an example of one such party, written in a very minimalist style:
Party #2 (2,035 Experience Points): Typhon's Fists
Jehan of Typhon (Level 2 Lawful Male Cleric) AC: 4 HP: 8
STR 12 INT 12 WIS 14 CON 12 DEX 11 CHA 14
Spells: 1-Cure Light Wounds
Equipment: Chain Mail, Shield, War Hammer +1, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Wooden Holy Symbol, 2 Small Sacks, 3 Stakes & Mallet, Steel Mirror

Ondart (Level 2 Lawful Male Fighter) AC: 1 HP: 12
STR 15 INT 14 WIS 12 CON 9 DEX 13 CHA 9
Equipment: Plate Mail, Shield, Sword, Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Potion of Healing

Helouys (Level 2 Lawful Female Fighter) AC: 3 HP: 8
STR 16 INT 9 WIS 8 CON 11 DEX 12 CHA 11
Equipment: Plate Mail, Two-Handed Sword, 3 Daggers, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, 2 Flasks oil, Potion of Heroism

Genevote (Level 1 Neutral Female Magic-User) AC: 9 HP: 2
STR 11 INT 15 WIS 15 CON 9 DEX 9 CHA 8
Spells: 1-Magic Missile
Equipment: Dagger, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 50' Rope, Vial of Holy Water

Enjorran of Typhon (Level 2 Lawful Male Cleric) AC: 5 HP: 9
STR 14 INT 11 WIS 18 CON 10 DEX 6 CHA 5
Spells: 1-Protection from Evil
Equipment: Chain Mail, Shield, War Hammer, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole, Wooden Holy Symbol, 2 Small Sacks, Scroll of Cure Light Wounds

Yurain (Level 2 Lawful Male Dwarf) AC: 1 HP: 8
STR 17 INT 9 WIS 10 CON 11 DEX 12 CHA 11
Equipment: Plate Mail, Shield +1, Sword, Light Crossbow, Case With 30 Quarrels, 6 Torches, Backpack, Waterskin, 1 Week Iron Rations, 10' Pole
As you can see, there's not much here beyond basic details. The NPCs have names but no descriptions, classes and equipment but no personalities or backgrounds. Likewise, the party itself has a name ("Typhon's Fists") but no details or agenda. Is that enough? For me, it is. The only things I  hate coming up with on the fly are game stats and, even then, it's not hard so much as something I don't enjoy, especially when you're dealing with mid to high-level NPCs. That's why I keep some pregenerated ability score arrays, names, spellbooks, etc, at hand in case I ever have to make up a NPC on the spot who requires more than a name and a vague personality. Other referees might feel differently, though, which is why I'm curious what these referees might add to this collection of game stats. What additional details are necessary to make these NPCs broadly useful should they be encountered as the result of a roll on the wandering monster chart?

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles

When I was a child, among my favorite science fiction books were those of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. I adored these books more for their grand scope than for their central gimmick -- psychohistory -- which, even as a kid, I considered to be absurd. My only complaint about the series was that it ended prematurely. According to Asimov's original plan, the period between the fall of the first Galactic Empire and the establishment of a second would be a thousand years. The Foundation stories would chronicle the efforts of the eponymous organization to see that the second Empire occurred on schedule. Unfortunately, the stories ended about halfway through the millennium and I was left wanting more.

In 1982, about three decades after the end of the series, Isaac Asimov returned to the universe of Foundation by penning a new novel, Foundation's Edge. I was immensely pleased by this turn of events and read the book with great relish -- that is, until I realized that this wasn't at all like the Foundation stories I'd loved. I suppose it was inevitable that, after so many years, Asimov would have changed as a writer. Foundation's Edge was thus the product of an older, different man than the ones that he'd written back in the late '40s and early '50s. As science fiction goes, Foundation's Edge isn't a bad book, I suppose, but it's not the kind of sci-fi I was looking for in 1982; what I wanted was more of the stuff Asimov had written years before. To my way of thinking, Asimov had forgotten what made the original Foundation stories so fun and that disappointed me.

I bring all this up because Clark Ashton Smith's "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" reminds me a lot of Foundation's Edge. Set in his prehistoric continent of Hyperborea, the story was first published in the March 1958 issue of Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy. Prior to this, the last Hyperborean tale appeared in 1933 -- a span even longer than the time between the last Foundation story and Foundation's Edge. It's not a bad fantasy tale; indeed there is much to recommend it. Yet, it lacks, for me anyway, a certain something present in Smith's other Hyperborean tales and, a result, I find it less satisfying than its predecessors.

The short story is a first-person account by the comic rogue Satampra Zeiros, previously seen in "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," who begins this story thusly:
 Let it be said as a foreword to this tale that I have robbed no man who was not in some way a robber of others. In all my long and arduous career, I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, sometimes known as the master-thief, have endeavored to serve merely as an agent in the rightful redistribution of wealth. The adventure I have now to relate was no exception: though, as it happened in the outcome, my own pecuniary profits were indeed meager, not to say trifling.
It's a solid opening paragraph, one that succinctly introduces the character of the narrator and the reliability of his narrative. Satampra Zeiros then lays out the broad details of the adventure of which he spoke.
Often I think of Vixeela, my one true love and the most adroit and courageous of my companions in burglary. She has long since gone to the bourn of all good thieves and comrades; and I have mourned her sincerely these many years. But still dear is the memory of our amorous or adventurous nights and the feats we performed together. Of such feats, perhaps the most signal and audacious was the theft of the thirty-nine girdles.
These were the golden and jeweled chastity girdles, worn by the virgins vowed to the moon god Leniqua, whose temple had stood from immemorial time in the suburbs of Uzuldaroum, capital of Hyperborea. The virgins were always thirty-nine in number. They were chosen for their youth and beauty, and retired from service to the god at the age of thirty-one.
The girdles were padlocked with the toughest bronze and their keys retained by the high-priest who, on certain nights, rented them at a high price to the richer gallants of the city. It will thus be seen that the virginity of the priestesses was nominal; but its frequent and repeated sale was regarded as a meritorious act of sacrifice to the god.
Again, this is good stuff, filled with the kind of mordant exoticism that one expects from Smith. It's a good set-up for what any regular reader of the man would expect to be a whimsical fantasy filled with black humor.

That's not what we get, though. Instead, "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" reads almost like mundane crime fiction, albeit set in an unusual locale. The writing often crackles with wit, yes, but gone are the wry insights into the human condition. Gone, too, are instances of magic, monsters, or fantasy of any kind. It feels almost as if Smith's heart wasn't in it anymore -- or, perhaps, he'd forgotten what it was that made the original Hyperborean stories so enjoyable.

I can't blame him for that, since the Hyperborean stories had a troubled publishing history, rejected again and again and rarely cited by fans as being their favorites of Smith's work. It's possible that, years later, when he returned to the setting he decided to "fix" the problems of his earlier work by penning a more "grounded" tale, lacking in the weirdness and whimsy of his previous efforts. Such a pity.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Heroes of the Dark Ages Now Available

Some of you may remember a British RPG, published in 1979, called simply Heroes and written by David Millward. The game has been described thusly:
Before Warhammer, Dragon Warriors and Maelstrom, there was the ironically-titled Heroes, written by Dave Millward (with 18 months playtesting), with art by John Blanche (artist responsible for the UK Holmes D&D cover).

A roleplaying game set in the Dark Ages, 80 pages cover character creation and background, professions, equipment, combat, social interaction and advancement, scenario creation, religion, gambling, crime and punishment, political wrangling, land holdings, piracy, naval campaigns, commerce, raiding, medicine and healing. There is also a European-style setting, the Ouesterlands, included.

Mostly it's carousing (or else you lose experience points), whoring (ditto) and fighting. Rabid dogs, floods and blizzards , venereal disease and mutilation. No fantasy, no magic, just blood 'n' snot brawling with percentile dice.
Mr Millward has just released a new edition of the game, now entitled Heroes of the Dark Ages, which is available for sale as a 120-page book with a version of the game's original map. This is great news for anyone interested in early roleplaying games, especially those produced outside of North America. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Retrospective: Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

When Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (by Rick Priestley) was released in the Fall of 1987, I took no notice of it. Partly, this was because I was never much of a wargamer, miniatures or otherwise and partly it was because, at the time, Warhammer in any of its forms just wasn't on my radar. There's also the fact that I was just starting college that Fall and had begun to pay increasingly less attention to the hobby outside of my waning interest in both AD&D and Traveller. So, this important 288-page book appeared and it'd be several years before I'd even realized it.

I call it an "important" book because I think Rogue Trader, as the inaugural volume of the larger Warhammer 40,000 game line, kicked off something that's had a lasting impact on the hobby. For one, Warhammer 40,000 is, like Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire, one of those properties that has some currency outside of the geek echo chamber. Not only are their 40K video games, but a great many malls across North America have Games Workshop stores filled with painted miniatures and terrain on display. On most weekends, there are demos being run and I've seen with my own two eyes how attractive the game is to kids of a certain age, who flock to the store to watch it being played. In some respects, it reminds me of how I used to view the hobby when I was younger, when going to a hobby shop meant, among other things, watching the older guys play and wishing that I could be part of their adventures.

But, as I said, I didn't notice Rogue Trader in 1987; it'd be quite a few years before I started to do so, by which point it had already become a genuine "phenomenon." It'd be several more years still before I had the chance to look at a copy of the book that started it all and, I have to admit, I can completely understand why it became so popular. Though, at base, it's little more than a skirmish-level science fantasy miniatures game, a great deal of attention was devoted to its far future setting. Indeed, more than half of the book is devoted to detailing what it calls "The Age of the Imperium," when humanity, under the rule of its God Emperor, contends with a variety of alien races for control of the galaxy. These alien races draw from both fantasy and science fiction ideas, which I think is part of their appeal. They are familiar enough to be convenient points of entry into a strange and dark vision of the future.

Even today, darkness -- or "grim darkness," I suppose -- is what 40K is known for and I think there's a good reason for that. Rogue Trader posits a future in which "there is only war" and even the ostensible "good guys" of the setting, the Imperium, are nasty and brutal. In many ways, it's a nigh-perfect example of what we, on this side of the Atlantic, saw as "British Fantasy." At the same time, Rogue Trader doesn't revel in its darkness. Rather, it presents it matter of factly, in a kind of resigned "that's just the way it is" fashion that is strangely compelling. Furthermore, it's also written with humor (albeit of a black sort at times) so that its darkness, while present, isn't oppressive. In fact, there are even glimmers of hope here and there, peeking through the gloom.

Among those glimmers are the eponymous rogue traders -- "vociferous Space Marine leaders, influential Navigators, liberal-minded Inquisitors and rebellion Imperial Commanders" -- who've been tasked by the Imperium to explore the unknown reaches of the galaxy in a quest for knowledge, resources, and materiel for use in the Imperium's wars. The game assumes that its battle scenarios take places against this backdrop. It's very clever, I think, since it provides a good excuse to keep battles small and ever-changing, as the rogue traders, with their limited resources, go from world to world on their quest.

What's fascinating about Rogue Trader is how much like a roleplaying game it seems. Unlike many wargames, there's an explicit referee (or gamesmaster), who adjudicates the rules in play. Likewise, because the scale is so small, the book can concentrate on little details, such as the various types of armor, weapons, psychic powers, etc. that might be less useful in games involving more miniatures per side. Likewise, the game includes rules for "personalities," named units representing heroes and commanders with unique abilities that can improve over time. Considering that roleplaying grew out of miniatures wargaming, it's no surprise that latter day miniatures wargames might borrow elements from RPGs. Even so, it's hard for me not to look at Rogue Trader and wonder why it wasn't released as a roleplaying game -- except perhaps that, even in 1987, there was probably more money to be made in miniatures wargaming.

Given how expensive it is to get into Warhammer 40,000, I can't say I'm sorry I never paid much attention to its original appearance, but I nevertheless can't deny that I've always found the setting of the game pretty intriguing, especially once I got the chance to see it in its ur-form, before it had decades of development and changes. It's definitely one of the great creations of the wider hobby.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #15

Issue #15 of Ares magazine appeared in the Fall of 1983. It's the first issue to sport a wholly new interior, one that's a lot "sleeker" than what we'd seen before. If, like me, you were a reader of "the Ares section" in Dragon, the layout should look familiar, since it survived, with some modifications the demise of Ares as an independent periodical. The new interior also looks more "user friendly" than that of the older issues, which didn't look all that different than the interiors of SPI's wargames. Issue #15 sports a cover by Jeff Easley that I actually like a great deal, though how it squares with the magazine's supposedly stronger emphasis (under TSR) on "science fiction gaming." It's even odder when one considers that this issue's editorial reiterates the division between the content of Dragon and Ares, with the former getting fantasy and the latter SF.

The issue kicks off with a new feature called "Matters of Fact" by Frank Kendig. It focuses on real world science and includes sidebars on utilizing this information in gaming. "Matters of Fact" would seem to be a successor to John Boardman's "Science for Science Fiction" columns. Its less pessimistic and elitist tone is welcome, as are the sidebars, such as David Cook's treatment of Von Neumann machines in Star Frontiers. Christopher John continues to do film reviews, including a very negative one of Return of the Jedi, which he calls the "cheap and tarnished crown for the [Star Wars] series." Meanwhile, Steve List reviews games, such as Starfleet Battles and Striker, and Greg Costikyan's book review column survives yet another issue.

Issue #15 features two lengthy bits of fiction, though both game-related. The first is "Visitation" by David J. Schow, which is a tie-in to this month's integral game, Nightmare House. Nightmare House, by David Marshall, bills itself as "a Gothic Horror Boardgame." It's a two to five player game set in Darkholm House, a haunted house built in the 19th century. One of the players takes the role of the evil entity that controls the House, while the other players are ghost hunters who've entered the house to banish that entity forever. There are twelve different ghost hunters from which to choose, each with their own special abilities. The game takes place on both the material and astral planes and what happens on one plane can affect the other, which add some complexity to play. The House player can throw "haunts" at the ghost hunters, in addition to trying to take possession of their bodies. Haunts are things like cold spots, animated skeletons, mysterious mists, poltergeists, and so on. Nightmare House actually looks like a fun game; I'm very tempted to try and play it.

David J. Schow follows up Nightmare House with a "real world" piece on haunted houses and ghost hunters entitled "Haunted Places." It's an interesting article, but it mixes fact, speculation, and opinion together rather than merely talking about its subject matter dispassionately. The issue's second fiction piece is "Into the Void" by Carl Smith. Set in Star Frontiers game universe, it accompanies a mini-module by the same name. The adventure details a Sathar attack on a freighter carrying a valuable cargo. What's interesting to me is how extensively the module details the environment of the freighter and the tactics of the Sathar -- almost as if it were a wargame scenario. Concluding the issue is a one-page science fiction comic by Roger Raupp called "Ringshipper," which is clearly intended to be the start of an ongoing series.

All things considered, I rather liked issue #15, but that's probably because it reminded me so much of the Ares section from Dragon in terms of its content and presentation. One of my biggest problems with Ares is that it never quite seemed to know what it wanted to be and often evinced an antagonistic attitude toward gameable science fiction and science fictional ideas. That attitude largely disappeared when TSR took over the editorial reins and, while I can understand why some might find the new stronger focus on SF gaming restrictive, I welcomed it and found myself looking forward to more. Sadly, there will be only one more issue of Ares before it is folded into Dragon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Skulls in the Stars

First published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales, "Skulls in the Stars" is the second story of Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard. Though short (just shy of 4000 words), it's a surprisingly effective story that not only nicely reveals the world of Solomon Kane but also his character. Indeed, one of the reasons I like the story so much is that it delves into the man's psychology and morality. Far from being a relentlessly grim avenger, Kane is often plagued by remorse and self-doubt, making stories like this one an important corrective to the caricature of him that many people seem to have.

The story begins by noting that
There are two roads to Torkertown. One, the shorter and more direct route, leads across a barren upland moor, and the other, which is much longer, winds its tortuous way in and out among the hummocks and quagmires of the swamps, skirting the low hills to the east.
Of the two, the swamp road would appear to be the more dangerous; it is also longer and less direct. However, as Kane soon learns, the folk living in the area do not recommend going by means of the moor, since, according to them,
the moor road is a way accurst and hath not been traversed by any of the countryside for a year or more. It is death to walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his victims.
Naturally, hearing this engages Kane's interest in an unexpected way, giving us some insight into the mind of the man.
Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:
"These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time."
Kane then sets off down the moor road and, before long, he senses that there is something evil afoot. He feels himself being watched in the darkness. Soon, he hears "a whisper of frightened laughter" and, eventually, screams from up ahead. Kane believes that someone is being attacked and he runs forward to rescue them. Unfortunately, he arrives too late.
Kane shouted, striving to increase the speed of his advance. The shrieks of the unknown broke into a hideous shrill squealing; again there was the sound of a struggle, and then from the shadows of the tall grass a thing came reeling--a thing that had once been a man--a gore-covered, frightful thing that fell at Kane's feet and writhed and grovelled and raised its terrible face to the rising moon, and gibbered and yammered, and fell down again and died in its own blood.
The moon was up now and the light was better. Kane bent above the body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered, a rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch-finders.
Not long after examining the mutilated body of the fellow wayfarer, a "misty and vague" creature comes out of the grass and attacks Kane. Relying on all his willpower and might, Kane fends off the creature but not without great injury to himself. Yet, in contending with this "serpent of smoke,
he began to understand its gibbering. He did not hear and comprehend as a man hears and comprehends the speech of a man, but the frightful secrets it imparted in whisperings and yammerings and screaming silences sank fingers of ice into his soul, and he knew.
Armed with this strange knowledge, Kane sets back down the road he came and toward the conclusion of this tale.

"Skulls in the Stars" derives much of its horror from psychology rather than from conventional frights. The beast with which Kane wrestles on the moor road is never described in clear terms; it's a wraith that the Puritan only dimly sees in the darkness. But, throughout, we're treated to Kane's thought processes, learning his motivations -- even when he himself is unaware of them. That, combined with what Kane does with the secrets he learns in the monster's gibbering, is the true heart of this story and the reason why it's worth reading. I make no claim that it's a particularly deep piece of fiction, but it sheds light on Solomon Kane as a character that I think is important for anyone who wants to understand him and enjoy Howard's recounting of his exploits.