Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Solo Wargaming

As a latecomer to the hobby of wargaming – board wargaming, at least for the present – I am rapidly finding that my reach is exceeding my grasp. I am fortunate to have friends with whom I can play wargames on a regular basis via VASSAL, but I'd like to be able to play more often. Partly, this is a case of my simply wanting to play catch-up on decades of games I've not yet played and partly my desire to experience different design approaches to strategic and tactical events

It's my latest obsession and I've observed, in the course of having played Falling Sky and Liberty or Death!, that there's a lot in these and other wargames that can serve as inspiration for RPGs. That only makes sense, of course, given that roleplaying games arose out of wargaming (primarily miniatures, it's true). Despite the decades of formal separation between these two types of games, I'd like to think that there are still lessons they can learn from each other, which is why I'm making a strong effort to educate myself after years of neglect.

For example, I've learned is that there's a long tradition of solo wargaming. in both the miniatures and board wargaming fields. Despite the cover I've used to accompany this post, my present knowledge of the topic, such as it is, comes largely from the world of board wargaming, though I do hope to change that. From what I have learned, there are, broadly speaking, two types of solo wargaming. The first is when you a single player chooses to play a game by himself. The second is when a game is designed to be played by a single player. 

I had a brush with the second type long ago, in the early 1990s, when GDW published Phase Line Smash, a solitaire game of the Gulf War. At the time, my friends and I joked that the real Gulf War was itself a one-player conflict, given how comparatively ineffectual the Iraqi forces were, so the design of the game made sense. What I didn't know at the time was that this was no innovation of Phase Line Smash but rather a not uncommon design choice in wargames design. More recently, I learned that many of the COIN games include "bots," programmed choices for each faction that allow it to participate in a game with fewer than the recommended number of players. I'd never heard of such a thing before and must confess to being amazed by the existence of such an option.

The first type, in which a single player takes on all the sides in a wargame intrigues me. On the one hand, it strikes me as if it'd be very difficult to do this effectively, since, in my own experience anyway, one quickly comes to identify with one's side and do whatever one can to ensure its victory. Would I be able to play each side equally effectively? On the other hand, one of the points of wargaming of any kind is to come to a better understanding of the conflict being simulated. "Cheating" by playing one side better than another defeats that purpose. More to the point, what's the fun in stacking the deck? One of the things I've most enjoyed about the wargames I've been playing is the way that I can be surprised by the interplay of events. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that that's a big part of why I enjoy roleplaying games too. The emergent "story," for lack of a better word, that comes from the protean interactions of choice and randomness is intoxicating to me. I also very much enjoy looking back on those interactions after the fact and pondering what might have ben if things had gone differently.

For that reason, I'm starting to consider seriously picking up a board wargame or two and playing it solo. I'm not yet sure which games I might choose and have been asking for advice from anyone who might be willing to offer it. Most people I've asked have said that it's more important to find a game whose subject matter interests me than to worry about other factors, though game mechanics do, of course, matter. I've taken this to heart and begun to consider my options. In doing so, I realize that I'm not all that interested in ancient or medieval warfare. Instead, the wars of the early modern era, such as the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War, and the Seven Years' War hold much more appeal for me. I'm investigating in print wargames that cover these conflicts and trying to settle on one or two that I could devote myself to in the weeks to come. If anyone has any suggestions on this score, I'd love to hear them.

The ultimate goal in this exercise is to come sufficiently comfortable with playing a solitaire wargame that I might be able to develop something wargame-y that could aid me in simulating large scale events in my various ongoing  campaigns. I'm particularly keen to figure out something that might work with my House of Worms Tékumel campaign. There are a number of high-level events brewing in the background, such as the start of the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór, that I'd like to adjudicate in an "objective" and genuinely unpredictable fashion. I don't want things to turn out according to my own designs but according to the inexplicable designs of Fate. If this sounds like I'm beating a dead horse, you have my apologies. Like a dog with a bone, I can't let go of this idea, which has seized my imagination in a powerful way. Solo wargaming is yet another avenue by which I'm grappling with it. 

Imagine Magazine: Issue #20

Alan Craddock provides the cover to issue #20 of Imagine (November 1984), which is dedicated, as its cover proclaims, to "Clerics in the Dungeons & Dragons game." Themed issues like this are always a risk, since, if you're not interested in the theme, it tends to damper your enthusiasm for reading the issue. Fortunately for me, this issue's theme piqued my interest greatly, since clerics might well be my favorite class in D&D. I've always felt that clerics weren't given the love and attention they deserve, being reduced to armored medics respected only for their ability to heal and nothing else. Needless to say, I was curious to see what the writers of Imagine had to say on the subject.

Things kick off with Paul Vernon's "Clerics are People Too." The article rightly notes that, whereas fighters, magic-users, and thieves all have clear literary inspirations, the cleric does not. While I can certainly come up with examples to counter Vernon's specific claim, his larger point remains, namely, that D&D clerics lack fantasy role models and that this contributes to their being played badly and banally. What Vernon suggests is developing fantasy religions better so that players of clerics understand what their character should believe and its impact on their behavior. Nowadays, it's an obvious point – though how often it's actually employed is an open question – but, in 1984, I think it was fairly unusual.

Lewis Pulsipher offers "Alignment, Personality & Philosophy-Religion," an extensive examination of all these factors with regards to playing a cleric. Pulsipher is particularly interested in the subject of alignment, which, as we all know, remains a contentious one even today. He argues for making alignment more important, even to the point of suggesting, for example, that Lawful clerics not roll for their hit points but instead get the average amount per level, while Chaotic ones roll as normal. It's an intriguing notion, though not one I expect to catch on, even if it does succeed bringing alignment front and center rather than leaving it a philosophical abstraction at best.

"As God is My Witness" by Graeme Davis examines the judicium Dei, the various types of trials used during the Middle Ages to determine guilt or innocence. This is a purely historical article but a worthwhile one, full of ideas for use in a campaign. "The Necklace of Lilith" by Phil Gallagher is an AD&D adventure intended for a party consisting only of clerics, which is certainly a novel idea. The scenario concerns the recovery a divine item, the titular Necklace of Lilith, long believed lost. Accompanying the article is another, "New Clerical Spells," which is a reprint of an article from Dragon #58 (February 1982) by Gary Gygax and Len Lakofka. The adventure makes some use of these spells and is, in fact, intended as a means of introducing them into an existing campaign.

"New Flail Types" by Graeme Davis does exactly what its title suggests, providing more weapons for use by clerics (along with stats for these weapons in other game systems, like DragonQuest, Traveller, and Bushido). Carl Sargent's "Looking for an Edge" examines the ban on the use of edged weapons by clerics and argues, as others have done, that the ban should not apply to clerics of every god. In the traditional polytheistic set-up of Dungeons & Dragons, I am sympathetic to this perspective, though I also think the prohibition exists for reasons beyond a hamfisted attempted to introduce a Christian worldview into the game.

This issue's reviews include Grenadier's Disappearance on Aramat, which the reviewer, Stephen Nutt, liked even less than I did. There are also a number of reviews of adventures for Star Frontiers, Space Opera, and The Morrow Project, continuing Imagine's commitment to greater coverage of science fiction RPGs. There's also a very positive review of the revised, boxed version of The World of Greyhawk, for which I have many fond memories. "Chain Mail" discusses the postal version of En Garde!, while Colin Greenland gives a strangely positive review of Conan the Destroyer, a movie most people intensely dislike. Conversely, he gives a negative review to the animated Fire and Ice, which, while no masterpiece, I recall being more enjoyable than Schwarzenegger's second outing as the Cimmerian. 

The comics "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Phalanx" continue in this issue. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" continues the discussion of alignment begun in the previous issue. He rightly points out that Law does not equal Good and Chaos does not equal Evil and riffs off of these matters to good effect. Richard W. Lee's short fiction, "Prince of Thieves," is fine for what it is but nothing special. Much more compelling is the Pellinore installment, "Pablo Fanquay's Fair," which details a group of traveling performers, along with ideas for using them in a game. The Cock o' th' Walk tavern gets a similar treatment, including a map by Paul Ruiz. There are also rules for making a living by street performance – including by breakdancing. Yes, you read that right. Forgive them: it was 1984.

This is another fine issue of Imagine, with much to recommend it. I am particularly fond of the Pellinore setting articles. They evince a terrific combination of creativity, utility, and humor that sets them apart from most other TSR offerings at the time. Seeing as many of those who worked on Pellinore would eventually contribute to Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, this should come as no surprise. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Saints Alive

Without thinking, most of us assume that any given fantasy setting is going to be a polytheistic one, modeled after a crude understanding of the religions of the ancient world. Yet, perhaps the most famous of all literary fantasy settings, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, is monotheistic, though not explicitly so, at least in The Lord of the Rings itself. Middle-earth is not unique in this regard, but it is unusual, particularly when compared to most fantasy RPG settings. I find that interesting, given early D&D's use of many Jewish and Christian concepts, at least some of which would filter into the wider world of roleplaying, due to D&D's preeminent position.  

Back when I was creating what would eventually become my Telluria setting, I toyed with the idea of making it explicitly monotheistic, but, in the end, went with "secret monotheism" instead. On this model, there are "gods" who are worshipped and around whom religions have grown up, but they are not truly divine. The only true Deity of the setting, know variously as Law, Father God, and the Great Maker, among many sobriquets, is no longer widely known in the main campaign area. Though I like this set-up and have used it to good effect, I find myself wishing I'd gone with my initial idea and dispensed with all the lesser, false gods, if for no other reason than it'd be different.

So, in working on Urheim, I'm playing with this idea a little more obviously. How – or if – this meshes with what I've done before is still an open question. For the moment, I'm developing Urheim as a kind of "parallel" universe in which many of the same elements exist as in the rest of Telluria but that there are also idiosyncrasies unique to it. If nothing else, this gives me a freer hand to create; I don't feel bound by anything I've come up with before and can pick and choose those elements I think fit the overall feel.

In keeping with this approach, I've been mentioning various saints in my Urheim posts, starting with St. Gaxyg the Gray. Being a fan of homages and anagrams, I decided that many, if not most, of the saints would be coded references to noteworthy individuals from the history of the hobby. Thus, Gaxyg the Gray is (obviously) an anagram of Gary Gygax. In a similarly obviously fashion, St. Evad filzArn refers to Dave Arneson. I've also mentioned St. Carmichael, which is a double reference, both to Mike Carr, player of the very first cleric in roleplaying, as well as to Dohram, Servant of Saint Carmichael, a pre-egenerated character from In Search of the Unknown (penned, not coincidentally, by Carr). There's also a mention of St. Richomer the Tailor, whose identity I leave to the astute to undertangle in the comments. (That's in addition to two others, I've not yet mentioned anywhere: St. Iacomus the Warden and St. Andreas the Taker of Fiends)

I've found this exercise of making (I hope) clever homages to the worthies of the gaming pantheon a lot of fun. I'd like to encourage others to take it up too, offering any idea they have in the comments. Should I like any of them enough to make use of them in Urheim, I'll gladly credit your creation and send you a copy of the 'zine or other publication where it appears. 

REVIEW: Ordure Fantasy

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the play/design/esthetic movement that has come to be known as the Old School Renaissance has had several notable successes, among them a greater appreciation of mechanical simplicity. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that a driving force behind the creation and promotion of retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials is the recognition that simple, even open-ended, rules are very well suited to the activity of shared fantasy on which the hobby is built. Remember that the hobby's foundational work, Dungeons & Dragons, ended the third volume of its 1974 edition with the sage words to "decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" Improvisation and extrapolation from a loose rules framework has been at the heart of the hobby from the very beginning and the OSR has championed such an approach as worthy of consideration (and, occasionally, as superior to others).

It's with that in mind that I approached Michael Raston's Ordure Fantasy, "a simple d6 roleplaying game." Available only as a 19-page PDF, Ordure Fantasy, as its name suggests, doesn't take itself too seriously, but that doesn't mean its a joke. Rather, its title is a humorous allusion to an earlier simple RPG on which it is partially based. Both games employ six-sided dice for all necessary rolls, usually only one. The goal is to tie or roll under a value rated from 1 to 6. For easy tests, the player rolls 2d6 and takes the lowest result; for hard tests, he rolls 2d6 and takes the highest. It's very simple and easy to remember mechanic and everything in the game uses it. The only other "rule" is the Ordure Test. Whenever the referee isn't sure what might happen – such as whether wandering monsters appear or if a hidden trap is sprung – he rolls 1d6 and, on a roll of 6, "ordure happens." The purpose of this mechanic, according to Raston, is "to ensure the PCs feel constantly endangered and that the world is trying to kill them." There's a delightfully spartan forthrightness to the entire game, which delighted me, but may not be to everyone's taste. 

Player characters have three attributes: Body, Mind, and Luck, all rated from 1 to 4 (or 5, in the case of bonuses from magic items). There are also four classes: Mercenary, Conjurer, Scoundrel, and Curate, each of which broadly corresponds to the classes of Basic D&D conceptually. Classes provide four skills (of which only three may be chosen to start), plus a boon, which is a special ability. For example, a mercenary's boon is the ability to choose one target per turn and, if the attack against that target is successful, the target is instantly slain. On the other hand, the curate's boon is augur, which allows him to ask the referee one question which must be answered truthfully. Characters advance in levels (to a maximum of 6, as you might expect) whenever they survive "something interesting, dangerous, exciting or entertaining," which results in one attribute or skill increasing by 1. At level 3, a character can choose his fourth class skill if so desired. 

Combat consists of a series of tests, with NPC enemies (including monsters) being handled slightly differently. The first test uses a combat skill to determine if an attack is successful. A PC struck in combat gets to defend, using either Body or Mind, as appropriate (with armor providing bonuses to Body tests). If the defense roll is also a failure, they get one more test, against Health. If this too is a failure, the character loses one Health. At 0 Health, the character is dead. NPCs have only a single attribute, Health, which doubles as their other combat skill. If Health is above 5, NPCs automatically hit, dealing 1 damage per hit. They never defend and always take 1 damage per hit by a PC (since all attacks deal 1 damage, unless increased by some other means). Since all player characters have 5 Health, I expect that combat is fairly deadly, particularly against NPCs with Health scores above 5.

As presented in the rules, magic takes the form of magic items, which typically improve attributes or skills, and the class abilities of the curate and conjurer. The curate, as a cleric analog, possesses healing magic. The conjurer, meanwhile, can summon emotions, elements, and beings. These magical summonings are only loosely described, with few mechanical features, meaning that their effects are open to negotiation between the player and the referee. If I were to find fault with Ordure Fantasy, it's here, since I imagine that a little more explicit guidance on how to handle these abilities would be appreciated by many readers, including those already comfortable with improvisational play. 

The bulk of the book consists of six examples of various useful "components" for a game, whether they be monstrous adversaries, equipment, or even haggling with merchants. Raston's overall approach consists of embracing randomness as a springboard for creativity. He makes that very clear at the start of the book, when he lists among the requirements for play "a willingness to play and see what happens." To my mind, that's a refreshing perspective and one that I see as key to the continued appeal of what has come to be called, rightly or wrongly, the old school style of play. If that style appeals to you, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Ordure Fantasy. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Horror on the Links

I find it hard to believe that, after more than two hundred posts in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I've only ever written a single post about the writings of Seabury Quinn. What makes it so unbelievable is that Quinn was a prolific writer, penning more than 500 pieces of fiction during his 80 years of life, most of which were published in the pages of Weird Tales – including the story I'll be discussing in this post.  

Quinn himself was quite an unusual individual. To the extent that anyone remembers him at all today, it's as a pulp writer, which might have surprised him, since he considered fiction writing to be a sideline to his "real" professions of journalism and law. His legal specialty was, believe it or not, mortuary law. Consequently, he knew a great deal about funerals, funeral homes, embalming, and related subjects that he put to good use in his fiction. He also served as the editor (and occasional writer) of several funerary magazines. 

Quinn created several long-running series of stories, the most successful of which were the tales of French occult detective Jules de Grandin (Grandin being Quinn's middle name). His first appearance was in the October 1925 issue of Weird Tales in a story entitled "The Horror on the Links." The story begins with Dr Trowbridge being awakened in the night by a phone call from Mrs Maitland, informing him that "something dreadful" has happened to her son, Paul, after he returned from a dance at at the country club with Gladys Phillips. 

Physicians' sleep is like a park–public property. With a sigh, I climbed out of bed and into my clothes, teased my superannuated motor to life and set out for the Maitland house.

Young Maitland lay on his bed, eyes closed, teeth clenched, his face set in an expression of unutterable dread, even in his unconsciousness. Across his shoulders and on the back of his arms, I found several long incised wounds, as though the flesh had been raked by a sharp pronged instrument.

Paul Maitland briefly awakens under Trowbridge's care, crying out, "The ape-thing–the ape-thing! It's got me! Open the door; for God's sake, open the door!" Trowbridge uses a sedative to calm Paul and then returns home to catch up on his own sleep. 

The next morning, he awakens to "the front page of the paper lying beside my breakfast grapefruit," announcing "Body of Young Woman Found Near Sedgemore Country Club Mystifies Police." Reading the story, Trowbridge learns that the mutilated body of Sarah Humphreys, a waitress at the country club, was discovered lying in one of the bunkers of the club's golf course. Since Paul Maitland had also been at the same club, Trowbridge immediately assumes a connection between the murder and what happened to the young man.

The doctor's housekeeper, Nora McGinnis, interrupts his reading of the paper to announce that Sergeant Costello and "a Frinchman, or Eyetalian, or sumpin" were both waiting for him downstairs "ter ax ye questions about th' murther of th' pore little Humphreys gurl." Alarmed that he might be considered a suspect, he rushes to meet them. Costello quickly reassures him that this is not the case, only that he wishes to ask him some additional questions about Paul Maitland – and to introduce him to Professor Jules de Grandin of the Paris police. 

De Grandin introduces himself, explaining that, while he does work with the Paris police, his "principal work is at the University of Paris and St. Lazaire Hospital; at present [he] combine[s] the vocation of savant with the avocation of criminologist." Trowbridge admits that he knows De Grandin by reputation and this pleases the Frenchman, who explains his interest in Paul Maitland. Together, they go to the recovering young man and ask him about what he experienced the previous night.

Maitland tells them that he had come across a woman's body, lying across the path. He started toward it and was surprised by a rustling in the trees overhead, as something dropped right down in front of him. He had no idea what the thing was but was sure it was not human, being shorter in height than himself but twice as wide. He carried a .22 automatic in his pocket and repeatedly pointed the weapon at the thing, threatening to shoot if it did not identify itself. The creature was unimpressed and leapt at him, grabbing the gun from his hand and snapping it in half before grabbing him and rending his flesh. Maitland had no idea what the creature was but repeated that "it was hairy as an ape." It's at this point that the true investigation begins, with Trowbridge and De Grandin working side by side for the first time.

"The Horror on the Links" is by no means a story for the ages, even by the standards of pulp literature. It's full of clichéd characters and situations and the ultimate resolution of the story's central mystery is disappointing, to put it mildly. Yet, for all that, there's still something fun about it. Perhaps it's the melodramatic verve with which Quinn presents it all, especially when it comes to De Grandin and Trowbridge and their Holmes and Watson dynamic by way of Thomas Carnacki and Hercule Poirot. There's a strange charm to whole mess of this tale that, for me anyway, almost overcomes its narrative deficiencies. I suppose, too, that I'm simply so fond of the occult detective genre that I'm willing to overlook the flaws of "The Horror in the Links." Even so, no one should read this post and think I am unaware of the story's many issues. Instead, the takeaway should be that there are many metrics by which one can judge the quality of a story – particularly a pulp one – and simple enjoyment is one of them. I enjoyed "The Horror on the Links" and maybe that's enough.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Adventure Planning à la Mentzer


I've been re-reading Frank Mentzer's 1984 D&D Companion Set, for which I have warm feelings, despite its flaws. While I was doing this primarily to refresh my memory of the rules for dominions and mass combat, in doing so I've come across some very fascinating little bits I hadn't remembered. For example, there's the section reproduced above offering advice on "adventure planning." The interesting bits, in my opinion, occur in the section titled "Rates of Progress."

In that section, Mentzer states that name level characters

should gain a new level of experience for every 3 to 8 successful adventures. More adventures can cause player frustration; fewer adventure can make the game too easy and eventually bore them.

So much to ponder in just a couple of sentences. First, there's the idea that level advancement should occur at a predictable rate. Does this idea exist in any other version of TSR era Dungeons & Dragons? Second, there's the idea that "player frustration" is both tied to a slow rate of advancement – "slow" being defined as more than nine adventures between levels – and to be avoided. To me, that's a strangely reductionist understanding of why people enjoy RPGs. Now, I understand that Mentzer's version of D&D goes all the way to Level 36, so there's probably an expectation of at least some people who play it that their characters might eventually reach that level, which will take time. Does that therefore mean they expect level advancement according to a schedule? I wouldn't think so, but then I share M.A.R. Barker's assertion that a roleplaying campaign is not a casual parlor pastime

Take a look, too, at the Adventure Planning Table. The leftmost column is for the number of characters in a campaign, which numbers from 1 to 10. Remember the Companion Rules came out in 1984, just a decade after the publication of OD&D. In my post the other day about large groups, the question of when the shift toward smaller groups became more common was posed. Looking at the chart, it would seem that, whether or not small groups were common by this point, they were at least envisaged as a possibility. A commenter suggested that the shift might have been the result of the game's being marketed more toward children than adults, which I think is plausible. Mind you, I've criticized BECMI as "kiddie D&D," so I might be more inclined toward this interpretation of events than is warranted. Regardless, this whole section is fascinating to me.

An Attack of Gout

I mentioned previously that I have begun playing the historical simulation, Here I Stand, with some friends. (I say "historical simulation" rather than simply wargame, because, in this case, the game models more than military conflict.) Its design is complex, not so much because of difficulty, but because it has a lot of moving parts. Learning each part takes time, as does learning how they all relate to one another, never mind how to make use of them effectively. So, it's been slow going initially, as one might reasonably imagine. 

Last night, though, progress was made and I began to feel as I were getting a handle on it. The game is card-driven, like many contemporary wargame designs, The cards, like the one depicted above, can be used in two ways, either for the event described on it or for its value in command points (CPs). CPs are used to pay for actions, like "raise regular troop," "explore," or "burn books." Naturally, the best events tend to have concomitantly high CP values, meaning that players are forced to decide between whether to play the card for its event or cash it in for CP to power other actions. It's an engaging approach and I found it gave me a lot to think about as I played.

The Ottomans had amassed a fairly large army under Suleiman and had marched to within striking distance of Vienna. That's when the card above came into play. Because it's labeled "response," I, as the Habsburg player, was able to make use as a kind of "interrupt" on the Ottoman player, as he prepared to launch his attack against my capital. Now afflicted with gout, Suleiman could not advance with his troops, which made the attack against Vienna dodgier. Coupled with another response event employed by the player of England (which caused unrest in two Turkish-held cities) and the Ottoman threat was neutralized for the time being. 

I can't begin to express how delightful I found this. This is exactly the kind of unexpected turn of events that happens in real world history; it's also what I strive for when it comes to the history of a campaign setting. I'm keen to find a way to mechanize unpredictability into macro-level campaign events, which is why this card and its effects on the game so charmed me. I firmly believe that a key element to the longevity and success of a campaign is that one remembers the referee is as much of a player as anyone else. As such, he should be surprised from time to time. To do that, there needs to be some method, some system to take certain decisions out of his hands. I'm still not entirely sure what form this will take, but it's a matter about which I've been thinking a lot lately. That's why I'm tinkering with a series of nested tables to generate campaign events, taking inspiration from multiple sources, including wargames like Here I Stand. As I get further into this project, I'll share some of the results here.

Also: in the same game, I dispatched Johann Eck to Leipzig to debate Martin Luther and succeeded in besting him, news of which struck a blow against heresy in Strasbourg, returning it to the bosom of Mother Church. Theological debates are one of the many sub-systems of the game and are quite fun in their own right. They also introduce another level of unpredictability into the flow of the game and served to inspire me further. I have a feeling this game is going to give me quite a few ideas and I'm looking forward to watching the alternate history of 16th century Europe unfold with my friends.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Urheim: The Lower Temple

Map by FrDave
Today I present one of the largest sections of the surface ruins of Urheim: the Lower Temple. During the days before the fall of the monastery, the Lower Temple was dedicated to St. Evad filzArn and Companions and sits atop the Lower Catacombs. Unlike the Upper Temple, the Lower Temple suffered significant damage during the Simonist Wars, as the map indicates. Presently, the Lower Temple is being used as a bivouac by a troop of the Company of the Quarrel commanded by Lieutenant Anskar. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We Need Large Groups

Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:2- or thereabouts.

Men & Magic, Volume 1 of Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

Players: The more the merrier!

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) 

Any number of people can participate in a campaign or scenario, although generally 40 players should be treated as a maximum. Optimum game size (based on the ability of the referee to control and interact effectively) is from three to ten persons.

Characters and Combat, Book 1 of Traveller (1977) 

When I first took up the hobby of roleplaying, my neighborhood circle of friends consisted of seven people, a number that often increased, such as when one friend's cousin from Minnesota spent the summer with him or when we met up more distant school acquaintances to do something together. Consequently, my earliest experiences of playing RPGs, especially Dungeons & Dragons, include being surrounded by a sizable number of people. I've talked before about the local gaming meet-ups and the the number of participants at most of the games there. Those games were raucous, lively affairs – even anarchic by many measures – but I enjoyed them a lot, which is why I regularly reflect on them on this blog. 

I found myself thinking about this recently, because, due to a concatenation of events, my House of Worms campaign hasn't met for the last couple of weeks. That's highly unusual. There are eight players in the campaign and it's rare that more than a couple of them are unavailable on a given week. That's one of the joys of a large group: there are always enough people to play.  That means more than one might think, since it's only through regular, continuous play that a campaign can be built up and survive for years. And, as a commenter on another post rightly said, long campaigns are "indeed the acme of the hobby." Anything else is, in my opinion, a mere shadow of what the hobby is capable of.

In the past, I used to make all sorts of excuses as to why my groups consisted of only three or four people and some of them might even have been valid explanations rather than facile rationalizations. I can't do that any longer, as it's become increasingly clear that I'd been missing out on the chaotic creative energies that can only be unleashed by a larger group of players. I've had fun with small groups certainly and I'd even argue that, in some contexts – an espionage campaign à la Top Secret, for instance – they make more sense than large ones, but, as a general rule, I think large groups are vital to the success of a RPG campaign. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that RPGs were created with large groups in mind.

At some point, though, a shift happened and smaller groups became the norm. I'm not quite sure when it happened or why. A quick survey of games from the early '80s, during the height of RPGs' first instance of faddish popularity, reveals that the subject of the size of a gaming group is rarely addressed at all. When it is, such as in, for example, in Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules, there's a certain hedging of bets:

At least two persons are needed to play this game, though the game is most enjoyable when played by a group of four to eight people.

It's a far cry from OD&D's four to fifty players but still skewing toward a size that is large by the standards of later eras, when smaller groups seems to have become more common – at least that was my experience during the later '80s and into the 1990s. 

The other thing I have observed, especially during this year, is that having a large group of people with whom you regularly game, even if it's only virtually, as it is for most of us these days, is a much needed antidote to the social isolation we might otherwise feel. My House of Worms crew, with whom I've spent many hours, have helped keep me on an even kilter and contributed much to my general level of emotional well-being, which is exactly what any worthwhile entertainment does. Further, the presence of so many different people, with different playing styles, ideas, and temperaments has not only made the campaign richer and more varied than it otherwise would be, it's also, I think, made me a more patient, tolerant, and open-minded person. That's no small thing, particularly in an age when so many of us voluntarily wall ourselves off from others and then despair of loneliness. 

Get out there and play with more people and more regularly. It's good for the hobby and it's good for you too.

Retrospective: The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game

The history of TSR between 1982 and 1984 is a strange and fascinating one. It's simultaneously when Dungeons & Dragons is at the height of its popularity (and profitability) and when TSR seems to have had no idea how to build on that success. Instead, TSR adopted multiple strategies, such as attempting to turn D&D into a brand name with which to sell non-gaming products to re-imagining the game into something more story-driven and, it was assumed, more accessible to potential customers unfamiliar with either pulp fantasy or its wargames roots. Another strategy was one that's still employed to this day, even by the current producers of D&D: license a hot property – or a not-so-hot one – and hope it'll result in expanded sales.

TSR's history with licensed properties is decidedly mixed. For example, Jeff Grubb's Marvel Superheroes is rightly considered an unqualified success, both as a near-perfect RPG design and as an example of the potential value of the right licensed property. On the other hand, the 2001: A Space Odyssey module for Star Frontiers is a classic example of "what were they thinking?" licensing, only slightly more intelligible than Dungeons & Dragons-branded sunglasses. TSR's AD&D Conan modules and Conan Role-Playing Game are, I think, an example of a middle case, namely a good idea poorly – or at least insufficiently well – executed. Throughout the early to mid-80s, TSR was clearly throwing lots of spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck; the results were, more often than not, a mess.

An infamous case in point is 1984's The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game. Designed by David Cook, the game was, like so many others at the time, a boxed set consisting of a 64-page rulebook, a map of the 1930s world, a referee's screen, a collection of player handouts, and cardboard cut-outs to represent characters, buildings, and vehicles, plus dice. Taken purely on these terms, The Adventures of Indiana Jones is a nice package and I can imagine that it would have seemed quite attractive purely on this basis. Of course, the main reason anyone bought the game – myself included – is because the pulp-inspired action-adventure world of Indiana Jones was very appealing. I have little doubt that every gamer who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the summer of 1981 (or even The Temple of Doom three years later) thought, "This would make a great roleplaying campaign."

So, unlike, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which still baffles me to this day, I don't wonder why TSR grabbed this license as soon as it was feasible for them to do so. The world of Indiana Jones is definitely the stuff from which a game RPG could be made. Alas, The Adventures of Indiana Jones was not that RPG – and it's not because of its game mechanics. Mechanically, the game was fine, if nothing special. Like many games at the time, Indiana Jones uses another variation on the color-coded results chart that Marvel Super Heroes employed to such great success. There are even small moments of brilliance in its particular take on the chart, with exceptionally good and bad results being called Lucky and Bad Breaks respectively and each having unique effects, depending on the attribute being checked. 

The game's real problem, the one that utterly cripples it is its lack of character creation rules. Instead, there are a total of seven pre-generated characters from which players can choose: Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, Sallah, Willie Scott, Short Round, Jock Lindsey (the pilot from the beginning of Raiders), and Wu Han (Indy's ally at the start of Temple of Doom, who dies). Now, I can understand including these characters as examples and even encouraging people to use them, but not including any rules for creating your own characters? That's a bizarre design choice, especially since the movies themselves imply that the world of Indiana Jones is much bigger than him and his immediate circle, filled with lots of other heroic and dastardly people trekking across the world in pursuit of valuable ancient artifacts. (There are also no experience rules; characters earn "player points" that enable them to reduce the severity of damage – that's it)

It's such a pity, because, as I've said several times now, there's a great deal of potential in the pulpy 1930s the movies presented. Further, the game itself is a decent introductory RPG that provides not only lots of fun little components but also a few interesting little sub-systems like the Chase Flow Chart intended to aid the referee in conjuring up the action of the movies. There's nothing revolutionary here, to be sure, and no one should think otherwise. This is not a forgotten gem of a roleplaying game, unfairly maligned despite its virtues. Rather, The Adventures of Indiana Jones is a textbook example of a missed opportunity – a nigh-perfect setting/world that could have, with a bit more imagination, have been a fun and successful RPG. Alas.

(And before anyone brings it up in the comments, no, TSR did not try to trademark the word "Nazi." TSR and this game can legitimately be criticized for many things; this is not one of them and I wish this particular urban legend would go away for good.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Urheim Fanzine?

 As Urheim continues to grow in size and scope, I'm looking for better ways both to present it and to develop it in the manner I think it demands. For example, I've been commissioning art for it by the remarkable Zhu Bajiee (who's also been a stalwart of The Excellent Travelling Volume) and that's been extremely well received, which pleases me. However, I can't really justify that over the long term without some way of subsidizing the cost. That's why I've lately been contemplating moving development of Urheim to a fanzine. 

I have a lot of experience producing fanzines now. The aforementioned Tékumel 'zine has reached a dozen issues, with a thirteenth under way. I've also produced Imperio to support my SF RPG, Thousand Suns, though that's regrettably a project that's not received the attention I'd like to give it. Between the two of them, I've learned a lot about the process of making 'zines for sale and I'd like to think that, as the years wear on, I've gotten better at it. Given that, I have little doubt that an Urheim fanzine would be at least as good as those, if not better.

The Excellent Travelling Volume sells around 250 copies per issue upon initial release, with a few dozen more in the months afterward – and Tékumel is, by even a generous definition, a very niche setting. Those sales are just enough to cover each issue's art budget, as well as printing and postage, but not much else. I'd like to think that Urheim, being a more traditional fantasy locale, would have wider appeal, but who knows? Judging by Blogger's stats, my Urheim posts are popular, with several among the most read posts in the last three months. That suggests there's interest in it. Whether it's enough interest to support a fanzine, though? That's the question.

I suppose there are alternatives to a 'zine, but, given my desire to develop the site, piecemeal, either continuing to do so here, through regular blog posts, or through an irregular fanzine seem the best options. The excellent Wormskin is my model here, since it's been slowly developing the Dolmenwood setting bit by bit over the course of the last few years. I hope to do something similar with Urheim, though I'm not yet committed to the idea of a 'zine. In discussing this with others whose opinions I trust, the notion of a subscription-based newsletter has been suggested, on the model of the superb Glatisant

I'm still uncertain of the path forward or indeed if it's something I should contemplate seriously. For the moment, I'm going to continue to make regular Urheim posts here, at least through the end of the year. Come 2021, things may change and, if they do, I'll explain them decision here. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions of your own to offer, please comment or drop me a note. As always, I'm actively seeking advice, opinions, and alternative perspectives and appreciate those of you who offer them.

Urheim: Austorga

Austorga by Zhu Bajiee

Level 9 Magic-User

Armor Class: 8 [11]
Hit Points: 22
Attacks: 1 × staff (2d6) or 1 × spell
THAC0: 17 [+2]
Movement Rate: 120' (40')
Saves: D11 W12 P11 B14 S12

Alignment: Chaotic

STR 7 INT 16 WIS 13
DEX 10 CON 11 CHA 14

Spells: Detect Magic, Magic Missile, Read Magic, ESP, Invisibility, Locate Object, Clairvoyance, Haste, Invisibility 10' Radius, Confusion, Dimension Door, Animate Dead

If Adventure Has a Game ...

Presented without comment, an advertisement appearing in issue #19 of Imagine, heralding the imminent release of TSR's The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game.  

Imagine Magazine: Issue #19

Chris Collingwood provides the cover for issue #19 of Imagine (October 1984). Its first article is "The Art of Animation" by Mark Davies, which deals extensively with the topic of golems and other magically animated beings. I've always had a fondness for golems, influenced perhaps by the presence of the magens in Castle Amber. The article itself is solid, looking not just at existing golems and golem-like creations but providing several new ones. Meanwhile, "Geas" by Venetia Lee presents several geased magical items. These items are powerful but they also impose restrictions on the behavior of the person possessing them, such as the sword of Bast, which prevents its wielder from ever willingly harming any cat or cat-like creature. It's a simple idea but a good one. 

"The Private Lives of NPCs, Part II" is a follow-up to an article that appeared in issue #11. Like that previous article, which I enjoyed, this one is very good, focusing on a half-dozen basic questions a referee should ask himself when creating non-player characters. It's not a radical or revelatory article, but it's the sort of grounded, commonsensical piece that I still find helpful, even after four decades of gaming. This month's game reviews caught my attention, purely for historical reasons. The first Dragonlance adventure, Dragons of Despair, is given a positive review, unlike the Top Secret scenario, Ace of Clubs. Never let it be said that Imagine was a mere house organ, despite being published by TSR UK. The review of Avalon Hill's Powers & Perils is encouraging, noting that, while it was unlikely that such a complex game would develop a huge following, it was nonetheless worthy of continued support. I have a weird fascination with P&P myself, so I appreciated seeing this review.

"Sinvel's Peril" by Doug Cowie is a Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 12-15, intended, it seems, to promote the newly released Companion Rules. The scenario concerns the defense of the town of Sinvel against a horde of barbarians – a trite set-up that's been done numerous times and better, but it does include some terrific maps by Paul Ruiz (about which more below). "Role Playing for Remedials" by Alan Heaven is another look into the past. The article is a counter to suggestions that RPGs are "addictive escapism." How strange to consider that this was once a serious charge against the hobby! Pete Tamlyn offers "Towards Systemless Scenarios," which is a brief overview of the question of how to present adventures intended to be used by many rules systems. The answer? Be as vague as possible, as demonstrated in the companion article (also by Tamlyn), "The Stolen Herd." I'm being flippant, of course, but it is  true the case that what Tamlyn is suggesting is not so much scenario writing as establishing a broad "plot" and then letting each referee decide how things play out. On the other hand, "Games without Frontiers" by Graeme Davis is extremely practical – maybe too practical – as delves into mathematical comparisons of various rules systems.

Paul Vernon's "Uncharted Stars" is a rare example of a Traveller article in the page of Imagine (leaving aside the previous issue), something that was very common in White Dwarf.  It provides rules for spectral classes for stars, as well as an Amber Zone (scenario). Colin Greenwood's "Fantasy Media" tackles a pair of movies (The Last Battle and Supergirl) and a pair of novels (Tanith Lee's The Castle in the Dark and James P, Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear). "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Phalanx" comics are here once more, along with Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner." Musson talks about the two ways alignment can be interpreted: as ethics or allegiance. Though short, it's a fine meditation on this contentious topic and does a good job of offering some solutions.

The real heart of the issue is "Pellinore: Law and Order" by Paul Cockburn, which describes the legal system of the City League. There are discussions of police forces, courts, and crimes, in addition to tables devoted to adjudicating all of the above. There's also a gazetteer of those sections of the city where the Courts can be found, along with NPC write-ups of various magistrates. It's terrific bit of worldbuilding by small steps, one that I now realize I have been subconsciously imitating in my own Urheim posts – great minds and all that! The article is accompanied by the maps of Paul Ruiz, whose style I absolutely adore. It's unlike any other cartographer I've seen before or since and I find myself wishing he were still active in the scene.
Imagine has definitely hit its stride. This is a great issue, probably my favorite so far. I look forward to the next one.

Monday, November 16, 2020


Like, I suspect, a great many roleplayers my age, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons continues to exercise a powerful influence over my conception of D&D. In the last few years, though, my love and appreciation for the 1981 Moldvay/Cook/Marsh rules has grown, to the point where I think it's fair to say that B/X has eclipsed AD&D in my affections. That's why, when I've written "D&D" materials for publication (or even just sharing with others), I've made use of contemporary emulators of those rules, whether they be Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials

One aspect of the B/X rules I particularly enjoy is the presentation of its seven character classes. The first four classes are the "basic" classes, each of which occupies a "pure" niche and, not unintentionally, limited to humans. The other three are for demihumans and, for that reason, could be called "advanced" or "mixed" (even though two of the classes, the dwarf and the halfling, are simply the Fighter Plus). My enjoyment stems from both the simplicity of this set-up and the subtle world building it implies.

Lately, I've mused that this basic structure – "4+3," as I've started calling it in my head, almost certainly not original to me – is a sturdy and flexible one that could be adapted to other circumstances. If you've taken notice of the new classes I've been presenting for Urheim, you might see what I'm talking about. For example, the goblin is an alternative to the halfling, while the gargantua is a replacement for the dwarf, and so on. I've been very happy with the ease with which I can build up the setting through these alternate takes on some of the seven classes in B/X. Based on the positive comments I've been receiving about them, others agree, which delights me.

What Level is the King?

I remember well when I got my copy of The World of Greyhawk: it was 1982, the same year that The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun was released. I remember that because I justified the purchase of the folio by claiming that I "needed" it as a companion to module WG4, which was (I think) the first AD&D module specifically advertised as being set in the World of Greyhawk (unlike, say, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which, while set on Oerth, didn't draw attention to that fact). I had to justify the purchase because, up until that point, I was a dedicated home brewer when it came to fantasy settings, at least as far as Dungeons & Dragons was concerned. The idea of buying someone else's setting, even if that someone was Gary Gygax himself, initially struck me as odd. I quickly overcame my concerns, in large part because The World of Greyhawk is a terrific product – presenting just enough detail to give the referee something to use as a foundation but not so much that he's drowning in minutiae. From that point on, I became a devoted fan of Oerth and, for a time, shifted the action of my ongoing AD&D campaign there. 

I was especially fond of the entries describing the various kingdoms of the Flanaess. Among the information they provided were the names, titles, class, and level of each realm's ruler. Thus, we learn that the king of the Frost Barbarians is a 15th level fighter, while the Overking of Aerdy is a a cleric/magic-user of 7th/12th level. Indeed, if you spend much time reading the entries – and I spent a lot of time doing so as a kid – you'll notice that the rulers are all at least 10th level and most are in the 12 to 15 range, with some ranging as high as 18th level. At the time, this seemed to make sense to me, since D&D's endgame allowed for the possibility of high-level player characters becoming rulers themselves. Why the wouldn't the king of Furyondy be a 14th level paladin? Furthermore, by making rulers high-level characters, it ensured that they couldn't be easily dispatched by unscrupulous PCs.

As the years wore on, this approach became less appealing to me, for various reasons, and I started thinking about alternative ones. However, it wasn't until I started refereeing my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne that the matter became more pressing. The player characters are now mostly all levels 5 and 6 (which is significant in EPT, given its experience system). More importantly, many of the characters have attained positions of political power within the Tsolyáni colony of Linyaró. Earlier in the campaign, the characters interacted with several politically important and influential NPCs but I never bothered to stat them up, since game mechanics didn't matter in these interactions. As events unfold, though, that might change and I'm not sure the best way to handle things.

What's interesting is that Professor apparently Barker wrestled with this very same problem. The disjunction between power as represented by game mechanics and power as represented by position within the setting is quite acute in Tékumel. The setting's societies are profoundly hierarchical and tradition-bound, where true power flows from sources unlike those represented by the acquisition of experience points and advancement in level. There's no necessary connection between the two: the God-Emperor is the most powerful man in all of Tsolyánu and yet there is no reason to assume he's very high level. Conversely, a very experienced fighter in the Hirilákte Arena might well be quite high level and yet, politically and socially, he's a nobody. This wouldn't be an issue if high level didn't also bring high hit points and generally better ability to survive (though the matter is mitigated slightly in EPT by the presence of an "instant kill" rule not present in D&D). 

Ultimately, Professor Barker's solution was to dispense with levels entirely and create a new game system to accommodate Tékumel better. That system was Swords & Glory and, despite its many flaws, has some interesting ideas to consider on this and other questions. Right now, though, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this topic. Have you come up with a way to deal with it or is it something you don't worry about in your own games? 

Victory is Yours

I'm sure this has been reposted elsewhere many times over the years, but I stumbled across it recently and thought it was worth another share. 

I remember seeing this commercial as a young person and being surprised by it. In retrospect, I wonder why there weren't more things like this, considering how popular Dungeons & Dragons seemed to be at the time, With the exception of this one, I can't recall any others (please correct me if I'm mistaken). I suspect this is why I've long felt that D&D's success was largely by word of mouth rather than a concerted marketing campaign by TSR. Again, I have no evidence to back this up, but it's fascinating to consider nonetheless. I have a hard time imagining a product achieving such a high degree of pop cultural saturation today without a concerted effort to promote it. Yet, somehow, D&D seems to have done just that – the right time and the right place, I guess!

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Warlord of Mars

The Barsoom tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs hold a special place in my heart and, as I hope I've demonstrated, in the heart of Gary Gygax as well. More than either Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien, I'd argue forcefully that it was Burroughs who invented the literary genre of fantasy as we know it today. So influential were these stories that not only were their general outlines imitated by later writers but so too were their specifics, with a fantastical version of Mars, filled with bizarre lifeforms and peril in equal measure, becoming a common setting of pulp fantasies. (It's also quite likely that John Carter, with his increased strength and leaping ability was an influence on the creation of Siegel and Shuster's Superman – but that's a topic for another occasion).

Another way in which Burroughs's Barsoom stories exercised an influence on later writers is by being a continuous narrative, with each tale building upon those that came before. Over the course of three decades, Burroughs penned almost a dozen stories of Barsoom (not all of which focus on John Carter). The third of these is The Warlord of Mars, published in novel form in 1919, but having first appeared as a four-part serial in the pages of All-Story Magazine from December 1913 to March 1914. The story picks up after the events of The Gods of Mars, which ended on a cliffhanger – a literary device that Burroughs by no means invented but that he used to good effect in order to hold his audience's attention.

In The Gods of Mars, John Carter had overthrown the religion of the goddess Issus, "the false deity of Mars," after he had revealed her as "naught more than a wicked old woman." In the aftermath, the society of the First Born, who had worshiped and served Issus, was thrown into chaos and they turned first to Carter, asking him to become their new ruler. He refuses and instead suggests that his friend and ally, Xodar, become Jeddak of the First Born. More significantly, Carter's wife, Dejah Thoris, is still missing, having been captured, along with two others, and trapped within the Temple of the Sun, a rotating prison whose individual chambers can only be entered on a single day each year. 

Carter hopes that there is some alternate means of entering the prison and indeed there is. Matai Shang, Hekkador (leader) of the Holy Therns, the priesthood of the false goddess Issus, knows such a means and uses it to rescue his own daughter, Phaidor, who had wound up imprisoned, along with Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, princess of Ptarth. In this, he is aided by Thurid, a First Born whose position was undermined by Carter's actions in The Gods of Mars. When Matai Shang frees Phaidor, Thurid convinces him to take Dejah Thoris and Thuvia too, as a means of revenge against the meddlesome Earthman. They then flee to the city-state of Kaol, whose ruler remains a believer in the religion of Issus. 

If this all sounds confusing, it is – one must read the story very carefully to keep the details of its narrative straight and, even then, it's not always easy going. If I have a complaint about the Barsoom stories, it's that they can sometimes become a confused welter of names and events of which it's hard to keep track. Fortunately, Burroughs's prose is generally straightforward and that helps somewhat, but there's no denying that untangling the plot threads is no simple affair, especially three novels in. Though all the novels are short by modern standards, Burroughs packs a lot of detail into them; one cannot simply skim them and hope to comprehend its events.

All that said, The Warlord of Mars is engaging. It's filled with memorable moments of heroism and derring-do, such as Carter's disguising himself to enter Kaol unseen; the Pit of Plenty, a horrible prison to which Carter is sentenced; the discovery of the Yellow Martians; and more. Personally, I was particularly struck by the moment when the Jeddak of Kaol, Kulan Tith, renounces his faith in Issus after he realizes he has been duped by Matai Shang.

"With my own hands would I have wrung the neck of Matai Shang had I guessed what was in his foul heart. Last night my life-long faith was weakened–this morning it has been shattered; but too late, too late.

It's fun – a rambling, occasionally moving yarn of John Carter's sojourn across Barsoom on a quest to save his wife. While it definitely lack the punch of either A Princess of Mars or The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars brings its own kind of pleasure, the kind anyone who's participated in a long campaign would recognize. That might not be the stuff of high literature, but it's plenty diverting and sometimes that's enough.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Urheim: Captain Foulque

Captain Foulque by Zhu Bajiee
Level 6 Fighter

Armor Class: 2 [17]
Hit Points: 31
Attacks: 1 × sword (1d8+2) or 1 × crossbow (1d6)
THAC0: 17 [+2]
Movement Rate: 60' (20')
Saves: D10 W11 P12 B13 S14

Alignment: Neutral

DEX 13 CON 10 CHA 18

Items: Chainmail +2, Shield +2, Crossbow (30 bolts), Potion of Heroism, Sword +1 (+2 vs Spell Users)

REVIEW: A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries

It's funny: I've written a number of posts over the past few weeks about the centrality of campaigns over individual scenarios, yet I remain a huge fan of prewritten adventures, as even a cursory examination of my retrospective posts will reveal. I don't think there's any contradiction in these two positions, but it's probably worth examining them in a future post. For the moment, what I want to do is talk about the first adventure anthology for Free League's Vaesen

Titled A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries, the anthology is a sturdy hardcover, whose 104 parchment-like pages are filled with full-color illustrations by Johan Egerkrans and Anton Vitus. Taken purely as an artifact, it's a beautiful book that feels good to hold and to peruse – much like the Vaesen rulebook itself. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Free League's RPG books, whose physical quality is unmatched by those of almost any other game publisher right now. 

The first of the anthology's adventures is The Silver of the Sea by Tomas Härenstam and takes place in the Bohuslän archipelago, along the west coast of Sweden. The characters receive a letter from a young priest living in a fishing village of the area, explaining that his mentor is dead, supposedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The priest does not accept this; he believes this "suicide" was staged by one of several sinister groups operating in the area. The locals are suspicious of outsiders and largely uncooperative, which initially gives Bohuslän the feel of a Nordic Innsmouth, even if what is actually happening here isn't quite the same (as the characters eventually learn). 

The eponymous A Wicked Secret by Gabrielle de Bourg concerns strange incidents in a forested region of the north. An industrialist hoping to "modernize" the region runs afoul of locals, some of whom are none too interested in the "progress" he and his logging company hope to bring. He calls upon the characters to investigate the community of Färnsta after one of his employees is driven mad and another goes missing. This is quite a lengthy scenario and involves lots of hunting for clues, interacting with NPCs, and traveling to remote locales to unravel the mystery of Färnsta. 

The Night Sow by Nils Hintze, designer of Vaesen, whom I interviewed recently, takes place in the village of Mölle in southern Sweden, which has become a popular seaside tourist destination. Mölle has a scandalous reputation due the fact that men and women are encouraged to mix on the same beach, something unheard of at the time. Naturally, many locals, including the village priest, are none too keen on this – a recurring theme in these adventures, as you've no doubt noticed. Amidst this social tension, the characters uncover a series of murders and disappearances, as well as evidence of an ancient evil that may be behind it all.

Finally, The Son of the Falling Star by Kiku Pukk Härenstam takes place in Estonia, home to one of the characters' cousin, Hugo von Kaiserling, whose wife has recently given birth to their first child. His wife, however, wants nothing to do with the child and sees him as a "monster." Hugo hopes the characters can talk sense to his wife and a local priest, who both believe that the child is under an evil spell that can only be broken with an exorcism. Naturally, there's more truth to the wife's beliefs than Hugo and his rationalist mindset is willing to accept.

All of the adventures touch upon the clash of "the old ways" with the changes Scandinavia is undergoing in the 19th century – industrialization, urbanization, and science-fueled skepticism, among others. This makes sense, as these are the central themes of Vaesen itself. They provide excellent sources of conflict and drama, in addition to helping to distinguish Vaesen from other supernatural investigation RPGs. This is not simply Call of Cthulhu in 19th century Scandinavia, despite superficial similarities, as these adventures all make quite clear. 

I'm a strong proponent of historical roleplaying; I believe the past, if well presented, can be every bit as interesting as any imaginary world. On this score, A Wicked Secret receives mostly high marks. Each scenario highlights a part of real world Nordic history that was otherwise unknown or only dimly known to me, whether it be "the sin in Mölle," the 19th century Swedish logging industry, or romantic nationalism in the Baltics, and uses it to provide context for the strange events the characters are investigating. This is exactly what I want out of historical adventures and was pleased to see A Wicked Secret exceed my expectations.

At the same time, I do have a couple of small complaints about the adventures. As I commented above, there's a certain sameness to the initial set-up of each scenario: the characters receive an invitation to visit a far-off locale to solve a murder or a disappearance and find the locals uncooperative and/or suspicious, often due to the influence of a local priest. While each of the four adventures is in fact quite different, I nevertheless worry about the perception of repetitiveness. Had a scenario or two been set in, say, a larger urban center, it might have helped alleviate my concern.

My other complaint concerns the portrayal of the local priests – not so much their role in the scenarios but little details that don't seem to ring true to 19th century Scandinavia. For example, none of the priests, despite being clergy of the Church of Sweden (or, in one scenario, the Russian Orthodox Church), are married. Instead, they all come across as ersatz Roman Catholic priests, right down to the Russian Orthodox priest owning a copy of the Rituale Romanum, a Latin book of blessings and rituals that seems an unlikely possession, for both historical and doctrinal reasons. This is a small gripe but I mention it because it stands out against the otherwise compelling presentation of time and place. Further, I genuinely appreciate that all of the adventure recognize the importance of the local clergyman to a community, as well as the thematic role that religion ought to play in adventures of this sort. 

All that said, I'm very happy with A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries. Any one of these scenarios would be a terrific kick-off to a Vaesen campaign, making the book invaluable to any GM of the game. Even if one does not use the scenarios as written, they aprovide lots of useful information in the form of maps, NPC write-ups, new vaesen, and historical information, all of which could be adapted to other uses. I like this book a great deal and look forward to the day when I might be able to use it with one of my regular groups of players.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Grognard's Grimore: Kin


A kin by Jason Sholtis
Requirements: Minimum CHA 9

Prime Requisite: CHA and STR

Hit Dice: 1d6

Maximum Level: 10

Armor: Any, including shields

Weapons: Any

Languages: Alignment, Common

Sometimes called “High Men” (or, in esoteric texts, the Terrim), kin are a secretive group of tall, attractive humanoids who attire themselves in peculiar clothing and armor. Kin are rare and few in number, typically traveling alone or in very small groups. There are rumors of a hidden kingdom of kin, but, if true, its location remains a mystery. Kin have an innate knowledge and command of magic, for which they are both well known and feared.

Prime Requisites: A kin with at least 13 INT and STR gains a 5% bonus to experience. A kin with a WIS of at least 16 and a STR of at least 13 receives a +10% bonus.

Interview: Rick Priestley (Part II)

Last month, I presented Part I of my interview of Rick Priestley, co-creator of Warhammer Fantasy Battle and originator of Warhammer 40,000. What follows is the second and final part of this interview, in which Mr Priestley once again provides lengthy and insightful answers that illuminate the early days of Games Workshop and the games he created and developed while he worked there. 

4. How long after all of this did Ansell go on to found Citadel Miniatures? How long after that did you join the company and what were your initial responsibilities there?

I wasn’t involved with the founding of Citadel so all I can tell you is what I believe to be common knowledge, namely that Citadel was founded in 1979 by Bryan in conjunction with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop. I was at university in Lancaster from 1978 to 1981 studying archaeology, and was otherwise occupied, so to speak.

I joined Citadel, then based at Victoria Street, Newark, in late 1982 and my initial role was to "do the mail order." There was just me dealing with all the mail order at that time. Previously

the mail order had been done by Richard Halliwell, Duncan MacFarlane or by Bryan himself, and I’d also helped out occasionally on a casual basis. I would go on to build the mail order team and pass the role on fairly quickly. After that Tony Ackland and I went on to found the first studio, which was at Mill Gate in Newark, and produce the first Warhammer, catalogues, journals and so on.

It was a very small team when I joined and we all did a bit of everything really. As well as booking in mail orders, sorting out the cheques and postal orders for banking, collating/dispatching the orders and dealing with mail shots, Tony and I would put together

all the catalogues, pamphlets, inserts and other advertising as well as any packaging that was required. I also learned how to cast - often necessary to complete orders – and had a go at making moulds. Often we’d all pitch in to fulfil big trade orders or to help out with deliveries (all by hand – you couldn’t get a palette truck through the narrow doorway – the arrival of the monthly metal order was always greeted with some trepidation). You have to remember it was a tiny operation really – nothing like what it would become.

5. When did the idea for the game that would become Warhammer first appear and who was responsible for it? I have a recollection that it was originally intended as a promotional product to help sell miniatures. Is that correct?

The idea for a set of rules to allow folks to play something like a battle was something that Bryan Ansell came up with when he was running Citadel. It was something we all talked about when I joined, so it was "in the air," so to speak. There had been fantasy games of this kind before, so the idea wasn’t new in itself, there were a number of rulesets already out there although they tended to be a little over-complex and most were crudely produced. However, it was definitely Bryan who called the shots on such things - he was the boss after all! There was talk of a "free" set of rules that would be given away with the mail order. At the time, we produced an A3 mail order flyer every month that was basically a catalogue supplement with deals and a bit of a write-up for the new models. The notion was that the "rules" would be something like an A3 sheet. Bryan was keen on selling figures in "regiments" rather than just the odd one or two that folks were ordering for playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. In that sense, the game was initially conceived as a promotional venture – but Warhammer has always existed to "sell" the models, as it continues to do to this day. The story of Warhammer starting out as "free" rules is just one of those press anecdotes – yes it’s sort of true – but it never happened like that. We did later on publish rules and stats for new models on the mail order sheets, and even on the backs of the boxes of some models, but by that time the Warhammer game already existed. 

The idea of a "free giveaway" never reached fruition because as soon as we started to think about what was involved it was obvious we were talking about a book (three booklets in fact). Richard Halliwell and myself had written and published rules together before, and Bryan had published his own rules too. One of the reasons Bryan recruited me was to produce these kinds of publications. Bryan came up with a basic brief for what he wanted – stressing that it had to be a game youngsters could play using ordinary dice, that it had to have rules for everything we made, and it had to have a token "role-playing" element because at that time role-playing was extremely hot. Richard Halliwell was given a commission to develop and write it – Richard (Hal) wasn’t working for Citadel at the time but freelancing as a mould maker. That meant he had spare time to devote to developing the game.

So we started playing – all out of house and in our own time – there was no way anyone was going to pay you to sit around designing games in those days! Hal worked out the basic mechanics and produced a type-script. I collaborated on the design, and there were a number of Hal’s friends and Citadel employees who pitched in with playing. Hal handed the type-script over to me at the newly founded studio (basically me and Tony Ackland) and between us Tony and I edited, expanded and to some degree completed the work that would become the first Warhammer. Bryan didn’t do any hands-on work at that point - he was busy running the place – but he contributed ideas to the rules and provided a much-needed steer and plenty of encouragement. Bryan was very keen that the rules should be accessible to younger players in a way that the Featherstone and Grant rules were when we were novice players ourselves. It was Bryan’s insistence that the rules use only ordinary dice that led to Hal adopting that "roll to hit," "roll to kill," and "roll to save" system that was a modification of the percentage "roll to hit/roll to kill" system we’d developed for our Reaper game. You needed a three stage roll to get the breadth of stats for a fantasy game with everything from Gnomes (yes really) to Dragons.

6. Your name is listed second in the credits for "game design and development" for 1986's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. What specifically were your contributions to the game?

Well it was a long time ago for a start so exactly what I did I can’t rightly recall, but if I remember correctly the project was something we started with just me writing in-house and Richard Halliwell contributing out of house. At the time Tony Ackland was our sole in-house artist and he did all of the initial artwork. Tony and I would have bounced stuff between us as we always did on those early projects. I remember working out the world background – it was really when the Warhammer World gelled - and I researched medieval settlements, roads and such like in quite a bit of detail. I pretty much wrote the first draft - but the idea for careers was something Hal came up with – I remember that because he couldn’t get it to work and abandoned it. I thought it was worth persevering with, so I took the idea and expanded it massively, and I wrote up all the careers and worked out the career paths. We pretty much had a finished manuscript when the studio was still at Eastwood. By the time that Jim Bambra, Mike Brunton and Phil Gallagher joined us (all ex-TSR UK writers with a lot of experience with role-playing games) the game was essentially there – but I’m sure it benefited from their experience at in terms of further play-testing and editing. I remember in particular that when we played as a group the more experienced role-players thought the combat system was too dangerous, which is why we came up with the idea of "fate points" to add some "ballast" into player survivability.

The scenario was written by Hal – "The Oldenhaller Contract" – and I seem to recall he wrote that as a freelancer. During the writing and production of WFRPG the studio transitioned from being just me, Tony, John and Joanne, our sole-production assistant, to a big team that included the ex-TSR designers as well as Graeme Davis, Ken Rolston, Stephan Hand and a great many middle managers and even more production folks. White Dwarf moved up from London together with some of the staff, and so what had been a very tight team suddenly became something different. That TSR team and Graeme would go on to produce all the role-playing supplement for WFRP including the Death on the Reik series and everything that made the game such a success. So – although the book itself was almost all my own work, all the subsequent role-playing material was handled by others.

7. Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader was released in 1987 and you're credited as the sole designer. When did you first get the idea for a science fiction version of Warhammer and what were your primary inspirations in doing so?

Well I had a game called "Rogue Trader" that I brought to Citadel when I joined – but that game was basically a spaceship combat style game for which I’d designed the models. I joined Citadel on the understanding that I’d "get to do" Rogue Trader one day – and we got as far as advertising it in one of the early Citadel Journals if I remember correctly. Once Warhammer took off we started to put science-fiction elements in right away – you can see it in some of the Journal and Compendium articles, especially in the scenarios set in Lustria where the Amazons are often armed with alien weapons of mysterious kind.

So, the idea was always there, and I was always pushing to "do Rogue Trader" but didn’t get a chance until the TSR crew joined up. After that we were awash with designers, and at the time there was an assumption that the "big money" was in role-playing games and board games – so we started to produce those in some quantity. We also employed Nigel Stillman to take on some of the Warhammer work specifically, and Hal re-joined the studio at about the same time. So, whilst everyone else was distracted I finally got to "do Rogue Trader," although when I started no one expected it to amount to much. The word at the time was that "science-fiction doesn’t sell," this was so axiomatic that I was to understand we wouldn’t make many new models, but people would be encouraged to convert their fantasy models into science-fiction equivalents, to which end we would make conversion packs of weapons. That’s why the Rogue Trader/40K alien races are basically Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, etc "in space" – although to be fair that was also the premise of my original spaceship rules. Those spaceship rules were supposed to be printed in the back of the Rogue Trader book – but alas by the time I’d written everything else there wasn’t room!

As with the original Warhammer, Rogue Trader was an out-of-house commission, and I wrote the draft text in my own time rather than at work, although I subsequently did a lot of development work as my day job. I think by that time it was obvious the game was going to do well – despite the indisputable fact that science fiction doesn’t sell – and resources started to be put into it. That included the first plastics as well as lots of metal models and artwork. Of course it sold very well indeed and has continued to do so ever since in its various iterations right up to the present day.

I don’t know about inspirations. I’d been playing science-fiction wargames in various forms for years together with Richard Halliwell. A lot of our Reaper games were a mix of fantasy and science-fiction. I think it was that at the time I thought a lot of the science-fiction games that already existed were a bit old-fashioned – often based on or inspired by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Star Wars was still quite a big thing and that idea of squeaky clean heroes – of good guys and bad guys – was typical of how folks approached science-fiction at the time. Well as you know, 40K isn’t like that – it’s a universe sustained by its own madness, where ignorance really is strength, and where archaic institutions battle for power within a feudal universe that’s almost medieval in character. That’s what appealed to me about the project – a chance to describe a universe that really was grim and dark albeit in the context of a game of toy soldiers! The reason for that was obviously to set up a background for a game of warfare, and one that could be sustained practically forever too. It seems to have worked reasonably well.

8. Among the elements that have always made 40K compelling were its dark sense of humor, playful irony, and its nuanced, occasionally philosophical, approach to some of the questions raised by its setting. Do you agree and do you think that the game as it currently exists still retains those elements?

The original book certainly combined a dystopic and violent universe with humour – perhaps the irony was rather heavy handed and maybe the humour verges on the silly in places – but I was writing a book about wargames for wargamers and not aiming for literary credibility. And just as well, you might reasonably say! My approach has always tended to combine high and low styles together. Sometimes that was to evoke a deliberate clash intended to remind us that this is all pretend and we should not take it too seriously. I probably couldn’t resist the gag. I did cheerfully plunder some quite serious literary references. If I read or saw something that "would work well in 40K" I used to just jot it down and it would be re-worked into the text.

I think that approach did colour the way other authors at GW presented the universe; especially in the hands of Mike Brunton and Graeme Davis because we shared a sense of humour (and often the odd pint or two at the Salutation after work). It was fun coming up with all the imperial mantras and nonsense sayings, and I think we were quite competitive about it, trying to make each other laugh whilst riffing on different ideas. We were quite an educated bunch. At a time when most people didn’t go to college we were all graduates – Phil Gallagher studied Russian at Cambridge – and both me and Graeme (and Nigel Stillman for that matter) had studied archaeology so we brought a lot of broad cultural and historical references into our worlds.

As 40K evolved, and other writers took over the job, it did get increasingly po-faced, which I always thought missed the point a bit – but what can you do? I didn’t have much to do with the development of 40K in my last years at GW. I haven’t so much as looked at it since I left in 2010, so I can’t comment on what it’s like now as I’ve no idea. During my last few years the company was going very much in the direction of producing bigger models for everything – because those are far more profitable than regular "troops" – so the game (and this goes for all the games not just 40K) was being re-imagined around the big models rather than trying to reflect the background or any recognisable representation of warfare. Not my thing really but I’m sure it has its appeal on its own terms. Whatever the current game/back story is like, it certainly continues to be popular judging by the Games Workshop financial results (I write at the end of 2020), and good luck to them I say.

9. As you mentioned, you left Games Workshop in 2010. What have you been doing since then? Do you have any current projects you'd like to highlight or promote?

I’ve done a few things with some of my ex-Games Workshop comrades – people I worked with for years such as John Stallard, Alessio Cavatore and Paul Sawyer. I’m retired now and don’t intend to undertake any big projects, though there’s a few odds and ends that still need sorting out. I wrote a game together with the Lucid Eye team of Steve and Joe Salah – The Red Book of The Elf King – which was envisaged as three books of which we’ve completed the first two (the second is Troll Wars). We were going to do the third one (provisionally Hell Saga) this year but because of the Covid-19 epidemic things have been put on hold. We hope to get back to that next year (2021) assuming things calm down a bit.

I wrote a couple of sets of historical game rules for Warlord GamesBlack Powder and Hail Caesar – and helped out with the World War Two game Bolt Action (Alessio Cavatore was lead designer for that one). Those have been successful in terms of historical wargames and Warlord Games has grown from a couple of guys in a dingy office to a proper grown up company operating out of a sizeable and very smart industrial unit just round the corner from Games Workshop HQ. It’s been fun working with so many of my friends from my days at GW – it’s amazing how many of those who own and work for the local wargames companies have passed through the doors of GW.

I also produced a science fiction game based on the Bolt Action game system – Beyond the Gates of Antares – and a fantasy warband game called Warlords of Erehwon (that’s nowhere backwards in case you missed it!). There’s a second edition of Antares already written but put on hold because of the epidemic – so I don’t know when that’ll be out. Whilst waiting for it I wrote a fantasy game that uses the same basic engine, and I’m having a lot of fun with that. It’s another slightly tongue-in-cheek take on fantasy, a bit like early Warhammer, although there’s no overall background and players are encouraged to "do their own thing." I’ve created a website which has all the updated army lists, including many new ones, as well as errata and various play aids – it’s called This Gaming Life and you can find it under thisgaminglife.uk or rickpriestley.com.