Monday, August 31, 2020

An Exciting New Family Boardgame!

I've talked about the Escape from New York boardgame before, but I was reminded of it recently while perusing an issue of Ares magazine. The issue included the advertisement above, which is actually quite striking. Nevertheless, I reiterate here what I did in my original retrospective: why was this marketed as a family boardgame? 

Escape from New York, while quite tame by today's standards, the film was rated R, which means that, in principle, no one under the age of 17 should have seen it (and it wouldn't be released on VHS until 1984, three years after the game was published). Granted, there's no reason you need to see the movie to enjoy the game, but would anyone who hadn't seen it take much interest in it? Then again, TSR was just coming into the height of its power and influence, so a movie or TV tie-in was probably inevitable. Compared to the alternatives, Escape from New York doesn't look so bad.

The Coming of Red Sonja

In today's Pulp Fantasy Library entry, I mentioned that Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture" served as the inspiration for Red Sonja, who was based on the character of Red Sonya of Rogatino. Whereas Sonya was a character of the 16th century, Sonja was a re-imagined by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith as a woman of the Hyborian Age. She made her debut in the pages of issue #23 (February 1973) of Conan the Barbarian, before appearing a second time in issue #24 the following month.

Issue #23 very loosely adapts "The Shadow of the Vulture," changing not only its setting but also several details of the plot. Conan takes the place of Gottfried von Kalmbach in the narrative, while Prince Yezdigerd takes the place of Suleyman. Red Sonja fairly closely approximates Red Sonya, though, as we shall see, her motivations are not identical. On the other hand the titular Vulture, is quite similar to his counterpart in the original Howard yarn, right down to his winged armor and description as "the most noted slayer in a nation of slayers."

In the telling of Roy Thomas, Yezdigerd bears a grudge against Conan for having scarred his face. He now seeks revenge on him, with the help of his agent, Oglu, whose name is unchanged from the original story.
Oglu tracks Conan down to a rural village, just as his namesake had done to Gottfried, except that Conan is in the company of a young woman, because of course he is. Awakened by the attack, Conan escapes to the city of Makkalet, which is being besieged by Turanian forces. The Cimmerian only makes it to the city's gates thanks to the intervention of a mysterious red-headed woman.
The woman eventually introduces herself as Red Sonja and Conan is shown several times pronouncing her name aloud as "Son-ya" as if to stress to the comic's readers how the "j" in the name is to be pronounced. Silly as this was, it probably was necessary; I remember well how many people I knew who insisted the character's name was pronounced "Son-ja," with the "j" sounding like the one in my own name. 

Conan tries to thank Sonja, but she brushes off his gratitude, claiming, as a mercenary in the employ of the king of Pah-Dishan, she "merely did what [she is] paid well to do." Though attracted to her because her skill with a sword and her ability to drink "the strongest man under the table," he concludes that "she's all men's delight – and no man's love" and heads off alone. Of course, that's not the last we see of Red Sonja, as she returns later to save Conan a second time, just as Sonya of Rogatino did for Gottfried von Kalmbach. The adaptation ends in a similar fashion too.

As a Conan story, "The Shadow of the Vulture" works well enough. The character of Red Sonja differs from her 16th century counterpart in having no motivation for her involvement in the battle against the Turanians – Hyborian Age stand-ins for the Turks – except money. There is no personal motive, as there is in Howard's original story. 

Equally noteworthy, I think, is that Sonja dresses somewhat reasonably. Though she has bare legs, she does wear a full chain shirt rather than the bikini normally associated with her character. The bikini wouldn't make an appearance until August 1974, when Red Sonja returned in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan drawn by John Buscema. The story behind the change in her attire is an interesting one in its own right, resulting from the confluence of the growing popularity of fantasy, the emergence of a powerful and influential fan culture, and changes in what was deemed acceptable for portrayal in comics. Perhaps I'll talk about these in a future post. For now, what's important is that Red Sonja did not become the character we all know today overnight; there were several steps in her evolution from Red Sonya of Rogatino to the She-Devil with a Sword.

Horses of Different Colors

I've been re-reading A Princess of Mars lately and it's occasioned quite a few thoughts, starting with the fact that Barsoom is a wholly alien world. With the possible exception of Martians of all colors but green, there are no native life forms identical with those of John Carter's Earth (or Jasoom, as the Martians would say). Instead, Burroughs created an entire menagerie of unique Martian animals, some of which played significant roles in his stories. 
A good example are the thoats, which are used as steeds, beasts of burden, and even food. Possessing eight legs and a large mouth, thoats have been domesticated by both Red and Green Martians.

I can't be certain that this is the first example of a substitute for horses in fiction, but, if not, it's certainly a very early one indeed and one that likely had an influence on later writers. Jack Vance, for example, included leap-horses in the Tschai stories and the oasts in The Dying Earth. Straying farther afield, J.R.R. Tolkien described the goblins of The Hobbit as using massive wolves as mounts, while Moorcock introduces his readers to the Kamarg Flamingos in his chronicles of Dorian Hawkmoon (which always made me think of the flying ostrich-like mounts from 1982's Joust video game). Of course, the flamingos are flying rather than land mounts and fantasy isn't exactly lacking in examples of those, with dragons regularly being employed in that fashion.
Given these precedents, it's interesting that, by and large, Dungeons & Dragons has made comparatively little use of horse substitutes. The Dark Sun setting, which owes a lot to Barsoom in its general look, has no horses, only a variety of giant insects and reptiles. There's also the memorable Dave Sutherland piece from the Holmes Basic Rules depicting a lizard man riding a giant lizard. Outside of D&D, the Five Great Tribes of Prax in RuneQuest's Glorantha use unusual (but still terrestrial) riding animals, while Skyrealms of Jorune has sightless thombos and flying talmarons. 

Of course, this isn't really about horses, or at least only about horses. Rather, it's about the downside of Gygaxian Naturalism – the reining in of the imagination. D&D, at least D&D descended from AD&D (which, I would argue, is most D&D, including the current edition of the game), puts a limit on the fantastic. Certainly, Dungeons & Dragons has magic and monsters and even other planes of existence, among many other wondrous elements, but these are additions to the real world rather than replacements for them. The World of Greyhawk or even the Forgotten Realms, two D&D settings of which I am very fond, are not so different from a past age of Earth that they're unrecognizable. Unlike, say, Barsoom (or Tékumel), there's little need to immerse oneself in the setting in order understand it.

There's nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but it's a limited – and limiting – one that doesn't take full advantage of the freedom that fantasy affords us.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow of the Vulture

No doubt you've heard of Red Sonja, the chainmail bikini-clad heroine created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for Marvel Comics in 1973. For nearly a half-century, she's been an icon of sword-and-sorcery literature and the world's most prominent poster girl for unreasonable armor. She first appeared in issue #23 of Conan the Barbarian (February 1973), which adapted a story by Robert E, Howard entitled "The Shadow of the Vulture." But did you know that the original story neither featured Conan nor took place in the Hyborian Age but was rather a historical yarn set in Austria in the 16th century?

The short story appeared in the January 1934 issue of The Magic Carpet Magazine. The Magic Carpet was the very short-lived successor to Oriental Stories, a companion magazine to the much more well known and successful Weird Tales. Farnsworth Wright was editor of both magazines, which no doubt explains the presence of so many Weird Tales stalwarts in its pages (e.g. Robert E. Howard, Otis Adelbert Kline, Clark Ashton Smith). The January 1934, as it turns out, was the final issue of the pulp and it is now largely forgotten but for the handful of memorable stories published in its pages.

By my lights, "The Shadow of the Vulture" is among those memorable stories. The story starts sometime after the Battle of Mohács (which Howard spells Mohacz), as the Ottoman sultan, Suleyman, is preparing to release a collection of Austrian envoys "pallid from months of imprisonment." As he is doing so, he recognizes one of the envoys, but does not immediately remember where, and so lets him return to his homeland. Later, as he is talking with his grand vizier, Ibrahim, he recalls that the Austrian, named Gottfried von Kalmbach, had wounded him at the aforementioned battle. "I could not mistake those blue eyes," he explains. For the crime of having "with impunity spill[ed] [Suleyman's blood] on the ground for the dogs to lap up," the sultan demands Gottfried's head. 

Eager to gain Suleyman's favor, Ibrahim enlists the aid of a Tatar named Yaruk Khan to stop Gottfried from leaving Turkey; when that fails, he turns to his agent Mikhal Oglu.

The Grand Vizier brooded on his silken cushions until the shadow of a pair of vulture wings fell across the marble-tiled floor, and the lean figure he had summoned bowed before him. The man whose very name was a shuddering watchword of horror to all western Asia was soft-spoken and moved with the mincing ease of a cat, but the stark evil of his soul showed in his dark countenance, gleamed in his narrow slit eyes. He was the chief of the Akinji, those wild riders whose raids spread fear and desolation throughout all lands beyond the Grand Turk's borders He stood in full armor, a jeweled helmet on his narrow head, the wide vulture wings made fast to the shoulders of his gilded chain-mail hauberk. Those wings spread wide in the wind when he rode, and under their pinions lay the shadows of death and destruction. It was Suleyman's scimitar-tip, the most noted slayer of a nation of slayers, who stood before the Grand Vizier.

I suspect that Oglu's unique armor is inspired by that of the famed Polish winged hussars, which are contemporary with the time period of the story.

Oglu and his men, after some time, track Gottfried von Kalmbach to a village along the Danube but he manages to escape their clutches, riding to Vienna. When he arrives there, the city is already preparing for a siege by Ottoman forces led by Suleyman himself. Gottfried joins the Viennese in fighting the Turks and, while doing so, finds himself under the guns of advancing Janissaries. Deciding to make a break for a nearby cannon, he turns, only to be greeted by a strange sight.

It was a woman, dressed as von Kalmbacj had not seen even the dandies of France dressed. She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was a carelessly thrown scarlet cloak.

This surprising figure was bending over the cannon, sighting it, in a manner betokening more than a passing familiarity, at a group of Tirks who were wheeling a carriage-gun just within range.

"Eh, Red Sonya!" shouted a man-at-arms, waving his pike. "Give 'em hell, my lass!"

This woman, who hails from Ruthenia, saves Gottfried's life for the first time (the second will occur later in the story). We learn that she bears a grudge against not just the Turks generally but against her sister, Roxelana, who has become Suleyman's chief consort. Over the course of the story, we learn more about Sonya and watch her prowess in battle on numerous occasions. Though Gottfried von Kalmbach is ostensibly the main character of this tale, it is Red Sonya of Rogatino who is by far its most memorable character.

"The Shadow of the Vulture" is, I think, a good example of Howard's historical fiction. He tells an engaging story that takes place against real historical events, in this case the 1529 Siege of Vienna, populated by a mix of fictional (Gottfried and Sonya) and real characters (such as Suleyman and Roxelana). It's told in a fast moving "blood and thunder" style that I found delightful, but it is likely not to everyone's taste. If nothing else, as the literary origin of one of the most enduring female characters of sword-and-sorcery literature, it's well worth looking at.  

Saturday, August 29, 2020

All Hail the Emperor!

Happy birthday to Marc W. Miller, creator of the Traveller science fiction roleplaying game, born this day in 1947 (–2574). 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Interview: Steve Crompton

For long-time fans of Flying Buffalo gaming products, such as Tunnels & Trolls and Grimtooth's Traps, Steve Crompton needs no introduction. For the benefit of them and others not yet familiar with his decades of work in the RPG world, I present the following interview, to which Mr Crompton very kindly agreed. 

Steve Crompton at the GAMA Expo, March 2020

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

I ran into Rick [Loomis] though church while I was still a teenager and he gave me and my sister a couple of solo adventures to play. So I learned to RPG via the solo adventures back in 1979. Before that, I’m not sure I’d really even heard of D&D, let alone T&T.

2. After being given those solo adventures, did you then start to participate in a group? What games did you play?

I think the very first time I ever played an RPG, it was with Rick Loomis and he ran Buffalo Castle as a solo. I don’t think I had gotten though Buffalo Castle without dying, so it was fun to have it run by its creator. It was probably in 1979 or '80. Once I was I working in the store, I would often join in a game if things were slow. The first time I played with Ken St. Andre, it was in Gristlegrim Dungeon and I died in about 15 minutes. I also played in adventures run by Bear Peters, Mike Stackpole and Larry DiTillio, so I’ve been very lucky to have been able to be in adventures run by some of the greats of T&T history! I think most of them killed me at some point! I did have a regular RPG group when we were running our Lejentia Campaign back in the late 80’s and early 90’s

3. How did you come to be employed by Flying Buffalo?

Rick knew I wanted to be a graphic artist and was taking commercial art courses via a high school “working trades” program. (So I think that was a factor for him picking me)  He needed someone to work the Flying Buffalo store and I was polite and a good talker, so he offered me the job as a store clerk which I accepted. Back then, eventually best selling author Michael Stackpole was my store manager!

4. While at Flying Buffalo, you worked on a wide variety of projects, but I suspect you're best known for the illustrations in Grimtooth's Traps, which have a very distinctive style. Did you receive a lot of direction on how to illustrate these books or were they largely of your own invention? What about Grimtooth himself: did you create his appearance or were you given instructions beforehand?

I was working in the store in late 1980 when Liz Danforth (who was Flying Buffalo’s art director at the time) came to me and said that they were developing this book of traps they were going to publish. She knew I had taken drafting classes, so she thought I would be a good match for drawing out the traps they came up with. 

At the time, Grimtooth wasn’t really in the picture, but at some point, either Liz, or perhaps it was Paul O’Connor (Grimtooth's Traps editor) came up with the idea to use Grimtooth as the narrator. Grimtooth was a character that Liz created as a sort of sardonic “mascot” for our Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine. So, she had already drawn him, and that was my guide for any Grimtooth illustrations I did going forward. My take was more influenced by the thousands of comic books I had read. In the original first edition of Grimtooth’s Traps, I think there are maybe two or three illustrations of him in the whole book, but he was its voice. In later re-printings (once we realized how popular he was with the fans), I added him in to more illustrations and elsewhere in the book. 

For the trap illustrations, I wasn’t really given any specific instructions other than to make the trap match is description. As we went along, though, the text was sometimes changed to match what I had drawn, as I would sometimes add a “twist” to the trap or its location. 

5. Are there any illustrations you did for Flying Buffalo that you're particularly proud of, even after all these years?  

My personal favorite is of Grimtooth’s Airship flying through a storm – that’s a great one. I have a cute illo of Grimtina on a BMX bicycle, but she also has a big gun and an attitude. I also had a lot of fun drawing the Grimtooth comic pages in the Traps Too reprint and Traps Lite

6. Aside from Flying Buffalo, you also did work for GDW and FGU, in each case for science fiction roleplaying games. Do you enjoy sci-fi illustration as much as fantasy?

Certainly I liked the variety of doing different things and trying to take on different styles and approaches to my work to match the genre and tone of a given project. I tended to make those illustrations far less cartoony and more technical in their look. I used a lot of Zipatone screens in the sci-fi art that I rarely used in the fantasy pieces, for example. I tried to give the sci-fi art a sort of futuristic “noir” look.

7. You've produced a lot of artwork outside the RPG industry, primarily in the field of comics. How did you become involved in comics illustration/writing?

Really I was a comic book fan long before role-playing games even existed, so doing comics was in my blood from about the age of 5. I think a lot of my art for Nuclear War and Grimtooth’s Traps really reflect my comic book upbringing. I regularly went to San Diego Comic Con starting in 1988, and it was there I met the publisher of Revolutionary Comics, Todd Loren. He gave me my first break into the comics field and I ended up doing numerous comics for him, Rip Off Press, Kitchen Sink, Mu Press, and many others. My main claim to comic fame is Demi the Demoness. She’s appeared in over 40 comics and I wrote her into my City of the Gods novel and some game books I’ve done.  Ken St. Andre is actually working on a City of the Gods T&T solo adventure and I’m sure Demi will have an appearance there as well. 

8. Do you still have the chance to play RPGs?

Not as often as I like. Sometimes Bear Peters or Ken St. Andre will run something and I’ll join in.  Mostly I play the T&T Phone app, which has 30 solos in it on my phone. I read a lot of gaming books all the time as I am usually editing or even writing parts of them.  So my main RPG exposure nowadays is “on-the-job” so to speak. 

9. You're now the managing director of Flying Buffalo. What does that job entail?

When I first took on that role, we had to do a complete inventory of all our products that we had in stock. This was not something that has been done in many years so it was a big task. My next big task was completing several Kickstarters that had been started while Rick Loomis was alive. That included part of the Nuclear War Kickstarter, the Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes Kickstarter and the Elven Lords Kickstarter. We’ve completed two of those and will soon be mailing out the full-color version of Elven Lords to the backer and that will end that one as well.  

My ongoing mission is to promote Flying Buffalo however I can and help let the world and our fans know that the Buffalo is still flying and will continue to do so. In fact, since December we have either printed or released on DriveThruRPG 14 new or reprinted RPG solos, GM adventures, and other books. Seven of them are brand new, and seven of them are enhanced reprints of items that were previously out of print and unavailable on DriveThru. I also do customer service to take care of problems that distributors or customers have with orders or with trying to order things from us. I also have duties related to helping with Rick’s estate settlement and dealing with the Loomis family, various rights holders and other RPG industry friends of Rick who are helping and advising us in various ways. And I work with freelancing and licensees who want to  print T&T books in Spanish, Japanese or German for example. So that’s my job in a nutshell. Its challenging and I love every minute of it. I consider it to be a great honor to be able to help keep Rick’s dream alive and continue to help bring in orders and new products to keep Flying Buffalo a going concern!

Mörk Borg and I

I played my first session of Mörk Borg this week and enjoyed myself greatly. I played Prince Hirmot, of the southern empire of Südglans, now unfortunately sunken beneath the sea. Hirmot awakened to discover himself trapped inside a pitch black catacomb after having been kidnapped by persons unknown. He was bereft of his possession and, more importantly, his companion, Albrecht, who, as he kept explaining to anyone he met, "had been with me since boyhood – my one true friend." Albrecht is a human skull and not of the talking variety, at least so far as anyone else knows. Nevertheless, Hirmot was quite distressed to find Albrecht missing. 

I generated Hirmot using SCVMBIRTHER, an online tool for just this purpose. Consequently, I went into the session (refereed by Necropraxis) without much sense of Hirmot's personality beyond what the random generator provided. The notion that he is, or rather was, a prince owed to a combination of the fact that he belonged to the optional class of Wretched Royalty and that, when he first awoke, he discovered another person was in the same chamber, one who contemptuously addressed him as "princeling." The other person turned out to be a Heretical Priest of a goddess whom he called Thel-Emas.

The pair then formed an alliance to escape from the catacombs, exploring it and looking for a way out. Along the way, we found a pot from which emanated a small voice claiming to be "the genius of the pit" and vowing to help us if Hirmot let him out of the pot by means of an invocation involving a small amount of blood. Hirmot complied, but soon discovered that the genius that emerged – a strange being with a variable appearance – was not nearly as powerful as he had implied. The genius alleged that his weakness was due to his regalia having been taken from him. If Hirmot helped him find the regalia, his full powers would be awakened and he could be of greater help.

After wandering the catacombs for some time and encountering some strange sights, as well as a brief combat with some blindfolded priestesses, Hirmot and the priest recovered their lost possessions – including Albrecht. More poking around led them to the surface, where our first session ended. It was at that point that the referee determined which Misery will next befall the world: "And the earth shall shake and be riven. And from the cracks shall rise a poisonous mist, and in ten days it will shroud the world." Play will resume next week with additional players (several had to cancel at the last minute, unfortunately).

An outsider reading this will no doubt wonder what the big deal is and why it was that Mörk Borg so captured my imagination, since little or nothing that I described above couldn't have happened in any fantasy roleplaying game. That's absolutely true and somewhat beside the point. The truth is that what so impressed me about Mörk Borg is that it's clearly the product of a particular vision, unconcerned with pleasing anyone but the creators themselves. While beautiful and well made, Mörk Borg isn't slick or polished in a way calculated to appeal to the largest number of gamers. Instead, it's a work of palpable passion and fury and that comes through on every page. I found this infectious and inspiring and that is why I love this game.  

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Weird Maps II

I talked the other day about weird maps, focusing primarily on literary examples of them. Today, I want to draw attention to the maps of Trollworld, the setting of Ken St. Andre's Tunnels & Trolls.

This is the continent of Ralph (or Rrr'lff, as it is known in some later sources). As you can see, it's shaped like a dragon, just like the one depicted in the Chart of Weirdworld. If anything, though Ralph is even more fantastical, since it looks like the entire body of a dragon rather than just its head. Ralph is home to Khazan, perhaps the best known city of Trollworld.
Zorr is the eagle-shaped continent of Trollworld. It's also the land of the letter "z," as nearly all of its locations include that letter somewhere in their names. If I recall correctly – and my knowledge of T&T lore is limited – Trollish names tend to include lots of z's in them. Of course, that's a minor detail in my estimation compared to the appearance of the continent itself. Trollworld isn't a natural place; there is nary a concern for plate tectonics, geology, or anything remotely scientific. Instead, I suspect that Zorr, like Ralph, looks that way, because someone thought it was cool – and that's a perfectly valid reason in a fantasy roleplaying game setting! 

Allow me to lay my cards on the table: in my own efforts to create fantasy settings, I have tended toward the Middle-earth/Hyboria model when it comes to map making. I don't outright eschew magical weirdness and whimsy but neither do I embrace it the way that Trollworld clearly does. Is that a mistake? No, I don't think it is – not all fantasy settings are the same and there is room for a variety of different approaches. At the same time, I can't help but look at maps like that of Weirdworld or Trollworld and wonder. Isn't that what maps of fantasy worlds should make us do?

House of Worms

Since March 2015, I've been refereeing a weekly Empire of the Petal Throne campaign using the original 1975 rules.The campaign, which I call House of Worms, after the Sárku-worshiping clan to which all the characters belong, began with six players. Their characters are depicted above, as illustrated by the incomparable Zhu Bajiee. At the start of the campaign, the characters were the following:
  • Aíthfo hiZnáyu (top middle): An adventurer who's the lone member of the group not to worship Sárku or Durritlámish, instead being devoted to Ksárul. Aíthfo is the group's tactician, commanding a group of Pecháni mercenaries with great skill. He has dreams of being a sea captain and travelling the length and breadth of Tékumel in search of “cash and prizes,” in the memorable words of his player.
  • Znayáshu hiNokór (bottom left): A lay priest of Durritlámish with an interest in astrology. He makes a living creating horoscopes when not involved in some scheme of his clan-mates. His fiancée, Tu'ásha hiNarkóda, of the Mourning Rock clan of Thráya, died before the two could wed – but that hasn't stopped Znayáshu, who had her corpse carefully preserved and now plans to have her reanimated as a Shédra, so that she can serve the Lord of Worms forever.
  • Ssúri hiNokór (second from the bottom left): A ritual priestess of Durritlámish with a keen knowledge of dance and acrobatics, some of which she uses to her advantage even outside the temple. Sharp-tongued and no-nonsense, Ssúri often acts as the public face of this group of characters.
  • Keléno hiNokór (bottom middle): A 5th Circle scholar priest of Sárku who prefers to keep his nose in books when he is able (which, sadly, isn't as often as he'd like). He recently developed an interest in demonology, after successfully – and unintentionally – summoning dread Srükárum to fight against an army of Ssú in the Dry Bay of Ssu'úm. Keléno is married to Hmásu hiTéshku, a priestess of Belkhánu, with whom he shares many interests.
  • Grujúng hiZnáyu (second from bottom right): An older, ex-legionnaire (formerly of the 6th Imperial Medium Infantry) who finds life in Sokátis dull and so travels around with his clan-mates in search of excitement. He dreams of gaining a commission in the famous First Legion, which is currently posted to Sokátis as a result of the machinations of Imperial politics.
  • Jangáiva hiTlélsu (bottom right): A temple guard of Sárku, Jangáiva has lately fallen under the patronage of an officer of the Omnipotent Azure Legion, who is testing her for possible formal induction into that august force. While in Yán Kór, she obtained a demonic hammer that calls itself “Little Sister” and revels in destruction. Jangáiva does her best to keep the weapon under control.
In the years since, the roster of characters has changed several times, though Aíthfo, Znayáshu, Keléno, and Grujúng have remained stalwarts. Currently, there are eight regular players in the campaign and, after five and a half years of regular play, their characters are far from their starting point in the eastern Tsolyáni city of Sokátis. Presently, they are exploring the Achgé Peninsula of the mysterious Southern Continent, where they were dispatched at the behest of the imperial prince Mridóbu.

The Tsolyáni maintain a colony there on the northeastern coast called Linyaró, to which Aíthfo has been appointed governor, with the other characters occupying various positions in the colonial administration. Over the past three years of real time (and just over a year of game time), the characters have explored the peninsula, interacted with the local Naqsái peoples (who have several large city-states scattered across the interior), dealt with coastal pirates, investigated evidence of Engsvanyáli antiquities, probed into a Pariah God cult, and fended off an invasion by the non-human Hokún, among many other things! 

House of Worms has been a delightful campaign, one of the best of my decades of roleplaying. I've been very lucky to have had such devoted players and I doubt the campaign, which is now nearing its 200th session, would have lasted this long without them. I will begin chronicling the events of each week's session soon, both as a record of what's happening and as evidence that Tékumel is not nearly as inaccessible and weird a setting as many people believe it to be. As a referee, it's been a blast and a source of great inspiration for me, as the twelve-and-counting issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume, can attest. I hope these write-ups will be of interest to others.
The Achgé Peninsula in all its hexcrawl glory!

Orcish ODDities

Volume II of original Dungeons & Dragons states that orcs make their lairs either in cave complexes or above ground villages. If they dwell in a village, there's a 25% chance per 100 orcs of a 7th-9th level fighting man being among them, as well as a 10% chance per 100 orcs of an 11th level magic-user. If they dwell in caves, there's a 10% chance per 100 orcs of there being a dragon present, as well as 10% chance per 100 orcs of 1-4 trolls. Both types of settlements have a chance of 1-6 ogres being among them. These powerful creatures are called "leader/protector types" in the text of Monsters & Treasures, which is a delightfully vague yet suggestive. 

Meanwhile, AD&D's Monster Manual makes a passing reference to orcs needing "a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him" to control them, but that's it. Gone are the references to non-orcish "leader/protector types," with more verbiage expended on telling us what percentage of orcs wield polearms (20%, in case you're wondering). There are also references to females and young living in orcish settlements as well, something completely absent and not even hinted at in OD&D.

Now, it may seem to some that I'm bashing AD&D here. If I am, it's not because Gygax's description of orcs in the Monster Manual is many times longer and more specific than the one in OD&D. Rather, it's because, in OD&D, orcs are clearly monsters, while in AD&D they've graduated to being "humanoids." OD&D orcs are the kinds of nasty brutes you'd find cowed into service by an evil magician or dark knight or even a dragon, while AD&D orcs are a parallel human race, albeit an irredeemably evil one. That is, AD&D orcs have an existence apart from whom they serve, which makes it far easier to believe they have a unique society and culture of their own. OD&D, it seems to me, suggests that a race of ready-made minions akin to Maleficent's twisted goons from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. 
These days, I find myself preferring monstrous monsters over more nuanced and naturalistic humanoids, so OD&D rings my bell far better than does AD&D. That's purely a matter of preference, mind you, and, of course, one can easily ignore the Monster Manual's description of orcs in favor of one's own. I'm increasingly of the opinion, though, that AD&D has its own distinctive feel, one derived from actual play in the Lake Geneva campaign, whereas OD&D, in the LBBs anyway, has a much more nebulous feel. AD&D is Gary Gygax's D&D and it's that's awesome. But I want to play my D&D and I find it much, much easier to do so with OD&D, whose monster descriptions are so sparse as to demand that each referee fill in the blanks for his own campaign. That's as it should be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Warlocks of the Dark Star

Here's an advertisement from the back of Book of the Dragons, written by D.H. Casciano and M. Fisher and appearing in 1977. Warlocks of the Dark Star did eventually appear in 1979 and was apparently a hex and chit style wargame in which one player takes the role of the magic-using Warlocks and the other takes the role of the scientific Technoids. The theme of science/technology vs magic remains a staple of fantasy even today, but it seems to have been enjoyed a high point during the 1970s, with Ralph Bakshi's Wizards being a noteworthy example of it. 

Regardless, this advertisement – and the book from which it came – is a reminder that the history of the hobby is replete with dark alleyways and forgotten lore of the sort that Jon Peterson has been busy chronicling for some time now. How many of us have ever heard of the Attack International Wargaming Association, for example? There are many more companies like it, producing original RPG material with very limited budgets and small print runs. Their products, though perhaps not as well known or influential as, say, Dave Hargrave's Arduin books, are another reminder of the reckless ferment that characterized the first five years of the hobby

Weird Maps

I've always been a sucker for maps. Along with non-Roman alphabets, maps occupied an important place in my pre-D&D personal education. My favorites were historical maps and maps of imaginary places. I still recall the first time I laid eyes on the map to L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, consisting of four triangular countries – Gillikin, Munchkin, Quadling, and Winkie – surrounded by four impassable expanses of sand (Baum later added other realms beyond the deserts but I don't believe I saw maps including them until some time later). The map isn't all that impressive in and of itself, as you can see, but it enthralled me nonetheless and I was forever after a devotee of unusual maps.

I bring this up because, recently, I've been reading old fantasy comics produced by Marvel and DC as part of an effort to look into their origins and influence in the vast cultural stew pot out of which Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs sprang (Ken St. Andre, for example, has long called Tinnels & Trolls as "The Lord of the Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974"). There's a lot of good stuff there and I plan to post about many of them in the weeks to come. One of the most immediately interesting of these comics is Matvel's Weirdworld, which premiered as a one-off in 1976 before returning, first in 1977 and then in 1979 (and a couple more times in the '80s). The map (or "chart") below depicts the landmasses and points of interest of Weirdworld.

Looking at the Weirdworld map, I see a lot more in common with the map of Oz than I do with the map of, say, Middle-earth, which is, along with Howard's map of the Hyborian Age, the locus classicus of fantasy maps. The Weirdworld map is utterly fantastical, with few concessions to reality. The large continent to the right looks like a dragon's head, complete with an eye in the form of the floating island of Klarn, while the Land of the Dead literally looks like a skull. The map makes it clear that this is a realm of pure fantasy rather than naturalism, let alone realism.

This is one of the reasons why I find the 1970s such a fascinating time when it comes to the development of fantasy as an artistic genre. At this point, fantasy had not yet been fully solidified (or brandified) into a consistent set of elements immediately understood by everyone who viewed them. Each fantasy setting was unique, springing from the imagination of its creator(s) rather than drawing on stock components. At this point, The Lord of the Rings, though popular, was still just one example of a fantasy, rather than being the template all subsequent fantasies would imitate (or react against). Looking at "A Chart of Weirdworld" thus opens a window on this wild, chaotic time.

Retrospective: Against the Cult of the Reptile God

Despite the fact that I rarely get to use them, I have a great fondness for low-level adventures. Even moreso, I have a great fondness for "sleepy little village is menaced by something bad" adventures. The paradigmatic example of this is Gary Gygax's The Village of Hommlet, which I praise at every opportunity, but there are many other examples of this well-worn genre of RPG scenario – too many, in the opinions of some.

I politely disagree, which is why I think kindly about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module N1, Against the Cult of the Reptile God. Written by Douglas Niles and first published in 1982, this is, I believe, the last AD&D module to use this specific iteration of TSR's trade dress (a new one being introduced with Pharaoh later this same year). It's also a late entry in the period I've termed D&D's Golden Age and, as such, is more of a location based scenario than those of the nascent Silver Age (though not wholly, as we shall see). 

The adventure is set in the village of Orlane in the Gran March of the World of Greyhawk setting. Orlane was already a community in decline when an evil cult led by a spirit naga infiltrated it. The naga installed himself as "the Reptile God" in a dungeon in the local wilderness and set his cultists on the village. They then set about kidnapping villagers, taking them to their god, who uses his charm person ability to add them to his throng of brainwashed minions.Those who resist are slain and animated as zombies to serve as guardians of the naga's lair. 

The module largely consists of a series of location maps and keys, starting with the village of Orlane itself. Within the village, there are details of two different inns and a temple. Outside it, there are the two levels of the dungeon occupied by the cult. As written, the characters come to Orlane by rumors that something is not right in the town. Once there, they can gain additional rumors and clues by poking around and speaking with the villagers. With some work (and maybe a little luck), the characters should learn enough to make their way toward the lair of the spirit naga and put an end to his depredations.

Against the Cult of the Reptile God provides no "scenes" or set pieces or much of anything in the way of a plot beyond the one the characters create by interfering with the activities of the Reptile Cult. The closest the modules comes to that is a section detailing the activities of the cult independent of their own. Orlane is not a static environment and the cult does not simply stand in place waiting for the characters to come looking for them. One activity in which they might engage is kidnapping the characters, should they stay at a certain inn within the village, in which case one or more of them might wind up imprisoned or enthralled by the naga. Even so, this is a far cry from the heavy-handed story-driven approach seen in later AD&D modules.

The approach Niles adopts throughout is one I've come to appreciate more as the years have worn on. He trusts the players to figure out what's happening in Orlane and to act accordingly, just as he trusts the DM to be able to handle the various moving parts of the local situation without the need for explicit instructions on how to do so. N1 may be a beginning level module but it nevertheless doesn't treat its readers like children. It's little wonder why it earned an entry on the list of the 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

REVIEW: Folk Magic of the Haven Lands

Since 2017, Monkeyblood Design has been detailing the Midderlands, "a twisted version of central England" as viewed "through grime-smeared spectacles." Though ostensibly written for use with Swords & Wizardry, all Midderlands products are easily adapted to your favorite OSR rules system. The latest release for the Midderlands is no different. 

Folk Magic of the Haven Isles (available in hardcover, softcover, and PDF) is a concise 60-page volume offering a collection of new options for magic-users, inspired by the folklore of the actual British Isles (called the Haven Isles in the Midderlands setting). Written by Richard Marpole and with full color illustrations by Glynn Seal, Folk Magic is delightful, filled with not only intriguing takes on magic but the same quirky charm found in all the Midderlands books – a twisted (semi)historical fantasy with bits of absurd, Pythonesque humor.

More importantly, this is a book suffused with a refreshing specificity. Nearly everything in Folk Magic is inspired by real world myths and legends while still being accessible to those unfamiliar with them. In this way, the book avoids being generic and deracinated like so much fantasy these days. There's a groundedness to it all that, for me anyway, is a huge part of its appeal.

The meat of Folk Magic is the eleven new magical sub-classes it introduces. Each one is tied to the traditions of the Haven Isles, providing unique abilities and drawbacks, including spell options and casting styles. Fortunately, each sub-class generally takes up only one or two pages of text, ensuring that any new rules associated with them are straightforward and simple to employ. In most cases, the descriptions focus as much on flavor as on rules, which I think offers a great model to referees looking for ways to customize the magic-users of their own settings. 

The new sub-classes are:

  • Appel Queen or King: Supernaturally inspired brewers (an option for beer making is provided)
  • Bog Chanter: Knowers of the secrets of bogs and marshes.
  • Braag: Magical tricksters who can change into donkeys
  • Demon Slaves: Sorcerers who have aligned themselves with devilry in exchange for great power
  • Faerie Bride or Bridegroom: Individuals who spent time in the realm of the Faeries
  • Green Child: Children raised in the subterranean Middergloom and make their way to the surface
  • Hermetic Magician: Learned scholars of the occult
  • Masked Dancer: Magicians who draw power from the masks and costumes they don
  • Peller: Cunning-folk steeped in the lore of their rural homes
  • Sin Eater: Religious folk who acquire magical abilities by atoning for the sins of magicians
  • Spae Wife: Prophets and weather diviners
  • Stitch Witch: Magicians who demonstrate their powers through magical attire
  • Toadman: Poisoners, gamblers, and con men with batrachian powers
  • Wizard of the Cage: Sorcerers who tend to the sleeping knights fated to help the Haven Isles in its hour of greatest need
As you can see, there is a great deal of variety in the sub-classes. The one thing that unites them is their connection to the folklore of the Midderlands setting. For example, the Braag is more common among the playable goblin race and is reflective of their ways, while the Green Child maintains a connection to the weird green radiation that manifests in physical deformities that can be passed on to others. In every case, there are small tweaks or additions to the basic magic-user class, such as the demon slave's demonic familiar or the spae wife's divinations, that set them apart. It's all so simple and yet evocative, demonstrating that you don't need to deviate too much from the core classes of the D&D tradition in order to create a PC or NPC who is genuinely distinctive.

Folk Magic of the Haven Isles also includes new backgrounds (non-mechanical bits of inspiration), magical tomes (spellbooks with histories of their own), new spells (some limited to specific sub-classes), and oddities, like the mandrake and robin jade-breast. Taken together, it's a neat little package of ideas to inspire referees and players alike, whether they're using the Midderlands setting or not. If nothing else, I hope that we'll see more books like this, not just from Monkeyblood Design, but from other publishers too: charming and idiosyncratic takes on the well worn elements of old school fantasy. There's a surprising amount of life left in these hoary standards. Folk Magic of the Haven Isles brilliantly demonstrates shows this to be the case; others should take note and emulate it.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #7

Issue #7 of Imagine appeared in October 1983 and its cover proclaims that it is "A DRAGONQUEST game special edition." That alone is quite intriguing to me, since DragonQuest is a game for which I still have a strange attraction, even though I never really got the chance to play back in the day. Furthermore, it's rare to see a gaming magazine outside of SPI's own Ares devote much space to supporting it. Of course, not long before this issue was published TSR had picked up DragonQuest, along with all of SPI's intellectual property, through a self-serving financial arrangement that ultimately resulted in SPI's shutting down for good. This issue was likely an effort – I believe there was a similar one in the pages of Dragon – to drum up support for TSR's latest RPG acquisition.

We'll get to the DQ content shortly. First, there's another installment of Jim Bambra's "The Beginners' Guide to Roleplaying Games," accompanied, as were previous ones, by a comic, "The Adventures of Nic the Novice," drawn by Geoff Wingate, under the pen name of Paul Ruiz. This issue's chapter shows what it's like to assume a role in a game. Looking back on this from the hindsight of 2020, when the idea of RPGs is so well established, it's difficult to understand why an article like this was necessary. Yet, it clearly was and it's an important reminder of just how strange and indeed revolutionary this hobby was even in the early 1980s.

Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" also returns. This time, he discusses the importance of planning to the success of a D&D adventure. It's a fascinating little piece, because so much of Musson's advice seems rooted in an understanding of D&D where dungeon exploration is a foundational activity. For example, his advice concerns matters such as healing, avoiding combats, and treasure seeking, among others. Nearly a decade after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, these were still important considerations to players of the game.

"The Quest for the Perfect Game" is a lengthy, four-page article by Robert Kern, discussing the strengths of the DragonQuest game, both in general terms and in comparison to D&D. Now, it's worth noting that Kern wrote an introductory adventure for DQ, which was included in the second edition of the game. Nevertheless, he states early on that he "was asked to write an article introducing the DRAGONQUEST game to people perhaps more familiar with the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game." Asked by whom he does not say, but, as I noted above, my guess is that it was TSR who did so in order to promote their newly acquired RPG. Kern provides some support for this interpretation at the end of his article when he says:
The good news is that TSR now own the DRAGONQUEST game so that it no longer directly competes with the D&D game in the marketplace, and therefore can be given the full marketing and creative force that TSR can muster. 

Sadly, that never happened and DragonQuest effectively died after TSR took over its publication. Even so, this issue offers a mini-adventure by Michael Brunton for DQ that, unlike the one that appeared in issue #6, is not dual-statted for AD&D.

"The Philosopher's Stone" is an ongoing competition, with a monetary prize of £40 to whoever can correctly answer six questions based on a two-page illustration filled with strange symbols and imagery. "Illuminations" provides news from around the world regarding to the latest happenings in roleplaying games, especially releases. Graeme Davis offers a short story, while Don Turnbull talks about trademarks. The "Dispel Confusion" column answers reader questions about D&D, AD&D, and RuneQuest. There's another entry in the comic saga of "Rubic of Moggedon and "The Imagination Machine" discusses the possibilities to be achieved with more advanced home computers (such as those with 256K of RAM!). 

As with previous issues, there's a page devoted to the latest fanzine releases. I continue to find this remarkable, particularly now that I have produced fanzines of my own. I don't believe Dragon ever took note of these kinds of grassroots publications and it suggests a significant way that the hobby in the UK might have been different than in North America. This issue also includes reviews of Frank Mentzer's D&D Basic Rules, Dave Trampier's Titan, and the second edition of Gamma World. Peter Tamlyn criticizes "rule playing" in a two-page piece that reminds me very much of discussions found in numerous periodicals around the same time. This is another fascinating snapshot of where the hobby was in the early 1980s.

I never read Imagine at the time of its release, White Dwarf being my main window on what was happening in gaming on the other side of the Atlantic. Consequently, reading through these issues continues to be educational, filling in gaps in my knowledge and providing insights I otherwise would not have had.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Out of My Hands

Growing up, Star Trek was my first love when it came to science fiction. I can't recall how young I was when I was introduced to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, but it was certainly several years before 1977, when Star Wars appeared and momentarily won my cheating heart. In any case, the release of FASA's Star Trek the Roleplaying Game in 1982 was an important moment in my gaming history. I still remember the anticipation occasioned by the ads in the pages of Dragon that heralded the game's imminent arrival. 

This post isn't actually about Star Trek or Star Trek the Roleplaying Game, though the latter serves as an important example. You see, an early supplement for the RPG was Trader Captains and Merchant Princes by Guy W. McLimore which detailed, as its name suggests, what it is like to be an independent trader à la Cyrano Jones in the Star Trek universe. I really liked the book for many reasons – perhaps I'll do a Retrospective on it some day – but a reason that sticks out is its inclusion of rules for playing the Federation stock market.

The rules are fairly simple, even simplistic if you know anything about real world financial markets. Arguably, they don't even make much sense in the post-scarcity economy of Roddenberry's United Federation of Planets. None of that mattered to me, who enjoyed the rules because they mechanized an aspect of the background setting, enabling me to see the rise and fall of the relative values of Federation companies. This might not seem like much, but it meant a lot in merchant campaigns where the the fortunes of Multiplanet Metals or Shuvinaaljis Warp Technologies played an important role. I appreciated that, with a few rolls of the dice, a part of the game setting was taken out of my hands and I could be as surprised at how things unfolded as the players.

This is also why I continue to esteem Frank Mentzer's D&D Companion Rules, despite their many shortcomings. Mentzer included a couple of lists of natural and unnatural events, along with percentages assigned to each, that might occur in a player character-run domain each year. To call it a "system" is ridiculous, but it nevertheless gives the referee some creative pushes in terms of how the campaign world might unfold independent of his own ideas. A more developed version of these lists can be found in 1985's Oriental Adventures by Gary Gygax, David Cook, and François Marcela-Froideval.

After refereeing my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign for the last five and a half years, I've often found myself looking for ways to mechanize background events, both to alleviate some of the prep work I must do and to ensure that setting events don't fall into ruts. I find that certain ideas recur in my imagination and, left solely to my own devices, things might get repetitive. Having access to a system that determined, for example, the start of a war or a political alliance or a magical discovery would be extremely useful to me. The only old school RPG I can think that includes such a system is Stars Without Numbers and even that isn't exactly what I'm looking for. I suppose the answer, as with so many things, is to make one for myself.

The DragonDex

While I'm sure most readers are already familiar with this site, there may be some newcomers who are not. The DragonDex is probably one of the most useful sites I've come across. It's a complete index of all 359 print issues of Dragon magazine, covering material from June 1976 to September 2007. Helpfully, there are several different ways to use the index, starting with the straightforward Master Index, which simply lists all the articles alphabetically. Each article listing provides its title, author, game system, and the issue in which it appeared, along with the page numbers. 

It's simply a site and I can't tell you how often I've used it to locate an article I only dimly remember from my youth. Whether you're trying to do the same or you're simply interested in the history of the hobby, the DragonDex is an amazing resource.  

Pulp Fantasy Library: Burn, Witch, Burn!

Abraham Grace Merritt (1884–1943) is one of the forgotten fathers of fantasy and science fiction and, by extension, the other genres and entertainments that they inspired. Gary Gygax was quite clear about the influence Merritt exercised over his own imagination. In Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide, he lists Merritt alongside such luminaries as Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Lovecraft, most of whom, I'd wager, are much more well known and widely read today. 

That's a shame, in my opinion, because Merritt was an imaginative writer with a unique voice who, in his day, was both successful and well regarded by his peers. He worked most of his adult life as a reporter and editor for a variety of American periodicals. Over the course of his career, he traveled extensively and, in so doing, acquired many mementos of remote locales, including books on esoteric subjects, most of which we'd group under the heading of the occult today.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his works. Black magic and diabolism figure prominently in Merritt's pulp yarns, none more clearly than in his novel Burn, Witch, Burn! Originally serialized in the pages of Argosy over the course of six issues between October 22, 1932 and November 26, 1932, Burn, Witch, Burn! presents itself as a fictionalized account of real events that took place in New York City. The narrator is a medical doctor "specializing in neurology and diseases of the brain" who uses the pseudonym Lowell, in order to avoid identifying his true identity. He adds that all the characters in his tale are real people whose names he has changed for similar reasons.

In the foreword, Dr Lowell states the following:

But now, orthodox man of medicine that I am, I ask myself whether there may not be causes other than those we admit. Forces and energies which we stubbornly disavow because we can find no explanation for them within the narrow confines of our present knowledge. Energies whose reality is recognized in folklore, the ancient traditions, of all peoples, and which, to justify our ignorance, we label myth and superstition.

A wisdom, a science, immeasurably old. Born before history, but never dying nor ever wholly lost. A secret wisdom, but always with its priests and priestesses guarding its dark flame, passing it on from century to century. Dark flame of forbidden knowledge... burning in Egypt before even the Pyramids were raised; and in temples crumbling now beneath the Gobi's sands; known to the sons of Ad whom Allah, so say the Arabs, turned to stone for their sorceries ten thousand years before Abraham trod the streets of Ur of the Chaldees; known in China—and known to the Tibetan lama, the Buryat shaman of the steppes and to the warlock of the South Seas alike.

Dark flame of evil wisdom... deepening the shadows of Stonehenge's brooding menhirs; fed later by hands of Roman legionaries; gathering strength, none knows why, in medieval Europe... and still burning, still alive, still strong.

With the stage now set, Lowell regales the reader with the story of his encounter with Julian Ricori, "a notorious underworld chieftain, one of the finished products of the Prohibition Law." Ricori has a problem that he believes only Lowell can solve: his partner in crime, Peters, has been afflicted with a mysterious ailment, one that leaves him catatonic and completely non-responsive. Ricori offers Dr Lowell a large sum of money, if he can not only discover the cause of the man's affliction but also save his life. 

Lowell agrees to help, out of scientific curiosity and concern for the man's health rather than any desire for money. He takes a blood sample, which he examines under a microscope, revealing a single strange, phosphorescent globule inside a leukocyte. Not long thereafter, Peters dies but not before "the chattering laughter of a devil" erupts from him. An autopsy reveals little more about Peters' death. Frustrated, Lowell sets out to see if anyone else in the city has recently died under similar circumstances. He not only finds that there are in fact seven others but they all have something in common: visiting a toy shop run by an old woman named Madame Mandilip.

It's at this point that Burn, Witch, Burn! really takes off. Dr Lowell finds his scientific skepticism challenged again and again, as he is forced to consider the increasingly likely possibility that Madame Mandilip is in fact a witch and that the dolls she sells in her toy shop are enchanted to come alive and kill! If this sounds ridiculous, on some level it is, but Merritt makes it work, largely due to his skill at evoking mood. Burn, Witch, Burn! is a terrific yarn in the pulp tradition.

So successful was Burn, Witch, Burn! that it was – loosely – adapted into a movie by Tod Browning (of Dracula fame) in 1936 under the title The Devil-Doll. This was the second Merritt tale turned into a film, the first being the 1929 silent movie, Seven Footprints to Satan, and is generally better regarded, despite the many liberties it takes with the source material. The Devil-Doll is best known for its special effects and its star, Lionel Barrymore, whose character, wholly original to the motion picture, evades capture by his enemies by disguising himself as an old woman named Madame Mandilip. The movie is worth watching primarily as an artifact of its time and as a reminder of how poorly Merritt, like most pulp writers, has been served by Hollywood's attempts to adapt them.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Asymmetric Warfare

I'm not sheepish about admitting that I've never been a wargamer. Growing up, I knew a lot of wargamers, like the father and older brother of a childhood friend, but I wasn't one myself. Of course, all the hobby stores I frequented – including chain stores like Toys "R" Us – sold Avalon Hill and SPI bookcase games, but, until I was in high school, I never had much opportunity to play any of them (and, even then, my experiences were quite limited). 

I consider this a serious lacuna in my gaming education. That's why I've long been looking for ways to correct this – and in recent months I have. Last summer, I got back in touch with a couple of friends of mine whom I hadn't seen in years. One of them is fairly experienced wargamer, with a sizable collection of games, both classics of the genre and more recent designs. Recent events in the world have given us all a surprisingly amount of free time and we decided to use some of it wargaming each week.

Naturally, we're not playing these games face-to-face. Instead, we're making use of VASSAL, a virtual tabletop created for wargamers (specifically Advanced Squad Leader). VASSAL has proven surprisingly easy to use, not to mention fun. Based on my friend's recommendation, we began my education with GMT's Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar. Partly this was done because it's a period of history I know a bit about and partly because Falling Sky is an entry in GMT's COIN series, which my friend thought would appeal to me.

COIN is a contraction of counter insurgency and the games in the series are notable for having three or more dissimilar factions in contention with one another. A very good article at another site described them very well: 

COIN can be described as multi-factional guerrilla wargames with a simple area control system that is driven by actions and objectives that are often unique for each faction. Bolted on to this is a card-driven historical event system; the result is simplistic, asymmetrical progression with a historical narrative. With four players the military environment has a political layer of oversight that drives player interaction, sub-optimal decisions, and tense tactical trade-offs. Even your so-called friends can pose a direct threat to your efforts through corruption, cultural patronage, or shady business practices.

I greatly enjoyed both the design of Falling Sky and my experience playing it. As an introduction to the world of contemporary wargame design, it could not have been better (well, maybe if I'd have won!). We'll soon be continuing my education with another COIN game, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection before, I hope, playing some older games. I have decades' worth of catching up to do.

Interview: Jeff Grubb (Part II)

 6. You were in charge of design and development on the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. What was it like to pore over Ed Greenwood's pages of notes and turn them into a publishable product?

I reached out to Ed, who had previously published articles about the Realms in DRAGON magazine. He started mailing me the material from his campaign is massively-over-wrapped packages (there is a thick Canadian cellophane he used that could duplicate window replacements in strength, and my office-mates would hear me spending five minutes just unwrapping them). Soon we worked out a system using the new FedEx, which made things easier, but otherwise we depending on US and Canadian Post, and the border agents.

Ed’s material was extremely verbose – most of the “Elminister’s notes” in the original Grey Box we pulled directly from his notes. He would type single-space, using infinitely thin margins, and occasionally cut out a section and paste it in another place. This was just as desk-top-publishing was getting started, and part of his initial payment for the Realms was a Macintosh with two floppy disk drives. Later we got him a hard-drive as well. All of this was typewritten, and his typewriter was not always the best, so he hand-drew the “t”s on his page after he finished, so it looked like a little graveyard.

For his maps, he hauled them down to the library where he worked and photocopied them in pieces. The original Realms map was 24 8x11 pieces of paper that I had to reassemble. I colored in the coastlines, forests, and major trade routes with high-lighters and hung in on the wall outside my office. Alex Kammer of GameHole Con has that version now.

7. A number of changes were made both to the map and content of the Forgotten Realms, such as the enlargement of the Moonshae Isles and the inclusion of Vaasa and Damara. Was the decision to do that yours or was suggested by others at TSR? 

Back at the time, we had a number of projects already published or en route while we worked on the FR Grey Box. We wanted the Realms to be a place where you could put just about everything, and I made it a goal to show how we could do it. We changed the maps accordingly. The H-Series had two products out, and we drained part of the Great Glacier for Vaasa and Damara. Doug Niles had a half-written novel for a cancelled project, so we adopted it for the first Realms novel. The Desert of Desolation series found a home after being orphaned for a while, and also Under Illefarn, which made it into the Realms. Oh, and Ten Towns was in the far Northwest, because most of the northern border had other people working in it. For the first couple years, I had the various areas marked as one person or another working in it, and if you went there, you should double-check. Ed, of course, had dibs on the Dales, Cormyr, and Waterdeep.

8. Of course, you're probably most well known for having designed both editions of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG for TSR. How did you land that particular job?

This one has three origin stories:

In college, we had wrapped up a major D&D quest, and rather than starting a new campaign in Toril (the name of my campaign), I suggested a superhero game. From there we started playing with “the Junior Achievers”, the JA branch of the Avengers (the was before the West Coast Avengers and other subsidiary teams). The players were characters like The Beacon, Big Man on Campus, and Super-Pin, the Pro-Bowler of Steel. They fought crime in West Lafayette, Indiana, usually battling against some Marvel Villain on the lam from NYC. I called it Project: Marvel Comics.

When I got to TSR, management asked for “Blue Sky Projects” that we would like to work on. I presented the idea for a very grimdark cyberpunk settings (some parts of that got in the FREELancers setting for Top Secret SI). The proposal may have frightened people, because they came back and said, “What else you got?” And I had Project: Marvel Comics from my college years.

It still may not have happened as a game, but in the GenCon booklet for that year, Mayfair Games announced THEY were doing a Marvel Super Heroes game. Our people saw that and contacted Marvel, who said, no, there was no deal, but was TSR interested? And that is how we got the license. It was great working with Marvel. Mayfair turned around and got the DC license, and also did a Marvel Super Heroes calendar, which reprinted the text from a calendar 11 years previously (which is why the text on the calendar has so many Dick Nixon jokes).

9. How much did Marvel assist you in the creating and supporting the game? Obviously, they provided lots of art resources, but did they offer any other assistance?

Marvel was incredibly supportive both from a standpoint of approvals and getting us art. They had a warehouse across the river with all of the original art, and every month or so, they would send someone over to get us photostats of what we needed. We also got original art by John Byrne for some of our modules. On the back of one page, he sketched out alternate TSR Logos. I don't have that piece, alas.

Marvel was very accommodating about letting us know what they had in the works as well, trusting we would not spill the beans. And they double-checked everything - there was an issue of Marvel Age, their fan magazine, in which they mentioned an editor looking for the Russian translation of "Crimson Dynamo" for us.

One interesting thing: we did the Gamer's Handbook of the Marvel Universe (we called them the phone books, since they were the same size as the Lake Geneva Yellow Pages), with the idea we could just get all their text off their computers. As it turned out, none of the text from the original Official Handbooks of the Marvel Universe had been saved, so we input all the text, then shared the files back to Marvel.

10. Is there a product or products for Marvel Super Heroes that you're particularly proud of?

I hate choosing a favorite child, but I really liked how Murderworld! turned out - pitting Arcade versus the Fantastic Four. I always likes Arcade as a baddie: "Instant androids, Love 'em!"

11. The last time we chatted, you were employed by Amazon Game Studio as Senior Narrative Designer. What does that job entail and are you working on any projects you can share with us? 

I have been the Senior Narrative Designer on the recently-released Crucible project. In that role, I have overseen the text and voice-over for the game. I have to write, or at least review, all the words on the screen and the characters speak. I have been aided by our other talented narrative designers, and together we create a backstory for the world and the personal history of the hunters you play. We help select the voices you hear and oversee the recording. I am still world-building, but now it on a much bigger screen.

12. Do you still play RPGs these days and, if so, which ones?

I am still playing twice a week (now over Discord as we are all living in solitude), and have a band of usual suspects. We usually run Call of Cthulhu with a rotating Keeper – right now I am running Masks of Nyarlathotepand they just finished the Nairobi chapter. Veteran editor Steve Winter, who worked on MSH with me all those years ago, runs a D&D 5E game of Forbidden Caverns of Archaia on Monday nights. I still read RPGs voraciously, and have had the chance to learn Blades in the Dark from a co-worker at Amazon.