Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Harsh Sentence

Kyrinn Eis recently reminded me of this vaporware game from my youth, Imperial Earth. It was advertised in issue #118 (February 1987) of Dragon and I recall thinking that it sounded intriguing. There were also apparently ads in the pages of White Dwarf and Different Worlds around the same time, though I didn't see them. Based on the second ad below, Imperial Earth was one of two settings – the other being called Fireland – intended for use with a RPG called Anywhen.

So far as I know, none of this was ever released. Likewise, their would-be publisher, K Society, is a mystery about which I know nothing. Imperial Earth is far from unique in this regard. There are no doubt many such RPGs in the annals of gaming, but this is the one I always think about.

Instant Bonding Power

Perhaps for the first time in this series of posts about unusual items produced or licensed by TSR Hobbies during the height of D&D's popularity, I'm not going to be critical. Yes, taken out of context, the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Basic Adhesive Set sounds absurd. What you have to remember, though, is that this set was released in 1983 at the same time that TSR was making its own ill-starred foray into the world of 25mm miniatures. The Basic Adhesive Set should be understood as a companion to the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Basic Paint Set released in the same year. They're part of an attempt by TSR to become a one-stop shop for all a D&D player's gaming needs. 

In principle, it's a fine idea and, had it worked, it might well have generated the company a great deal of revenue. Consider: this is the same year that Games Workshop published the first editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle and four years before the release of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, two games that became juggernauts of profitability the likes of which put even Dungeons & Dragons to shame (and may still do so for all I know). This is a case where I can't point and laugh, because TSR's instinct were genuinely good.

The problem was with the execution. I can't speak to the quality of either the adhesive or paint sets, because I never owned them. The miniatures, though, were terrible. The sculpts, particularly of the monsters, were poor and the casts were often flimsy. I remember that the weapons of the character miniatures broke easily. I don't know who was responsible for the actual production of the miniatures – whether it was TSR itself or some subsidiary company – but the line was not well received and ended within a couple of years. That's when Citadel acquired the license to produce official AD&D minis. In an alternate universe, TSR would have bought Citadel rather than Games Workshop and the company still exists today, with a chain of stores across the world, hawking the latest edition of the Chainmail Miniatures Battle Game, along with minis, paints, and, yes, adhesives.

Retrospective: Wilderness Survival Guide

I've talked before about what I call the "Silver Age obsessions" of AD&D: the desire to create a grounded, "realistic" fantasy setting – and provide rules to support it. Few books in the TSR canon better exemplify this than Kim Mohan's Wilderness Survival Guide, which appeared on store shelves in 1986. I remember well how excited I was by the prospect of this book. I'd already bought – and loved – the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, released earlier in the same year, and had high hopes that it would be similarly inspiring to me. 

Whatever its flaws, the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was at least interesting. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the Wilderness Survival Guide, which is probably the most dull, tedious D&D book I have ever owned, for any edition. Rather than inspiring me, as I expected and as the DSG had, the Wilderness Survival Guide actively discouraged me from wanting to inject a little environmental realism into my adventures and campaigns. About the only thing I liked about the book were its additions and tweaks to the non-weapon proficiency system first introduced in Oriental Adventures and then expanded upon in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. 

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh. My youthful disappointments in the book no doubt color my perceptions. Even so, the subject matter of the book is dry stuff: There are lengthy discussions devoted to weather and environmental effects, as well as movement and encumbrance. Food, water, camping, fatigue, exhaustion, and more all covered in great details, often with rules to support their use in play. I have little doubt that someone enjoyed them and used them to good effect in his games, but that someone was not me. Part of the problem, I think, is that the rules are all very specific, like the chance of tumbling down a moderate or gentle slope, the chance of food spoilage by effective temperature, and the warmth provided by a campfire by size and distance. The book is filled with such things and the cumulative effect is soporific. If you are in need of such specificity, the book has you covered and then some.

The book's failures (for me anyway) can be summed up in its much-too-short final chapter, which is supposed to provide advice and guidance on creating a realistic campaign setting. That's right up my alley and exactly the kind of thing that I would have liked – had it been the least bit inspirational. Instead, it's just a sequence of steps, with some brief commentary. Worse yet, there's no example given at all. One of the things that I most liked about the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was the subterranean region of Deepearth, with its isometric maps and descriptions of the races and factions of the place. Reading that section not only made me want to create my own version but at least partially justified all the rules that had preceded it, because they were used and referenced. The Wilderness Survival Guide did no such thing, leaving me with little reason to want to use its many pages of rules.

The situation is probably made worse by the fact that the artwork throughout, with the notable exception of Jim Holloway's pieces, is not very interesting. In a few cases, it's clearly re-purposed artwork from elsewhere (a problem in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide too). This gives the book a bland, desultory quality that obscured the great deal of research Mohan probably put into the writing of the book. I feel bad for speaking ill of his labors, but here we are. Books like this played a big role in my increasing dissatisfaction with late AD&D, a dissatisfaction that (briefly) led to my abandoning the game before being drawn back in through the publication of a handful of products in 1987 and 1988 that I considered worthy of my attention – but that's a story for another post.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Are They All Crazy?

I've been known to say that the past is a foreign country By this, I only mean that, when looking at the past, we would do well to approach it with unbiased eyes, lest we become baffled by how different things were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. This is especially true when you're looking at the history of RPGs. Nowadays, the term "roleplaying game" is widely known and understood, even by people who have never played one. In 1981, though, it was a comparatively new coinage and sometimes misunderstood. Furthermore, the premier RPG – then, as now – was Dungeons & Dragons and had acquired associations in the minds of some that made the entire hobby seem like the realm of weirdos and deviants. 

That's the context for the penultimate chapter of J. Eric Holmes's 1981 book, Fantasy Role Playing Games. Entitled "Are They All Crazy?," the chapter seeks to address popular questions, such as "Isn't that the game where the students from Michigan were playing in the steam tunnels and one of them got killed?" As an avid player of the game, as well as a physician who taught at the Department of Neurology at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, Holmes had both a personal and professional interest in confronting these and other questions. From the vantage point of 2020, some of these concerns no doubt seem bizarre, but, as many readers will no doubt attest, they were not uncommon at the time. The chapter is fascinating too for the insight it provides into what the gaming scene was like four decades ago.

Holmes immediately notes that at least some players of RPGs encourage the impression that the hobby is odd, because they gain "some sort of status from the reputation for unusual behavior." This wasn't true in my own personal experience, but, given the behavior of friends involved in other "odd" sub-cultures, I can believe it to be the case. He adds that charges of "obsession" are misplaced, as it's in the nature of teenagers, who form a prime demographic for RPGs, to become single minded about a subject, "whether it be rock music, or baseball, or Dungeons & Dragons, or a new girlfriend."  Furthermore, compared to many other activities in which teenagers might engage, RPGs are quite tame, even beneficial in many ways.

Holmes puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that roleplaying games are a social activity, which helps "shy, introverted people who have problems getting along with others" to learn to overcome those handicaps. Learning to cooperate with others is one of "the moral lessons built into the game," one he believes was intentionally placed there by Gary Gygax.

In the D&D world fighters can not do magic, but magicians are so weak that they need to be protected by fighters. Clerics can heal wounds and do a lot of fighting but are no good at long distance offensives because they can not shoot arrows or throw offensive spells. The constraints of the rules practically dictate cooperation and mutual respect for the talents and weaknesses of each class, and I find it hard to believe that Gygax was not fully conscious of the principle when he wrote them.

It's an intriguing thesis, though I don't imagine it will hold much weight with many. Regardless, it's merely one of Holmes's examples of the essentially beneficial nature of the hobby. He also cites the games' encouragement of reading.

Anyone who can master Gygax's prose and vocabulary has to be able to read at college level. The Advanced D&D Dungeon Master's Guide does have a short glossary, but the reader will need a regular English dictionary to get through book. How many of my readers (who are not Dungeon Masters), for instance can define: ethereal, levitation, barbican, machicolation, oligarchy, chevalier, polymorph, lammasu, shaman, or chalcedony, to pick a few at random?

There's much truth in this, as we've discussed previously. Holmes also claims that RPGs teach "map reading, memorization, problem solving, and a fair amount of rapid arithmetic." His point here is not so much that RPGs should be played solely for their moral or scholastic benefits, only that, far from being wastes of time, roleplaying games do confer benefits on those who participate in them.

The chief benefit, in his opinion, is allowing players to develop their imaginations. 

Without imaginary speculation about what might be or might have been there would be no religion, no literature, no atomic physics, no molecular biology. Human progress comes from man's ability to speculate imaginatively about things he does not understand and then translate those speculations into action.

He also addresses "all the violence and bloodshed" that occurs in some gaming sessions first by pointing out that "conflict is the stuff of drama" and then agreeing with H.G. Wells, who in his Little Wars, noted that imaginary conflict is much better than the real thing. He goes on to say that there is nothing wrong in "letting off a little steam ... [by] daydreaming of punching the boss in the face." Because society often denies people easy outlets for such feelings, RPGs provides them with a way of doing so harmlessly. 

Holmes concludes this chapter by pondering why roleplaying games have become so popular. His answer is worth pondering, because I think his answer is a good, though incomplete one:

the appeal of the games comes from the element of escape from reality which is not solitary but social, a return to the childhood world of "Let's pretend." It fulfills the secret desire we all cherish, to find a world where the heroes are always handsome, the heroines always lovely, good is always beautiful, and evil is always ugly. It is a world as one would like it to be, people by a finer, or at least more powerful version of our very selves.

I say "incomplete," because I think Holmes has forgotten to address why the referee might enjoy RPGs. His answer applies largely to players and overlooks the distinct pleasures that come from what Tolkien called the act of sub-creation. Over the course of my four decades in the hobby, I've primarily been a referee rather than a player and it's creating and orchestrating imaginary worlds that give me joy. This isn't a criticism of Holmes; I simply thought it important to note that he seems not to have considered this other reason for the appeal of the hobby.

House of Worms, Session 200

The characters pressed forward, continuing their exploration of Temple of Ages. Ahead of them lay a long corridor with multiple doors. Closer inspection revealed the doors were connected to cells. All the cells were empty but two. Each of these contained a body that showed signs of having been dead several days. One was that of a young man and one was that of an older man. Physically, they resembled the Naqsái but their clothing looked different than anything the characters had seen elsewhere in the Achgé Peninsula. 

Znayáshu decided to make use of his medium spell to speak with the spirit of the older man. The spell was successful and the older man identified himself as Teshrúna. He said he came from a city called Té Fázh, from which he was traveling to another place called Hikóshu. Hikóshu is apparently an island on which is situated "ruins of the Ancients." Further interrogation revealed little. Teshrúna knew only that his caravan had been attacked by "the snake-headed ones" – Qól – and that he had been captured and taken underground. Znayáshu used his spell again to speak with the spirit of the young man, who identified himself as Washára, the son of Teshrúna. Unlike his father, he was straightforward and arrogant, expressing disdain, even pity, for "the sons of Naháq" who lived "east of the mountains." The characters took this to mean that Té Fázh was somewhere west of the Temple of Ages and home to a totally different culture than the Naqsái with whom they were familiar. Otherwise, though, Washára was little more help than Teshrúna; he apparently died with little cognizance of what happened to him.

Pushing further into the Temple, the characters found three more Thúnru'u guarding a chamber. After defeating them, the group entered the chamber and found the partially dissected body of Khángor, one of Lady Srüna's companion and a sorcerer possessing knowledge of the means to summon Muzhrán, Bearer of the Hidden Crown. Znayáshu employed medium once more to speak with his spirit. He was briefly in touch with Khángor before communication was severed and a feminine voice took over. She asked, "Who are you to interfere with what is mine? He belongs to me!" When asked her name, the voice replied, "I am the Tracker of Stars." (A brief digression: "star" in this case refers not to a celestial object, since there are no stars in Tékumel's sky. Rather, it refers to a magical shape, such as the Seven-Pointed Star of Nmítu Tirikká spoken of in The Book of Ebon Bindings.) Znayáshu asked the voice if she was also known as Daráya and she said, "That is how the Sons of Naháq address me; you too may call me that if it pleases you." Daráya reiterated that Khángor's spirit was hers and that the characters may not speak to him. When asked why this was so, she explained, "This one stole from me and none may do that without suffering for it." 

Znayáshu ended the spell, believing that he needed to find some way to speak directly to Khángor. He and the others then took the sorcerer's body, with the aim of bringing it to the surface and then casting another medium spell the next day. Unfortunately, Daráya had other ideas. As the characters attempted to ascend the stairs to the first level, their way was blocked by a large group of Shédra, one of which spoke with the voice of Daráya, "I told you: he is mine. You may not take even his body." Negotiations then followed, in which Daráya explained that Khángor's supposedly "Llyáni ritual" to summon Muzhrán was, in fact, a secret spell of which the Tracker of Stars was a guardian. Znayáshu said that he and his clan mates needed that spell so that they could then banish Muzhrán from this plane. Upon hearing that, Daráya's attitude changed. She said that she would summon Muzhrán so that Tulkésh could use his own ritual of banishment. Why she agreed to help no one learned, but she did so.

Muzhrán appeared as a tall, thin humanoid being of pure white with no features except a large, open mouth. He said, "I am the Pale Bone. I bear the Hidden Crown. Will you take it from me?" The characters were taken aback by this. They had suspected that Muzhrán had some connection to the Goddess of the Pale Bone, but his introduction suggested a much closer connection and they were afraid. Muzhrán continued, "Llyán accepted it and now he rules eternally. Tlimastlikén rejected it and where is his empire? The Sons of Naháq, too, were offered the Crown and did not seize it. Look at them: squabbling amongst themselves over scraps, devoting themselves to weak gods, when they could rule over all."

Several characters, most notably Nebússa, were tempted by this offer, but none dared take him up on it, fearing that it was in fact a trap. They rejected "the Hidden Crown," whatever that is. "Your perceptions are limited, your vision obscured" was Muzhrán's answer. But it was too late: Tulkésh, under the direction of Znayáshu started the ritual of banishment and Muzhrán was sent elsewhere from Tékumel's plane. 

The Horror in Clay

With apologies to H.P. Lovecraft, I give you an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DAS modeling kit – one of (I think) two released in 1982. DAS, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a synthetic, mineral-based substance that is not, in the strict sense, clay. Invented by Dario Scala (and whose initials form its name) in the early 1960s, its most important feature is that, unlike real clay, it does not need to be baked in order to harden. Most art supply stores sell it even today.

This kit featured molds for both a goblin and a dragon. The goblin bears a little resemblance to Dave Trampier's illustration from the Monster Manual, while the dragon seems rather generic to my eyes, though it's possible that it too is based on an illustration. Regardless, the end results are rather crude, as befits a product geared toward 6–12 year-olds. 

The underside of the box looked like this:
In addition to instructions on how to use the materials, there are also three cut-out figures – a troll, a dwarf, and a centaur – all based on artwork from the Monster Manual, one by Trampier and two by Dave Sutherland. I find the re-use of artwork from actual AD&D products to be one of the most fascinating things about some of these spin-off products. 

Like the infamous woodburning set, one has to wonder about the logic behind this license. 1982 is right at the start of a period when TSR had begun to expand its reach beyond the narrow confines of games publishing. Given D&D's faddish success at the time – and the huge profits it generated – I don't think it was at all unreasonable for the company to consider new ways to capitalize on that success. What I question are TSR's particular choices, few of which, I suspect, paid great dividends and some of which undoubtedly contributed to the company's dire financial situation in late 1984. 

Most of these oddball licensed products I've been posting about were completely unknown to me at the time. I don't know if that's because they weren't widely distributed or if I simply failed to notice them. Lately, I've been actively looking into them and it's amazing to discover how many there were. Some of them are pretty bizarre and remind me of certain toys from my early childhood that were Star Trek-branded and yet had absolutely nothing to do with Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi program. However much I may disdain some of the efforts at exploiting the D&D brand by its current rights holders, there at least seems to be an effort to connect it, at least a little bit, to its source. That's something, I guess.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #12

It's true that, over the course of its run, Dragon magazine had a lot of exceptional covers, many of which I continue to hold in high regard. Nevertheless, I have to say that, especially when you consider its relatively brief existence. Imagine punched well above its weight. A case in point being the cover to issue #12 (March 1984) by Rodney Matthews. I love everything about this illustration, from the lighting and color palette to the expressions on the two figures' faces to the small but fierce dragon. It's a great piece that would have made a fine alternate cover to a Basic Set

The issue kicks off with "At the Mountains of the North Wind" by Gordon Barbour, which discusses the importance of weather, terrain, and climate in fantasy roleplaying games. It's a solid enough overview of a Silver Age staple, though not as extensive as other examples of the genre. Roger Musson's latest "Stirge Corner" examines the role of alignment in determining how to roleplay a character. It's fine but nothing special, though, as is so often the case with Imagine, I get the sense it was aiming at a much less experienced audience than is typical for gaming magazines.

David Langford, whom I remember from the pages of White Dwarf, provides a humorous science tale entitled "Lost Event Horizon." Meanwhile, Philip Briggs has designed a two-player boardgame called "Moranme Jobswurf," intended to simulate backstabbing interdepartmental rivalries. Not having played it, I cannot comment on much on the game itself, except to say that, although I recognize the dialectical spelling of "jobsworth," the meaning of "moranme" is lost on me. Included is a paper board and some playing pieces with very idiosyncratic portraits on them that I rather suspect depict employees of TSR UK.

This issue's game reviews are interesting, in that several are for unauthorized AD&D support products, something with which TSR always had a very complicated relationship. One discusses the module No Honour in Sathporte published by an outfit called Chaotic Intellect. Another treats the magazine Tortured Souls! In both cases, the reviews are positive and recommend the products to players of AD&D. There are also reviews of the Monster Manual II and the second edition of Chivalry & Sorcery. Both these rules are more qualifiedly positive. I found it particularly intriguing that the reviewer (Doug Cowie) considers many of the monsters in the Monster Manual II "silly," a charge I've frequently leveled against the contents of the Fiend Folio. 

Brian Creese's "Chain Mail" column discusses post gaming, a part of the larger hobby that baffled me at the time but that, with the benefit of hindsight I wish I knew more about. Gaming by mail was quite popular once upon a time and played a role in incubating many things that would one day become features of RPGs as we know them today. Similarly, "The Imagination Machine" reviews a pair of games for "micro computers," entitled Groucho and Vampire Village, neither of which I recognize. 

"The Tombs of the Kings" is a solo adventure by Mike Brunton. That's unusual in itself; even more unusual is that it uses three systems: D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, and its own simple system intended to aid those unfamiliar with RPGs. Once more, I find myself wondering about the intended audience of Imagine. The issue also includes an article by Lew Pulsipher in which speaks somewhat well of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series – though "well" in this case is short for "well, it could have been worse." There are also fanzine reviews, something that I greatly appreciate, even if all of the reviewed 'zines are unknown to me. If nothing else, it's a much needed reminder of how much bigger the hobby is than the material produced by game publishers. 

The comics "Rubic of Moggedon" and "The Sword of Alabron" continue, though neither has much hold over me. Compared to their counterparts in either Dragon or White Dwarf, these barely register with mem, sadly. Chris Felton's "Enchantment for Beginners" is another entry in the genre of "how do magic-users make magic items?" The article focuses primarily on the crafting of magic weapons, but also provides examples of "artifacts" too (the word in the case being used to describe any unique magic item rather than truly world shaking items). Graeme Morris penned a mini-adventure for AD&D called "The Mound in the Ring," which looks quite clever. 

"The Adventures of Nic Novice" has been relegated to the back of issue #12. I'll be curious to see its fate in future issues. This month's column covers combat and, like most of its predecessors, doesn't notably illuminate the topic. Colin Greenland's movie reviews offer a little more interest, at least if you enjoy negative reviews. He pans Krull, whose visuals he liked – he memorably describes one set as looking like it had been "carved out of bone by Salvador Dali" – but found the plot tedious and unimaginative. He thinks even less of Never Say Never Again, Connery's return as 007 after years away from the role. Finally, Greenland also reviews the video release of Roger Corman's The Raven from 1963, which he liked only a little more than the other two and mostly for its unintentional humor.

I continue to enjoy reading Imagine, which I did not see at the time of its original publication. The magazine is still a lot less polished and consistent than either Dragon or White Dwarf, but it's only a dozen issues in. I am very curious to see how it will mature in the issues to come.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Pinball Wizard

Via this very useful site, I was able to prove that my age-addled recollections of their having been a Dungeons & Dragons pinball game weren't mistaken. According to the site, this Bally-made cabinet was released in 1987, which is later than I'd have guessed. That's well after the Golden Age of arcades in the mid-1980s or the period of D&D's faddish popularity, though pinball has always struck me as being its own thing, distinct from other arcade games, so the aforementioned factors might not be relevant. 

In any case, here it is, in all its glory, complete with a reproduction of Larry Elmore's iconic cover illustration to Frank Mentzer's 1983 revision of the D&D Basic Set. I'm no expert in these matters, but it looks rather nice to my eyes. Did anyone else ever see one back in the day?

REVIEW: Electric Bastionland

One of the most welcome developments of the old school renaissance is an expansion of the borders of "fantasy" beyond dungeons, dragons, elves, and dwarves. A good example of this is Chris McDowall's Into the Odd, released in 2015 through Lost Pages. Though firmly a game of treasure hunting and exploration like so many fantasy RPGs, Into the Odd puts its own unique spin on it by imagining a world of depopulated countrysides and sooty cities resting atop a network of vaults and tunnels. It's an industrial, turn-of-the-20th-century take on fantasy that is at once weird and yet wholly recognizable. 

Electric Bastionland, available just as a PDF and as a sturdy hardback book, is a sequel and expansion of Into the Odd, describing "the only city that matters," the eponymous Bastion. The book begins with a striking précis of the game's focus:


The electric hub of mankind

The only city that matters

Deep Country

It stretches forever

The long shadow of our past

In the Underground

Machines undermine reality

Aliens are here

From beneath the Living Stars

You have a Failed Career

You have a colossal debt

Treasure is your only hope

Electric Bastionland (hereafter EB) begins with a chapter on its rules, which are very close to those of Into the Odd. Characters have three randomly generated ability scores – Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma –as well as a failed career. A character's failed career is determined by reference to a table that cross-references the character's highest and lowest ability scores. There are 94 possible careers, as well as 6 more that can only be obtained if a character would otherwise have the same career as another character, in which case a percentile roll is then used. These careers are the heart of EB and take up 200 of the book's 333 pages. I'll write more about them in a moment.

The rules chapter, including the overview of character generation and an example of play, is only six pages long. This should give you a good idea of the kind of RPG EB is. There are also 4 pages of equipment, running the gamut from arms and armor to animals, servants, vehicles, and property. Everything is laid out cleanly and clearly with evocative black and white art by Alec Sorensen.

The chapter on failed careers is, as I previously noted, extensive. Each of its 100 entries is presented as a two-page spread. Each entry includes an illustration. some sample names, and a series of random tables that provide some details about a character's past. The entries also include starting gear and, more importantly, a potential creditor. EB assumes that each player character group begins play in £10,000 in debt. The holder of the debt is determined by the failed career of the youngest player. Thus, if the youngest player's character was a Fringe Investigator, the creditor is the White Apricot Cable Cars, while if the character was an Expelled Lamplighter, the creditor is Jovbon the Prosthetist. This debt gives the characters a shared history and starting motivation for the campaign, which I think is quite clever.

Failed careers serve another purpose as well. Each one is an example of minimalist world building that helps both players and the referee (called the Conductor in EB) in understanding the world of the game. The Pie-Smuggler reveals something about the economy of Bastion, just as the Machine Whisperer does about the city's weird technology. In a similar fashion, the creditors introduce individuals, groups, and factions of power and/or influence in Bastion. None of these details gets much exposition; in most cases, it's simply a name and a short descriptor. Thanks to McDowall's expressive writing – and that of contributors such as OSR notables Arnold Kemp, Zedeck Siew, and Patrick Stuart – these brief descriptions drip with both flavor and inspiration. It's glorious and, taken together, they paint a far better picture of Bastion and the world it occupies than would have pages upon pages of traditional exposition.

Characters in EB are treasure hunters. Their initial goal is to find valuable items in some far-off and dangerous locale and bring them back for sale (thereby lessening their debt). These locales might be somewhere among the bustling, smoky streets of Bastion itself or in the vast, machine-riddled Underground beneath it. There's also the largely abandoned Deep Country, home now only to those who have rejected the progress Bastion offers. This structure isn't all that different from that of Dungeons & Dragons or indeed most fantasy RPGs, so it should be immediately intelligible to anyone familiar with those games. Where EB differs is in its specific contents, mood, and esthetics. This is not simply D&D for the Electric Age but something unique, with its own spin on game and setting elements that are nevertheless immediately recognizable. I think this simultaneously helps make EB accessible and highlights its idiosyncratic approach to the common heritage of fantasy RPGs.

The remainder of the book – just shy of 100 pages – is the Conductor's Guide, which is focused on helping the referee prepare game sessions. As with most of the book, this section largely consists of a combination of random tables and brief but piquant descriptions that sketch out the odd world of Bastionland and its inhabitants, dangers, and treasures. It's a very clever approach, striking the right balance between overbearing direction and pleasant ambiguity. McDowall's prose masterfully exemplifies this creative tension throughout the book, resulting in a section that is both a lucid guide to running the game and a pleasure to read. This is equally in evidence in a series of short essays on various aspects of the game, such as "People are Everything," "The City as an Adventure Site," and "Decisive Combat." Taken together, it's one of the best referee's guides I've read in a roleplaying game in a long time. Referees of more traditional old school games could learn a lot from its advice.

There is no doubt that, for many players of traditional fantasy roleplaying games, Electric Bastionland will be a hard sell. The setting is deliberately odd and far from the pre-industrial, Conan-meets-Gandalf-to-fight-Dracula faux medieval world so commonplace in the hobby. Fortunately, McDowall has provided a free PDF preview of the game to look at before purchase. If you're curious about the game but uncertain if it would appeal to you, I'd recommend downloading it. For me, though, Electric Bastionland is, if not quite a revelation, a reminder of how much more expansive even dungeon delving fantasy can be. I found it both well done and inspiring and I suspect others will too. 

The Sweet Spot in Focus

Last week, I posted about the way that Empire of the Petal Throne handles leveling and how I've found, in the course of playing my House of Worms campaign over the last five and half years, that it works very well to preserve the "sweet spot" in character power relative to in-game challenges. One reader commented, not unreasonably, I think, that EPT's specific approach was "unnecessarily complicated." James Mishler must have had similar thoughts, which led him to create the following table, which consolidates EPT's experience rules into a single table.
What James has done is take the XP cost of Empire of the Petal Throne classes – he ignored the slight anomalies in the magic-user charts at higher levels – and then applied the XP penalties to arrive at the actual experience points needed to reach new levels. The final column shows that running experience total, which I think is just as important to know. Looked at in this way, you see that the biggest jumps are between Level 5 and 6 and between Level 6 and 7. This comports with my own campaign, where most of the characters are now either Level 5 or 6 and there has been no significant movement toward the next higher level in some time. I expect that we'll eventually see some characters reach level 7, but, unless the campaign lasts more than a decade, the likelihood that any one of them will ever see Level 8 is slim to none.

Though I appreciate the effect upon the rate at which characters advance in the campaign, I do wonder if this was Professor Barker's motivation in writing the experience rules as he did. Remember that EPT was written in the spring of 1974, only a few months after the initial appearance of OD&D. While Barker had, by this time, played OD&D many times with the University of Minnesota Conflict Simulation Association (as the wargames club was known), it seems unlikely to me that he'd have played enough for any character of his to have attained very high levels. Yet, he nevertheless seems to have intuited that there was a potential issue with characters reaching the heights of power too quickly and thus acted to correct the matter in his own OD&D-derived Empire of the Petal Throne. If that was in fact Barker's motivation – and, barring documentary evidence of this point, I don't think we'll ever know for certain – it speaks to a remarkable degree of perspicacity into OD&D. 

Weird Maps IV

Today's map comes from the Dungeons & Dragons Sticker Book and was published in 1985. From what I can ascertain, it was only ever available in the UK retailer Marks and Spencer. The book, which contains a choose-your-own-adventure story, was written by Allen Sharp and illustrated by John Storey. Unless you're an aficionado of the television series, it's not really notable except for the map above, which depicts locales within the Sticker Book rather than in the television show (I think). To me, the most interesting thing is the Caverns of Hook Horrors, since it's a uniquely D&D monster (first appearing in the Fiend Folio) that also received a toy likeness. The original creature was created by Ian Livingstone, one of the founders of Games Workshop.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Warriors of Mars

I am exceptionally fond of sword-and-planet stories. As I have discussed in numerous posts over the years, it's in these tales of heroic Earthmen transported to other worlds – most often Mars but far from exclusively – that so many of the conventions we now associate with both fantasy and science fiction first appeared. Despite that, the sword-and-planet genre fell into disfavor long ago, coinciding, at least in part, with advances in technology that enabled us to learn much more about planets beyond our own. It seems that writers and readers alike could no longer take seriously the idea of an inhabited Moon, Venus, or Mars, leading to a precipitous decline in the amount of fiction of this sort after the 1950s.

An intriguing exception is Warriors of Mars, the first book in a engaging sword-and-planet trilogy written by Edward P. Bradbury in 1965. I won't feign ignorance of the fact that Bradbury is a pseudonym of Michael Moorcock, though, as I understand it, this information was not well known at the time (in part to distance his public utterances as editor of the magazine, New Worlds, a proponent of the burgeoning field of new wave sci-fi). 

Warriors of Mars, like much of Moorcock's work at the time, was written very quickly, over the course of a single weekend and this might explain its breakneck, almost feverish pacing. In this particular case, I think it works to the novel's benefit. The narrative doesn't take time to linger over details or, in many cases, fully flesh out its characters or situations. Instead, it simply barrels along, following the exploits of its protagonist on "Old Mars" and the reader is left with little time to ponder how far-fetched Moorcock's tale actually is.

Warriors of Mars is quite deliberately a pastiche of and commentary upon the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. For example, its protagonist, Michael Kane, is, like John Carter, an American, but hails from stolid Ohio rather than romantic Virginia and, rather than being a fighting man by profession, he is a professor and scientist attached to the Chicago Special Research Institute. The novel begins with a prologue, told in the first person, of Edward P. Bradbury's meeting with Kane in Nice, France, paralleling the foreword to A Princess of Mars, where Burroughs claims that he is sharing a strange manuscript composed by his "Uncle Jack." Such parallels abound in Warriors of Mars.

In the prologue, Kane explains that he was "doing top secret research on matter transmitters," which he tested on himself, resulting something wholly unexpected.

"I went through space – and time as well, I think. I went to Mars, my friend."

"Mars!" I was now even more incredulous. "But how could you have survived? Mars is lifeless – a waste of dust and lichen!"

"Not this Mars, my friend."

"There is another Mars?" I raised my eyebrows.

"In a sense, yes. The planet I visited was not, I am convinced, the Mars we can see through our telescopes. It was an older Mars, eons in the past, yet still ancient. It is my theory that our own ancestors originated on the planet and came here when Mars was dying millions of years ago!"

I think that short section gives a good sense of the general feel of the novel: brisk and full of exclamation points. It also reveals the way that Moorcock is playing with the template established by Burroughs. He is attempting to find ways to address some of the latter day criticisms of the plausibility of the sword-and-planet genre. Whether one agrees with his approach or not, Warriors of Mars is a fun read, particularly for fans of Burroughs. As I mentioned above, there are many deliberate echoes of Barsoom here, such as the giant blue Argzoon occupying a place similar to that of the Warhoon and Princess Shizala standing in for the incomparable Dejah Thoris. It's an unashamed pastiche but a well executed one. It's a reminder, too, that Moorcock's criticisms of his elders' work was often rooted in affection and respect rather than contempt. I think his appreciation of Burroughs is on display here and I therefore highly recommend Warriors of Mars (and its sequels) to anyone who feels similarly.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Treasure of Time

In the comments to a previous post, a reader asked if the character of Kelek ever appeared anywhere else. As it turns out, he did. There was another AD&D storybook released by Marvel Books in 1983. This one was entitled The Treasure of Time and was co-authored by David Anthony Kraft and Jane Stine (wife of R.L. Stine, who wrote The Forest of Enchantment). Kraft is an interesting fellow with lots of credits to his name, including stints on various Marvel comics properties, in addition to acting as the literary agent of the estate of pulp writer Otis Adalbert Kline (who was himself the literary agent of Robert E. Howard from 1933 until 1936). The illustrations were done by Marie Severin, who also had connections to Marvel Comics, in addition to working as a colorist for EC Comics in the 1950s.

The Treasure of Time tells the story of the evil sorcerer Kelek, who seeks the eponymous treasure, the location of which is guarded by Charmay the good magic-user. I believe Charmay is unique to this story, but I am admittedly not well versed on all the characters created for the AD&D spin-off properties. Was there ever an action figure of Charmay? 

In any event, Kelek steals a scroll with information about the Treasure from Charmay (whom he charms with a spell). Elkhorn the Dwarf and Strongheart the paladin then vow to stop him, lest he use the powers of the Treasure for evil.

Kelek, though, stays one step ahead of the pair and he beats them to the location of the Treasure of Time. In a Twilight Zone-like twist, however, it turns out that the Treasure doesn't work the way he thinks he ought. He uses its power to make himself young again – but at the cost of all the magical knowledge he'd gained over the years. 
Like The Forest of Enchantment, the storybook is harmless enough, though there's scarcely anything in it that could be called distinctively D&D, let alone AD&D. I'd love to know more about the whys and wherefores of their creation, particularly on the part of TSR. What did the company think it was gaining by licenses like these? Did they, in fact, result in more sales of D&D products or even just more revenue for the company? As fascinating as the early history of the hobby is, in some ways, I think that the period starting around 1982, after D&D had gone reached a degree of mainstream name recognition and TSR was grappling with that reality, is much more interesting. 

Oneida Subsector

Oneida is subsector F of the Riphaeus Sector, where I set my most recent Traveller campaign. It's dominated by the Duchy of Oneida, a tributary state of the Empire of Nagoya. A great many of the characters' adventures took place in this part of the sector.
The Oneida subsector contains 32 worlds with a population of 32.9 billion. The highest population is 30 billion, at Tartessos. The highest tech level is F at Misericord.

Anomaly Three (Riphaeus 1018)
Only a handful of starships have ever entered into this system and returned. Something in the system causes wide-ranging interference with jump fields, preventing most ships from escaping it.

Anomaly Four (Riphaeus 1314)
This uninhabited world is noteworthy for only being present within the system at certain times. That is, the planet occasionally disappears from its orbit and does not reappear for years or even decades. The cause of this phenomenon remains unknown and the one expedition to remain on the world long enough for the world to disappear was no longer present when the world re-appeared several years later.

Argon (Riphaeus 1118)
Argon was settled as a penal colony by the First Federation. The majority of its earliest inhabitants committed what were considered crimes against the “social stability” of the Federation, which is to say, questioning the policies and actions of the government. As the Federation collapsed, Argon’s prisoners, which now numbered in the millions, seized control of the planet for themselves – and promptly fell into violent infighting, resulting in the establishment of dozens of factions.

In the centuries since, seven states have established themselves as pre-eminent on Argon, most notably the Sovereign Nation of Ramsay and the Divine Republic, both of which vie for control of the entire world. Most of Argon’s states are governed by extreme philosophies whose laws can make life difficult for travelers.

Arecibo (Riphaeus 1517)
Arecibo enjoys greater influence within the Duchy of Oneida than its population (60,000) would suggest, in large part due to the presence of a Ducal Navy base and shipyard in orbit. The planet itself is a water world with scattered islands dotting its surface. These islands, supplemented by anchored artificial habitats, are home to most of Arecibo’s inhabitants. The planetary atmosphere is dense but tainted by airborne algae and cyanobacteria. None of the 28 known types are fatal to humans but most can cause allergies and rhinitis if inhaled. Therefore, filter masks are recommended.

The local government is categorized as a Civil Service Bureaucracy, but it is overseen by the Captain-General of His Grace’s Shipyard. Under his influence, Arecibo’s law level has increased significantly in recent years, supposedly to prevent terrorism and sabotage, of which there have been limited examples. The Explorers’ Union has not yet seen fit to classify Arecibo as an amber zone.

Geryon (Riphaeus 1512)
Despite the comparative mildness of its environment, Geryon is the remnant of a failed scientific colony of the First Federation. The world was initially founded to study its unusual plant life, some of which demonstrated limited anagathic properties when properly prepared. When this avenue of investigation proved less fruitful – and lucrative – than expected, an exodus away from Geryon began, one that has continued down the centuries, leaving a small population of less than 100 permanent residents.

Scientific research into anagathics continues, though without any notable success. The Duchy of Oneida negotiated rights to an automated naval depot, which orbits Geryon. Likewise, the Explorers’ Union has a presence here, largely as a connection to the Kriemhild subsector to coreward.

Gesundheit (Riphaeus 1113)
This world boasts a mild climate and weather, with varied ecosystems and extensive animal and plant life. Its original colonists came were adherents of Hygeianism, a holistic philosophy that placed great emphasis on “healthy living.” Population growth was limited by technology and immigration restrictions, in order to ensure Gesundheit’s environment did not become “unbalanced.” Those restrictions remain in force, though they have been loosened in the centuries since the colony’s founding. Even so, entrance visas to Gesundheit remain hard to obtain even today.

Misericord (Riphaeus 1416)
Founded as a research colony during the time of the Old Federation, Misericord’s society still places great value on the theoretical sciences, making it the most technologically advanced world in the Duchy of Oneida. Its population remains small (11,000), due in large part to its restrictive immigration policies, which limit even temporary residence on the world to those with high intelligence (as determined by a battery of locally administered tests) and education. Others are restricted to the planet’s starport.

Misericord’s economy is dominated by the production and sale technological data and schematics. Its products are in demand throughout the Oneida and Nagoya subsectors. Conversely, there is great demand for offworld products, particularly of an industrial nature.

Oneida (Riphaeus 1115)
Capital of the Duchy of Oneida and home to His Grace, Duke Odjick, Oneida is a pleasant, temperate world with a population of approximately 11 million. Agriculture is an important local industry, though much of it is managed by several large corporations, most notably Standing Stone Development, which is owned by a consortium of aristocratic families, including the duke’s own House Nevalton. The planetary government is classified a civil service bureaucracy, with ministries and departments apportioned among the various noble houses and staffed by well-trained clients and retainers.

Duke Odjick is old and reputedly in ill health. His eldest son, Count Minok, already undertakes many of his father’s official duties. Unlike the aging duke, Minok has a reputation as a meddler in the affairs of the Duchy’s worlds, especially when doing so might enrich an ally’s noble house. Consequently, there is grumbling on several worlds about the inevitable accession of Minok to the ducal throne.

Silesia (Riphaeus 1216)
Founded as a mining colony during the time of the First Federation, Silesia continues to supply the Duchy of Oneida radioactives, petrochemicals, and gems (the last of which are prized on Starchik). Though the planet itself is small in size (6700 km in diameter), its core is denser than expected, which no doubt plays a role in the abundance of its natural resources. Nevertheless, local gravity is only marginally greater than expected (0.45 G), as is atmospheric pressure. Consequently, Silesia’s atmosphere is considered thin and visitors are warned against strenuous physical activity without first administering oxygen supplements.

Silesia’s native population is small (approximately 10,000), most of whom work for one or more corporations granted concessions by the world’s rulers, the Kamenek family. Descended from the original settlers, the Kameneks are a male-only clone group who retains ownership of 92% of Silesia’s working mines (the other 8% are owned by local workers’ cooperatives). The Kameneks are immensely wealthy and influential but have made numerous enemies due to their high-handed and occasionally whimsical management of mining concessions.

Starchik (Riphaeus 1215)
Starchik’s population of approximately 1 million (known locally as Roots) has its own culture, language, and customs, all of which are protected by Ducal Law. The level of protection is so strong that Starchik’s starport has never been upgraded from a routine quality installation, in deference to the Roots’ desire to limit outside “cultural contamination” from travellers, corporations, and other offworlders. Another consequence is that the technological index of local industry has not risen as high as other worlds within the Duchy.

Nevertheless, Starchik is a wealthy and stable planet. Though overseen by Count Grigorii Huxley (appointed by Duke Odjick of Oneida), the local government is an efficient civil service bureaucracy whose membership is made up of those who succeed at rigorous examinations administered annually. Members of the bureaucracy are widely revered and occupy the highest strata of Starchik society.

Legends of Urheim

Each player character begins the campaign with one random legend, as determined by the roll of 1d20. This represents a bit of lore the character obtained by one means or another (research, tavern gossip, etc.), though there is no guarantee that that the lore is true. Some of the legends below are untrue, in whole or in part. No two characters can begin with knowledge of the same legend. Repeated results should be re-rolled until every character has a unique legend possessed by no one else.

  1. There are two sets of catacombs, one beneath the Upper Temple and one beneath the Lower Temple.
  2. The Lower Temple is dedicated to St. Evad filzArn and once housed relics associated with him.
  3. A dragon is said to dwell in the Lower Gatehouse and attacks any who approach the monastery from that direction.
  4. The Great Stairs leading to the Upper Temple consist of 100 steps – ten for every Precept of Mother Church.
  5. The White Hill is riddled with three levels of laura (hermit caves), some of which are still inhabited by zealous monks who were not driven away. 
  6. A group of mercenaries known as the Company of the Quarrel have taken up banditry and now use the monastery as their base of operations.
  7. The causeway leading to the underworld is trapped and only a cleric of Law can pass across it unharmed.
  8. The underworld beneath the monastery leads to one or more of the Demon Worlds. 
  9. The last abbot, Cassyon, gathered up the relics of St. Gaxyg and fled into the underworld with them.
  10. The ecclesiarch Majorian betrayed the monastery, leading to its fall; his damned soul still haunts the Upper Gatehouse. 
  11. The monastery's well provides a means to bypass the magical wards that seal the entrance to the underworld.
  12. The monks defeated the demon king Bael, imprisoning him within the underworld, where he still lurks to this day.
  13. The entrance to the Underworld is warded.
  14. Exposure to the raw power of Chaos can warp the flesh and taint the mind, which is what led to the fall of the monastery.
  15. The Rangers of Somtha used to keep watch on the monastery ruins but no longer do so.
  16. A powerful magician named Emmeran found a way into the Underworld and now rules over part of it as its master.
  17. Beastmen have established a lair among the surface ruins of the monastery.
  18. The Upper Temple is dedicated to St. Gaxyg the Gray, after whom the whole complex is named. 
  19. Margrave Vedast has sponsored three expeditions to breach the entrance to the underworld in recent years and all three met with failure.
  20. Chanting can still be heard in the Upper Temple on the feast days of St. Gaxyg and St. Evad.

Interview: Doug Niles (Part I)

Douglas Niles worked at TSR between 1982 and 1990, during which time he worked on many different products and game lines, most notably D&D, AD&D, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret/S.I. He was also a member of the Dragonlance design team and the writer of many novels set in TSR's game settings (such as Darkwalker on Moonshae, the very first published novel set in the Forgotten Realms). Mr Niles was very kind the many questions I put to him. The first part of his answers appear below. The second part will appear in a future post.

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

In 1977, I started work as a young high school speech teacher in Clinton, Wisconsin, a small, rural farming community in the southern part of the state. I had enjoyed strategy boardgames, especially some Avalon Hill wargames and Risk, as a teenager and college student. I also enjoyed reading sci-fi and some fantasy, notably the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was also involved in college and community theater and through some theater contacts had learned of this mysterious game called Dungeons & Dragons; I thought it sounded like fun but by 1979, as I started my third year of teaching, I had never seen it or talked to an actual player.

In autumn 1979, one of my sophomore speech students showed me a pass saying she was to be excused from class the following day for an "interview with People magazine." This being an unusual occurrence in our farm-centric corner of the state, I asked her what that was about. She said "My dad invented this game that's getting kind of popular." (Her name was Heidi Gygax.) She told me a little bit about it – her family had just moved from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to a larger home in the country – and I told her I'd heard about D&D and that it sounded like fun. When she returned to class two days later she gave me a copy, compliments of her dad, of the classic blue box game; what would later be called the Basic Set including character levels 1-3.

I got my copy on a Wednesday, as I recall, and by that Friday night I had read the rules, prepped the basic dungeon that was included in the game, and recruited my wife and 3-4 of our young adult friends. (I was 24 at the time; none of us had kids yet.) That started a campaign that lasted for several years, expanding into the expert rules set, and finally AD&D. I began designing my own dungeons, and fantasy realms. Also I discovered and became a regular customer of the Dungeon Hobby Shop in nearby Lake Geneva, which was owned by TSR.

2. How did you become employed by TSR?

I had always wanted to be a writer but early in college had chosen teaching as a more pragmatic career path. I wrote a lot of short stories for fun (and independent study credit) in high school but by college that hobby sort of dropped out of my life. Once I got enthused about D&D, however, I began reading lots of fantasy fiction and got motivated to write again. I spent most of 1981 writing a fantasy novel in my spare time – I finished it that summer. At the end of summer, I learned through a friend at the hobby shop that TSR wanted to hire more game designers. I decided to take a shot, and applied in September, 1981. I went through a total of 5 interviews that fall. I am proud to say that through those interviews I never once mentioned that I knew Gary Gygax and had taught his daughter in high school! Instead I showed them my novel, designed a strategy mini-game at the company's request, and submitted some of my home dungeons and campaign maps. In November, they offered me a job on the design staff. It actually meant a small pay cut from my teaching salary but I leaped at the chance. I resigned my teaching job at the end of that semester and started as a professional game designer in mid-January 1982. 

The company hired a number of designers in 1981 and the first half of 1982, drawing people from as far away as Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Utah. Many of these designers had had previous professional designs published, but others, like me, were hired "off the street." I think I was unique in that not only did I not have to move to take the job, but I actually had a shorter commute (15 minutes) to Lake Geneva than the 25 minutes I had been driving to Clinton High School!

3. Your first published credits at TSR were modules X3 for Expert D&D and N1 for Advanced D&D. I recall reading somewhere that Against the Cult of the Reptile God was based on a previously existing outline. Is that correct? Was X3 similar or was it wholly your own creation?

There was a strange situation regarding new D&D adventures designed in house by TSR during 1982. I mentioned that the company had hired a lot of designers (and editors) around then. But for many months there were no projects approved for us to work on! When the company was smaller, virtually all D&D and AD&D game adventures were either written by Gary Gygax, or written by one of the few staff designers after he approved a detailed concept and outline. But by '82 he was busy with a lot of other things in his fast growing company, and wasn't taking the time to approve any design concepts. Some designers worked on other lines, like Star Frontiers, Boot Hill, and Gangbusters. Meanwhile our mid-level managers tried to set up a process that could get us working on D&D products again, since that was the company's flagship (and bestselling, by far!) line. One of those potential products was a concept that Gary had heard about and liked.

So my first actual writing project was a chance to design that adventure, which was based on an idea submitted by a member of the company's TSR/UK affiliate. I believe their chief was a friend of Gary's who had submitted a concept (not an outline) that Gary liked. It was originally called The Cult of the Reptile God, but modified to become Against the Cult of the Reptile God because that was also the beginning of the period where bad PR was starting to concern the company – D&D was getting an unfair, but kind of bad rap, among some parents, clergy, etc. So they decided to make it clear in the title that the players were intended to stop, not join, an evil cult.

I threw myself whole hog into writing that adventure, which was broken into two parts: 1) an initial reconnaissance of a village, involving lots of roleplaying and detective work as the players figured out which villagers had been taken over by a vile cult; and 2) a dungeon crawl where they discover the cult's HQ, fight their way in, and destroy it. I wrote that on an electric typewriter by the way--the company didn't have enough HP computer terminals for the new employees! (Of course, the whole system was a mainframe computer that filled a room and no doubt had less processing power than your current phone does.) Anyway, the pages stacked up quickly and my manager was pleased. I felt rather proud of myself, too.

I ate a portion of humble pie when my editor, Jon Pickens, read the module and explained many nuances of the AD&D rules that had escaped me as a "civilian." ("Your fighter has a two-handed sword. That means he can't use that shield you gave him," is one "oops" I still recall. And there were a lot more.) But the module got cleaned up and published. And, incidentally, Jon and I became good friends over the years – a friendship that continued even after I began my free lance career in 1990. Every design of mine that Jon worked on was much improved by his tireless efforts.

N1 (The "N" stood for "novice") was written as a module for level 1-3 characters. It has one encounter that required the PCs to accept the help of an NPC magic user to overcome a monster, but I took that as a fair trade in order to allow the party to face a very challenging adversary. I like to think it ends with a dramatic, action-packed and satisfying climax.

X3, The Curse of Xanathon was the second product I wrote, and was an adventure completely of my own creation. I think it was the third D&D module in the Expert line. One fallout of the expanding TSR design team was that around then AD&D and D&D were broken into two distinct product lines. Gary continued to have some involvement in creating, guiding and approving the AD&D line. The D&D system, which in '82 consisted of the Basic and Expert rules, became more of a staff coordinated effort. We had a lot more freedom to invent realms and stories in the D&D line. Eventually, the fantasy world Mystara, masterfully organized by Bruce Heard, grew out of the various D&D adventures, but I don't think that in these early years there was any real plan to tie them all together. Such was the case with Xanathon. Oddly, I don't remember nearly as much about that adventure as I do about N1.

4. The first time I personally remember seeing your name on a TSR product was 1983's Knight Hawks boxed set for Star Frontiers. I loved that set and my battered copy is a prized possession. What do you recall about the process of creating it? 

As I started at TSR, I became acquainted with the new Star Frontiers game, and as I had always been an enthusiastic fan of science fiction that was a natural fit. SF was a planetary-based RPG that did not really address space travel or space ships; but those rules had always been intended for a sequel. After I had designed several roleplaying adventures at the company and had worked there for a little more than a year, I was very pleased to be selected to design an actual game system, including board-game elements – that is, the spaceship expansion rules to accompany Star Frontiers.

The game became Knight Hawks, though that actual title came late in the process after a lot of wrangling with the company's newly formed Legal Department. It seemed that every title we suggested had potential trademark infringement issues. (Another of my colleagues in the "class of '82" new game designers was Tracy Hickman; he actually wrote a satirical song called "Trademark Jail" that I wish I remember better!)

Anyway, the game design involved creating many classes of ships, and a movement system that allowed them to be used in an RPG. After a lot of wrestling with the issue, I decided to use a gravity-based system so that ships in orbit or adrift have no gravity, and ships under acceleration or deceleration simulate gravity by the change of the ship's speed. This meant that decks, cabins and other compartments are ordered perpendicular to the hull – like the floors in a skyscraper – rather than running the length of the hull like they do in a submarine or lots of fictional (like Star Wars) spaceships. I'm not sure I made the right decision, I have to admit.

But I am glad to hear that you liked the game James! And I did get lots of feedback from other players who had a lot of fun with it. And it did allow me to break into what would become my favorite area of game design: military simulations played out on hex grid maps with counters, preferably lots of counters, representing units, ships, and other playing pieces.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Sweet Spot

My ongoing House of Worms campaign uses the 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne rules. As you probably know, these rules are perhaps one of the earliest examples of Dungeons & Dragons house rules ever published. That is, on a fundamental level, EPT is not merely compatible with but wholly derivative of OD&D, at least when it comes to game mechanics. Take a look at the combat matrices, to cite just one obvious example, and what you'll see is identical with what's in Men & Magic. This is not a criticism and it's this continuity with the mechanical conventions of OD&D that make Empire of the Petal Throne the hands-down best choice for introducing newcomers to M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel.

At the same time, there are many, many divergences from OD&D in EPT, some small, some large. Among the bigger changes are the way the game handles experience points and leveling. Take a look at the two charts I've reproduced in this entry. Section 630 includes the XP charts for the game's three classes: warriors – here called "fighting men" – priests, and magic-users. This reproduces pre-Supplement I OD&D. A close examination of the particulars reveals differences. Priests requite more experience points to level than do OD&D clerics, while EPT magic-users require less than their counterparts. What you'll see is that, for the most part, all three EPT classes use the same XP charts, that of the fighting man from OD&D (though, interestingly, EPT magic-users need fewer XP than the other two classes at high levels.

Experience points in Empire of the Petal Throne are obtained

in only two ways: (a) acquiring treasure (gold – or other items which can be exchanged for gold Káitars), or (b) slaying hostile beings. No points are granted for casting spells or other types of activity.

This is identical to the approach of OD&D. A key difference is that EPT opponents are only worth 50 XP per hit die rather than the pre-Greyhawk value of 100 per hit die. There is no consideration of the difference between level of character and the level of the monster for this calculation as in OD&D. On the other hand, EPT awards XP on an individual basis, with the character who delivers the killing blow being the one who gets all the experience, regardless of how little damage he might have done. (This is a rule I do not use in my House of Worms campaign) 

This brings us to Section 620 above, which introduces another change from OD&D. Rather than looking at the relative difference in level between a character and a monster for determining an XP award, Barker instead introduces a blanket reduction in XP gain from all sources, starting at fourth level. This reduction increases by steps every two levels thereafter, until, at tenth level, a character counts only 5% of the XP gained toward his advancement.

Taken together, all of these changes, big and small, to the OD&D approach to experience points produces something that, in my experiences, prolongs the "sweet spot" of play. While there's disagreement over precisely where the sweet spot lies, there seems to be a widely held belief that there are a range of levels in D&D-style gaming that are the most congenial to the right balance of risk versus power. For me, that sweet spot lies between fourth and eighth level, when the characters are sufficiently durable that they can't be felled in a single attack – though, it should be noted, Empire of the Petal Throne has an "instant death" critical hit rule – and yet aren't so potent that death is so far from a possibility that they don't act with caution.

It's quite fashionable in some circles to dismiss XP only for defeating enemies and treasure as retrograde, silly, and un-fun, among other things. To the contrary, what I have found is that, because the characters in the House of Worms game – and, I would suspect, most long-running RPG campaigns – are not forever delving in the Underworld and looting tombs, the rate at which they gain experience points is slowed. While lately the characters have been engaged in the exploration of the Temple of Ages and facing off against its denizens, there have been long stretches of the campaign where they were instead involved in diplomatic negotiations, murder investigations, historical research, marriage arrangements, etc. Weeks or even months have gone by without so much as a twenty-side die being rolled in anger. 

If XP were awarded for "roleplaying" or reaching "milestones" or some other activities, the characters would have amassed more points than they have under the rules as Barker wrote them. I make no claim that this is what he intended when he did so. Nevertheless, the set-up has worked very well, preserving the sweet spot of character power well beyond what would be the case if constant character improvement were the order of the day. I am immensely happy with the way Empire of the Petal Throne's experience system works in practice, as are my players. I think it's evidence in favor of preserving OD&D's awarding of experience only for monsters and treasure. 


My very first experiences with fantasy games were shaped by three different products, each published by TSR. The Holmes Basic Set; the module In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr, which was included in the Basic Set; and the boardgame Dungeon! If you read this blog for any length of time, you'll very quickly notice how often I refer to these. They are, for me, the most primal totems of the hobby to which I have devoted myself for the past four decades and counting. It is impossible to emphasize how much they mean to me or the impact they have had upon my imagination.

Sadly, J. Eric Holmes died in 2010. At the time, I didn't even know he was still alive. If I had, I certainly would have made an effort to interview him or, at the very least, drop him an email to let him know how much his work had meant to me as a young person. His work quite literally played a vital role in turning me into the person I am today. I owe him a great debt.

A couple of years ago, I attended my first GameholeCon and enjoyed it greatly. One of its pleasures was being able to meet and talk in the flesh with people I'd only ever known online prior to that point. I believe very strongly in the value of real world, physical interactions with people. That's one of many reasons why the present moment is so frustrating. The difficulty of meeting with people away from the computer screen is, I think, vital to our well being and I, like most people, miss that. I'll also miss seeing my many friends at GameholeCon.

Back to my point: the first time I went to the con, I saw a group of people clustered on the floor, playing a game that involved tiny ship models. The group was a mix of young and old, led by a man wearing a straw hat. I was fascinated by what they were doing and watched at a distance. After a while, a friend of mine saw me and said, "I think they're playing Don't Give Up the Ship!" He then added, "That fellow in the hat is Dave Megarry." My eyes lit up; Megarry is the creator of Dungeon! I knew then that I wanted to speak with him, once the game was done, but I'm a very shy fellow and almost didn't. 

Fortunately, I changed my mind, plucked up my courage, and approached him. With him was his wife and another man, tall and with a beard and glasses. I introduced myself and Megarry did the same for his wife and the other man, who, it turned out, was none other than Mike Carr. I couldn't believe my luck! I immediately thanked them both, telling them how much their work had meant to me and that I wouldn't have been at that con if it hadn't been for them, or words to that effect. They both received the thanks graciously and in turn thanked me for my kind words. Later, I had the chance to chat at greater length with Mr Carr about Dawn Patrol, another of his creations that I played a lot as a kid. I left the con that year feeling very satisfied, as if I had, in a small way, repaid a debt.

Since then, I've made a point of reaching out to my elders in the hobby who've done things I liked or that have influenced me. I wasn't able to do this with Dr Holmes, which is why I've vowed not to let that happen again. I recommend that others do the same.

Dynamic Initiative

Last month, I talked about my recent experiences playing wargames online with friends via VASSAL. Our most recent game is Liberty or Death, which concerns the American War of Independence (or the American Insurrection, as the game calls it). I've been enjoying it, though I'm finding it a much more complex game than Falling Sky. Partly, I think it's a function of the time period and scope of the game and partly it's because I'm playing a more significant faction. In Falling Sky, I played the Belgae, who are a minor faction; in Liberty or Death, I'm playing the Patriots, who are, obviously, one of the two primary antagonists. Even so, most of the things I learned playing Falling Sky carried over into Liberty or Death, which only makes sense, given that they both use the same underlying mechanics.

One of those mechanics is its unique approach to turn order. Each turn, an event card is drawn. At the top of each card is a series of symbols, all of which is associated with a faction. For example, in the image above, the card "Benjamin Franklin Travels to France" shows the so-called Betsy Ross flag of 1777 first, followed by the flag of the Kingdom of France, the Union Jack, and lastly an arrowhead representing British allied Indian forces. The order of the symbols indicates the action priority of the factions in a turn. 

However, there's an added complication. If you look to the bottom left, there's an area entitled "Sequence of Play." In that area are two boxes called "Eligible Factions" and "Ineligible Factions." After the very first turn of the game, in which all factions are eligible, whether or not a given faction can act is determined by what happened the previous turn. If a faction acts in one turn, it is generally ineligible to act the next turn. Thus, only a faction that didn't act the previous turn can make use of an event card in the present turn – and which one of them gets the option to do so first is randomly determined based on which event card appears and which symbol is listed first.

There are a couple of additional wrinkles to the turn order. The player of a faction may forego his action on a turn in order to sit out the turn and gain resources. In doing so, he keeps his faction eligible for the next turn, which may be a wise move, since players can see the next upcoming event card. Further, by passing on an action in this way, a player changes the order of initiative for future turns. All factions also have a "brilliant stroke" card, which enables eligible factions to act of sequence once per game. Though rarer, this can nevertheless shake up the game's turn order.

In play, this system is dynamic and enjoyable. It keeps the sequence of play from stagnating into an "I go, you go" sort of affair. Having seen it in action during the course of two different wargames, I found myself wondering about how to do something similar in RPG combat. Plenty of roleplaying games have had dynamic initiative systems before, but they tend to rely on rolling dice every round or some kind of action point economy. Both approaches are fine, though action points require bookkeeping, which, in my experience at least, tends to lead to their being ignored. Rolling dice every round is better, but it can slow things down. What I like about the system in Liberty or Death or indeed any of the COIN series of games is that it requires only the turning of a single card, which provides all the information needed to adjudicate turn order.

I have no idea how this would work yet, or whether it's possible at all. A few years ago, I toyed with a chit-based initiative system – I really wanted to find a way to incorporate Holmesian chits into contemporary RPGs – but I was not satisfied with the results. I will have to keep thinking about this.