Saturday, October 31, 2020

REVIEW: Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory

For those of you not well versed in religious terminology, a feretory is a type of portable reliquary, which is to say, a container for the relics of a saint or saints. On the other hand, the Mörk Borg cult is the community content program for the Swedish dark fantasy RPG Mörk Borg. Thus, Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory is the first supplement to the game, presented as a 64-page 'zine and filled with fourteen articles of varying lengths. Nine of these articles were created by submissions to the aforementioned content program, while the remaining five were written by Pelle Nilsson, designer of the original game. 

Feretory shares with Mörk Borg the same riotous color scheme of yellow, black, and pink, as well as its fondness for chaotic passel of typefaces. Combined with the expressive artwork of Johan Nohr and strategic use of silver leaf, the effect is every bit as arresting as that of the rulebook. It's a striking esthetic unlike that of any other RPG, though I imagine it's something of an acquired taste. 

"The Monster Approaches" is two-page random monster generator after the fashion of the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, but simpler and easier to use, as befits Mörk Borg, which is itself a simple and open-ended RPG. "Roads to Damnation" provides tables for overland travel, focusing on the sights and events characters might encounter as they trek across the Dying Lands. "Eat Prey Kill" does something similar for hunting, with random tables offering numerous new creatures, divided according to region, as well as tables for mishaps and strange "treasures" one might find in the bellies of these beasts.

"The Death Ziggurat" is a short hexcrawl through the woods of the region of Sarkash, which is filled with death cultists, undead, and demon spawn. "d100 Items and Trinkets" is just what you'd expect, while "The Tenebrous Reliquary" uses a d66 format to offer up weird and wondrous magical items. "The Goblin Grinder" is another scenario, which takes place in the city of Galgenbeck and deals with the titular goblins and the curse that sustains them. It's moody and frantic and a little bit gross – and one of my favorite things in Feretory

"The Grey Galth Inn" is a series of tables to add the Game Master in describing inns, including a dice-based gambling mini-game called Three Dead Skulls. Feretory also includes descriptions of four new classes – the cursed skinwalker (a shift-shifter), the pale one (an alien being), the dead god's prophet, and the forlorn philosopher – all of which, in their small ways, paint a better picture of the doomed, black metal world of Mörk Borg. "The Tablets of Obscurity" are ten magical relics of a forgotten mind-cult and usable somewhat like scrolls. Finally, "The Black Salt" is a terrible phenomenon of the Valley of the Unfortunate Undead and the Wästland, whose effects are determined by a random roll. 

As should be apparent by now, much of Feretory's content consists of random tables or uses them in some fashion. That's because Mörk Borg embraces the oracular power of dice with gleeful abandon, using it not merely to introduce unpredictability into game sessions but also to add meat to the deliberately skeletal frame of the Dying Lands setting. At the same time, there continues to be a liberating disregard for a singular interpretation of the setting; the prominence of tables in Feretory underscores that there is no One True Way and that, to borrow a phrase from RuneQuest fandom, your Dying Lands will vary – note will, not may. This is where Mörk Borg's old school sensibilities are most clear and why the game continues to hold my attention.

Feretory is a delightful gallimaufry – or perhaps I should say smörgåsbord – of gaming content that should satisfy players and (especially) GMs of Mörk Borg looking for new sources of inspiration. However, I think much of its content could appeal to players of other old school fantasy roleplaying games. If nothing else, the anarchic joy that comes through in Feretory's content is infectious. Reading through its articles and scenarios, I was immediately seized to produce some of my own and then spent some time conjuring up a new character class and reworking an old adventure for use with Mörk Borg. That's as clear a testament to a game product's excellence as I can imagine.

Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory is available in both print and PDF.

Friday, October 30, 2020

When Gary Met James

James M. Ward's interview in issue #3 of Polyhedron (Winter 1981–1982) contains many interesting pieces of historical trivia, such as this story of how Gary Gygax first became acquainted with him.

Fascinating stuff, is it not? Whenever I do interviews, my first question is usually "how do you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?" I ask it because I think the answers are genuinely revealing, not just about the individual in question but also about the various pathways they took into the hobby. Many of them had a mentor, someone who introduced them to roleplaying and colored their initial perspective on it. Apparently, James Ward was among them, except that his mentors were Gary Gygax and Brian Blume! It's notable, too, that it was a shared love of fantasy literature that helped forge the bond between them. The connection between pulp fantasies and the early hobby is one that's fueled many posts on this blog and I continue to delve into the matter, even if it's a much more well known and documented topic now than it was years ago. In any case, the Polyhedron interview with Ward is a terrific one, well worth reading. 

Hellspawn

Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings catches a lot of criticism and rightfully so, I think, but there's no question that, for all its flaws, it's filled with some truly terrific imagery. I was reminded of this earlier today by (appropriately) Samwise7RPG. Bakshi's orcs are nightmarish, bestial, even demonic things, with oversized tusks, glowing red eyes, and shambling gaits. Later interpretations of orcs turn them into a different type of Man, which opens the door ever so slightly on the road toward the inevitable portrayal of them as worthy of sympathy. Bakshi, meanwhile, leans heavily, almost parodically, into them as irredeemably evil monsters. They may have been spawned in the pits of Isengard but there's little question that their true home is Hell

Interview: Nils Hintze

Nils Hintze is the writer of several roleplaying games published in Sweden, most recently Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying, which I reviewed here. A professional psychologist by training, with experience writing for theater as well as RPGs, Mr Hintze kindly agreed to answer my questions about his work past and present.

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

In the '80s, when I was a kid, the most popular RPG in Sweden was Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons). My older brother got a copy of it as a Christmas present from our grandfather, and since I still couldn’t read and my brother couldn’t really understand the game, our mother read it with a yellow highlighter, underlining every piece of rules in it. She was our first Gamemaster in a scenario at the kitchen table where I was a dwarf and my brother an elf with a bow. After that, we kept on playing, unfortunately without our mother. And I have pretty much played RPGs since then, and most of my friends from my childhood are RPG friends.

2. Do you have any favorite roleplaying games – not simply to play but ones whose rules design or setting you find particularly appealing?

I love Solar System by Eero Tuovinen, based on The Shadow of Yesterday by Clinton R. Nixon. We used to play it a lot, and I really like the mechanics with keys, and that the character transcends and leaves the story when she has gathered enough experience points. The rules focus the story on interaction among characters and emotional development.

Recently, I have become interested in a game called Odd Soot. It is a mix-up of Call of Cthulhu and Space: 1889, though it takes place in Europe during the '30’s in a fictional version of Earth. It is primarily the mood of the game that I like, with strange illustrations of creepy aliens and a lot of things in the backstory kept secret.

Then again, nothing beats a good old Call of Cthulhu campaign. It is something with the fact that the characters are at a constant disadvantage, under-equipped, and not even capable of understanding what takes place, that makes it fun to walk right into danger and be consumed by madness and death.

Also, I have an unreasonably love for Burning Wheel, even though the mechanics at times could steal too much of the group’s focus during play. It is so well constructed; every little rule is connected to the whole of the game. And at the same time as it is a mechanically complicated and technical game, it has a crystal clear theme that not only runs through all of the parts of it, the theme—to fight for what you believe in and pay the prize to get what you want—actually emerges at the center of the story, just by playing it according tot the rules.

3. When did you start writing for roleplaying games and what were some of your most notable designs?

I wrote other stuff, like scripts for theater, before I started to write for RPG. But in 2006 a game called Oktoberlandet (the Octoberland) was published and I fell in love with it and started to write free pdf-scenarios for it. The author, Christian Mehrstam (Whitehack, Suldokar’s Wake) helped me a lot in the process of learning to write for games, and since then we have become friends, and he still helps me with texts.

When Free League and Christian decided to publish a second edition of Oktoberlandet, I was asked to write scenarios and campaigns. In the process, I got a taste for writing RPG-materials, and I wrote an email to Tomas Härenstam at Free League, asking him if there where other things I could write. That led to me writing the RPG Tales from the Loop, based on the artbook by Simon Stålenhag. I then wrote the follow up: Things from the Flood, based on the second artbook by Simon Stålenhag.

My latest product is of course Vaesen, based on the artbook by Johan Egerkrans. But I have also written some other, smaller stuff, such as some of the content in Forbidden Lands and some texts to the upcoming Twillight 2000. Though I mostly write for Free League, I have done some stuff for other companies. In 2021, a campaign for the horror game Kult will be published. It takes place during the Lebanese civil war, and it is called Dome of Desolation.

4. Since most of my readers are English speakers, they're likely unfamiliar with the world of Swedish roleplaying games. How would you compare the Swedish and English language scenes? What are the similarities and differences between them, particularly when it comes to subject matter?

Dungeons & Dragons (and OSR games) is the biggest game in Sweden, but not in the overwhelming sense that is the case in the rest of the world. People play a lot of different games and many Swedish games. The Swedish RPG scene is extremely big, considering how many people live here. There are many people doing their own games, and it is really a creative and vigorous scene, with a lot of cooperation. A couple of years ago, many people were in to the Story Now scene, but nowadays OSR is very popular, just as in the international scene. 

The biggest RPG companies are Free League, Helmgast and maybe Riotminds. A common thing for them is that they sort of have two groups of customers, one Swedish and one international. Some games are only published in Swedish, while others are translated after they have sort of been tried out on the Swedish market. 

Concerning subject matter, I think most Swedish games are about the same things as the international games: murder hobos stealing gold, space ships, and horror monsters. I would say that the trend to do somewhat different games, for instance about characters who are kids and not heroes, or about more serious subjects such as racism or global warming, is not bigger or smaller in Sweden than in other places. Hopefully we see a more diversified scene all over.

5. How much of a free hand did you have in creating Vaesen? For example, was the decision to set the game in the 19th century yours or did it originate with someone else? I'm very curious about the process of taking the ideas present in the original art book by Johan Egerkrans and turning them into a roleplaying game.

The big picture of the game was already in place when I was contacted. For instance, that it was to be set in the 19th century. Some of these decisions were changed during the process such as where the base of the player characters should be located, and what parts of northern Europe would be described in the book as a part of “the North”.

But within that bigger frame, I took a lot of decisions about content while I wrote the text. After I wrote the first draft, we edited it several times, with input from Johan Egerkrans, and Nils Karlén and Mattias Johnsson from Free League. And then after the Kickstarter, some texts by Nils Karlén and Richard Antroia were added as a consequence of stretch goals, such as for instance the system for buying equipment and three of the Vaesen described in the book.

I was actually interview about this process recently.

6. Are there any aspects of the final game of which you're particularly proud? I'm interested in both rules and setting details for which you were responsible.

The chapter about how the Gamemaster should construct a mystery (scenario) is what I am most proud of. I think many game designers write too little about this – maybe they don’t know how to explain the process, or they want their audience to buy scenarios instead of writing their own, I don’t know.

I think the model that I present, with some locations that the characters may visit, some things that may happen at any time to escalate the situation, and some things creating mood (for instance nightmares or spells) build scenarios with a firm “backbone”, but also room for a lot of adaptation and creativity for both the Gamemaster and the players. I believe that it finds the middle ground between too structured scenarios with scenes that must be played out in a particular way and scenarios that are vague or lacking in focus, forcing the Gamemaster to put a lot of effort into fleshing them out and organizing them.

Maybe these ideas about how to structure scenarios is the reason so many people write their own scenarios for Tales from the Loop and Vaesen? I hope so. I am also quite proud of the short in-game texts at the start of every chapter, and also the texts to the archetypes. I think I managed to create a coherent mood in all of the in-game texts throughout the book. For some, I used real texts from the 19th century as a base, and the changed them, and some I wrote from scratch.

The short texts at the start of each description of the Vaesen, from the diary of the scientist Carl von Linné’s travels in northern Sweden, are actual texts I found in his diary from this trip. I changed some small wordings to make them be about Vaesen, but most of it is authentic. That was a fun thing to do, and I think that things like that give an overall impression of authenticity, even though the reader might not know that the texts are from the from the actual diary by Linné.

7. You wrote a scenario ("The Night Sow") in the first adventure anthology for Vaesen, Wicked Secrets. Is this based on any actual legends or folklore or is it entirely of your own creation.

The Vaesen part of the story is my own creation, but of course based on folklore stories about the creature that figures in the scenario. The backstory, “the sin in Mölle” and the conflict about the bathing hotel is more or less historically correct.

8. You mentioned you're involved in the upcoming new edition of Twilight:2000, which is a game I'm anxiously anticipating. What are you doing for the new edition and what can you share about its overall approach to the subject matter?

I have written three of the scenario sites to the game; places of conflict, from which stories may emerge. I have not had any part in creating the game or making any of the decisions about it. But to my understanding, the team that writes it puts a lot of effort into taking the best from the older versions while simultaneously using more “modern” RPG game design. I don’t think it will be a game of traditional scenarios, but rather a sandbox game where the group at the start of the campaign decides who they are and what they are trying to do. Then they will try to travel across Europe encountering problems and possibilities – and then it is up to them what to do about it.

For the scenario sites that I wrote, I tried to find a good balance between horrifying and hopeful content. As I work as a psychologist with traumatized refugees from warzones and torture, I have heard a lot of scary stories. My intention was to use some of these things, but to try to make it a little less bad than how it is in reality. I don’t think anyone would enjoy a “torture RPG,” not if it was done for real. But some of these themes are certainly part of the scenario sites I wrote.

9. Were you familiar with Twilight: 2000 beforehand? I know there was a Finnish translation of the game in the 1990s, but I don't believe there were any other translations into European languages.

I didn’t play Twilight 2000 when I grew up, but my brother did, and heard his stories about it. When I grew older, I collected some of the products, but I still didn’t play it. I think the game has been fairly big in Sweden. Most Swedish gamers play English games. A translation is more of a bonus, not a necessity.

10. What roleplaying games are you currently playing?

I play in a Burning Wheel campaign loosely based on Yoon-Suin, where my character is a revolutionary doctor who recently swore allegiance to a death God and now tries to poison the Intruders in the Yellow City with “the Black Plague." Very entertaining.

I also play a Call of Cthulhu homebrew campaign, where my character is an emotionally damaged nurse named Sally. She is also a mother to a five-year-old girl played by one of the other players. Sally is not a good mother.

A while ago, me and my wife started to play a superhero-campaign with our oldest son, who is four. Be he got scared when I, as a GM, changed my voice to portray the villain, and now he doesn’t want to play anymore. Traumatized for life…

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Urheim: Lower Gatehouse

Today is my birthday, but I'm going to give my readers a gift by presenting the first entry describing the ruined monastery of St. Gaxyg-at-Urheim. My plan is to reveal a new area of the ruins each week, building it up slowly over time. Other posts relating to Urheim, such as new monsters and character classes, may appear more often.

Since this is the start of the series, I'm still getting a handle on the best way to present each section. Constructive criticism of the format I've adopted is appreciated, as are comments about pertinent details I might have left out of the entries below. My goal is to present an interesting, fun, and usable adventure locale for use with Old School Essentials and similar games over the course of the weeks and months to come.
Map by FrDave

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

House of Worms, Session 204

A Livyáni traveler named Tríddaz Uó of the Blood Red Orb clan arrived at the governor's palace, seeking an audience with Nebússa, in his capacity as vice-governor in charge of external affairs. Nebússa received him and, while not fully versed in the intricacies of Livyáni Aomúz tattoos, he judged Tríddaz to be of high status, possibly even a nobleman. Tríddaz explained that he had come to share some information about an individual named Miyomáz Arshú. The name immediately piqued Nebússa's attention, as it was very similar to one his agents had told him was the name of the ringleader of a Zu'úr smuggling and distribution ring in Linyaró. 

Tríddaz explained that Miyomáz was a minor member of the Livyáni trade delegation in the colony. As to why he was involved in the proscribed Zu'úr trade, he had no idea, but he intimated that Miyomáz might in fact be a member of the Vrú'uneb, the feared Livyáni secret police, one of whose supposedly rogue agents had caused great mischief in Linyaró at the start of Aíthfo's governorship. In any case, Tríddaz said that he would remain in Linyaró "on business" for another few days and provided his current address to Nebússa, in case he wished to contact him. Nebússa then summoned Znayáshu to plan a means of checking out this lead.

Meanwhile, Sorúda hiVráika, an older woman and a member of the Black Stone clan sought out Grujúng, since he is clanmaster of the House of Worms in the colony. She explained that she had come to inquire as to why her clan's most generous offer of a marriage alliance had been rejected. She added that Ta'ána hiKhánuma was an attractive, intelligent young woman "with a good head for figures," who would make a fine first wife for Aíthfo and, more importantly, solidify a relationship between the Black Stone and House of Worms clans. Black Stone, after all, is perhaps the pre-eminent clan of Linyaró, while House of Worms, as the clan of the colony's governor, was similarly important. Together, they could achieve much and an alliance between them only made sense.

Initially, Grujúng was reluctant to agree to this arrangement, pointing out that Aíthfo is a young, headstrong man who would be a poor prospect for a husband at this time. Sorúda countered that this is precisely why he needed the "moderating influence of a wife" such as Ta'ána, adding that she had been the same on all three of her husbands (all now deceased). Further, a first wife is about duty to lineage and clan; Aíthfo need not have any affection for Ta'ána. Such fleeting things could be found in later wives or dalliances. Though Grujúng's natural inclination was to push back against Sorúda, it was at this point that he remembered that Black Stone was also the clan of the current governor of their home city, Sokátis. Since the characters planned to return to Sokátis once Aíthfo's term was completed – in a little less than a year, they hoped – the marriage now made more sense, since it might open doors back in Tsolyánu. Though the matter was not definitively settled, Grujúng strongly suggested that the marriage was acceptable to his clan and discussions should continue.

Keléno had been appraised of Nebússa's discoveries and approached his second wife, Akolána, about using the resources of her Copper Door clan, to inquire into this Miyomáz Arshú. She said she knew of him, confirming his status as a member of the Livyáni trade delegation. She then said she would have her clan look into the matter further and would let Keléno know what they had learned by the end of the day. Not long thereafter, Keléno, Nebússa, and Znayáshu, with the assistance of Znayáshu's wife, Tu'ásha, planned to observe Miyomáz more closely. They had him called into the palace on the pretext of irregularities in trade documentation. Once he came into an office within the palace, Tu'ásha used magic to read his thoughts as a clerk (an agent of Nebússa) quizzed him about various matters in the hopes of lodging certain memories to the forefront of his mind. Little was achieved beyond the image of an unknown Livyáni man, when the matter of Zu'úr was briefly alluded to.

After Miyomáz left, Nebússa had him tailed, as he moved about the city. The tails noticed that someone else was also following him discreetly and doing so very well indeed – clearly professionals. Nebússa's agents then split into two groups, one that continued following Miyomáz and one that followed the people following Miyomáz. The former group learned that the Livyáni had spoken to multiple sailors on the docks before returning to the trade delegation. The latter group learned that the second set of tails eventually met one another before one of their number broke off and headed toward the governor's palace bearing a letter. Nebússa arranged for the letter to be intercepted. It was addressed to Akolána, at which point it became clear that the second group was employed by the Copper Door clan, on Keléno's instructions and that they were sharing the same information Nebússa had already learned.

Nebússa ordered the sailors from the docks brought in for interrogation. They were asked a wide range of questions so as not to alert them to the true nature of the investigation. They denied that they were in any way involved with Zu'úr or the piracy that is occurring along the northwestern coast of the Achgé Peninsula. As to Miyomáz, they knew him and admitted meeting him. They explained, however, that he only wanted to charter their vessels for a trip to Súchel Head, a promontory two weeks east of Linyaró that, so far as they knew, was uninhabited and entirely jungle. Nebússa let them go and pondered the matter, which would probably have to wait until after the characters returned from their planned trip to the ruins of Pashkírigo.

Finally, Lady Srüna paid a visit to Nebússa. Uncharacteristically flustered and uncertain, she admitted to him that she was not sure how to take her recent letter to him, proposing marriage between them. She explained that, all her life, she had only ever experienced flattery for things over which she had no control – her status, her beauty, her family – and that to read the sincere expressions of affection for her was unexpected. She was not yet certain whether she would take Nebússa up on his offer, but she would definitely like to spend more time with him. She thanked him several times for his words and his kind treatment of her. With that, she left and Nebússa got back to work preparing for the coming journey.

Retrospective: Star Probe

Because of the world-historical success and influence of Dungeons & Dragons, it's very easy to forget that, from the very start, TSR published other games – and not just other roleplaying games. One of the less well known ones is 1975's Star Probe by John M. Snider and illustrated by his brother, Paul G. Snider. 

Snider, you may recall, was a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. A game of space exploration, Star Probe arose out of a science fiction wargames campaign conducted within the auspices of the Midwest Military Simulations Society. Though only 36 pages in length, its rules cover a wide range of topics, from starship outfitting to hyperspace jumps to battles and more. Given its scope, the rules are reasonably complete, though Snider repeatedly indicates that they can and should be altered or augmented to cover unexpected situations. In this respect, Star Probe is very much in keeping with the general philosophy of games from this era.

Play is based around the assumption that each player controls a starship from a particular planet traveling throughout the galaxy exploring new star systems, with an eye toward colonizing their worlds. Of course, many worlds are already inhabited, which can complicate the goal of acquiring data about these new worlds. In extreme cases, the inhabitants may take umbrage at the presence of a players' survey or first-in teams and attack, thereby delaying or even preventing learning anything useful about the star system in question. Victory in the game is based on the player who can bring the most "megarons" of data back to their home base before the conclusion of the game's time limit. A basic game is supposed to last five years, with each turn representing a single month, but the rulebook notes that this length of time can be expanded or contracted, depending on the desires of the players.

Star Probe plays a bit like a game of competitive Star Trek, with each player in command of his own personal Enterprise. Players must not only compete against one another, but must also marshal their resources so as to acquire the most data before they return home for re-supply. Once home, their actions are subject to a Board of Review that decides whether or not they are fit to engage in exploration again or whether they should be beached, resulting in certain penalties to further activity. The game's mechanics are filled with trade-offs, as players must weigh certain costs against unknown rewards, as the nature of star systems is randomly generated, using several tables.

Star Probe includes at least one genuine innovation that makes it stand out from both its contemporaries and many of its successors. Included with the game is a map that shows the locations of over 2000 star systems. That's an impressively large number in itself, but even more impressive is that these systems are placed in three dimensions. Each system has a notation indicating whether it is located above, on, or below the galactic plane. That's something that Traveller, produced two years later, did not do and that is still uncommon in science fiction games of any kind.

In his "forward" [sic] to the game, Gary Gygax includes a couple of comments about it that are of interest. First, he notes that Star Probe is the first in a trilogy of games that build upon one another. The second game in the trilogy, Star Empires, was eventually published (and shall form the subject of next week's Retrospective post), while the third, so far as I am aware, was never made. More fascinating still is Gygax's mention of 
"one lost vessel from an avian race having had the misfortune of somehow arriving at the world "Blackmoor" (and promptly losing all to an angry wizard whom they foolishly disturbed)!

For years, I'd heard stories that Blackmoor's planet was included on the maps of Snider's science fiction games, but this is the first time I'd found any evidence that these tales contained a kernel of truth. This makes me wonder about the connection, if any, between Snider's early sci-fi wargames campaigns and Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog and City of the Gods, both of which show evidence of SF high technology. In any case, it's further food for thought on the topic of genre bending within the early hobby, a perennial matter of discussion on this blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Not a Casual Parlour Pastime

Entitled Tékumel Source Bookvolume 1 of 1983's Swords & Glory is filled with a wealth of details about M.A.R. Barker's fantastic world of the Petal Throne. Like Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, the Source Book is so jam-packed with information that it's easy to pick it up, flip to a random page, and find something of interest. In this post, though, I want to draw your attention to a single paragraph from the book's introduction. 

As its name implies, a fantasy role-playing game campaign is not a casual parlour pastime, something to be started and finished within a single evening. It is designed to continue over several months or even years, with weekly, monthly, etc. meetings which may last for hours at a time. One establishes a character, a "persona" in a new and unfamiliar world, and watches this individual grow, progress in society, meet challenges and overcome them, and – hopefully – go on to retire as High General of the Empire (or something similar) at an advanced old age! This takes time, and it is not so much the final result as the excitement along the way which provides the interest. One can design short and simple campaigns, of course: scenarios which are complete in themselves within one evening's gaming. To me, at least, these are not as much fun as the longer-term process of character development just mentioned.
I agree with everything Professor Barker writes here. The experience of refereeing my House of Worms campaign, with a consistent group of players meeting weekly over the course of the last 68 months, has reinforced my long-held notion that the experience of roleplaying only reaches its pinnacle in long-term campaign play. In fact, I'd go further and suggest that many of the criticisms directed at RPG rules and structure – about resource management, for example – only make sense if you're not playing in a campaign of long standing. There's a rhythm to campaign play that is largely missed when you're only playing a one-shot or "short and simple" campaign, as Barker calls it. 

Now, I realize that, for a variety of reasons, long-term campaign play is not practical for everyone. Above all, it requires a degree of consistency in one's personal circumstances that, especially at the present time, isn't as widespread as one might wish. There are many potential impediments to the establishment of a long-term campaign and I realize that I'm very fortunate in having been able to get – and keep – a multi-year campaign up and running. At the same time, I think it's hard to deny that this type of play is foundational. It seems clear to me, if you look at the way the earliest gamers played, that it was geared toward lengthy, persistent campaigns with a reliable group of players. This is an abiding topic of mine and one I feel more strongly about it as the years roll on. 

RPGs are, of course, an infinitely malleable form of entertainment and there's no single "right" way to play them. Nevertheless, I will continue to advocate on behalf of "long form" roleplaying, which I not only believe to be its urform but also one that offers unique pleasures to its participants. 

Liege Lord

In my post earlier today on issue #16, I mentioned that Doug Cowie's "Illuminations" column included a hitherto unknown (to me anyway) GDW product called Liege Lord.

As I said, this is the first time I'd ever heard of the existence of this game and it sounds intriguing. Some quick digging revealed that others clearly have better memories than I and recall talk of the game from around the same time (1984). Further poking about turned up a brief mention of the game in Loren Wiseman's "From the Management" column of issue #22 of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (1985). (The column is also interesting from a historical standpoint, as it's at the start of the process that would eventually lead to the end of JTAS as a separate periodical and the creation of Challenge magazine)

As tantalizing as these references are, they don't provide much detail. What was Liege Lord exactly and what happened to it?

I'd recently been in contact with Marc Miller, creator of Traveller and one of the founders of the late, great Game Designers' Workshop. I figured that, if anyone would know about Liege Lord, it was he. As it turned out, he shared with me some details about not only Liege Lord but another unpublished fantasy RPG GDW was developing called Companions of the Road. According to Miller, Liege Lord was a "barony creating game" (hence its title) with a focus on "building a castle, mapping the territory, and meeting the needs of the people." Companions of the Road, on the other hand, was about adventurers following an ancient highway system (randomly generated) that led not only to other lands but other worlds (like Faerie). Miller added that, had GDW possessed the manpower necessary to pursue these projects, they would likely have been merged into a single game. Instead, they were abandoned and GDW didn't publish a fantasy game until 1992's Dangerous Journeys (né Dangerous Dimensions).

Information like this is catnip to me. I love hearing about the early development of RPGs, as well as games that never saw the light of day. I'm also an unabashed GDW fanboy. I'm not the least bit surprised that the company began development of several games that never saw the light of day, but, now that I know about the existence of Liege Lord (which sounds a bit like D&D's forgotten endgame turned into its main focus) and Companions of the Road, it's hard not to lament what never was.

A TSR Mystery

Issue #3 of Polyhedron (Winter 1981–1982) includes a very lengthy interview with James M. Ward, best known as the creator of Metamorphosis Alpha and (with Gary "Jake" Jaquet) Gamma World. Given its length, the interview is wide-ranging and covers many fascinating topics, one of which is touched upon here:

The "Education Department?" Perhaps, in my middle age, I've simply forgotten, but I cannot recall ever hearing about TSR's education department. Even more intriguing is Ward's mention of "three modules …[that] deal with reading, mathematics, and general science" whose intended audience is "the low-level grades: 4th, 5th, and 6th." 

When I first read this part of the interview, I thought he was referring to the Fantasy Forest game books that were published during 1983–1984. These books were choose-your-own-adventure books like the more well-known Endless Quest books. Ward wrote the first book in this series, called The Ring, the Sword, and the Unicorn, while subsequent volumes were written by a succession of authors, including Mike Carr and Roger E. Moore. Never having seen them, let alone read them, I can't comment much upon their contents, but, from what I've gleaned online, it doesn't seem as if these are what Ward is referring to. After all, he called the upcoming products "modules" and in fact compared them to Troubadour Press's The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Book released in 1979, which, again, is not at all like the Fantasy Forest books. 

If anyone has any idea what Ward might be referencing, I'd love to know. I don't think it's impossible that the modules he mentions might never have seen the light of day, but it's also true that my knowledge of the minutiae of TSR products is not as great as that of others. I'm keen to solve this mystery and would appreciate any help readers can provide.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #16

Issue #16 of Imagine (July 1984) represents, I think, a turning point in the history of the magazine. Starting with this issue, the magazine has expanded its page count to 56 (from 48), which is a not insignificant increase. More interesting – to me anyway – is that this issue also sees the first installment of the Imagine magazine campaign world, Pelinore. Pelinore is quite highly regarded (and justifiably so) by those who know it, but, given its limited availability, there are many roleplayers who know nothing about it. Before we get to that, though, let's look at the other contents of issue #16.

This issue's cover is by Tony Roberts and nicely prepares the reader for some of its contents. There is, for example, an article by Rod Stevenson entitled "The Magic of Ancient Egypt," which briefly discusses the real world beliefs of the ancient Egyptians about magic. It's not a game article per se, as there are no stats for any game, but it focuses on several inspirational aspects of Egyptian belief, like magical stones, amulets, and names. "The Mythology of Ancient Egypt" by Graeme Davis is similar in that it's entirely "non-fiction." Davis follows this up with a Deities & Demigods-style write-up of the Egyptian deity Sobek, which is paired, oddly, with a similar description of the Persian deity Mitra by Graham R. Drysdale. Finally, Davis presents "Sethotep," a low-level Egyptian-themed adventure scenario for D&D, AD&D, and DragonQuest. Among other things, the adventure has a terrific map of an Egyptian temple that I might just steal for use elsewhere (such as my House of Worms campaign). 

Outside of the many Egyptian-themed articles, there are quite a number of other intriguing ones. First up is Chris Felton's "There and Back Again," which is not about hobbits but "alternative ways of travelling," more specifically riding animals other than horses. Needless to say, I heartily approve. Richard W. Lee's "Goroghwen" is quite unusual. It's a three-page description of a new monster that has very few actual game mechanics but lots of advice for using it successfully (a bit like Arnold Kemp's false hydra). In this case, the Goroghwen is a fear parasite that uses illusion to intensify those feelings in its potential prey. It's definitely a clever idea well presented but it's hard to say if it plays as well as it reads. 

"The Priests of Aphor" by Robert P. Scott is a piece of short fiction about the servant of a sultan seeking out the source of forged coins. The "Philosopher's Stone" competitions continue, with the answers to last issue's puzzle and a new one to ponder. Game reviews consist predominately of TSR products, along with battlemats, clear hex overlays, and related miniatures paraphernalia. "Illuminations" is very notable because it references a game that never came out and that, so far as I can recall, I never heard of: Liege Lord, a fantasy RPG by GDW. I shall have to turn to my usual sources on these matters to learn more. 

This issue, Rubic of Moggedon is replaced with another comic by the same author called "Interlude," which I found no more compelling. There's also another installment of "The Sword of Alabron." Brian Creese's "Chainmail" column reviews several play-by-mail games, none of which are familiar to me. Colin Greenland's "Fantasy Media" looks at the latest books and movies, which are similarly forgettable. Pete Tamlyn, meanwhile, reviews Seacon, which occurred in Brighton during the month of April 1984. This brings us to Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" and the issue of measurements in D&D, specifically how they relate to the use of figures, counters, and different kinds of grids. Derrick C. Norton has some interesting things to say about welcoming newcomers to the hobby in "Getting Started." 

This brings us to Pelinore, which introduces the basic concept of this fantasy setting. Pelinore is a flat world at whose center lies the Worldheart – whatever that is, since it's made clear that there are a lot of opinions on the matter and little hard evidence. Its lands consist of the Theocratic Principalities, the Splintered Lands, the Tradecities of Xir, and the fallen kingdom of Varit, among others. Little else is said about the setting other than its central design feature is that it's intended to be open-ended and flexible with just enough detail to inspire but not too much to bog down the referee. A sample organization, the Order of Heralds, is briefly described, as is the City League. There's a promise of more articles in every subsequent issue, along a general call for submissions to develop the setting. As of this issue, there's not much to work with, but I look forward to seeing where these articles go.

As I'd hoped for some time, issue #16 presents an Imagine that's found its footing and knows what it's about. The magazine now has a clearer editorial voice and the quality of its articles is quite high. I'm quite excited to see what the next issue holds; I think it's going to be a good one.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Memories in Amber

In 2018, Goodman Games inaugurated the "Original Adventures Reincarnated" line, which has reprinted classic D&D and AD&D modules from the 1970s and '80s, along with conversions and expansions for use with the current edition of the game. Starting with the third volume in the series, I've been providing commentary essays that appear in the pages of these books. 

The most recent OAR release is Castle Amber, a module I adore. I received my author's copy today and I couldn't be more pleased.

I contributed two essays to the book, the first of which examines the Clark Ashton Smith stories whose ideas inspired Tom Moldvay in creating the contents of the module.
The second, whose title I borrowed for this post, is a reflection of my own experiences with the module over the years, starting with my first encounter with it at the age of 12.
I had a great deal of fun writing these essays and hope they add some value to the final product. I contributed material to the upcoming Temple of Elemental Evil volume as well and have been asked to do so for at least one more upcoming Goodman Games reprint of classic material. Onward!

In Praise of Vanilla

In normal years, Gamehole Con takes place every year in late October/early November in Madison, Wisconsin. At the urging of my friend, Victor Raymond, I first attended the convention in 2017 and greatly enjoyed myself – so much so, in fact, that made a decision to come back every year, if I were able. One of the pleasures of the con is being able to sample all of Wisconsin's glorious dairy delicacies, such as Hook's Cheese and the Chocolate Shoppe's ice cream. One day, a friend was enjoying some of the latter and he commented on how good it was, adding, "People say vanilla ice cream is bland but that's only because they've never had good vanilla."

I thought about this comment the other day after I'd finished refereeing the most recent session of my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. Tékumel has a reputation – largely undeserved in my opinion – of being impenetrable and, therefore, unusable as a fantasy setting by anyone unwilling to devote untold hours to delving into its minutiae. However, I can't deny that it's an acquired taste, which is to say, something that won't be to everyone's liking. If you're not comfortable with a setting that eschews most of the staples of Western medieval fantasy, Tékumel definitely isn't for you (and that's OK).

Yet, for all the flak that Tékumel often catches for being too "weird," there are settings, like the Forgotten Realms, that are criticized from the other side, namely for being too boring. Settings of this sort are often derided as "vanilla fantasy" or some variation thereof. My difficulty in taking such criticisms seriously is that "vanilla fantasy" is a very elastic concept that changes with the user. Some notions of it are narrow and specific, singling out certain elements, such as Tolkien-derived races or fireball-flinging mages, as hallmarks of vanilla. Other notions, meanwhile, are so expansive as to include nearly everything found in Dungeons & Dragons. (In this case, I rather suspect that's the point; some of the most vociferous critics of vanilla fantasy I've ever known were quite down on D&D.)

Speaking only for myself, vanilla fantasy is fantasy that is easily, even intuitively understood by almost anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre. It's built upon well known and widely shared assumptions, such as the existence of multiple intelligent species who go off on adventures that involve fighting nasty creatures and perhaps even a Dark Lord™. In short, it's the popular conception of the plot of The Lord of the Rings filtered through decades of knock-off novels, movies, and video games. 

I realize this description of vanilla fantasy probably makes it sound awful to many people, but that's not my intention at all. There is great value in something that's immediately understood and requires very little explanation. Truly, that's not nothing. Let's go back to Tékumel. Because there are almost no direct connections to popular fantasy concepts, almost every aspect needs to be explained to newcomers. It's not impossible to do, but it takes time and care. How many people not already versed in the setting know what a Pé Chói or a Shén is? Conversely, how many people know what an elf or a dwarf is? I don't think anyone would disagree that vastly more people know what the latter are and that basic level of understanding makes introducing a neophyte to, say, the World of Greyhawk easier than doing the same for Glorantha, another famously idiosyncratic (and non-vanilla) fantasy setting.

Because their assumptions are readily understood even by newcomers, vanilla settings can often introduce imaginative and distinctive twists on those same assumptions. For example, because everyone more or less knows what an orc is, Hârn can offer up its weird, insect-like version of the same (the Gargun). In a similar vein, the titular Forbidden Lands presents equally unexpected takes on halflings that play with expectations, something that could only be done if there's already a widely accepted baseline understanding. That's one of the real strengths of so-called vanilla fantasy: it's the standard from which all deviations can be measured, even deviations within itself.

Finally, there is such a thing as weirdness fatigue. Settings like Glorantha or Talislanta or, yes, Tékumel can overwhelm one's imagination with so many deviations, changes, and replacements of standard fantasy elements that it can be exhausting. A key to immersion in a fantasy setting is being able to imagine what it would be like to be there oneself. If too many of the setting's elements are utterly unlike our own experience, it can be genuinely hard to enter fully into the setting and enjoy it. Even if immersion isn't one's goal, simply having to ask something like "The Hlutrgú are the amphibian guys, right? Or is that the Ahoggyá?" is a rarer occurrence when one is playing on Oerth. 

None of this is meant as a criticism of exotic, quirky fantasy settings, which I adore. Even more emphatically this post is not intended to praise genuinely banal and unimaginative settings. My purpose is rather to make it clear that vanilla need not be synonymous with boring or hackneyed. Ingenious and engaging vanilla settings abound and the hobby would be poorer without them. Good vanilla can be every bit as tasty as the most rarefied flavors. In our zeal to laud the outré, we would be wise to remember that.

Help Requested

The other day, I was idly following links from one place to another and stumbled across a very fascinating blog devoted to miniatures wargaming during the Seven Years' War. The blog included the image below, which made me laugh. Like a fool, I didn't bookmark it and now can't find the blog again.

Anyone have an idea what this blog might be?

(Before anyone suggests it, I have already attempted to use a reverse image search to locate the blog. After all, how often could the Salad Cat have been put in the role of Frederick the Great? The problem, alas, is that reverse image searches don't seem to take into account text and, since the underlying image is so ubiquitous, finding the source of this specific version of it isn't easy.)

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Frost-Giant's Daughter

"The Phoenix on the Sword" by Robert E. Howard is rightfully called the published story of Conan the Cimmerian. However, it's actually a rewrite of "By This Axe I Rule!," an unpublished tale of Kull of Atlantis. "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was written later but, unlike "The Phoenix on the Sword," it was always intended to be a Conan story, thus making it the first original piece of Conan fiction, a fact supported, I think, by its taking place early in the Conan's life, when he was young and relatively inexperienced. These might seem like trivial details but the story of the creation and publication of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is not without value to understanding it and its place within the Conan canon. 

Howard submitted the short story to Weird Tales sometime in early 1932. Farnsworth Wright, its editor, rejected it curtly with the words, "I do not much care for it." Much ink has been spilled over the matter of just why Wright did not care for it, with some suggesting that the content of the story was too racy for his sensibilities. However, a cursory examination of the contents of any issue of Weird Tales, as well as the Unique Magazine's many covers by Margaret Brundage, should quickly disabuse anyone of this interpretation. Instead, I think we should take Wright at his word: he simply did not enjoy the story and there need not be any further explanation. I'll come back to the supposed raciness of the story before long.

Undeterred by the rejection, REH went back and rewrote the story, replacing Conan with another nearly-identical character, Amra of Akbitana (a name that Conan fans should recognize as an occasional alias of the barbarian). He then retitled it "The Frost King's Daughter" and submitted it to the amateur periodical The Fantasy Fan, edited by Charles Hornig (who is himself an incredibly fascinating individual). When it appeared in issue #7 (March 1934), its title was changed again, this time to "Gods of the North." A version of the story featuring Conan, as Howard has intended, did not appear until 1953 in the Gnome Press edition of The Coming of Conan, edited by L. Sprague de Camp. Despite the fact that De Camp had access to Howard's original manuscript, he nevertheless tinkered extensively with the text, as he so often did, and it would not be until 1976 that an unaltered version of the Conan version would appear, in Donald M. Grant's Rogues in the House. In the years since, other versions of the Howardian text have also appeared in print. 

The story itself is a short one, one of the briefest of all Conan tales but, for my money, it's also one of the most memorable and visceral. A young Conan is working as a mercenary in the service of the Aesir against their Vanir enemies. Though he survives a fierce battle that takes the lives of his comrades in arms, Conan is nevertheless wounded and exhausted. He falls into the snow, as a "rushing wave of blindness engulfed him." It's then that the story truly begins.

A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly. He looked up; there was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not place or define - an unfamiliar tinge to earth and sky. But he did not think long of this. Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed down at the bewildered warrior. Her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery.

“Who are you?” asked the Cimmerian. “Whence come you?”

After a short exchange, Conan gazes upon "her billowy hair [and] her ivory body … as perfect as the dream of a god" and is "spell-bound." Take note of that last phrase. I do not believe Howard has chosen it carelessly. Indeed, I believe it is key to understanding everything that follows. 

The mysterious white-skinned woman mocks and taunts Conan, who attempts, in the haze of his wounds and fatigue, to determine who she is and how she has come onto this battlefield, which is littered with the corpses of the feuding Aesir and Vanir. At last she asks him,

"Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?" she chanted in maddening mockery. "Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can not follow where I would lead."

With an oath the Cimmerian heaved himself up on his feet, his blue eyes blazing, his dark scarred face contorted. Rage shook his soul, but desire for the tainting figure before him hammered at his temples and drive his wild blood fiercely through his veins. Passion fierce as physical agony flooded his whole being, so that earth and sky swam red to his dizzy gaze. In the madness that swept him, weariness and faintness 

Conan will take no more of her taunting; he is now determined to catch the woman and make her pay for her ridicule. 

The remainder of the story is some of Howard's most intense and impassioned writing. Conan is overcome by powerful feelings that impel him forward, relentlessly chasing the woman across the snows, deeper and deeper into the cold – but are his feelings rage or lust or something else entirely? It's common to suggest that it's base lust that motivates him or perhaps a combination of lust and anger at being belittled, but I urge readers to remember that Howard describes Conan as being "spell-bound" after he first sets eyes on the woman. I believe that the Cimmerian has been literally bewitched and that the remainder of the story bears this out, as the woman, realizing she may have made a mistake in trifling with the young Conan, calls upon every power she can muster to prevent herself from falling into his hands.

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is a great story, a powerful exemplar of Howard's blood and thunder style of storytelling. Farnsworth Wright may not have thought much of it, but it's one of my personal favorite tales of Conan and a good introduction to him and his world. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

REVIEW: A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City

While the old school renaissance is usually (and with good reason) associated with blogs, I think a serious argument could be made that, over the last few years anyway, the action has moved to fanzines. Of course, the definition of "fanzine" is an elastic one. Nowadays, it includes everything from amateur periodicals to game supplements – and even entire games – that are presented in a fashion reminiscent of those periodicals. At minimum, means saddle-stitched, digest-sized booklets and in many cases it also means embraces simple, even simplistic, art and layout that hearkens back to the days before desktop publishing was inexpensive and ubiquitous. Thus, esthetic considerations determine what qualifies as a fanzine as much as format or even content, much like the OSR itself.

A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City is a recent example of what I mean by this. Produced by Superhero Necromancer Press – a terrifically evocative name that references the 8th level title of elves in the Cook/Marsh Expert Set – it's a 60-page system-neutral description of the eponymous settlement, so called because rain perpetually falls upon it. The inhabitants of the Rainy City believe the constant precipitation signals the End of the World. Whether or not this is true is an open question, like a great many of the mysteries A Visitor's Guide presents. 

Author Rich Forest (with contributions from Andrew D. Devanney, Alisha Forest, and Bill Spytma) writes in the voice of Beauregard Hardebard, a warden of the Fraternity of the Art or Mystery of Haberdashery and Millinery. Beauregard is an inhabitant of the Rainy City and purports to know a great deal about it, though, as one reads, it becomes clear that he is not a completely reliable narrator. As with the cause of the endless rain that blankets the city, this approach works to the credit of the book, as it leaves a lot of room for the referee to come up with his own answers. Indeed, openness and flexibility are the watchwords of A Visitor's Guide and one's reactions to them will probably predict how one will feel about it.

The book is divided into more than a dozen short chapters, the bulk of which focus on the various districts of the Rainy City. Before getting to those, there are useful overviews of topics of broader interest, like the peoples (i.e. species) who inhabit the city, what seasons and holidays are like in this strange place, and the questions of light, heat, food, and related mundane matters. I was greatly impressed by the range of subjects touched upon, because it shows the authors have given thought to the consequences of the peculiar weather patterns in the city. None of these matters are treated at length – most receive no more than a couple of paragraphs – but all receive just enough detail to be both useful and inspirational. For example, large amphibious creatures called ewts have replaced horses as riding animals and beasts of burden. Likewise, hats and umbrellas are not only fashionable but vital items for anyone living in the Rainy City. 

The city's districts are all presented in a similar fashion. There's an introduction establishing the nature and history of the area, following by sketches of the weather, inhabitants, laws and crimes. Important locations within the district are also detailed, but the meat of these chapters focus on adventure seeds and unique organizations. For example, Old Town is home to multiple guilds, the Murk houses the Grand Academy, and Levee Town is where the Order of the Pump (civil engineers who keep the city from flooding) is established. Each chapter is largely modular and could in all likelihood be lifted for use in other locales should the referee desire it. That's not to say that there are no connections between the districts, only that, as presented, it's easy to steal or mix and match elements according to individual taste.

A Visitor's Guide is attractively presented, with illustrations after the fashion of early modern woodcuts by Bill Spytma. Many NPCs are given portraits, which is not only charming but also evidence that a picture is worth a thousand words. The section on patrons, for instance, includes a depiction of each one and these go a long way toward conveying their personalities. The masked Elenia the Smuggler is clearly an elusive and mysterious individual, while the wizard Iambic Pentacular is intense and serious. This is of a piece with the overall design of the book, which emphasizes inspirational concision over specific detail. That's an approach I appreciate but it can have drawbacks. The maps of the city and its districts (by Andrew D. Devanney) are charming but not particularly useful, since there are no locales marked on it. 

I enjoyed reading A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City. It's engagingly written and pleasing to look at and I found myself regularly imagining how I might use a location, an organization, and an NPC. For me, that's usually a good indication that I'm reading a good gaming product. For that reason, I'd recommend giving this one a look, particularly if you're interested in urban locales and adventures in a fantasy setting. 

The book is available as a PDF and as a print and PDF combo (which includes a separate folded map). 

RIP Lenard Lakofka (1944-2020)

Several people have contacted me to let me know that Lenard Lakofka died yesterday morning. 

Lakofka is, to my mind, one of the most underappreciated contributors to the growth and development of Dungeons & Dragons. His friendship with Gary Gygax predates the game's publication, owing to his involvement with the International Federation of Wargamers, of which he would eventually become president. Just as significantly, he produced a Diplomacy fanzine called Liaisons Dangereuses, in whose pages appeared multiple articles about D&D that were co-authored with Gary Gygax. As Gygax began working on AD&D, he frequently turned to Lakofka for aid and assistance and the final shape of the game owes a lot to their exchanges. 

In Chicago, Lakofka's home campaign was set in a location known as the Lendore Isles. The Lendore Isles were later incorporated into the published version of the The World of Greyhawk and served as the setting for the adventure modules he wrote for TSR. One of these, The Secret of Bone Hill, is a classic and arguably one of the best starting modules ever produced for the game. Lakofka also wrote a regular column for Dragon magazine entitled "Leomund's Tiny Hut." Leomund had been the name of his player character and is associated with numerous magic-user spells Lakofka created.

Back in 2009, I interviewed Lakofka, the results of which appeared in three parts. I'd recommend taking a look at them, if you haven't done so before. Lakofka had a lot to say about the early days of the hobby and the development of Dungeons & Dragons that I think are still quite fascinating today. In recent years, he had returned to writing and was a frequent guest at conventions.

He will be missed.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Interlude

Normally, I would post an interview today. This week, there won't be one. The reason for this is time. 

Since August, I've been posting three to five times a day Monday through Friday – and enjoying every minute of it. Unfortunately, writing posts of any sort takes up a lot of time, sometimes spread over the course of multiple days. That's particularly true of interviews. 

The next couple of weeks will be busy for me on other fronts. I'm currently in the midst of finishing up issue #13 of my Tékumel fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume. I've also got several projects for Thousand Suns under way. That's in addition to developing Urheim, preparing for the games I'm refereeing at Virtual Gamehole Con, and my weekly House of Worms campaign. Whew!

I'm still feeling my way toward balancing all these endeavors in a way that's sustainable and remains enjoyable for me. Consequently, I'm going to ease up for the next few days to give myself some time to catch up on these other matters. My apologies in advance.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Grognard's Grimoire: Bael

Bael (Old School Essentials)

Bael by Jason Sholtis
AC –7 [26], HD 23**** (184hp), Att 2 × bite (2d6), THAC0 5 [+14], MV 150' (50'), SV D2 W2 P2 B2 S2, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 10,500, NA 1, TT R, S, T, V

Bael is a great demon king, arguably the most powerful of his kind. From his citadel on the dark side of Aido in the Sixth Shell, he commands 66 legions. Though capable of assuming many guises, his preferred form is that of an eight-legged creature with three heads—his right one looking like a cat, his left like a toad, and his central one like a cadaverous human king wearing a two-tiered crown. When Bael speaks, it is through the mouth of his human head, which possesses a harsh and haughty voice.

Bael may only be struck by +3 or better weapons. His human head has a charm gaze (no saving throw) that affects creatures within 300' for 1 turn. The number of creatures affected is determined by their hit dice, as follows: 3 HD or fewer, 1d10×10; 4–6 HD, 5d8; 7–9 HD, 3d8; 10–12 HD, 2d6; and 13+ HD, 1d4. Creatures possessing 15 or more hit dice are entitled to a saving throw versus spells. His toad head has a breath attack identical to the effects of a wand of cold. His cat head causes fear as a wand of fear. These two attacks are usable at will. Both the toad and cat heads may also bite, but Bael rarely stoops to such attacks, deeming it beneath him. 

Bael may use the following spell-like abilities at will: clairvoyance, continual darkness, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, ESP, invisibility, levitate, polymorph self, read languages, read magic, telekinesis (5000 coins per head), wall of ice, water breathing, web, and summon (with an 85% chance of success) any demon of the first through sixth shells. Once per day, he can use feeblemind or projected image.

All spiders do Bael homage, as do Chaotic felines and batrachians. The Grimoire Major (which designates Bael 06-02 Red) claims there is a rivalry between the King of the East and Duke Vephar (q.v.) regarding the Ranine (q.v.), with both demon lords asserting dominion over them. On Telluria, cultists and witches make pacts with Bael to gain the powers of subtlety and invisibility.

Grognard's Grimoire: Phlogerus

Phlogerus (Demon of the Sixth Shell) (Old School Essentials)
A phlogerus by Jason Sholtis
AC –2 [21], HD 8+7*** (43hp), Att 2 × sword (1d8+1), 1 × bite (1d6), 1 × constrict (2d4), THAC0 12 [+7], MV 60' (20') / 150' (50'), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12, ML 10, AL Chaotic, XP 2300, NA 1d3 (1d6), TT

The phlogerus is a 12-foot tall demon, whose serpentine lower half is surmounted by a humanoid torso with a frightful reptilian head. Although capable of doing so, it rarely deigns to set foot on the ground, preferring instead to float aloft. The demon's scaled skin radiates intense heat and light, making it difficult to look directly at it (–2 to all attack rolls against it unless the attacker's eyes are somehow shielded). 

The phlogerus wields two swords +1 in battle, but is equally fond of employing its teeth and tail in battle. An opponent grabbed by the tail is constricted and drawn toward its body, so as to expose him to the heat emanating from its hide (dealing 3d6 damage). It is immune to ordinary weapons, like all demons of the sixth shell. At will, it can use the following spell-like abilities: cause fear, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, feeblemind, mirror image, read languages, and read magic. Also, it can summon (70% chance of success) a demon from the first five shells.

Like the amenus (q.v.), the phlogerus is rarely found on Telluria. It is more common in the upper air and even in astral space. It is claimed (in the Kenomicon, among other volumes) that phlogeri existed in vast numbers during the time of the Great Ancients, when travel between the Four Worlds was commonplace. 

This is an Orc

An orc by Jason Sholtis
I have a longstanding preference for pig-faced orcs, owing no doubt to the Dave Sutherland illustration that appears on the title page of the Holmes Basic rulebook, which depicts two fighters and a wizard fending off a horde of these vicious things. It's one of Sutherland's best pieces in my opinion, if only because it's stuck with me all these years and forever colored my view of these monstrous humanoids. 

I know there are plenty of other interpretations of orcs – let a thousand flowers bloom! – but I prefer an explicitly bestial version of them. This interpretation is a way of vacating the space better occupied by human antagonists, allowing orcs to serve as products of black magic and demonic sorcery rather than just another kind of bland goon whose only purpose is to occupy a space on a hit die progression chart. 

Rebellion Victorious!

A few weeks ago, I posted about my foray into the world of tabletop wargaming (though, at the moment, it's a virtual tabletop, thanks to VASSAL). Having completed Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt against Caesar, my friends and I took up Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, another game in the same series. Like all the other COIN games, this one is only partly a "war" game in that military conflict is but one facet of its play. Just as important, especially for the player(s) of the rebel faction(s), is influence. 

Since I was playing the American rebels (Patriots), I opted not to fight many pitched battles, knowing that the Royalist regulars were more numerous and effective. Instead, I opted to wage a campaign of propaganda and rabble-rousing against the Crown in order to bring as many colonies to my side as I could. I likewise made the decision to focus almost entirely on the northeastern colonies, since the southern ones were more sparsely populated and sympathetic to the Royalists. Swaying them to the Patriot cause would be costly in terms of my very limited resources – the primary weakness of the faction – and in terms of exposing my underground militias. 

The strategy paid off fairly well, though, over the course of the game there were many moments when I thought I was doomed. In fact, just prior to the last few turns, I was certain the Royalists had won, since they had done a good job of simultaneously keeping the French at bay, aiding their Iroquois allies (under Joseph Brant), and shifting opinion against the insurrection. Their mistake was in marching a large army of regulars under Howe into Massachusetts, where the Continental Army was holed up with Washington, supported by French regulars under Lauzon. Though the Royalists outnumbered the combined Patriot/French forces and Howe is an excellent commander, fortune did not favor them. A greater blow was dealt to the Royalist forces, resulting in the perception that the Patriots had "won the day," which increased support for the rebellion across the region. Given that the game's countdown clock was close to signaling the end of the game, there was nothing the Royalists could do and I won.

I have to say I was surprised. I'm frankly terrible at strategy and only marginally better at tactics. Plus, my inexperience with wargames of any sort, let alone those in the COIN series, is considerable. I suspect that, since all the COIN games are based on historical counterinsurgencies, there's probably a slight mechanical bias in favor of the rebels. That said, the Royalist player admitted afterward that he probably erred in spending too much time in the early game trying to seize control of a colony rather than waging a "hearts and minds" campaign against the rebels. Control has some value, but it's secondary to winning over the loyalty of the people. 

What made Liberty or Death most enjoyable for me was being able to look at the flow of events and understand better why individuals at the time made the choices that they did, even if – perhaps especially if – the choices ultimately proved to be the wrong ones. I think that's something wargames have the potential to do well: provide insight into historical conflicts and the decisions, good and bad, made by the leaders of those conflicts. I'm very glad to have the opportunity to play these games and look forward to more in the weeks to come. Next up: Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation.

Grognard's Grimoire: Amenus

Amenus (Demon of the Fifth Shell) (Old School Essentials)

An amenus by Jason Sholtis
AC –6 [25], HD 7+6*** (37hp), Att 2 × front claw (1d6), 2 × back claw (2d4), 1 × bite (1d6), THAC0 12 [+7], MV 90' (30') / 120' (40'), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12, ML 10, AL Chaotic, XP 1650, NA 1d3 (1d6), TT

The amenus is a frightening demon sporting bristly fur and four wings. It is rarely seen on Telluria, except when summoned by foolhardy magicians or on an errand for its lord, the mighty president Camio (q.v.). Its coming is preceded by a powerful blast of cold air that extinguishes all unprotected flames within 80' of itself.

The amenus prefers to fight while flying, so that it can use all four of its claws as well as its powerful bite. Being a demon of the fifth shell, it is immune to ordinary weapons. All of the following spell-like abilities are available to it, usable at will: cause fear, control weather, continual darkness, detect invisible, and projected image. An amenus can summon (75% chance of success) a single demon from the first five shells (determined randomly).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Arion, Lord of Atlantis

Throughout the 1970s and into the '80s, DC Comics made multiple attempts to take advantage of the growing popularity of the genre. Of all the comic titles the company published during this time, The Warlord, about which I talked last week, was by far and away the most successful. The Warlord ran for 133 issues plus six annuals over the course of twelve years – a considerable feat in a genre littered with innumerable failures. So successful was The Warlord that DC used it as a platform from which to launch additional fantasy titles, an example of which is Arion, Lord of Atlantis, which began its existence as a back-up feature in issue #55 (March 1982) of that comic.

Arion takes place during an age of magic that preceded the Ice Age.

As the Ice Age overtakes the world, destroying ancient civilization after ancient civilization, Atlantis finds its own stability sorely threatened. Refugees from these other civilizations have fled before the encroaching ice, as have the barbaric cavemen who now seek to take Atlantis by force. Arion is the Lord High Mage and it falls to him to use his sorcery to protect his city. The story begins with Arion exhausted and feeling alone and isolated. His master, Caculha, is dead and his king and the other nobles of Atlantis are, in his opinion, fools. Retiring to his chambers, he is called upon by Lady Chian, Captain of the Royal Guard.
Despite his rude treatment of her, it's clear that Chian loves Arion and wishes only to aid him in his labors. Like a petulant teenager, however, Arion feels ill-used and under-appreciated. There is some truth to his feelings. Atlantis does depend upon him for its very survival and there is no one else in the city who can truly help him. At the same time, the Atlanteans are grateful for his work on their behalf and would gladly do whatever they can to to ease his burdens.

Later, the king asks Arion to read the Oracle of Choloh to seek guidance. Arion complies and, while doing so, is shocked to make contact with the spirit of his master, who speaks to him cryptically of his destiny.
Arion retires to his chambers once more – he does that a lot – to contemplate the meaning of what his master's spirit had told him. But he cannot do that long before the dinosaurs Atlantis keeps in its zoos – yes, you read that correctly – escape and run rampant throughout the city. Arion is called upon to deal with the problem, but finds that his magic has left him. He is unable to command any spells and is forced, alongside the Royal Guard to fight the dinosaurs using only his sword.
This first installment ends with Arion deciding that he needs to seek out the destiny of which Master Caculha's spirit spoke. Perhaps the departure of his magic is tied to this destiny and, if so, he has no choice but leave Atlantis and find it. Arion, Lord of Atlantis would appear in the next eight issues of The Warlord, after which it received its own series, which itself ran for 35 issues. 

I don't think Arion is quite as successful in its aims as was The Warlord. Partly, it's because Arion is himself a somewhat unsympathetic character – a stand-offish, arrogant, and self-absorbed jerk – like Elric but far less compelling. On the other hand, his quest to restore his magic has definite potential as a framing device for his subsequent adventures and the antediluvian world of Atlantis is mythically potent one. All in all, it's not a terrible comic, though it's not as enjoyable as other fantasy comics of the same era.