Thursday, December 31, 2020

"It Just Grew"

In his book, Fantasy Role Playing Games, J. Eric Holmes devotes an entire chapter to the history of RPGs, with particular attention devoted – obviously – to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Holmes's perspective is interesting, both because of the relatively early publication date of his book (1981) and because of his direct involvement in that history, through the editing of the 1977 D&D Basic Set (about which I'll say more in a future post).

Before getting to the history of roleplaying games proper, Holmes takes note of several "prehistoric" phenomena that, in his view, laid the groundwork for the invention of the hobby. The first is the growth and development of miniatures wargames, as one might expect, while another, in his opinion, is the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings. Of the novel, he says

This epic fairy tale, without a doubt the greatest work of fiction produced in this century, inflamed the imaginations of an entire generation. The story, as most of my players know, involves the clash of great armies of men, elves, dwarves, goblins and magical creatures. 

From there, Holmes discusses the publication of Chainmail and its incorporation of "a large amount of fantasy material, magic spells, giants, trolls, dragons and what have you." He also notes that Chainmail was "reasonably popular." It's at this point that Holmes makes a brief but meaningful aside, saying:

What happened next is conjecture on my part. Unfortunately, as so often happens in an enterprise that becomes financially successful, the principals are now engaged in litigation over the priority of the discovery.

With that caveat out of the way, Holmes turns to Arneson and the Blackmoor campaign, "run using the Chainmail rules, which the gamers [i.e. those in Minneapolis] were already used to." It is to Arneson that he attributes that concept of dungeons, which I think is indisputable. Arneson and Gygax then put their heads together, "making up new spells, new monsters and new magic artifacts at a tremendous rate," at which point "they decided to risk the investment and have Gygax's little company, called TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), publish the books." Remember: this is Holmes's perspective, as he saw it in 1981, nothing more.

After Dungeons & Dragons was published, its popularity grew, with "myriads of new players springing up in every high school and college in the country," but, he adds, the rules "were often confusing." 

Few, if any, of the new players guessed that spells could be used only once in each expedition, and beleaguered Dungeon Masters made up their own systems for handling these ambiguities. 

At Caltech in Pasadena, students Cowan, Clark, Shih, Smith, Dahl, and Peterson put together a set of rules with what they felt to be an improved combat and magic system: Warlock.  I used their combat table when I first started playing D&D, because I could not understand the one in the original books. In Arizona, Ken St. Andre created a role playing game called Tunnels and Trolls, again with different rules for magic and combat. These games were published; other rule sets appeared in the amateur magazines. In fact, within a few years of its appearance, D&D had generated many more pages of commentary and revision than were contained in the original three little rule books.

This section, I think, hits on a deep truth about the early history of both D&D and roleplaying games more generally: no one had any idea what they were doing. There was no "plan" or "vision" beyond trying – not very well by most accounts from the time – to document the ideas, processes, and rules that allowed Arneson, Gygax, and others to create these "wildly imaginative fantasy" campaigns that, in turn, inspired others to create their own versions. Holmes quotes Gygax on the development of D&D and what he says is probably truer than most people realize: "Like Topsy … it just grew."

I think, in our quest to understand the past, we often attribute intentionality and purpose to people's actions that, at the time, were at the very least unknown to them, if not wholly absent. I don't think anyone involved in the prehistory or early history of D&D had any real sense of what they'd created. D&D was, in many ways, an accident, like the discovery of penicillin and, like the discovery of that first antibiotic, it changed the world forever.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

One Shots, ADD, and Consumerism

Over the last decade, I've developed a practice that's worked well for me. Twice a year, I do an inventory of the two book shelves that contain my RPG collection. Any games or game books I've not used in play (or even in "research") go into the garage. Every few years, I then do an inventory of the games in the garage and if, as is often the case, I hadn't sought out or thought about the games in question, they go into a pile to be sold or donated. Similarly, if I buy a new game or game book, it has to fit onto those two shelves I've reserved for this purpose. If they can't do so, I make room by consigning something currently occupying the shelves to the garage, just as I would during my semiannual inventories.

In the past, this practice would have horrified me. I was convinced that I needed every single game or game book I'd ever bought, having, in the past, got rid of a book that I later decided I shouldn't have. I felt that the only thing worse than getting rid of a book you might later want is buying something a second time to correct your mistake. The results of this line of thinking were obvious: shelves filled with games I'd not looked at, let alone played, in years. It was frankly ridiculous and indulgent and, looked at objectively, there was no justification for it. Games are for playing, after all; if I wasn't playing a game or had no expectation that I'd do so in the foreseeable future, why was I keeping it around? 

I've never really been a collector of anything, in the best sense of that word, but I've frequently been an accumulator – the kind of thing that's only possible when one has too much disposable income and no concerns about storage space. In recent years, my tolerance for this has declined considerably, influenced in no small part by my increasingly strident belief that RPGs are best enjoyed in the form of long campaigns. In three months, my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign will celebrate its six-year anniversary. That campaign is a continual source of joy to me and I am deeply grateful to the players, both past and present, whose participation in it has enabled it to keep going for so long. As things stand now, I see no end to the campaign, though, if it were to end tomorrow, I would not only consider it one of the highlights of my decades in the hobby but would soon thereafter start up a new campaign that I would hope to last just as long or longer. 

My perspective on RPGs has been transformed by my experiences with the House of Worms. I find the prospect of "one shots" generally underwhelming and a symptom of "gamer ADD" that sometimes seems the norm these days, flitting from one game to the next, never sticking with one for more than a few weeks or months at most before picking up a new one and starting again – serial monogamy in ludic form. I wonder if this style of play has become facilitated in part by the plethora of RPGs now available, with new ones being published on a regular basis. The choices available to gamers in 2020 is a veritable deluge beyond the wildest dreams of gamers two or three decades ago. The allure of so many RPGs is powerful – I've felt it myself – and, with so many options readily available, why would one settle for just one? Why play the same game for years on end when there are so many other imaginative products to sample? It's little wonder that long campaigns are so uncommon.

A few months ago, during a pause in the Forbidden Lands campaign I've been playing in for a year and a half, I offered to run a few sessions of Old School Essentials for the players, to fill the gaps until our referee was again available. We played, I think, three sessions, completing an adventure, at the end of which all the players expressed a desire to continue, having enjoyed both the scenario and the characters they'd created. We didn't continue, as the Forbidden Lands campaign resumed, but the fact that the players expressed the desire to do so demonstrated, I think, the powerful appeal of something more than a one-off

The truth is I already have more roleplaying games than I could ever play, even after winnowing my collection down to only a couple of shelves (and, realistically, that's still a lot RPGs). There's no question that some amazing new roleplaying games are being produced today and, from time to time, I come across one that truly grabs my attention. Believe me: I understand the attraction of new games and the desire to play them, but I try very hard to remember how many RPGs I already own too many, if measured by the simple standard of how long I've spent playing some of them. If I narrowed down the number of games I had to a mere handful, say, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, and Pendragon (or Call of Cthulhu), I'd have enough material to keep me busy for the rest of my life. I have no need for any more RPGs and, most likely, neither does anyone reading this post.

My point here is not to disparage anyone who owns more than three roleplaying games, enjoys playing one shots, or has made a hobby of collecting, none of which are, in and of themselves, bad things. Rather, it's to emphasize the fact that, just as talking (or writing) about RPGs is no substitute for actually playing them, neither is amassing huge libraries of them without using them at the table (real or virtual) for an extended period of time. My collection of games is vast compared to what I owned when I was a young person, when I spent untold hours playing them – and rarely got bored of doing so. Nowadays, I sometimes get the sense that, with the increase in the number of games available, gamers tire of them so much more easily and our ability to stick with one for more than a few months is diminishing. It's a shame in my opinion, given the joys to be had by playing in lengthy campaigns with the same group of players. My hope is that more of us will recognize this in the coming year and, instead of making a hobby out of consuming games, we'll play them with renewed fervor and tenacity.

Retrospective: The Boy King

In my previous retrospective on Greg Stafford's true masterpiece, Pendragon, I noted that I've had a lot of fun with it over the years. The last time I refereed the game, back in 1999 – I can hardly believe it was that long ago either – I so thoroughly enjoyed myself that, to this day, I still recount episodes from that unfortunately truncated campaign. There are multiple reasons why I can do this, but a big part of it lies in the structure provided by Stafford's must-have companion piece to Pendragon, The Boy King, first published in 1991.

The Boy King is a campaign outline for use with Pendragon, detailing 80 years of "history," starting with the anarchy following the death of Uther and ending Arthur's death and the death of the last knights of the Round Table in the Holy Land. In creating this outline, Stafford leaned heavily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur to establish a rough chronology of events – understandable, given the mess that is the Arthurian literary canon. To this, he added material from other sources, both ancient and modern, as well as his own ideas. In doing so, Stafford provides the referee a year-by-year outline of the entirety of Arthurian "history" against which he can set the adventures of the player character knights.

I say "history," because one of the things that Pendragon does brilliantly is square the supposedly sub-Roman time period of the "real" Arthur (assuming there was such a person) with the High Medieval setting implied by most of the literature associated with him. The post-Uther anarchy is a rough and tumble time – a true Dark Ages – where technology and society are closer to what one would expect in late 5th/early 6th century Britain. However, as events unfold and Arthur appears, history as we know it abates and a mythical Golden Age arises, during which time things advance more quickly than they did in the real world. Each phase of Arthur's rule corresponds broadly to a later period of actual history, allowing for more impressive arms and armor, as well as social and cultural development. By the end of Arthur's reign, Britain, though nominally in the 560s AD, look and feel more like the 15th century. But with his death, "history reasserts itself," as the text explains, and that "brief, shining moment" is over. It's an elegant solution that, I think, works well in the multi-generational set-up of Pendragon and emphasizes the ultimately tragic nature of the Arthurian legend.

For each year, The Boy King notes the major events that transpire during it, such as battles, where Arthur holds court, and the arrival of significant characters, and so on. In addition, scattered throughout the book are adventures, some of them little more than outlines for the referee to flesh out and others being more fully described. This is in addition to orders of battle, NPC write-ups, and maps of notable locales. Monsters and legendary beasts receive similar treatment. For each of the five "phases" of the 80-year timeline, the book provides information on technological and social changes, such as the appearance of better armor and weaponry or the institution of new cultural practices. Taken together, it's more than enough material for any referee to use as he wishes, taking what he likes and leaving the rest. The overall timeline is very flexible; no referee should feel constrained by its sequence of events. Like every writer who has chronicled the reign of Arthur, the referee can shape it to his own preferences.

My love of Pendragon is deep and abiding. It's one of a handful of roleplaying games that I'd call "perfect" in that they so utterly achieve their goals that there's no need for another game in that particular niche. To my mind, Pendragon's particular goals were to foster an emotionally charged multi-generational campaign set against the backdrop of the legends of Arthur and his knights and in that it succeeded brilliantly. With the addition of The Boy King, Pendragon made that even easier for the referee to achieve, even one who is not well read on the intricacies of the Arthurian canon. It's quite simply one of the best RPG supplements ever written and a testament to Greg Stafford's love for the source material. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Imagine Magazine: Issue #25

 Issue #25 of Imagine (April 1985) is the "Far Eastern Special," presenting numerous articles whose content derives from myths, legends, and cultures of Asia. Without context, I'd have assumed that the issue's contents had been chosen to complement the release of Oriental Adventures, but I'd have been wrong. That AD&D hardcover, the last to bear the byline of Gary Gygax, wasn't published until late 1985 (Gary's preface is dated September of that year). Indeed, there's nary a mention of Oriental Adventures in this issue, which suggests there's no connection between the two whatsoever or, if there is, it's an unacknowledged one. 

Graeme Davis opens the special with "Monsters from Folklore of the Philippines," a collection of seven new creatures for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (as well as notes on local versions of standard AD&D monsters). Davis also penned ""Japanese Bujutsu in the AD&D Game." The article presents more than a dozen new weapons of Japanese origin, in addition to brief disarming, archery, and judo. Though brief, the article is one I'd have enjoyed at the time, during a period when I was very interested in Japanese history and legendry. David Knowles, meanwhile, offers "Ogre Magi," an examination of these Asian-inspired monsters with an eye toward fleshing them out both as monsters and as a playable, if evil, character race. What's most interesting to me is that Knowles presents Ogre Magi as Dai-Bakemono rather than a kind of Oni, as would eventually become standard in AD&D. The distinction between the two classes of supernatural beings is a subtle one and I don't claim to understand all the nuances involved but I note it nonetheless.

"Dragonlore of China and Japan" by Carole Morris is a three-page overview of how dragons were viewed in these two Asian cultures. There are no game stats provided anywhere in the article; it's simply a discussion of the topic from the perspective of Chinese and Japanese myths and it's quite good for what it is. "The Words of Go-Guji" is a mini-module by Mike Brunton that's intended for use with both AD&D and Bushido, though it seems to have been intended for the latter. I say this because the text of the adventure provides Bushido stats while an accompanying article, "Using The Words of Go-Guji with the AD&D Game," offers conversion notes for the former. The scenario involves a cursed village terrorized by deathless samurai and I imagine it could serve as a fun kick-off to a Japanese fantasy campaign. "Moshigawa's Homecoming" by Gordon Linzner is a piece of short fantasy fiction inspired by Japanese culture – nothing special but unobjectionable. Graeme Davis provides yet another article, this time "Pentjak Silat: The Martial Arts of Indonesia," which, despite its title, is mostly a list of Indonesian weapons for use with both AD&D and Bushido. 

This month's reviews include Timemaster from Pacesetter, Halls of the Dwarven Kings, and Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure. I find it notable that the latter gets a fair amount of criticism for the inexplicable oddities of the dungeon (such as "traps with no real explanation"). Agree or disagree with those criticisms, I nevertheless find it laudable that Imagine, though a house organ of TSR UK, had sufficient editorial integrity that they published reviews of TSR products such as these. Colin Greenland's "Fantasy Media" tackles The Terminator (which he loved) and 2010 (which he also liked, though he sarcastically notes that the film is "for everyone who was mystified by 2001"). Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" talks about maps and the difference between modern maps, with their high level of detail and precision, and historical maps that are more vague and situational in their presentation and how these differences can be put to good use in RPGs – good stuff.

This month's Pelinore article treats "The Cornucopia," a gambling den owned and operated by the nefarious Cottonwood family. More interesting is the gazetteer of the County of Cerwyn, location of eth City League. Included along with the gazetteer is a map of the town of Darkmoor, a trading settlement of a few thousand people. The gazetteer is a useful little article, since it fleshes out the wider world beyond the City League, something I find very useful when starting a new campaign.

Issue #25 is a good one, filled with some excellent, if very specific, articles and ideas. As I've noted before, special issues like these are hit or miss with me, as I suspect they are with most readers. If you happen to be interested in the subject matter of the issue, they're amazing; if you're not, they're tedious. Consequently, how much one might appreciate this issue depends, I suspect, on how much you like Asian-flavored fantasy.

Monday, December 28, 2020

House of Worms, Session 208

Once the characters, accompanied by the division of Naqsái soldiers, set out, doubts started to creep into their minds regarding their present undertaking. The maelstrom at the center of the ruins of Pichánmush had clearly grown in size since the last time they had observed it several months ago. The number of Vorodlá flying around it had also increased and Znayáshu now worried that they were ill equipped to deal with the matter. More to the point, he wasn't even sure what it was they would do once they got close to the maelstrom. They simply lacked sufficient information to get any sense of what the maelstrom was, why it was there, what role the Vorodlá played (if any), and whether they should interfere at all. Much discussion among the characters followed, assessing their options. 

While this was transpiring, Kirktá sought out high ground, climbing to the top of one of the shorter ruined buildings in order to get a better view of the maelstrom. He succeeded in this and noticed a couple of details that had not been clear before. First, though the characters had taken to calling it a maelstrom or vortex, the phenomenon was not truly a storm, but instead the result of some kind of planar fissure that was sucking things from the ruins into itself. Kirktá observed that bits and pieces of ruined masonry and rubble were being pulled into the maelstrom rather than blown away from it. Second, he noted that the Vorodlá were trying to keep their distance from the maelstrom. They were trying, not always successfully, Kirktá noticed, to stay close to but away from the effects of the vortex. From this, he surmised that the flying undead creatures were perhaps patrolling the area near it rather than guarding or protecting it, as was initially thought. 

Kirktá presented his findings to the other characters, which led to more discussion, followed by the decision, advanced by Znayáshu and supported by Nebússa, that they should search the nearby ruins for more information that might help them make an informed decision on how act. Clearly, things were not as straightforward as they had hoped. The characters fanned out and began seeking still intact ruined buildings. One such building was found and searched thoroughly, revealing evidence that a group of people had previously set up camp here. A more careful examination of the place uncovered twine and waxed paper used by the Granite Lintel clan of Linyaró to wrap travel rations. This suggested that whoever had stayed in the ruins, they were Tsolyáni, or at least people who had passed through the Tsolyáni colony on their way to Pichánmush.

Another nearby building contained a fascinating intact room that once held four plaster statues that were humanoid in shape. Two of them had been shattered beforehand, while two remained largely intact. The two statues depicted reptilian creatures standing on two legs. The characters immediately thought of both the Shén, who maintain a colony of their own called Shüggar and with whom they have had dealings in the past, and the Naqsái deity of Eyenál, who is traditionally depicted as a repitilian being (and who seemed, until recently, chosen Aíthfo as his agent on Tékumel). However, the statues looked decidedly different from both of these, having a had more reminiscent of the Rukétra, a local six-legged lizard that dwelled along the banks of inland rivers throughout the Achgé Peninsula.

Further examination of the room revealed a red-brown rectangle painted on the floor in between the four statues. Nebússa also noted that the two remaining statues appeared to be hollow and, when tilted, showed evidence of something being inside them. Boldly, he smashed one of the statues and discovered a thick glass globe about the size of his fist, inside of which was a yellowish viscous substance. This led him to smash the second surviving statue, inside of which he discovered a cylinder of similar material, inside of which was a bluish liquid of a more watery consistency. Both containers were sturdy and resistant to damage. Nebússa suspected that this was to prevent accidental breakage in the event that they were dropped, which in turn led him to suspect that their contents were toxic or otherwise dangerous. Subsequent examination of the room uncovered a store of more of the glass globes beneath the two other statues, but they were empty. How the liquid they once held had been removed was unclear, since the globes were intact and there was no sign of an opening or aperture anywhere on their surfaces.

Puzzled and a little frustrated by the lack of information gleaned from their explorations, Znayáshu suggested that they seek out a larger building, one that gave the appearance of being of civic importance. In their previous visit to Pichánmush, they had learned that beneath the ruins were a series of a manmade tunnels, created in imitation of the Ancients' tubeway car system, allowing travel away from the oppressive heat of the Peninsula (which is close to Tékumel's equator, where temperatures can reach 50° Celsius). Some of these tunnels even connected with the tubeway car system itself. Access to these tunnels was usually located in larger buildings within the city, hence Znayáshu's suggestion.

After a little while, the group found a likely candidate: a large building with two partially intact porticos and a shattered rear half. As they got closer to the ruined half, they heard loud clacking sounds from multiple locations. Scouting ahead, Nebússa saw around a dozen large creatures with green carapaces, six legs, and powerful scissor-like mandibles – Dlaqó! The Dlaqó were feasting on the corpses of multiple dead bodies that, on first glance, appeared to be Tsolyáni, which only increased the characters' interest in the situation. Preparing for battle, they made their way into the building to face the giant carrion beetles.

Computer-Assisted Gaming

I've mentioned before that the very first issue of Dragon I remember buying (as opposed to owning or reading) was issue #62 (June 1982), in part because of its glorious Larry Elmore cover. I carried that issue around everywhere with me and read it cover to cover so many times that it literally fell apart. The other day I was reading the PDF version of the issue included in the Dragon Magazine Archive I got back in 1999 – one of the best purchases I've ever made – and, while doing so, I came across an advertisement I hadn't thought about in decades. It's for a program called Game Master, produced by a company called Alkazar Associates of Arlington, Virginia, USA. 

At the time this ad appeared, personal computers were pretty uncommon, at least among my friend group. A classmate of mine was an early adopter of PCs, having a TRS-80 on which we used to play a Star Trek (or perhaps Star Trek-inspired) game that I thought was the most amazing thing ever. Another friend, whose older brother was an early (albeit reluctant) gaming mentor and whose father was a wargamer, owned an Atari 800 (I believe; it's possible it was a 400). But I didn't have a computer of my own till I was in graduate school a decade later. Consequently, ads like these intrigued me mightily. The very idea that there were computer programs that might assist one in playing a roleplaying game was equal parts baffling and exhilarating and I tried to imagine how they might work.

Though I never did see Game Master, which, after a little digging online, I learned came in "basic" and "advanced" versions, I did eventually see a very good computer program produced for the Amiga in the early '90s. Called "Chargen," it was an exceptionally easy to use and functional character generation program for use with Second Edition AD&D. The program, as I recall, allowed the user to determine which rulebooks and supplements to use, in addition to providing the means to add one's own material. That was a huge bonus and one that made the program quite attractive to me at the time, since I had been elected referee of a Forgotten Realms campaign that had been running for several years prior to my arrival and had been heavily house-ruled during the course of its existence. 

In the years since, I've made only intermittent use of computers in running or playing roleplaying games. I have a few programs that automate aspects of Traveller, for example, one of which – a character generator – I sometimes idly "play" to pass the time, but these days I mostly prefer to do things "by hand" and roll my own dice. Mind you, I don't play any games that would really require the use of computer assistance, which may well bias my feelings on the matter. At the same time, I pretty strongly feel that roleplaying games are an "analog" form of entertainment and that the introduction of computers and other forms of digital or electronic technology warps game play in various ways, some obvious, some subtle. I say this even as someone who has played in or refereed multiple long-running campaigns online, so I'm not speaking out of ignorance on the matter. It's a subject I find myself thinking about throughout 2020, since face-to-face gaming hasn't really been an option and likely won't be for some time to come. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sign of the Labrys

One of would think, after over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I would have covered all of the entries in Gary Gygax's Appendix N. While I've made a very good go of it, there are still a handful of explicitly named titles I've never discussed, one of those being Margaret St. Clair's 1963 novel, Sign of the Labrys. I've discussed St. Clair in a couple of previous posts, but she's not an author about whom I know a great deal or whose work I'd read until comparatively recently. From what I've gathered, she was quite an unusual individual, not merely being a woman in a field dominated by men – though, given the prominence of writers like C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, I sometimes think this is overblown – but also being an early enthusiast for the burgeoning Counter Culture. Some of this comes through in this novel, which gives it a rather odd flavor, particularly when compared to the other books Gygax chose for his list of recommended and inspirational reading.

The novel takes place in the near-future, about a decade after

yeast cells escaped from the scientists who had been working with them, and started the great plagues [and] it was not only the sorts that were deleterious to human beings that escaped.  Our domestic animals died too—the mortality was even higher among them—and our food plants too were affected. 

Approximately 90% of the human population died as a consequence of this yeast plague and most survivors have retreated into multi-level, subterranean fallout shelters, built in the years prior to the plague in anticipation of nuclear war (remember when this novel was written). The shelters have immense stores of food and other necessities for life, the former of which are now scarce on the surface because of the plagues. 

Sam Sewell is a young man living in one of these underground complexes. His existence, like that of most of the survivors, is largely solitary, eschewing contact with others, except when necessary. It's suggested that this isn't solely due to fear of contagion but simply because "we dislike contact with one another nowadays." Sam spends his time hunting for canned food or edible fungus, occasionally venturing aboveground to work with crews disposing of the untold numbers of corpses that now litter the earth.

One day, an agent of what remains of the government approaches Sam, asking him about his association with a woman named Despoina. Sam has never heard of such a woman and asks why the agent is looking for her. He explains that she's wanted for her supposed role in releasing the plagues that overthrew human civilization. According to him, she has been seen traveling to and from the lowest levels of the same complex that Sam calls home. The agent then tries to pressure Sam into helping him find her. After all, he's traveled widely underground, seeking out food and other items; he'd be perfect for this job. Initially reluctant, Sam changes his mind once he finds a ring carved with the sign of a double-headed axe – a labrys – along with a message asking him to meet Despoina, the very woman the government agent had asked him about.

What follows is a bizarre journey that is simultaneously a Gamma World-esque exploration of a ruined, high-tech complex beneath the earth and a journey into a mythic underworld, leading to an initiation into occult mysteries. St. Clair and her husband's Counter Cultural activities included involved in neo-paganism and and Sign of the Labrys is filled with symbolism derived from such alternative religious practices. Much more interesting, though, are the levels of the subterranean complex itself, each of which has a distinct character of its own. I have read others surmise that it was for this reason that Gary Gygax recommended the book, with the complex being a prototype of the dungeons of D&D. I'm agnostic on this particular point. In the absence of a quote from Gygax where he specifically credits St. Clair for having inspired dungeons, I think it's much more likely that this was one of his inspirations rather than being the primary (or sole) one. Regardless, Sign of the Labrys is worth reading if you have an interest in odd, idiosyncratic science fantasy of the sort the 1960s and '70s produced in abundance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Saving Throws in EPT

In the realm of roleplaying games, saving throws are, for the most, a distinctly D&D game mechanic. Almost none of the RPGs TSR published during the first decade of its existence included saving throws, not even Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World, whose mechanical debts to D&D are obvious and well known. However, Empire of the Petal Throne, published just a year and a half after the initial release of OD&D, does include saving throws, as we can see.

Though unique to EPT, the chart's pedigree is apparent. Some of the saving throw categories are nominally different and there are fewer of them – four instead of five – but there can be little doubt that they ultimately derive from OD&D. The categories of poison and spells are shared by both, while EPT's paralysis/hypnosis is similar to OD&D's wands and eyes are akin to dragon breath. EPT warriors follow the same progression as OD&D fighting men, right down to the numbers needed for each saving throw category. Magic-users and priests in EPT have a four-level progression like OD&D clerics and saving throw numbers that are almost identical to those of OD&D magic-users, except in the category of eyes, where these classes are better than both of OD&D's spellcasters. Empire of the Petal Throne is sometimes described as a "D&D variant" and, as this shows, there's more than a little truth to that assertion.

More interesting, I think, is the fact that the section detailing saving throws is followed immediately by a section entitled "The Gods, Cohorts, and Divine Intervention." The gods of Tékumel are active in the world and (I think) every rules set created for the setting has included rules for how player characters might invoke their assistance in times of great necessity. I can't help but wonder, in this context, if Professor Barker mightn't have viewed saving throws as minor example of potential divine intervention. In the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax describes them in these terms, noting that saving throws might represent "skill, luck, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers." I may be incorrect in making this connection, but the placement of the discussion of saving throws is nonetheless suggestive, especially considering that D&D generally places them in the section on combat – food for thought, at any rate!

Saving Throws

After observing an online discussion about saving throws and their place in Dungeons & Dragons, I soon found myself taking a closer look at the saving throw tables in all the editions of the game with which I have the most experience. Here are the original tables from 1974:

The 1977 Holmes-edited Basic Set includes this version of the table:
There are several things worth noting about the Holmes table. First, it explicitly includes the category of "normal man," which represents beings with less than one hit die. Second, for reasons I've never discovered, thieves are treated as fighting men, whereas Supplement I clearly notes that "with regard to saving throws treat Thieves as Magic-Users." Third, while the saving throw categories are the same, albeit with slightly different nomenclature, their arrangement is unique to this edition. 

AD&D's saving throw tables appear in 1979's Dungeon Masters Guide and reveal some divergences from OD&D (and Holmes, despite its being presented as an "introduction" to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The changes here are significant. First, and most obviously, the categories are not the same as in OD&D. Paralysis has been shifted to the poison and death ray (renamed death magic) category; staffs – now staves – has been separated from spells and lumped together with rods and wands (the latter its own category in OD&D) to form a new category; polymorph is now joined with petrification; and dragon breath is redubbed breath weapon. Second, the numbers are, therefore, not the same as in OD&D, with AD&D fighters, for example, having noticeably higher numbers than their OD&D equivalents. Also noteworthy is that thieves now have their own distinct saving throws that advance in steps like the cleric but nevertheless have their own unique progressions.

There's quite a bit to take in and I can't do it justice in an overview post such as this one. Looking at the AD&D charts, I find myself wondering why Gygax made the changes he did. Off the top of my head, there are two not mutually exclusive explanations. Of the two, the most likely is that he made the changes in light of his own experiences refereeing the Greyhawk campaign. Like any good referee, he no doubt noticed how the rules shaped what was happening in the campaign and came to some conclusions about how better to implement saving throws to get the results he preferred. It's also possible, particularly given the late of the DMG's publication, that the categories, progressions, and numbers were changed to bolster the argument that AD&D was distinct from OD&D, the tack taken by TSR in its legal wrangling with Dave Arneson (his lawsuits having been launched in February 1979, I believe). Regardless of the rationale, I don't think there can be any argument that AD&D differs significantly with regard to saving throws.

1981 saw the appearance of Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules, which have the following saving throw tables:
Moldvay's categories hew pretty closely to those of OD&D, but you'll nevertheless see what I take to be AD&D influences, such as, for instance, the explicit inclusion of rods in the category previously covering spells and staffs (here staves, as in AD&D). Paralysis, meanwhile, has been shifted from wands to turn to stone. The saving throw numbers are nearly identical to those of OD&D (and differ slightly from Holmes), but, when it comes to dwarves and halflings, there's a difference, owing, I think, to an interpretation of what OD&D says on this matter. OD&D notes that dwarves "add four levels when rolling saving throws (a 6th level dwarf equals a 10th level human)" and employs similar language for halflings. Holmes presents this in exactly that fashion, with dwarves and halflings of levels 1–3 having the saving throws of an OD&D fighting man four levels higher (though this raises another issue, since fighters have three-level step increases and a 3rd-level dwarf should have the saves of a 7th-level fighter). Moldvay simply gives dwarves and halflings +4 to the saving throws of a fighter of equivalent level. The results are nearly the same as in OD&D and Holmes but not exactly. Elves work exactly as in OD&D, getting the better of the saves for fighters and magic-users.

I should reiterate here that the foregoing is a very cursory examination of these four tables in relation to one another and I've no doubt overlooked or even misconstrued certain details. I'll be returning to the tables in future posts, with a closer look at each of them, but, for the moment, what's quite clear is that the saving throw tables of Dungeons & Dragons, expansively defined, are not static, even within the first half decade of the game's existence. Each edition has its own idiosyncrasies and variations, even if certain elements (five categories, step increases based on class) remain constant. 

Retrospective: Middle-earth Role Playing

While working on last week's entry in this series, I realized that I had never written a post about Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Role Playing, despite the fact that I had, long ago, written one about the notorious The Court of Ardor. This frankly surprised me, because I not only owned the game – having purchased it by mail order – but ran a short but intense campaign set in and around the Trollshaws (as I recall, though my memory is hazy). Having now been made aware of this oversight, I have no choice but to correct it by presenting my thoughts about MERP.

Originally published in 1982, Middle-earth Role Playing is an odd game. As the cover of the first edition proclaims, MERP is "a complete system for adventuring in J.R.R. Tolkien's world," that system being based on Iron Crown's Role Master system, with which I was already somewhat familiar. Had I been asked beforehand, it's not the system I'd have chosen for gaming in Middle-earth, but I doubt I could have explained why at the time. Role Master always struck me as much too complex and finnicky, especially in the area of combat, and this seemed at odds with the overall feel Tolkien's works evoked. Furthermore, it was supposedly set in the middle of the Third Age, some 1500 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, which is not what I had been expecting. I imagine the period was chosen for maximum freedom, since it's not as well documented as other periods of Middle-earth's history.

The cover image accompanying this post is quite instructive. Depicting a multi-racial adventuring party looting what appears to be a tomb, it looks more like a scene from a D&D game than something one would find in Tolkien. At the time, that didn't bother me very much, because I was much more a fan of Tolkien's world than I was of Tolkien's stories. In that respect, MERP did its job well enough: it provided all the things one would expect to find in Middle-earth – dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, etc. – and didn't worry too much about the tone. For example, MERP had extensive rules for magic, as well as allowing characters of every profession, including warriors, to learn spells. As Gary Gygax famously complained, Middle-earth is notably low-key in its magic, but not so MERP. It's a very peculiar decision on the part of the game's designers, if fidelity to Tolkien were one of the game's key principles. On the other hand, if their goal was to use Middle-earth as the backdrop for more typical fantasy RPG activities, it makes perfect sense.

Since my friends and I weren't overly concerned with fidelity to Tolkien's literary works, none of this bothered us in the slightest. Much more important was the fact that we could create hobbits and elves and Dúnadan rangers and visit Mirkwood and Moria and all the other amazing locations described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There were orcs and spiders to be fought and great treasures to be won, all against the backdrop of a rich setting for which ICE provided some truly inspiring maps. Sure, our adventures didn't materially differ all that much from what we'd done in our Dungeons & Dragons sessions, but what did it matter? At that point in our roleplaying development, we were simply enamored of being able to use Tolkien's words, names, and locales and any more sophisticated concerns would have to wait.

In that respect, Middle-earth Role Playing gave us just what we wanted at the time, even if, in retrospect, it seems clear to me that MERP wasn't particularly well suited to its source material. I know many gamers of a certain vintage have great fondness for the game, in part, I think, because of the aforementioned maps and the Angus McBride artwork that graced the covers of the second edition of the game (which I never owned). There are worse reasons to have affection for a RPG, honestly, but I can't help but feel that MERP was something of a missed opportunity. Middle-earth holds so much potential as a fantasy roleplaying setting and one day I'd love to play in or referee a campaign set in it. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


Here's an example of the advertisement for Golden Heroes I mentioned in my post about issue #24 of Imagine. Games Workshop really pushed this game at the time (1984-ish) and I eventually bought a copy. I should probably do a full post on the game itself sometime, but my recollection is that it was more complex than Marvel Super Heroes but much less so than Champions. There were a number of elements that I liked a great deal, such as its character improvement rules and rules for solving mysteries, but it's been years since I last looked at it and might well be misremembering. I bring this up because it's a rare example of an advertisement that actually worked in getting me to buy the advertised product and that alone makes it noteworthy. (That said, "Whoom!" is a terrible attempt at an onomatopoeia). 

Imagine Magazine: Issue #24

Issue #24 of Imagine (March 1985) features a cover by Ken Kelly and marks the second anniversary of the TSR UK magazine. As its cover proclaims, this issue is dedicated to thieves and, unlike several previous themed issues, almost the entirety of its contents do in fact deal with thieves and related matters. The thief content kicks off with "Criminal Negligence" by Kerry Bateman, which examines the class from an unexpected perspective. Bateman suggests that thieves are misunderstood and maligned in AD&D. The article then talks about what makes the class unique and valuable, as well as addressing common questions and concerns about the class. There's very little world shaking here, but it's not a bad introduction to both the class and this issue's overall theme.

Venetia Lee's "Thieves' Den," meanwhile, is a lengthy and imaginative discussion of thieves' guild, with an eye toward using them in D&D campaigns. I've long had an interest in running an all-thief campaign and this article approaches that subject, along with guidelines for doing so. The Pelinore installment presents the Old Bastion, a safehouse used by the City League's thieves. The installment also provides an overview of the thieves' guilds of Pelinore and how they operate. Chris Felton's "All That Glistens …" discusses scams and illegal activities in which thieves can participate beyond outright theft. 

"How to Sell the Ponti Bridge" is a larcenous short story written by none other than Neil Gaiman, long before he was a world famous, best-selling author. While I'm no fan of Gaiman's work – heresy, I know – I'm nonetheless tickled to see his byline in the pages of a RPG magazine. It's a reminder of just how important roleplaying games, particularly D&D, has been in promoting and popularizing the fantasy genre through which many new writers have come to prominence. "Guilty if Caught" is a mini-adventure intended for an all-thief group, written by Mike Brunton. Actually, it's more accurate to call it three mini-adventures, each one a job offered to the characters by the thieves' guild to which they belong. Chris Barlow's "An Open and Shut Case" examines locks from historical, technological, and game mechanical perspectives. It's a very narrow topic but well done and surprisingly interesting.

"Microreviews" looks at two early computer games, Runes of Zendos and The Wrath of Magra, neither of which ring a bell with me. This month's RPG reviews cover modules for Dragonlance, Marvel Super Heroes, and AD&D. Most fascinating to them, though, is the review of Golden Heroes, Games Workshop's superhero roleplaying game. I owned Golden Heroes based on the relentless advertising of it in the pages of White Dwarf and rather liked elements of its design. The review in this issue speaks well of it, suggesting that it's more complex and detailed than the TSR game, making it better suited for older and more sophisticated players. I'm not sure I'd agree with that, but it's been decades since I last looked at Golden Heroes. Maybe it's time I correct that?

Brian Creese's "Chainmail" looks at playing auto racing games, like Formula One and Speed Circuit, by mail. I continue to be intrigued by Imagine's regular coverage of postal games; it's a window on another age. Colin Greenland reviews Dune (which he liked, particularly its costumes and sets – who can argue with him?), Gremlins (which he didn't like), and The Black Hole (which he openly mocks). He also takes a look at Raymond Feist's Magician, a book that's very contentious in the world of Tékumel fandom, since the invading Tsurani Empire clearly owes a lot to M.A.R. Barker's fantasy setting. I've never read a word of Feist's books, but, from the descriptions, here and elsewhere, it's little wonder that the matter is fraught with acrimony.

"Stirge Corner" by Roger Musson continues to tackle the matter of wilderness travel. In this issue, his interest is on the conflicting demands of what I'd call Gygaxian naturalism – creating a plausible wilderness that follows predictable rules – and one that's at least somewhat "balanced" toward the levels of the characters traversing it. Usually, I find Musson's thoughts congenial with my own. Here, I disagree strenuously with the idea that even wilderness encounters ought to be scaled to the characters' power. I like my wilderness wild and dangerous – and capable of slaying unwary characters who travel through it unprepared. This issue also includes new episodes of all its comics, but, since I never read them anyway, I have little to say on this score.

Issue #24 was a very good one. Its focus on thieves, despite my well known ambivalence toward them as a class, was a true highlight and I found many of its articles genuinely of interest to me. I hope that the coming issues are equally good.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Mörk Borg Year

Since reading Mörk Borg back in August served as a major catalyst to my return to blogging after an extended hiatus, I feel a certain affection for the game that no doubt confuses some – and that's perfectly fine. Mörk Borg is, I think it's fair to say, an acquired taste and, by all rights, I should not like it as much as I do. In the end, I suspect that my fondness for it has as much (or more) to do with its let's-do-what-we-want-and-not-care-what-anyone-else-thinks attitude than its actual content (which is nevertheless quite compelling, as I've explained). 

Over at their own blog, creators Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr offer up a year in review post, looking back at 2020, which, even if it's not been so great on many other fronts, was an excellent one for Mörk Borg. From the looks of things, 2021 is already shaping up to be equally excellent for this weird little game, which pleases me. Here's hoping the new year will bring similar blessings to others as well. 

REVIEW: Crypt of the Mellified Mage

I've been playing in a weekly Forbidden Lands campaign for a year and a half now and enjoying it immensely. Forbidden Lands, for those unfamiliar with it, is a fantasy RPG published by Free League. Set in the eponymous Forbidden Lands, a region until recently covered by the noxious Blood Mist, game play centers around exploration and survival. Forbidden Lands is often described as a "hexcrawl" or "sandbox" game and I think those are fair descriptions that comport with my own experiences playing the game. Each Forbidden Lands campaign is unique, since the setting's hex map includes only a few established landmarks, with the bulk of its "adventure sites" created by the referee, in whole or in part, through the use of extensive random generation tables. 

In principle, the set-up of Forbidden Lands is relatively low prep, since the random tables provide the referee with plenty of inspiration in the creation of all the settlements, fortresses, and dungeons scattered across the Forbidden Lands. In practice, though, the game can't always be run on the fly, which opens up a space for published adventure sites that the referee can use directly or in part. Crypt of the Mellified Mage is a 80-page hardcover book that offers up four different adventure sites, each one written by a different author. 

The first of the four sites, and my personal favorite, is the titular "Crypt of the Mellified Mage." Written by Fiona Maeve Geist, the site is the burial place of the sorcerer Pagoag, who sought eternal life by steeping his dead body in specially prepared honey. The crypt is filled with bees and other insects, weird undead, and the sickly sweetness of honey, which gives the whole site a creepy, sticky feel that I found oddly compelling. At the very least, it's quite unlike your run of the mill evil wizard's tomb and its contents, including Pagoag himself, have the potential to have longlasting effects on the campaign, which I applaud.

The second site is the "Firing Pit of Llao-Yutuy," written by David McGrogan. The pits are a collection of caves that supposedly house a mysterious pottery maker – Llao-Yutuy – and his servants. The pottery he makes is magical, some of which have remarkable qualities. It's a diverting adventure site but smaller and less far-reaching in its consequences. "Temple of the Six-Limbed Lord" is written by Zedeck Siew. The Temple is an invader from another reality, filled with mischievous, sometimes malevolent monkeys, as well as the monstrous Six-Limbed Lord and his priestly minions. Like "Crypt of the Mellified Mage," the Temple has great potential to affect a campaign, not least because the chief priest of the Six-Limbed Lord wants nothing more than his master to be the only god worshiped in the Forbidden Lands and is prepared to do what must be done to achieve that goal.

The fourth and final site is "The Dream-Cloud of E'lok Thir," written by Adam Koebel. The Dream-Cloud is a dungeon created from the memories, regrets, and pains of the wizard E'lok Thir. For that reason, there is no map or key to the place. Instead, the referee generates the site through the use of tables, some of whose entries are keyed to locations that represent important moments in the wizard's life. It's an unusual approach to presenting an adventuring site and, without having used it in play, I can't say whether it works as well as intended, but I hope it does, because I love the idea of it – a memory palace indeed!

Taken as a whole, Crypt of the Mellified Mage is a solid collection of unusual adventure sites for use with Forbidden Lands, though I think one could, with a little work, use them with other fantasy RPGs. The unusual nature of the four sites is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, variety is to be welcomed, particularly in a hexcrawl campaign; avoiding sameness is important to maintaining its vitality. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of these sites might be off-putting to some players and referees, which could limit their utility. Likewise, both the Firing Pit of Llao-Yutuy and the Temple of the Six-Limbed Lord contain cultural and esthetic elements that jar a bit with the implied, vaguely northern European setting of Forbidden Lands, which might also limit their utility. "Temple of the Six-Limbed Lord" directly addresses this to its credit, but I nevertheless feel that its southeast Asian flavor might prove an impediment in some campaigns. Regardless, Crypt of the Mellified Mage is a an imaginative, useful addition to Forbidden Lands that many referees will find worthwhile.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Morthylla

Clark Ashton Smith is, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, considered one of the leading lights of the pulp magazine Weird Tales during its Golden Age in the 1920s and '30s. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, Smith did not die prematurely, living until 1961, when he was 68. Consequently, he remained a productive, if far less prolific, writer into his elder years (though most of his time, between 1935 and his death, was devoted to visual art). One story from this period is "Morthylla," which first appeared in the May 1953 issue of Weird Tales – one of the last full-size issues of the venerable pulp, which would ultimately cease publication September 1954 after 279 issues.

"Morthylla" is part of Smith's Zothique cycle, the seminal dyying earth setting that takes place on Earth's final continent, when the sun is "a coal-red decadent star, grown old beyond chronicle, beyond legend." Taking place in "the City of the Delta," Umbri, it concerns a world-weary poet named Valzain. Valzain's mentor, Famurza, is holding one of his famous debauches, at which "there were wines, cordials, aphrodisiacs … [and] meats and fruits that swelled the flaccid pulses." Valzain is in attendance, as he always was, but this time he did so "with indifference turning toward disgust." The older poet takes note of his protegé's apathy and asks if there is anything he can do to alleviate his ennui.

"There is no medicine for what ails me," countered Valzain. "As for love, I have ceased to care whether it be requited or unrequired. I can taste only the dregs in every cup. And tedium lurks in the middle of all kisses."

Famurza feels profound pity for Valzain, he admits that, despite being twice as old as the young man, still finds pleasure in "good juicy meats, women, wine, the songs of full-throated singers." Valzain claims that his only pleasures are in dreams.

"I have clasped succubi who were more than flesh, having known delights too keen for the waking body to sustain. Do such dreams have any source outside the earth-born brain itself? I would give much to find that source, if it exists. In the meanwhile there is nothing for me but despair."

Upon hearing this, Famurza tells Valzain of an "old necropolis" that is haunted by the spirit of the princess Morthylla, who died several centuries ago and sometimes takes mortal lovers. If Valzain is truly takes no pleasure in the things of this world, perhaps he should seek out Morthylla. The young man is unsure whether to believe his mentor but, on his way home from the party, he nevertheless seeks out the cemetery, where he decided to spend the night in thought, dwelling on the tall tale Famurza had told him. 

In the midst of his reverie, he spied a woman sitting beside a mausoleum, a woman whose "profile was such as he had seen on antique coins."

"Who are you?" he asked, with a curiosity that overpowered his courtesy.

"I am the lamia Morthylla," she replied, in a voice that left behind it a faint and elusive vibration like that of some briefly sounded harp. "Beware me – for my kisses are forbidden to those who would remain numbered among the living."

 Valzain doubts that this woman is indeed Morthylla, as she claims, but he decides to play along and, in doing so, he finds himself intrigued by her nonetheless, for "there was a sweetness about her mouth, a shadow of fatigue or sadness beneath her eyes" that enchanted him. Every night for weeks afterward, the pair met in the necropolis, speaking with one another until near dawn, since she was, she claimed "a creature of the night." 

Skeptical at first, he thought of her as a person with macabre leanings and fantasies akin to his own, with whom he was carrying on a flirtation of singular charm. Yet about her he could find no hint of the worldliness that he suspected: no seeming knowledge of present things, but a weird familiarity with the past and the lamia's legend. More and more she seemed a nocturnal being, intimate only with shadow and solitude.

Her eyes, her lips, appeared to withhold secrets forgotten and forbidden. In her vague, ambiguous answers to his questions, he read meanings that thrilled him with hope and fear.

"I have dreamed of life," she told him cryptically. "And I have dreamed also of death. Now, perhaps there is another dream – into which you have entered."

What follows is a short story that is at turns sweet, cynical, optimistic, and bleak, a strangely moving meditation on the tedium that comes from having all one's desires fulfilled – and the self-destructive urges that stem from our efforts to defeat it. These are not new themes for Smith, a great many of whose stories, particularly those set in Zothique, deal with them. Yet, here, they somehow seem more potent, as if, with age, Smith could better articulate them. I'm a sucker for almost anything Clark Ashton Smith wrote; I'm carried away by his prose poetry and morbid explorations of the human condition. Even so, I consider "Morthylla" one of Smith's best pieces and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 17, 2020


 We just completed Turn 4 in the ongoing game of Here I Stand I'm playing online with some old friends of mine. For those unfamiliar with the game's mechanics, a "turn" consists of an indeterminate number of "impulses" during which the various factions – Ottomans, Habsburgs, France, Papacy, England, and Protestants – can act. Since Here I Stand a card-driven conflict simulation, each faction can continue to act until it runs out of cards, with some factions, such as the Habsburgs tending to have more cards and thus more impulses per turn than other factions. My point in mentioning this is that a turn can, in fact, take a very long time to play out (and represents about three years of real time). Likewise, owing to scheduling issues, we only play every other week, which contributes to the slow pace at which we're working our way through the political and military maneuverings of the Reformation.

During this turn, I, as the Papacy, was dealt the card above, depicting Alessandro Farnese, elected in 1534 as Pope Paul III. You'll also note that the card bears the word "mandatory" across the top, along with the notation "Turn 3." The notation means that the card is added into the deck during Turn 3, while "mandatory" means that, if you receive this card into your hand, you are obligated to play at during one of your faction's impulses. Also, it turns out, this is a card that takes effect by the end of Turn 4 regardless of whether or not any faction is dealt it into their hand before this point. In this way, the game ensures that real world history must assert itself according to a schedule. Old Giulio de' Medici, Pope Clement VII, must die within a certain time frame, which while somewhat elastic, is not infinitely so. Moreover, there is zero possibility that, if Clement VII dies earlier or later than he did in the real world, his successor will be someone other than Paul III. For many events, historical inevitability rules Here I Stand.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. One of the things that's always intrigued me about wargames is their ability to explore historical counterfactuals – what if a battle went a different way, for example? The more bounded the game's scope, the easier this is to do. A wargame focusing on a single battle, say Gettysburg, need only taken into account a limited number of variables to detail an event that took place over three days in a single year. That means the rules don't have to account for things that a game focusing on the entire American Civil War might have to take into account, never mind a game that covered an even broader swath of history.

So, while I'm very sympathetic to the bind that designed Ed Beach was in when he designed Here I Stand, part of me nevertheless bristles at the fact that the rules are somewhat rigged in favor of history, with numerous real world historical events hard coded into its timeline. Monarchs and other rulers can only ever ascend to power in proper historical sequence, even if the precise timing has some wiggle room. There is thus no possibility, for example, that Henry VIII might produce multiple male heirs and non-sickly ones at that. I understand fully why this is the case: the game's rules cannot cover every possible contingency and any attempt to do so would have resulted in a game that was hugely complicated at best and utterly unplayable at worst. 

As it is, Here I Stand is an enjoyable and immersive game and I'm enjoying it immensely. Yet, I still find myself kicking against the goads of historical inevitability. In my ideal world, historical simulation games would provide for a wider range of possibilities, since I hold to the perhaps naïve belief that events frequently turn on very small things. I'd love to find a game that takes this into account, even as I realize its nigh-impossibility. But, as I've remarked before, I like to be surprised and a game that facilitated that more often is something I crave. Again, it's likely not practical, for a great many reasons, but I seek it all the same.

Grognard's Grimoire: Eidolon

 Eidolon (Old School Essentials)

An eidolon by Zhu Bajiee

AC 4 [15], HD 4** (18hp), Att 2 × touch (1d4 + fear), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 90' (30') / 180' (60') flying, SV D10 W11 P12 B13 S14, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 175, NA 1d6 (1d6), TT C

An eidolon is the undead spirit of a cleric who died while in the grips of despair, no longer finding solace in True Faith. Eidolons can only be hit by magical or silver weapons. They are immune to sleep, charm, and hold spells, as well as effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Clerics have the same chance of turning eidolons as they do of turning wraiths.

An eidolon appears as a ghostly, floating figure in a tattered monastic habit. In combat, the eidolon will attempt to strike with both its spectral hands against a single target. If both attacks succeed, the target must make a saving throw against spells or suffer the effects of the 1st-level cleric spell cause fear, in addition to the damage rolled. Clerics save against this effect at –2.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

House of Worms, Session 207

Nebússa and Keléno decided that the best approach to dealing with the Naqsái soldiers on guard duty was to approach them directly and trust in their ability to confound them with bluster. In principle, the city-state of Pichánmush was an ally of Linyaró and these soldiers should, therefore, be well disposed toward any Tsolyáni. In practice, the matter is more complex, owing to the fact that Pichánmush has placed the ruins of Pashkírigo under a strict quarantine and no one, not even allied foreigners, is permitted to pass its walls without explicit permission of the local garrison commander. This applies even to Tsolyáni and there was some understandable concern that the Naqsái might not take kindly to the presence of the player characters.

Both Nebússa and Keléno have spent time learning the Gé Ngáq language, which is spoken in Pichánmush, in order to aid them in their dealings with the locals. In addition, Keléno's third wife, Mírsha, who accompanied him on this journey, is fluent in the tongue (her Blue Blossom clan is made up of Tsolyáni-ized Naqsái), as is his Naqsái slave, Chanchayánto. Thus, when Nebússa approached the guards, he did so in their own language and made good use of his lifetime of experience as a member of the very high Golden Bough clan to cow them with his mere presence. He asked to be taken to their commander, as he had important information to share with him. Unsure of what to do, one entered the nearby building, which apparently served as the soldiers' field headquarters, only to come back a few minutes later to inform them that their commander had agreed to see them.

Inside, they met a youngish man who identified himself as Chára Khurgó, the division commander at this location. He greeted the pair warmly with the words, "I am glad to see that help has finally arrived." Apparently, he had sent word to his regimental commander that he had need of sorcerers to aid him in dealing with the Vorodlá. His mission was to enter the center of the city and put an end to these undead beings, but his division (consisting of 100 men) was insufficient and he lost close to 40% of his men in the fight that followed. They fled to this building, which, for some reason, the Vorodlá avoid. Neither Nebússa nor Keléno corrected his misapprehension that they were in fact the sorcerers Chára had sent for, though they also said nothing to confirm this. Instead, they attempted to take control of the situation and suggest that they had a plan for how to deal with the Vorodlá. To do that, though, they would need to send word to their companions that it was now safe to enter this building.

Keléno collected the other characters, who joined them inside. The building was large and open, with a partially damaged dome above. Keléno theorized that it was probably some sort of audience chamber during the days when Pashkírigo was still inhabited. Znayáshu took immediate interest in the fact that the Vorodlá had been avoiding the place, suggesting to him that it possessed some sort of magical protection that might prove useful. He had already obtained an amulet of power over the undead to aid them, but the amulet had a limited range and power. Perhaps whatever it was that protected the building could be removed and brought with them as they made their way toward the maelstrom at the center of the city. He took out his various ritual devices and began scouring the place for evidence of this protection.

Meanwhile, the others assessed their situation. According to Chára, soldiers from Pichánmush had begun to be sent into the city – something that was previously unusual – to determine precisely what was going on within the ruins. They had been aware of some sort of disturbance for months but it was only when the maelstrom at its center had become visible from outside the walls that the regimental commander felt the need to act more decisively. Unfortunately, Chára's men were ill-prepared and did not bring any sorcerers with them, leading to their defeat by the Vorodlá. Now that the characters had arrived, he hoped that their own magic would be sufficient to deal with the undead and the maelstrom as well. 

Znayáshu discovered that, buried beneath the floor of the building, there were three dozen rectangular shapes. Excavating one revealed a box-like container made of an unusual ceramic not unlike what they had encountered beneath the city-state of Miktatáin some months before. The container had no obvious seams or means to open it but it was covered in strange, blocky writing on several of its sides. This writing, the characters had come to learn, was that of the Ancients who ruled Tékumel before the Time of Darkness, indicating that it was very likely a device of potent magical power, perhaps the very thing that had held the Vorodlá at bay. Znayáshu directed the soldiers to remove the container from its hidden location, which they did, albeit with some difficulty, as it was connected, via a tube or cable, to the floor. When severed from the cable, the container became noticeably lighter and easier to lift.

The characters then spent the evening learning more about the local geography of the ruins, specifically the fastest means to reach the center of the city. Their plan was to carry the container with them, hoping it might retain some vestige of its power, and make their way toward the maelstrom at the city's heart. This they would do in the company of all Chára's remaining soldiers (slightly more than 60), as well as their own companions. Exactly what they would do if they succeeded in reaching the city's center they did not know, but coming up with a plan after they had arrived at the place where it was needed was a hallmark of the House of Worms clan.

Retrospective: Bree and the Barrow-Downs

I started work on this week's Retrospective post under the misapprehension that I'd already written one, years ago, about Middle-earth Role Playing published by Iron Crown Enterprises. When I did a search of the archives, I discovered that the closest I'd ever come to doing so is this post on an advertisement for MERP and that must have been what I'd misremembered as a post about the game itself. Therefore, I briefly considered setting aside the work I'd done on this post and starting a new one on MERP, since I think it's a game well worth discussing here. In the end, though, I decided that, since I owned Bree and the Barrow-Downs before I owned Middle-earth Role Playing, it made more sense to talk about it first. I'll save MERP for next week's Retrospective. 

Published in 1984 and written by Heike Kubasch, this 32-page book describes Bree-land, a civilized area of central Eriador consisting of four settlements inhabited by both Men and Hobbits. Bree is, of course, the largest and most significant of these settlements and plays a role in The Fellowship of the Ring as the location of the The Prancing Pony inn, where Frodo and his companions first meet Aragorn. The book includes maps of Bree and the neighboring villages of Archet, Combe, and Staddle. The maps don't include a lot of detail but all four places are small and have relatively few buildings anyway. Still, I must confess I was disappointed, somehow thinking that Bree at least would receive more extensive detail. Indeed, I bought the book precisely because I was so interested in Bree after my reading of The Lord of the Rings.

This isn't to say there's no information on Bree and the surrounding villages. Rather, the information is mostly "high-level," which is to say, focusing on matters of history, agriculture, and economy, as well as the prominent people and families of the region rather than on each and every building in the town. It's an unusual approach, one I didn't expect at the time but that I've come to appreciate a little more in recent years. Having a good sense of the inhabitants of Bree, their relationships, and their place in the town is just as important to making good use of it as a detailed key. Still, it would have been nice if we got something more akin to The Village of Hommlet – at least that's what I wanted.

Much more interesting is the treatment of the Barrow-Downs, which is extensive. We get some history, in addition to an overview of their overall structure and the wights that inhabit some of them. Twenty-one of the barrows get not only individual descriptions but also maps, showing their layout for use in game. Their descriptions identify who is buried in the barrow and, where pertinent, who they were and their place in the history of Middle-earth. As a kid, I loved the Barrow-Downs section of The Lord of the Rings and so was glad to see the loving detail provided in this lengthy section of the book.

Bree and the Barrow-Downs is a strange product and clearly reflects the early days of Iron Crown's publication of Middle-earth materials, in that it seems to have been written with traditional RPG "adventuring" in mind. The amount of detail given to the Barrow-Downs when compared to Bree is, I think, evidence of this. The Barrows, after all, are full of monsters and buried treasure and are thus of more immediate interest to players used to dungeon delving and similar activities. Perhaps that's unfair but, having re-read the book for this post, I find that my youthful disappointment in this book remains. I had such high hopes for it and, when they were dashed, I became skeptical of the other books in the Middle-earth line of game products (though, as we shall see next week, I eventually overcame that skepticism). 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

House of Worms, Sessions 206

The House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign has been ongoing since March 2015, meeting more or less weekly since the start. Each year, usually during the late summer, we have a stretch when we don't play as regularly, due to scheduling conflicts. This didn't happen this year, perhaps due to the unusual nature of world events that prevented summertime travel and other similar activities. Instead, we've had slightly more sporadic sessions since the late fall and that's led to a delay in my posting of session summaries. We've resumed play recently and this post covers session 206, with a similar write-up covering session 207 to follow soon.

At the end of Session 205, the characters were traveling west along the Miráho River, when they encountered a large number of dead bodies floating in the water. These bodies appeared to be those of rural Naqsái – men, women, and children. As their boat pressed onward, they also noticed that the area was much darker than expected for the time of day. Looking up, the characters saw that, between the tall trees that grew on opposite sides of the river, was a thick, bluish-black webbing that had not been there on previous trips down the Miráho. The webs were were dense enough that they obscured the usually oppressive sunlight and seemed to be home to numerous large, six-legged creatures vaguely reminiscent of the étla, a crustacean found along the coasts of Tékumel. These creatures scuttled about the webs and seemed to be following the passage of the boat, as it made its way down the river.

As the boat got closer to the end of the navigable part of the Miráho River, Znayáshu decided that it might be best to attempt to parley with these creatures. He called out to them, but they did not respond. Instead, for the first time, he and his clan mates saw that some of the bodies floating in the river had begun to move of their own accord, paddling oddly toward the shores. A few others instead paddled toward the boat. With weapons at the ready, they watched as some of the bodies wrenched themselves onto the banks of the river and began to speak.

The corpses spoke at intervals, with one starting and another nearby one completing his sentence. They asked who the characters were and why they were here. Znayáshu explained that they were simply passing through, on their way to the ruins of Pashkírigo and that they meant to harm. While this happened, the scuttling creatures began to descend the trees on the river banks and it soon became clear that they were somehow controlling the dead Naqsái and using them as mouthpieces. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that these beings, who identified themselves as the Weavers of the Gaps, were a race of sharétlyal – "demons" or otherplanar entities – who had been summoned her by "an arrogant sorcerer" to open a portal for him in exchange for the souls of these poor Naqsái villagers. 

On hearing this, Znayáshu inquired if the sorcerer's name was Getúkmetek, to which the Weavers, through the dead Naqsái, responded affirmatively. Getúkmetek was a peculiar sorcerer the characters encountered some months ago beneath the city-state of Miktatáin. The sorcerer, who asked that he be addressed as Túk, seemed paranoid and deluded, entreating the characters not to trust "them," by which he apparently meant the gods – any gods, not just the gods of Pavár's pantheon – as they intended to "hold us back, prevent us from reaching our true potential." He warned the characters that they were "doing their bidding, even if they didn't realize it" and he would stop them if he could. A battle ensued against Túk, in which he turned Znayáshu to stone shortly before he himself was seemingly slain. Through the aid of the Shén Kŕsh, Znayáshu was restored to life. And if what the Weavers say is true, Túk would seem to have survived as well.

Znayáshu further inquired of the Weavers where Túk had gone and they answered, "The ruins." He took that to mean the very same ruins they were seeking and asked if getting there was why they had summoned them from "the Gaps." They answered affirmatively and added, "The sorcerer had other need of us as well, need of which we are bound not to speak." That was enough for Znayáshu and he asked if the Weavers would be willing to send him and his companions to Pashkírigo as well. They expressed a willingness but only in exchange for an appropriate gift. Znayáshu offered Túk's soul to them, which excited their interest – and their skepticism. The Weavers doubted he could defeat the sorcerer or bring him back to them, but he assured them he would be able to do so. The sharétlyal accepted his offer on the condition that he leave behind one of his party as insurance against duplicity. Znayáshu didn't hesitate and to offer one of Aíthfo's bodyguards for this role.

The Weavers opened a nexus point to the ruins of Pashkírigo and the characters entered. They found themselves in a section of the city they'd never seen before. Grujúng ascertained, by looking at the position of the sun and other landmarks, that they were probably at its eastern edge. As night was now falling, the group determined to hole up in a sturdy building and wait until morning before setting out. During the night, the building was assailed by Vorodlá – flying undead that had previously been observed to exist in great numbers in the ruins. Indeed, the central area of the city, which the characters had only observed from a distance, seemed to be some sort of whirling maelstrom around which dozens of these monsters flew. The characters fended off the undead and settled in for the rest of the night.

The next morning, the characters and their guards headed westward toward the center of the city. Along the way, they observed many intact buildings, some of them quite large. Apparently, this section of Pashkírigo was not as badly damaged as the western side that they had explored some months previously. As they made their way forward, Nebússa discovered a large, domed building outside of which were stationed guards that, judging from their armor and weaponry, were soldiers of the city-state of Pichánmush, the Naqsái settlement that had taken upon itself to guard the ruins and prevent the characters from doing just what they were doing. Deciding that a straightforward approach was probably best, Nebússa and Keléno made their way up the front stairs of the building and presented themselves directly to the guards, with the aim of finding out the current situation and, with luck, convincing the soldiers that they were all working toward the same goal, namely the elimination of the Vorodlá and whatever that maelstrom at the center of the city actually was.