Monday, July 26, 2021

Hand Drawn

I have a great fondness for hand-drawn maps, especially of the sort that commonly appeared in fanzines. Take, for example, this one from the first issue of the UK 'zine, The Beholder, produced by Guy Duke and Michael Stoner, starting in 1979. 

I wish I could better explain my affection for maps like this. Perhaps it's because they remind me of the maps I used to spend hours making in my younger days. For me, map making is very primal, one of the foundational elements of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Even more than dice, you can't play D&D without a map.

Sadly, I don't have many maps from my youth. At some point in my late teens, I threw most of them out, in the foolish belief that my cartography was subpar. One of the few dungeon maps I still have is this one:
I'm not absolutely certain when I made this map, but I suspect it was sometime between 1982 and 1984. Objectively, it's a terrible map – too small and obviously influenced by Quasqueton from In Search of the Unknown. For good or for ill, module B1 was my model of what a dungeon should be for many years. What might not be obvious, however, is that this map was intended to be the first level of my own version of the Temple of Elemental Evil. As I've mentioned many times before, I adore The Village of Hommlet and it bugged me that Gygax's promised module T2 didn't appear in time for me to use it. So, ambitious lad that I was in those days, I set out to create my own Temple and this was its first level. Like the maps of the other levels, I no longer have the key for this one, but I can still remember a few details, like the pools in Room 7, the hidden shrine in Room 11, and the demonic statues in Room 18 that, if not properly propitiated, spring to life and attack. 

I used to be terribly embarrassed by my adolescent efforts at dungeon making. Now, I look back on them with more fondness. Like the map of the Pyrus Complex from The Beholder, there's something very pure about maps enthusiastically drawn by hand before we knew enough to be sheepish about our efforts. Then and now, this is where roleplaying lives.

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Orcs

Whatever one thinks of Gary Gygax's claims about the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the creation and development of Dungeons & Dragons, there can be little question that the orc is one of the game's iconic monsters. Despite this, D&D has never provided a consistent picture of just what an orc looks like. The earliest illustration of them in the game is this one by Greg Bell, appearing in Volume 1 of OD&D (1974):
Leaving aside its lack technical skill, what stands out to me is that this orc looks little very human in appearance – a little more bestial perhaps but not that different from some crazed barbarian. The orcs of the Monster Manual (1977) look very different, being the pig-faced humanoids of which I am so fond.
This depiction of orcs by David C. Sutherland III was very influential and can found throughout the AD&D line, as well as on the title page of the Holmes rulebook (one of my all-time favorite pieces in all of D&D) from the same year as the Monster Manual
Interestingly – and oddly – the Games Workshop version of the Holmes rulebook includes a different interpretation of this scene, one with idiosyncratically one-eyed orcs, something I don't believe I've ever seen anywhere else.
Dave Trampier drew some orcs in module G1 (1978) and clearly took his cue from Sutherland.
Sometime around 1980, the pig-faced orc seems to have fallen into disfavor, as we begin to see a variety of other types, such as this one drawn by Jeff Dee for Slave Pits of the Undercity
Just a short time later, Grenadier Models depicts orcs on one of its boxed miniatures sets in yet another style.
These orcs are green-skinned and more generically monstrous. Interestingly, Timothy Truman seems to have taken elements from several of these depictions with this illustration, which served as the basis for the LJN orc toy.
This in turn influenced the design of the orcs that appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
Since we're on the subject of cartoon-y orcs, I would be remiss if I did not include Clyde Caldwell's cover to the 1988 The Orcs of Thar.
The foregoing only barely scratches the surface of this topic, which reveals, I think, that TSR had no consistent idea of what orcs looked like. Each artist had his own interpretation of them and, while certain characteristics sometimes carried over between the depictions, there is hardly enough continuity to settle on a "canonical" notion of these monsters' appearance. 

Had I the time and patience to do so, I could no doubt have fond many, many more illustrations of orcs in TSR products. Instead, I'll leave that to you. Do you have any favorite orc artwork from the days of TSR? 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dragonflight

In my old age, I have become very set in my ways, particularly when it comes to literature. My tastes have hardened and it's rare that I'm willing to give something new a try – and rarer still when I enjoy something new. Such was not always the case, though. In my long ago youth, my prejudices were fewer and I devoured almost any book I came across with a dragon or a spaceship on its cover. 

This was especially the case after I discovered Dungeons & Dragons more than four decades ago. I was so enthralled with D&D that I looked everywhere I could for ideas to incorporate into my games. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time haunting the local public libraries, checking out any fantasy or science fiction book I could get my hands on. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of them and, over the course of a couple of years, I found myself reading books by authors whose names I recognized as well as those I hadn't. 

In the latter category was Anne McCaffrey, whose name I first came across in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. By this time – late 1981 or early '82 – McCaffrey had already published quite a few books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series, so I figured the best place to start was at the very beginning, the novel Dragonflight.

Dragonflight was first published in 1968, but portions of it had appeared as novellas in the pages of Analog the previous year. The version my library had was a hardcover edition with cover art by Michael Whelan, but I liked the original paperback cover so much that I included it in this post instead. That said, what I most remember about Dragonflight is the reaction I had to reading its introduction, which begins as follows:

When is a legend a legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category "Fairy-tale?" And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?

Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star. It had five planets, and one stray it had attracted and held in recent millennia. Its third planet was enveloped by air man could breathe, boasted water he could drink, and possessed a gravity that permitted man to walk confidently erect. Men discovered it and promptly colonized it. They did that to every habitable planet, and then – whether callously or through collapse of empire, the colonists never discovered and eventually forgot to ask – left the colonies to fend for themselves.

When I read this, I was, if not exactly dumbfounded, I was at least surprised. There was a dragon the cover, wasn't there? The book was called Dragonflight, after all, and part of a larger series that had come to be known as "the Dragonriders of Pern." What was going on?

I've mentioned in other contexts that, at this time in my life, I often disliked fantasy that included science fiction elements and vice versa. In the years since, my stance on the matter has changed considerably, but, when I first read McCaffrey's introduction, I wasn't sure what to think about it. My confusion was amplified once I started to read the novel, which, on the face of it, very much seems like a fantasy novel. Nowadays, I'd call it a "secret sci-fi" novel – one where the characters don't realize the science fictional underpinnings of the world they inhabit.

Dragonflight tells the tale of Lessa, the daughter of the rulers of Ruatha Hold, whose parents were killed in a coup led by a usurper called Fax. Lessa had escaped death after experiencing a premonition of danger and now lives as a menial laborer, plotting the downfall of the man who slew her family. Meanwhile, F'lar, a dragonrider, travels to the court of Fax at High Reaches Hold, seeking a woman who could "impress" – mentally bond – with the soon-to-be-born queen dragon. Without such a "weyrwoman," the queen will die and, with her, the dragons themselves. 

This is a terrible fate, because dragonriders, we learn, exist to fight against the Thread, an alien enemy that descends from the sky every couple of centuries to bedevil the inhabitants of Pern. Fax, however, does not believe the Thread will return and thus he sees little cause for concern when F'lar discovers that there's no woman in High Reaches Hold. F'lar then wonders if perhaps he might have more success if he were to travel to Ruatha Hold, whose inhabitants were once reputed to have had families with "Weyr blood." Unsurprisingly, the former ruling family of the hold, believed to be extinct, had such blood. Believed to be extinct, since Lessa still lives …

My brief synopsis, I hope, isn't unfair to the overall story of Dragonflight, because I certainly don't mean it to be. Rather, my intention is simply to highlight the ways in which its plot resembles many of the elements common to fantasy literature: a usurper, the last survivor of a royal family living in obscurity, the imminent arrival of an ancient enemy, ancestral powers, and of course dragons. In its form and presentation, Dragonflight is largely indistinguishable from many of the stories I write about in this series. Again, that's not a criticism, merely an observation and one I bring up because of the way that "fantasy" and "science fiction" are so often set at odds with one another. 

In any case, I enjoyed Dragonflight at the time, though I never read any further books in the Pern series, though I occasionally considered doing so. If any readers have any thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The One-Minute Combat Round

Over at Donjon Lands, Stephen Wendell has written a lengthy blog post about the Chainmail-derived one-minute combat round of OD&D that I found quite compelling. Stephen argues, based on his reading of Chainmail, that man-to-man combat takes place at a different scale from mass combat. Consequently, the common assumption – and assumption it is, since OD&D never explicitly states this – that OD&D melee rounds are one minute in length is mistaken. 

Not being well versed in the mechanics of Chainmail, it's difficult for me to say whether Stephen is correct in his interpretation, but, by my lights, I think the points he raises are persuasive and worthy of further consideration. That said, I can think of one possible objection, namely that AD&D, unlike OD&D, is quite explicit about the length of its melee rounds, which are one minute in length. For all its deviations from the 1974 original, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons isn't that different. More to the point, Gary Gygax was involved in the creation of both (as well as Chainmail). Why include a one-minute melee round in AD&D if he hadn't intended OD&D to have the same? 

Now, I think it possible, if unlikely, that Gygax simply forgot how Chainmail's combat sequence was intended to work and thus perpetuated a misunderstanding through derivative rules. Whether that's actually the case, I couldn't say, which is why I'm curious what others with more knowledge of Chaimail might have to say on the matter. Regardless, I think Stephen raises some interesting questions. I'm frequently amazed by how often I discover that some "rule" is, in fact, no rule at all but merely a widely held interpretation. Could this be another example of that? 

Correction: Stephen does talk about AD&D in footnote 9 of his post.

Update: Stephen has a follow up to this here. Thanks to Zenopus Archives for the help in sorting out where the misunderstanding lay. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

House of Worms, Sessions 232–234

Aíthfo's visits with various government and religious officials, as well as his calls on the great clans of Béy Sü have generated a great deal of interest. The House of Worms clan, otherwise unknown as a purely local clan of Sokátis, soon became the talk of the social elites of the imperial capital, resulting in much gossip – and more than a few invitations from the city's great and good. Among those who did so was Elué hiDlarútu of the Green Malachite clan. Called "the Belle of Béy Sü" for her beauty and extravagant parties, she asked Aíthfo to come to her opulent palace in the northwest of the city.

When Aíthfo finally was able to do so, he found Elué to be quite unlike what he had expected. As a devotee of hedonistic Hriháyal, Aíthfo was prepared to be shocked by her appearance and demeanor. Certainly she was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but she was also oddly restrained in her dress and demeanor – which in fact contributed considerably to her impressive natural gifts. Dressed in a plain and unornamented gown, her hair hanging loose rather than in one of the elaborate styles favored by the noblewomen of Béy Sü, Elué invited Aíthfo to partake of any of the refreshments her slaves brought to him. He thought this odd and demurred, stating he would only do so if she would join him. She agreed to do so and ushered him into a chamber set aside for dining, one of many in her immense home.

Once there, the slaves brought in all manner of food and drink, setting it on a table between the two of them. Elué once again asked Aíthfo to partake of whatever he wished. He asked her what she would recommend and she replied, "The purpose of this visit is to see what you will choose." After some hesitation, he decided to start with a wine, as the House of Worms clan was known for its winemaking back in Sokátis. Aíthfo sought out the darkest red wine he could find and then, as he prepared to drink it, Elué told him, "I wouldn't choose that one if I were you; it's poisoned." Aíthfo instinctively put the wine down and then asked, "I suppose they're all poisoned, yes?" Elué smiled broadly and replied, "Indeed. You learn quickly – but, in Béy Sü, one is rarely warned of danger ahead of time, as I have warned you." She then elaborated, "You are new here and must watch yourself. Many who appear to be your friends are no such thing, while many appear enemies might simply be competitors. Until you learn to distinguish between them all, you must be careful." With that, she summoned her head slave and had Aíthfo removed from her palace.

Baffled by this, Aíthfo returned to his clan mates and told them of his experience. Both Znayáshu and Keléno agreed that Elué had done him a favor. They already feared that the Temple of Ksárul had marked Aíthfo for death after he made it clear he wished to return to Linyaró rather than accept some more important position in the capital or elsewhere. They surmised that she might have been attempting to warn him about imminent danger – or perhaps she was playing some other game. With priestesses of Hriháyal, who could say? In any case, in the ten days remaining before Nebússa's wedding, Aíthfo should be on his guard.

Another invitation came from Táksuru hiViridáme of the Cloak of Azure Gems clan. His cousin, Alída, was a young priestess hoping to produce a book on the flora of the Southern Continent. Táksuru hoped that, owing to their having lived there for the past two years, the characters might be able to provide Alída with firsthand knowledge. In exchange, he promised that he could be "of immense use to them" in Béy Sü, as they navigated high society. Aíthfo agreed to go, accompanied by Keléno, Kirktá, Znayáshu, and Grujúng, though the latter questioned whether he served any purpose in doing so. He was, after all, a soldier and had little knowledge of and indeed interest in such esoteric matters. Nevertheless, he came with the others, who were soon introduced to Táksuru.

Táksuru was handsome, witty, and sophisticated. He was also a devotee of Lord Ksárul, which immediately raised fears among the House of Worms clan mates, fearing that his true purpose was to harm Aíthfo. Those fears were quickly allayed, however, as it became apparent that, if anything, Táksuru shared the characters' opinions of the Temple of Ksárul. Throughout their conversations with him, he regularly hinted that, though a worshipper of the Doomed Prince of the Blue Room, he had little sympathy for its more overtly political factions and secret societies, such as the dreaded Ndálu Clan. With their minds put at ease, the characters agreed to assist and would return the next day with notes and other materials that might assist Alída.

When they returned, Táksuru took great interest in the characters' plans. He probed them repeatedly about their intention to return to Linyaró. Aíthfo played coy with him initially, suggesting that, as a group, they had not yet made up their minds. Táksuru expressed mild disappointment at this, as he hoped the characters were determined to upset the plans of the Temple of Ksárul in the colony. In fact, he was prepared to lend them whatever aid he could, keeping in mind the logistics of traveling to such a far-off location. For he reasons he did not elaborate, he too had a score to settle with the Ndála Clan and outright stated that he would be "very grateful" to the characters if they dealt a serious blow to their plans. With that in mind, they left his company and promised to be in touch after the marriage of Nebússa and Lady Srüna.

Meanwhile, a Pé Chói priest of Keténgku called Chtík p'Qwé approached the characters, claiming to warn them about the "folly" of employing Ninggáya hiKadárta. Chtík explained that she was a "fraud" whose methods not only contradicted "centuries of tradition" within the temple but, more importantly, simply did not work. If the characters took her with them to Linyaró to fight against the plague, they would soon find her remedies did not work. To that end, his temple was prepared to offer them a larger donation to their efforts than originally stated – provided they left Ninggáya behind. This turn of events caused Znayáshu to wonder what was really going on, since, until recently, the temple seemed keen to pawn Ninggáya off on the House of Worms, given her status as a "troublemaker."

Kirktá then invited Ninggáya to meet with him. He wanted to subtly inquire about these matters, but found it difficult to do so when in her actual presence. This led to his decision to attempt to employ ESP on her while discussing related matters, hoping that the psychic spell might reveal something words did not. Unfortunately for him, he failed to cast the spell successfully on his first attempt; when he tried a second time, Ninggáya noticed what he was doing and immediately left his company, seemingly angered by his lack of trust in her. Distraught, he quickly composed a letter of apology,. aided by Keléno, which he sent off to the temple dormitories. Znayáshu likewise composed a letter to the temple, suggesting that it would take more money than offered to reconsider taking Ninggáya with them.

While Kirktá's letter went unanswered, Znayáshu received a prompt reply. The Temple of Keténgku agreed to a higher sum. which only emboldened Znayáshu to ask for more, in this case money and a replacement for Ninggáya. A subsequent reply indicated the temple had no one available to accompany them and, further, that their original offer of a donation was now rescinded. Speculation then abounded in the House of Worms clan. The Temple of Keténgku was behaving very strangely. Given that Ninggáya had not responded to Kirktá's letter, some thought something ill might have happened to her. A suggestion was even made that perhaps Ninggáya was somehow more important to the temple than originally known and the sudden reversals were an attempt to protect her from harm.

Nebússa, extricating himself from wedding preparations, agreed to infiltrate the dormitories of the Temple of Keténgku to look for signs of Ninggáya. Initially, he found no evidence of her presence: her cell was empty and her belongings few. However, he eventually found her within the temple's precincts and approached her, asking what she was doing. She replied that she had "been wrong to flout tradition" and "knew better now." She would no longer be accompanying the characters southward when the time came as "my temple needs me." Reporting this back to the House of Worms clan raised further suspicions that she had been affected by a mind bar or similar spell to control her behavior. Kirktá then despaired that he had somehow brought about this turn of events. He headed to his Temple of Durritlámish to immerse himself in study. 

Less than a week remained until the wedding.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 90

On page 90 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a brief section that sheds much light on how Gary Gygax viewed the game's economic system. He begins:

There is no question that the prices and costs of the game are based on inflationary economy, one where a sudden influx of silver and gold has driven everything well beyond its normal value.

This is a widespread interpretation of AD&D's equipment prices, so it's fascinating to see that Gygax outright confirms this in this passage. He even gives the rationale behind this approach.

The reasoning behind this is simple. An active campaign will almost certainly bring a steady flow of wealth into the base area, as adventurers come from successful trips into dungeon and wilderness. 

This is an important section, because it suggests that the activities of the player characters are not exceptional. The exploration – and looting – of dungeons is, if not commonplace, not unusual and, therefore, has lasting economic consequences. It also suggests to me that the game's economic assumptions are more akin to, say, 16th or 17th century Spain than the earlier medieval period. Gygax seems to have anticipated criticisms of this approach.

If the economy of the area is one which more accurately reflects that of medieval England, let us say, where coppers and silver coins are usual and a gold piece remarkable, such an influx of new money, even in copper and silver, would cause an inflationary spiral. This would necessitate adjusting costs accordingly and then upping dungeon treasures somewhat to keep pace. If a near-maximum is assumed, then the economics of the area can remain relatively constant, and the DM will have to adjust costs only for things in demand or short supply – weapons, oil, holy water, mean-at-arms, whatever.

In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, a regular subject was the "gold piece economy" of Dungeons & Dragons and how "unrealistic" it was. Many a blog post was written on the subject and a fad of substituting silver pieces for gold pieces in one's campaign arose. Games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess even incorporated it into their rules. I don't feel strongly about this subject, but, unless my – and Gygax's – understanding of economics is mistaken, the matters he raises in the preceding paragraph strike me as reasons not to abandon gold pieces as the standard coinage in AD&D.

The economic systems of areas beyond the more active campaign areas can be viably based on lesser wealth only until the stream of loot begins to pour outwards into them. While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of a dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers.

Gygax here says two notable things. The first is his usage of the adjective "heroic," which he will soon elaborate upon. The second is his assertion that he expects player characters in AD&D to have "pouches full of gems" and lots of gold coins. The latter is especially notable, for it gives us some insight into how he saw the "world" of Dungeons & Dragons.

Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means – thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The "reality" AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!

We can see here that "heroic" in the previous section was in reference to the genre of "heroic fantasy," what I usually call "pulp fantasy." His references to the protagonists of such tales is telling and a further buttress of my longstanding contention that Dungeons & Dragons is ill suited to epic or high fantasy of the sort exemplified by The Lord of the Rings or even Dragonlance. With one agrees with that thesis or not, one should also take note of the means Gygax enumerates by which loot may be "lost in a twinkling." We see here is that even AD&D's economic assumptions support the idea that player characters are meant to be rascals and rogues.

You may, of course, adjust any prices and costs as you see fit for your own milieu. Be careful to observe the effects of such changes on both play balance and player involvement. If any adverse effects are noted, it is better to return to the true and true. It is fantastic and of heroic proportions so to match its game vehicle.

This is typically Gygaxian in its approach: feel free to change whatever you like but don't surprised if your changes make the game worse. Take note, too, that he reiterates that the game is "fantastic and of heroic proportions." This is another instance where Gygax shows his hand somewhat, revealing his own preferences and vision for the game. Agree or disagree with that vision, there can be little question that it exists and draws strongly on a very particular strain of fantasy literature, one he calls "heroic fantasy" and that I call "pulp fantasy."

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"Is It Fun?"

Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing is a remarkable little pamphlet. Only sixteen pages in length in the version I first encountered it, BRP isn't just a tightly-written little ruleset; it's also a collection of thoughtful musings about roleplaying as an activity and entertainment. Take, for example, this three paragraph section entitled "Is It Fun? – Cooperation and Competition," which starts off with some sentiments with which I heartily agree.

Gaming is social. If you want to use your imagination alone, you could read a book. But be warned: when a number of people get together cooperatively, they can form a communal fantasy far more interesting and imaginative than could any one person, and the joint effort results in an extremely satisfying experience for all involved.

This is very well said. The emphasis on gaming as a social activity is important, because a big part of why roleplaying works – or doesn't – in any given group comes down to its members' sociability. Just as important is the notion of "communal fantasy." A successful campaign is the result of no single person involved in it, not even the referee, but rather is the fruit of cooperation between everyone involved. As we'll see, though, writers Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis aren't advocating free-form anarchy. 

Players must work together. For instance, a party of adventurers will not survive against a batch of monsters of they are not willing to aid each other, heal each other, and guard each other. This is not to say that you cannot play a back-stabbing thief, only to suggest that if everyone plays that way, there will be no incentive to play together – there must be honor even among thieves, so far as gaming goes. And if all your characters are cut-throats, who will be interested in playing with you?

The matter of evil, untrustworthy, or disreputable characters is a difficult one and I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all way to deal with it. In my House of Worms campaign, for example, all the characters are generally pulling in the same direction, united as they are by bonds of kindship. Instances of back-stabbing (broadly defined) are largely non-existent and that works for this particularly campaign. In other games I've refereed, on the other hand, there have been more examples of dubious behavior player characters and they made sense in context. 

There are also needs to be cooperation between players and the referee. Though the referee does mastermind the world and does set up and run the details, it's also true that the game remains a game for him as well, and that he likes to have fun playing too.

This is a topic on which I've written before: the referee as player. It makes me very happy to see the writers of Basic Role-Playing also saw it as a worthy topic. 

The player-characters should pit themselves against the world, not the referee. The referee should not be afraid to ask others for their opinions on game matters, and the players should not be afraid of debating rules questions or play opportunities with the referee.

This completely comports with my own experiences (and philosophy) as a referee.

Referee rulings should be final, though, and players must be willing to take losses if the referee is adamant in his thinking. Work out questions by discussion, not fiat, and players and referee should be willing to change their minds if necessary, and occasionally change the game somewhat to adjust to the situation at hand. 

To me, this is common sense. I particularly appreciate the fact that Stafford and Willis do not shy away from stating that "referee rulings should be final." In this, they're not very far off from Gary Gygax's comments in the Dungeon Masters Guide on related matters

Simple communication will build an enjoyable and understandable world to play in. The rewards of cooperation are great; hostility and resentment are fatal to play. Remember, the object of all this is to have fun.

This whole section in the BRP pamphlet is very important, but its final sentences quoted above are especially so. Sometimes, when I hear people talk about their experiences playing RPGs, I don't get the sense that they're having much fun doing so and I wonder why that is. If roleplaying games ceased to be fun for me, if all I ever did was complain about the games I'm playing or the people with whom I'm gaming, I would not hesitate to stop playing. 

In any case, I continue to be quite impressed by the original Basic Role-Playing pamphlet. Despite its short length, it contains a great deal of wisdom and is well worth reading if you've never done so. With luck, Chaosium might make it available once again.

Retrospective: Moria: The Dwarven City

I owned – and enjoyed – the first edition of Iron Crown's Middle-earth Role Playing. I also owned several of the Middle-earth setting books published by ICE, such as Bree and the Barrow-Downs. Those supplements were a mixed bag for me, both in terms of how well they were produced and in how much they inspired me when I first read them. Among those of which I thought particularly well was 1984's Moria: The Dwarven City by Peter C. Fenlon, who was also responsible for most of its many maps.

While I remain firm in supporting Gary Gygax's contentious assertion that The Lord of the Rings had little direct influence on his conception of Dungeons & Dragons, it's hard not to waver on the matter when someone brings up Khazad-dûm. Better known as Moria ("black chasm" in Sindarin), it was once the greatest city of the dwarves in all of Middle-earth. This was before its inhabitants famously "delved too greedily and too deep," awakening a Balrog that had hidden itself beneath the Misty Mountains after the War of Wrath. Now a ruin of subterranean chambers, passages, and labyrinths, Moria is filled with orcs and trolls under the command of the Balrog – not to mention untold riches. If ever there were a prototypical D&D dungeon, Khazad-dûm is it.

That's why I readily grabbed a copy of Moria as soon as I came across it. At 72 pages in length, it contains a great deal of information on the dwarven city, starting with descriptions of the land surrounding its location. Everything from topography to climate to flora and fauna are exhaustively detailed, followed by an equally exhaustive history. Looking back on it now, I'd say that both these sections are probably too long for gaming purposes, but, at the time, I didn't care. I had a great deal more patience for voluminous background information. The dwarves of Khazad-dûm, their society, culture, and language get a similar (though shorter) treatment, which ought to give the referee a good sense of what Moria was and is like and why it is constructed in the way that it is.

It's the city itself that is the main attraction in this book and, much as I enjoyed the other sections, it's why I bought it in the first place. About two-thirds of Moria consists of descriptions of the city and its sights, complete with digressions into dwarven architecture and engineering (as well as the philosophy behind them). The reader is treated to details of every conceivable aspect of the city – doors, chambers, chasms, bridges, stairways, and even traps. In almost every case, we're also given drawings and sample maps to illustrate what these features look like and how they are used. It's frankly amazing stuff and precisely what I'd hoped it would be.

As described in Moria, the city is divided into seven levels proper and seven "deeps" – the portions of the city shrouded into darkness used for mining, forging, and related endeavors. It's in these latter areas that the Balrog and his evil minions dwell. Because of how vast Moria is, each of these fourteen layers is given a high-level schematic map, on which certain notable locales are definitively placed. The rest of the layers are detailed by the referee making use of random tables, with the structures and other results correlated to just where one is on a given layer. It's a complex and slightly cumbersome set-up, but, truthfully, I'm not sure how else one could describe a locale as large as Moria without inducing tedium. To its credit, Moria is filled with useful inspiration throughout, which ought to relieve the referee of some of the burden of describing this place.

As a whole, Moria impressed me greatly as a younger man, so much so that I suspect it played a sub-conscious role in my eventual design of my mountain megadungeon Dwimmermount. It's certainly one of the most ambitious "dungeon" products I'd ever seen up to that point and the wonderful maps for which MERP products were known cemented it in my mind as worthy of praise and emulation. Even now, re-reading it in preparation for this retrospective, I felt some of the same awe – and a little sadness, too. I never got the chance to use Moria back in the day. My MERP campaign didn't last long and the player characters never dared venture in the direction of the dwarven city. It's a great pity and one I doubt I'll remedy, but, at my age, I likely only have so many campaigns left in me. Such is life!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021


I am old but not (quite) old enough to have been born before men landed on the surface of the Moon. Consequently, I grew up in the afterglow of the Apollo program, whose last mission occurred when I was three years old. So momentous were the actions of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and the oft-forgotten Michael Collins that I scarcely knew a child who didn't dream of being an astronaut one day. While I no longer have such dreams for myself, I nevertheless still dream that Armstrong's "giant leap for Mankind" might one day become a reality.  

Ad astra.

White Dwarf: Issue #1

I've talked about my experiences with White Dwarf before. It's a RPG magazine that I only read intermittently back in the day and so my memories of it are not as vivid as those of Dragon. Likewise, when I did read it more regularly, it wasn't until late 1982, long after White Dwarf was well established and had settled into a comfortable run. Consequently, I have no direct knowledge of the magazine's early days, which I imagine were pretty wild and woolly. That's why, after the cessation of my examination of Different Worlds, I knew that my next series would be dedicated to White Dwarf.

Issue #1 is listed as June/July 1977, which is one year after the first issue of TSR's Dragon appeared. I think that's significant, because it's a useful reminder of just how early it appeared in the history of the hobby. Remember, too, that the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide explicitly references White Dwarf in a section entitled "Aids to Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," mentioned by side by side with Dragon. The only other third party publications mentioned in that section are those by Judges Guild. This is telling and should be borne in mind as this series goes forward.

The very first article to appear is entitled "Metamorphosis Alpha," written by Ian Livingstone, the magazine's editor and co-founder of Games Workshop. For the most part, the article is simply an overview of the TSR RPG of the same name. However, the article is more than that, offering new rules for gravitation, as well as discussions of stories like Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky and Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss that influenced the game's creation. More interestingly, Livingstone offers some criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

Back to the rules themselves and criticisms. There are not many but just enough to irritate. The initial task of designing the starship and its contents is lengthy – unless your players want to play for the next four years solid, I suggest a smaller starship (same number of decks). 
Don Turnbull's "Monstermark System" presents a complex mathematical system for assessing the relative challenge of a D&D monsters relative to others (and to the level of player characters). Honestly, I have little basis for evaluating the the utility of the system, since I've never used it. Truth be told, I've never seen much use for this kind of evaluation, but I readily concede that I'm probably unusual in not caring about such matters. I know that the Monstermark System has a solid reputation among fans of D&D, so I have little doubt that Turnbull had come up something worthy of consideration.

"Open Box" is a collection of reviews, focusing on two wargames: SPI's Sorcerer and Avalon Hill's Starship Troopers. Meanwhile, "Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings tells the tale of one referee's desire to "score" a dungeon expedition, as two competing parties attempt to make their way through it. I've long been curious about this sort of set-up, so I read the article with some interest. "D&D Campaigns" by Lewis Pulsipher is the first part of a series dedicated to exploring how to establish a D&D campaign and adapt the game's rules to particular styles of play. The article is fine as far as it goes, very similar to other articles Pulsipher was publishing in other magazine's at the time. 

"The Warlord" by Steve Jackson – co-founder of Games Workshop, not (confusingly) Steve Jackson Games – is a discussion of the self-published boardgame The Warlord by Mike Hayes. I'd never heard of the game before, which is apparently quite similar to Risk but with nuclear missiles. "What's Wrong with D&D" by Andrew D. Holt offers complaints and suggestions for "fixing" the game's combat and magic systems. Ho-hum. Alan Youde's "Poison" adopts the poison rules in Metamorphosis Alpha for use with D&D. Shrug. There's also a new magic item (helm of vision) by Steven Littlechild.

All in all, the first issue of White Dwarf feels very amateurish – as it should. It's an uneven mix of material, none of which is bad, but very little of which stands out as noteworthy, with the possible exception of "Monstermark System." Nevertheless, it shows clear promise and I know from personal experience that it does improve with time. Much like Different Worlds (or Dragon, for that matter), it takes a while before a roleplaying magazine finds its footing and I have little doubt the same will be true of White Dwarf.  

Monday, July 19, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth

Were I to be so bold as to enumerate the commonest elements of fantasy literature, magic swords would almost certainly appear near the top of the list. Whether it be Excalibur, Hrunting, Tizona, or Durendal from myth or Orcrist, Graywand, Stormbringer, or Terminus Est from literature, fantasy tales, particularly those of the sort that most strongly influenced the creation of D&D and other roleplaying games, are replete with named and enchanted weapons. 

I thought about their prevalence the other day as I re-read "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" (hereafter "Sacnoth") by Lord Dunsany. Originally published in the 1908 collection entitled The Sword of Welleran, "Sacnoth" presents the reader with a rural village called Allathurion, whose people lived in peace with "all the folk who walked in the dark ways of the wood," as well as "among themselves and between them and their lord, Lorendiac." Despite this,

there was trouble in Allathurion, for of an evening fell dreams were wont to come slipping through the tree trunks and into the peaceful village; and they assumed dominion of men's minds and led them in watches of the night through the cindery plains of Hell. 

The village magician "made spells against those fell dreams; yet still the dreams came flitting through the trees." Consequently, "men grew afraid of sleep … And they grew worn and pale, some through the want of rest, and others from fear of the things they saw on the cindery plains of Hell." Deeply concerned by this, the magician retired to his tower to cast spells to uncover the source of the nightmares that held Allathurion and its people in its grip.

In time, he came to know that

the dreams were from Gaznak … the greatest magician among the spaces of the stars. And he read to the people out of the Book of Magicians, which tells the comings of the comet and foretells his coming again. And he told them how Gaznak rides upon the comet, and how he visits Earth once in every two hundred and thirty years, and makes for himself a vast, invincible fortress and sends out dreams to feed on the minds of men, and may never be vanquished but by the sword Sacnoth.

 This is the first mention of the titular sword in the story, which we soon learn has not yet been wrought, "for it lies as yet in the hide of Tharagavverug, protecting his spine." Tharagvverug is 

the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes and ravages the homesteads by their marge. And the hide of his back is of steel, and his under parts are of iron; but along the midst of his back, over his spine, there lies a narrow strip of unearthly steel. The strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, not even leave a scratch upon its surface. It is of the length of a good sword, and of the breadth thereof. 

Leothric, son of the villagers' lord, offers to slay Tharagvverug so that he might acquire Sacnoth and use it to defeat Gaznak and end his depredations upon the village of Allathurion.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the slaying of the dragon-crocodile would take up the bulk of the story. In point of fact, Leothric's quest to defeat Tharagvverug and obtain the sword Sacnoth goes entirely according to plan and therefore ends quite quickly. This certainly surprised me, because the slaying of a dragon – or a similarly dangerous monster – is the basis for a great many classical fantasy stories. That Dunsany reduced the slaying of Tharagvverug to the prolog of the larger story of defeating Gaznak is a bold move and is part of why it stands out, even within Dunsany's larger body of work.

"Sacnoth" is also beautifully written and a joy to read. Dunsany's command of language is remarkable, drawing on both Greek poetry and the Bible in its lyricism. Unlike, for example, Lovecraft, who admired and was influenced by his work, Dunsany somehow manages to evoke a mythic past without recourse to archaism or pedantry. For that reason, it's a story that practically demands to be read aloud and I think one's enjoyment of it would be increased if it were. Regardless, I highly recommend "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth." It's readily available online and not very long. Like me, I suspect you'll not only enjoy it, you'll want to read more of Dunsany's tales.  

(And, as a largely unrelated aside, Sacnoth is the name for an important world within GDW's Third Imperium setting for Traveller. I think I encountered the name through this game long before I ever read the story from which it comes.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 65

"Spell Casting During Melee" appears on page 65 of the Dungeon Masters Guide and is a surprisingly eye-opening read, both in terms of understanding how magic works in AD&D and how Gary Gygax viewed its place in the game he created. His brief introduction to this section concludes with the statement "Being struck by something during casting will spoil the spell," which I think pretty well sums up his overall feelings on the matter. As we shall see, Gygax strongly felt that magic, particularly as wielded by player characters, needed to be reined in and one would not be wrong in seeing this section as a buttress to that thesis.

His tone is adversarial from the start: "Spell-casters will always insist that they are able to use their powers during combat melee." To prevent the players of spellcasters from getting away with anything, he reminds referees of the following:

Consider this: The somatic (movement) portions of a spell must be begun and completed without interruption in a clean, smooth motion. The spell as a whole must be continuous and uninterrupted from beginning to end. Once interrupted, for any reason whatsoever, the spell is spoiled and lost (just as if used). Spells cannot be cast while violently moving – such as running, dodging a blow, or even walking normally. They are interrupted by a successful hit – be it a blow, missile, or appropriate spell (not saved against or saveable against). 

Those are quite a few limitations on the successful use of spells in AD&D! I freely admit that I have never played AD&D completely by the book, but, if the above is any indication, I don't believe I've ever encountered anyone who did so either. Common sense judgment would certainly suggest that spells could be interrupted, especially those with somatic components, but I'm not sure I'd ever be as stringent as Gygax suggests above.

Thus, casting a spell requires that a figure be relatively motionless and concentrating on the effort during the entire course of uninterrupted casting. For example, a magic-user casting a fireball must be in sight of the intended area of effect during the course of the spell (although an associate could be there to open a door intervening between caster and target area at an appropriate time – provided the timing was correct, of course).

Gygax's use of "figure" for "character" is an interesting atavism. More interesting, though, is his insistence that a spellcatser must be "relatively motionless." That's a huge impediment to casting during most combats.

The caster cannot begin a spell, interrupt it just prior to completion, run to a different area, and then complete the spell; interruption instantly cancels it. Unless a spell has no somatic components, the caster cannot be crouching, let alone prone, during casting. 

The scenario presented in the first sentence makes sense to me. The second sentence does too, though it serves to highlight just how restrictive spellcasting is in AD&D as written. (It's worth noting too that there are very few spells in AD&D that have no somatic components, at least when compared to those that do.)

It can thus be understood that spell casting during a melee can be a tricky business, for a mere shove at any time can spoil the dweomer!  

Again, I'm not sure I've ever played the game this way, nor have I encountered anyone who does (cue a deluge of comments suggesting otherwise). Still, it's a consistent point of view, even if it's not one I share or indeed that I think contributes much enjoyment to the playing of the game. 

Gygax then elucidates the procedure a referee should use during melee in determining whether a spell is successfully cast. It's a five-step process that stacks the deck, in my opinion, heavily against the successful casting of a spell. Gygax emphasizes the slowness of casting, as well as the fact that intelligent monsters are "able to recognize the dangers of spells" and will therefore "direct attacks against spell casters." Furthermore, spellcasters cannot use their Dexterity bonus to armor class, since that represents active dodging and would interrupt the spell. In the end, he states that "any successful attack, or non-saved-against attack upon the spell caster interrupts the spell."

His last word on the matter is a doozy, one that makes sense within the context he's just established but that runs counter to most of my experience playing any form of Dungeons & Dragons:

Because spell casting will be so difficult, most magic-users and clerics will opt to use magical devices whenever possible in melee, if they are wise. 

I think that pretty well clinches it: Gary Gygax hated spellcasters (he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek). At the very least, he saw them as potentially overpowered if firm boundaries were not placed on their ability to use magic in combat. I can certainly see the logic of his position and am even sympathetic to certain elements of what he says. However, as presented in this section, I think he was being unnecessarily restrictive, to the point that I'm not sure I'd want to play a spellcaster at his table. But perhaps that was the point.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Retrospective: Temple of the Frog

By most measures, Dave Arneson's "The Temple of the Frog" is the first published Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Originally appearing in the second supplement to OD&D, Blackmoor, it's a very strange scenario – or so I thought when I first read it. As presented in its initial form, the eponymous temple is home to a weird religious order whose members have "delved into the forbidden areas of study and determined that animals have more potential to populate the world than man, who was, after all, a biological abomination which would ultimately threaten the existence of all life." To that end, the Brothers of the Temple "began developing a strain of amphibian that would combine the ferocity and killer instincts of larger mammals with the ability to move through swamps with great swiftness to strike and avoid retaliation." Weird indeed!

More than this, what caught my attention all those years ago was the mysterious individual who acted as the temple's high priest, Stephen the Rock. According to Blackmoor, Stephen not only "possessed some very unusual powers," he "is not from the world of Blackmoor at all, but rather he is an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension." We later learn that he was the member of some kind of scientific expedition to study Blackmoor and became stranded there. Owing to his origins, he brought with him advanced technological devices – the "very unusual powers" mentioned above – and used them to cow the locals and establish himself as leader of the frog-breeding Brothers, accelerating their work through the application of otherworldly science.

Now, at the time, I was already quite familiar with the idea of mixing fantasy and science fiction. I'd refereed Expedition to the Barrier Peaks several times and, while I had many misgivings about it, I largely enjoyed it. Barrier Peaks is basically a dungeon filled with alien monsters and high tech "magic items." It's quite self-contained and, at least as presented, there's only minimal suggestion that the presence of an extraterrestrial starship in a fantasy world will have any long-term consequences. That's not the case with "The Temple of the Frog," where it's very explicit that Stephen the Rock and the Brothers of the Frog are involving themselves in the politics of Blackmoor, hence the need to oppose them. That probably explains why I found the scenario in Blackmoor so compelling.

So, when TSR announced that they were releasing a revised and expanded version of the original scenario in 1986 as part of its new series of Blackmoor modules for D&D, I was enthusiastic. I dutifully bought Temple of the Frog and devoured it, tearing through its 48 pages in a single sitting. Developed by David J. Ritchie from the original by Arneson, I found the module is solid, if somewhat overelaborated. Like so many D&D modules at the time, it's filled with lots of boxed text, most of which, to be fair, is simply descriptive, but it does pad out the text more than I think is necessary. Less forgivable, though, are the initial dozen or so pages that sets up the adventure scenario through NPC dialog and exposition (again, presented in boxed text). 

The main portion of Temple of the Frog consists of detailing the temple itself, as well as its denizens and treasures. Being familiar with the 1975 version, I saw lots of similarities; it's clear that Ritchie hewed as closely to the original as possible and I appreciated that. That said – and despite what the great cover by Denis Beauvais implies – the 1986 module somehow feels much less "science fiction-y" than does the original. All the elements are still there. In fact, there are a few new high tech elements, like a cyborg, for instance, but somehow that I can't quite articulate the end result feels much less wild and transgressive than the Blackmoor version. Whether that's an actual function of the module itself or simply that, by the time I read this, I was already familiar with the concept, is hard to say. Regardless, the end result is, in my opinion, lackluster and full of unrealized potential.

Even so, I retain a great fondness for Temple of the Frog. Much like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, it played an important role in helping me to become more comfortable with mixing science fiction and fantasy. Given how much of a stick in the mud I am about such things, that's not nothing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Different Worlds

Sadly, it looks like my retrospective of Chaosium's Different Worlds magazine has come to an end, at least for the time being. Some years ago, I acquired a large collection of DW issues – most of the magazine's run, I thought. Turns out that that wasn't not the case and I only had the first twenty-two issues. Until recently, I'd only ever skimmed most of them. I had hoped that, through this weekly series, I'd finally get the chance to read them all and by "all," I meant every issue of Different Worlds. 

When I first noticed that my issues were running low, I thought it'd be relatively easy to acquire the remaining issues in PDF. No such luck! Printed back issues can be bought through various only venues, like eBay and even from editor Tadashi Ehara himself. However, there's no guarantee you'll be able to find the specific issues you want at a reasonable price. The next issue I would have reviewed, issue #23, is particularly hard to obtain inexpensively, for example. 

It's disappointing, to be sure, but such is life. It's a reminder of how ephemeral many aspects of roleplaying history are. There is no way to legally obtain copies of many older gaming periodicals, including TSR's Dragon, except through the secondary market, where prices and availability are both erratic and frequently nonsensical. This is why, despite my inclinations to whittle down my gaming collection to something smaller, I have lately been reticent to divest myself of many things: you never know whether you'll be able to find copies of some material again.

To that end, I'll start a new series next week, in which I look at a magazine of which I do have a larger run of issues, White Dwarf. Like Different Worlds, it's a magazine I saw, let alone read, only intermittently in my youth, so the series will give me the chance to take a look at many of the issues for the first time. It'll also be a chance to delve into the UK gaming scene of the '70s and '80s, something I touched upon in my previous series on Imagine. And who knows? I might one day manage to snag copies of later issues of Different Worlds and, if so, I'll pick up where I left off. 

Monday, July 12, 2021

The First Appendix N

Long ago, I posted very briefly on this blog about the strange serendipity between the bibliographies of 1978's RuneQuest and 1979's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. Both bibliographies are the fourteenth appendix in their respective volumes, which is quite a coincidence – and a coincidence I am sure it is (for logistical reasons, if nothing else). Even if it weren't, the writers of RQ make it quite clear that, despite superficial similarities, their Appendix N is actually very different in both its content and intention than Gygax's own list. This becomes even clearer as you take a closer look at it.

The first section of the RuneQuest bibliography is an interesting mix of books, equal parts fiction and non-fiction. Unless my memory fails me, there isn't a single non-fiction work on Gygax's Appendix N. The non-fiction books consist largely of books about the the ancient world, arms, and armor, while the fiction books include authors you'd probably expect. Here's a scan of the selections:
I appreciate the comments after each entry. Unlike those in Gygax's Appendix N, those here give the reader a sense of why they were included and that's helpful. For example, we see that illustrations factored into whether many non-fiction books appeared. In the case of fiction, the phrase "basic source of modern fantasy" appears several times. Note, too, how often the west coast term "FRP" is employed, a term that pops up regularly in the pages of Different Worlds magazine. The inclusion of Clark Ashton Smith – in particularly his stories of Hyperborea – makes me smile, since Gygax inexplicably did not include him in his Appendix N.

The second section highlights "other fantasy role-playing games," along with the addresses of their publishers.
This is an odd list, most because it's not especially selective. Most of the RPGs available in print at the time are included, the vast majority of which, I'd wager, exercised no influence whatsoever over the design and development of RuneQuest. I draw your attention to the inclusion of the game Legacy by David A. Feldt; it's a good example of a RPG with zero influence on RQ (or any subsequent roleplaying game, for that matter), yet here it is listed alongside Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls. 

My suspicion is that the authors were trying to be exhaustive in an effort to promote the hobby more generally, not just their own contributions to it. That's one way that Chaosium – or the Chaosium, as it was still known at the time – was quite different than, say, TSR of the same era: the company was always trying to promote roleplaying in general and not just their own products. I still find that quite an admirable stance.

Appendix N continues with two more sections. The first is entitled "For Living in the Period" and includes the address of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The role the SCA played in the development of the hobby of roleplaying is, I think, under-appreciated. Many early gamers and game designers, especially on the west coast, were either directly or peripherally involved with the SCA. For example, Basic Role-Playing owes a lot to Steve Perrin's experiences in that organization, especially its combat system. The SCA was, in those days, a meeting place for science fiction and fantasy writers, fans, and elements of the late '60s counter-culture, so it's little surprise that it served as a crucible for the burgeoning fantasy gaming scene. 

The final section is entitled "For Multi-Sided Dice" and lists only Lou Zocchi & Associates, along with its address. At the time RuneQuest was first published, there were, of course, other manufacturers of polyhedral dice but Zocchi's dice had the reputation for being the best. Most RPGs at the time, if they  included dice at all, included Zocchi dice. I remain very fond of them myself to this day, largely for esthetic reasons: I simply prefer the sharp edges of precision dice over rounded ones.

RuneQuest's Appendix N offers a fascinating contrast to Gygax's own. Both speak, I think, to the fundamentally literary origins of early RPGs, even as they reveal their authors' different literary preferences. Reading them side by side, one is immediately struck by the different cultures that produced each game – as anyone who has played them can attest. It's precisely those differences that enabled them to exist side by side, appealing as they did to different tastes, sensibilities, and interests. There has never been a one-size-fits-all fantasy roleplaying game, despite the claims of overly zealous partisans; there's more than enough room for many. Indeed, given the wide variability of the fantasy genre, I would even go so far as to say there's a need for many fantasy roleplaying games.

Artist Identification

The older I get, the more convinced I become that the British fantasy gaming scene of the 1970s and '80s produced vastly more imaginative and evocative art than almost anything on this side of the Atlantic. Witness this advertisement for White Dwarf magazine, which looks like an illustration to accompany a Clark Ashton Smith story. 

Unfortunately, I can't read the artist's signature in the bottom right and so have no idea who's responsible for this piece. Can anyone assist me? I am fairly certain the artist in question did other work for Games Workshop, whether in the pages of White Dwarf or elsewhere. (I am also fairly certain that, the moment the name is revealed to me, I'll realize what an idiot I was not to have immediately recognized his style).

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hydra

Like his friend, Robert Bloch, about one of whose stories I wrote last week, Henry Kuttner was one of the younger members of the so-called "Lovecraft Circle." Kuttner began a lengthy correspondence with HPL in 1936, an exchange that would inadvertently introduce him to C.L. Moore, whom he would marry in 1940. He and his wife formed a durable and prolific writing partnership that lasted almost two decades, until his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1958. Most of Kuttner's output during that time was science fiction, but he got his start as a writer of cosmic horror after the fashion of Lovecraft.

"Hydra," first published in the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, is an example of Kuttner's early horror work. It's a solid effort, filled some genuinely clever ideas, hampered primarily by its somewhat pedestrian presentation, which relies heavily on a kind of faux journalistic style that, while not wholly ineffective, distances the reader from the events Kuttner describes, thereby lessening their impact. 

"Hyrdra" begins strongly.

Two men died; possibly three. So much is known. The tabloids ran flaming headlines of the mysterious mutilation of Kenneth Scott, noted Baltimore author and occultist, and later, they capitalized similarly on the disappearance of Robert Ludwig, whose correspondence with Scott was well known in literary circles. The equally strange and even more ghastly death of Paul Edmond, while separated from the scene of the Scott horror by the width of a continent, was clearly connected with it.

Among Edmond's effects was a diary that referenced a "privately printed pamphlet, On the Sending Out of the Soul," a pamphlet that "none of the local booksellers had heard of." Despite this, the diary states that it was this pamphlet that had caused Ludwig and Edmond "to undertake the disastrous experiment." The two men, we are told,

were deeply interested in the occult. They had dabbled in witchcraft and demonology as a result of their acquaintance with Scott, who possessed one of the best occult libraries in America.

We further learn that Scott "was a strange man" whose "knowledge of esoteric matters was little short of phenomenal." Together, Ludwig and Edmond hoped to use the knowledge contained in the aforementioned pamphlet to sneak into Scott's library through mystical means. 

The general process was familiar to both students. Their researches had informed them that the soul – or in modern occult language, "astral body" – is supposed to be an ethereal double or ghost, capable of projection to a distance. 

Making use of an odd "mixture of drugs and chemicals," including cannabis indica, the pair experiments with astral projection – to some success, it seems, for Edmond "seemed to be outside Scott's window," where he sees "the crumpled body of the man himself lying on the carpet … with his head doubled at an impossible angle out of sight beneath the torso, or else he was headless." Ludwig reveals that "his vision had been identical with Edmond's," which occasions him to admit that he had actually written to Kenneth Scott beforehand, asking his advice on how to perform the ritual properly. 

Not long thereafter, the pair receive a telegram from Scott, which reads:


A few days later, they read a story in the Los Angeles Times that reveals that Scott has been mysteriously murdered. According to the story, "there were no clues to indicate the identity of the assailant" and that "the victim's head had been severed from his body and was inexplicably missing. The remainder of "Hydra" sketchily details – remember that all this information is reported through the medium of pieced-together bits from diary entries and similar notes – what happens to Edmonds and Ludwig over the next few days, as the true consequences of their astral projection become clear. As the opening paragraph of the story makes clear, it does not end well. 

"Hydra" is not a wholly successful story. On a purely surface level, it's unremarkable and some might deem it little more than pulp hack work of a rather pedestrian sort. I don't share that assessment of the tale, but I don't think it's wholly unfair. However, Kuttner's descriptions of nightmarish alien dimensions and their frightening inhabitants are genuinely imaginative and well worth reading. You can tell he's trying hard to convey in words "the Ultimate Chaos" that rests at the center of the universe and I enjoyed his efforts.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 110 (Part II)

 (Part I of this section can be found here)

In the middle of a long section on page 110 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide entitled "Conducting the Game," Gary Gygax includes three paragraphs under the header "Handling Troublesome Players." This is a topic of some interest to me, as I've been very fortunate over the decades in almost never having to deal with players of the certain he describes here. Why that should be is probably worthy of another post, but, for now, let's turn to what's stated in the DMG. 

Some players will find more enjoyment in spoiling the game than in playing it, and this ruins the fun for the rest of the participants, so it must be prevented. 
The idea that "some players will find more enjoyment in spoiling the game than in playing it" is baffling to me. I don't doubt that such players existed in Gygax's time (and in ours), but I have never encountered one in the flesh. 
Those who enjoy being loud and argumentative, those who pout or act in a childish manner when things go against them, those who use books as a defense when you rule them out of line should be excluded from the campaign. Simply put, ask them to leave, or do not invite them to participate again.

If this is what Gygax means by "spoiling the game," I have occasionally encountered such players, particularly of the "loud and argumentative" sort. The same goes for those "who use books as a defense," but not so much the pouting and childishness. But then we have the Internet now, so it's probably not so difficult to find plenty of examples of the kind of behavior about which he's talking.

Peer pressure is another means which can be used to control players who are not totally obnoxious and who you deem worth saving.

"Deem worth saving" is a strange turn of phrase, but, again, I get what he's saying here.

These types typically attempt to give orders and instructions even when their characters are not present, tell other characters what to do even though the character role they have has nothing to do with that of the one being instructed, or continually attempt actions or activities their characters would no knowledge of. 

This is truly fascinating. I can certainly understand a certain displeasure at "back seat driving" in a roleplaying setting, though it's generally been my experience that this is meant helpfully by those who engage in it. Indeed, it's often welcomed by some players. Clearly, though, Gygax considered it disruptive. I even get the sense that he might have considered it "cheating" on some level.

When any such proposals or suggestions or orders are made, simply inform the group that is no longer possible under any circumstances because of the player in question. The group will then act to silence him or her and control undesirable outbursts. The other players will most certainly let such individuals know about undesirable activity when it begins to affect their characters and their enjoyment of the game.

 I will pass over this without comment, because I'm not quite sure what to say.

Strong steps short of expulsion can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender.

I suspect it's passages like this that contributed to the – largely false – perception that Gygax was a capricious, authoritarian referee. Leaving that aside, though, none of these suggestions strike me as the kind of thing that might positively reform the behavior of a troublesome player – quite the opposite, it seems to me. 

If they have to be enacted regularly, then they are not effective and stronger measures must be taken. Again, the ultimate answer to such a problem is simply to exclude the disruptive person from further gatherings.

This further clarification puts the foregoing into a better light, I think. Even so, I find myself wondering how common truly disruptive players were (or are). The fact that Gygax saw the need to include this section in the Dungeon Masters Guide implies that it was – or at least was seen to be – a genuine concern. As I said at the start of this post, that's not been my experience, but is it yours? Has your experience as a roleplayer included regular encounters with players so disruptive to your enjoyment that strong measures were needed to deal with them? I'm genuinely curious. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

End of the Quest

One of the joys and frustrations of returning to this blog after so long a hiatus is discovering the topics I've already discussed (sometimes at length) and those I've never really touched upon. A consequence is that I regularly think I've written about something before only to discover that I haven't. The St. Regis D&D-branded binders, folders, and notebooks are good examples of what I'm talking about. Aside from a single post long ago, I never wrote anything else on the topic so far as I can determine. Fortunately, Wayne's Books has already posted about these products, complete with numerous photographs.

Even so, when I was perusing issue #55 of Dragon (November 1981), I came across this full-page advertisement. There's much one could say about it, but what interests me is the mail-in coupon offer it presents. If you use it to acquire a 3-ring binder, St. Regis will also send you 28 sheets of "gamers graph paper." I wonder if the graph paper in question is in any way different from what was typically available at the time or if it's just an instance of marketing on the part of St. Regis. Does anyone know?

Retrospective: Alien Module 1: Aslan

As I usually do, let me begin this retrospective by proclaiming my enduring love for the late, great GDW's Traveller, which stands alongside D&D and Call of Cthulhu in the trinity of RPGs that have retained my affections for decades. I first discovered Traveller in 1982 or thereabouts, when The Traveller Book was first released and it's been my a favorite of mine ever since (even my own Thousand Suns is a loving homage to Traveller).

My fondness for Traveller isn't founded solely on its rules, as much as I adore them. No, a big part of my affection for it lies in its Third Imperium setting, whose minutiae I can still recite from memory even now. My first professionally published writing was in support of the Third Imperium setting in the pages of GDW's Challenge magazine and then, later, for Traveller: The New Era and GURPS Traveller. A delightful pastiche of the great sci-fi literature written between World War II and the 1970s, the Third Imperium also includes a number of genuinely imaginative elements, most especially its aliens.

Starting in 1984, GDW initiated a series of modules that fleshed out the major alien species of the Third Imperium setting, starting with the Aslan. As originally described, the Aslan, as their name suggests – owing to first contact with Turkish-speaking humans – are vaguely leonine in appearance, though their actual physiology is not at all like that of Terran lions. Nevertheless, the description stuck, reinforced no doubt by their reputation as Traveller's obligatory "proud warrior race." 

Reading that, one might well expect the Aslan to be unimaginative and stereotyped creations, but that's not the case at all. As presented in Alien Module 1, there's a surprising amount of depth and creativity in the details of the race and their society and culture. For example, the Aslan are not a unified species, being divided into innumerable clans arranged in feudal alliances with one another. Their interstellar government is actually a coalition of the 29 greatest clans, each of whom govern certain sectors of space and are given great autonomy within those regions. The acquisition of land – planets – is of great importance to male Aslan, who consider it the only currency of any value. Females, meanwhile, handle trade and commerce as humans typically understand it, such business being of little interest to males. These and other details paint a species ripe with possibilities for adventure and indeed roleplaying.

Because players might wish to play Aslan characters, either within their own space or as subjects of the Third Imperium, Alien Module 1 includes rules for generating them, in both the basic form (found in Book1 of Traveller) and advanced form (found in Book 4 and beyond). In addition to providing lots of options for characters – both player and non-player – these rules expansions provide additional insight into Aslan society and culture. Thus, the prior service tables are segregated according to sex, with males and females having access to different careers and even skills. Later sections of the module detail Aslan-specific equipment , starships, world generation (with new planetary government types), language, and history, among other things. Taken together, these do a great job of painting the broad strokes of these nonhuman aliens in the Third Imperium setting. There's also an adventure that takes into account some of the new information and rules presented herein.

While I (of course) have some quibbles about the material in the module, I generally think very highly of this product and the others that followed in its wake. I made great use of them in my youth and, even now, when my Traveller gaming takes place in a setting of my own creation, I look on the alien modules for inspiration. From the vantage point of decades, what still strikes me is how Alien Module 1 balances imagination and practicality. There aren't dozens of pages devoted to fleshing out every detail of the Aslan as a contemporary product would probably do, but it nevertheless provides more than enough material for both players and referees to hang their hat on. Likewise, there are only new rules where needed to distinguish the Aslan from human beings; otherwise, the module works seamlessly with the basic Traveller rules. As I say, it's fine balance and makes me all the more wistful about Game Designers' Workshop, one of the truly great RPG companies.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Not to Be

In the past, I've written about D&D products that were announced or referenced but that, for whatever reason, never came to pass. While reading issue #55 of Dragon (November 1981), I came across references to some more (and some of the same) in Gary Gygax's "From the Sorceror's [sic] Scroll" column.

Of the five projects listed here, arguably only one – regular World of Greyhawk information via Dragon columns – was ever realized. TSR did release a City of Greyhawk boxed set in 1989, but I don't believe it bears much connection to the city from Gygax's campaign, having been written by Doug Niles, Carl Sargent, and Rik Rose. Likewise, we never saw any "smaller-scale maps of important areas of the Flanaess," unless you count some of the material included in Greyhawk modules from the late '80s and early '90s. Again, how much Gygaxian material any of these modules contain is likely tiny. This column is the first time I'd ever seen reference to "miniatures rules for large-scale battles between the states of Oerth" and I'm intrigued by the concept.

The last project mentioned, concerning the Greyhawk Castle and dungeons, is the most interesting. The fact that this project never saw much progress is well known and a source of much consternation from those of us interested in the earliest megadungeons of the hobby. Rather than simply give vent to my bitterness on this topic once more, I'd like to focus instead on Gygax's parenthetical comments about dungeon design. He says:
As with most extensive dungeon complexes, much is developed and kept in the head due to actual play, and some areas are so difficult as to be impossible for those not used to our DM style.

This is a very remarkable statement and one that rings true with my own experience. Mega or "tent pole" dungeons are in a constant state of flux, owing to the activities of the various factions that inhabit them, not to mention the actions of the player characters. Consequently, when refereeing a dungeon of this sort, it's often easiest to keep a very loose key rather than a more detailed one of the sort that works best for a published product. The process of converting Gygax's sketchy written material and mental notes into something fit for sale would no doubt have been an onerous one and I'm not at all surprised it never came to pass.