Friday, May 7, 2021

Gygax's Inner Planes

I've commented before that, while I'm no fan of Unearthed Arcana as eventually published, I was conversely a big fan of much of the material Gygax was creating in preparation for his never-written second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This material appeared in the pages of Dragon over the course of several years, presenting new classes (like the barbarian, cavalier, and thief-acrobat), weapons and armor, spells, and monsters, along with expanded conceptions of other aspects of the game. At the time, I liked these articles simply because they provided me with more stuff to use in my AD&D campaign (and use them I did). Now, though, what I like about them is the way they seem to represent a maturing of Gygax's fantasy conceptions, the fruit of years of thought and play, not to mention the need for AD&D to find new frontiers of adventure.

His article, "The Inner Planes," which appeared in issue #73 of Dragon (May 1983), demonstrates this maturation process quite clearly, I think. In it, Gygax offers "a new way to look at the AD&D world." This new way was necessary because, as the game's cosmology evolved, there was a need to reconcile new conceptions to earlier presentations. The para-elemental planes, for example, arose out of wondering about what happens at the point where two elemental planes met. Gygax obviously liked the idea, but soon realized that the thought process that led to them was incomplete. After all, there were other Inner Planes, like the Positive and Negative Material Planes, the Ethereal Plane, and the Plane of Shadow (the latter itself a recent addition to the cosmology). How did they interact with the Elemental Planes and what was the effect of all this interaction?

The result is a cubic representation of the Inner Planes, as depicted in this cut-out included on page 13 of this issue:

"What a mess!" you might reasonably say and it is a mess – an ugly, convoluted, and probably unnecessary one at that, but I love it all the same. There are a couple of things I like about this, starting with the fact that it's clearly an attempt by Gygax to think about AD&D's cosmology in rational way. If para-elemental planes arise due to the meeting of two elemental planes, what happens when an elemental plane meets the Positive or Negative Material Plane? What about a para-elemental plane? The result is baroque, almost to the point of absurdity, but it makes sense. One might argue that this is little different than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and I'm somewhat sympathetic to that point of view. At the same time, given what Gygax had already established about the game's metaphysics and the interactions of those metaphysical forces, this oddly colored cube is a natural, even inevitable, evolution of it all.

That's the second thing I like about this new presentation of the Inner Planes: it's evolutionary. What I mean by that is that it demonstrates that AD&D and the fantasy world it presented was growing and changing, not in a way that, strictly speaking, repudiated anything about its earlier self but rather in a way that added to and expanded upon what had come before. None of this was needed by players or referees solely interested in dungeon crawls or wilderness exploration or all the usual activities of fantasy roleplaying. However, players and referees interested in going beyond that would find it invaluable. Gygax was taking a lot more interest in the other planes of existence, seeing them as the next logical step in exploring the possibilities implied by AD&D's setting. To do that properly, he'd need to think about them more carefully, teasing out the implications and taking stock of all they could offer. Whether one likes the direction he was headed or not, I hope one can nevertheless appreciate the effort.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 191

The City/Town Encounters Matrix on p. 191 of the Dungeon Masters Guide is quite well known, almost entirely due to its harlot sub-table. As amusing as that sub-table is, today my focus is instead on another one that I think offers a great deal more insight into Gary Gygax's conception of the game and its implied world. 

The Encounters Matrix includes two separate dice roll columns, one for daytime and one for nighttime. During the daytime, the most common encounters are with beggars, city guards, laborers, merchants, tradesmen, and similarly mundane individuals. There's nothing at all surprising in this. Indeed, I imagine that most of us, if asked to come up with a random encounter table for a broadly medieval fantasy city, would have come up with something quite similar to this. 

However, during the night, the Encounters Matrix paints a very different picture of an AD&D city. Suddenly, giant rats (and wererats) are more common, as are assassins, bandits, thieves, and the aforementioned harlots. Now, there's also a chance – a small one, to be sure – of encountering demons, devils, doppelgangers, and many forms of undead (up to and including a lich!). These results paint a very different picture of the city, don't you think? 

Remember that OD&D carried the subtitle of "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns" (emphasis mine). Though naturalism was an important part of Gygax's conception of the implied setting of the game, he never neglected the fantastic. The City/Town Encounters Matrix reflects this, since it makes it clear that, when the sun sets, cities undergo a kind of transformation, becoming much more dangerous – and weird – places, Giant rats emerge from the sewers, thieves and ruffians prowl the alleyways, and demons and undead monsters lurk in dark, forgotten corners. It's a wonderfully compelling vision and a reminder that Gygax was, above all, a fantasist.

Another aspect of the Encounters Matrix worth mentioning is the following sub-table, intended to determine the race of individuals encountered:

No doubt what strikes anyone viewing this is that nearly 70% of all encounters are with humans. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Gygaxian humanocentrism, but it's still amazing to see it in such stark terms. Just as amazing, I think, are the percentages of the various demihumans. Dwarves, for example, represent slightly more than one-quarter of all demihumans encountered in a city (and nearly 10% of all characters whose race is determined by this table). Half-elves are just as common. Interestingly, elves and half-orcs are equally common, each representing a little more than 15% of all demihuman encounters (and 5% overall). Gnomes and halflings, on the other hand, are quite rare.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Gygax's chosen percentages, they do paint a picture of the kind of fantasy world he envisioned. Humans are far and away the predominant race, with dwarves and, unexpectedly, half-elves being distant seconds. The greater appearance of half-elves relative to elves suggests that half-elves have a better opinion of humans than do their elven kin, who would seem to keep to themselves. Half-orcs, though not common, exist in much larger numbers than I would have expected, which suggests a few things about orcs and their place in the setting. That both gnomes and halflings are highly unusual implies the Wee Folk keep to themselves, or perhaps that their numbers overall are few. Regardless, there's more detail to be gleaned from the City/Town Encounters Matrix than one might expect.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Elementary Particles

I can't quite recall when I first encountered the notion of the four elements. I suspect it was quite early, probably through my reading of classical mythological stories, though it's possible I learned about it from some other source. However, I vividly recall that, when I cracked open the Monster Manual for the first time in early 1980, I was almost instantly enamored of elementals. There was something powerfully, if you'll forgive the term, primal about beings composed solely of a single substance. Also, the existence of elementals and indeed the entire conception of the four elements served as a useful reminder that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a pre-modern world, one not merely operating according to different laws than our own but one whose inhabitants conceive of it in a different way than we do ours.

Over the years, my interest in the elements and elementals has endured. I remember when I first read about other elemental systems, like those of the great civilizations of Asia. What particularly struck me about the latter was that many of them included a fifth element, a concept not unknown in ancient and medieval European thought but less well known in popular presentations of them. I was likewise struck by the fact that many of these non-European elemental systems included different elements, like wood or metal. As a younger person, this was eye-opening and helped me to realize that there was room for variation within the broader notion of fundamental elements.

Lately, I've been working on a science fantasy setting rooted in Burroughs, Kirby, Wolfe, Zothique, and The Dying Earth – a formerly high-tech setting brought low to the point it appears to be a weird and/or exotic fantasy world. Think Jorune or Tékumel but more immediately accessible than either. As I began to work in earnest, one of my earliest thoughts was its elemental system, which I wanted to be unique and interesting but also intelligible. The result of my cogitations is depicted in the crude image above. While I need to give it some additional thought, I'm quite pleased with the results, especially the way it interacts with the psychic powers and sorcery of the setting. If nothing else, it's different from the usual fantasy presentation of the elements and their relationships, which pleases me. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Fantasy Gaming Goes Underground

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine, Games & Puzzles, contained an article by Steve Jackson of Games Workshop in which he explains Dungeons & Dragons to readers who probably were unfamiliar with the game at the time. I found the article notable for several reasons, starting with the fact that Jackson frames D&D as an outgrowth of the fantasy wargames campaigns that Tony Bath ran in the 1960s. Historically, that's debatable, but I can fully understand Jackson's position, especially when writing for a predominantly British audience. He also includes an example of play and a sample dungeon, whose map and brief key appears below.
The dungeon is called "The Dungeon of the Ground Goblins" and consists of twenty keyed areas. As an illustration for the uninitiated, it's decent enough – it's certainly more straightforward than the world's first dungeon map from Volume 3 of OD&D – though the density of monsters in some areas is questionable (e.g. 15 orcs in tiny room 20). Maps like this tickle my fancy, because I'm fascinated with seeing examples of early dungeon design. Even given the intention behind this particular map, there are still lessons to be learned here about the evolution of dungeon mapping and stocking.

Heroes and Monsters

I'm temperamentally prone to prefer the past to the present, so my opinions on some topics are understandably suspect to many people. This doubly true when it comes to matters of art, which are already highly subjective. Nevertheless, I'm (once again) going to show off a couple of pieces of older fantasy art I greatly prefer to most of what we see nowadays. They're both from the manual for Quest for the Rings. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the artist who created them.

This painting depicts the game's four playable heroes: the warrior (who wields the magic sword, Bloodeater), the wizard, the phantom (a spectral knightshade), and the changeling (possessor of the Mirrorcloak). 
Meanwhile, this painting depicts the nightmare minions of the Ringmaster: the dragons (named Scortha, Goldfang, and Mythrog), the Spydroth Tyrantulus, the doomwinged bloodthirsts, the orcs, and the firewraiths. 

Clearly, Quest for the Rings borrows liberally from Tolkien, but that's hardly surprising. When it was released in 1981, The Lord of the Rings was probably the most popularly known example of epic fantasy. Given that, I think it only makes sense to use it as inspiration for the game's monsters and overall story. Still, these paintings are pretty evocative. Much like movie posters from this era, video games from the '70s and '80s used to boast some impressive artwork. I'd love to see illustrations in this style return to prominence.

Retrospective: To the Aid of Falx

Though I participated in not a single RPGA-sponsored tournament, I was nevertheless a member of the Role Playing Game Association from 1982 to 1986. I initially joined in the hope that I would one day participate in such tournaments, which fascinated me, but I stayed because I enjoyed reading Polyhedron. I was equally fascinated by the exclusive items that the RPGA sold to its members, like the three AD&D adventure modules written by Frank Mentzer.

The first of the modules, To the Aid of Falx, was published in 1982 and is written for characters of levels 5–9. Its premise is that the characters have been "selected from many applicants" to assist the silver dragon, Falx Templamut, and "grandson of old Bahamut himself." Falx is concerned by the recent theft of five potions of silver dragon control from a merchant caravan, fearing they'll be used against him. He asks the characters to enter the lair of the thieves, one of whom is a vampire, since, being a dragon, he is too large to enter. 

Given this set-up, it should come as little surprise that To the Aid of Falx is a contrived, forgettable adventure, filled with traps and monsters (like 32 wererats and 8 wights) intended to "challenge" the characters rather than make sense within the context of the adventure. Normally, I wouldn't have written about a scenario like this, but it include an interesting preface by Frank Mentzer. Pay particular attention to the second paragraph.
Mentzer's comment about "dungeons that could exist as given a for length of game time" is broadly in line with Gygaxian naturalism and, I think, generally laudable. There's nothing inherently wrong with funhouse dungeons, but my personal preference is generally for dungeons that make sense. Based on what he says in the preface, Mentzer feels similarly, though I'm not sure that To the Aid of Falx fits the bill.

Even more intriguing is Mentzer's comment that he is "much opposed to non-standard AD&D games." He elaborates on what he means by this is noting that his own campaign, which apparently began in 1976, contains only two new monsters and no new character classes, spells, or "procedures," by which I assume he means rules procedures. He even offers an aside in which he denigrates the introduction of such new material as "so-called 'improvements.'" 

I'm not quite sure what to make of these statements. On the one hand, I fully understand the desire to play a RPG without any variant materials. On the other hand, nearly every AD&D module ever published, starting with Gygax's own G and D-series adventures, has included new monsters. What then was Mentzer's point in voicing this opinion in To the Aid of Falx? My guess is that it was part of the movement, starting in the early 1980s, to promote the standardization of AD&D first through the RPGA and then through Gygax's columns in the pages of Dragon. 

To the Aid of Falx is not the worst module I've ever read, but it's far from a good one. Compared even to other re-purposed tournament modules, like Slave Pits of the Undercity, it's an uninspired effort. Its main appeal to me is its amusing artwork by the late, great James Holloway, such as the cover image depicted above. If it's at all representative of the kind of scenarios used by the RPGA, I can't say I missed out on much by never participating in their tournemants.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Weird Maps VI

Home video game systems first started to become consumer products during the mid to late 1970s. The one with which I was most directly familiar with was the Atari 2600, first released in 1977. A year later, Magnavox released the Odyssey². There are two things I'll always remember about the Odyssey². The first is a series of commercials for it featuring Leonard Nimoy (or at least his voice). The second is 1981's Quest for the Rings, a fantasy game cartridge/boardgame hybrid that was a genuinely interesting addition to the console (about which I should probably write more).

Quest for the Rings is notable for including the mounted map above, which is absolutely delightful. The names on the map are an odd mix of the banal (Valley of Fear, Forbidden Forest), the punny (Troubled Waters, Dire Straits), and the goofy (Riproaria, Zombia). Still, it's fairly attractive and actually useful in play. Mind you, I am a notoriously easy sell when it comes to maps of almost any kind, so my judgment on this score might be suspect.  

Different Worlds: Issue #13

Issue #13 of Different Worlds (August 1981) opens with an article entitled "The Land of Faerie" by Scott R. Turner. It's an odd piece, in that it contains no game statistics whatsoever. Instead, it's an overview of a variety of  myths and legends about fairies – mostly from the British Isles – strung together as a semi-coherent whole. There's even a bestiary of sorts, which provides brief descriptions of many fairy creatures. Articles like these baffle me somewhat. They're usually too short to present information that most players of fantasy RPGs don't already know. Likewise, the lack of game-specific information limits their utility.

Strangely enough, Iain Delaney's "The Travellers' Aid Society" follows a similar pattern, being both very short and almost entirely lacking in game statistics. Rather, what Delaney offers is a limited and particular interpretation of the iconic organization from GDW's Traveller game. Even more so than "The Land of Faerie," it's too short to present anything a Traveller fan didn't already know, as well as lacking in game rules that might otherwise make it useful.

 The oddly titled "Role-Playing in the Land of Xanth" by Leonard Kanterman is, for the most part, a book review of first three volumes of Piers Anthony's series of fantasy novels. The review also provides cursory suggestions on how to use Xanth as a setting for a RPG campaign. At the risk of repeating myself, I found the article mostly useless, owing to its short length and lack of game rules. but I suppose it's possible that it might serve as an introduction to the setting to the uninitiated (assuming one considers that a good thing).

Jane Woodward's "The Cult of Erlin the Harper" is a gateway cult for RuneQuest. It's a very welcome counterpoint to the previous three articles, in that it contains a great deal of game-specific information that's useful even in RQ campaigns set on Glorantha. There are not only new music-based rune spells but also details of musical instruments and how they can used in the game. Steven Marsh's "Samurai Swords" follows a similar path, offering lots of details on the schools of Japanese sword-making and the weapons they made. Rather than simply being historical in nature, the article also provides rules for each type of sword, including possible magical powers associated with the weapons. It's more detailed than I expect most people need, but I couldn't help but appreciate the detail nonetheless.

John T. Sapienza reviews "Samurai Figures," focusing on those available from Ral Partha, Archive, and Stan Johansen. The accompanying photographs are quite nice. Lee Gold's Land of the Rising Sun and Dave Hargrave's Arduin Adventure are both reviewed positively, though with a few caveats in the case of the Arduin Adventure. Larry DiTillio's "Sword of Hollywood" looks at two movies, one I've heard of and one I have not. The first is Dragonslayer, which DiTillio liked a great deal. The second is The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire, which he also liked – indeed, he liked it well enough that he wants it to become a weekly television series. Gigi D'Arn's column talks a fair bit about a supposed scramble by various publishers to secure the righs to Conan the Barbarian-related game products, as well as hints of trouble at SPI. 

All in all, issue #13 is something of a disappointment to me. My guess is that the shift from bimonthly to monthly left Chaosium with less quality material to choose from for each issue and it shows. I hope that, as 1981 wears on, things will improve.

Monday, May 3, 2021

RIP Richard Halliwell (1959–2021)

Sad news.

Fantasy Not a Threat


Behold the glory of the late 1970s! This is the cover of the March 1978 of the UK magazine, Battle for Wargamers, which is simply delightful. If you poke around online, you can find many more equally astounding covers from the same period. I picked this one, because the issue includes a letter to the editor written by Steve Jackson of Games Workshop fame.

Jackson, it should be noted, had written an article in the December 1977 issue, entitled "An Introduction to Fantasy Wargames." While I've not (yet) seen the article myself, it's my understanding that it's a very good overview of the topic, one that situates fantasy wargaming firmly within the wider wargaming tradition, paying particular attention to the innovations of Tony Bath. Nevertheless, as his letter above indicates, there was some resistance and even hostility to the inclusion of fantasy games in the pages of magazines like Battle for Wargamers.

That fantasy wargaming was initially poorly received in some quarters of the wider wargames hobby is well known and, frankly, not at all surprising. What's interesting to me is that Jackson makes an argument that echoes those made often today:
Before condemning Fantasy wargames out-of-hand, traditionalists ought to ask themselves whether they would like to see large, thriving wargames clubs taking in members from History, Fantasy and Board wargaming players, or would they prefer small struggling clubs concerning themselves with just one aspect of the hobby?

Of course, there's some truth to what Jackson says here. At the same time, are there are any large, thriving wargames clubs today? Did broadening the range of games result in "large, thriving wargames clubs," as he predicted? The answer depends, I imagine, on how one defines "wargames clubs," as well as whether the incontrovertible decline in the popularity of wargaming as a hobby has anything to do with the introduction of fantasy games into its ranks. It's a complex issue and I lack the historical knowledge necessary to offer any conclusions. 

I can only say that, while I am sympathetic to Jackson's perspective, being the intellectual descendant of those early fantasy wargamers, I don't think the situation is quite as clear-cut as he makes it out to be. Change may be "the way of the world these days," but change almost always brings with it destruction. I can't fault anyone who, in 1978, foresaw that the hobby as they knew and loved it, was in danger of changing beyond recognition and resisted that change. I feel much the same about the hobby of roleplaying, whose contemporary form and trajectory are at times utterly alien to me. Fortunately, technology has made it much, much easier today to find others who share my interests and perspective when it comes to the hobby. I can wholly absent myself from whatever the big publishers are doing and not lack for games to play or people to play them with. But, in 1978, that was probably harder, which is why I find myself at least a little bit sympathetic toward "the die-hard traditionalists" whom Jackson decries.

DCS Does Tolkien

Most aficionados of Dungeons & Dragons are, I suspect, familiar with the story of how OD&D originally included explicit references to monsters and beings from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, such as hobbits, balrogs, and ents, among others. They also probably familiar with the fact that legal action was threatened against TSR by "the Tolkien estate" – actually the Saul Zaentz Company – because the inclusion of these creations were entirely unauthorized. What they might not know is that it wasn't Dungeons & Dragons that brought TSR to the attention to the Saul Zaentz Company but rather the 1976 wargame, Battle of the Five Armies.

I have no direct experience with Battle of the Five Armies. I wasn't a wargamer (take a drink) at the time and, in any event, the game was no longer available for sale by late 1979 when I first entered the hobby. I'm sorry I never saw it, as it features a number of pieces by David C. Sutherland III, such as this color box cover illustration, depicting Men, Dwarves, and Elves facing off goblins and wolves.

The cover to the rulebook also features another depiction of a similar scene, this time in black and white.

I'm a huge fan of "lost" artwork like this, which is to say, pieces by established artists that are not widely known. This is particularly true of artists who worked in the early days of the hobby, like Sutherland and Trampier, both of whom contributed immensely not just to the look of D&D but, due to the game's immense influence, to the wider world of fantasy. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The White People

Were there not already over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I might consider re-naming it to something a bit broader, since, strictly speaking, not all of the works I cover in it can be called "pulp fantasy," even by a liberal definition of the term. That's particularly true of many of those written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, which transcend narrow literary categories, despite being foundational to later genres that, in turn, influenced the creators of the first roleplaying games. 

The tales of Arthur Machen are good examples of what I'm talking about, particularly "The White People," which first appeared in 1904 in the pages of Horlick's Magazine but was much more widely read in the 1906 anthology of his fiction, The House of Souls. H.P. Lovecraft famously judged the story second only to Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" in the annals of weird fiction and there can be little doubt that it exercised a powerful influence over his imagination. He called it

"a triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint, [which] accumulates enormous power as it flows on in a stream of innocent childish prattle … less famous and less complex in plot than The Great God Pan, but definitely finer in atmosphere and general artistic value … a dimly disquieting chronicle."

It's easy to understand why HPL felt so strongly about it. "The White People" begins a prologue in which two men – Cotgrave and Ambrose – engage in a rambling discussion about the nature of morality and sin. Ambrose, a theologian by training, suggests that saints and sinners are not all that different from one another. His argument is that, while most people "are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures [who] … muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and inner sense of things," saints and sinners are like in experiencing "ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life." Ambrose adds that both saints and sinners were rare, especially nowadays.

The materialism of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity, has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents or descents. 

To some extent. Ambrose is voicing Machen's own opinion, or something close to it. He a possessed a strong streak of Christian mysticism that was nevertheless joined to a deep interest in paganism, the occult, and Hermeticism, as well as an earthy sensuality. I bring this up to point out that Machen is a difficult writer to pigeonhole and stories like "The White People" reflect a similar ambiguity.

Eventually, the discussion between Cotgrave and Ambrose reaches an impasse, with Cotgrave demanding "a concrete example" of it from his interlocutor. It's at this point that the story begins in earnest, as Ambrose hands him a "green pocket-book" with a faded binding. Ambrose explains that he :knew the girl who wrote this" and that, once he has read it, Cotgrave "will see how it illustrates the talk we have to-night."

But for a short epilogue, the remainder of "The White People" consists of the contents of the Green Book (as it is called in the text), which is more than two dozen uninterrupted pages of hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness writing – "a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce," in the words of S.T. Joshi. Ostensibly the diary of a girl "thirteen, nearly fourteen," this section describes the unnamed girl's "very singular adventure" about a year after the death of her mother. On that day, which she afterwards called White Day, the girl went for a walk in the countryside, as she had many times before.

I walked a new way, and a little brook led me into a new country, but I tore my frock getting through some of the difficult places, as the way was through many bushes, and beneath the low branches of trees, and up thorny thickets on the halls, and by dark woods full of creeping thorns. And it was a long, long way. It seemed as if I was going on for ever and ever, and I had to creep by a place like a tunnel where a brook must have been, but all the water had dried up, and the floor was rocky, and the bushed had grown overhead till they met, so that it was quite dark.

I think the section quoted above gives a good sense of the style of the Green Book, whose text is written as nearly a single, pages-long paragraph, filled with run-on sentences and dizzying imagery. As a result, the reader is sometimes left wondering precisely what is happening, a situation made worse by the diarist's omissions and circuitous way of describing sights and events that she herself does not seem to comprehend fully. 

During her peregrinations in the woods, the girl sees many strange things – weirdly shaped rocks, stunted trees, shadowy shapes – before finding a valley containing a stream whose water "tasted like bright, yellow wine" and made her giddy. The place reminded her of a memory from when she was very small and her mother was still alive. Her nurse had taken her out and into the forest, where the nurse had met a tall man. The nurse then left her alone beneath a tree, while she and the man went off together deeper into the woods. While she was alone, the girl "two wonderful white people [who] … began to play and dance and sing." 

One was a beautiful lady with kind dark eyes, and a grave face, and long black hair, and she smiled such a sad strange smile at the other, who laughed and came with her. They played together, and danced round and round the pool, and they sang a song till I feel asleep.

Her nurse tried to tell the girl she had been dreaming, "but I knew I hadn't," she says. The nurse then makes her promise not to say a word about what she had seen or she "should be thrown into the black pit." The girl never forgot what she saw, which is why she remembered them on White Day. Frightened – but also enchanted – by what she saw, the girl finds her way back home and is determined to find out more about all she had experienced.

Exactly what the Green Book recounts in "The White People" is unclear. The confusing narrative seems to suggest that the girl who wrote it is being initiated into some sort of secret society or cult, one that has contact with another realm or reality inhabited by the eponymous White People. But who and what are the White People? Are they ghosts? Fairies? Something else entirely? Machen does not elaborate, leaving a great deal to the reader's imagination. This is a technique that Lovecraft used often in his own stories and is likely device her learned – or at least honed – after reading Machen. 

Like many weird tales, "The White People" is a large an exercise in evoking mood and feeling rather than in presenting a clear or coherent plot. Due to the way it's written, the reader is never sure of what is being described, let alone how he is supposed to take it. For some, this might prove frustrating, while for others, it contributes to its success. Until recently, I'd been somewhat indifferent to the tale, but, lately, after reading it aloud, I found it much more captivating and powerful. It's definitely an acquired taste and I cannot blame anyone for being unmoved by it, even as I have come to appreciate it more fully and understand why it was so well regarded in the early 20th century.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Dave Sutherland and the Birth of the D&D Esthetic

The three little brown books of original Dungeons & Dragons have notoriously amateurish artwork, most of it by the teenaged Greg Bell. Bell provided artwork for many early TSR products, not simply OD&D, much of which consists of swipes of Marvel comics from the late '60s and early '70s. He is also responsible for TSR's lizard man colophon depicted on the right. 

In a very real sense, D&D's earliest stab at an esthetic was established by Bell, who was the first artist to illustrate such iconic monsters as the beholder, the owlbear, and the black pudding (as well as pumpkin-headed bugbears). For the first year and a half of D&D's existence, Bell's artwork was the primary means by which players and referees imagined what the world of Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to look like.

Despite this, I don't think I'm doing a disservice to Bell when I say that his illustrations had very little lasting impact on D&D's evolving esthetic. Some of this is no doubt due to the broadly generic nature of his artwork. With very few exceptions, there's nothing distinctive about it, either in terms of its subject matter or its style. Furthermore, his stint as a D&D illustrator was quite short; his work disappears entirely after the publication of Supplement II, Blackmoor.

Not coincidentally, Blackmoor was the first appearance of the work of David C. Sutherland III. Sutherland's art stands head and shoulders above the work of Bell and Tracy Lesch, another teenager whom Gygax tapped in the early days. Take a look, for example, at Sutherland's rendition of another iconic D&D monster, the umber hulk, which made its debut in Supplement II.

Sutherland was a Minneapolis native who was introduced to M.A.R. Barker by Mike Mornard and, through Barker, to TSR. He very quickly impressed Gary Gygax, who hired him as one of the company's first staff artists. He remained with TSR until its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. 

OD&D's Supplement III, Eldritch Wizardry, featured a great deal of Sutherland's artwork. I'd argue that many of his pieces in it proved extremely influential on D&D's growing sense of what it was and, more importantly, what it looked like. Take, for instance, this lovely illustration.
I know it's fashionable in some quarters to belittle Sutherland as a "talented amateur" and maybe that's true. I can only say that pieces like this one, appearing in 1976, give me a better idea of what D&D is supposed to be than most of the supposedly "professional" illustrations produced for the brand in the last two decades. What I notice about a piece like this one is a groundedness that, in the past, I referred to as "the extraordinary ordinary." This groundedness is rooted in history, with arms and armor, to cite just two things, resembling those found in the real world. Even the swords of the Type V demon aren't purely fantastical, despite being wielded by a six-armed snake-woman. 

Ultimately, this esthetic derived from wargaming. OD&D was, after all, subtitled "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns," but another bit of evidence for this can be seen in Sutherland's Eldritch Wizardry artwork, like this depiction of the demon lord Orcus.
The miniatures base beneath the cloven feet of Orcus is unmistakable. Many of the other demons in Supplement III are drawn in a similar manner. This suggests to me that Sutherland was drawing on his experiences as a miniatures wargamer in conceiving the look of D&D. His "extraordinary ordinary" style rested on the idea of men in historical armor fighting beasts from myth and legend, a theme to which he returned again and again his artwork.

Of course, Sutherland's role in shaping the esthetics of Dungeons & Dragons achieved its greatest impact through the AD&D hardbacks, two of whose covers were done by him. The Monster Manual – arguably the single most influential book in the history of RPGs and, by extension, on fantasy in general – contains several examples of what I've been describing, like this battle against kobolds.
Maybe even more significant is that Sutherland was the first illustrator of many of D&D's monsters, establishing their distinctive appearances. Consider the following list of some of the notable monsters Sutherland contributed to the MM:
  • Bugbear (of the non-pumpkin head variety)
  • Carrion Crawler
  • Demons (all but Juiblex)
  • Dragons
  • Gnoll
  • Hobgoblin
  • Kobold
  • Mimic 
  • Mind Flayer
  • Orcs
  • Owlbear
  • Purple Worm
  • Roper
  • Troll
  • Umber Hulk
  • Xorn
That's a selective list; Sutherland contributed even more monsters than those listed above. His imaginative and idiosyncratic conceptions have exercised a potent influence over subsequent artists, not to mention generations of players. Consider the way that, for instance, mimics are still almost always drawn in the form of a chest attacking an unwary adventurer. That's the power of Sutherland's art and proof, I think, that he is the father of the D&D esthetic.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 87

 On p. 87 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Setting Things in Motion," which provides advice to the Dungeon Master in starting a new campaign. Gygax begins by reassuring DMs that "there is nothing wrong with using a prepared setting to start a campaign." Equally, 

there is nothing to say you are not capable of creating your own starting place; just use whatever method is best suited to your available time and more likely to please your players. Until you are sure of yourself, lean upon the book. Improvisation might be fine later, but until you are completely relaxed as the DM, don't run the risk of trying to "wing it" unless absolutely necessary.

As I've so often found of the DMG, this is good, practical advice. Perhaps I am biased in that my earliest campaigns "leaned upon the book," using The World of Greyhawk until such time as I felt confident enough to create my own setting

Gygax provides even more concrete suggestions.

Set up a hamlet or village where the action will commence with the player characters entering and interacting with the local population. Place regular people, some "different" and unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each. Stock the goods available to the players.

This is very close to what I do in almost any RPG campaign I begin, D&D or otherwise, albeit with certain modifications to suit the game and genre. For example, I kicked off my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign in this way, though the starting locale was not a "hamlet or village" but the Tsolyáni city of Sokátis. Unsurprisingly, this is also very close to the set-ups for both Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet, two foundational (and excellent) low-level adventures penned by Gygax himself. 

When they arrive, you will be ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of each individual therein. Be dramatic, witty, stupid, dull, clever, dishonest, tricky, hostile, etc. as the situation demands. The players will quickly learn who is who and what is going on – perhaps at the loss of a few coins. Having handled this, their characters will be equipped as well as circumstances will allow and will be ready for their bold journey into the dangerous place where treasure abounds and monsters lurk.

The importance of memorable NPCs cannot be overstated. Over the years, I've found that it's through them that players first begin to experience and enter into a setting. Jukélsa hiTigál, the garrulous and scheming clanmaster of the House of Worms, his beleaguered slave, Mrído, and Telék hiKhánuma, the skirt-chasing junior archivist, were all NPCs I introduced to my players in the first session of my Tékumel campaign and they all served to highlight different aspects of not just the wider setting but the specific one in which the player characters found themselves. They served their purposes admirably and some of them, like Telék, became permanent fixtures of the campaign.

The testing grounds for novice adventurers must be kept to a difficulty factor which encourages rather than discourages players. If things are too easy, there is no challenge and boredom sets in after one or two games. Conversely, impossible difficulty and character deaths cause instant loss of interest.  

This is a constant refrain in Gygax's writing on this topic: balance. At the same time, it seems clear to me that he felt strongly that AD&D should always present a challenge to the skill and inventiveness of the players. 

The general idea is to develop a dungeon of multiple levels, and the deeper the adventurers go, the more difficult the challenges become – fiercer monsters, more deadly traps, more confusing mazes, and so forth. This same concept applies to areas outdoors as well, with more and terrible monsters occurring more frequently the further one goes away from civilization.

I find Gygax's comments about the wilderness fascinating, since, so far as I know, no edition of Dungeons & Dragons has ever provided rules for populating the wilderness based on the principle he offers here. I rather like the idea he puts forward and wonder how difficult it would be to implement. 

Many variations on dungeon and wilderness areas are possible. One can build an underground complex where distance away from the entry point approximates depth, or it can be a mountain where adventurers work upwards. Outdoor adventures can be in a ruined city or a town, which seems normal but it is under a curse, or virtually anything you can imagine and then develop into a playable situation for your campaign participants.

This is exactly why started this feature of the blog: there are so many remarkable little ideas buried in the pages of the Dungeon Masters Guide, if you're willing to take a little time to dig for them. Another example of what I'm talking about occurs in the final paragraph of this section, where Gygax discusses the development of a campaign setting.

It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on a life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. It becomes fleshed out, and adventuring breathes life into a make-believe world. Similarly, the geography and history you assign to the world will suddenly begin to shape the character of states and peoples. Details of former events will become obvious from mere outlines of the past course of things. Surprisingly, as the personalities of player characters and non-player characters om the milieu are bound to develop and become almost real, the nations and states and events of a well-conceived AD&D world will take on even more of their own direction and life. What this all boils down to is that once the campaign is set in motion, you will become more of a recorder of events, while the milieu seemingly charts its own course!

What Gygax describes here is not only true but it's at the heart of why I am such a proponent of long-term campaign play, to the point of considering it the highest form of roleplaying. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

House of Worms, Session 223

The undead Ssú raised by Znayáshu struggled against a living Ssú patrol down a western passageway. Rather than wait to see the results of their combat, Grujúng and Aíthfo advanced northward, scouting ahead to see if there were more Ssú. Meanwhile, one of the Ksárul sorcerers used his door control spell to seal the double doors of another chamber in the same area. The rest of the group reinforced the undead Ssú, forming a second rank from which to attack. Nebússa took particular relish in this, using his spear to slay any enemies he could reach. 

Since this particular Ssú patrol consisted only of warriors, it was no match for the combined arms of the undead and the characters. Grujúng and Aíthfo returned from their scouting mission – having concluded that the north passage was free of any opponents – to join the fray. In fairly short order, the Tsolyáni were victorious. Elsewhere, Kirktá and Chiyé descended the shaft from the second level of the ruin. Kirktá was very keen to explore a chamber to the east that an earlier use of the extra-vision spell had revealed contained a treasure trove. The trove in question consisted of several coffers filled with coins and gems and a small silver idol that looked similar to the larger statues seen on the second level. While they did this, Keléno and Mírsha kept an eye on another passage, wary of the appearance of more Ssú.

The door control spell ended, Aíthfo, Grujúng, and Nebússa burst into the westernmost room, which contained close to two dozen Ssú. Not only did they surprise their enemies, they did so while still under the effects of the eye of being an unimpeachable shield against foes, which made them invulnerable to non-magical weapons. In the back of the large room, there were two statues, again looking like those on the level above. Standing near them were three Ssú sorcerers, recognizable by the distinctive harnesses. 

Taking advantage of the Ssú's surprise, Znayáshu let loose a plague spell on one of the sorcerers, reducing him to a putrescent smear on the ground. The trio of Aíthfo, Grujúng, and Nebússa dealt heavy damage to the front line of Ssú, with Grujúng being particularly effective against them (he took down multiple targets with each attack). The Tsolyáni warriors were joined by the remaining undead Ssú and the three soldiers who accompanied them into the ruins. Together, they proved quite formidable and the living Ssú were whittled down.

Responding, the Ssú sorcerers unleashed two spells on their attackers. The first was the spell of transmutation, which turned the stone floor into hip-deep mud, which hampered both movement and further attacks. The second was fear, directed at Nebússa, who once again found himself compelled to flee the chamber, though his flight was slowed by the mud in which he now found himself. Thinking fast, Aíthfo countered with his own transmutation spell (after removing his metal arms and equipment), turning the mud back into stone, after he and his companions climbed out of it. The battle continued, with Znayáshu making use of an eye of raging power to slay another of the sorcerers.

The commotion of the battle was such that Keléno, his wife Mírsha, and Chiyé, all decided to head westward toward it. Kirktá suggested they stay behind and watch the southern passage, but his words fell on deaf ears. Rather than stay behind alone, he joined his comrades as they made their way west. By the time they arrived, the fight was nearly over. The combination of good tactics, shrewd use of spells and magical devices, and invulnerability to normal weaponry led to a victory for the Tsolyáni. They then spent time examining the chamber of the Ssú, with Kirktá taking particular interest in the statues and just why the Enemies of Man might have been here. Was this a shrine or religious site of some kind? The statues were humanoid in shape, so this seemed unlikely, but he could think of no other explanation.

A few minutes later, the assembled characters headed southward to see if there were any more Ssúl they found none. What they found instead was a large, open chamber with no exits containing an over-sized sarcophagus. Znayáshu commanded the undead Ssú to lift its lid (since the spell that created them would soon dissipate). Inside were two mummies wearing golden masks and jewelry, lying side by side. At their feet was a smaller skeleton, presumably that of a child. Other than the masks and other finery, there was nothing else of value in the sarcophagus. Znayáshu uttered a few prayers to the aspect of Lord Sárku known as Siyenágga, the Wanderer of Tombs, as propitiation for his intention to take the valuables from the coffin (though he did wander if Sárku held any sway over this alternate version of Tékumel). When nothing ill befell him or his companions, he took it as a sign that his prayers had been heard.

With no other way to proceed, the group returned to the south passageway that had been left unguarded to the east. Moving forward with care, they came across a huge, empty room with a wooden carving depicting some sort of mythological scene on three walls. The scene was not recognizable to any of the Tsolyáni, though they could detect both beetle and flame imagery, suggesting to them that there was some connection to the worship of both Ksárul and Vimúhla respectively. Znayáshu suspected that the carving held some sort of buttons or hidden levers and spent time searching it for such things. His suspicion proved correct and he found a lever that, when pushed in one direction, caused a loud, grinding noise from the darkness to the south. Keléno mused that it must have opened a secret door and the characters then resolved to head further into this level of the ruins, wary that more Ssú might still be lurking nearby.

RIP Michael Collins (1930–2021)

One of my late father's most common aphorisms was "Nobody's getting any younger" – not exactly deep wisdom but true nonetheless. I crossed the half-century mark a couple of years ago and I find myself saying the same thing regularly. It sometimes feels as if scarcely a day goes by without something or someone from my childhood fading from the Earth. I feel that more keenly one some days than on others. Yesterday was one of those days, when I heard the news that Major General Michael Collins had died.

Collins was the least famous of the of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Unlike either Neil Armstrong or Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Collins never set foot on the Moon. Instead, he stayed behind, piloting the command module, Columbia. During the 21 hours when Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins was alone – "Not since Adam has any human known such solitude" stated the mission logs. Every revolution of Columbia's orbit around the Moon included 48 minutes when Collins was completely out of contact with Mission Control. I cannot begin to imagine what that must have been like, though Collins said he felt neither fear nor loneliness. 

As a child of the 1970s, the Apollo program loomed large in my imagination. Like nearly every boy I knew, I wanted to be an astronaut. I read everything on the subject of space exploration I could find. One of my prize possessions was a collection of photographic prints of the Apollo 11 mission my uncle got for me. I used to pull them out and stare out them, imagining what it must be like to be free of the bonds of this world and to set foot on another. I remember, too, the Apollo-Soyuz mission of July 1975 and the celebrated "handshake in space." What a heady time to be a child!

The news of Collins's death reminded me of all of this, along with the quote by Gary Gygax that roleplayng games appeal to people nowadays because there are no adventures left in this world. That's probably a little overblown, but only a little. Certainly, there's nothing right now to compare to the grand adventure of the Apollo program and the hopes it engendered in my generation that we might one day have a permanent presence on the Moon and beyond. Those dreams were fueled in large part because of men like Michael Collins, whose courage and fortitude truly deserve to be remembered for all time. 

Godspeed, General Collins.

Early EPT Review

Gamers often forget that Empire of the Petal Throne is one of the earliest RPGs, appearing in 1975, about eighteen months after the release of original Dungeons & Dragons and only slightly after that of Tunnels & Trolls. By the time I entered the hobby in 1979, EPT was far from a household name. I never saw a copy on any store's shelves nor did I read about it in the pages of Dragon, my main source for roleplaying news in those days. Occasionally, I'd hear some of the older guys make reference to it, but it wasn't until I obtained a catalog from the Dungeon Hobby Shop that I saw good, hard evidence of the game's existence (and the Ral Partha miniatures created to support it).

Consequently, when Thaddeus Moore sent me a clipping from the June 3, 1979 edition of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, I was surprised to see that it was a lengthy review of Empire of the Petal Throne, written by John Filiatreau. Even more surprising was the fact that Filiatreau not only seemed to understand what roleplaying games were – remember, this was published prior to the James Dallas Egbert affair brought RPGs to wide public awareness – but that he also made a serious effort to understand EPT itself. Based on his review, his effort was successful, as he accurately describes the game and Tékumel itself. 

He begins his review by commenting on the game's price, hence the headline above.

I believe the list price for the boxed set of Empire of the Petal Throne was $25.00 in 1975; I suppose the price Filiatreau quotes represents an inflationary mark-up – it was the 1970s, after all. I've often wondered if the price of EPT contributed to its relative obscurity. I know that both OD&D and Traveller, whose boxed sets retailed at $10 and $12 respectively, were sometimes criticized in reviews for their "high" prices. Given that, the comment that EPT is "nearly three time as much as most similar games" makes sense. 

The review describes the setting at some length, starting with Tékumel's colonization by explorers from Humanspace, and working his way up to the present day, as war between the titular empire of Tsolyánu and the northern realm of Yán Kór looms. Along the way, Filiatreau provides lots of details, more than I'd have expected for a review of this kind. This appeared in a major American newspaper, not a gaming periodical, which makes the review's depth quite remarkable. 

Even more remarkable is that Filiatreau is broadly positive about the game. He calls Tékumel a "compelling fantasy" and notes that "those who play it swear it's the best game of its kind." To be fair, he adds that "it certainly ought to be," because of "even more compelling price." I can't blame him for that, since $27.50 in 1979 US dollars is approximately $100 today's money. I suspect that, even today, gamers would balk at a $100 price tag on a boxed RPG, even one as comparably lavish to the original Empire of the Petal Throne.

Reading reviews like this left me with two thoughts. First, I keep being told that tabletop roleplaying games are bigger today than they've ever been, with D&D experiencing a faddishness more impressive than that of my youth. If so, are roleplaying games reviewed in mainstream, non-gaming periodicals after the fashion of this one? Second, I can't help but feel that, between its release in 1975 and about 1979, there was a potential "Tékumel moment," when the game and setting could have made a bigger splash in the hobby than it did. Unfortunately, a concatenation of events, starting with penny pinching by Brian Blume at TSR, strangled EPT in its crib, resulting in its becoming the forgotten game it is today. Is this just wishful thinking on my part or is it a plausible alternate history? I don't know. What I do know, from reading articles like this, is that the invention of roleplaying games in the 1970s was a cultural watershed the consequences of which we're still feeling. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Grognard's Grimore: Ulthai

Ulthai (Gloom Kraken) (Old School Essentials)

An ulthai by Jason Sholtis

An ulthai is a frightening, cephalopod with eight 12-foot arms covered in barbs. Originally native to the deep caves beneath the Enu Esari Highlands of central Elagal, these creatures have since become a widespread menace. Paranoid sorcerers bind ulthai to guard treasures in subterranean lakes and other bodies of water by means of a ritual first set down in the Had Anura. If an ulthai loses half or more of its arms, it will flee beneath the water, attacking again only if it is pursued or to defend any treasure it has been bound to guard.

AC 2 [17], HD 10 (44hp), Att 8 × arms (1d8 + constriction) or bite (1d10), THAC0 11 [+8], MV 90' (30'), SV D6 W7 P8 B8 S10, ML 10, AL Matter, XP 900, NA 1 (1), TT None (see above) 

  • Constriction: Arms grab and constrict after a hit. Each constricting arm inflicts: 1d8 automatic damage per round, plus a –1 penalty to attacks.
  • Severing Arms: Requires a hit with a cutting weapon inflicting 8 or more damage.  
  • Vulnerability to Magical Light: Light deals 2d6 damage if cast upon an ulthai, while continual light deals 4d6 damage. A successful saving throw versus spells indicates half damage.

Fritz Leiber at GenCon

(L to R) Fritz Leiber, Gary Gygax, M.A.R. Barker, Ian Livingstone, Rob Kuntz
(foreground) Steve Jackson (UK)
Earlier this month, I posted an image of an article penned by author Fritz Leiber that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on September 5, 1976. Leiber recounts his experiences as guest of honor at GenCon IX and, as one might expect, what he writes is of great interest. He begins by briefly recounting the recent history of wargaming, starting with the publication of Gettysburg by Avalon Hill in 1958. (Why he starts there rather than with Tactics in 1954, I am not sure) 

Moving on from that, he speaks of GenCon, the "oldest gathering of tabletop generals in America," which is "held at the pleasant Wisconsin resort-town near Chicago." According to Leiber, the convention's 

newest and most rapidly growing field seemed to be that of fantasy wargaming, where players enjoy the double excitement of being part of an ongoing adventure story to which they can each contribute, along with the regular perils of wargaming.
He goes on to discuss "the most popular fantasy wargame," Dungeons & Dragons, and describes it, along with its co-creator, Gary Gygax. 

I listened in on a game where Gary Gygax, TSR's head, a mustached man of youthful middle years reminiscent of Buffalo Bill, acted as "Dungeonmaster," guiding a dozen or so players in their personae as warriors, wizards, thieves, and priests, variously armed and armored, through a fantasy adventure that began in underground chambers, where monsters lurked, and then burst into a wilderness where there were rivers to ford, cliffs to climb, elephant-like creatures to avoid, and where moving trees pelted them with thorns.

The players could decide whether to flee, investigate and test, or attack, according to their individual natures. A heavily armored warrior went straight forward, swinging a battle axe. A sorceress cast a sleep spell. A roll of dice helped determine the outcome of each action.

I'm fascinated by early – remember: this is from 1976 – descriptions of roleplaying game sessions, especially when they're written by people not involved in the hobby. Leiber's description rings very true to me, but then he was both an imaginative man and someone who'd engaged in proto-RPGs for years. I'm also fascinated by the original art that frequently accompanies these articles, such as this one, which depicts the "elephant-like creatures" and "moving trees" Leiber mentions in his article. Notice, too, the dice at the bottom of the image.

Leiber also recounts a report of a session of Empire of the Petal Throne, refereed by the "mysterious Prof. M.A.R. Barker, a Minnesota scholar of Indian languages and a convert to Islam, inventor of the game, 'Legions of the Petal Throne' [sic] and creator of a fantasy language, Tsolyani, which rivals Prof. Tolkien's Elvish in complexity." The session itself sounds decidedly odd, even by the standards of Tékumel.

"We were following a road through the fog and all we could see were those shadowy black creatures with red eyes," the young man said.

"And then out of the fog these tiny black worms began to fall on us. Wherever they touched flesh, they burned like acid," the girl told me excitedly.

"And then the red-eyed creatures surrounded and killed us, and he had us carried off to the dungeons of his castle where he made a spell and resurrected us from the dead," her companion went on.

She finished happily, "Now he's got to decide whether to torture us all to death, or send us on an almost impossible quest."

Context must be everything, because I have no idea what any of this means, but the participants seemed to have enjoyed themselves nonetheless. 

Leiber ends the article by noting that TSR has just published a fantasy wargame based on his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which he and his friend Harry Fischer had devised "back in those primeval days when wargames were an eccentric private occupation." The new game has been updated to "modern fantasy wargaming conventions" and he is happy with the result. All in all, it's a terrific little reminiscence about GenCon IX by someone not directly involved in the hobby but with a better than average understanding of the concept and potential of roleplaying games. Thanks again to Thaddeus Moore for passing this article along to me, along with so many others about which I've written this month.

Retrospective: Thieves' World

I've long had a fondness for Chaosium's boxed sets, starting with Call of Cthulhu, the first RPG from the company I ever owned. From there, it was all downhill: with the exception of RuneQuest, I soon became a dedicated collector of Chaosium's boxed sets. Among those I treasured the most was Thieves' World, based on the fantasy anthology series of the same name edited by Robert Lynn Asprin. 

The boxed set, first published in 1981, consisted of three books and a collection of maps depicting the city of Sanctuary. The first book, Players' Guide to Sanctuary, serves as an introduction to not just the whole set but also its setting. Kicking off the book are two essays by contributors to the literary anthology, starting with Asprin's "Full Circle," which was simultaneously published in issue #12 of Different Worlds. Following it is "Thud and Blunder," Poul Anderson's essay skewering the excesses of sword-and-sorcery literature and a call to produce better entries in the genre. Rounding out the first book are discussions of the city, its inhabitants, history, and gods, as well as an extensive glossary of names and terms unique to Sanctuary.

The Game Master's Guide to Sanctuary presents a variety of articles on how to use the boxed set in one's campaign. These articles discuss bribery and graft, law and order, and the gods (in greater detail). More immediately useful are the extensive encounter tables, each tied to one of the city's districts. Each district gets its own article, including a map that describes the most important locales. In some cases, there are also maps of individual buildings. Wrapping up this book is a map of the city's sewers.

Personalities of Sanctuary is the third and perhaps most interesting book in the set. Each of its chapters describes the most important inhabitants of Sanctuary in terms of a different roleplaying game's rules – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (by Lawrence Schick), Adventures in Fantasy (by Dave Arneson and Richard Snider), Chivalry & Sorcery (by Wes Ives), DragonQuest (by Eric Goldberg), Dungeons & Dragons (by Steve Marsh), The Fantasy Trip (by Rudy Kraft), RuneQuest (by Steve Perrin), Tunnels & Trolls (by Ken St. Andre), and Traveller (by Marc Miller). The last one is notable, as Miller offers three different ways to integrate Thieves' World into Traveller's science fiction setting. The most interesting of these options is one that postulates that Sanctuary is a computer simulation created for entertainment – a kind of MMORPG for the citizens of the Third Imperium. Concluding the third book is a collection of scenario ideas.

There are three large maps included in Thieves' World: one depicting the whole city, another the Maze district, and the last one the underground areas of the same district. The maps are lovely, as is typical for Chaosium products from this era. 

Thieves' World is an impressive boxed set and I deeply regret that I long ago got rid of mine in a moment of stupidity. I absolutely adore the idea of fantasy cities, particularly those of a shady, crime-ridden sort like Lankhmar or Sanctuary. That said, I can't deny that the set nevertheless has flaws, chief among them being the amount of space devoted to describing all the characters in so many different RPG systems. I'd much rather that the book had provided statistics for only two or three rules sets – D&D, RQ, and T&T maybe? – and then used the freed space to flesh out the city further or expand the scenario ideas instead. Of course, I'd have been even happier if this product had been a complete Thieves' World fantasy roleplaying game using Basic Role-Playing, but I can't really complain in the end. If  only I'd kept my copy … 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Grognard's Grimoire: Barbask

 Barbask (Swamp Lurker) (Old School Essentials)

A barbask by Jason Sholtis

A barbask is a colony of iryamal-plants that has gained temporary mobility and a semblance of intelligence from prolonged exposure to arcane energies. It is roughly humanoid in shape and dark green in color. The barbask typically lies in wait, submerged in water, until potential prey passes within range of its attacks.

AC 4 [15], HD 5*** (22hp), Att 2 × fists (1d8) or pollen blast (1d6+5), THAC0 15 [+4], MV 60' (20'), SV D10 W11 P12 B13 S14, ML 12, AL Energy, XP 550, NA 1d4 (1d4+2), TT D 

  • Plant: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells (e.g. charm, hold, sleep), as well as paralysis, poison, polymorph, and stunning.
  • Damage Reduction: Half damage from slashing and piercing weapons. 
  • Surprise: On a 1–3, when submerged in water, due to being mistaken for a colony of iryamal-plants.
  • Pollen Blast: Once per day, deals 1d6+5 damage against up to five targets within 60'; save versus poison for half damage. 
  • Animate Plants: Can animate 2 plants (within 60'; may switch plants at will). These fight as barbasks with movement rate 30' (10').

Monday, April 26, 2021

Defend Yourself Against Boredom

The Dungeon Hobby Shop is rightly celebrated for the original art that graced its catalogs, mailer envelopes, and advertisements. Here's another example of it from an advertisement that appeared in issues of Different Worlds magazine. I don't know the artist, but I like the style, which is very much in keeping with the esthetics of early Dungeons & Dragons – a Norman knight whose arms and armor are reasonably historical facing off against a fantastical monster. 

Different Worlds: Issue #12

Issue #12 of Different Worlds (July 1981) is the first monthly issue of the magazine, all previous ones being bimonthly. It also features cover art by William Church, whom I will always associate with RuneQuest and the wonderfully evocative map of Prax that appeared in the game's rulebook. 

"Meaningful Names for Characters" by Jane Woodward is the issue's first article and it's a big one – eight pages – consisting largely of lists of names and name elements from a variety of languages, both real (Old English and Welsh) and imaginary (Quenya and the Black Speech). The idea behind that article is to encourage players to come up with better names for their characters than "bad puns or meaningless constructs." I'm deeply sympathetic to this perspective; I think character names are important. At the same time, I prefer names to be rooted in a game's setting rather than by recourse to whatever language catches one's fancy, regardless of how appropriate it is (and it's never appropriate, in my opinion, to use Tolkien's languages, unless one is actually playing in Middle-earth).

"The Full Circle" by Robert Lynn Asprin is a preview of the upcoming Thieves' World RPG supplement, based on the anthology series of the same name. Asprin talks not just about the supplement itself but the ways that his experiences as a referee and player affected his decisions in putting together the anthologies. The article's title is thus a reference to the way that roleplaying games were influenced by literature, only for literature, in turn, to be influenced by RPGs. Though brief, Asprin provides some fascinating insight into these matters and I was glad to have read what he had to say. "Bersekers" by Laurence J.P. Gillespie is an overview of Norse berserkers from the perspectives of history and myth, with a few suggestions on how to use them in roleplaying games. 

John T. Sapienza reviews several new sets of Zargonian paper miniatures from Bearhug Enterprises. As in his review of earlier releases in this series, Sapienza thinks highly of these miniatures. The issue also includes many other, generally shorter reviews, most notably those of The Isle of Dread (for D&D), Plunder and Rune Masters (for RQ), Thieves' Guild, and the D&D Basic and Expert sets. All these reviews are positive, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, the review of the Basic and Expert sets include a number of cavils about Dungeons & Dragons and its approach to both rules and presentation, even though D&D clearly appeals "to a lot of happy adventure gamers." 

Larry DiTillio's "The Sword of Hollywood" column continues, focusing this time on the still-untitled second Star Trek movie, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, and Conan the Barbarian. There's also mention of multiple fantasy films supposedly in the works, almost all of which DiTillio believes will never see the light of day. His instincts were indeed correct, as the only one that seems to have seen the light of day was The Beastmaster, unless "The Dragons of Krull" was a working title of 1983's Krull. 

Gigi D'Arn makes another appearance, providing some interesting gossip, chief among them being that TSR was rumored to have laid off "a dozen or so employees for 'bad attitude.'" This is no rumor but fact: starting in April 1981, TSR fired Paul Reiche, Evan Robinson, Bill Willingham, Jeff Dee, Kevin Hendryx, and others. There's mention, too, that Dave Arneson "settled (happily)" with TSR and that Greg Costikyan "hasn't been heard from in a while," followed by an appeal to "people who know his whereabouts" to contact the Game Designers' Guild. I have no idea what this might have been about. Gigi also references a "Troll Ball" game from Greg Stafford, which will have miniatures sculpted by Steve Lortz. I assume this never came to pass and that the rules were later incorporated into Trollpak.

Issue #12 is unusual in that, although it's the same length as previous issues (48 pages), it feels shorter. I suspect that has to do with the fewer articles in this issue and the presence of huge numbers of advertisements. Now, I actually like seeing these ads, since they're a terrific way to remind oneself of the state of the hobby in 1981, but, in terms of actual gaming content, this issue seems a slight downgrade to past ones. Here's hoping future issues will see a return to previous form.

Childish Fantasies, Booming Business

 On March 19, 1978, The Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin (located about forty miles east of Lake Geneva) ran a news story about TSR Hobbies, "a small corporation, headed by E. Gary Gygax, 39." The article recounts the history of TSR up until that point, in addition to providing plenty of space for Gygax to talk about games, Dungeons & Dragons and otherwise. Given its relatively early date, the piece, entitled "Childish Fantasies, Booming Business" offers a valuable historical snapshot of TSR a little less than a year before D&D would become a household name across the USA, thanks to the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III.

The first thing I noticed upon first reading the article is that, just before introducing TSR and Gygax, writer David Autry states that "While large producers, like Parker Brothers and Avalon Hill, are familiar names in the games game, smaller concerns are successfully competing for their share of the market." That single sentence is like a visit to another world. Avalon Hill? Parker Brothers? Neither of those companies exist anymore, swallowed up by the behemoth that is Hasbro – as is, ironically enough, D&D itself. 

Also worth mentioning is that the article never once mentions Dungeons & Dragons by name – or indeed that of any game TSR published at the time. Instead, there are references only to "wargames," "games for adults," and "fantasy role-playing games," along with heavily fictionalized examples of play: "... imagine you are an elf or a wizard," "... you are Harold, king of the Saxon English," and so on. The article's focus is not so much on the games as on the business of TSR and the thoughts of Gygax about the growing popularity of the products his company was selling.

Autry recounts the founding of TSR, noting that it had "gross earnings of $50,000" at the end of its first year of business (1973). By 1976, its gross earnings grew to $300,000; the next year, it was $600,000. Though 1978 was only just beginning at the time of the article publication, Gygax predicted "approximately $750,000" in gross earnings. "People can make a lot of money out of this and our sales keep increasing." Assuming this figures are accurate, you can see that TSR was doing well enough in 1978 and had enjoyed steady, incremental growth in the five years since its founding but it was not quite a runaway success. I wonder what the sales figures for 1979 and 1980 were?

As is so often the case, Autry wonders "what kind of person is attracted to this unusual hobby and pays upwards of $10 for a game?" 

Gygax says he is not the usual sort you might expect.

"It's kind of a fringe hobby and attracts really imaginative people," he says.

"They are usually the smarter ones with all kinds of political views and philosophies."

He notes there is a similarity between fantasy gamers and chess players. But Gygax, himself a converted chess player, feels people have become bored with such abstract strategy games and are searching for something different. 

"I have a theory and I don't know how valid it is," he said, "but there really isn't much adventure left in the world. There is no darkest Africa to explore, no new world to discover and these games give people a chance to break out of reality and give them a frontier to explore."

A youthful Tim Kask
In reading these early articles about roleplaying games, this is something I see often: the suggestion that the world is devoid of adventure and that RPGs provide a means to experience adventure vicariously. As I think I've said before, there's merit in this perspective, though it's not one I share. The fact that these early articles all the thing likely reveals something about the times in which they were published, as well as the utter newness of the concept of roleplaying games. Nowadays, I suspect that even those who don't participate in the hobby have a better, if still vague, notion of what it entails.

The article also contains a sociological aside in which Gygax states that

"You know, there are a lot of wargame widows out there, just like golf widows … A lot of wives get upset because these games provide hours and hours of play for the guys and I guess women can't relate to them."

However, he thinks the fantasy role-playing games will change all that and attract more women.

 However, this aside serves as the introduction into a larger point by Gygax that proved prophetic.

"Soon there will be as many fantasy and sci-fi gamers as there are military simulation enthusiasts," he said. "They may even surpass them in a couple of years."