Friday, January 29, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 40

This is the first post in what I intend to be an ongoing series. I've said on several occasions that the brilliance of Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide stems, at least in part, to its strange and often inexplicable mix of contents. Flip the book open to almost any page and odds are good your eyes will soon alight upon a sentence, paragraph, or whole section devoted to an intriguing topic or two. Furthermore, they often treat topics in a way that's found nowhere in the entirety of AD&D. For that reason, "Random Roll," as I'm calling this series, will consist of my simply opening my copy of the DMG to a random page and commenting on what I see there.

Today's post focuses on a section entitled "Spell Casting" found on page 40. In it, Gygax explains how spells work in AD&D and it's good reading, if only for the insight it gives into how one of D&D's creators saw the "mechanics" of spell casting. Gygax begins by noting that

All magic and cleric spells are similar in that the word sounds, when combined into whatever patterns are applicable, are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. When uttered, these sounds cause the release of this energy, which in turns triggers a set reaction. The release of the energy contained in these words is what causes the spell to be forgotten or the writing to disappear from the surface upon which it is written.
There's a lot packed into those three sentences, but the most important one, I think, is the last one, as it provides an explanation for why a memorized spell is forgotten upon casting. Almost as interesting is that Gygax suggests a connection between uttering "word sounds" with infusing a spell with positive or negative energy. In the Players Handbook, the components of spells are divided into verbal, somatic, and material components. If I'm understanding Gygax in this section, the verbal component is essential, something a quick scan of the spells in the PHB more or less confirms this. With the exception of only the 1st-level druid spell, invisibility to animals, all spells have a verbal component (which suggests to me that the druid spell listing may well be in error). 

Gygax elaborates on this in the next paragraph:

The triggering action draws power from some plane of existence of the multiverse. Whether the spell is an abjuration, conjuration, alteration, enchantment, or whatever, there is a flow of energy – first from the spell caster, then from some plane to the area magicked or enspelled by the caster. The energy flow is not from the caster per se, it is from the utterance of the sounds, each of which is charged with energy which is loosed when proper formula and/or ritual is completed with their utterance.

The emphasis on the importance of speaking words is fascinating and comports with the fact that the spell silence 15' radius and similar effects are effective attacks against spell casters. Gygax makes an analogy to explain the way spells function.

It is much like plugging in a heater; the electrical outlet does not hold all of the electrical energy to cause the heater to function, but the wires leading from it, ultimately to the power station, bring the electricity to the desired location.

From there, Gygax explains the purpose of somatic and material components.

the hand movements are required in order to control and specify the direction, target, area, etc. of the spell effects. When spell energy is released, it usually flows to the Prime Material from the Positive or Negative Material Plane. To replace it, something must flow back in reverse. The dissolution and destruction of material components provides the energy that balances the flow, through the principle of similarity.

Agree of disagree with the specific details of Gygax's explanation, I nevertheless find it admirable that he made clear the logic behind the AD&D spell system. He adds that

(For background reading you can direct your campaign participants to Vance's THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD and THE DYING EARTH as well as to Bellair's [sic] THE FACE IN THE FROST.)

If ever proof were needed of the importance of the books listed in Appendix N, here's a good example. Once again, we see that Gygax drew heavily from the books in that list, using them not just as airy inspiration for his own conceptions but, in many cases, as in this one, as the very foundations on which he built the edifice of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It's good to be reminded of this from time to time, since it's fashionable in some quarters to downplay the significance of Gygax's appendix of inspirational and educational reading. Doing so would, I continue to contend, make it harder to understand how some aspects of the game setting function, as this section of the Dungeon Masters Guide illustrates.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

House of Worms, Session 211

Having returned to Linyaró by means of Kétem's nexus point, the characters immediately briefed Aíthfo on what transpired during their latest visit to the ruins of Pashkírigo. Unlike his clan mates, Aíthfo relished the prospect of once again visiting the Battle of Dórmoron Plain and suggested that perhaps they ought to bring along the Shén mercenaries whom they had employed shortly after their arrival on the Achgé Peninsula more than a year ago. The other characters were more concerned with making preparations for their journey and soon fanned out across the colony on various errands. 

First among these was Keléno, who wished to speak with each of his wives regarding his plans. His first wife, Hmásu hiTéshku, a scholar priestess of Belkhánu, urged him to accompany Kétem to the Battle, stating emphatically, "You must go; there is no other option." Keléno was somewhat taken aback by this, since he had, until this point, been uncertain whether he would accompany his clan mates. Hmásu then wrote a name down – that of Mitsárka hiWashára – on a scarp of parchment and suggested her husband get in touch him: "He has some information you will need for your journey." Intrigued, Keléno then met with his second wife, Akolána hiHetkuné, who was less pleased to hear of his plans. She reminded him that, if he never returned, her position would be uncertain. Her Copper Door clan had agreed to the marriage between them in hopes of establishing an alliance with the clan of the colonial governor. She had no child to cement that alliance and, if he died, the Copper Door would be no better off. Keléno assured her that he would make arrangements for her continued upkeep and, if she wished, a suitable replacement husband from among the House of Worms clan. Akolána seemed unenthusiastic about any of his plans and dismissed Keléno from her quarters.

Keléno's third wife, Mírsha hiGirén, was already appraised of his plans, having accompanied him to Pashkírigo already. Further, of all his wives, Mírsha had the most affection for her husband and seemed most well suited to his life of travel and adventure. She intended to join him and his clan mates as they journeyed with Kétem to Dórmoron Plain. It was at this point that Kéleno realized he would also need to provide for his translator slave, Chanchayánto. A Naqsái who'd lived among the Livyáni of Nuróab most of her life, she had been a gift to Keléno from that colony's governor nearly a year ago. Keléno had once considered freeing and marrying her but he had not due to warnings from Hmásu that such a liaison would be ignoble. With the likelihood of his imminent demise on the horizon, Keléno decided to follow through with his plan and formally freed her, leaving the matter of the nature of their future relationship up to Chanchayánto, who asked Keléno to find her a suitable Tsolyáni clan and name to mark her new status. He said he would take care of this before he left on his mission.

Marital matters also concerned Grujúng. As clanmaster, he had made arrangements with the Black Stone clan for a marriage between a young woman of that clan and Aíthfo. Like Keléno's marriage to Akolána, this would be a political marriage intended to ally the two clans. Grujúng felt that it might make sense for the wedding to occur before they left for Dórmoron Plain, since there was no guarantee they'd ever return and it was nevertheless important that the alliance be established beforehand. Aíthfo, originally reluctant to enter into this marriage, finally agreed, boasting that they would return. Kétem cautiously agreed that it was possible they would, since, as fixed point on the Tree of Time, Dórmoron Plain had connections to other branches – perhaps even to this one. It might take some time, but the sorcerer held out hope that they could one day return to Tékumel once their mission was complete. Consequently, lavish wedding plans were begun, with the festivities beginning within a few days.

Nebússa spent as much time with Lady Srüna as he could during this time, in addition to preparing reports of what he had learned, with an eye toward its being sent to Prince Mridóbu and the Omnopotent Azure Legion back in Tsolyánu. He hoped that Kétem might make use of his command of nexus points to enable him to deliver the reports in person before he departed. He also hoped that he might be able to speak with him parents, since he had lived for so long under the cover of a dissolute wastrel that they had no idea of his true life and accomplishments. He felt he owed it to them to reveal the truth about him and his life so that, if nothing else, they might realize their son was in fact a noble defender of the Imperium.

Keléno and Kirktá sought out the man whose name Hmásu had given her husband. As it turned out, Mitsárka hiWashára was a priest of the temple of Belkhánu. A smiling, middle aged man with bright eyes, he seemed happy to have been called into Keléno's presence. Immediately, he admitted that he was pleased to have been finally summoned, explaining that he had expected he and Keléno would one day meet. It was then that he admitted that, in addition to being a priest of Belkhánu, he was also a servant of the deity known simply as The One Other. The One Other is one of the dread Pariah Gods, whose worship in Tsolyánu and the other Five Empires was forbidden under pain of death. Keléno's immediate response was to summon guards and have Mitsárka arrested for his heresy, but the smiling priest cautioned him not to do that, saying that, if he were arrested, he would have no choice but to reveal that Keléno's first wife was also a servant of The One Other and that no one would believe that a man as intelligent as he could have been deceived by her for so long. 

His anger abating for the moment, Keléno allowed Mitsárka to speak. Smiling, Mitsárka spoke at length about the Battle of Dórmoron Plain and how it was that the other nine deities had called upon The One Other to aid them in imprisoning Ksárul within the Blue Room. If Keléno and his companions were to be traveling to Dórmoron Plain to seal up the nexus point connecting that point in time to this version of Tékumel, they would similarly require his aid, as he had magical skills to make this possible. Keléno and he debated for some time about the morality of serving a Pariah God, but, ultimately, it was agreed that, for the time being, they would be allies in a common purpose. Mitsárka then left to prepare for the journey and Keléno called a meeting with his clan mates to explain what he had learned.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021


In my post yesterday about Lin Carter and his involvement with the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, I mentioned that eight Marvel comics featured Carter's Conan knock-off Thongor of Lemuria. The first of these appeared in March 1973 and, along with another published in May of the same year, partially adapted the story "Thieves of Zangabal." Purely from a historical perspective, these issues are worthy of mention because George Alec Effinger wrote the scripts for them. 

Starting in July 1973, Marvel produced six more issues of Creatures on the Loose featuring Thongor. These issues adapt stories from the 1965 collection, The Wizard of Lemuria and feature script work by Gardner Fox and Steve Gerber. 

Even more intriguing than these eight comics is the unrealized Thongor movie(s) that could have happened during the 1970s. This page contains a great of information on the subject about which I knew nothing until now. Chief among the remarkable details revealed there is that none other than David Prowse, Darth Vader himself, would have played Thongor – a fascinating alternate universe indeed!

Retrospective: Future Law

Though I write a great deal about topics related to fantasy and fantasy roleplaying games, science fiction is actually my preferred genre. Consequently, I've amassed a fairly large collection of SF RPGs over the years and I still take an interest in new ones as they appear (despite my desire to keep my gaming library reasonably small). Iron Crown Enterprise's Future Law is among those I own and, though I have never played it, I often find myself idly flipping through its pages, for reasons I'll discuss presently. 

Published in 1985, Future Law is the first of two volumes making up SpaceMaster, ICE's sci-fi counterpart to RoleMaster (on which I've touched previously). The 88-page volume focuses primarily on character generation, but also includes information on creating and running a campaign, as well as a sample adventure. As a derivative of RoleMaster, I doubt anyone would be surprised to learn that the rules in Future Law are complex and employ multiple charts and tables, just like its predecessor. That said, the rules are fairly well presented and, in re-reading them for this post, I didn't have too much difficulty following them. Based on past experience with RoleMaster, I've learned that the game plays reasonably well if each player has copies of the charts his character needs (e.g. weapon and spell charts) at hand. 

Even so, there can be denying that the character generation in Future Law requires more time and attention than, say, Traveller or Star Frontiers (though it's vastly simpler – and more coherent – than Space Opera). Characters possess a profession and a collection of skills, the ease with which they are learned determined by the former. Among the professions is that of telepath, which provides access to psychic powers called psions. There are a number of race options, ranging from Terran humans, mutants, eugenically enhanced Terrans, androids, and aliens. Of the latter, only a few examples are given. I say examples, because Future Law presents itself as a generic system the referee can use to establish his own setting. Even so, the book presents a sample setting, that of the Terran Empire some 10,000 years from now. The Empire is authoritarian and feudal, divided into territories governed by noble house. Little more detail is provided in this book; the Empire is fleshed out at greater length in the game's many adventures.

To aid the referee in creating his own setting, or simply fleshing out the sample one, Future Law provides a system of generating star systems and planets. It's not an especially complicated system in absolute terms, though more so than the system in Traveller. The sample adventure is set in the Terran Empire and centers on conflict between two of its noble houses. It's nothing memorable but it does include plenty of useful maps of starships, planets, and installations. More interesting in many ways is that the book is illustrated by James Holloway in "serious mode," which is to say, without any of the goofiness or sly humor for which he is more well known. 

Even though I've never played it, I have a strange fondness for Future Law because of its particular mix of elements. Every science fiction RPG picks and chooses which aspects of prior sci-fi it includes. Future Law leans heavily into the "far, far future" end of the genre, evoking Frank Herbert's Dune, Asimov's Foundation, and similar kinds of decadent Imperium settings. I have a great weakness for these sorts of settings, though I've never actually used one in all my years of refereeing SF roleplaying games. That likely explains why I own a nearly complete set of SpaceMaster adventures: they're inspiration fodder for the day when I finally get to run a campaign in a setting like this one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Marvelous Work of Lin Carter

"Spins a web, any size."

The Internet is the world's largest rabbit hole. Sometimes, while looking into some topic or other, I find a link that leads me elsewhere, resulting in the discovery of another link – and then another and another – until, before long, I have wandered far from my original intention, assuming I even remember what it was. This happened to me the other day, when I was reminded of the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon that I inexplicably loved as a child. I vaguely recalled that Ralph Bakshi was involved in the second and third seasons of the show and wanted to confirm this fact. In doing so, I stumbled across something I'd never know or, if I had, my age-addled brain had forgotten it: L. Sprague de Camp's frequent partner in crime, Lin Carter, is credited as a writer for 52 episodes of the series. 

The extent of Carter's writing on these episodes is unclear, as there are multiple writers credited for them. Furthermore, many episodes consisted of two stories, so it's possible, perhaps even likely, that his contributions were small. Nonetheless, the idea that Carter, whose skills as a writer paled in comparison to his as an editor (and that's being kind, despite my fondness for some of his output) was in any way involved in this train wreck of a show makes me grin. About the only thing I can charitably say about the cartoon, which I should again stress I loved as a kid, is its theme song, memorably covered by the Ramones in 1995.

Carter's association with Marvel didn't end there, of course. Apparently, before Roy Thomas successfully licensed Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian – a milestone in the history of the character's mass media popularity – he approached Carter about using his Thongor of Lemuria as the basis for a comic book. Carter balked at the low licensing fee that Marvel offered and Thomas sought out Conan instead, eventually leading to one the most successful comics of the 1970s. Carter later changed his mind and a story featuring Thongor would appear over eight issues of Creatures on the Loose! between March 1973 and May 1974. 

Plans to produce more comics featuring Thongor were announced but they never materialized, probably due to poor sales. Unlike DC, which had to make due with an ever-changing rogues gallery of knock-offs, Marvel had the real deal in Howard's Conan. There was understandably little interest in Carter's pastiche work, no matter how enthusiastic he was in writing it. The same fate likely befell plans to adapt Jandar of Callisto (Marvel would, a few years later, go on to produce a comic starring John Carter of Mars). Some of the Conan stories written by De Camp and Carter would eventually be used in the pages of Conan the Barbarian and The Savage Sword of Conan, a testament to the need for new material featuring the Cimmerian, no matter how uninspired it was. 
The '70s were a hell of a ride.

Imagine Magazine: Issue #29

And so we come to the penultimate issue of Imagine, number 29 (August 1985), featuring a cover by Angus McKie (best known for his work on Iron Crown Enterprise's SpaceMaster). The issue kicks off with a very interesting article by Chris Barlow, entitled "For Monsters, Treasure and … other things." Its topic is experience points and the activities for which they are awarded, from the perspective of AD&D. I call it interesting, because Barlow is not simply dismissive of the standard means of acquiring XP but rather open to other approaches, including ones that award "class-based" activities. In this, he anticipates some of the options presented in Second Edition (and echoes those presented in earlier products, such as Arduin). I'm of multiple minds on this question, which is why articles like these command my attention, even if I've never reached a firm opinion on the matter.

This month's Pelinore article by Brian Garrod presents the Monument Square section of the City League, complete with maps, NPCs, and adventure seeds. Meanwhile, the issue's central feature is an interview with the science fiction author Bob Shaw, whom I must confess I've never heard of. This is followed by a short story by Shaw, "Executioner's Moon," its first appearance in print. Following both of these pieces is a science fiction RPG article, "The Sarafand File," by Paul Vernon and Sean Masterson, intended for use with either Traveller or Star Frontiers. The article is based on elements of Shaw's fiction, specifically the Cartographic Service from the novel Ship of Strangers. Never having read the novel, I can't comment on the article's fidelity to it, but it does contain some useful maps of a starship and a survey vehicle, along with multiple adventure ideas.

"The Taumet Codex" by Andrew Swift is a short adventure for AD&D that introduces a new monster, the eponymous Taumet, a magically constructed dragon of great power. Much more interesting is the "Dispel Confusion Special" (with thanks given to Carl Sargent), which discusses unusual aspects of magic-user and illusionist spells. For example, it's noted that the spell dig does damage against clay golems and that the clone spell cannot be used on non-humanoid creatures. As is often the case with Imagine articles of this sort, it's nothing earth-shattering but it's solid, practical material that highlights details of the game that might otherwise be overlooked. This month's reviews include lots of TSR products for D&D, AD&D, Marvel Super Heroes, and Indiana Jones. I was most intrigued by a review of a Traveller product I'd never heard of, Deneb Sector, written by Graham Staplehurst and David Hulks as a charity product for the Save the Children Fund. From what I have subsequently gathered, the supplement is exceedingly rare and its contents superseded by later published Traveller materials, even though it was officially sanctioned by GDW at the time.

Neil Gaiman's "Fantasy Media" reviews a number of films (Return to Oz, Cat's Eye, Night of the Comet) I'd long forgotten about, showing just how far we now are from the mid-1980s. He also review a mountain of books, the most notable of which is L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, which Gaiman deems "un-put-downable." I guess there's no accounting for taste. This issue also marks the premier of "The FanScene," a section devoted to short articles on a variety of topics by readers (as opposed to staff writers) on a variety of topics, such as fanzines. Reading through it is quite fascinating, since it reveals  fanzines were apparently alive and well in the United Kingdom at the time, something of which I was only dimly aware. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" counsels against "letting fighters dominate the game," which is, at first glance, an odd thing to say. What Musson means, however, is that adventures should not focus too much on combat to the exclusion of tricks, puzzles, and social encounters – hard to disagree with that!

With that, we come to the end of another issue and, soon, the end of Imagine itself. I must admit, for all my grousing about the up-and-down quality of the magazine, I'm saddened that I'll soon be reaching the end of my reading of it. I'll have more thoughts on this topic in my post next week, but, for now, I'll simply say that I strangely feel a sense of impending loss, which is odd, given that I was utterly unaware of the existence of Imagine during its original run. Can you have nostalgia for something you never experienced?

Monday, January 25, 2021

Variance in Interpretation

Last week, I shared a section from Gary Gygax's letter to Alarums & Excursions from July 1975, in which he shared his thoughts about the development of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, both before and after publication. In it, Gygax expressed his "refusal to play god" for other referees when it came to rules interpretations, a theme to which he returns later in the same letter:

I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a "variant", and there is no "official interpretation" from me or anyone else. If a game of "Dungeons and Beavers" suits a group, all I say is more power to them, for every fine referee runs his own variant of D&D anyway.

For those who care, "Dungeons and Beavers" is a reference to the Warlock variant of D&D played at CalTech and with which J. Eric Holmes was familiar. As to why the variant was referred to as such, I have no idea, but I'll wager that one or more of my readers does.

Gygax goes on, in response to the writer of a previous letter (Ted Johnstone), who asserted that "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." 

Please inform Ted that I too subscribe to the slogan "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." Gosh and golly! Whoever said anything else. However, pal, best remember that it is far too good to leave to you or any other individual or little group either! It now belongs to the thousands of players enjoying it worldwide, most of whom will probably never hear of you or your opinions unless you get them into THE STRATEGIC REVIEW. As soon as we can manage it, we intend to have expand SR, publish bimonthly and include a letter column.

Once more, I find it difficult to dispute Gygax's perspective here, one with which, I imagine, most referees agree in practice if not necessarily in principle. In the past, I regularly encountered a wide variety of house rules and rules interpretations, even within the relatively small geographical area in which I traveled. I wonder if the rise of the Internet has made such variability more or less common, as it's become easier for people far removed from one another to share their ideas despite the distance between them. 

All that said, some degree of standardization is probably necessary, if only to ensure a "common language" for communication between players. If everything is open to individual interpretation, "Dungeons & Dragons" will quickly cease to be meaningful. From my own observations of variants, then and now, there are a few "bedrock" elements of D&D that rarely get eliminated entirely, such as character classes, hit points, and saving throws, for example. Pile enough these together and the resulting heap is generally recognizable as "D&D," even if some of the specifics vary. It's an interesting question: how much can you change D&D's rules before it becomes another game entirely. I'm not certain there's an easy answer and it's a topic over which players have been puzzling since the earliest days of the hobby. 

A Father of Miniatures Wargaming?

I continue to work my way – slowly – through the works of Tony Bath, with particular emphasis on his Setting Up a Wargames Campaign. Yesterday, I came across a passage in which Bath is talking about the introduction of a "campaign newspaper" as a way to keep players abreast of recent events. Bath states that
Robert Louis Stevenson was probably the first to produce one of these in the campaigns he waged. His was a very one-sided paper, which continually vilified his opponent, making light of his successes, emphasizing defeats and criticising his personal habits etc. This annoyed the chap so much that he made desperate efforts to capture the town in which the newspaper was situated – after which he hung the Editor with great jubilation and took over the paper, which immediately changed its policy! 
There's a lot to comment upon in this short paragraph and perhaps I'll return to it in a future post, but what struck me yesterday, when I first read it, was the reference to Robert Louis Stevenson and "the campaigns he waged." 

Though I cannot by any means be called a wargamer of any sort, I nevertheless knew that H.G. Wells had been an avid player of miniatures wargames. His Little Wars, first appearing in 1913, is perhaps the earliest published rules for fighting miniatures battles with the use of toy soldiers. Consequently, Wells's role in the history of wargames is widely acknowledged and celebrated. But Stevenson? I'd never before heard that he was in any way involved in wargaming, let alone being one of the first people recorded to have participated in the hobby.

Some cursory digging online led me to an article from the December 1898 issue of Scribner's Magazine entitled "Stevenson at Play" that included an introduction by Stevenson's stepson Lloyd Osbourne. The article indicates that Stevenson began his wargaming around 1881, well before the appearance of Little Wars. Of course, Stevenson never published the rules he used, which were primarily for his own amusement, though, as the linked article makes clear, they were fairly sophisticated. 

The older I get, the clearer my ignorance becomes. I'm always happy to discover new rabbit holes to explore and this is no exception. Looks like I have even more reading to do!

Pulp Fantasy Library: Artifact of Evil

Despite its many deficiencies, I'm rather fond of Gary Gygax's first novel of Gord the Rogue, Saga of Old City, which I described, in my review, as "What if Oliver Twist had been written by Fritz Leiber?" I meant that description most sincerely, as it seems indisputable that Leiber and his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser loomed large in Gygax's mind as he made his own forays into the world fantasy literature. Nevertheless, as I also said in my earlier post, there's – to my mind anyway – an unfortunate escalation in the subsequent Gord novels, both in terms of the character's personal power and importance and the overall stakes of his adventures. Whereas Saga of Old City is a picaresque, the novels that followed, starting with 1986's Artifact of Evil, began a march toward overblown, epic fantasy.

Artifact of Evil takes its title from the novel's MacGuffin, an object of power consisting of three parts, one for each of the evil alignments (Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic), that, when joined, can free Tharizdun from his prison and initiate a cosmic war in which the dread god might prove triumphant. Knowledge of this artifact is first acquired when Gord becomes involved in the siege of a fortress in a wild region known as the Pomarj. During the battle, he captures a red-robed man who, he later learns, was a high-level member of the Scarlet Brotherhood, a villainous monastic order devoted to Tharizdun. From him, Gord and his comrades discover the Brotherhood's plot to locate all three pieces of the eponymous artifact (they already possess one at the start of the novel). Naturally, they vow to stop them.

Taken purely as an adjunct to Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk setting, Artifact of Evil has a quirky appeal. Indeed, when I first read it long ago, its main attraction to me was seeing Gygax present his campaign setting in greater detail and I can't deny that, on that level at least, the book retains some appeal. We learn a great deal about the history and politics – both mundane and otherworldly – of the setting and I won't deny that, as a long-time fan of Greyhawk, I smile every time I read a name I recognized from previously published materials or could connect the events of the novel to something hinted at in an adventure module. 

That said, Artifact of Evil is a mess as a novel, even by the rather low standards of RPG-derived fiction. Whatever charm Gord had as a character in Saga of Old City quickly evaporates, as he is lost in a huge cast of characters and a whirlwind series of travels, combats, and deus ex machina escapes, often by means of magic or magical items. More vexing for me, I think, is the way that Gord, originally portrayed as simply an orphan child who grew up to become one of the City of Greyhawk's greatest thieves after an apprenticeship on its mean streets, becomes an almost mythological hero, squaring off against demon lords and demigods. Indeed, the book makes clear that Gord commands the attention of at least one powerful being (Rexfelis the Cat Lord – though, to be fair, this was hinted at strongly previously). Gord is thus not really in the same league as the Gray Mouser or even Conan: he is, in fact, much more important within his setting.

In the end, Artifact of Evil is a book only a diehard Greyhawk fan could love and that's a shame. I truly felt that Gord's first novel appearance was a foundation on which Gygax could have built an interesting story of low fantasy hijinks in and around the City of Greyhawk (and better developed his skills as a writer of fiction). Instead, it reads like a rather overwrought collection of game session reports from a campaign with an overly generous referee. I wish it were otherwise.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Remembering REH

After so many years of writing about pulp fantasy and highlighting the contributions of its essential writers, what more could I possibly say about the life and works of Robert E. Howard, born this day 115 years ago? You need only search through this blog's archives or click on the "Howard" tag to see how often I've written about him in the past – and with good reason! Though the success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings understandably receives the lion's share of the credit for making fantasy the popular (and profitable) genre it is today, I think a very strong case could be made that, when it comes to contemporary fantasy, it is to Howard that we owe a bigger, unacknowledged debt.

Tolkien was, even in his own day, an anachronism, writing in a style that was self-consciously old-fashioned, intended to recall the sagas of Northern Europe and create "a mythology for England." Howard, on the other hand, had much less lofty ambitions for his writing, wanting only to tell ripping yarns that would entertain his audience and bring him a meager income. Yet, as he gained experience and honed his craft, Howard nevertheless succeeded in creating the elements of a modern mythology, some of which are arguably more well known in the 21st century than the hoary legends of the ancient world. Conan the Cimmerian stands beside Superman, James Bond, and Darth Vader as a fictional icon of the modern world.

More than that, though, Howard's characters, particularly Conan, typically bring with them thoroughly modern outlooks and concerns. Take, for example, Conan's disinterest in matters of religion, preferring to live his life by his own lights rather than those handed down by tradition. Though a man of his word, Conan adhered to no "code," guided by his wits and his sword rather than by high-minded ideals. "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content," he famously said in "Queen of the Black Coast," the closest the barbarian ever came to stating his personal philosophy – and one that is, in practical terms, not far from the way most people live their lives today. I cannot imagine one of Tolkien's characters giving voice to such a perspective.

It's here, I think, that Howard's impact on fantasy has been the strongest and most enduring. Howard was an iconoclast and freethinker; he had equal disdain for the priests of old and their modern descendants, schoolteachers. His skepticism of tradition and received opinion is distinctively, if not uniquely, American, and this mindset can be seen throughout his literary works, where his characters regularly run afoul of the pettiness and arrogance of the established order. This rebellious streak – Howard would no doubt have called it "independence" – is nowadays ubiquitous among contemporary heroes, fantasy and otherwise and REH was ahead of the curve in valorizing it. In a very real sense, all of fantasy since has been following a trail that Robert E. Howard blazed long ago.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

House of Worms, Session 210

The lights in the darkened chamber were three in number, blue-white in color, and rotating around each other, several feet above the ground. Keléno and Znayáshu recognized these as nexus points, similar to those seen elsewhere in the ruins of Pashkírigo. The ancient Naqsái city seemed to be situated in an area where the "skin of reality" was thinner and magic generally more effective. Consequently, nexus points were unusually common here and, when encountered, were often seen in odd configurations such as these. Regardless, the pair believed that it was likely through these nexus points that Arúken hiSesmúga, with whose spirit Znayáshu had communicated, intended to rendezvous with his ally, Kétem. 

After a time pondering the best way to test this theory, one of the group's guards, a younger member of the House of Worms clan, stepped forward and offered to enter one of the nexus points and, if he survived the journey, return to the chamber to report what he saw. With some reluctance, the group endorsed this plan. The guard entered the nexus point – and did not return. The group waited several more minutes, eventually amounting to thirty in the end, before deciding that something untoward had happened to their young charge and someone else would have to test the nexus point. Grujúng volunteered, along with Nebússa. They entered the nexus, one after the other, and likewise did not return. This began to worry the party, who eventually decided, with great reluctance on the part of Keléno, that they ought to all enter the nexus point, reasoning that their purpose would not be served if they were separated from one another with no means of communication.

What they discovered, upon passing through the nexus point, is that they had all arrived at the same point and at the same time, despite their having passed through the nexus point at different times from their perspective. Keléno noted that it was not uncommon for such temporal anomalies to occur, as nexus points can traverse time as well as space. More pressing was the fact that, up ahead, they saw a young man employing both sorcery and an eye to defend himself against a half-dozen strange, silvery-white humanoid figures. These figures were utterly featureless, having no discernible faces or or even fingers or toes. They seemed to possess sorcery of their own, shooting bolts of energy at the young man, who, for the moment anyway, was able to protect himself. 

Nebússa suggested that perhaps the young man was Kétem and, if so, they should join the battle on his side. Though there was some dispute about this, the characters ultimately decided to do so, with Grujúng and Nebússa running ahead, weapons drawn, supported by the guards they brought with them. Meanwhile, the others attacked from range, with Chiyé making use of his crossbow, Keléno his eye of Krá the Mighty, and his third wife, Mírsha, her spells. Most of their efforts proved ineffectual, or seemingly so, as the silvery beings were quite resilient. Keléno in particular was frustrated that his eye had failed him multiple times, while Grujúng, usually a potent combatant, was unable to do much damage against these weird beings. Ultimately, it was Mírsha's sleep spell that proved most effective, causing all six of the beings to enter a quiescent state and stop attacking.

The young man smiled at the sight of this and, addressing Mírsha, said, "You must show me how you did that!" He then thanked the characters and suggested that they vacate this space by returning to the chamber from which they had come. He showed them the proper nexus point to enter and they all did so, leaving the weird beings behind. Upon returning, he said that his name was Kétem and he inquired what had become of Arúken. Kétem was saddened to hear of his ally's death but was nevertheless grateful the characters had come to his aid. He explained that those beings appeared "whenever someone was attempting to meddle with branches of the Tree of Time."

Upon hearing this, the characters erupted in questions, which Kétem did his best to answer. Over the course of much discussion, the following was learned. A group within the Temple of Ksárul known as the Ndálu Clan had been traveling between two branches – two alternate versions of Tékumel – transporting people and objects between them in an attempt to merge the two into a single branch, thereby altering reality more to their liking. Kétem explained that their efforts had already succeeded in part, resulting in numerous changes to the past, present, and future of the branch the characters inhabited, a fact that explained a great deal about what they had experienced both on the Southern Continent and back in Tsolyánu before they had any inkling that a plot of this magnitude was afoot.

Needless to say, the characters were simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the information Kétem shared. They pressed him for more information, especially about the Ndálu Clan and their purposes, but he knew little, saying only that, "whatever they are up to, much of it has already been achieved." However, it was still possible to prevent more changes by "sealing the breach" between the two branches that the Clan was using to move between branches. He explained that there are certain fixed points on the Tree of Time that cannot be altered. The Ndálu clan was using one such fixed point as a "bridge" of sorts and that he and Arúken had been planning to travel to this fixed point in order to seal up access to it from the other side – something he hoped the characters would now join him in doing.

Naturally, they were interested in doing so, at least until they learned two details. First, the fixed point in question was the fabled Battle of Dórmoron Plain, the Armageddon of the Gods. The characters had earlier discovered a nexus point that seemingly led to this location/event and had spent a short time there before fleeing it. Second, Kétem stressed that, in order for the seal to work properly, it would have to be effected from the other side and be permanent. In other words, they would be forever trapped at that fixed point and unable to return to Tékumel. 

While the characters recognized the logic of what Kétem suggested, they were understandably concerned, to the point that Keléno stated outright that he was unsure he would join them in this endeavor. However, before any decisions were made, Kétem recommended that they ready themselves. He opened a nexus point to the Linyaró so that they return to their home, speak with anyone they wished, and otherwise make any preparations they felt were needed. If he were correct in his claims, they might well never be seeing Linyaró – or Tékumel – again.

Individualistic and Imaginative

Issue #2 of Lee Gold's famed Alarums & Excursions (July 1975) is well known for having published a letter by Gary Gygax, in which he offers his opinion on a number of topics, the most interesting part of which (to me anyway) is the following:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark. Let us consider the magic-user question.

Needless to say, I approve very strongly of what Gygax says here, but it's worth noting that it would seem to be in contradiction to his later statements that OD&D was a "non-game" because of its high degree of variability. This is an area of great interest to me: how individual referees took OD&D's basic framework and ran with it in different ways to suit their own campaigns. Even now, I love hearing about house rules and unique interpretations and implementations of the sparse text of OD&D and other RPGs. 

Likewise, this passage is yet more evidence in support of the notion of two Gary Gygaxes – the gamer and the corporate spokesman. The former clearly speaks in this letter, defending individualism and imagination and utterly rejecting any suggestion that he should "play god" for other referees (or, to quote OD&D's closing words, "do any more of your imagining for you.") The latter is the author of perfervid denunciations of deviations from the published rules in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. I doubt I'm alone in preferring Gamer Gary over Corporate Gary nor, I hope, in recognizing that these two Garys could exist side by side. Nevertheless, I often ponder how the early history of the hobby might have been different, for good and for bad, if the Gary Gygax of this 1975 letter had been the only one.

Grognard's Grimoire: Vephar

Vephar (Old School Essentials)

Vephar by Jason Sholtis
AC –2 [21], HD 22**** (132hp), Att 2 × claws (1d10), 1 × tail slap (1d6), THAC0 5 [+14], MV 360' (120'), SV D2 W2 P2 B2 S2, ML 12, AL Chaotic, XP 10,500, NA 1, TT I, K, N, O

Vephar is a duke whose watery domain can be found on Demon World Dawo within the Fifth Shell. His 29 legions include many cohorts of aegaei (q.v.), as well as even more terrible aquatic demons. Vephar's preferred form is an emaciated humanoid whose grotesquely distended belly reveals his viscera. Instead of legs, he has a fish-like tail. His gangly arms end in large, clawed hands. Vephar's designation in the Grimoire Major is 01-23 Blue.

Vephar may only be struck by +3 or better weapons. While in contact with water, he regenerates 2 hit points per round. He has the following spell-like abilities, usable at will: cause fear, control weather, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, feeblemind, polymorph self, read languages, read magic, teleport, and wall of ice. Vephar can summon (with 60% chance of success) 1–6 aegaei. Damage dealt by his claws does not heal unless the spell cure disease is first applied.

Vephar claims suzerainty over all Chaotic marine life, including amphibians. This latter point is a source of contention between himself and Bael (q.v.), as both demon lords regard the Ranine (q.v.) as their subjects alone. Evil Men sometimes beseech Vephar to cause storms at sea, an appeal he is only too happy to oblige.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Definite Article

I was reminded that today is the 87th birthday of the one and only Tom Baker, who definitively portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord known as the Doctor between 1974 and 1981. During my high school years, I became a devoted fan of Doctor Who, thanks in no small part to Baker's remarkable performance. His effortless combination of eccentricity, wit, and, if you'll pardon the expression, humanity absolutely sold me on a program that, by all rights, I should have viewed with derision. Baker elevated the show and I look back on watching it all those years ago with great fondness largely because of him. 

Happy birthday, Mr Baker!

"The only Dragons … Lawful in nature"

One of the primary reasons I prefer OD&D and its descendants over AD&D is its "primordial" character. Being Gygax and Arneson's first stab at a published version of the game, its presentation is raw and undeveloped, often to the point that the referee has no choice but to interpret its meaning for himself. Relatedly, OD&D often contains ideas and concepts that were either forgotten or rejected by them. In some cases, these ideas and concepts were no doubt left behind for very good reasons, but I nevertheless enjoy going back to the original source and seeing if perhaps something might have been lost in doing so.

One such area concerns dragons, first described in detail in Volume 2 of the game. As first presented, there are only six varieties of dragon: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden. Earlier, in Volume 1, there's an alignment chart that includes dragons.

What you'll see is that dragons appear only in the columns for Neutrality and Chaos. However, it's clarified, in the description of the golden dragon, that these dragons "are the only Dragons which are Lawful in nature, although this exception is not noted on the Alignment table." This is in contrast to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which includes many more good-aligned dragons that first appeared in Supplement I of OD&D. 

I'll be honest: I've never been wholly on board with good-aligned dragons. Due to the influence of medieval stories of St. George, Tolkien's Smaug, and Disney's Maleficent, I've long looked on dragons as inherently evil creatures. In all my years of playing D&D, I don't believe I've ever made use of a good dragon on my own initiative (there was once a ranger in a campaign among whose followers was numbered a young bronze dragon, if I recall) and I don't think anyone complained. Indeed, as I've remarked before, dragons ought by all rights to be among D&D's iconic adversaries.

That said, I'm a sucker for stories of villainous redemption. As I continue to work on Urheim, I've started toying with the idea that golden dragons represent Chaotic dragons who turn to Law and, in the process, are physically metamorphosed by their shift in allegiance. What I like about this approach is that it not only provides an explanation of why most dragons are Chaotic but that it also emphasizes the significance of alignment, a concept that seems disappointingly downplayed in contemporary Dungeons & Dragons. 

"Less than Worthy of Honorable Death"

No matter how many times I crack open Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, I come across something I don't remember ever having read before. That's probably not literally true, but the book is so large and anarchic in its organization that it's very easy to overlook (or forget) bits of its text. Sometimes, the text in question is insignificant; other times, it's actually vital to understanding some aspect of AD&D's rules. More often, the text is simply amusing and/or provides insight into the mind of Gygax himself. 

And then there are the head scratchers – passages or paragraphs that leave one wondering whether or not to take them seriously. I found one of these the other day as I was seeking out something else entirely from the DMG. In the book's preface, shortly before the credits and acknowledgments section, Gygax offers the following warning:

As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of an honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that would otherwise arise from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players. If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting "sages" and other sources of information not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge that could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment – insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.

I'm genuinely torn between thinking the whole paragraph in jest and thinking that Gygax was being completely serious. Like the Dungeon Masters Guide itself, the paragraph contains both genuine wisdom and absurd bluster. In my youth, I don't think I knew a player of AD&D who didn't own the DMG, it being seen as part of the essential "three-book set" one needed in order to participate in the game. If Gygax were serious in his admonition, very few people heeded him (and, to be honest, I can't imagine that TSR would have wanted to discourage anyone from buying the biggest – and most expensive – of the AD&D hardbacks).

And yet, for all that, there is a kernel of truth in what Gygax wrote. Not knowing is an important part of the fun in almost any RPG campaign; I can remember many occasions when the players' puzzling out something previously unknown to them was the source of much excitement. (Mind you, I feel the referee is a player too and some things should remain unknown even to him.) Secrets, hidden knowledge, and the thrill of discovery are all vital tools in a good referee's repertoire and Gygax is quite right to caution against allowing players to know too much, lest it lessen their own enjoyment. But the "solutions" he advocates, I hope humorously, are small-minded and vindictive. Far from achieving the laudable goal of preserving campaign mysteries, they would, if implemented, only convince players that their referee is petty martinet. I am certain that was not Gygax's intention, but, as with many passages in the Dungeon Masters Guide, who can say?

Retrospective: Hexagonal Mapping Booklet

"The past is a foreign country" is a saying of which I am fond. I am reminded of it often as I look back on my early experiences in the hobby, which are replete with things that scarcely make sense from the vantage point of the present. Living as we do in a world relatively inexpensive personal computers and desktop printers, as well as Internet connectivity, the idea that anyone would pay for something like character sheets (or non-player character sheets) probably seems a little bizarre and understandably so. Yet, I can say, with complete sincerity, that products such as those were much appreciated, even coveted, though we nevertheless balked at their price – not to mention complained that they were difficult to photocopy, thanks to the colored paper on which they were printed.

When I think back to this time, I am also reminded of the 128-page Hexagonal Mapping Booklet that was originally released in 1981, with a cover illustration by Bill Willingham. This is a book I desperately wanted, since, unlike graph paper, which was readily available from any office supply store, hex paper was hard to come by. I had up until that time been making do with hex pages photocopied from a sheet included at the back of Gamma World, which were merely adequate to the task. It always frustrated me that the D&D Expert Set, which includes a section on designing a wilderness for use with one's campaign, did not include a sample hex sheet (nor did The Isle of Dread, a module whose impact on my sense of what a hexcrawl is cannot be overstated). 

It's funny: I consider hex paper to be as much a marker of roleplaying games as polyhedral dice. Since I was never a wargamer, RPGs were the first place I encountered the idea of hex maps and their oddity left a strong impression on me. I was already familiar with graph paper from school, so that, when I first picked up Dungeons & Dragons, there was nothing the slightest bit strange about it. As I recall, I already had graph paper in my home when I cracked open my copy of the Holmes Basic Set on that fateful day in December 1979. But hex paper? I'd never seen it before and I was thoroughly enthralled by it. Being able to own an entire book filled with it was a proud moment and I treasured that book for years afterward.

My original Hexagonal Mapping Booklet is long gone and it's now easier than ever to find hex sheets of any size without incredible ease. Nevertheless, I can't help but look back fondly on those early days, when I would spend untold hours mapping out enchanted forests, perilous mountains, and pestiferous swamps for the players in my games to explore. I eventually graduated to even bigger and more ambitious maps (though, oddly, I used graph paper for my Emaindor setting) and remain, like most gamers in my experience, a devoted fan of maps of all types. The Hexagonal Mapping Booklet wasn't the source of my devotion, but it certainly encouraged it and for that I'll always be grateful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Contact Higher Plane

I was perusing Men & Magic the other day and my eyes fell upon the 5th-level magic-user spell, contact higher plane. The funny thing is that, while I remembered the existence of the spell, I had misremembered its name. I had mistakenly believed that it was called contact other plane, a perfect example of what I have called the long shadow of AD&D – the way that AD&D's prominence has skewed perceptions of OD&D. Now, to be fair, AD&D isn't wholly to blame for my misremembering; it's also due to the fact that I can't recall ever using this spell in any game in which I've taken part. Granted, I'm old and my recollections are often spotty, but, even so, contact higher plane has never been a staple of my D&D experience. 

As I was looking at the OD&D version of the spell, several things stood out. First, there's the name, that is, its original name. Why "higher plane?" This is where genuine research will need to be done, something for which I don't have the time right now. My guess is that it's "higher" rather than "outer" plane because, at this stage in D&D's development, its cosmology is vague. For example, Gygax had not yet come up with the idea of "inner" and "outer" planes. Instead, he (likely) cribbed a more common notion, popularized by Theosophy and its offshoots, of "higher planes of existence." 

Second, the spell states that it allows the "magical-type" – now there's an odd turn of phrase – to "seek advice and gain knowledge from creatures inhabiting higher planes of existence (the referee)." Just who (or what) these creatures are is not defined, either in this spell or its AD&D descendant. What is most notable to me is that the spell does not declare that these "creatures" are gods or divine in any way. In fact, OD&D does not include the words "god" or "deity" anywhere in its text.

This might tie into my third observation about the spell: whatever the nature of the creatures contacted, they are neither omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Even those dwelling on the "highest" plane contacted (about which I'll say more below) have a chance of not knowing the information requested and all but those dwelling on the highest plane has a chance of lying about their knowledge. Furthermore, the higher the plane contacted, the more likely it is that the magic-user will go insane. That last bit is suggestive, in that it implies, at the very least, that the creatures contacted are so unlike mortal minds that mere contact with them is enough to end one's mental stability. 

Finally, the spell connects the number of questions the magic-user can ask of these creatures to the plane on which they dwell. Thus, a creature of the eighth plane can answer eight questions, which makes some sense, I suppose. Why is it that the planar numbering system starts at three rather than one? Is this purely an artifact of game logic? Did Gygax believe any fewer than three questions would be insufficient for a 5th-level spell or was there some other factor at work here? 

Spells like this, whatever one thinks of their in-game utility, please me greatly, because they raise questions for me to ponder. That's one of the main attractions of OD&D for me: it's filled with mechanical and "philosophical" lacunae that demand the referee fill. 

A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Lots of people, understandably, remember the Dungeons & Dragons advertisements that appeared in the pages of Marvel comics over the course of 1981 and 1982, starring Valerius the fighter, Grimslade the magic-user, and Indel the elf exploring Zenopus castle. I've always been particularly fond of this installment of the story, which features perpetual victim, Indel, falling prey first to green slime and then a trap door (that ultimately lands him in the lair of a dragon). 

However, as it turns out, there's a second series of D&D advertisements featuring a comic story drawn by Willingham of which I was unaware until very recently. Here's a representative panel:
The artwork is much more obviously Willingham's work than the other comic. His kobolds, for example, are unmistakable if you've ever seen the AD&D Monster Cards. More interesting to me is the revised cast of characters, which still features a trio consisting of a fighter, a magic-user (here called a "wizard"), and an elf, but who have different names and appearances. The wizard is named Khellek, which would seem to be a variation on the name Kelek used in other media for an evil wizard and antagonist. 

I find all these advertisements quite fascinating, since they're all from around the time period when D&D had just broken into the popular consciousness (thanks, in part, to the story of James Dallas Egbert III) and TSR was beginning to make real money from it. Clearly, the company had no idea how to promote and sell its products and was simply throwing lots of things against the wall to see what stuck. These ads are one example of their fumbling attempts at marketing – and one of the better ones, in my opinion. 

Imagine Magazine: Issue #28

Issue #28 of Imagine (July 1985) is another "special" issue, in this case "pulps." I try not to be too judgmental on this particular topic, since I understand what is meant by "pulps," namely broad, over-the-top action, as exemplified by many of the stories that appeared in the pages of pulp magazines during the 1920s, '30, and '40s. Yet, as I regularly point out, "pulp" is no more a genre than is anime (another term frequently misused by those unfamiliar with it); the pulps were filled with stories of many different genres, from fantasy to crime stories to historical fiction, with many more besides, most of which shared only the paper on which they were printed and nothing more. 

Paul Mason's "The Masked Avengers" presents itself as "an introduction to pulp rolegames," which in this case means Daredevils, Justice Inc., Gangbusters, Chill, and Call of Cthulhu. According to Mason, pulp stories were "stirring tales of two-fisted action" featuring "rugged individuals fighting for truth, justice, and the American way against the forces of evil in a variety of exotic locations." He's correct that that's the way "pulps" are popularly understood, though the pedant in me recoils at the narrow understanding of the contents of these magazines. Oh well.

".... And Action!" by Mark Davies and Derrick Norton is, in a bit of serendipity, an article that demonstrates well just how much of a mess AD&D's combat rules were. The article takes five pages to elucidate the game's initiative system, something that Moldvay Basic handles succinctly in a few short paragraphs. Chris Felton's "Lycanthropy," on the other hand, is a four-page discussion of lycanthropes in D&D and AD&D, fleshing them out for use as opponents, NPCs, and even player characters. As is often the case, it's not a topic that matters much to me personally, but the article is nicely done and engaging – exactly what I want out of gaming articles. Felton returns, along with Paul Cockburn, in "The Gods of the Domains," this issue's Pelinore article. The piece fleshes out a few of the gods, providing them with mythology and relationships to one another. Accompanying the article is "Carraway Keep and the White Order" by Graeme Drysdale, which describes an organization for magic-users and elves.

David Hill's "A Look at the Cthulhu Mythos" is an overview of its (literary) history, detailing all the authors who have contributed to it and the ways in which their contributions changed it. Short but interesting, I was glad to see an article like this in a gaming magazine. Marcus Rowland's "A Nice Night for Screaming" is a murder mystery scenario intended for use with a variety of "pulp" RPGs, including the Adventures of Indiana Jones. It's a tight, well written adventure, as one would expect of Rowland. Chris Felton has yet another article in this issue, "The English Daredevil," which examines this pulp archetype from the perspective of England in the 1930s, with suggestions for modifying the rules of various games to make them a little less USA-centric. It's a good article; my only complaint is that it's too short and narrow. I'd love to have seen a longer treatment of the subject.

Hilary Robinson's "Time for the Little People" is a science fiction short story dealing with interactions between Terrans and an alien race. Sadly, this month's review focus entirely on TSR products, for AD&D and Marvel Super Heroes. Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" discusses the potential pitfalls of a campaign less focused on dungeon delving and defeating monsters and more on politics and other social interactions. In particular, he ponders how to award experience points in D&D campaigns of this sort. As always, there's lots of food for thought. 

This month's "Fantasy Media" is written by Neil Gaiman, which is interesting from a historical perspective, if nothing else. Gaiman reviews a movie I've never heard of, Titan Find, which he dubs an "Alien rip-off," as well as Runaway (starring Tom Selleck, which he likes well enough), Repo Man (which he also liked), and Cloak and Dagger (another positive review). What struck me reading this column was how many movies whose existence I had forgotten; it was quite a trip down memory lane being reminded of these. And, as always, there are comics I didn't bother to read.

Imagine continues to intrigue me, partly because I'd never seen it back in the day and partly because its content is noticeably different from what I'd read in Dragon or even White Dwarf (to which I had more regular but nevertheless intermittent access). Articles are fairly hit or miss, it's true, but they also tend to be longer and off the beaten path in terms of content. There's quite a lot of good material here, along with some forgettable stuff too. The good material, though, is of very high quality and it's a shame that the magazine didn't last longer. As the conclusion of this series draws closer, I find myself slightly saddened.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Enduring Appeal of Basic D&D

If I'd been asked, back in, say, 1981, the name of my favorite roleplaying game, I'd have answered, without hesitation, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There are multiple reasons why I'd have replied this way, perhaps the greatest of which being that AD&D presents a very eclectic but nevertheless compelling fantasy vision informed by the literary tastes of Gary Gygax. Decades later, I still find that my imagination remains thoroughly colonized by ideas and concepts whose origins lie in AD&D. That's not a criticism by any means; if anything, it's evidence of just how powerful a thing Gygax wrought.

Despite this, purely as a game, I don't think I'm speaking uncharitably in calling AD&D a convoluted mess. I don't believe I've ever met a gamer who played AD&D strictly by the book – assuming such a thing is even possible. AD&D's combat rules, for example, are nigh unintelligible and I'd be amazed to learn that anyone who'd bothered to fathom their mysteries gained anything of lasting consequence by doing so. I say this as someone who's on record as liking "rough edges" in games. 

I don't think I'm alone in this doublethink regarding AD&D: simultaneously adoring its ideas and esthetics while feeling its rules are awful. In fact, I suspect this attitude is quite widespread, at least among gamers of a certain age. Equally widespread, I think, is effusive love for Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. Indeed, if I had to hazard a guess, I imagine that, among gamers who call themselves "old school," Basic D&D (or one of its retro-clones, like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials) is being played much more often than AD&D. Why would this be?

It's an interesting question and one for which there are probably as many answers. Speaking only for myself, I would say that Basic D&D's strengths are its flexibility and open-endedness, the very things that Gygax would later claim made it a "non-game," a topic to which he returned on other occasions. Basic D&D (and, by extension, Expert D&D) is intentionally written in a way that is easy to understand (compared to the little brown books of OD&D from which it derives) and encourages individual creativity.
While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable – anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed. This is not to say that everything in this booklet should be discarded! All of this material has been carefully thought out and playtested. However, if, after playing the rules as written for a while, you and your referee (the Dungeon Master) think that something should be changed, first think about how the changes will affect the game, and then go ahead. The purpose of these "rules" is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don't feel absolutely bound to them.

It's precisely this attitude, stated boldly and upfront, that, when combined with its generally simpler and more straightforward rules, makes Tom Moldvay's version of Dungeons & Dragons my go-to version of the game these days. This is true, even when I wish to introduce ideas or elements from AD&D (which is often). 

Obviously, other players and referees will have their own reasons for choosing Basic D&D – and if you're one of them, I'd like to hear why – but the larger point remains: Basic/Expert D&D has become the preferred version of the game for those interested in its earliest editions. I find this fascinating, given how much more common it was, back in the day, to dismiss it as "kiddie D&D." I regret being so contemptuous of it when I was younger and am grateful that I've come around to recognize it for the masterpiece of clarity, concision, and creativity that it is.

The Halls of Tizun Thane

A constant lament of this blog since its inception is the extent to which fantasy games and gamers are ignorant of the literary origins of the genre on which they both depend. This lament is not universally applicable, however: many older games and game writers were better versed in the foundational works of fantasy. A good example of this can be seen in issue #18 of White Dwarf (April/May 1980), which contains a low-level Dungeons & Dragons adventure entitled "The Halls of Tizun Thane" by the late, great Albie Fiore, whose title is clearly a riff of that of the titular wizard from Robert E. Howard's "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune."

"The Halls of Tizun Thane" is a remarkable piece of work from the early days of White Dwarf, as this terrific map of more sixty-five keyed areas amply demonstrates.

The scenario involves a party of adventurers exploring the former abode of Tizun Thane, "a high level evil magic user, who was as cruel as he was cunning." Thane, we learn, had a hall of mirrors in his abode, and, if one stared into them, one could see "not reflections but instead a scene from another scenario" – a clever echo of what Kull observes in the short story linked above. Otherwise, the adventure doesn't have any other obvious connections to the story, but the fact that it has any whatsoever is a testament, I think, to how much more commonplace familiarity with pulp fantasy stories was among early RPG players. 

The Murderous Mirrors of Kharam-Akkad

I wrote in my earlier post on "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" that Roy Thomas "clearly disagrees with me" regarding adapting the story to feature Conan. I wrote this because I was thinking of Issue #25 of Conan the Barbarian (April 1973). That issue contains a story entitled "The Murderous Mirrors of Kharam-Akkad" that draws heavily on the Kull tale but isn't precisely an adaptation, as I had thought. In it, a Hyrkanian high priest named Kharam-Akkad possesses Tuzun Thune's mirrors and sees in them a vision of Conan standing over his dead body. 

Kharam-Akkad becomes so obsessed with this vision of his demise that he attempts to thwart it by ordering Conan captured and brought to him. You only need to have read Sophocles or Shakespeare to see where this story is going: the Cimmerian's capture brings about the very death that Kharam-Akkad had hoped to avoid. 

It's frankly not a very interesting story in its own right and only really serves to advance the story of Conan's life, pointing toward his eventual adoption of the pseudonym Amra. That said, the story does feature a couple of panels that recapitulate the plot of "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," marking the first ever appearance of Kull in the pages of a Marvel comic. 
Whatever else I could say about Thomas's Conan comics, one thing I will always praise is his willingness to use Howard's own words (or paraphrases of them) in his dialog and descriptions. That's evident in the panels above, which include snippets from "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane" and this otherwise forgettable issue is the better for it.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

Robert E. Howard's character Kull of Atlantis is not as well known as Conan, even among fans of fantasy, and understandably so. For one, Kull appeared in only three published stories between August 1929 and November 1930. For another, Kull is a much more "restrained" character than the Cimmerian, being much more conventionally chivalrous and, I'd wager, less compelling than the hotblooded barbarian to readers of the pulps. Consequently, the stories of Kull, both those published during Howard's lifetime and those published later (mostly in the 1960s and '70s), to the extent that they're remembered at all, are conflated with those of Conan. This situation is only made worse by the fact that REH himself re-purposed at least one Kull story as a tale of Conan, which established a precedent followed by others, such as Marvel's Roy Thomas. 

I think this is a shame, not just from a historical perspective, but also because I think that Kull is an intriguing protagonist in his own right, one whose differences from Conan demonstrate well Howard's range as a writer. This comes through clearly in the second published Kull story, "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane," which appeared in the September 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The yarn begins with with one of my favorite passages in all of Howard, as Kull struggles with a dark mood.

There comes, even to kings, a the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

Kull sat upon the throne of Valusia and the hour of weariness was upon him. They moved before him in an endless, meaningless panorama, men, women, priests, events and shadows of events; things seen and things to be attained. But like shadows they came and went, leaving no trace upon his consciousness, save that of a great mental fatigue. Yet Kull was not tired. There was a longing in him for things beyond himself and beyond the Valusian court. An unrest stirred in him and strange, luminous dreams roamed his soul.

Kull is so immersed in his thoughts that even his boon companion, the Pictish warrior, Brule, can rouse him from them. Then, "a girl of the court" with golden hair and violet eyes whispers to the king of the wizard Tuzun Thune, who, she says, possesses "the secrets of life and death." Kull asks the girl to tell him more of the wizard, which she does, explaining that he is

"A wizard of the Elder Race. He lives here, in Valusia, by the Lake of Visions in the House of a Thousand Mirrors. All things are known to him … he speaks with the dead and holds converse with the demons of the Lost Lands."

Intrigued, Kull sets off to meet Tuzun Thune alone, hoping that "this mummer" might be able to cure him of his melancholy. 

Upon meeting him, Kull interrogates the wizard, asking him, "Can you do wonders?" What follows is memorable and another example of the ways in which the tales of Kull differ from those of Conan.

The wizard stretched forth his hand; his fingers opened and closed like a bird's claws.

"Is that not a wonder – that this blind flesh obeys the thoughts of the mind? I walk, I breathe, I speak – are they not all wonders?

Kull meditated a while, then spoke. "Can you summon up demons?"

"Aye. I can summon up a demon more savage than any in ghostland – by smiting you in the face."

Kull started, then nodded. "But the dead, can you talk to the dead?"

"I talk with the dead always – as I am talking now. Death begins with birth and each man begins to die when he is born; even now you are dead, King Kull, because you were born.

Kull is unimpressed by these clever responses and declares the wizard to be "no more than an ordinary man." It's at this point that Tuzun Thune suggests that Kull "look into my mirrors" and reveals that the walls and ceiling of his home consisted almost entirely of perfectly jointed mirrors. The king does so and, in so doing, sees first scenes from the past and then the future before being directed into another mirror "of the deepest magic," in which Kull sees only himself – or does he? 

Fascinated by his reflection, the king begins to wonder "Am I the man or is he? Which of us is the ghost of the other?" This thought slowly overtakes him and, even after he leaves Tuzun Thune's home, he continues to ponder it, in the process becoming more and more unsure of whether the world he inhabits is the real one or whether the world beyond the mirror is. His advisors begin to worry about his state of mind, fearing that Valusia will come to a bad end because of it.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" is a unique story, marrying the conventions of pulp fantasy to a philosophical exploration of the nature of identity and indeed reality itself. No one's world is going to be shattered by this story: it's interesting but not especially profound. But I enjoy it nonetheless, in large part, I think, because of just how different it is from Howard's Conan stories. Though Conan is no blockhead, he prefers to leave questions such as these to teachers and priests. I can't imagine the Cimmerian starring in a story like this one (though Roy Thomas clearly disagrees with me) and that's more than enough to make it memorable.