Friday, February 26, 2021

House of Worms, Session 214

The final preparations having been made, Aíthfo decided that their was one last thing he needed to do: pay a visit to Chánkoru hiKhánuma, his new wife's great-grandfather and, more importantly, the administrative and ritual high priest of the Temple of Ksárul in Linyaró. Unlike many other guests to Aíthfo's nuptials, Chánkoru had brought no gifts to the governor and his bride. Instead, he rather pointedly suggested that they "had much to talk about," going so far as to suggest that he and his temple could "offer assistance in your current endeavors." This piqued Aíthfo's interest – and perhaps his suspicion – as few people outside his immediate circle in the House of Worms clan knew what he was preparing to do, not even his wife, Ta'ána. If Chánkoru knew the mission that lay before him, it suggested that the wily old priest had spies within the colonial administration and well placed ones at that.

Aíthfo, along with a small retinue appropriate to his station, visited the Black Stone clanhouse and asked to speak with Chánkoru. The old man appeared quickly and ushered Aíthfo into a secluded room, where he offered him refreshments. He quickly got down to business, admitting that he knew that the governor and his compatriots were planning to travel via nexus point to one of the Planes Beyond where the apocalyptic Battle of Dórmoron Plaine still(?) raged. He added that he knew that, in the past, there had been some "misunderstandings" between his clan and his temple and the colonial administration. He apologized for those and explained that, until recently, he had no reason to trust the governor. Now that he had married his great-granddaughter, he looked on him more fondly and understood that Aíthfo ony had the best interests of the Tsolyáni colony in mind. To that end, Chánkoru offered the assistance of the Temple of Ksárul.

The conversation between the two men was thoroughly polite and mannerly, each one employing the appropriate honorifics and observing the niceties expected of them. Nevertheless, Aíthfo remained suspicious and worried that he might be walking into a trap laid by Chánkoru. He was, after all, a priest of Ksárul, the Rebel of the Gods whose actions against his fellows had led to the Battle of Dórmoron Plain in the first place. Why would he wish to help and, even assuming he did, what did he hope to gain? As if sensing these concerns, Chánkoru admitted that his temple was, regrettably, riddled with factions and secret societies, some of whom, alas, were engaged in activities that might undermine the stability of not just the colony but Tsolyánu itself. For that reason, he felt an obligation to aid the governor in the only way he knew how: by offering a team of expert sorcerers steeped in the hidden lore of the temple.

Aíthfo was unsure how to respond to this offer. As a devotee of Lord Ksárul himself, he knew there were few who could compare to priests of Ksárul when it came to magical prowess. Yet, the idea of embracing these sorcerers, taking them with him onto another plane, far from Tékumel, did not sit well with him. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to avoid accepting Chánkoru's offer – not without offending him and perhaps making him an enemy. More to the point, Aíthfo had no idea how long he would be gone or if he would even return to Tékumel. The last thing he wanted to do was disappear just after having offended the high priest of the Temple of Ksárul. Who knows what sort of mischief he could wreak on the colony while he was gone, especially with his young protégé, Telék, being left as acting governor in his absence. 

Reluctantly, Aíthfo accepted Chánkoru's offer. The old man provided him with the names of the sorcerers and said that they would be at the governor's palace by sunset. Upon returning home, Aíthfo asked his wife if she recognized any of the names. She did: the leader of the sorcerers was her cousin, Lára hiKhánuma, a woman older than herself and reputed to be quite significant within the Temple of Ksárul. She was also one of her great-grandfather's favorites, news that strangely gladdened Aíthfo. If Lára were in fact one of Chánkoru's favored descendants, would he send her off on a mission he believed would end in failure? In any case, the governor spent one more night in Linyaró before marshalling his forces to depart early the next morning.

The wizard Ketém opened a nexus point to the ruined city of Pashkírigo and, once there, directed everyone to pass through another nexus point that he said would lead them to Dórmoron Plain. The group, consisting of Aíthfo and his companions, along with a large contingent of Shén mercenaries and human soldiers, made their way into the unknown. The experience was no different than previous jaunts through nexus points – a momentary sensation of cold, a brief flash of light – except that the group found itself divided. Aíthfo, Nebússa, Lady Srüna, Ketém, Mitsárka, the Ksárul sorcerers, and all the troops found themselves on a rocky, blasted plain surrounded by a large wall seemingly made of a bluish-white mold. The rest of the House of Worms clan were nowhere to be seen. Whether they made it through the nexus point to this plane or were spirited away somewhere else could not be determined. Mitsárka argued that it did not matter; they had come here to seal the nexus point from this side and they should proceed, regardless of what had happened to the others. Nebússa agreed and the rituals began.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Emperor is Dead!

(Before your eyes glaze over: this post includes a fair bit of Tékumel talk, but it is not, strictly speaking, about Tékumel. Rather, Tékumel is being used as an example for my musings about a larger topic of interest, I hope, to players and referees of any RPG.)

Victor Raymond recently reminded me of an article that appeared in issue #6 of The Space Gamer (June/July 1976), approximately a year after the release of TSR's Empire of the Petal Throne – which is important, as you'll see. The issue contains an article written by Robert L. Large, Jr., in which he presents a report of a major event from his home EPT campaign, namely the death, at the age of 73, of the Seal Emperor of Tsolyánu, Hirkáne Tlakotáni. The report dwells not on the death of the God-Emperor but rather on the Kólumejàlim, "the Choosing of the Emperor," a ritual by which all the deceased emperor's children, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, contend with one another before the eyes of the Omnipotent Azure Legion to determine which of them will ascend the Petal Throne (while those who lose are ritually sacrificed to prevent the possibility of attempted usurpation and/or civil war). 

It should be noted that, at the time this article appeared, no such event had occurred on "Tékumel Prime," the version of Tékumel that Professor Barker presented to his players. (Hirkáne did eventually die in Barker's campaign but much later and under very different circumstances.) It's also worth noting that there were only three Tékumel sources available when Large's article appeared: Empire of the Petal Throne, War of Wizards, and a single article in the pages of The Strategic Review. Despite this, it's clear that Large had not only made Tékumel his own by extrapolating based on what he had read about the setting in those limited sources but also by introducing elements that made sense to him. He didn't hesitate or worry that he might do something differently than Professor Barker did. In short, he behaved as any good referee ought.

Large's account of the Kólumejàlim suggests that he actually played it out, allowing his players to take the roles of the various claimants to the Petal Throne. For example, the first part of the trials involved an arena duel, which Large notes was handled by means of FGU's Gladiators. Likewise, magical duels were handled by means of War of Wizards. Reading the article, two things struck me. The first is that Large involved his players in determining the outcome of this important campaign event, not as their player characters but as Imperial princes. The second is that the outcome itself was an unexpected one, owing no doubt to a combination of player action and dice rolls

Upon completing the article, I knew that, when the time comes for similar events to occur in my House of Worms campaign, I will involve the players too. A big reason why is the possibility of an unexpected result, one I'd never choose on my own. In Large's campaign, the ultimate winner of the contest between heirs was Princess Ma'ín, who has been described as spoiled and whimsical – hardly likely to emerge victorious in a real power struggle. And yet, in Large's campaign, she did and he describes how it came to pass. It's terrific stuff, all the more so because it seems as if the outcome was not predetermined or based on his own wishes. That's how it should be, in my opinion.

As a referee, I have certain predilections and tics that, absent other ideas, tend to impel me toward certain things. I love over-complicated intrigue, with factions fighting in the shadows. I also love magic, mystery, and secrets, which is why so many of my campaigns feature these elements, sometimes to their detriment. Left purely to my own devices, I will almost always develop my campaign in ways that highlight these things. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, especially if the players enjoy it. But, as I get older, I have become more and more convinced that, if one's goal is a long lasting campaign, it's vital that there be surprises and turns that no one, not even the referee, can predict. 

This is part of my renewed interest in wargames and conflict simulations. I remember, back in high school, being obsessed with learning more about "the Game" that GDW used to create the future history that connected Twilight: 2000 and Traveller: 2300. The notion that a game company had conducted a giant, free-form wargame/simulation to help them establish three hundred years of history was so incredibly compelling to me, not least because that future wasn't an obviously predictable one. Whatever flaws Traveller: 2300 had, I appreciated the way that its setting didn't fully embrace expectations, with its diminished USA and Russia and ascendant French Empire, for example. That's precisely the kind of unexpected turns I want in my campaigns too.

I have heard that the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór on Tékumel was intended, at least in part, as a way for miniatures gamers to get involved with the setting. Professor Barker was himself an avid player of miniatures wargaming and he fought many battles of this war against his players. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have allowed the results of those battles to have become canonical in his campaign, opting instead merely to take those elements of them he most liked. I can certainly understand why he might have done this, but, for me, the whole point of gaming out a crucial battle in the context of a campaign is to take its outcome somewhat out of my hands. I know I harp in this a lot but that's only because it's true: the referee is also a player and, as a player, he's as entitled to surprises as his players.

This is why I continue to seek new ways to "automate" campaign events or at least lessen the amount of impact my own preferences have on their outcome. I want my campaign worlds to live and grow somewhat of their own accord and much of the joy I get as a referee is in watching the players interact with the situations and NPCs I've created in unexpected ways. Few people enjoy knowing the ending of a story before they read it. Why should RPG campaigns be any different?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Retrospective: Thieves' Guild

Despite my Hamlet-esque waffling about the merits of thieves as a character class in Dungeons & Dragons, I'm actually a huge fan of the archetype of the thief. From Bilbo Baggins to the Gray Mouser to Cugel the Clever, fantasy literature is filled with innumerable examples of thieves, burglars, and mountebanks as protagonists, so many that it could reasonably be argued that the thief is a much more foundational fantasy archetype than the cleric (but that's an argument for a different time). Consequently, I've long had a hankering to run a campaign in which all the characters are members of a criminal gang in a fantasy city. Not only would this be a lot of fun but it's a set-up that drinks deeply from the literary wells that watered the early hobby.

In thinking about this, I was reminded of Thieves' Guild, a 1980 product written by Richard Meyer and Kerry Lord, published by Gamelords (whom I knew well from their many excellent Traveller books). Intended as "the first in a continuing series of player and GM aids providing rules and scenarios for adventuring in the medieval underworld," Thieves' Guild was not, in fact, a mere add-on to D&D or other fantasy RPGs – though it could be used as such – but rather a complete game in its own right, released as 128 three-hole punched pages in a bag. Its system, known by the rather bland name of the "FANTASY SYSTEM" [sic], is clearly a close cousin of both D&D  (it has levels, for example) and Basic Role-Playing, cribbing elements of both, resulting in something that is simultaneously just familiar enough to be largely intelligible without much effort but just different enough that you need to keep checking the rules to see how various aspects of play are handled. 

Rules-wise, Thieves' Guild is probably most notable in two areas. The first is in its selection of available character races. In addition to the usual suspects of humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits, there are also centaurs, goblins, kobolds, orcs, and pixies. There are also rules for cross-breeding these various races, should one care about such matters. More interesting, I think, are the skills, which, as one might expect, give a lot of attention to those used by thieves. There are also skills for many legitimate professions, quite a few of which have relevance in a campaign set in and around a large urban location. By most standards, the skill system is nothing special, but it's hard not to appreciate that the designers recognized the need to flesh out other professions in order to provide some context to the adventures of thieves. 

Intriguingly, there are no rules for magic in Thieves' Guild. Magic exists in the world of Gateway (as the game's setting is known) but it's not something thieves are likely to know. As in D&D, thieves can attempt to make use of scrolls, but it's a risky endeavor not to be undertaken lightly. More information is instead provided on combat, including various forms of non-lethal combat, since many thieves find it useful simply to incapacitate rather than kill (thereby leaving open the door for "rogues with hearts of gold" and similar characters). Disguises, fencing stolen goods, ransoming prisoners, and similar activities in which thieves might engage also get fair treatments, as do the workings of the Thieves' Guild and the legal system. None of these topics is covered at immense length, but the very fact that they're covered at all is a step up from most fantasy RPGs in 1980.

Where Thieves' Guild really stands out is in its scenarios, many of which are included after the rules. These scenarios are divided into categories, like "bandit," "highwayman," and "cat burglary," among others. In this way, the writers did a great service to referees and players alike, highlighting that the profession of thief includes more than just simple robbery. The breadth of scenario types is quite impressive and the scenarios themselves, while far from masterpieces, are nevertheless engaging. If nothing else, they offer the novice referee models to use in crafting his own, including maps of locations both outside and inside.

I never owned or saw Thieves' Guild back in the day, though I was aware of its existence from many advertisements in Dragon magazine. When I finally did see it years later, I wished I had encountered it sooner, as it's something I would almost certainly have enjoyed. Gamelords supported the line with supplements, each one offering additional scenarios and rules to expand the scope of a thief-centric fantasy campaign. The company also released a boxed set describing the Free City of Haven, another product I would have loved to have owned in my youth and only ever saw many years later. I have no idea how successful or well-received the series was, only that I think it remains a great idea and one I'd like to make use of at some point in the future.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Strange Attractor Press News

Back in October, Strange Attractor Press announced an upcoming anthology of pulp fantasy literature entitled Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons & Dragons. The book is now available for sale here. I hope to do a review of it at some point in the future. I'm particularly intrigued by its endpapers, which depict an old school blue-and-white dungeon that reminds me vaguely of the sample dungeon from the Holmes Basic Set. 

Different Worlds: Issue #3

Issue #3 of Different Worlds (June/July 1979) features a positively delightful cover by Tom Clark. It's exactly the kind of weird, "out there" art, neither clearly fantasy nor sci-fi, that I associate with the 1970s. Beautiful! The issue begins with a review of Bushido by Steven Lortz. The review is quite positive, praising the game for providing players with more to do than "kill and pillage." Immediately afterward come the next two articles in the "My Life and Role-Playing" series, this time offering up articles by two truly heavy hitters: Dave Arneson and Steve Perrin.

Arneson's contribution is both long and filled with details, most of which are probably well known nowadays. He states early on that "Blackmoor was not the first RPG that I was in. Not by a long shot." He then goes on to relate tales from earlier campaigns, such as the Napoleonic one set in the town of Brownstein [sic] and his adventures stirring up trouble in South America, two events discussed at greater length in the Secrets of Blackmoor film. The rest of the article is filled with biographical details, insights into Arneson's personal perspective on RPGs as an activity, and additional bits of history. Steve Perrin's article is similar, though the details differ, of course. Of particular interest to me is Perrin's reminiscences about the foundation of the Society of Creative Anachronism in 1966 and his involvement in it – involvement, I might add, that played a role in his development of both the Perrin Conventions for OD&D and the rules behind RuneQuest

"Research and Rules" is a short article by Steve Marsh, offering five steps for the creation of good RPG rules: Define the Thing to be Written About, Define the User/Situation, Get Acquainted with the Material, Simulate the Rules in Your Present Situation, and Understand the Whys. The article is brief, so none of these steps gets much attention, leaving the end result less satisfying than it might have been. Mike Ginderloy's "Specialty Mages" variant for Dungeons & Dragons gets a third part, this time presenting lightning, crystal, acid, and wind mages. 

"Role-Playing: How to Do It (An Immodest Proposal)" is a lengthy article by Clint Bigglestone, in which he offers his thoughts on both playing and GMing, with an emphasis on the former. Bigglestone is very interested in the creation of plausible characters based on all the factors that describe him, from his physical and mental game stats to cultural background. He also reminds readers that a RPG is a game and one should never lose sight of that fact, no matter how attached one becomes to a character. Dennis Sustare's "Druid's Valley" is an overview of his Bunnies & Burrows campaign setting. I found it incredibly fascinating, because he not only details the setting and its characters but also talks about events from his campaign and his reasoning as a referee. I love this kind of stuff and continue to find these articles some of the best material in Different Worlds.

"The Three Feathered Rivals Cult" by Ray Turney is, of course, a new cult for use with RuneQuest. "A Letter from Gigi" includes numerous bits of then-current gaming gossip, such as the ongoing lawsuit between Arneson and Gygax. Speaking of Gygax, the column comments on the advertisement from White Dwarf featuring Elise Gygax. Also mentioned is the appearance of "yet another article on pole arms" in the pages of Dragon. Apparently people were making fun of Gary's obsession even back in the day. "Different Views" is a collection of letters from readers, one of whom, John T. Sapienza, provides the issue's last article, "A New Cleric Cure System." A variant for D&D, Sapienza effectively rewrites the cleric class, turning it into more of a flexible healer class than a warrior-priest with some healing ability. I'm not sure I like it, but it's an intriguing take on the subject.

Issue #3 of Different Worlds is another good one, particularly in those articles were writers and designers of the hobby let us peak in on their own gaming. That's a topic of which I never tire and hope that future issues will bring more of this. Though I do appreciate rules options and variants, those can be found anywhere. What Different Worlds offers that I've rarely seen elsewhere is a glimpse of what it was like to play in the early days of the hobby and that is worth a great deal to me.

Monday, February 22, 2021


I'm knee-deep in putting the final touches on the text of issue #13 of my Tékumel fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, which I hope will be released sometime next month. The cover of the issue depicts an idol of the Salarvyáni goddess Shiringgáyi, as imagined by my regular cover artist, Zhu Bajiee

One thing that pleases me about this issue is that it includes a couple of articles by writers other than myself, something I hope continues in future issues. One of my goals for the 'zine has been to broaden not just interest in Tékumel but also contributions to it. It's a slow process, as people understandably feel that Tékumel is so complex and esoteric that they can't play in it, let alone write for it. Nevertheless, I soldier on and look forward to the release of yet another issue/

Pulp Fantasy Library: Bulfinch's Mythology

In my eternal quest to stretch the definition of "pulp fantasy" to the point of meaninglessness – or at least to "books I like and want to talk about this week" – I present Bulfinch's Mythology. I can't recall precisely when I first encountered this magnificent tome but it had to have been quite early, perhaps around the age of seven or eight. I borrowed it from the local library so often that one of my relatives purchased a copy of it for me and it became one of my prize possessions. I carried it with me everywhere I went for a couple of years and, even decades later, that original copy had pride of place on my bookshelves. Unfortunately, I misplaced it during one of my moves and never replaced it, partly because, if I did so, I'd want a copy just like the one I had in childhood, with its wonderfully evocative illustrations. 

Despite the fact that it is usually presented as a single volume, Bulfinch's Mythology is in fact a compilation of three different books, each one by the 19th century American writer, Thomas Bulfinch. The first of these books is The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes, first published in 1855. Consisting of forty-one chapters, The Age of Fable concerns itself primarily (but not exclusively) with the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. It was from these chapters that I first recall delving into the tales of Hercules and Theseus and Perseus and all their kin, both human and divine. Naturally, what I loved most were all the monsters these heroes fought – the minotaur, Medusa, the cylcopes – which left me with a lifelong affection for hideous beasts, not to mention an appetite for movies like Jason and the Argonauts or the various Sinbad films.

The Age of Fable didn't limit itself to Greco-Roman Antiquity, however. There were also chapters devoted to the myths and legends of the Egyptians, Persians, and Indians, as well as brief discussions of oddities like the medieval stories of Prester John. Even more appealing to me were the chapters devoted to the gods of the Norse. My first taste of Norse mythology came, I believe, in the pages of a reader in Grade 2. The reader included a story entitled something like "Thor's Visit to Jotunheim" and I was instantly hooked. I read this section of Bulfinch's Mythology over and over and it left a lasting impression on me that persists to the present day.

The second book book included in the collection is The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur, first published in 1858. Much like the Norse section of The Age of Fable, I read this portion of Bulfinch's Mythology often. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were among my favorites, which no doubt explains my immense fondness for Chaosium's Pendragon. In addition to the usual stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawaine, and the rest, Bulfinch also included plenty of social and cultural notes about medieval England that fascinated me. He also appended a section on the Welsh Mabinogion, some of whose stories form the basis of later Arthurian tales. Whereas I was aware of King Arthur before I read this book, I don't believe I'd ever heard of Geraint, Pwyll, or Branwen and so The Age of Chivalry was an eye-opener for me.

The third and final book included in Bulfinch's Mythology was Legends of Charlemagne, first published in 1863. Of the three, this is the one about whose contents I had the least knowledge, which is to say, no knowledge. Charlemagne was not a name I'd even heard of, so reading these stories of Rinaldo and Orlando, Bradamante and Rogero, not to mention Ogier the Dane. At the time, these didn't thrill me in quite the same way but I was nevertheless grateful for the knowledge they imparted to me, if only because they prepared me for the fateful day when I first cracked upon the Players Handbook and came across the paladin character class. In the years since, I've become much more of an aficionado of the Matter of France, though I've not yet acquired Chaosium's Paladin, an omission I'd like to rectify sometime in the coming years.

After Bulfinch's death, the three constituent books were collected together in a single volume in 1881 and became more or less the standard collection of myths and legends in the English speaking world (since superseded by many others, such as Edith Hamilton's Mythology.) Its impact on me was immense and I suspect that it had a similar effect on many of the writers and designers who had a hand in the creation of roleplaying games. The book is mentioned in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules, for example, which suggests it was still inspiring people as late as 1981. Regardless, Bulfinch's Mythology is a key component of my Appendix N and I am glad to have encountered it at a young and impressionable age.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

REVIEW: Knock! #1

Coinciding with – and fueled by – the Old School Renaissance, gaming fanzines have been undergoing a resurgence. 'Zines were a vital part of the early history of the hobby, serving not just as an "analog Internet" that enabled roleplayers to share ideas (and argue about them) but also as the incubator of rules innovations and even entire RPGs. That's why I'm genuinely gladdened to see so many fanzines being published and enjoyed in the 21st century. 

Another type of publication from those early days is the "companion," a compendium of new, alternate, and optional rules for an existing game and written by a pool of different writers. Chaosium was particularly well known for its companions, such as those for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu (while the never-produced D&D Companion – not to be confused with Frank Mentzer's Companion Rulesremains a topic of speculation for me). What I always liked about those companions of old was the way that the plethora of choices they offered, with no expectation that anyone would use all of them in any single game. "We take what we want and leave the rest, like your salad bar," as a wise man once said.

While companions as such have not had the same kind of resurgence that fanzines, there have been a number of publications that occupy a similar niche, such as Feretory for Mörk Borg, which, at the time, I described as both a gallimaufry and a smörgåsbord, but perhaps I should have said bric-a-brac. That's the word chosen by The Merry Mushmen to describe their remarkable publication, Knock!, the first issue of which was released recently. A full-color, 212-page, A5-sized softcover, Knock! is very much like those companions I enjoyed so much back in the day. Its content consists of dozens of articles by dozens of authors, ranging in size and content from single-page random tables to full adventures, complete with maps. Nearly everything you might imagine an old school fantasy RPG companion to contain – erudite musings, house rules, monsters, character classes, magic items, and more – can be found within the pages of issue #1. It's probably the most catholic presentation of old school gaming articles under a single cover published in the last decade – an impressive achievement by any stretch of the imagination.

Not all of the contents were to my taste. Indeed, there were a couple here and there that left me wondering why they were there at all (no, I'm not going to tell you which ones they were), but, as I've said in other contexts, so what? "Old school" has always been a broad church; not everything published under its banner will have universal appeal. Further, old schoolers are a cantankerous, opinionated lot who still break into arguments over the merits of alignment, race-as-class, and ascending armor class. What are the odds that any one of them would like everything in a given book? So, my cavils about one or two articles ultimately amount to little, though I do encourage anyone interested in Knock! to take a look at the list of contributors and some of its contents here.

I would be remiss in not commenting on Knock!'s layout and graphic design, which I jokingly described as "What if Mörk Borg used more than three colors?" Humor aside, Knock! does bear certain similarities with Mörk Borg, most notably its bold use of fonts, pull quotes, and other graphical elements to ensure that no two pages look the same. The result is striking without straining even my aged eyes, which is worthy of praise. The issue also features artwork by many notable old school artists and cartographers, such as Dyson Logos and Jason Sholtis, in addition to well-chosen bits of public domain artwork. All in all, it's a unique and impressive presentation.

Whether one ought to get issue #1 of Knock! depends, I imagine, on one's feelings toward gaming anthologies filled with a large diversity of articles by a large number of individual writers. Even if one is more open-minded than I, there might be some hesitancy about buying a grab bag of material like this one. In this case, though, I think it's unwarranted. The new classes (like the ne'er-do-well), monsters (like the treasure frog), and adventures alone are worth the price of the book and that's not taking into account the inspirational random tables (e.g. "300 Useless Magical Loot"), useful tools ("Sewers of Mistery"), rules options ("Hit Dice are Meant to be Rolled"), and thoughtful essays ("Borderlands") found within its pages. There's a lot to like here, whatever one's preferences and predilections.

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Groups without a referee"

While reading issue #22 of Dragon, I came across this advertisement from GDW relating to Traveller. The ad is for the game's first two supplements, Animal Encounters and 1001 Characters. Both supplements consist of pages of pregenerated material for use with the game. Over the years, I've found them to be great time savers, though nowadays I imagine that an online program of some sort would better serve the same purpose. 

 What's notable about the advertisement, though, is the way that it states that the supplements "are also useful to the solitary gamer, and to groups without a referee." Traveller's suitability for solitaire play has been remarked upon (and advertised) since the start and I can attest to how much pleasure I've got from simply rolling up characters and subsectors. It's not the same as playing an adventure or campaign with other people, but it's an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. On the other hand: "groups without a referee?" What does that even mean? Truly, I find myself baffled by this turn of phrase and wonder what such a group would look like. I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 112

Page 112 of the Dungeon Masters Guide contains a number of interesting sections, each of which is worthy of highlighting and discussions. For today, though, I want to focus on the section entitled "The Ongoing Campaign," since it relates to several topics near and dear to my heart. In the first paragraph, Gygax lays out one of the primary threats to a long campaign: boredom.

While it might seem highly unlikely to those who have not been involved in fantasy adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off – perhaps a few months or a year, depending on the intensity of play – some participants will become bored and move to other gaming forms, returning to your campaign only occasionally. Shortly thereafter even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges.

I find it intriguing that Gygax uses the phrase "fantasy adventure gaming" here. It's clearly a synonym for "fantasy role-playing game" and similar formulations, but it's also a reminder that, even in 1979, five years after the publication of OD&D, the matter of just what to call this hobby was still in flux (cue the comments telling me I need to read The Elusive Shift – yes, I do). 

In any case, what Gygax describes here is likely familiar to anyone who's been involved in the hobby for any length of time. Maintaining player interest is an eternal struggle and, in my experience, has only become stronger as the hobby has aged. As a younger person, the dangers lie in other activities or pursuits that competed with one's attention, while nowadays I've observed that it is the plethora of available RPGs that poses the greatest threat. "Gamer ADD" seems very prevalent these days and is the bane of any referee hoping to keep his campaign going for more than a few months. Despite this, Gygax holds out hope that "it is possible … to devise a campaign which will have a very minimal amount of participant attrition and enthusiast ennui, and it is not particularly difficult to do so."

He goes on:

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge, There must be always something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen.

This is a perennial topic for Gygax and one, I think, that was born out of extensive experience as a referee. He rightly understood that more fun – and long-term interest – depends in not a small way on the establishment of stakes for the players. This is why, for example, the possibility of character death is, in my opinion, vital to the long-term viability of a campaign. He continues:

Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be a backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in experience, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. 

Gygax packs a lot into this section, touching on three different topics in the space of a few sentences. First, he points out the necessity for a campaign setting, a wider world in which the characters live and against which their adventures are set. Second, he seems to suggest that the increase in a character's power, as represented by level and experience, mirrors their growth in importance in the setting itself. I don't think that's particularly controversial, but I'm not sure I've seen it articulated in this way. Finally, he connects the growth in character power to greater involvement to "the cosmic game." Given this perspective, it becomes clearer why Gygax continued place such an importance on alignment and why his Gord the Rogue series evolved the way it did. In any case, he clearly felt that one of the keys to keeping a campaign alive was to ensure that the actions of the player characters "have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement."

His next paragraph contains a great deal of wisdom as well.

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole, whether some side dungeon or quest or minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional "pure fun" scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment.

I can find little disagree with here, since it's all good sense, in particular the reminder that RPGs are, above all, games. This may explain in part his hostility toward amateur thespianism. Even if the two are unconnected, I do think we forget the "gamey-ness" of roleplaying at our peril. Like the pulp literature that inspired it, roleplaying games are meant to be enjoyed as a form of escapism. That's not to say that RPGs can't, let alone shouldn't occasionally touch on matters of lasting import, but that shouldn't be their primary purpose. Among the many lessons I've learned from my ongoing House of Worms campaign is that "serious" matters should never predominate. Continued enthusiasm and long-term engagement comes from an emphasis on "adventuresome" matters placed in a larger context and punctuated by occasional diversions. I'd say that Gygax's advice in the Dungeon Masters Guide comports with my own experience quite closely, demonstrating that, whatever his flaws as a businessman or public face for TSR, he knew what he was talking about when it came to refereeing. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Gygax, SPI, and AD&D

Issue #22 of Dragon (February 1979) is noteworthy for its inclusion of a lengthy "sneak preview" of the upcoming (August 1979) release of the Dungeon Masters Guide. The issue reprints most of the significant charts and tables from the DMG, as well as many new magic items (all of which, I believe, had appeared in AD&D modules) to help bridge the gap between OD&D and AD&D. As a historical document of the interim period between the publication of the last OD&D supplement (1976) and the completion of AD&D, I find it fascinating.

Even more fascinating, though, is a short piece by Gary Gygax entitled "SPI on AD&D®" (please note the registered trademark symbol). In it, Gygax is reacting to "a recent review of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® PLAYERS HANDBOOK on SPI's house organ, STRATEGY & TACTICS." Gygax doesn't cite the specific issue in which this review, by Richard Berg, appears, but I assume it must be from either late 1978 or early 1979. He takes issue with Berg's comments on the PHB and accuses him of "pontificating from a lofty height," despite the fact that Berg "does not play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS®." According to Gygax, Berg's sin is in asserting that the "PLAYERS HANDBOOK was not a game design but merely a rewriting of what had already been given in the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS." Now we begin to see the crux of the matter!

Gygax sums up his position in the article's last paragraph:

Leaving aside the schoolyard name-calling, it's clear that what really chaps Gygax's hide is the not-unreasonable claim that AD&D is derivative of OD&D. Despite his boasting about sales, I don't believe it was because his ego was bruised that Gygax wrote this and other similar articles in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. Rather, it's because, at this moment in time, Dave Arneson was launching court cases against TSR predicated in large part on the claim that he was owed royalties for works derivative of OD&D. If, as Berg suggests, AD&D is nothing more than a rehash of OD&D, then Arneson's claim has some credence and TSR would owe him a great deal of money. 

I don't think this is controversial; others have commented on it many times before. What I find interesting about this particular instance is that Gygax – and presumably TSR – felt the need to vociferously denounce a single review that, from what I gather wasn't even negative in the main, simply because its author alluded to the ultimate pedigree of AD&D. Granted, Strategy & Tactics was an important and influential hobby magazine at the time and Berg an important designer, but, absent context, Gygax's little article seems needlessly incendiary and petty. When one realizes how much was actually at stake, it begins to make much more sense, though I still can't help but feel that Gygax's approach was unworthy of him.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Randomness Fetishism

I've long argued that an essential feature of old school play is randomness. Embracing the oracular power of dice is something in which I believe quite strongly and have employed to good effect many times in my ongoing campaigns. My feeling remains that we ought not lose sight of the fact that, when we're playing Dungeons & Dragons or Traveller or whatever, we are playing a game and a key feature of any game is uncertainty. No player – and here I include the referee as a player – can wholly determine the outcome of play. There are lots of ways to achieve this, but the most common ones involve randomizers of some sort, dice being popular but cards or chits are also possible.

I've been pleased to see, in recent years, a greater appreciation of randomness and the gameplay elements that can only emerge through its introduction, such as surprise. We play games for many reasons, of course, but I'd wager that one of their chief joys is contending with the unexpected. If we could predict precisely what was going to happen in a game before we sat down to play it, what would be the point? Indeed, much of our entertainment depends on, or at least includes, moments of surprise. It's for this reason that most games (though obviously not all) include random elements. It's also why I bristle somewhat when I hear people refer to roleplaying games as exercises in "collaborative storytelling," unless one is including randomness as an equal collaborator. 

I bring all this up because I've also noticed that random tables and the creation of them have become almost a badge of "old school-ness," to such an extent, in fact, that they seem to be everywhere. Just the other day, for example, I was reading an avowedly old school product and the first thing I noticed was just how many random tables it included – too many, in my opinion. No doubt some of you are wondering how I could say that, given all of the foregoing and it's a fair question, though not one whose answer I can easily articulate. My gut feeling is that, while one should welcome randomness in a game, one shouldn't turn it into an idol. That's why Gary Gygax's scene from Futurama is so amusing: it pokes fun at the notion that one might look to dice rolls to determine one's own mental state.

Now, I love random tables and use them often. Well crafted ones are exceptionally useful tools for any referee. One of my favorite blogs consists of nothing but random tables, many of them intended to be read with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But random tables – and randomness in general – cannot and should not be replacements for imagination and thought. They can be spurs to both, in addition to helping one break out of creative ruts but I sometimes wonder if we who enjoy old school games don't fetishize randomness to the point that we are in danger of becoming caricatures like Gygax's cartoon alter ego. Like other aspects of old school play, such as the emphasis on player skill or the ever-present danger of death, randomness should is only part of the equation – an important one, to be sure, and one I am glad is receiving a fairer hearing these days, but I sometimes worry if it's now over-emphasized, almost to the point of self-parody. 

Retrospective: Kingmaker

Though I have dabbled, I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself a wargamer (everybody taken a drink). That said, there are a handful of "historical simulation games" that I've played a great deal over the years. One of the most prominent is Kingmaker, designed by Andrew McNeil and originally published by PhilMar in the United Kingdom in 1974. I never saw that version of the game. Instead, I first encountered Kingmaker in its US edition, released the following year by Avalon Hill. 

Kingmaker is a simulation of the Wars of the Roses, a civil war of the 15th century fought for control of the English throne between two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty. These branches, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, each used a different colored rose (red and white respectively) as their symbols, hence the popular name of he conflict. Being very fond of medieval history, the subject held great appeal to me, as did the fact that it could accommodate a variable number of players, from two to seven, thereby making it a perfect game to play while waiting for friends to arrive for a weekly gaming session (back in the days when people still saw one another in person). Another element of the game's appeal to me was its lack of concern for how the actual Wars of the Roses played out. 

Unlike some wargames, before and since, which place a premium on ensuring events unfold in a manner vaguely approximating history, Kingmaker is sufficiently open-ended that counterfactual things can and do happen. Thus, Richard Plantagenet can die of plague in Calais rather than ascending St Edward's Chair as King Richard III, for example. This greatly appealed to me and one of my continued frustrations with many contemporary wargame designs is the concern for modeling the flow of real world history rather than using past historical conflicts as a frame for a more wide-ranging game. Consequently, Kingmaker remains for me the gold standard of what I hope for in a wargame, despite its age and occasionally infelicitous mechanics.

Each player controls a faction in the civil war, being dealt resource cards that represents things such as people, which is to say nobles; offices, cities and towns, military forces, and so forth. The goal of the game is to marshal sufficient resources to have one of the nobles your faction controls crowned king of England, a process that takes time and a great deal of effort. What I love about Kingmaker is that the throne cannot generally be won solely through strength of arms but through a combination of a success in battle, diplomacy, and dumb luck. The game includes numerous random events that can disrupt one's well laid plans, such as the aforementioned plague, as well as revolts, piracy, and the summoning of Parliament. Random events ensured that even the most skillful and clever player might suffer a serious reversal, a fact I know annoyed many players but which I thought was key to keeping the game's re-playability.  

Because a player's faction is made up of named nobles, some of whom hold specific offices, like Chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall or Warden of the Northern Marches, Kingmaker games inevitably acquired pseudo-roleplaying elements. One came to identify with the noblemen of your faction, investing them with hopes and goals, almost as if they were characters in a RPG. This kind of identification with one's "pieces" is, I understand it, quite commonplace in wargames and no doubt led to the birth of roleplaying as a separate, derivative hobby. Reading Tony Bath's descriptions of his various campaigns as I have been lately, I see a similar dynamic in action. Playing Kingmaker gave me a greater understanding of the process by which my preferred hobby was born.

Like Revolt on Antares, Kingmaker is a wargame I once played a great deal and, as a consequence, has deeply influenced my expectations of what a wargame can and should be. I still own a copy of the Avalon Hill version, but I don't think I've played it since the last century. That may need to change. It's a truly excellent game that's given me untold hours of enjoyment – not bad for a game that's almost half a century old.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Happy Birthday, Dr Holmes

I cannot believe that I almost failed to note the birthday of John Eric Holmess, born this day in 1930. 

Fortunately, Zach over at Zenopus Archives reminded me of it with his own post. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, the 1977 Holmes-edited Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set was my introduction to the hobby and I retain an immense fondness for it. Without the rulebook contained within that box, I might never have taken up this hobby that has brought me so much pleasure for most of my life. I feel I owe a debt to Dr Holmes that I can never repay. His memory should be celebrated, especially on this day.

Steve Jackson on Roleplaying

I mentioned in my earlier post on issue #2 of Different Worlds that Steve Jackson said some very interesting things about roleplaying, some of which I reproduce below. Apologies for the length but I think it's sufficiently intriguing to justify it.

These five paragraphs offer so much meat that I could (and may) write many posts dissecting them. For me, it's his two anecdotes, the first about the Chivalry & Sorcery campaign and the second about Gimme the Dwarf, that resonate most strongly. In reading them, I found myself remembering Gary Gygax's fulminations against "amateur thespianism" and wondering whether either of these anecdotes would be examples of the kind of play he disliked. Regardless, I think Jackson, in his article, points to a longstanding fault line in the hobby – between those for whom RPGs are "just a game" and those for whom roleplaying is an opportunity to "become someone else" for a time. 

Different Worlds: Issue #2

Issue #2 of Different Worlds (April 1979) features a cover by William Church (creator of one of my favorite RPG maps) and Steve Oliff. The issue kicks off with another installment of Charlie Krank's "Beginner's Brew," this one subtitled "... and you say that this is a game?" The article is aimed at first-time referees and focuses on the nuts and bolts of designing an adventuring locale. Krank even offers up a sample locale to illustrate his points. Like last issue's article, this is fine as far as it goes and the adventure locale it presents is actually quite intriguing. 

Steve Lortz reviews a game I've never heard of, Legacy, written by David A. Feldt. If Lortz's review is to be believed, Legacy is "a signal work in the expansion of role-play," but it's difficult to tell precisely what the game is about. It appears to be a game about the Neolithic era, but the review says little more. A quick search online reveals that Legacy is quite infamous for its convoluted and unclear rules, something even Lortz alludes to in his otherwise positive review. 

The second part of Mike Gunderloy's "Specialty Mages" is a meaty one indeed, covering six pages and providing details on mages of light, darkness, fire, and ice. While none of this is material I'd personally use in any of my own games, it's nevertheless fascinating to see early D&D variants, particularly those that appeared in publications outside of TSR's orbit. Elaine Normandy and John T. Sapienza Jr have written "Character Name Tables," which are just that: random tables for generating the names of humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits, as seen in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The next installment of "My Life in Role-Playing" includes articles by both Steve Jackson and David A. Feldt, writer of the aforementioned Legacy. Jackson's piece is very fascinating and includes some interesting anecdotes about his The Fantasy Trip campaign, as well as his thoughts on roleplaying, that I'll share in an upcoming post. Feldt's article article is fascinating too but only because it's so bizarre. In it, he presents a probably tongue in cheek future history in which it's revealed that reality is itself a roleplaying game of sorts overseen by the Game Overall Director. I'm still confused.

"Starships & Spacemen Expansion Kit" by Leonard Kanterman is a collection of new rules and options for his 1977 Star Trek-inspired RPG. "Lord of the Dice" is a humorous set of one-page roleplaying game rules by Greg Costikyan. I share the developer's notes here, since they give you a good sense of the thing's overall flavor.

"Arduin, Bloody Arduin" is Dave Hargrave's overview of his famous game and campaign setting. Accompanies by a hand-drawn map, it's a good article for anyone interested in the setting and Hargrave's own philosophy of gaming. Like the previous installment of this series in issue #1, I enjoyed this one a lot and look forward to seeing more designers talk about their home campaigns. 

Steve Perrin writes about "The Cacodemon Cult" for RuneQuest and Steve Lortz appears again with "Dramatic Structure of RPGs." I must confess to finding the article, which begins by comparing RPGs to movies, quite tedious. It's precisely the kind of unnecessarily abstract philosophizing about gaming that sets my teeth on edge. Much more enjoyable is the very first column by the pseudonym Gigi D'Arn, the roleplaying hobby's famed gossip columnist. I could – and probably should – write an entire post about this first installment, because it's filled with lots of amusement, not to mention genuine gossip, such as 

So far as I know, the identity of Gigi has never been revealed, though I believe the most common theory is that she was not a single person but rather a house name used by editor Tadashi Ehara and anyone else who submitted bits to the published piece. From the vantage point of 2021, though, it's fun to read columns like this, if only to get a sense of what the hobby was like at the end of the 1970s – small but growing and still very clubbish. This is right before I started gaming and, though I never participated in its directly, being just a little too young, echoes of it could still be heard. I'd be lying if I didn't say I miss those days.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Index Cards

In my mid-teens, I started getting "serious" about my playing of roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons. It was around this time that I stopped using pre-made settings like the World of Greyhawk and instead created one of my own. This setting, which I called Emaindor, had its own hand-drawn map (of course!) as well as a couple of binders full of setting details I spent untold hours coming up with (or stealing). That's what I mean by serious.

A related project was a catalog of all Emaindor's named non-player characters, from the emperor of Almeria to the proprietor of of the Free City of Zwardzand's most popular tavern. I don't know where I got this idea – probably an article in Dragon, if I had to guess – but it was one to which I devoted a great deal of energy. I wrote up the NPCs on index cards, which I placed in a lovely wooden card file I'd inherited from my grandfather. Each card had the NPC's name, class, level, and other game statistics, along with a brief physical description and information on his connections to other NPCs (or PCs). 

In the end, I produced a couple of hundred of these cards. Making them almost became a game in itself, as I thought about the important and not-so-important people of Emaindor and imagined their lives and activities. Sadly, I'm not absolutely certain what became of my file box. Up until a couple of summers ago, it rested safely in my childhood home. I might have snagged it and brought it back with me to my house but, if so, I can't find it. A couple of years ago, my mother sold that house and moved and it's also possible she has the file box in a small collection of my possessions she held onto. With the world being what is right now, I haven't been able to visit her and so I cannot confirm whether she still has the file box.

I thought about my file box as I read Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign. In Chapter 6 ("Characterisation"), he talks about the importance of establishing the personalities of the leaders of various factions and power groups within a campaign. He adds:

Then for each character I have an index card. These are filed alphabetically under family names so that if I want to look up the card for Ramaos Vanir I merely look in the tray under V. Each card is headed with the name in block capitals. Under this I record first of all his immediate family history, such as "Son of Ban Cruach, Crown Prince of Aquilonia" or "Second daughter to Vakar, Prince of Hyrkania", since this helps to establish the generation and the direct family line... After this is recorded the character, and then follows any information which is added from time to time – the barony he inherited on the death of his father, his marriage to such and such a person, promotion to command a brigade, taken prisoner at the battle of blank; it all helps keep the records straight, and while much of it may never be used, you will be surprised at how much of it can come in useful at times.

Reading that mirrored my own youthful experiences with NPC index files. I was particularly struck by his comment about how even odd, seemingly pointless information can prove useful in the long run. Perhaps unsurprisingly, M.A.R. Barker kept a similar card file of the NPCs of his Tékumel campaigns. Barker was a miniatures wargamer, after all, and had almost certainly read Bath. Whether his practice was directly inspired by Bath, I can't say but that's not important. What is important, I think, is that both these titans of gaming recognized the importance of keeping track of vital – in the most expansive sense – information for the campaign. 

Following their example (and that of my youthful self), I've done something similar for my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign (and the Riphaeus Sector Traveller campaign before it ended), albeit in virtual form. Over the last nearly-six years, I've amassed a large file of all the NPCs the player characters have met or heard of, along with relevant details about them. It's proven quite useful over the years and has, in a couple of notable instances, made my job as a referee much easier, since I didn't need to create a NPC from whole cloth on the spot but could instead pluck a suitable one out of my file. It's a practice I recommend most highly to referees of any game, especially those whose campaigns are open-ended, long-running, and rambling, as mine tend to be these days.

The Enemies of Man


A new episode of the Tékumel podcast, the Hall of Blue Illumination, which I do with Victor Raymond, was released last week. The episode deals with the Ssú, one of the aboriginal species of Tékumel, before the arrival of humanity and its allies. 

From the first, the Ssú (and their cousins the Hlüss and the Chürstálli) have been justifiably hostile to the invaders of their world, earning them the sobriquet "the Enemies of Man." Their hostility has kept them quite mysterious; Victor and I discuss what's known about them and speculate on matters about which there is only fragmentary evidence at best. 

A King Comes Riding

Conan the Barbarian was, far and away, one of Marvel's most successful comics during the 1970s, spawning not just a second title, the black and white, adult-oriented Savage Sword of Conan, but also Red Sonja and other related series. So popular was Conan that Marvel regularly found ways to include him in non-sword and sorcery comics, such as multiple issues of What If?, where he battles Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America. Interestingly, Spider-Man, Marvel's other powerhouse character from the same era, never met Conan (though he did meet Red Sonja).

Instead, Marvel Team-Up #112 (December 1981) sees Spidey interact with another Robert E. Howard character, Kull of Atlantis – sort of. In the previous issue of Marvel Team-Up, the Webslinger joined forces with Devil-Slayer to fight Serpent Men. As it turns out, these Serpent Men are the same breed as those from the time of King Kull. One of the Serpent Men injected Spider-Man with venom that was slowly killing him, in large part because – and I'm not making this up – he has "much in common" with the Spider-People, who are (apparently) the ancestral enemies of the Serpent Men. Hey, if you can't trust Dr Strange about these matters, whom can you trust?
The only cure for this venom lies in the ancient past, during the height of the Serpent People's power, when Kull was king of Valusia. However, because Spider-Man's physical body is too injured from the effects of the poison, Dr Strange – who, he reminds Spidey, is "a doctor of both the mundane – and the mystical" – plans to project his astral form into the past. Once there, he has the ability to possess people and to control their actions, which he does almost immediately, foiling a plot to assassinate Kull.
Grateful, Kull calls the young man to his court to reward him, but he cannot remember anything of the events, except the feeling that something had entered his body and took control of him. Kull suspects sorcery or the work of spirits. Spider-Man then possesses the king's boon companion, Brule, and explains to Kull and his chief counselor, Tu, who he is and why he has come. Unfortunately, they explain that the only person who knows how to cure Serpent Man venom is the renegade Pictish shaman, Ju-Lak, who is described as "evil – insane – a dealer with demons!" However, Kull feels he owes a debt to Spider-Man for saving his life and agrees to accompany him into Pictland to seek out Ju-Lak.

As these kinds of stories go, it's not terrible – a little ridiculous, of course, even by the standards of superhero comics but far from the worst I've ever read. I couldn't help but wonder what Robert E. Howard would have thought about it, if he had been able to see it himself. Compared to Conan's interactions with Marvel universe characters, this comic was remarkably low key and restrained. The device of Spider-Man astral projecting into the past makes sense, given the involvement of Dr Strange (but I've always had a soft spot for the Sorcerer Supreme). I also appreciated that the writer, J.M. DeMatteis, made an effort to distinguish Kull from Conan by his actions (he spares Ju-Lak, for example, rather than slay him). All in all, it's not a bad comic for what it is.

Bazaar Closed

I've written before about Milton Bradley's 1981 electronic-assisted boardgame, Dark Tower, whose appearance coincided almost perfectly with my initiation into the hobby of roleplaying. Consequently, I played the heck out of this game, particularly with a close friend from elementary school who shared my burgeoning interest in RPGs. Though the game itself is nothing amazing, its artwork is. Milton Bradley tapped Bob Pepper for both Dark Tower and the 1982 card game, Dragonmaster and it's primarily because of their illustrations that I still remember both games. 

Pepper's artwork, which evinces roots in Art Deco and Art Nouveau, graced the covers of numerous album covers in the 1960s and '70s. He also provided covers for entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I don't think it's a coincidence that Milton Bradley turned to Pepper. In my opinion, their employment of him is a recognition of the continuity between fantasy games and fantasy literature that still existed at the time.

Whether one agrees with this thesis or not, there's no question that Pepper's artwork is incredibly evocative. Take, for example, this image, which had a profound effect on me as a young person:

Even though the Monster Manual included an entry for brigands as a Chaotic Evil sub-type of bandit, I had somehow not noticed it. That's why, for years afterward, whenever I heard the word "brigand," I thought of this illustration. I have no idea what these creatures are, but their appearance is both distinctive and subtly unnerving (the repetition of the image probably contributes to that as well).
This is another image that I can easily recall from memory. With his ram's horns headdress, he reminds me a bit of Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, albeit of a more serious demeanor. There's also a hint of psychedelia in the image, with the colored smoke streaming from the wizard's face – something that was very common in fantasy artwork from the period.
The dragon is another memorable image, probably because its appearance in the game was a dire portent. If you're interested in seeing more of Pepper's artwork from the game, take a look at this site, which is dedicated to Dark Tower and its gameplay. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Cursed be the City

Nowadays, Henry Kuttner is not very well known. His wife, C(atherine) L(ucille) Moore, is much more celebrated, despite the fact that she and Kuttner regularly collaborated on fiction during the 1940s and '50s. A likely reason for this is that Kuttner, like many pulp writers, had more than a dozen known pseudonyms under which his stories appeared. For example, many of his most famous tales appear under the name of Lewis Padgett, a pen name he and Moore used jointly. Consequently, a lot of Kuttner's work gets lost in the shuffle, aside from his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos (which, I believe, Chaosium once collected into a single volume during the 1990s). 

That's too bad, because Kuttner produced a number of interesting pulp fantasy stories that are worthy of one's attention. I'm not talking his "Elak of Atlantis" yarns, one of which formed the basis for a previous entry in this series. Though fun (and funny), I remain unsure whether or not they were intended to be read as anything other than parodies of the nascent genre of sword and sorcery. On the other hand, his two tales of Prince Raynor are more serious efforts in the vein of Robert E. Howard, as we shall see. Both appeared in the pages of Strange Stories, a would-be competitor to Weird Tales that lasted only thirteen issues before folding. During its short run, it nevertheless managed to attract the talents of many notable pulp writers, such as Kuttner, Moore, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and Seabury Quinn, among others. Its editor was Mort Weisinger, who would later achieve fame for his work at DC Comics during its Golden and Silver Ages.

"Cursed be the City" appeared in the April 1939 issue of the magazine and begins in what would seem to be an imitation of Howard's quotation from the inaugural Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword." Kuttner's version, from "the tale of Sakhmet the Damned," reads thus:

This is the tale they tell, O King: That era the royal banners were lifted upon the tall towers of Chaldean Ur, before the Winged Pharaohs reigned in secret Aegyptus, there were mighty empires far to the east. There in that vast desert known as the Cradle of Mankind – aye, even in the heart of the measureless Gobi – great wars were fought and high palaces thrust their minarets up to the purple Asian sky. But this, O King, was long ago, beyond the memory of the oldest sage; the splendor of Imperial Gobi lives now only in the dreams of minstrels and poets....

The Nemedian Chronicles it is not, but, even so, it establishes that "Cursed be the City" is a story set in the mythical past of Earth, before either Ur or Pharaonic Egypt flourished, a common convention of early sword and sorcery tales. The mighty city of Sardopolis, "Jewel of the Gobi," is under siege by the armies of King Cyaxares. During the siege, a white-bearded old man – a prophet, we are told – predicts the fall of Sardopolis to its enemies. He also predicts a bad end for the invaders as well:

"Ye shall ride through the streets of the city in triumph. And your king shall mount the silver throne. Yet from the forest shall come your doom; an old doom shall come down upon you, and none shall escape. He shall return – He – the mighty one who dwelt here once...."

With that, the prophet leaps from the walls onto the spears of the invaders, who taunt him from below, and dies. Not a bad start to the story!

As predicted, King Cyaxares seizes the throne of Sardopolis, killing its ruler, King Chalem, and throwing his body to the vultures. Not long afterwards, he captures Chalem's son, Raynor, and sends him off to be tortured. With this, Cyaxares speaks to his aide, a mysterious dark-haired youth known as Necho, whom the conqueror seems not to like.

"... It was an evil day when we met, Necho."

Low laughter came. "Yet you summoned me, as I remember. I was content enough in my own place, till you sent your summons."

Involuntarily the king shuddered. "I would Ishtar had sent down her lightning upon me that night."

"Ishtar? You worship another god now."

As the pair bicker, it becomes apparent that Necho is in fact a demon of some sort and that Cyaxares has entered into a Faustian bargain with him for "all power on earth, fair women and treasure beyond imagination" in exchange for serving Necho after his death. The king regrets being "the first to bring shame upon our royal blood" by his actions, but he can see no way out. Like it or not, he is bound by his pact with Necho.

Meanwhile, Raynor is rescued from torture by his servant Eblik and the duo flee the palace, bent on revenge against Cyaxares and his invading army. They make their way to the temple of Ahmon, where they meet a nameless priest who gives them sanctuary and provides them with a talisman that, if used properly, will summon the ancient forest god, banished long ago from the city. Raynor vows to make use of the talisman to unleash divine Chaos upon the enemies who slew his father and brought Sardopolis low.

"Cursed be the City" is fast-paced and tells a compelling story with a great ending. Kuttner's prose is spare and his dialog to the point. He does not luxuriate in descriptions the way that Howard might and his focus is far more on "the big picture" than one the characters themselves, who are only briefly sketched. At the same time, I enjoyed the tale he was telling, even if I did wonder why his prehistoric world, before Ur and Egypt, made reference to so many gods, places, and things associated with recorded history. The story would, in my opinion, been improved by the creation of wholly new references. That criticism aside, "Cursed be the City" is fun pulp fantasy that amply demonstrates why more people should know the name of Henry Kuttner.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

REVIEW: The Basic Rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG

More than a decade ago, Rob Conley wrote and published a supplement for use with Swords & Wizardry and other OD&D-descended fantasy roleplaying games which he entitled Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands. I wrote a positive review of the book at that time and, having re-read it in preparation for doing this review, my opinion of it hasn't changed. If anything, I'd say my opinion has improved. A big reason for this is that it's very clear that it's the fruit of years of play, reflecting not just Conley's thoughts about what make good fantasy RPG rules but what has actually worked at his table over many years. As I said in my original review, I'm not wholly on board with every design decision Conley made but so what? There's scarcely a RPG product with which I have no reservations and I imagine that's the case for most people. In the end, though, The Majestic Wilderlands was a well presented rules supplement informed by years of both thought and play.

Consequently, I was pleased to hear that Conley had produced a new iteration of his supplement, this one called The Basic Rules for the Majesty Fantasy RPG (hereafter Basic Rules). Taking the form of a 204-page digest-sized book, Basic Rules contains everything needed to generate characters of levels 1–5 and referee their adventures – classes, races, spells, combat rules, monsters, treasures, and more. Though based on Swords & Wizardry, just like The Majestic Wilderlands, it's fully – and easily – adaptable to any fantasy roleplaying game derived from the original 1974 rules. 

That said, I think it important to point out the Basic Rules is not a clone as usually understood but rather a specific iteration of the 1974 rules modified, augmented, and otherwise altered to bring them in line with Conley's Majestic Fantasy Realms setting. This is reflected in two ways. First, many elements of the rules presentation explicitly connects to the setting. For example, the cleric class is not generic but instead represents a member of the militant arm of the church of Delaquain. goddess of war and justice. Second, scattered throughout the text are asides called "Rob's Notes," where Conley offers insights into why he adopted certain rules or rules modifications. I was particularly taken with these, not just because I enjoy reading about how other referees think but also because they drew my attention to deviations from the way things are generally done in OD&D-descended RPGs. For instance, Conley explains why he chose the spells included on a random table for scrolls – a small point perhaps but one I appreciated nonetheless.

Given all this, one might reasonably wonder, "What distinguishes Basic Rules for any of the literally dozens of other variations on the 1974 rules?" It's a fair question and one that Conley anticipates in his foreword, where he explains

A central feature of my campaigns is allowing the players to "trash" the setting by making their mark. Sometimes they only impact a single locale; other times they impact entire regions. Because of this, what characters do outside of adventuring is important. To support this, I created an ability system to handle some of the many things players may attempt to do outside of combat or magic. 

"Abilities" are a bit like broad-based skills, something I have, in the past, been suspicious of adding to old school D&D. Six years of refereeing Empire of the Petal Throne, which includes a rudimentary skill system, has softened my stance on the matter and I better appreciate what Conley has done here. There are only twenty abilities and members of any class can attempt them, though each class gets certain bonuses when attempting those most closely associated with their training. Though many of the abilities are what one would expect – climbing, perception, physician – others, such as haggling or herblore are not. These unexpected ones often relate to "what characters do outside of adventuring" and, I suspect, tie into systems like magic item creation that might get more fully fleshed out in a future Advanced Rules. Even without such a thing, I found them well chosen and their in-game uses well explained.

Even more interesting in my opinion are the combat options of Basic Rules. While still conforming to the overall texture of OD&D-style combat, Basic Rules introduces numerous simple but useful wrinkles. Most weapons, for example, have unique characteristics that set them apart from others, providing bonuses (e.g. the mace's effectiveness against chain armor or a crossbow's greater accuracy) that make them attractive in certain situations. There are also expanded rules for shields, combat stunts, and critical hits/misses, each of which is simple in itself but, when taken together, adds real options to play. More importantly, they've clearly been added with care and an eye toward ease of use, injecting some much needed flavor into the often-bland 1974 combat system. 

This same care and sensitivity to ease of use can be found throughout the book. Equipment, magic, NPCs, monsters, treasures, and more contain subtle differences that are flavorful and reflective of Conley's own tastes while not being so far removed from the baseline most of his readers already know from having played other OD&D descendants. Reading through Basic Rules, it quickly became clear to me what Conley's campaigns are like – open-ended, "sandboxy," and, above all, immersive in the setting itself – qualities very near and dear to my own heart. If you too have a fondness for campaigns of this sort and are looking for a supplement to inspire you, The Basic Rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG might be exactly what you're looking for.