Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Retrospective: The Free City of Haven

I have a longstanding fascination with cities in fantasy settings. If I had to guess, I suspect its roots lie in my love of Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which seized my imagination in a powerful way. Even now, when I imagine a large city in a fantasy setting, my default conception is Lankhmar. As little as I think of Deities & Demigods, I was nevertheless very fond of the chapter devoted to Nehwon, particularly its entry on the inhabitants of the Street of the Gods (the so-called Gods of Lankhmar, as opposed to the God in Lankhmar). 

In the various campaigns I've refereed over the years, I almost always establish the existence of at least one large city. In the Emaindor campaign of my youth, there was the city of Zwardzand – a No-Prize to anyone who recognizes where I stole that from – and, in my Dwimmermount campaign, there was the city-state of Adamas. In both campaigns, the cities in question were never focal points; the player characters visited them for brief times but rarely stayed for long. Thus, the itch to referee an urban fantasy campaign after the fashion of Leiber's stories has never come to pass. Nevertheless, my interest in refereeing such a campaign in unabated and I continue to think about the possibility of undertaking it one day. 

The first RPG product I ever encountered that seemed geared to supporting such a thing was The Free City of Haven by Gamelords. No doubt some of you reading this will ask, not unreasonably, "What about City State of the Invincible Overlord?" Fond as I am of that venerable Judges Guild product, CSIO doesn't quite have the feel I'd want for such a campaign. It's too much of a kitchen sink, filled with monsters and other oddities that, while terrific for a certain style of fantasy, seem at odds with the noir-tinged sword-and-sorcery escapades of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Tastes differ, of course, but, for me, The Free City of Haven came closest to doing what I wanted.

First published in 1981, Haven was presented as a large collection of three-hole punched pages in a ziplock bag, along with many maps – not too dissimilar from the format of Thieves' Guild, published the previous year. Employing two columns and a tiny font, Haven is positively bursting with information, which is what wowed me about it when I first saw it. In addition to all the usual information you'd expect, such as a history of the city and descriptions of the major factions, it details innumerable NPCs, both major and minor. They run the gamut from influential members of the various powerful families that control aspects of the city to business owners, guards, urchins, and more.

In many ways, the NPCs are the heart and soul of Haven. While the product details each of the ciy's boroughs with information on significant buildings, it's the NPCs – or "personalities," as the text calls them – that bring the place to life. Reading through the entries, one feels as if Haven is populated by real people. Each described NPC has a name and game statistics, of course, but, more importantly, he has individuality. This helps the referee in portraying him and his role in the city, as well as the NPC's interests and goals, many of which are vital to spinning adventures within the city.

This NPC-centric approach was, I think, a novel one at the time. While there are plenty of descriptions of buildings and locations, they don't form the bulk of Haven's text. Instead, the emphasis is solidly on Haven's inhabitants and how they fit into the larger picture of this independent and faction-ridden city. For that reason, Haven provides many examples of encounters or scenarios to be had within the walls of the city. These vary considerably in size and complexity, with some being the kind of thing a referee could easily use to enliven a few minutes and others being the basis for an extended series of sessions. This is in addition to an extensive random encounter table that's divided up by city borough.

If I have a complaint about The Free City of Haven, it's that there so much material packed in its loose pages that it can be very hard to keep track of it all. At the time, when I was more mentally agile, this didn't bother me and I had little trouble remembering where to find the details I required. Nowadays, though, it's a fair bit harder to use. In that respect, it's very much an amateur product, especially when compared to the publications of TSR or Chaosium from the same time period. I know that a second edition of Haven was published as a boxed set in 1984, but, not having seen it, I can't speak to whether it also included an easier to use presentation. Even if it didn't, there can be little doubt that The Free City of Haven is a gem from the first decade of the hobby, a useful and imaginative fantasy RPG product I continue to admire. If I ever do get around to running an urban fantasy campaign, you can be sure I'll be taking a look at The Free City of Haven for inspiration.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Different Worlds: Issue #8

Issue #8 of Different Worlds (June/July 1980) features a cover by Steve Oliff and opens with an article by Robert Harder entitled "Teaching Role-Playing," another entry in the continuing "Better Game Mastering" series. Despite its title, the article is not about how to teach someone to play a RPG but rather about the process of becoming and developing one's skills as a Game Master. I have a fondness for these kinds of articles, especially older ones, since they sometimes offer unique perspectives on the art of refereeing. Harder has a number of worthy insights to share, including his emphasis a gaming session as a "social gathering" and his belief that a session "should not exceed three hours." The latter point is one I feel very keenly these, though I would never have accepted it in my youth, when four to six hours – or longer – was a more common length.

John T. Sapienza has written D&D variant article called "Sleep vs. Mixed Parties." Sapienza's concern is that, as written, the sleep spell is difficult to adjudicate against enemies with mixed hit dice. Consequently, he proposes rewriting the spell to be both clearer and somewhat less powerful, while also leaving the door open to higher-level versions of the spell. I don't have much to say about Sapienza's specific point, but I will say that I generally appreciate seeing articles like this, since they reflect a culture of play and reveal the idiosyncrasies of individual referees. To my mind, this is where roleplaying lives and it ought to be applauded.

"Alien and Starships & Spacemen" by Leonard Kanterman is a both a review of the 1979 science fiction film, Alien, and a scenario inspired by it for use with the aforementioned RPG. It's fine for what it is, though it's very grim for a game inspired by the original series of Star Trek. John T. Sapienza re-appears with another article, "Talent Tables," intended as a follow-up to his "Developing a Character's Appearance" piece in issue #5. This article is in a similar vein, providing a D1000 table that confers minor (+1 or +2) bonuses in a wide variety of situations to characters. For my tastes, it's a lot of unnecessary work for very little mechanical benefit, but, again, I think articles like this arose out of the play of individual campaigns and, for that reason alone, I have a certain affection for them nonetheless. Sapienza also penned a review of four RPG products from a company called Bearhug Game Accessories. The products are a series of counters for keeping track of equipment and treasure – an idea I've seen in other contexts and that definitely has something to recommend it.

Lewis Pulsipher's "Defining the Campaign: Game Master Styles" is an overview of the kinds of decisions a referee must make in describing his campaign, such its degrees of believability, risk, reward, the extent to which the referee is truly impartial, and so on. Pulsipher does a good job, I think, of outlining many of the big questions. Simon Magister's "Composite Bows" is a historical article about the development and use of these weapons and interesting if you're into this kind of thing. There's a review of Heritage's Dungeon Dwellers line of miniatures by – guess who? – John T. Sapienza. I didn't own many of this line, but I enjoy retrospectives on old school minis like this; they're a terrific blast of nostalgia.

Anders Swenson provides a very positive review of the D&D module The Keep on the Borderlands. Ron Weaver's "Zelan the Beast" is a Gloranthan cult for RuneQuest. Dave Arneson and Steve Perrin review the two volumes of Walter William's Tradition of Victory Age of Fighting Sale wargame and RPG. Perrin also reviews Advanced Melee and Wizard by Steve Jackson, both of which he highly praises. Lee Gold, meanwhile, describes "How I Designed Land of the Rising Sun," her RPG of feudal Japan. This is a fine article, since Gold talks not just about how she designed the game's rules but also the process of research, writing, and rewriting that led to the game's final form – very fascinating stuff! "Alignment on Trial" by David R. Dunham is exactly what you'd expect: another entry in the hoary genre of why alignment is too simple/limited/inadequate/just plain dumb. To be fair to Dunham, his perspective is more nuanced than that, though it does at times have the air of a teenager reading philosophy for the first time and suddenly thinking he's thought things no other human has ever thought. 

The issue ends with Gigi D'Arn's column, filled, as ever, with terrific tidbits from gaming's past. For example, it notes that the three volumes of Dave Hargrave's Arduin series have sold 40,000 copies! Not bad. There's also a reference to TSR's ending of its exclusive distribution arrangement with Games Workshop, no doubt a prelude to the establishment of TSR UK. Apropos recent discussions, Gigi notes that the name of SPI's then-upcoming fantasy RPG had run into a trademark snag with Martian Metals, which is not what I was expecting to read. There's also mention that school board of Heber City, Utah has "chucked D&D" (whatever that means in this case) because "townspeople found it un-Christian, communistic, liable to leave players open to Satanic influence, etc." I've said before that I never personally experienced much pushback against RPGs because of their supposed Satanism, but it was apparently a very real thing in some places and this is evidence of that, I guess.

In any case, Different Worlds is clearly growing more confident and interesting. I very much enjoyed this issue and will be curious to see where the magazine goes in future issues.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Straggler from Atlantis

While the Pulp Fantasy Library series encompasses more books and authors than those listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N, I nevertheless regularly consult the list when preparing to write another entry. Today's post connects to not one but two names included in that famed appendix: Manly Wade Wellman and Andrew J. Offutt. 

I've written about Wellman many times previously, mostly in reference to his Appalachian Silver John stories, which are worthy of great praise, if only because their protagonist is a bard-like character I don't dislike (I have an intense dislike for the bard class, for reasons I might one day articulate here). Offutt, on the other hand, on the other hand, receives far less attention, mostly because, outside of his work on Thieves' World, I'm not all that familiar with his fiction. His work as an editor is much more celebrated and it's in this context that his name appears in Appendix N. 

Offutt's Swords Against Darkness series, consisting of five books published between 1977 and 1979, was an anthology of original "heroic fantasy in the tradition of Robert E. Howard" by established and up-and-coming writers. Gygax specifically singled out the third volume in the series for special mention in Appendix N, though I'm not entirely sure why (I doubt it was because of Poul Anderson's contribution). Despite this, I think all five volumes are worthwhile reads, containing some memorable pieces of short fantasy fiction, such as Wellman's "Straggler from Atlantis."

The story, the first of six published between 1977 and 1986, introduces us to Kardios, the last survivor of Atlantis. 

Of Atlantis. He, too, was of Atlantis – wait; of Atlantis no more. For Atlantis was lost Atlantis now, sunk to ocean's deep bottom, with Queen Theona and all her people. How he had survived he could not imagine, nor where, nor on what unknown shore.

Kardios awakens on a beach and soon finds himself face to face with an immense creature, a giant who identifies himself as Yod. The unexpected appearance of the giant – or Nephol, as we learn – frightens Kardios, who then makes a feeble attempt to attack him, only to faint away once more. Awakening a second time, he finds himself in the company of several more giants, who ask him about his identity and his past. He explains that he is a harper, who came from "back in the hills" to the Atlantean capital, seeking employment at Queen Theona's palace, hoping "she might want me for her palace guard, or to make music for her, or perhaps both." 

In coming to the capital, Kardios inadvertently brings about the sinking of Atlantis. Precisely how he does this isn't, in itself, a key point in the story and, as I have discovered in looking into the story, it's a point of some contention among Wellman's fans, some of whom feel that it's ridiculous on its face. I'm unsure of my own feelings on the matter. I suspect that Wellman intended this bit of Kardios' background to be tragic, to leave his protagonist haunted by his role in bringing about the end of his own civilization. If so, Wellman is not wholly successful in his intention. I'll leave to others, when they read the story, to decide for themselves. Fortunately, the success of "Straggler from Atlantis" doesn't depend on whether one finds Kardios' backstory compelling (and, in fact, there's a brief suggestion that this "strange story" might be untrue).

Regardless, the Nephol believe that Kardios is in their debt for having "helped [him] back to life." They have a task for him.

Moons ago, there had been a great bolt from heaven, and the Nephol were sure the gods spoke to them. Some of them saw the bolt strike, not far from where they lived in caves. These reported that it seemed to burst into a great shattered spray of blazing embers, which flew in all directions. But from its very midst, a living, moving thing came away safe.

This living, moving thing, whom the Nephol call Fith, is a strange, amorphous creature that feasts upon the Nephol, flowing over their bodies and dissolving them down to their bones. Fith now dwells in a deep place near its home, periodically coming out to look for food. So long as the Nephol leave it livestock on a regular basis, Fith leaves them alone. However, the giants are growing tired of this arrangement and ask Kardios to enter monster's cave – a space too small for the giants to enter – to face the alien beast and, with luck, defeat it. 

Kardios is naturally skeptical that he can do anything that the Nephol cannot do. They disagree, pointing out that the Atlantean is faster than they are and perhaps faster than Fith. Combined with his small size, Kardios might possess the necessary traits to eliminate the threat. To aid him, the Nephol offer Kardios a variety of weapons; he chooses a strange icy-blue blade that the giants tell him "came out of the fire when Fith's chariot smashed and flamed up on the ground." So armed, he enters the subterranean place where the blobby beast dwells.

Though published in 1977, "Straggler from Atlantis" feels like a pulp fantasy from decades earlier. The story is light on details, focusing instead on Kardios and the quest he accepts from the giants, as well as the alien being he must fight. The world Kardios inhabits is similarly sketchy. Wellman provides few specifics beyond the story Kardios tells of the final days of Atlantis and even these are brief. There's a vaguely "ancient world" feel to the tale, akin to Greek mythology, though the giants' name for themselves suggests Biblical influence as well. As the kick-off for a series of short stories, it does the job well enough that I might seek out its sequels, which is is often the best praise I can offer a pulp fantasy yarn.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, pp. 80–81

I'm going to cheat this week and take a random look at two pages in the Dungeon Masters Guide. In my defense, the section I'll discuss in this post – about saving throws – isn't limited to a single page. Gygax begins it by briefly touching on the origin of saving throws: "The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniatures wargames and D&D." I find this interesting, because I believe this is a rare example of where an Advanced D&D book explicitly references Dungeons & Dragons (please correct me if I am mistaken). Given that it's commonly asserted that AD&D's very existence owes to an attempt to distance the game from D&D, thereby stiffing Dave Arneson of royalties on it, one must wonder why Gygax mentions D&D at all. As is often the case, I suspect the truth is much more complicated than the caricature everyone knows.

Gygax continues, discussing just what saving throws mean within the context of the game world:

It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of skill, luck, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results – fireball damage, poisoning, being turned to stone, or whatever. 

That's very straightforward and uncontroversial. His next paragraph, which I am going to reproduce in full, is quite remarkable.

I don't recall ever reading this section before, though I probably have done so. I call it remarkable because, in it, Gygax advanced his vision of what D&D and RPGs are all about. I was particularly struck by his statement that "the continuing epic is the most meaningful portion," by which he is clearly referencing the importance of the ongoing campaign. I likewise found his offhanded comment on the significance on dead characters – "characters who have shorter spans of existence," in Gygax's parlance – to be a much-needed tonic to the widely held belief, especially nowadays, that player characters ought not to die.

That said, Gygax states in his next paragraph that

because the player character is all-important, he or she must always – or nearly always – have a chance, no matter how small, a chance at somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who are what the fabric of the game is created upon.

I assume that, by "all-important," Gygax means only that player characters are the focus of the campaign. Given that he also alludes to the fact that characters may die – due to failed saving throws, no less – this seems a fair assumption. 

Gygax spends the rest of the section addressing criticisms of the very notion of saving throws.

Someone once criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous. Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from the blast of a red dragon's breath? Why not?, I replied. If you accept fire breathing dragons, why doubt the chance to reduce the damage sustained from such a creature's attack? 

While I have no problem with the idea of saving throws, this seems like a lazy defense on Gygax's part. In fact, I've seen this line of "thinking" employed many times as a way to avoid thinking about whether this or that thing belongs in a RPG. "If you can accept magic, then why can't you accept X?" and so on. I have no use for this approach and am frankly surprised that Gygax made use of a version of it here. That said, he nevertheless provides a good example of how to interpret a successful saving throw in the case he described above:

Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding a way to be free of the fetters. Why not?

I think Gygax is right about this. A common misunderstanding about older RPGs is the abstraction of many of its rules, particularly around combat, damage, and the like. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons are not "unrealistic" so much as abstract and demand a certain degree of interpretation and presentation on the part of the referee to make sense of them. Far from being a flaw, I see this as a strength. 

After a lengthy digression in which he offers alternative in-setting explanations for saving throws, Gygax concludes with a passage in which he, again, talks about character death due to failed saving throws and how those deaths support the building of a campaign.

Of course, some saves result in the death of a character anyway, as partial damage causes him or her to meet death. But at least the character had some hope, and he or she fought until the very end. Stories will be told of it at the inn, and songs sung of the battle when warriors gather around the campfire. Almost, almost he managed to reach the bend in the passage where the fell breath of the blue dragon Razisz could not reach, but at the last moment his toe struck a protrusion, and as he stumbled the dragon slew him!

That's good stuff and true in my experience. Character death can in fact serve good ends, in terms of providing depth and texture to a campaign. It's why I continue to favor game mechanics, like save or die, that make it possible for player characters to die. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Dragonslayer (no, not that one)

SPI's DragonQuest underwent at least one name change prior to its release in 1980. According to this advertisement from the pages of Different Worlds #7, this game was initially to be called DragonSlayer. An earlier issue of DW suggested that the game was to be called Dragonflayer, which might simply have been a typo, though it's hard to say. In any event, I can't help but wonder if the name change had something to do with the 1981 movie of the same name, perhaps relating to trademarks.

Different Worlds: Issue #7

Issue #7 of Different Worlds (April/May 1980) features a cover by Cora L. Healy, an artist known for her work on science fiction periodicals throughout the 1970s and early '80s. The issue proper begins with an installment of the "Beginner's Brew" column that lists "all the more popular role-playing games (RPGs) and magazines available." The games and magazines are divided up by publisher, sixteen for RPGs and fourteen for magazines. There are also fifteen miniatures manufacturers listed. The list are interesting, most especially for the "forthcoming" games mentioned, such as Chaosium's Dark Worlds and Elric RuneQuest and Heritage USA's Heroes of Middle Earth. 

"Ten Days in the Arena of Khazan" by Ken St. Andre is a seven-page outline of a campaign for use with Tunnels & Trolls. More than that, though, it's an overview of a portion of the game's setting of Trollworld, with lots of interesting tidbits about its history and peoples. I really enjoyed this article, because it gave me some insight into what it's like to play in St. Andre's home campaign, a topic that never ceases to interest me. 

I find it hard to disagree with Richard L. Snider's effusive review of Cults of Prax, one of the truly great RPG supplements of all time. He rightly deems it "the best extant cosmology designed for use with any FRP" – which was probably true in 1980 and, even today, it stands head and shoulders above most other treatments of similar topics. "Gloranthan Birthday Tables" by Morgan O. Woodward III is a series of random tables to determine when a Gloranthan character is born, with special attention given to those during Sacred Time (and the special abilities that might come from such an auspicious birth). 

Part two of the "Vardy Combat System" by John T. Sapienza appears in this issue. A variant combat system for use with Dungeons & Dragons, this article provides expanded rules and tables for handling parries, shields, hit points, and more. What I appreciate about the system is that it strives to be genuinely compatible with D&D's existing combat system rather than simply replacing it. The article even offers a further option that uses D20 rolls rather than percentile ones, for even further compatibility. As I said previously, I have not tested this system and have no idea how well it works in practice, but, from reading it, I think it might be worthy testing out in play.

"Foundchild Cult" by Sandy Petersen is a cult for use with RuneQuest and its setting of Glorantha. Meanwhile. Steve Perrin reviews In the Labyrinth by Steve Jackson. Perrin thinks very highly of the game, his main complaint being that, like Tunnels & Trolls before it, allows characteristics to increase as a character gains experience, something that he thinks inevitably leads to an "incredibly strong, lightning fast, cosmically intelligent character who seems to have stepped directly from the pages of Marvel or DC Comics." I think that's a fair criticism and one of the reasons I prefer the more grounded approach taken by many older RPGs. 

James M. Ward offers "Power Groups and Player Characters in RPGs," in which he talks specifically about the importance of factions in a campaign. He then provides examples from his home Metamorphosis Alpha campaign, showing how the characters became involved with them and how this involvement affected the development of the campaign. It's a solid, though short, article, covering a topic that is increasingly near and dear to my heart. "Two from Grenadier" by John T. Sapienza is a lengthy, five-page article that reviews in detail two AD&D boxed sets from Grenadier Models, Woodland Adventurers and Tomb of Spells. His review is quite positive overall and a nice bit of nostalgia for me, since I once owned both of the boxed sets in question.

"System Snobbery" by Larry DiTillio is an early entry in the now well-worn genre of "there are no bad RPGs, just bad GMs" articles. It's fine for what it is; its main interest to me was DiTillio's recounting of his experience with various GMs over the years. Gigi D'Arn's gossip column this month mentions the departure of Tim Kask from the editorship of Dragon and eludes to "dubious circumstances." There's further mention of a D&D movie, as well as a reference to something called the "AD&D Companion," a collection of variants for use with D&D and AD&D. I suspect this is either simply untrue or a garbled rumor of something like the Best of Dragon anthology, the first of which did appear in 1980. Concluding the issue is "Oriental Weapons for RuneQuest" by Sean Summers, with additional material by Steve Perrin. It's pretty much what you'd expect for this type of article, a staple of the '70s and '80s, when all things Asian were the rage in RPG circles.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: She

One might be tempted, when looking at the authors of Appendix N, to notice seeming gaps – writers one would have expected to have inspired Gary Gygax in his personal conception of fantasy. Clark Ashton Smith is probably the most common example of such an author, since so many people, myself included, have mistakenly assumed that the works of CAS appeared in that famed list. Another "missing" author is H. Rider Haggard, the 19th century English writer whose extremely popular adventure fiction contributed greatly to the "lost world" genre and influenced countless writers of the early 20th century, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt. 

While both Burroughs and Merritt figure prominently in Appendix N, Haggard is nowhere to be seen. I probably shouldn't be surprised. Like many authors, Haggard looms so large in the imagination of the first half of the 20th century that one sees his presumed presence everywhere. Robert E. Howard, for example, was an admirer of Haggard, and took up his theme of civilizational devolution with gusto. Thus, it's quite possible Gygax never read Haggard (or didn't think him significant enough to mention) and only came into contact with his ideas through intermediaries like Howard or Merritt. 

Among Haggard most well known and influential novels is She, first published in 1887, after being serialized between October 1886 and January 1887 in the pages of the illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. Like so many adventure novels of the time – and those later inspired by it, such as A Princess of Mars, among innumerable others – She is presented as a first-person account that has been edited by a third party for publication. The first-person account is that of Ludwig Horace Holly, a young professor at the University of Cambridge. Early in the novel, he describes himself as follows:

Most men of twenty-two are endowed at any rate with some share of the comeliness of youth, but to me even this was denied. Short, thick-set, and deep-chested almost to deformity, with long sinewy arms, heavy features, deep-set grey eyes, a low brow half overgrown with a mop of thick black hair, like a deserted clearing on which the forest had once more begun to encroach; such was my appearance nearly a quarter of a century ago, and such, with some modification, it is to this day. Like Cain, I was branded—branded by Nature with the stamp of abnormal ugliness, as I was gifted by Nature with iron and abnormal strength and considerable intellectual powers. So ugly was I that the spruce young men of my College, though they were proud enough of my feats of endurance and physical prowess, did not even care to be seen walking with me. Was it wonderful that I was misanthropic and sullen? Was it wonderful that I brooded and worked alone, and had no friends—at least, only one? I was set apart by Nature to live alone, and draw comfort from her breast, and hers only. Women hated the sight of me. 

The full passage goes at some length about Holly's ugliness, isolation, and misanthropy, which sets him apart not just from his fellow man but also from the caricatured expectations of fictional Victorian adventure novel protagonists. Far from being an ideal human specimen, he is, in his own words, a monster. 

One day, a colleague by the name of Vincey calls on Holly. Unlike Holly, Vincey is a very handsome man, but he is also dying and asks Holly to become the legal guardian of his five year-old son, Leo. Vincey has "never been able to bear to look upon," as his birth had cost him that of his wife. Vincey explains that he chosen Holly for this role because, after observing him for two years, has concluded that Holly is "hard and sound at core." He then explains that Leo is the

only representative of one of the most ancient families in the world, that is, so far as families can be traced. You will laugh at me when I say it, but one day it will be proved to you beyond a doubt, that my sixty-fifth or sixty-sixth lineal ancestor was an Egyptian priest of Isis, though he was himself of Grecian extraction, and was called Kallikrates. His father was one of the Greek mercenaries raised by Hak-Hor, a Mendesian Pharaoh of the twenty-ninth dynasty, and his grandfather or great-grandfather, I believe, was that very Kallikrates mentioned by Herodotus.

Holly accepts the task and is given a locked iron box that he is told not to open until Leo has reached the age of 25. Vincey also asks that Holly not send the boy to school but to instruct him at home. A day later, Vncey is found dead and Holly takes Leo into his home. For the next twenty years, Holly raises him and the two develop a fondness for one another akin to uncle and nephew. Leo grows into a handsome man looking like "a statue of the youthful Apollo." 

Upon his twenty-fifth birthday, Holly opens the box for Leo and finds inside a note from Vincey to his son, explaining more about his ancestry and his travels in the Middle East and Africa seeking "the Pillar of Life," a source of immortality. Also included is a series of ancient inscriptions that, when translated, tell the story of a sorceress in Africa who has discovered the Pillar and, thanks to it, has ruled in secret for millennia. Enraptured by what he has read, Leo vows to follow in his father's footsteps, asking Holly and Holly's servant, Job, to join him. Albeit reluctantly, Holly and Job agree to join him and they set off for Africa. 

Needless to say, their adventures are fraught with peril, starting with a shipwreck on the coast of east Africa. The trio survive, along with the Arab who captained their ill-fated vessel, and make their way on foot into the interior of the continent. There, they are captured by people called the Amhagger. whose ruler is a fearsome queen known simply as "She-who-must-be-obeyed." Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a novel filled with coincidence and happenstance, the queen turns out to be the legendary sorceress they were seeking – Ayesha, the titular She and perhaps the most fascinating character in the entire novel.

She is an immense, rambling work, but it benefits enormously from Haggard's energetic prose. The story it tells is preposterous on the face of it, but Haggard tells it with such straight-faced gusto that, like the best tall tales, it nevertheless has a ring of truth to it. More than that, it's one of the fountainheads from which so many later pulp fantasy stories flow. Familiarizing oneself with it and Haggard's other works is important, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the origins of the genre that gave birth to Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games more broadly. She's influence, though unacknowledged, remains powerful more than a century later.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 21

Original Dungeons & Dragons famously opened the door to monster player characters, boldly stating "there is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything." On page 21 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax all but closes that door and, in doing so, offers a very clear statement on his belief that "ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably 'humanocentric'." That's a perspective with which I strongly agree, though I suspect it's quite controversial these days (and, to be fair, was probably controversial in some quarters even in 1979). Let's take a look at what he says.

Gygax begins his examination of the topic of "the monster as a player character" by imputing an ignoble motive to any plater with "a strong desire to operate as a monster." He suggests that such a player does this "principally because the player sees the desire monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign." This seems like the wrong foot on which to begin this discussion and one that makes it so much easier to dismiss everything he says afterwards. It's a common flaw in Gygax's authorial style, unfortunately.

From there, Gygax makes a subtle elision. The section is ostensibly about allowing monsters as player characters, but he quite quickly moves from monsters to demihumans and humanoids. About the latter, he says that they occupy "various orbits around the sun of humanity." He elaborates in a way that comports with my own thinking

Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users – whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies … there is a point where the well-equipped, high-level party of adventurers can challenge a demon prince, an arch-devil, or a demi-god. While there might well be some near or part humans with the group so doing, it is certain that the leaders will be human. In co-operation men bring ruin upon monsterdom, for they have no upper limits as to level or acquired power from spells or items.

Gygax goes on to say that humanocentrism simply makes sense.

The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design perspective it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!

For Gygax, this seems to be the crux of it. He saw a need for grounding even in fantasy and believed that humanocentrism was the simplest means of providing that grounding. It's an unusual take on the question, though not wholly without precedent. Gygax seems to have felt that playing a non-human was exceedingly difficult and, in fact, an impediment to approaching fantasy. M.A.R. Barker believed something akin to this, in as much as he felt that very people could play one of a non-human character on Tékumel (which, to be fair, is plausible, given how alien many of them are). 

Gygax further comments that there are very few models for non-human characters to use as inspiration..

When history, folklore, myth, fable, and fiction can be incorporated or used as reference for the campaign, the magnitude of the effort required is reduced by several degrees. Even actual sciences can be used – geography, chemistry, physics, and so forth. Alien viewpoints can be found, of course, but not in quantity (and often not in much quality either). Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu. Even then, how can such an effort rival one which borrows from the talents of genius and imaginative thinking which come to us from literature?

I doubt many gamers today would be convinced by this line of thought. Even I, who strongly prefers humanocentric fantasy, find it a weak line of argument. I think Gygax's larger point might have been better served if he'd simply acknowledged his preference for humanocentrism and then marshaled evidence, drawn on his own experiences as both a player and a referee, of why humanocentrism led him to prefer human-centered fantasy. 

The remainder of the section deals with the rules-related challenges of allowing monsters as player characters. His concerns seem to be about "game domination" (to use Gygax's phrase), which echoes what he said at the start of this section. If that's his primary concern, I think it's a more understandable one, even to those who are temperamentally inclined to freely allow the playing of non-humans. Like so much in the Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a lot to chew on here, though it's couched in ways that muddle his legitimate points. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Hobby Hows

A regular feature of Boys' Life magazine was a column called "Hobby Hows," which both answered questions and printed hints and how-to guides sent in by readers. Much of the time the column was dominated by the hobbies like modeling or collecting, but the December 1980 issue included the following question and answer:

The "Mapping the Dungeons" feature was a real one, appearing at least twice, in issues #33 and #37. Each time, it included a list, divided by location, of gamers looking for others to join them in playing their favorite games (which were also listed). One day, I ought to spend some time poring over the listings to see if I recognize any of the names contained in them. 

Science Fantasy Adventure!

As it turns out, TSR placed a lot of full-page advertisements in the pages of Boys' Life magazine during the late 1970s and early 1980s, which only makes sense, given its readership. The ad below is from the May 1980 issue and is for Gamma World 

The ad contains all the usual things you'd expect, but there is one small item of note. Notice that it mentions that, in addition to Legion of Gold, a product called Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega is "coming soon." Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega was regularly mentioned as "coming soon" and seems to have been a product that would have updated Metamorphosis Alpha for use with Gamma World. In that form, it was never released, though a different product with the same title was published in 1994.

Though I adored Gamma World and consider it one of my favorite RPGs, I tend to assume that it wasn't very successful for TSR. Consequently, I'm surprised when I'm reminded that the company actively promoted the game in advertisements like this one (and this one). It's another reminder that one's memories of the past are often mistaken, or at least muddled, especially when said memories are from more than four decades ago.

Wargaming and RPGs in Boys' Life

Though no one could ever call me "outdoorsy," I was nevertheless a Boy Scout during my elementary school years. This was no doubt partly due to subtle peer pressure: all my friends had joined the local troop, which met at our school, and I decided to join them. Even so, it didn't take much to push me in that direction. The Scouts, with their handbook of rules, snappy uniforms, and many fun indoor activities, were very appealing to me and I never regretted getting involved with the organization. 

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, one of the benefits of being a Scout was a subscription to Boys' Life magazine. If I'm honest, I probably looked forward to receiving each new issue more than I did going to Scout meetings. If you were to look at any random issue of Boys' Life from the 1970s, for example, it wouldn't be difficult to understand why I felt that way. There were lots of articles on sports, history, science, and hobbies. The hobby articles were among my favorites, some of which introduced me to hobbies, like model-making, that I would eventually take up with enthusiasm.

When I looked at the November 1979 issue, with its cover featuring Terry Bradshaw, I was not at all surprised to see an article about the hobby of wargaming.
The article is an overview of the hobby, both in its hex-and-chit and miniatures forms, highlighting its most popular games and publishers, so there are no deep insights to be found in its pages. What is of interest, though, is its brief treatment of roleplaying games. 
As you can see, its coverage is extremely limited, focusing primarily on D&D and RuneQuest, with asides about FGU's Gladiator and Eon's Cosmic Encounter, neither of which I'd call a RPG. Of course, that's the fascinating thing: all of these games are mentioned within the context of wargaming. Five years after the release of OD&D, roleplaying was still seen, at least in the pages of Boys' Life, as an outgrowth of wargaming, something that's often forgotten today. This is why I am always pleased when I stumble across articles like this. They're windows on the past and reminders of history that might otherwise be overlooked.

I'm certain I had this issue when I was a boy, but I can't recall having read the article. As I've mentioned on many, many occasions, I was introduced to roleplaying through the boardgame Dungeon! (mentioned in the article above) in December 1979. I do remember many articles about RPGs that I read as a kid, but they're all from after I was already playing D&D. The Boys' Life article, then, is precisely the kind of thing I want to find more examples of. If anyone knows of similar articles from around this time or before, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Be a Hero!

This advertisement appeared in the November 1979 issue of Boys' Life magazine. Though I was in the Scouts at that time and, of course, subscribed to the magazine, I can't recall seeing this ad, though the fact that it appeared a month before I discovered D&D might explain it. 

Regardless, the ad has a number of aspects worth mentioning. First, the terms "adventure gaming" and "fantasy gaming" appear just as often as "role playing." Likewise, the ad uses the phrase "swords & sorcery role playing." Unless I am mistaken, that particular formulation is unique to Holmes Basic, though I'm prepared to be corrected on this point. Second, take note of how the ad boasts of the game's "large instruction rulebook," which strikes me as odd. Third, there's mention of "five special dice." I personally find that amusing, since most people I know who had the Holmes set had the version with the chits.  

Retrospective: Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo

Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo
is an unusual game. Released in 1977 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, it was written by Scott Bizar and Lin Carter, editor of the acclaimed (and influential) Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, author of the Callisto and Green Star series (among many others), and L. Sprague de Camp's longtime partner in crime. That alone places the game in rare – though not exclusive – company. 

Mind you, I have no idea of the extent to which Carter was actually involved in the design of this game. My guess is his prefatory "note" at the front of the 52-page rulebook is his biggest contribution, though I cannot prove that. Like De Camp, Carter was good at self-promotion and finding new ways to wring a few bucks out of his name and status within the fantasy and science fiction world at the time. I suspect this is the case here, though I should stress again that I have no direct evidence one way or the other and may be demonstrating a lack of charity toward Carter. 

All that aside, the game's structure is quite fascinating. Its introduction begins as follows:

It is the intention of these rules to provide a simple and schematic system for recreating the adventures of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo. These adventures are free-wheeling and widely varied with the final goal of overthrowing the evil government of the Emperor Ming the Merciless.

I find this short paragraph noteworthy. First, it states upfront that the game will be "simple and schematic." Second, and more important, I think, is that the characters' actions are placed within a larger context, namely the defeat of Ming the Merciless. In this way, the game offers a greater context for all those "free-wheeling and widely varied" adventures to take place. Flash Gorden & the Warriors of Mongo is thus a campaign game.

The introduction continues:

Our schematic or representational outlook simplifies the situation to make a game playable without the extremes of paperwork necessary in most roleplaying games. For those who enjoy the full detail of role playing campaigns, we provide enough detail and flavor to provide a backdrop to which can be added simple modifications of existing role playing systems. Try the rules as they stand, a simple and understandable system. Additional complexity in role play can be added without harming the basic structure of the game.

I find it amusing that, even in 1977, three years after the release of OD&D, we see talk of "the extremes of paperwork," suggesting that there was already a sense in some quarters that RPGs were becoming unduly complex. More interesting to me is that the game's explicit encouragement to add to and modify the rules. 


The game requires from two to twenty player adventures and a referee … The basic idea is that teams of players will begin on the outer sections of the schematic map and attempt to gain the support of all nations they pass through. To do so they must defeat monsters, overcome obstacles, deal with traitors, and go to any efforts to enlist the support and aid of the rulers of the countries they pass through on the way to Mingo City.

While the large number of potential players might raise eyebrows from the vantage point of today, it was commonplace for RPGs at the time and reflective of a focus on the campaign, something that's evident in Flash Gordon as well. 

Characters possess four characteristics (Physical Strength/Stamina, Combat Skill, Charisma/Attractiveness, and Scientific Aptitude), each generated by rolling three "ordinary dice." Three of the four characteristics map to a "role," warrior, leader, and scientist. Players make use of the aforementioned "schematic map," which consists of several rings of zones, with Ming's capital city in the center, to move their characters about. Each zone is a kingdom of Mongo and the bulk of the gamebook consists of descriptions of these kingdoms, their inhabitants, and hazards. The descriptions detail how large the kingdom is (and thus how many game turns it takes to traverse them) and, in many cases, the kinds of adventures that might be had there.

The game's rules are indeed simple – so simple that it's often difficult to see much evidence of them! The hazards and enemies of each kingdom generally have write-ups that specify how to overcome them. In some instances, this involves dice rolls, modified by high or low characteristics. For example, fighting the Dactyl-Bats of the Domain of the Cliff Dwellers requires a character to roll one die and add the result to his Combat Skill. If it exceeds 14, the Dactyl-Bats are defeated. The rest of the "rules" are like this: ad hoc and very simple. Whether one likes this or not depends, I imagine, on what one wishes to get out of the game. I would likely find it insufficiently detailed and engaging but tastes vary.

Like many early RPGs, Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo comes across more as a sketch of a roleplaying game rather than a finished package. As a gazetteer of Mongo, it's excellent, far better than, say, the roughly contemporaneous Warriors of Mars. At the same time, I can't help but appreciate its focus on the overall arc of the campaign. The goal of overthrowing Ming by enlisting the aid of the various kingdoms of Mongo is a good one, as is the notion that said aid might be gained through adventures within each kingdom. This is not only true to the Flash Gordon comic strips of old but provides a terrific structure for a campaign. Had I come across this game in my youth, I doubt I would have thought much of it. Now, though, I can see what it was trying to do, even if it might have fallen short of its goal. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Mark Your Mark in the Gaming Field

This advertisement appeared in issue #6 of Different Worlds (December 1979/January 1980). I wonder who, if anyone, was acquired by TSR during this round of hiring. I believe Evan Robinson said, in my interview with him, that he started work in May 1980, so he's one possibility, though there are others. Which artists started working at the company in the first half of 1980? 

RIP Yaphet Kotto (1939–2021)

I was greeted this morning with the sad news that actor Yaphet Kotto has died at the age of 81, after a lifetime of memorable film roles. 

For many people of my generation and interests, Kotto will perhaps be best remembered as Parker, chief engineer of the Nostromo in the 1979 film, Alien. Parker is a great character, well portrayed, and a perennial inspiration to me when thinking about Traveller characters. Of course, Kotto is equally well known as the dapper and charismatic Dr. Kananga (and his alias Mr Big) in the 1973 James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. In the 1990s, he played Lieutenant Al Giardello on the television program, Homicide, another memorable role that Kotto truly inhabited.

I'm always sorry to write posts like this, but that's what comes with the passage of time. None of us is getting any younger, after all. Farewell, Mr Kotto; you will be missed.

Different Worlds: Issue #6

Different Worlds #6 is the December 1979/January 1980 issue and features cover artwork by Rick Becker. It begins with a brief editorial by Tadashi Ehara lamenting how hard it is to get writers to turn things in on time – or at all! – which leads him to extend an invitation to readers to submit their own articles. Speaking as both the producer of a fanzine, for which I've struggled to find submissions, and as a writer, for whom punctuality is not my great strength, I have sympathy for Ehara's frustrations. It will be interesting to see if future issues of Different Worlds feature a broader range of writers than the first six.

Leonard H. Kanterman, author of Starships & Spacemen, reviews Gangster!, a "cops and mobsters" RPG from FGU. Being a Gangbusters devotee myself, I actually know very little about other games of the genre, so this was a useful article to me. Brian Wagner's "Super Rules for SUPERHERO: 44" is a collection of rules expansions for Superhero: 2044, the first superhero roleplaying game ever published. "Finding Level in RuneQuest" by Rudy Kraft presents a system for converting characters between Dungeons & Dragons and RuneQuest. The purpose of this is to facilitate the adoption for the RQ rules by referees running D&D campaigns, allowing beloved player characters to continue to adventure under the new rules. I can't speak to their actual utility, but it's an intriguing article nonetheless (and an early example of a genre of article that continues to this day).

"How to Make Monsters Interesting" by Lee Gold is a good but short article on the matter of restoring "newness" and "surprise" to monster encounters, a perennial topic in RPG circles. Gold counsels, among other things, variability in monster abilities so that not every troll or ghost possesses the exact same powers, thereby throwing players' expectations into question. Meanwhile, John T. Sapienza offers a lengthy 10-page D&D variant called "Vardy Combat System, Part I." The system Sapienza presents here looks very similar to the combat system in RuneQuest and other Basic Role-Playing games, right down to being percentile rather than D20-based (though Part II, to be presented next issue, apparently includes a more traditional D20 approach). On first glance, the system looks decent enough and, even while including more detail about things like shields and weapons expertise, it retains most of the contours of D&D combat (like armor class). I'll have to look at it more carefully to decide my final feelings on the matter.

"The World of Crane" by George V. Schubel is an overview of the play-by-mail game The Tribes of Crane, whose advertisements I used to see in the pages of Dragon. I can't say the article told me a great deal more about the game or its setting, but I enjoyed reading it, if only for the peak it offered me of an aspect of the hobby of which I have limited experience. Lewis Pulsiphr's "Insanity Table" is a percentile table intended for use with D&D, on those occasions when a curse or other effect results in a character's going insane. Greg Costikyan's "The Cult of Gestetner" is a tongue-in-cheek cult for use with RuneQuest that should get a chuckle out of anyone who's ever been involved in old school printing or publishing. 

Gigi D'Arn's column contains a number of fascinating tidbits and then-current rumors. For example, she mentions that Chaosium will be producing a H.P. Lovecraft RPG entitled Dark Worlds, to be designed by Kurt Lortz. Then there's this section about Gary Gygax and TSR:

Lots to talk about there! Mention is also made of SPI's upcoming fantasy RPG, Dragonflayer, which is presumably an early title for DragonQuest, and Lou Zocchi's attempts to purchase TSR's remaining stock of Empire of the Petal Throne. It should come as little surprise that Gigi's columns are favorites of mine. Leaving aside their frequent wit and sarcasm, they provide useful historical information about early games, companies, and designers that might otherwise be forgotten. Anyone interested in the history of the hobby should appreciate their value. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Rogues in the House

Robert E. Howard completed twenty-one tales of Conan the Cimmerian, only seventeen of which were published during his lifetime. Many of these stories are reasonably well known, even by those who haven't read them, while others remain obscure. A good example of the latter is "Rogues in the House," though, as we shall see, there are elements of and images derived from it that have passed into popular consciousness.

The short story first appeared in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales, featuring a cover illustration (of another story) by Margaret Brundage. At its start, Conan is in prison for having slain a priest who was "at once a fence for stolen goods and a spy for the police." These details are important to the story, which, like many Conan yarns, dwells on the hypocrisy and corruption of supposedly civilized societies. The fact that the tale contains not one but two different venal priests makes this quite plain. It's little wonder that Con – and Howard – had so little use for religion or its purveyors.

A man, "masked and wrapped in a wide black cloak," comes to Conan in his cell. Named Murilo, he is not the executioner the Cimmerian thought him to be but rather a nobleman with a proposition for him.

"Would you like to live?" asked Murilo. The barbarian grunted, new interest glinting in his eyes.

"If I arrange for your escape will you do a favor for me?" the aristocrat asked.

The Cimmerian did not speak, but the intentness of his gaze answered for him. 

"I want you to kill a man for me."


Murilo's voice sank to a whisper. "Nabonidus, the king's priest!"

Nabonidus is a political enemy of Murilo, which is why he wishes him killed. In exchange for his help, the nobleman unlocks Conan's chains, provides him with food, and tells him to wait one hour for a guard (named Athicus) to unlock his cell so that he can escape and then kill Nabonidus in his home. Once he has slain the Red Priest (as he is known for the color of his robes), Murilo will provide Conan with gold, a horse, and the means to flee the city to freedom.

Unfortunately, Murilo's plan doesn't go quite as expected. The guard who was supposed to open Conan's cell is arrested for corruption – graft seems rampant in this city – leaving another guard who does not know the plan. Conan has no choice but to slay this second guard and escape on his own. At this point, the barbarian is unsure of his next course of action.

It occurred to him that since he had escaped through his own actions, he owed nothing to Murilo; yet it had been the young nobleman who had removed the chains and had food sent to him, without either of which his escape would have been impossible. Conan decided that he was indebted to Murilo, and, since he was a man who discharged his obligations eventually, he determined to carry out his promise to the young aristocrat.

This is one of the key passages in the entire story, since it shows Conan to be a man of his word, in contrast to the behavior of the supposedly civilized inhabitants of the unnamed city. Conan then sets off to enter the home of the Red Priest and do as he had agreed. Once there, he discovers that Murilo is already there, attempting to do what he had hired Conan to do, since he learned about the arrest of Athicus and thought Conan still in prison. Since this is not the case, Conan suggests the two of them work together to slay the priest. Murilo replies with fear.

Murilo shuddered. "Conan, we are in the house of the archfiend! I came seeking a human enemy; I found a hairy devil out of hell!"

Conan grunted uncertainly; fearless as a wounded tiger as far as human foes were concerned, he had all the superstitious dreads of the primitive.

"I gained access to the house," whispered Murilo, as if the darkness were full of listening ears. "In the outer gardens I found Nabonidus' dog mauled to death. Within the house I came upon Joka, the servant. His neck had been broken. Then I saw Nabonidus himself seated in his chair, clad in his accustomed garb. At first I thought he too was dead. I stole up to stab him. He rose and faced me. Gods!" The memory of that horror struck the young nobleman momentarily speechless as he relived that awful moment.

"Conan," he whispered, "it was no man that stood before me! In body and posture it was not unlike a man, but from the scarlet hood of the priest grinned a face of madness and nightmare! It was covered in black hair, from which small pig-like eyes glared redly; its nose was flat, with great flaring nostrils; its loose lips writhed back, disclosing huge yellow fangs, like the teeth of a dog. The hands that hung from the scarlet sleeves were misshapen and likewise covered with black hair. All this I saw in one glance, and then I was overcome with horror; my senses left me and I swooned."

Fearful that Nabonidus is in fact a demon, Murilo suggests that they flee the house by any means possible. However, the house of the Red Priest is filled with traps – and the beast Murilo saw – making this course a potentially hazardous one. Nevertheless, the two set off together, eager to escape with their lives and sanity intact.

Their efforts to escape bring them face to face with multiple surprises and mysteries, one of which is quite famous in Conan lore, so famous that it inspired one of Frazetta's Lancer paperback covers and a scene in the execrable 1984 film Conan the Destroyer. From the vantage point of the present, I don't think it's unfair to say the surprise in question is a little bit silly, but, at the time, I imagine it was fairly effective. Even so, "Rogues in the House" is an enjoyable romp, one that presents Conan's younger days as a thief, when he is nevertheless more honorable than the men from whom he is stealing, precisely the kind of story that whets my appetite for refereeing that all-thief campaign of which I've dreamed for many years.

Friday, March 12, 2021

House of Worms, Session 216

The nexus point sealed, seemingly permanently, Mitsárka pronounced that the characters and their comrades had succeeded in their mission. The plot by the nefarious faction within the Temple of Ksárul known as the Ndálu Clan had been foiled and the version of Tékumel they all called home was safe. As a consequence, they could never return home, but Mitsárka saw no problem with this. After all, he reminded everyone, there skein of destiny was a glorious one: to fight forever at the Battle of Dórmoron Plain on behalf of the gods who opposed Ksárul. He counseled everyone to accept this and join him on the region below, where the forces of Change and Stability contended. 

Needless to say, the characters were much less accepting of this turn of events than was Mitsárka. Znayáshu suggested that they should begin looking for a way down from the plateau on which they were currently situated. Somewhere, amidst the masses of warriors fighting below them was one or more nexus points that could take them somewhere – anywhere – other than here. It was at this point that Lára hiKhánuma, leader of the allied Ksárul sorcerers, stepped forward. She explained that she and her fellow magicians had no intention of remaining here. They knew how to use a ritual that would open a path to the Citadel of Sighs, an otherplanar locale containing infinite nexus points to other branches of the Tree of Time. By heading there, they might be able to find a roundabout way to their own version of Tékumel. She was willing to bring the characters with her on the condition that Mitsárka was left behind. She had explicit instructions that the priest of The One Other was not to return under any circumstances.

Seeing as how Mitsárka seemed to have no interest in leaving the Battle of Dórmoron Plain, this was not much of a problem. Mitsárka offered to do his best to aid anyone who remained behind with him. The Shén mercenaries, inflamed with a desire for battle, took him up on his offer, as did a young member of the House of Worms clan who wished to fight beside Lord Sárku, as he contended with the Ancient Lord of Secrets. The rest joined Lára and journeyed through the nexus point she and her compatriots conjured, finding themselves in a large but dimly lit room to which at least a dozen corridors were connected. Lára had no map of the Citadel of Sighs; indeed she argued that no such thing was possible. Which corridor they should take was uncertain and ultimately a matter of luck. 

Neither Znayáshu nor Nebússa placed much stock in luck. They spent some time looking for clues indicating which of the corridors had been used recently. Their investigations suggested that four different corridors had seen traffic and were therefore worth exploring. They did so immediately, which revealed four different chambers with what appeared to be nexus points. The chambers were all slightly different from one another, in addition to possessing odd features such a reversed or otherwise altered gravity. Kirktá took great interest in the latter, experimenting with walking on walls and ceilings. In two chambers, there was evidence of material from beyond the nexus points that might give a clue as to where they led. In one chamber, it was sand and in another fresh needles from what might have been Tíu-wood trees. Nebússa favored going through the nexus with the needles, since he believed it suggested the place beyond was at least capable of supporting life. However, the others favored the sand portal and, after some experimentation, it was determined that the nexus was both two-way and led to a seaside location.

Stepping through, the characters took stock of their surroundings. On one side was the sea, on two others hills that turned into mountains, and on another the beach heading off toward the horizon. The decision was made to follow the coastline for several days, hoping to catch sight of a settlement or some people. On the second day of travel, the group caught sight of what looked to be a small fishing boat. Three young men were casting nets off the side of their boat. The characters began shouting at them, waving, jumping up and down, and otherwise attracting their attention. After some time, the men drew up their nets and rowed closer to the shore, calling out to them in a language that Nebússa recognizes as Salarvyáni, albeit an odd dialect of it. Nebússa asked them for directions to the nearest village. All three men turned and pointed southward, where a collection of buildings was visible. Nebússa thanked the men and the characters then set off toward the village.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 110

Page 110 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains a section entitled "Conducting the Game" with three sub-headings, each of which is probably worthy of a separate post. I may treat the other two at some point, but, for the moment, I'm going to deal only with the first one, because it treats a topic very near and dear to my heart, namely "Rolling the Dice and Control of the Game."

Gygax begins this section by stating, "In many situations it is correct and fun to have players dice such things as melee hits or saving throws." That's simple enough and hard to disagree with, particularly his point about fun. He then adds the following:

However, it is your right to control the dice at any time and roll dice for the players. You might wish to do this to keep them from knowing a specific fact. You might also wish to give them an edge in finding a particular clue, e.g. a secret door that leads to a complex of monsters that will be especially entertaining, You do have the right to overrule the dice at any time if there is a particular course of events that you would like to have occur. In making such a decision you should never seriously harm the party or a non-player character with your actions. "ALWAYS GIVE A MONSTER AN EVEN BREAK!"

There's a lot of unpack here, so let's start with his first sentence. Taken in isolation, it would seem that Gygax is endorsing an authoritarian approach to refereeing, playing into the caricature of him and old school referees more generally. However, there's actually a lot more nuance here. On the one hand, he admits that, by controlling when and by whom dice are rolled, the referee can ensure events occur as he prefers (or the reverse). On the other hand, Gygax is emphatic that no such decision should harm either the player characters or non-player characters, which is both a remarkable thing to say generally and more specifically for someone regularly lampooned as dictatorial. The final sentence of that paragraph, presented entirely in capitals, clarifies his ultimate point: the referee should be fair.

Gygax makes clear the dice rolls the referee should always roll: "listening, hiding in shadows, detecting traps, moving silently, secret doors, monster saving throws, and attacks made upon the party without their possible knowledge." I don't think there's anything controversial here. Potentially more contentious is his assertion that

There will be times in which the rules do not cover a specific action that a player will attempt. In such situations, instead of being forced to make a decision, take the option to allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning a reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or she can make that percentage. You can weigh the dice in any way so as to give the advantage to either the player or the non-player character, whichever seems more correct and logical to you while being fair to both sides.

This is very close to my own trust in the oracular power of dice and echoes the play style of many early referees, like Dave Arneson and M.A.R. Barker. Take note, too, that Gygax once again emphasizes "being fair to both sides." This is key to understanding his perspective on these and related questions, I think.

Gygax concludes this section of the DMG by talking about times when "through no fault of his own," a character – though, interestingly, Gygax frequently uses the word "player," when he clearly means character – will die. He notes that sometimes "a freakish roll of the dice" results in an unfortunate end to a PC. He notes, though, that "in the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time." I personally find this hard to disagree with and it's been the way I've handled rolls in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign since the start (and where both PCs and major NPCs have died as a consequence). At the same time, Gygax counsels leniency:

You can rule that the player [sic], instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizaing to the players to lose a care-for-player character when they have played well. When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may!

I'm not sure I'm on board with this bit of advice, at least as a general approach. As with everything, there are degrees of leniency and, while I'm certain there have been instances where I've ben kind-hearted as a referee, my general rule nowadays is to let the dice fall where they may in every circumstance. I guess that makes me more of uncompromising than the man himself. 

That having been said, Gygax pulls back slightly. He explains that

one die roll that you should NEVER tamper with is the SYSTEM SHOCK ROLL to be raised from the dead. If a character fails that roll, which or she should make him or herself, he or she is FOREVER DEAD. There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and again the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each!

Nuance, balance, and, above all, fairness. These are the keys to understanding Gary Gygax's approach to most aspects of refereeing and why, far from having been the tyrant he's sometimes made out to be, he's actually a superb model for referees to emulate.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Retrospective: Borderlands

My love is boxed sets is well known. I strongly believe that the shift away from them had a negative effect on the hobby's self-identity, leading to the publication and purchasing of more and more "game" products that were, in fact, never used at the table at all but instead simply read. I understand why, for pragmatic reasons, boxed sets largely died out, but that doesn't change the fact that I wish there were more of them available today, as they were in my younger days.

In that bygone era, Chaosium produced some of the best boxed sets ever made. I owned a few of them, mostly for Call of Cthulhu, but I admired many more from a distance, particularly those produced for RuneQuest. Though Pavis and its companion set, Big Rubble, not unreasonably tend to get more attention, 1982's Borderlands is another good example of what Chaosium did well: present a large area of Glorantha in an approachable fashion and never forgetting to make it gameable. That's very important to me. However interesting and evocative a game's setting may be, one must never lose sight of its purpose: to foster adventure in the game itself. Setting for setting's sake seems to me to miss the point and I say that as someone who is a dedicated fan of Tékumel, a setting that could, in fairness, be accused of this very sin. 

Borderlands is guilty of no such offense. Set in the frontier region of Prax, the boxed set is geared toward adventuring within the region as mercenaries in the employ of the Duke of Rone. The duke is an exiled Lunar soldier sent here to establish an imperial presence, with the goal of "civilizing" its indigenous peoples. The duke's background is mysterious, as are the reasons for his exile far from the Empire, details that contribute to the seven scenarios Borderlands includes. Each of these scenarios is bound separately as a little booklet to be used by the referee, in conjunction with two other volumes that provide detailed information on the region, from history to prominent features and NPCs. A fold-out map and handouts complete the boxed set's contents.

Borderlands distinguishes itself by the way that its presentation of background details inform the adventures. For example, the first scenario is intended as an introduction, with the characters charged with scouting the land for the duke. In doing so, they not only learn about the major sites and settlements of the area but also its various factions and inhabitants. Later scenarios build on what they have learned, as they take on bandits, creatures of Chaos, kidnappers, and other enemies, as well as explore ruins and locales of interest. Combined with the many unique random encounters presented in a separate booklet, Borderlands presents a coherent picture of Prax and its peoples. 

What most impresses me about Borderlands from the vantage point of the 21st century is the way that it marshals all its resources – background information, NPC stats, encounter tables, bestiary, map – to aid the referee in running adventures, both the seven included in the set and others of his own creation. Borderlands is a very practical product, a hands-on supplement for the referee whose contents support long-term play in the region of Glorantha it presents. To my mind, it's a great model for presenting a setting through adventures rather than through pages upon pages of background information, a "show, don't tell" approach that I find very congenial and wished I'd discovered sooner.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Subscriber Bonuses

Though GDW's Traveller was one my favorite roleplaying games as a young person – and remains so to this day – I wasn't a regular reader of its companion periodical, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society. In fact, I don't think I even saw copies of it until the late '80s or early '90s, shortly before its contents were incorporated into Challenge magazine (to which I did subscribe and where I got my start as a writer). 

Consequently, I marvel at advertisements, like the one above, for JTAS. Take note of the second bullet point, "The Wrapper." I'm familiar with mailing envelopes sporting unique bits of art, such as these examples from the Dungeon Hobby Shop, but, until I came across this ad, I can't recall ever seeing a wrapper promoted as a game aid. I'd love to see an example of one of these wrappers from the time period, but such things are notoriously fragile and rarely survive the years.