Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Retrospective: Grimtooth's Traps

Trap-filled dungeons are an iconic element of Dungeons & Dragons (and, to a lesser extent, many other fantasy roleplaying games). Of course, filling a dungeon with traps requires, well, traps and even the most imaginative referee is likely to run out of ideas for them after a while. That's doubly true for referees like me, who've never been good at coming up with interesting and satisfying traps. 

That's why I find it surprising how few books of traps have been published over the years, at least when compared to books of monsters, magic items, or spells. Flying Buffalo's Grimtooth's Traps series, the first volume of which appeared in 1981, is one of the few books of traps I've ever read. Much Citybook (also produced by Flying Buffalo), Grimtooth's Traps is an anthology of traps written by a number of different authors (including Steve Crompton, Liz Danforth, Rick Loomis, Michael Stackpole, and Ken St. Andre, among many more). 

The book is presented as if the titular Grimtooth, a black-eyed troll, had collected all these traps "from the four corners of the earth" and passed them on to Paul Ryan O'Connor, who then typed them up for publication. Grimtooth himself provides sardonic commentary on many of the entries, cackling gleefully at the thought of how much mayhem a trap will wreak upon adventurers. Exactly how annoying one finds Grimtooth is a matter of taste. I know people who find his snarkiness genuinely amusing, while I don't find he adds much value the trap write-ups. In fact, I find Grimtooth actively detracts from my ability to take the entries seriously – which is a shame, because many of them are truly imaginative. 

The first volume is divided into four chapters, each one dedicated to a different type of trap. Chapter one presents room traps, chapter two presents corridor traps, chapter three presents door traps, and chapter four presents trapped items and artifacts. Each trap is described free of game mechanics, leaving it to each referee to decide best to integrate it into his preferred game system. These descriptions vary in length, from only a couple of short paragraphs to close to a full page. Since many of the traps are complex, or at least difficult to understand through words alone, they're accompanied illustrations or diagrams of their workings. These diagrams are probably the best part of Grimtooth's Traps; they do a very good job of clarifying how a trap works, as well as helping a referee decide how to use it in his dungeons. Finally, each trap gets a lethality rating, represented by skulls in the margin near their descriptions.

The quality and nature of the traps described in Grimtooth's Traps are quite variable. While comparatively few of them could be described as realistic, many are at least plausible, in that their mechanisms make sense. That's vitally important to a good trap in my opinion. Traps whose functioning is impenetrable aren't much fun, unless one is a killer referee who enjoys inflicting unavoidable pain on player characters. Unfortunately, there are more than a few traps of this sort in the book, such as, for example, a statue made of pure sodium that, when carried through a waterfall explodes, killing the carrier, or a spyglass that shoots a dagger into the eye of anyone who looks inside it. On the one hand, one can almost admire the fiendish cleverness of traps like these. On the other, though, they come across as cruel and spiteful rather. I have a hard time imagining any player whose character is subjected to these feeling as if he'd been fairly bested by the referee. More likely, he'll be ticked off and not without justification in my opinion.

All that said, I retain a fondness for Grimtooth's Traps. As someone who has trouble coming up with interesting traps, I appreciate the work that went into creating these entries, even the vicious ones. The latter are reminders of an older, more adversarial form of play that has largely fallen out of fashion nowadays but was once quite widespread (or at least not uncommon). Consequently, the book remains valuable as a historical document, if nothing else, though I continue to hope that I might one day make use of some of its fairer, more interesting traps.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

GenCon IX Report

Take a look at this. It's an article from the San Francisco Examiner, dated September 5, 1976, describing the events of GenCon IX. How's that for a byline? 'Twas an age of giants.

Alignment in EPT

Empire of the Petal Throne occupies an unusual place in the history of roleplaying games. Published a year and a half after the release of OD&D, EPT is at once thoroughly indebted to and dependent upon its predecessor and a huge leap forward in terms of design and presentation. Consequently, the rules of EPT are a glorious mess, equal parts OD&D atavisms, half-baked evolutions therefrom, and genuinely original ideas. You can see this uneasy tension in place like Section 310, which discusses alignment.

Before diving in, remember that Volume 1 of OD&D has little to say about alignment, framing alignment as a kind of allegiance

Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take – Law, Netrality [sic], or Chaos.

Beneath it is the following chart, which divides intelligent beings in "teams," according to their alignment.

Not much else is said about alignment in OD&D, except that clerics of 7th level and greater must aligned with either Law or Chaos and that changing one's alignment has (unexplained) dire consequences. By contrast, the aforementioned Section 310 of Empire of the Petal Throne is comparatively long (five paragraphs) and spells out many more details of what alignment is and how it works. M.A.R. Barker begins the section with this remarkable section:

For convenience's sake (and not to reflect reality necessarily), all characters are divided into two basic types: those serving the Good Gods and their Cohorts, and those serving their Evil counterparts. There are no "neutrals" on Tékumel, although it is possible to achieve a limited neutral status as one of the nonhuman races which traditionally remain aloof from human affairs.

"For convenience's sake" is an interesting turn of phrase, especially when coupled with "not to reflect reality," since it seems that Barker viewed alignment largely as a construct of EPT's game rules. Equally interesting, to my mind, is that he immediately connects alignment to serving the gods. He elaborates on this in the second paragraph of Section 310, saying "Each player names his or her God, Goddess, or Cohort at the beginning of the game." 

Despite the constructed nature of alignment in EPT, it nevertheless has social consequences. "A good character," Barker explains, "does not consort with an evil one, although it is not required to attack him if there is an encounter." Naturally, evil characters are not bound by these same restrictions, though, oddly, it's suggested that even evil characters will not attack members of their own party while "sharing an adventure together." This reinforces the idea that alignment on EPT' is foundational to the presentation of Tékumel's society rather than having anything to do with personality or morality. (It's worth noting that later presentations of Tékumel develop this further, replacing Good and Evil with Stability and Change and fleshing out a moral system based around "nobility.")

As noted above, nonhumans don't have alignment as humans do. Rather, their alignment is based on their "general attitudes toward mankind," as this chart demonstrates:

This chart recalls the one from OD&D and supports the notion of alignment as being, first and foremost, the marker of one's "team." This is in keeping with OD&D's conception of alignment, though Barker teases out some of its assumptions and consequences a bit more in Empire of the Petal Throne. This is, I believe, where EPT shines, since Barker offered a model of how one might apply the rules of OD&D to a specific world in order to create an immersive, believable place. This is something Dungeons & Dragons has never really done, which no doubt contributes to the dislike of alignment by many of its players.

Stackpole on DragonQuest

 In Issue #11 of Different Worlds, there's a lengthy review of SPI's fantasy roleplaying game, DragonQuest by game designer Michael Stackpole. Overall, the review is negative, though Stackpole concedes that the game was "designed with good intentions"  and contains "several good and innovative ideas … obscured by the clumsy methods used in implementing them." He concludes his review with the following:

Ouch!

Different Worlds: Issue #11

Issue #11 of Different Worlds (February/March 1981) is an interesting issue to me, because its content continues to differentiate the magazine from its contemporaries, like Dragon or White Dwarf. For whatever reason, Different Worlds published a significant number of "theoretical" articles about roleplaying, which is to say, articles about roleplaying rather than simply articles providing additions and options to existing games. If I had to guess, I imagine this reflects the local culture out of which Chaosium and, by extension, Different Worlds, grew. I've noted on a couple of occasions that California, like the Midwest and the East Coast, was distinctive in its approach to RPGs, so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see this distinction reflected in its periodicals. 

The issue begins with "Running Low Level Dungeons" by Robert Plamondon, which offers some advice to referees on the necessity of taking beginner dungeons seriously, as a means of "hooking" people into the hobby. Plamondon's concerns are twofold. First, he feels strongly that even low-level dungeons should be every bit as interesting as high-level one. Second, he feels equally strongly that low-level dungeons should be accommodating to the inexperience of new players and thus not "killer" in their approach. Mind you, Plamondon seems generally opposed to dungeons designed to kill characters, seeing this as somehow antithetical to the purpose of RPGs. 

"A Change of Hobbit" by Ronald Mark Pehr is an odd piece. It's a critique of D&D's portrayal of hobbits (halflings) on the basis that it differs from they way Tolkien portrayed them in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Beyond that, Pehr's main complaint is that D&D pigeon holes halflings as thieves and doesn't acknowledge their skills as warriors. These are fair points, if being true to Tolkien, is one's goal, but I'm not sure that was ever the point of including halflings in the game. (I resolve the matter by dispensing with halflings entirely.) Part two of "Gems & Magic" by Steve Marsh and Margaret R. Gemignani is also here, completing what began last issue. I'm a big fan of "natural" magic items like this, so the article was most welcome to me.

"A New Computer System for Traveller" by Martin Connell is an attempt – in 1981, I remind you – to offer new rules for computers to make it "truly representative of the far future." More amusingly, Connell notes that his rules are based on his experiences with an "IBM 360, and IBM 3033, a PRIME, and several hobby computers." He also consulted with "several friends who are computer science majors." I don't mean to mock Connell, whose larger point about how outdated Traveller's computer rules have always been is sound, but only to point out that, when it comes to technology, predicting the future is not always easy. Personally, I've generally found Traveller's somewhat retro approach to computers less problematic than trying to import the moving target of "realistic" far future computer rules into the game.

"The Fourfold Way of FRP" by Jeffrey A. Johnson is a follow-up of sorts to the articles by Glen Blacow and Lewis Pulsipher in issue #10. It's another stab at trying to describe types of gamers and approaches to roleplaying. Johnson offers a diagram consisting of two axes, one relating to personal goals (power gaming vs storytelling) and realism (pure fantasy vs simulation). Honestly, this isn't a bad approach, though, as with most such articles, I marvel at gamers' desire to try and codify everything into neat categories (I am as guilty of this as anyone).

There is a huge collection of lengthy reviews in this issue, starting with a positive one for Azhanti High Lightning. Also covered are Tunnels & Trolls (also positively) and DragonQuest and several smaller adventure publications of which I've (mostly) never heard. What stands out about these reviews is how lengthy they are, something I appreciated, since, if nothing else, they afforded the reviewer to explain his own perspective in detail. This is particularly useful in the case of case of the T&T review (by Ken Rolston) and the DQ review (by Michael Stackpole), since there are multiple points where their own opinions differed with my own. Even more interesting is that the review of DragonQuest was followed by a rebuttal of sorts by the designer, Eric Goldberg. Good stuff!

John T. Sapienza reviews Beasts of Antares and several other novels in the saga of Dray Prescot. Sapienza also provides D&D game statistics for some of the magical items and monsters that appear in the series. "The Cult of Kali" is a "gateway" cult for RuneQuest by Greg Costikyan. Meanwhile, "The Sword of Hollywood" by Larry DiTillio is a new column about fantasy and science fiction movies, this time focusing rumors of the D&D movie, a new Star Trek TV series, and pre-production of the third Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Jedi. 

Lewis Pulsipher's "Personalities of Role-Playing Gamers" presents fifteen types of roleplayers, ranging from "The Barbarian," who always plays fighters and likes combat, to "The Puppet," who does what other people tell him to do, and "The Entrepreneur," who's always looking for ways to make money in an adventure. It's a fine, if limited list, but, much like Johnson's article earlier in this issue, I'm not quite sure the point of all these attempts at codifying the hobby and its players. Ending the issue is another column by Gigi D'Arn, which sadly doesn't contain any remarkable bits of gossip worth mentioning here. Oh, well.

Monday, April 19, 2021

First Encounter

Speaking as someone who has struggled to produce a fanzine on a regular basis, I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who attempted to do so in the days before computers and the Internet made it a far more complex and onerous proposition. Take, for example, First Encounter, a Canadian fanzine whose eight issues were published between June 1982 and August 1983. Of particular note is that the 'zines feature the artwork of Eric Hotz, best known for his iconic work on Hârn. I love seeing "before they were famous" work of this sort. It's a useful reminder of the remarkable talents that our hobby has fostered over the decades.

The High Priest of the Fantasy Movement

Over the past few days, I've been deluged with early newspaper references to roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons and, believe it or not, Empire of the Petal Throne (the majority of them sent to me by Thaddeus Moore, one of the creators of the Wizard Funk fanzine). 

An August 31, 1975 article, entitled "From Hussars to Hippogriffs" about GenCon VIII, which appeared in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is the first one I'd like to talk about. The article's coverage of GenCon and the wider wargaming hobby is itself quite fascinating and probably worthy of its own post. Naturally, it's the discussion of the still comparatively new D&D that is probably of most interest to readers of this blog. Take note of this paragraph, which introduces Gary Gygax.

As you can see, the article calls D&D "a free-form, do-it-yourself game" consisting of "three books of rules that are really guidelines for putting together your own game." That's a remarkably astute description of OD&D, I'd say. In another paragraph, the relationship between D&D and Tolkien – or at least Gygax's personal take on it – is briefly touched upon.
I appreciate quotes like this, because I think they lend support to my long-held contention that Gygax was not simply trying to downplay the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons for legal reasons but because he himself was genuinely not that keen on Middle-earth. 

Equally interesting to me is that the article makes mention of Empire of the Petal Throne, which had only just been released by TSR. Gamers often forget how early EPT was published and how significant its release was at the time. 
Perhaps not the most accurate description of Tékumel I've ever read, but it's also far from the worst!

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Singing Flame

Clark Ashton Smith's 1931 story, "The City of the Singing Flame", was, much to his surprise, one of his most popular stories — so popular that CAS decided to write a sequel to it. However, it was not an easy task for him, since so much of the power of the original story comes from he called, in a letter to David Lasser, its "suggestive vagueness." Consequently, Smith struggled a bit with the right approach to a sequel and the end result, I think, evinces some of the difficulties with which he wrestled. The resulting story, "Beyond the Singing Flame," which first appeared in the November 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, is thus not quite as remarkable as its predecessor, though it still has much to recommend it.

Like "The City of the Singing Flame," this tale is told from the perspective of its narrator, Philip Hastane, who admits that he "was still doubtful as to whether the incidents related [in the journal of Giles Angarth] … were fiction or verity." His doubts were driven by the fact that the journal's entries were "very much the sort of thing that Angarth might have imagined in one of the fantastic novels for which he had become so justly famous." Ultimately, though, he comes to accept that Angarth's journal describes real events, since the disappearance of Angarth and his friend Ebbonly made no sense otherwise.
Both were well-known, the one as a writer, the other as an artist; both were in flourishing circumstances, with no serious cares or troubles; and their vanishment, all things considered, was difficult to explain on the ground of any motive less unusual or extraordinary than the one assigned in the journal. 

At first, as I have hinted in my foreword to the published diary, I thought that the whole affair might well have been devised as a somewhat elaborate practical joke; but this theory became less and less tenable as weeks and months went by and linked themselves slowly into a year, without the reappearance of the presumptive jokers. 

Hastane soon found himself pondering the mystery "perpetually, and more and more … was possessed by an overwhelming wonder, and a sense of something which no mere fiction-weaver would have been likely to invent through the unassisted workings of his own fantasy." He then sets his affairs in order and travels to Angarth's abandoned cabin south of Crater Ridge, which he visits briefly before trying to retrace his friend's path. After three days of attempts, he succeeds in finding the "open, circular, rock-surrounded space" Angarth had described in his journal as the gateway between worlds.

Hastane hesitates in entering the circular space, simultaneously fearful that Angarth's tale was true and that it was a mere fiction. After spending a night in the cabin, his "brain excited by formless, glowing premonitions, by intimations of half-conceived perils and splendors and vastnesses," he sets off again toward the circle with weapons and supplies. Hastane steps into the circle and finds himself transported, just as Angarth had described. The other world, too, was just as Angarth had described, including "the city with its crowding tiers of battlements and its multitude of overlooming spires" that drew him toward it with "invisible threads of secret attraction." 

Yet, all was not well.

I saw in the far distance the shining towers of what seemed to be another city – a city of which Angarth had not written. The towers rose in serried lines, reaching for many miles in a curious arc-like formation, and were sharply defined against a blackish mass of clouds that had reared behind them and was spreading out on a luminous amber sky in sullen webs and sinister, crawling filaments.

Subtle disquietude and repulsion seemed to emanate from the far-off, glittering spires, even as attraction emanated from those of the nearer city. I saw them quiver and pulse with an evil light, like living and moving things, through what I assumed to be some refractive trick of the atmosphere. Then, for an instant, the black cloud behind them glowed with dull, angry crimson throughout its whole mass, and even its questing webs and tendrils were turned into lurid threads of fire.

Seeing this, Hastane briefly considers leaving this world and returning to California the way he came. He puts aside his fears and instead makes his way down the immense road Angarth had described in his journal, so that he might make his way to the nearer city. As he did so, he became aware of the fact that he was alone. No other beings, such as those Angarth encountered, could be seen. Hastane began to wonder, "Was the city forsaken by its people …? Was it no longer open to the pilgrims who came from outlying lands …?" 

Hastane has little time to ponder these thoughts before he is picked up by "two flying creatures, whom [he] can compare only to gigantic moths," who carry him to the nearer city. As he descended toward the city, carried by the alien lepidoptera, he

knew that war was being made with unearthly weapons and engineries, by inimical powers that I could not imagine, for a purpose beyond my conception; but to me, it all had the elemental confusion and vague, impersonal horror of some cosmic catastrophe.

 It's then that the author comes to realize that fear and revulsion he felt upon seeing the far-off city is an omen of its warlike intentions. War is being made upon the city Angarth called the City of the Singing Flame and its inhabitants are utterly weaponless and without any means of defending themselves against such aggression. Is this why Angarth and Ebbonly had not returned? Was there nothing that could be done?

Though clearly a lesser work than "The City of the Singing Flame," I nevertheless have to give credit to Smith for not merely repeating himself. "Beyond the Singing Flame" develops the world beyond the gateway, expanding on its nature and inhabitants, as well as altering the status quo through the advent of war. At the same time, it's precisely these things that, to my mind anyway, marks this as an inferior story. Though the prose is as luxurious as ever, its rhythms are more mundane and less hypnotic, due, no doubt, to the necessities of exposition. Where "The City of the Singing Flame" is a finely woven tapestry of thoughts, feelings, and impressions, its sequel is a much more conventional pulp fantasy story of extra-dimensional travel. It's a very well made example of the genre and full of inspirational ideas, but it lacks something I can't quite put my finger on, which is why I like it less than its predecessor.

Friday, April 16, 2021

House of Worms, Session 221

The provincial capital of Mihimór was unimpressive to the idea of the Tsolyáni, being only slightly larger than Linyaró, which was widely recognized as a backwater. Mihimór was walled and possessed two gates and a waterfront. One of the gates allowed access to a Sákbe road that snaked southward along the coast. Most of the buildings, which seemed to be made of baked mud bricks, were squat and broad, with few rising above a couple of stories. Two structures towered above the others, visible even from the waterfront. Znayáshu theorized that they must be a government building and the temple of Jráka of which Vrummíshsha had spoken. He suggested they make their way in their direction once they had disembarked from their boats.

A customs officer waved them into a dock and inquired about their origins and purpose in Mihimór. Keléno, as one of only two characters who spoke Bednallján Salarvyáni, spoke on behalf of the party. He explained that they had come from up the coast, from a fishing village called Bakátlan. The official was skeptical, saying that their accents suggested they were foreigners. Keléno then admitted that, yes, they called the city of Sokátis home, located far to the west. The official had never heard of Sokátis but seemed satisfied with the explanation. He then asked about their purpose in the capital. In reply, Keléno said that they were coming to visit the temple and had business there. 

The customs officer seemed satisfied, though he explained, "I thought you might be deserters fleeing the Red King's armies." Naturally, this piqued the interest of Kirktá, who asked Keléno to find out more about this Red King. The official shrugged, adding that "He's just another fanatic – a prophet of Vaomáhl – dissatisfied with King Tarishánde's religious policies, or so I hear. Don't worry: the battles are far from here. You'll be safe in Mihimór." Znayáshu expressed some concern upon hearing this, since their ultimate goal was to travel westward toward the royal fortress of Evú Nithóru. For the moment, though, they had more immediate concerns and so he put aside any thoughts of the Red King.

The group advanced toward the two large buildings they'd seen earlier, along the way taking in the sights. It was quite clear that Mihimór was a minor, unimportant city. The soldiers here looked ill-disciplined and poorly equipped, unlikely to have ever seen combat. The inhabitants mostly ignored them, going about their business, though a few eyed them suspiciously. They came first to the building Znayáshu had correctly guessed was an administrative structure but chose to ignore it in favor of the other, which they hoped would be the temple of Jráka. When they did reach it, though found it was, like all the buildings here, broad and squat, with several spires attached to it. The place was surrounded by a low wall and two soldiers stood at its entrance.

Keléno approached one and explained that he and his companions had traveled far to speak with the high priest. The soldier sized up the group and said, "Most of you don't look like priests. What need to you have to enter the temple?" Keléno told him that they had "items of value" that they wished to trade to the high priest and pointed to a bag filled with his possessions. The soldier then acquiesced and led Keléno, Znayáshu, Nebússa, and Srüna inside. Once there, they were introduced to a scowling, middle-aged man identified as Kirída Giraggánu. Keléno engaged in brief pleasantries before telling the priest that he wanted some ancient devices identified – for surely priests of Jráka could perform such a feat – and some scrolls of dispel magic. 

Kirída immediately asked about payment. Znayáshu suggested giving him as much coin as they could muster, but it soon became clear the priest was not interested in such trivialities. He said that he would take one of the three ancient devices in exchange for the temple's services – one of his choosing. Znayáshu did not like this deal but was willing to accede to it at first. Once Keléno added that he would also require scrolls, Kirída said that, in such a case, he would ask for two of the devices in payment. This was too much for Znayáshu, who told Keléno to end the negotiations. They would find someone else who could help them. The characters then left the temple, with Kirída telling them that he would be here if they changed their minds.

Attempting to find alternatives met with failure. Interviewing locals made it very clear that the priests of Jráka were the most educated and magically potent individuals in the city. Znayáshu hit upon the idea of looking for the temple of the local equivalent of Sárku – Qúrgha – in the hopes that their priests might be less obstreperous. Unfortunately, the closest temple to Qúrgha was in the city of Khavárish, days away by Sákbe road. Since the characters had little interest in traveling so great a distance, they took inventory of their possessions to see if perhaps they had something else that might interest Kirída and that he might take as payment without claiming any of the ancient devices they possessed. Znayáshu remembered that he had a text known as the Du'ón Duqála Tóruuna, "The Scroll of Bringing Forth the Unnnamed," written in the ancient tongue of the priests of Ksárul. He suggested that perhaps the priest of Jráka would find that to his liking.

Returning to the temple, Keléno offered the scroll in exchange for identifying the devices and scrolls of dispel magic. Kirída tried to hide his obvious pleasure at the offer, but he "reluctantly" agreed. He summoned a junior priest to identify the three devices, which turned out to be an eye of non-seeing, an eye of retarding destiny, and an eye of madness. Kirída said the temple could offer five scrolls to them, which Keléno accepted before Znayáshu could press him to get a better deal. The characters then left the temple and headed back toward the waterfront, with the intention of returning to Bakatlán. Ultimately, their goal was the ruins inhabited by the Ssú, whom they wished to face again, now better armed against the battle to come. 

Random Roll: DMG, p. 59

The ability of several demihuman races to see in the dark is firmly established in Dungeons & Dragons. My first encounter with the game was through the Holmes-edited Basic Set and its rulebook calls this ability "infravision" without any explanation. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, though, goes to some length explaining the nature of infravision.

As explained in PLAYERS HANDBOOK, infravision is the ability to see light waves in the infrared spectrum.

To say that I have disliked this definition for decades is an understatement. While I am on record as not being opposed in principle to the mixing of science fiction and fantasy, Gygax's explanation of infravision leans a little too heavily, in my opinion, on real world science, with infelicitous consequences, as we shall see.

Gygax elaborates with the following:

Characters and various creatures with infravisual capability out to 60' (standard) are basically picking up radiation from their surroundings. Therefore, they note differences in thermal radiation, hot or cold. They do not "see" things which are the same temperature as their surroundings. Thus, a room in a dungeon might look completely blank, as walls, floor, ceiling, and possibly even some wooden furniture are all of the same temperature. Openings in the walls should show up rather plainly, as space anywhere else will, and if you are generous, you can allow different substances to radiate differently even if at the same temperature, i.e. the wood in the example above would be discernible if care was used in scanning the room infravisually.

Leaving aside the not insignificant matter of what this does to the "magic" of D&D, the conception of infravision Gygax advances here seems intended to limit its utility. If an elf's ability to see in the dark is akin to 1970s era IR goggles, it's a rather narrow ability, almost to the point of uselessness. I imagine that's the point, though. He continues:

Except where very warm or very cold objects are concerned, vision of this sort is roughly equivalent to human norm on a dark or cloudy night at best. Note also that monsters of a very cold or very warm sort (such as a human) can be tracked infravisually by their footprints. Such tracking must occur within two rounds of their passing, or the temperature difference where they had trodden will dissipate. 

The ability to track via infravision is certainly handy, though, as one might expect, Gygax places limitations on it, which given his explanation of how the ability works, is not unrealistic. Of course, what he gives with one hand, he takes with the other.

Light sources which give off heat also absolutely prevent infravision from functioning within their sphere of illumination. (Explain this as the effect of trying to see into the dark when the observer is in a brightly lot area.) It requires not less than two segments to accustom the eyes to infravision after use of normal vision. 

Again, this makes sense, given his conception of infravision, but it's a potentially serious drawback when one notes that it takes two segments to shift between normal and infravision. A lot can happen during those 12 seconds of temporary blindness.

The section ends by noting that creatures with infravision with a range of 90' or more – the sort possessed by "most monsters inhabiting underground areas" – see much more clearly than those with standard infravision. 

Such creatures can easily distinguish floor, ceiling, wall, and other areas, as well as furnishings within the area.

Talk about stacking the deck in the monsters favor!

This whole section makes me unhappy, or at least disappointed. I much prefer granting certain creatures, like dwarves, elves, and many monsters, the magical ability to see in the dark without restriction. This is more or less what's implied in OD&D and the way I've always handled infravision (a term I now reject, owing to the scientific associations Gygax foists on it here). Chainmail, I believe, grants magic-users the power to see in the dark too and it's something I've long considered giving player characters of that class as a basic ability. 

My point, ultimately, is that I think this whole section reeks of an attempt by Gygax to rein in an ability he thought too useful. Since I neither share his likely concern nor like his reframing of infravision as thermal vision, there's not much here I would use. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Thrown into Barbarism by a Cosmic Cataclysm

 After admitting yesterday that I take great interest in early newspaper and magazine reports about roleplaying games, I received several emails from readers pointing me toward examples of the same. I'd like to thank everyone who's done so, since I'd never seen most of them before and they're amazing windows into the past. 

One article that really caught my eye was sent to me by Thaddeus Moore. It's from the February 12, 1977 edition of the Vancouver Sun. The article, entitled "The Miniature World of Model Makers" by Phil Hanson, is about the hobby show at the Pacific National Exhibition, which showcased model planes and vehicles. Hanson talks to hobby shop owner Bill Murdoch and learns about the growth of model making as both a business and a pastime. Toward the end of the article, Murdoch mentions that "Maybe war games are becoming old hat … The big thing at the hobby convention was fantasy games." The article then goes on to say:

Not only does Hanson talk about D&D, as one might expect, but also Empire of the Petal Throne. That's frankly remarkable. Even nowadays, most gamers have never heard of EPT, let alone know enough about it to describe it as accurately as the paragraph above does. Mind you, this article was published only two years after the appearance of EPT, when there were still only about two dozen RPGs of any kind in print. Nevertheless, I'm impressed and find myself how often the game was ever mentioned in the mainstream press over the years – not often, I'd wager.

California Gamin' (Part 2)

 As one might expect, there's a section of Moira Johnston's article in New West that touches on the importance of California in the growing popularity of roleplaying games.

I've touched on the topic of California and its gaming scene before, but I especially like this paragraph for its quotes from Gygax and Stafford. Gygax's comment that "the East was slow at first" intrigues me, since, by the time I'd entered the hobby, it was pretty well entrenched in the region. The Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia area seemed to be positively crawling with gamers, which makes sense, with its preponderance of universities and military bases, two breeding grounds for the hobby. Still, there's no denying the foundational role that California (and the West Coast more generally) played in not just embracing Dungeons & Dragons but in creating early alternatives to it.   

Alignment Tracking

I sometimes think I must be the only gamer who doesn't have a problem with alignment in Dungeons & Dragons. Though my personal preference these days is the simple three-way system of OD&D, I'm equally fine with Holmes's five-way version and the very well known presentation from AD&D, with its nine alignments. For me, the only "wrong" alignment system in D&D is a non-existent one. I consider alignment in some form to be one of the distinguishing features of the game, like character classes or Vancian magic. Get rid of alignment and it's not really D&D anymore, at least not for me.

That's why I'm equal parts intrigued and repulsed by attempts to improve alignment by better tying it to game mechanics. I fully understand the impulse. Many critics of alignment feel that it's useless, a wargaming atavism with no purpose in the game. Associating alignment with some kind of mechanism is, I think, an effort to answer these criticisms and I can appreciate that. At the same time, I enjoy reading optional and alternative rules as intellectual exercises, even though I rarely make use of them myself.

Last week, one of the players in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign asked me if I remembered an alignment tracking chart from an AD&D product from the 1980s. His question immediately reminded me of the existence of such a thing, though it took me a couple of minutes racking my brain to answer his question correctly. As it turns out, 1987's Dragonlance Adventures includes such a chart, which I've reproduced above. 

As written, it's an odd thing. For one, it only tracks a character's moral alignment, which is to say, the good-neutrality-evil axis. At start of play, a character's alignment is deemed to be at the midpoint of his chosen moral alignment. I'm not wholly sure why the chart has no interest in the so-called ethical alignment axis of law-neutrality-chaos. I presume it might have something to do with the unique cosmology of Krynn, but it's not directly spelled out in the book. 

If, in the opinion of the Dungeon Master, a character's actions deviate from his stated moral alignment, it moves one to three steps closer toward the opposite end of the chart. With enough deviations, the character enters the gray "transition" area, which signals that he is in danger of changing his alignment. While in the transition area, there are various game mechanical penalties levied against the character, such as lowered combat statistics and a chance of spell failure. Certain classes, like clerics, suffer further penalties.

Dragonlance Adventures is actually a fascinating AD&D book, one of several setting-specific rulebooks that appeared just prior to the publication of Second Edition. My impression is that these books, each in their own way, was a test run for various ideas and concepts that were being considered for inclusion in 2e. For example, Dragonlance Adventures introduced "spheres" of clerical spells, with each god's clerics having access to only some of them, in an effort to distinguish them from one another. This idea would become a big part of 2e's priest class, one the edition's biggest divergences from its predecessor. 

It's worth noting that First Edition already included something akin to this. Page 24 of the Dungeon Masters Guide includes a section of "graphing alignment," in which Gygax states that "It is of importance to keep track of player character behavior with respect to their professed alignment." Likewise, there are penalties for deviating from one's alignment, though they're not as clear cut as those described in Dragonlance Adventures. Still, I feel confident that alignment tracking is likely an idea considered for Second Edition and given a trial in this book. That it never appeared in 2e suggests it probably wasn't well received or that it had failed to serve its intended purposely, namely to make alignment more mechanically significant in AD&D.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Perils and Pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons

I tell this story often, so, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you've probably heard it before: I first learned about the existence of Dungeons & Dragons due the media hoopla surrounding the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in August 1979. My father was quite intrigued by the story and read everything he could about it in newspapers and magazines. I remember his asking me if I knew anything about D&D and, at the time, I hadn't. His interest is what prompted my mother to buy him a copy of the Holmes Basic Set, which I later "inherited" when it turned out he had no real interest in the game itself, only the story of Egbert's disappearance. 

A consequence of this is that, once I did start playing RPGs, I would instinctively clip out any articles I came across that talked about the hobby and put them into a huge binder. I left the binder at my parents' home when I went away to college and, over the years, it disappeared. I regret that, because it contained a large number of interesting articles from various early 1980s sources, articles I've been unable to find again, even in library archives. 

Once I started taking a more serious interest in the history of roleplaying games, I again started collecting contemporary articles that talked about them. An excellent early article is "It's Only A Game – Or Is It?" by Moira Johnston, which appeared in the August 25, 1980 issue of New West. New West, for those who don't know, was a sister periodical to New York magazine, focusing on the life and culture of the American southwest (which generally meant California, though not always). It's on this basis that Johnston's article appears, since it opens with a recounting of the time she and her thirteen year-old son played RuneQuest at the Berkeley home of its creator, Greg Stafford. "It's a bit like being invited to play piano with Mozart," she explains.

Despite its somewhat sensationalistic title, which I assume was a copy editor's idea, the eight-page article is evenhanded and surprisingly full of factual information. Unlike so many articles about roleplaying, whether written then or now, Johnston took time to get the details right. For example, in recounting her adventure in Glorantha, she talks about "the Lunars, the despotic empire to the north" and Snakepipe Hollow, "one of the worst stinkpots of chaos in the whole of Dragon Pass." This might seem like a small thing, but it's not. Johnston not only played a session of RuneQuest, she seems to have understood what was happening in the session and retained it, which is more than many journalists assigned a story about roleplaying back in the day did. 

Johnston also gets kudos from me for interviewing lots of people and listening to them talk about the games they played and why they enjoyed them. In addition to Stafford, she talked to Gary Gygax, Lee Gold, Dave Hargrave, Clint Bigglestone, Steve Perrin, and numerous players of the game, most notably a young woman named Deanna Sue White, whose campaign setting of Mistigar gets quite a few paragraphs devoted to it. The article is not a hit piece but rather a sober examination of the phenomenon of roleplaying games from a variety of perspectives, most of which quite positive, even celebratory, about the fundamental goodness of this new hobby. 

All that said, Johnston also gives space to criticisms of roleplaying and its supposed dangers, particularly from a psychological/psychiatric point of view. Mention is made, too, of Heber City, Utah, whose school board banned the playing of D&D as part of after-school clubs (mentioned in an issue of Different Worlds), but it's quickly followed up by criticism of its own. Likewise, though the disappearance and later suicide of Egbert is also mentioned, but it's neither dwelt upon nor is it implied to be indicative of any inherent danger in roleplaying. If anything, the article suggests that roleplaying – or FRP, in the parlance of the time – is a "blessed sanctuary for the fragile egos of the shy, sensitive, and cerebral." Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin are both quoted as agreeing with this assessment.

If I have a complaint about the article, it's that Johnston occasionally come across as dismissive of the people involved in creating RPG materials for publication. For instance, she introduces Gygax to her readers as "a former shoe-repairman, insurance underwriter, unpublished novelist, and unemployed gaming enthusiast," while she describes Dave Hargrave as "a shuffling, black-bearded bear of a man whose 250-pound body is archetype of the physically passive fantasy gamer." It's hard to say whether Johnston was genuinely disdainful or if it was simply a way to flatter her readers with the assurance that the middle-aged men who like this kind of thing are weirdos unlike themselves. Whatever her motivation, I find it mars what is largely a decent examination of the nascent hobby from the point of view of an interested outsider.

Early on in the article, Johnston describes roleplaying thusly:

There's an intriguing mishmash of ideas there and many of them get explored throughout the article, particularly those of a psychological bent, as I mentioned earlier. This seems to have been a common theme in early articles about RPGs. It's a reminder, I think, of just how innovative the concept of roleplaying as a form of entertainment was – so innovative that many people at the time genuinely had a difficult time viewing it as anything but evidence of mental instability. The story of James Dallas Egbert simultaneously birthed and fed off of these ideas, creating a lasting impression of roleplayers that survived well into the 21st century. 

The criticisms and negative comments Johnston reports from various sources are counter-balanced by those with positive experiences and perceptions of RPGs. That's why I generally look on the article as balanced, especially when compared to other articles published around the same time. That said, I understand that, when it was published, opinion of it was quite divided within the roleplaying world, with some seeing it as painting the hobby in a bad light. Perhaps my admiration for Johnston's willingness to play RuneQuest and talk to a diverse group of people is blinding me to the shortcomings of her article, I don't know. If nothing else, this is probably the longest article on the subject from the time period I've ever read and that alone made it worthwhile.

Retrospective: The Gateway Bestiary

To my mind, RuneQuest is inextricably linked to Glorantha, Greg Stafford's incomparable mythic Bronze Age setting. For me, playing RQ means playing a fantasy roleplaying campaign in that setting, a perspective seemingly shared by Chaosium, since the current iteration of the game is literally subtitled "Roleplaying in Glorantha." 

However, this wasn't always the case. In the early days of the game, there was the concept of "Gateway RuneQuest." Gateway RQ was RQ played in a setting other than Glorantha. In 1982, Chaosium took a stab at supporting this concept with a boxed set, entitled QuestWorld, which presented a non-Gloranthan setting for use with the game. For whatever reason, QuestWorld received no follow-up support and Gateway RuneQuest more or less faded away. 

Two years prior to the release of QuestWorld, Chaosium published an entire book of monsters intended, at least in part, to support non-Gloranthan RuneQuest. Appropriately called The Gateway Bestiary, it's also Sandy Petersen's earliest credit for Chaosium. The 40-page book is a fascinating collection of beasts, illustrated by Rick Becker, whose work appeared in numerous RQ products in the late 1970s and early '80s. Each creature is given a description, game statistics, and a hit location table for use with the combat system. 

The Gateway Bestiary consists of seven chapters, each one devoted to a different type of creature. The first chapter describes giant anthropods [sic], which is to say, insects and insect-like creatures, such as crabs and spiders. The chapter also includes rules for hive minds. The second chapter treats "legendary beings" of the sort found in Greek mythology, such as fauns and gorgons. The subjects of the third chapter are "Celtic horrors" of the sort found in Gaelic folklore (e.g. kelpies, redcaps, voughs, etc.). 

The fourth chapter is perhaps the most interesting one in the whole book, since it details "H.P. Lovecraft Creations." Call of Cthulhu, also by Petersen, would appear a year later and give this subject a fuller treatment, so this chapter serves as a kind of "sneak peek" of what was to come. Perhaps the most notable thing about the chapter is that there are not yet any sanity rules associated with these entities. The fifth chapter provides a large number of "natural animals" like lions, tigers, and bears, while the sixth offers up a plethora of dinosaurs. Concluding the book are "miscellaneous types" that don't easily fit anywhere else, such as jabberwocks, mummies, and shark-men.

As monster books go, The Gateway Bestiary is a fairly good one. While it lacks the length of, say, the AD&D Monster Manual, it more than makes up for it by the quality of its entries. Many detail truly unusual and unexpected creatures one doesn't normally see elsewhere. Their impact would likely have been even more significant in 1980, when monster books of any kind were still relatively rare. For me, though, the real power of The Gateway Bestiary is its invocation of a time before RuneQuest was so firmly entrenched in Glorantha that the two had become synonymous, a path not taken by Chaosium that might have contributed to a very different history for the game. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Pulsipher's Sanctimonious Pile of Crap"

In my posts about each issue of Different Worlds, I generally pass over commenting upon the letters pages. Most of the letters aren't all that interesting in their own right and even the interesting ones are frequently very "inside baseball" in terms of the content. However, there will certainly be occasions when a letter catches my eye and I think it worthy of mentioning. Issue #10, for example, includes this brief letter:

The article that so enraged Ken St. Andre appeared in issue #8. Its author, Lewis Pulsipher, discussed various refereeing styles, one of which he called "silly" and of which he considered Tunnels & Trolls to be an exemplar. 

The degree to which T&T actually is a silly game has long been a matter of debate. I've written previously about my own feelings on the subject. While I readily concede that there's perhaps more nuance here than many, including Pulsipher, might admit, I also think T&T is itself to blame for this common perception. From the beginning, Tunnels & Trolls has presented itself in a more lighthearted way than, say, D&D or RuneQuest. Its spell names, for example, are notorious for their humor, if that's the word, and have no doubt contributed greatly to how outsiders perceive it. I've often wondered if T&T's reputation might have been different had it had a more conventional list of spell names.

Different Worlds: Issue #10

Issue #10 of Different Worlds (October/November 1980) features a cover by Rick Becker. Tadashi Ehara's editorial discusses the increased scrutiny roleplaying games were receiving in the media at the time, some of it quite sensationalistic and negative. Interestingly, Ehara's chief concern is not that others will believe the worst about the hobby and its participants but that roleplayers themselves might come to believe them. It's an odd perspective to me, but, as I've said in the past, I never encountered any significant negativity to my involvement in roleplaying games, so perhaps my perspective is skewed. 

The issue proper begins with Larry DiTillio's "You Gotta Be Fiendish," a collection of six "rules" to aid the referee in "bedazzl[ing] the hell out of his or her players." As is so often the case with articles like this, it's good for what it is, but I doubt anyone who's been playing for more than a couple of years will find it all that insightful. Referee's advice articles tend not to age well and this one is no different, even though DiTillio's advice – for example, "Think before you build" or "Delayed action pays off" – is just fine.

"Traveller Mutations" by Iain Delaney offers up some brief rules for adding mutant abilities to Traveller. Leaving aside the possible inappropriateness of such abilities in a relative grounded SF RPG like Traveller, the article is decent and could prove useful to referees simply looking to model certain common superheroic powers. "Dungeon of Pelius Mright" by Ken Rolston is a simple "adventure for novices," intended to be used as a brief (90 minute) D&D scenario accessible to people with no prior knowledge of roleplaying games. While the adventure itself is very basic, I enjoyed Rolston's commentary, in which he talks about his experiences initiating newcomers into the hobby and how those experiences influenced his choices in designing this "quicky" adventure.

John McEwan's "Fantasy Gaming and Scale" is two-page article in which the author talks about the various scales used for miniature figures, terrain, buildings, models, and so on and provides a chart to aid gamers in choosing pieces that are properly scaled to the others in their possession. Though not a big user of miniatures myself, I found it an interesting, potentially useful little article. "The Usefulness of FRP Games" by Steven Horst is an odd "theory" article of the type that Different Worlds seemed to publish often in its early days. Horst discusses all sorts of potential benefits to playing RPGs, particularly when it comes to enabling one to view the world from a different perspective or to experience things one might otherwise not have the opportunity to do. I have no objection to such benefits, of course, but, for me, RPGs are more about the fun of exercising my creativity with others. They're an entertainment, first and foremost.

"Another Look at RuneQuest Movement" by Morgan O. Woodward III is a set of variant rules and guidelines for adjudicating movement during combat. Being something of a novice when it comes to RQ's combat rules, I must confess I have little ability to judge how useful Woodward's variant might be. Kathryn E. Shapero's "Gem Types and Values" provides a d1000 table for gems, with each entry including a description, usual cut, usual mass in carats, and value. John T. Sapienza's "Metal Marvels" installment this issue focuses on Grenadier's wizards and halflings figures and Dragontooth's "personalities" line. Articles like this are fun to read, because they include lots of photos of old school minis that really take me back to my earliest days in the hobby.

"Aspects of Gaming Culture" by Glenn F. Blacow is another "theory" article, this time focusing on what he considers the four main "emphases" of those who get involved in the hobby, namely power gaming, role-playing, wargaming, and story telling. This is an early example of the now-common discussion of different gaming "styles" and how best to satisfy players of each one. I have no specific objection to articles of this type and can see how they might be helpful to some referees. However, like other referee advice articles, they're less useful to referees with any experience and a little limited in their focus. 

Anders Swenson reviews The Temple of Athena, a scenario book by Kenneth Richert and published by Dimension Six. He didn't think much of the adventure, which considered poorly written and conceived, with numerous errors and sources of confusion. Gigi D'Arn's gossip column is sadly lacking in the kinds of juicy tidbits I'd come to expect from it. That's understandable, I suppose; there are bound to be "slow" issues when there aren't as many rumors to report and this seems to have been one of them. Maybe next month!

Monday, April 12, 2021

Before the OSR

I must confess it still baffles me that, even after all these years, the nature of the Old School Renaissance remains a matter of contention in some quarters. Given that, I suppose it should be no surprise that there's no universally accepted start date for the OSR, though I think a good case can be made for 2007 or 2008. I favor 2007 myself, though 2008 is also a good choice, since it's the year in which Gary Gygax died, as well as the year in which old school blogs really exploded in number and influence. 2008 is also, not insignificantly, the year in which the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was published and I think we'd be remiss in overlooking 4e as a symbolic Bright Red Line. The OSR owed much of its early energy to the shudders of revulsion many felt at the marketing campaign that presaged Fourth Edition's arrival.

One of the reasons a start date is difficult to pin down is that, prior to both the dates I mention above, no less than three significant rules sets inspired by old school Dungeons & Dragons appeared. To varying degrees, each one exists outside the OSR ecosystem, despite the fact that the OSR owes huge debts of thanks to all three. Without their trailblazing examples, I'm not sure retro-clones would have existed, or, if they had, they might well have appeared later or taken different forms than they did. 

The first of these was Castles & Crusades, first published by Troll Lord Games in 2004. Though I do not play it, I have a personal affection for C&C, since it was my gateway to old school gaming. Like a lot of people, I'd returned to playing D&D in 2000, with the publication of Third Edition. Also like a lot of people, I grew tired of 3e and was looking for an alternative to its ponderousness. C&C was the very first game I checked out in my quest, having been drawn there due to Gary Gygax's association with Troll Lords. The designers of C&C were, I think, among the first people to recognize that Wizards of the Coast's Open Game License (OGL) and System Reference Document (SRD) gave publishers the raw materials from which to rebuild something akin to AD&D

While one can quibble about the final result, C&C was close enough for my tastes at the time that I readily embraced it. More importantly, the game eschewed all the skills, feats, prestige classes, and other cruft that made Third Edition such cumbersome mess. Better still, C&C built up an active, enthusiastic, and imaginative community around itself. Reading the C&C forums was joyous: every other thread wasn't devoted to dissecting the rules or arguing over the best way to "build" a character. People were just playing the game and having fun doing it. As a new refugee from WotC D&D, this was revelatory and I'll always be grateful for it.

Around the same time, I also came across the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (BFRPG), which was first published in 2006. Basic Fantasy takes a similar tack to C&C, in that it leverages the OGL and SRD to recreate a defunct edition of Dungeons & Dragons, in this case, as its name suggests, the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic and Expert rules. BFRPG went farther, in my opinion, than C&C in using WotC's resources to present a game that played like its inspirations. This was important, because it demonstrated just how much could be done with the OGL and SRD if you were determined to do so.

BFRPG is significant in another way. Castles & Crusades was the invention of Troll Lord Games and some aspects of its design, such as the Siege Engine core mechanic, remained proprietary, which limited the ability of third parties to support it. By contrast, everything about BFRPG is completely "open," allowing anyone and everyone to add to it as they wished. Even more, the game's site actively promotes supplements and adventures produced by others, which is the same spirit I associate strongly with the earliest days of the OSR, when ideas flew fast and furious and everyone involved was sharing and promoting one another's wacky ideas. 


Also released in 2006 was the Old School Reference and Index Compilation, better known as OSRIC. The original purpose of OSRIC was to provide a legal framework for the creation of adventures and supplements to support Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. However, because, at the time, AD&D was no longer readily available, except through the second hand market, some gamers began to use OSRIC as its own ruleset, playing it rather than using it for its original purpose. In doing so, OSRIC effectively became the first retro-clone.

OSRIC went far beyond C&C and BFRPG in terms of its willingness to make use of the content of the SRD to recreate an earlier edition of D&D. Indeed, at the time it was first released, there was some concern that Wizards of the Coast might object and take legal action to suppress it. OSRIC was thus the veritable canary in the coalmine. Because no legal action occurred, it emboldened others to follow suit and, within a couple of years, there were many retro-clones released. Without the boldness of OSRIC, that might never have happened.

Nowadays, I don't see as much talk about Castles & Crusades, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, or OSRIC as I once did, but the fact remains that the contemporary OSR owes a great debt to each of these pioneering games. Without them, I doubt we'd where we are today.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The City of the Singing Flame

The works of Clark Ashton Smith thoroughly bewitch me. Everything about them – their characters, their settings, their themes, and, most of all, their words – command my attention. I regularly find myself drawn back to them, as if by a siren's song, because of the almost hypnotic nature of Smith's prose. 

Just as H.P. Lovecraft's composition and word choices impart his fiction with an air of antiquity, Smith's choices give his writings an incantatory feel, as if he were intoning a spell that ensorcels its reader. After completing one of his tales, I sometimes find myself having to clear my head and take stock of my surroundings once again, so completely has he seized my mind.

That's certainly how I feel about "The City of the Singing Flame," which first appeared in the July 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. Editor David Lasser (or perhaps owner Hugo Gernsback) thought so well of it that he gave Smith's story the cover, illustrated by the legendary Frank R. Paul. The story itself takes the form of a series of journal entries written by Giles Angarth, a Californian "whose fame as a writer of fantastic fiction will probably outlive that of most other modern magazine contributors." 

The journal had come into the possession of Angarth's friend, another writer named Philip Hastane, who, based on his biographical details, seems to be Smith's author insert. Hastane provides a foreword to the journal entries, describing "the double vanishment" of Angarth and the artist Felix Ebbonly, who had illustrated several of Angarth's stories. The foreword also explains that Angarth had sent the journal to Hastane, with a note attached stating that he has permission to "publish this journal sometime, if you like." The note also predicts, "People will think it the last and wildest of all my fictions – unless they take it for one of your own."

The story proper begins with Angarth describing a walk he took on Crater Ridge, about a mile or so from the cabin where he lives. While strolling amidst the rubble fields of the area, he comes across 

a clear space amid the rubble, in which nothing grew – a space that was round as an artificial ring. In the center were two isolated boulders, queerly alike in shape, and lying about five feet apart. Their substance, a dull, greenish-grey stone, seemed to be different from anything else in the neighborhood; and I conceived at once the weird, unwarrantable fancy that they might be the pedestals of vanished columns, worn away by incalculable years till there remained only these sunken ends.

Drawn to the two greenish-grey boulders, Angarth steps between them and then …

Nothing is more disconcerting than to miscalculate the degree of descent in taking a step. Imagine then what it was like to step forward on level, open ground, and find utter nothingness underfoot! I seemed to be going down into an empty gulf, and at the same time the landscape before me vanished in a swirl of broken images and everything went blind. There was a feeling of intense, hyperborean cold, and an indescribable sickness and vertigo possessed me, due, no doubt to the profound disturbance of equilibrium. Also – either from the speed of my descent or for some other reason – I was totally unable to draw breath. My thoughts and feelings were unutterably confused, and half the time it seemd to me that I was falling upward rather than downward, or was sliding horizontally or at some oblique angle.

When he finally regains his senses, Angarth finds himself "in the midst of a landscape which bore no degree or manner of resemblance to Crate Ridge." All around him is violet grass, dotted with monolithic stones; nearby there are meadows of purple and yellow vegetation. In the distance, "not more than two or three miles away," was a city of red stone, with immense towers and spires :such as the Anakim of undiscovered worlds might build." 

As I viewed this city, I forgot my initial sense of bewildering loss and alienage, in an awe with which something of actual terror was mingled; and, at the same time, I felt an obscure but profound allurement, the cryptic emanation of some enslaving spell.

Angarth soon regains his senses and then worries about being able to return home. He seeks out the place where he first appeared in this weird realm, hoping that he might be able to pass back to the world he knows. Though frightened, "unlike the heroes of [his] own tales, who were wont to visit the fifth dimension or the worlds of Algol with perfect sang froid," Angarth manages to transport himself back to Crater Ridge. Relieved, he returns to his cabin, albeit "like a man in a dream."

The experience of visiting that other realm is so powerful that Angarth can think of nothing but returning to it, despite the unease he felt while he was there. After a day of "fighting the temptation to go back," he does so. This time, he boldly "stole toward the looming city," traveling along "a road paved with stupendous blocks of stone at least twenty feet square." As he makes his way along the road, he becomes aware that he is not alone. Instead, "several singular entities" that are "hard … to describe or even visualize" appeared behind him, making colossal strides toward the same city he was seeking. 

Around the same time, Angarth begins to hear music.

It was faint and far-off, and seemed to emanate from the very heart of the titan city. The melody was piercingly sweet and resembled at times the singing of some voluptuous feminine voice. However, no human voice could have possessed the unearthly pitch, the shrill, perpetually sustained notes that somehow suggested the light of remote worlds and stars translated into sound.

Though drawn to it, Angarth is frightened too and, as he did last time, he returns to the portal through which he came here, transporting himself back to California. Needless to say, he is haunted by the music he heard and finds himself thinking of that other world and its bizarre inhabitants. The journal chronicles his subsequent forays back and forth, as he gains confidence enough to venture farther and stay longer, eventually to the point where he invites Ebbonly to accompany him, precipitating the disappearance Hastane describes in the foreword.

"The City of the Singing Flame" is an excellent weird tale, replete with strange imagery and strange feelings. Angarth wrestles with both his fear of the unknown and the queer allure of the titular city, which, despite its terrors, all but compels him to venture beyond its falls to find the source of the piercingly sweet melody that emanated from its heart. Though similar in many respects certain of Lovecraft's Dreamlands tales (or "The Tomb"), where a man of our world finds himself drawn to something he cannot fully comprehend, Smith's mesmeric, prose-poetic style gives "The City of the Singing Flame" a different and, to my mind, more powerful cast – a self-destructive, reckless abandon that is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. That might well explain its popularity with the readers of Wonder Stories and with writers like Harlan Ellison, who credited it with having inspired him to become a writer. I can think of no higher praise.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Starfaring in Moves Magazine

In a comment to a previous post, James Mishler asked me to post the review of Ken St. Andre's science fiction RPG, Starfaring, that appeared in issue #35 of SPI's Moves. Here it is in its entirety:

"That Bastion of Socialist Game Design"

SPI is well known for its publication of the famed wargames magazine Strategy & Tactics, but the company also published a second periodical, Moves, which first appeared in 1972. Whereas S&T was a more general wargames magazine, Moves focused on the play and design of specific games, providing play reports, variants, new scenarios, and reviews. 

Recently, I was reading issue #35 of Moves (October/November 1977) and came across an article entitled "Captain Video Returns." The article is a collection of brief reviews of science fiction games, both wargames and RPGs, the author, Phil Kosnett, came across at Origins 1977, held that year in New York. Among the reviews is a glowing one of GDW's Traveller. I reproduce the entirety of the review below for the benefit of readers. Take note of its first sentence.

I assume – without proof, mind you – that calling GDW "that bastion of socialist game design" is a joke, a bit of gentle ribbing at GDW's expense, but perhaps there's more to the comment than I know. If anyone can shed some light on this matter, I'd be appreciative.

Alternate Universe

In Tékumel, reality is likened to a great tree extending from roots at the beginning of time to the highest branches at its end. This Tree of Reality, as it's often called, encompasses all of reality. There are no other trees and everything that has happened, happens, will happen, or even could happen is found somewhere among its leaves and branches. 

The trunk of the Tree of Reality contains those worlds and planes that are most probable. The larger branches are bundles of worlds and planes that have split off slightly from the trunk at various decision points that differ slightly from one another. The smaller branches are similar but they tend to differ more greatly, making them less probable and thus farther removed from the trunk of the tree. 

According to the traditional interpretation of this metaphor, the branches of the Tree of Reality tend to turn and grow back into the trunk. In this way, even fairly aberrant branches will, somewhere down the timeline, converge into the main one. Those that do not become "shadow worlds" that eventually dissipate into nothingness.

While this might seem like a bunch of needless theorizing, the Tree of Reality metaphor serves two truly important purposes for those refereeing campaigns set on Tékumel. First, it frees each referee from worrying each and every detail of Tékumel and whether departing from any of those details in any way invalidates one's campaign. One might reasonably think this is a foolish concern and I agree. However, Tékumel, with its vast store of setting information, is a setting that intimidates many people, including its biggest fans. They fret about its minutiae and angst about "getting it right." While it's genuinely laudable to want to present Tékumel – or any detailed setting – as well as one can, there eventually comes a point where one must stop worrying and, to borrow a phrase, just do it. I know Tékumel pretty well and I nevertheless regularly do things at variance with what you might find in the Tékumel Source Book – and that's OK.

The second purpose is that it opens up the possibility of visiting these alternate Tékumels in the course of a campaign. In my own campaign, the characters are currently visiting one such place, a world that diverged from their Tékumel millennia in the past. An ancient empire that fell in their world never did in this alternate world, resulting in not only a different history but also a different religion, as some gods never rose to prominence and others took on even greater importance. The fun of the campaign right now is in watching the players, through their characters, learn about the ways that this alternate world differs from their own and navigating those differences in ways that advance their own goals. It's been a joy so far to watch and I'm curious to see how things will unfold in the weeks to come.

Identify

Eye Illustration by Luigi Castellani

Original Dungeons & Dragons famously provides no means of identifying magic items beyond trial and error. Consequently, the same is true Empire of the Petal Throne, the earliest RPG set on M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel and whose rules are largely derived from OD&D. 

One of the signature "magical" devices of Tékumel is the "eye," ancient technological tools shaped like small, dull gems with an eye-like aperture on one side and a protruding stud on the other. Eyes come in a variety of types, each of which produces a different effect. Over the millennia, certain eyes have acquired traditional names, like the eye of raging power, which projects a powerful beam of energy at its target, or the eye of rising above all, which enables its user to levitate.

All eyes generally look the same, making it difficult to distinguish between them simply by sight. Rarely, one might find an eye whose previous owner has scratched its name onto its exterior and, provided one can read the language in which it's written, that's a great boon. More commonly, though, one must simply test out the eye and hope that its effects are obvious. (High-ranking priests of the Temple of Ksárul possess a spell, called comprehension of devices, that enables them to learn an ancient item's function, but they do not share such knowledge with outsiders)

In my House of Worms EPT campaign, the player characters have acquired many eyes over the years. With the exception of a handful of them, their actual functions remain mysteries, until employed in moments of desperation. Within the first year of the campaign, for example, an identified eye was employed against enemies in the hope it would deal damage or otherwise harm said enemies. Unfortunately – for the players, not for me, since I loved the result – the eye was an eye of departing in safety, which teleports the user and those closest to him to another location designated by the previous user of the eye. This was one of early campaigns great moments, since it led to the characters' finding themselves far from home and having to trek back, overland, to their home city.

The finding of a new eye in the campaign is thus occasionally one of some apprehension and amusement. In our most recent session, several unidentified eyes were discovered among the possessions of slain Ssú sorcerers, their purpose unknown. The player of Grujúng joked among the types of eyes they might have discovered, offering up the following names:

  • The Eye of Inscrutable Utility
  • The Eye of Unrevealed Operation
  • The Eye of Untold Application
  • The Eye of Obscure Effect
  • The Eye of Mysterious Outcomes
  • The Eye of Cryptic Function
Needless to say, we have a lot of fun in our campaign. I'm very much looking forward to our next session, as the characters learn more about the alternate version of Tékumel on which they've found themselves.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 118

There's a short but interesting section of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide entitled "Non-Standard Magic Items," which begins by noting that the "inclusion of them in your campaign is expected and encouraged." Further, Gygax suggests that even "standard items can be varied so as to make it more interesting when your players are familiar with the usual forms." This, along with the creation of wholly new magic items, is vital to maintaining "freshness," a word Gygax uses often in discussing the maintenance of a long-term campaign. 

After that preamble, the section cautions:

All such creations, however, must be made with care. The items must be such as to not unbalance the game. They must not make one player character too strong, either with respect to opponents or his or her fellows or to the campaign or to the game system as a whole. Items which are expended after a single use, those with limited usages, and those with variable effects are the most desirable.

This is another topic to which Gygax returns again and again. He was very concerned with "balance" in play, but not balance as it is often understood today, based largely on game mechanics. Rather, he seems to have seen a need for balance between risk and reward, failure and success, boredom and engagement, lessons he no doubt learned as a result of refereeing the Greyhawk campaign over the course of many years. I think any referee who's had the privilege of playing with the same group of players in the same campaign over an extended period of time will understand his perspective and likely share it. In any case, there's much sense in these few sentences; they're good reminders that, even in the open-ended, anything goes world of old school gaming, balance, properly understood, is not necessarily a dirty word.

The section's second paragraph touches on a topic that might appear odd nowadays, namely the effects of new magic items on other campaigns. This concern is a consequence of the once common practice of taking one's character and "visiting" other campaigns. This was still a regular thing during my youth, so I understand Gygax's addressing it here. He explains that, because "other referees will not generally know what special powers or restrictions such items have … they will not be usable in campaigns other than that from which they came in most cases." He elaborates on this point:

You, as a referee, should simply cause any such items brought into your campaign to disappear. Never take a player's word for any item. Do not allow its use in your campaign unless you know his or her DM and get a full explanation in writing from that person which details the properties of the item. Do not allow a player to bulldoze you in any matter regarding this. Simply inform the person that he or she must have left the item in his or her former area, as it is not around in yours! This solves the problem of having a possible imbalance brought into your carefully designed campaign.

To some readers, Gygax might sound oddly strident, even paranoid in his concerns and I can appreciate why one might think that. It's vital to remember, though, that those concerns are valid make a great more sense in the environment of early gaming, which was a period of wild, chaotic invention and sharing of ideas but without a widely agreed upon understanding of balance, as Gygax uses it above. Each campaign was effectively a law unto itself, governed by each referee's own sense of what worked and what didn't. Consequently, it makes perfect sense that Gygax should be concerned about the potential ripple effects of importing a magic item from another campaign into his own.

At the same time, we should remember that Gygax is very supportive of each campaign's being unique and reflective of the tastes, preferences, and considered judgments of its referee, which are sovereign within that realm. He has no interest in dictating what goes on in anyone's campaign, even if he might disagree with or even dislike it. This section of the DMG is in fact a bulwark against attempts to undermine referee sovereignty in these matters.