Friday, April 30, 2021

Dave Sutherland and the Birth of the D&D Esthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Roll: DMG, p. 87

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

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

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

Gygax provides even more concrete suggestions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

House of Worms, Session 223

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Michael Collins (1930–2021)

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

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

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

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

Godspeed, General Collins.

Early EPT Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Grognard's Grimore: Ulthai

Ulthai (Gloom Kraken) (Old School Essentials)

An ulthai by Jason Sholtis

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

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

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

Fritz Leiber at GenCon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Thieves' World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Grognard's Grimoire: Barbask

 Barbask (Swamp Lurker) (Old School Essentials)

A barbask by Jason Sholtis

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

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2021

Defend Yourself Against Boredom

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

Different Worlds: Issue #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childish Fantasies, Booming Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulp Fantasy Library: Warrior of Llarn

For various reasons, I've been on something of a sword-and-planet kick. As a sub-genre of fantasy, it's one of my favorites, due in no small part to my encountering the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs at an impressionable age. Invariably such stories feature ancient, dying worlds dotted with decadent civilizations, bizarre monsters, and science so advanced that it is indistinguishable from sorcery. That's a heady mix of ingredients for exciting tales of adventure – little wonder, then, that the text of the three little brown books of Dungeons & Dragons frequently refers to Barsoom and the exploits of John Carter there.

Warrior of Llarn is Gardner F. Fox's entry into the field of sword-and-planet fiction, first published in 1964. This initial release boasts a terrific cover by none other than Frank Frazetta. This is several years prior to his moody paintings gracing the covers of the Lancer Conan paperbacks that would soon be found on spinner racks everywhere. Heresy though this probably is, I actually like this cover better than some of his Conan efforts. I think it's the red-tinted nighttime sky that does it for me, I'm not sure.

Warrior of Llarn begins portentously, as the protagonist, who later identifies himself as Alan Morgan, is awakened by "an alien voice," saying, "Come to me, man of Earth! I call! I call!" Morgan tells the reader that 

This was not the first time I had heard it, not even the hundredth. It had come to me ever since I can remember, first as a small child, then as a youth and now – as a man. It was an old friend.

Morgan ponders the mystery of this voice.

What did this voice want of me? What mission was I to go on for this being whose mind was so incredibly powerful it could bypass the barriers of the space-time continuum to find and summon me? I lay there and tried to think, to go over what part the voice played in my life, its meaning and its inexorable hold on my body and my mind.

All my life I have heard the voice.

Morgan then describes to the reader – through first-person narration, like John Carter before him – that he was the "youngest son of a prosperous Middle West lawyer" and that he had gone to the "right schools," played the "right sports," and had even spent time in a military school, where he learned to shoot and duel. He enjoyed fishing and hunting and had learned survive in the wilds on his own. Morgan suspects that the voice had been guiding him in his choices, as if preparing him for something. Furthermore, it contributed to his natural restlessness, his sense that he "belonged to another place and another time." 

While out hunting "in the Goose Island country," where his family owns a cabin, Morgan encounters a wolf that had been terrorizing the region. Though he had intended to put it down, the beast gets the drop on him and leaps at him, biting his arm. Morgan falls backward and suddenly finds himself "lay[ing] on my back under a huge, hot sun." Beneath him was sand and there was no sign of his rifle – or his clothes – though he bore a wound on his arm from where the wolf had bitten him. 

Rather than being shocked or frightened by his circumstances, Morgan quickly assumes he must be on some other world. He waits for the voice he'd since childhood to address him, but it does not. Not wasting time, he gets up and assesses his circumstances. He notices that "my body seemed to be stronger, my step lighter," which leads him to conclude that the world on which he found himself must be smaller than Earth and with a lower gravity. If this all sounds familiar, it should.

Morgan walks until his feet are sore. He notices "a mighty band of glistening matter" in the sky and concludes that this planet had rings about it, though it is clearly not Saturn. After more walking, he encounters a group of blue men "mounted on some sort of four-legged beat like a horse." The blue men have horns on their heads and a "beast-like appearance." Nearby is a "long dark altar of bright black stone" upon which rests a metal ball, no bigger than a marble that somehow he knew "was infinitely important." Through his actions, one of the blue men is slain and the others flee. With the metal ball in hand, he takes the blue man's clothing and weapons and then mounts the weird horse-like animal to explore this alien planet to which he has been brought for reasons still unknown.

Would you believe that Morgan eventually finds and rescues a local princess, Tuarra, from a larger group of blue men – Azunn, we later learn they are called – after her flier crashes in the desert? Her skin is golden rather than red and, though she is certainly lovely, she's never once described as "incomparable," but astute readers know the score. Warrior of Llarn continues like this throughout. It's a (no pun intended) naked pastiche of E.R. Burroughs's Barsoom novels, though, to his credit, Fox does throw a few wrinkles into the formula. Despite this, I liked it well enough. Its brevity (about 150 pages) is a huge point in its favor and Fox's prose is similarly brisk. Whether that's enough for anyone else I leave to readers to decide for themselves.

Friday, April 23, 2021

"Ritualistically Murdered by Satan Worshipers"

Illustration by Andy Schoneberg accompanying the article
I don't think it's unfair to say that the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III on August 15, 1979 served to catapult Dungeons & Dragons to broad public consciousness in North America and eventually the world. Gary Gygax admitted as much in Moira Johnston's August 1980 article in New West. In the weeks and months immediately following Egbert's disappearance, a slew of articles appeared discussing it and Dungeons & Dragons, which was falsely believed to have played a role in the affair. A great many of these articles were poorly researched and sensationalistic, while others were better, attempting to understand what the game was really about and why its players found it so engaging.

The Billings Gazette published an article of the latter sort on September 26, 1979, about six weeks after Egbert disappeared and after he'd been found and two weeks after he'd been found, alive, in Louisiana. The article is especially interesting to me, because Gary Gygax is quoted extensively throughout and what he has to say on several topics is worth sharing – and, unlike some, there's not a hint of disdain or disparagement of the man. 

Gygax is introduced in the context of the Egbert case, about whom he says the following:

"We're glad he's okay, that he wasn't found ritualistically murdered by Satan worshipers … There were a lot of strange things written about 'D and D' while Egbert was missing. I imagine there are a lot of people who think all 'D and D' players are pretty weird.

"They ARE dedicated. They get really caught up in it. But I've met some obsessed golfers and tennis players too. 'Dungeons and Dragons' is just a different kind of release."

I once had a friend who was an obsessive Star Trek fan and he regularly made the point that his knowledge of the minutiae of Gene Roddenberry's series was no odder than someone who devoted themselves to memorizing baseball statistics. Gygax suggests something similar here and it's a reminder of a time before fantasy and science fiction were mainstream interests.

Later in the article, Gygax talks about the role of the Dungeon Master, which is, I think, one of the more unique aspects of D&D.

The Dungeon Master is like a playwright … Players are the actors. The DM knows what elements he needs for the game, but the script is flexible so the players can create their own lines. But certain things happen to the players over which they have no control, and that's where the element of survival comes in."

Some might see this quote as at odds with Gygax's later fulminations against "amateur thespianism," but I don't think it is. What Gygax seems to have disliked is an over-emphasis on theatrics – props, speaking in funny voices, etc. All he's doing here is analogizing roleplaying to something an uninitiated audience might understand. Regardless, he goes on:

"When you start playing out a fantasy, it can really eat up time and capture you totally … Most people can handle it, but there are probably exceptions. You can get very emotionally involved. I've got several characters I've nurtured through many tension-fraught, terror-filled "D and D" games, and I'd really be crushed if I lost one of them. They can become very much a part of you."

 At several points, the article notes that D&D allows its players to experience – and overcome – challenges they might otherwise not encounter in their daily lives. A psychologist is quoted as saying: "Life for most people is boring. There's not much excitement. We've run out of frontiers. The only frontiers we have left are in our minds." That's a theme I've noted in many early defenses of roleplaying, including J. Eric Holmes's Fantasy Role Playing Games. I think there's something to this line of thought, though I can't say that it's ever been the main reason I was drawn to RPGs. I'd say Gygax's final quote, which ends the article, is closer to the truth.

"What middle-class child doesn't get fed a diet of fairy tales and fantasies? … My father was a great storyteller, and there were Disney's dragons, Grimm's fairy tales, toy soldiers, chess and, finally, my own games and fantasies."

 Just so.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 60

The topic of alignment has been coming up a great deal on this blog of late. I suppose that's understandable, considering how many players of Dungeons & Dragons loudly take issue with the very concept. Consequently, I take a great deal of interest in reading about how Gary Gygax conceived of alignment, if only to get a better handle on how he thought it might be used in the game. Today's entry in the Random Roll series isn't directly about alignment but rather a related topic that provides some additional clues to the bigger question, namely the detection of evil and/or good.

Gygax begins by making a distinction

between character alignment and some powerful force of evil or good when this detection function is considered. In general, only a know alignment spell will determine the evil or good a character holds within. It must be a great evil or a strong good to be detected. Characters who are very strongly aligned, do not stray from their faith, and who are relatively high level (at least 8th level or higher) might radiate evil or good if they are intent upon appropriate actions.

From what Gygax says above, it would seem that a character's alignment is a description of his moral/ethical tendencies and little more. For most characters, alignment has nothing to do with cosmic allegiance and is thoroughly mundane. However, Gygax implies that there's some connection between being strongly aligned and being devoted to one's faith, a connection that is explicit in Empire of the Petal Throne. He also suggests a linkage between level and the ability of one's alignment to be detected by magical means. He expands upon this last bit by reference to potent monsters.

Powerful monsters such as demons, devils, ki-rin, and the like will send forth emanations of their evil or good. Aligned undead must radiate evil, for it is this power and negative force which enables them to continue existing. Note that none of these emanations are noticeable without magical detection.

This all makes sense to me and I have no qualms with it. Even if one understands alignment more as a function of one's metaphysical "team," as I tend to do these days, what he says here works fine. His discussion of magic items offers up some additional points. He states that

powerful magic items which have some purpose as respects alignment will radiate evil or good – unless they are aligned with neutrality, which is neither, of course. Most other magic items will most certainly not, even though their effect might be for evil or good.

Purpose seems key here. An intelligent sword forged to "overthrow evil" would clearly radiate good, while a sword that merely grants a bonus to attacks against a specific type of creature, like lycanthropes or reptiles, would not (generally) radiate any alignment, even if using it inflicted harm on an individual example of that specific type of creature. He makes this more explicit when he says:

Likewise, items which are not magical but which have powerful effects will probably not give any evil or good aura. Poison is a prime example. It is perfectly neutral and has no aura whatsoever. 

On the other hand, both holy and unholy water radiate good and evil respectively, since their creation involves "some deity of evil or good" – again connecting alignment to religion, or at least the action of a divine being. Curiously, Gygax says that traps are generally neutral. However,

if the … trap leads victims to the lair of Juiblex … there will be an aura of evil about it; while if it brings victims into the realm of Bahamut, it will send out an aura of good.

This section baffles me somewhat. I can see how a trap intended to send a victim to the lair of a demon lord might be evil, but in what sense would a trap that sends someone to the Platinum Dragon be good? Presumably, such a trap would only be a trap if the victims were themselves creatures whom Bahamut might harm, but, if harm is the trap's purpose, how can that be good? This then makes one wonder how Gygax could have claimed just a sentence earlier that most traps are neutral and thus do not radiate good or evil. What is it that differentiates a trap that takes one to the lair of Juiblex or Bahamut from one that simply drops a party into a pit of spikes? Is it the connection to extraplanar beings of great power? That's a reasonable extrapolation of his earlier comments, but it's far from clear that that's the case.

I'm increasingly coming to feel that alignment is one of those topics that becomes less coherent and useful the more one attempts to explicate its precise workings. Rather than coming away with a better sense of how Gygax understood alignment, this section raises many more questions.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

"Virtually Incomprehensible"

As I continues to sift through the deluge of newspaper articles Thaddeus Moore has been sending my way, I came across a lengthy article from July 27, 1981 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled by "Leaping Lizards! Who Let the Dragon Out?" by Bob Schwabach. In the middle of the article, I saw the following paragraphs:

I won't deny that I chuckled a little when I read this, despite what seems to be a cheap shot at Gygax's expense. Based on what follows, though, I wonder if the comment might have been in jest. Regardless, I'm once again impressed by the writer's recognition that D&D's rules were intended to "provide the ground rules for an ongoing process of imaginative jousting that can be endlessly expanded and embellished." If that weren't the case, I doubt I'd have stuck with this hobby for as long as I have.

House of Worms, Session 222

Though the bulk of the characters wished to return to Bakatlán and, from there, to the Ssú-inhabited ruins in the mountains northwest of it, there was some dissension. Grujúng was none too keen to return to the ruins. Having been driven off by the Ssú several days previously, he was in no hurry to face them a second time. Additionally, he did not understand why they simply did not return to the nexus point that brought them to this alternate Tékumel and return to the Citadel of Sighs, where the might try their luck with another nexus point, one that could conceivably lead them back to their Tékumel. Kirktá meanwhile wanted to spend as much time as possible on this version of Tékumel, as he hoped to learn more about it and its inhabitants.

Znayáshu would have none of this, though, supported by Keléno, Aíthfo, and Nebússa. They, along with the rest of the party, headed back to the docks, where the boats they'd borrowed from Bakatlán were moored. Grujúng and Kirktá joined them, grumbling as they did. Their journey along the coast took the better part of a day. At Bakatlán, they were met by Vrummíshsha, who welcomed them back and inquired as to whether they found what they needed at the provincial capital. He also asked if they would be staying in his village for long. When Keléno explained that they'd be leaving in the morning to return to the ruins in the mountains, he expressed surprise. Were the ruins not the abode of the Enemies of Man? Why would they return there? Keléno explained that they needed to find something beneath the ruins and they had no choice but return. Moreover, they needed to be sure that the Ssú did not attack Bakatlán and its people. Vrummíshsha was pleased by this and prayed that Lord Jráka would smile on their efforts.

The trek to the mountain ruins took another day. As the characters made it to the plateau on which the ruins were located, the sun was beginning to set. The group discovered the stripped and mutilated bodies of the three Tsolyáni soldiers who'd died during their previous encounter with the Ssú. Aíthfo suggested that they should be given burials appropriate to followers of Lord Sárku. Graves were dig through the use of the transmutation spell and Keléno, as a priest of the Worm Lord, oversaw the rites of their entombment. With that done, the characters settled down for the night, posting watches in order to protect them against any attacks by the Ssú or local wildlife. 

The next morning, the group entered the ruins and made preparations to descend down the shaft to the second level beneath the surface. Znayáshu acted as a scout, sliding down a rope lowered into the shaft. Partway down the shaft, he noticed a source of a faint glow below. Descending a little more, he saw three interlocking rings floating about six feet above the ground. The rings, he guessed, were some kind of magical ward, placed here by the Ssú to impede their return. Kirktá offered to make use of one of the scrolls of dispel magic they had acquired in Mihimór. Once the ward was dispelled, one of the Ksárul sorcerers offered to make use of his extra-vision spell to examine the area below more thoroughly. The spell revealed that, just out of sight, there were two more traps put in place, each one looking like a three-legged stand upon which a gem had been placed.

Znayáshu theorized this was some sort of a Ssú weapon. He asked Aíthfo and Grujúng to accompany him, as he descended down the shaft to deal with the two weapons. Once at the bottom, the three of them saw evidence of Ssú advancing on their position – a group from the south and one from the west. At that moment, Znayáshy cast telekinesis, lifting one of the gems from its tripod and throwing it southward toward the advancing Ssú. The gem exploded as it got close to the Ssú, killing half of their number. Grujúng and Aíthfo then rushed off in that direction, hoping to slay the staggered but still alive Ssú in the group. Grujúng was particularly effective in this, cutting down three in a single blow.

Back in the shaft, Aíthfo continued to use his spell to move the second gem, which he pushed down the west passageway toward the second group of Ssú. Behind him, three soldiers descended down ropes into the shaft to support him. The second gem exploded, killing more Ssú. Hearing this, Grujúng and Aíthfo ran off to face the surviving Ssú, backed up by the three soldiers. In the melee that ensued, all the Ssú were slain. Keléno, his wife, Mírsha, and the leader of the Ksárul sorcerers, Lára, descended the shaft and moved in the direction of the south corridor. 

In doing so, they observed another group of Ssú rushing toward them. Thinking quickly, Mírsha cast sleep and all of the Enemies of Man fell into a deep slumber. In the western corridor, Znayáshu made use of his necromancy to raise the dead Ssú in that area as undead, commanding them to move down another passageway and to engage any enemies they might encounter there. Unsurprisingly, there were yet more Ssú there; a combat erupted between the living and undead Ssú, as the Tsolyáni made their way to join them. 

How to Make a Lightbulb Again

Mark A. Swanson was a science fiction and fantasy fan who was very active in the 1970s. He was a member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS) and contributed to its weekly amateur press association known as APA-L. Swanson also contributed to The Lords of Chaos, Alarums & Excursions, and Different Worlds, as well as editing The Wild Hunt, a very early and important APA 'zine. 

In APA-L #493 (October 24, 1974), Swanson included a report, entitled "And Swanson Offers to Show Edison How to Make a Lightbulb Again." The report details his experience playing "a new game" called Dungeons & Dragons. He begins:

I have been hooked again, this time by a new game. The game is played basicly [sic] with paper, pencils, and a reeling mind (together with buckets of dice). It is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (which someone probably introduced the LASFS to last meeting, but I'll risk it. Omelots [sic] anyone?)

I'm always fascinated about early descriptions of D&D. Swanson mentions paper and pencils – both of which are included in OD&D's subtitle –  but he also mentions "buckets of dice" (note: he doesn't comment on their being oddly-shaped) and "a reeling mind." There's no mention of miniature figures, which I think is significant. Swanson continues:

In the advanced version of the game, the players took the roles of various exploring/looting parties trying to return from a gamemaster desighned [sic] castle's dungeon with treasure. The gamemaster has a map, the player's [sic] don't. The treasures are guarded by appropriate monsters (gnomes, green slime, orcs, dragons, evil wizards, zombies, giants, etc.) The deeper you go, the nastier the monsters and the bigger the treasures. As you win encounters, you gain experience, which makes you a better fighter, able to go lower. It is played as a campaign game (there are some which are over a year old) with each person performing many quests. If you are killed, you get reincarnated, with a smaller initial stake. 

If you're curious what Swanson means by "the advanced version of the game," he elaborates a bit on this in the coming paragraph. Of note is his statement that D&D "is played as a campaign game" and his allusion to what I can only assume are the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns. I've been beating the drum about the importance of campaigns to understanding how Gygax and Arneson imagined D&D being played for a long time, so it's good to see that perspective vindicated in such an early report of playing the game. Also of note is Swanson's use of the term "gamemaster, which is nowhere to found in the little brown books of OD&D.

The basic (early) game involves wandering through a wilderness on quest, looking for experience and treasure. It mostly involves luck and its proper use. In the basic version, the gamemaster rolls dice to determine what you meet. The basic game also has a shockingly high mortality rate, as might be expected in place where you and your trusty henchmen (40 first life, 35 2nd incarnation, etc) keep encountering such things as evil high priests, 300 bandits, or four balrogs, mere veterans, which is what you start as, have small chance.

From this section, it becomes clear that Swanson uses the terms "basic" and "advanced" as synonyms for "early" and "late," with the former referring to the initial trek through the wilderness to reach the dungeon's location and the latter being the exploration of the dungeon itself. It's certainly an idiosyncratic usage, but, at this early date, most usages will necessarily be unique. His comments about the game's mortality rate tracks with most other early reports of the game I've read, though the references to "first life" and "2nd incarnation," particularly when paired with the comments about getting reincarnated above, implies that such magic was commonplace in this campaign.

On the other hand, in the campaign I'll be continuing Saturaday [sic], I'm about to adventure in company with a friend who, deserted by all but 4 men and the persona of an abscent [sic] second friend, subdued two dragons, got them to market, and is now filthy rich and a second level cleric. The persona was killed by the dragons. Since he has only four men, he's financing a bunch of others while recruits.

Once again, Swanson mentions henchmen, which were a vital feature of D&D even as late as my own introduction to the hobby five years later. I'm amused by the fact the "persona of an abscent [sic] friend" was apparently killed by the dragons. I recall many a game in my youth where similar things happened: "Sorry I couldn't make last session; I had baseball practice. What happened?" "We defeated a dragon and got lots of treasure. And, uh, your character died. Sorry."

Your characteristics (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Endurance, Dexterity and Charisma) are determined by rolling dice on first entrance into the game, after which you can choose the profession fighter, magician or cleric and begin. However, there are three booklets of rules, and I will not try to repeat them here. Very good game, at least as much for the gamemaster as for the players. 

I'm struck by the observation that D&D is a "very good game, at least as much for the gamemaster as for the players." That's certainly been my experience of the years, but I think it's noteworthy that this seems to have been recognized so early.

Thanks to Victor Raymond for providing me with this early account of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

B.A.D.D. Arguments

My own introduction to Dungeons & Dragons and the wider hobby of roleplaying occurred in late 1979, a few months after the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in August of that same year. In a very real sense, the media frenzy surrounding the Egbert investigation and the supposed (but false) role that D&D played in it set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to my cracking open the copy of the Holmes Basic Set my mother had bought for my father. She mistook his interest in the news story for interest in D&D itself, an error that would result in the game being passed on to me. I imagine this wasn't a completely unusual experience. In fact, Moira Johnston's article quotes Gary Gygax as admitting that the media uproar "was immeasurably helpful to us in terms of name recognition. We ran out of stock!" 

Despite this, I experienced almost no significant opposition to my involvement in roleplaying, nor did any of my neighborhood friends. If anything, we were encouraged to play D&D and RPGs, in the belief that it was a thoughtful, creative hobby that fostered good habits like reading, writing, and social engagement. That's why it was something of a shock to me when I learned, through news stories, that, in some places, there were serious – or at least seriously held – questions about the game and its purported effects on young people.

Though I was aware of Patricia Pulling and her organization, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.), I never gave either much thought until I saw that infamous 60 Minutes segment from 1985 that interviewed her and others who were attempting to lay the blame for teenage suicides on the game. Even after that, I never saw any of the literature B.A.D.D. produced to advance their cause until comparatively recently. When I did, I was (mostly) terribly disappointed. The little booklet depicted above is little more than a collection of quotes and excerpts taken out of context in an effort to paint D&D as dangerous, immoral, and unhealthy. It's riddled with spelling errors and possesses a layout that makes the Little Brown Books of OD&D look professional. Worse yet, they're not even fun to read in the way that Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons is.

Having said that, there's a part of the booklet I find rather interesting. Here's the relevant page:
The text argues that D&D is bad because it "teaches occult forms of religion," specifically witchcraft. According to the booklet, the state of California has recognized covens of witches as "bonified [sic] religions and …[has] given [them] tax exempt status as churches," facts that prepare us for the absolutely amazing bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu that's to come. The argument goes like this:
  1. Dungeons & Dragons teaches witchcraft.
  2. California recognizes witchcraft as a religion.
  3. The "Supreme Court has ruled that religion is not to be taught in schools." 
  4. Therefore, D&D should not be allowed in schools.
I can't help but admire the chutzpah on display here. The argument is as specious and disingenuous as it is bold. Claiming that D&D is religious in nature and, therefore, disallowed in public schools is patently absurd, but, as a line of argument, it's imaginative. Unfortunately for B.A.D.D., I don't think anyone not already convinced of D&D's supposed danger could possibly have been swayed by it. 

The White Mountains

Last month, I wrote a post about Boys' Life, to which I subscribed during the late '70s and early '80s. Of all the things I remember about the magazine, the one that is perhaps the most vivid is its comic adaptation of John Christopher's 1967 science fiction novel, The White Mountains, which ran May 1981 to July 1982. This period marked the very end of my association with the Boy Scouts, so I'm not 100% certain I read the entire run of the adaptation, but I can still see the early installments in my mind's eye, like the fantastic splash page that kicked off the whole series.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, The White Mountains is the first in a series commonly called "The Tripod Trilogy" (even though a fourth book, which I've never read, was published in 1988). The series takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, after an alien invasion has reduced human civilization to roughly medieval technology. The invading aliens, known simply as the Masters, enforce their rule in several ways, most notably the eponymous Tripods, which are three-legged walking vehicles that patrol the world. The Masters also seek to suppress human creativity and curiosity by fitting humans over the age of 13 with a "cap," a technological implant of some sort that affects the proper functioning of the brain. As a kid, I remember being quite unnerved by the idea of the cap, influenced no doubt by this panel from the comic.

The panel shows the protagonist, Will, speaking with his friend, Jack, after he's been capped by the Masters. Jack's personality has changed and his previous curiosity about the world that existed before the coming of the Tripods is expunged. Even now, I find the idea of it sends shivers down my spine.

Whether or not I read the entirety of the comic, I was intrigued enough by it that I sought out the original novels from the library and read them with great enjoyment. The White Mountains remains my favorite of the three, mostly because few of the setting's mysteries are resolved (the existence of the Masters, for example, is unknown, with no one knowing who or what controls the Tripods). However, the revelations of the later books didn't destroy my affection for the whole series, as is often the case with such stories. Likewise, the melancholy resolution of the overall plot is perfect in my opinion and strikes the right balance between naïve optimism and bleak nihilism. Perhaps I should make a point of re-reading them in the coming months. 

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.