Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Legendaria

The very first issue of Dragon I vividly remember buying was issue #62 (June 1982), in large part because of its spectacular cover painting by Larry Elmore. I read that issue cover to cover so many times that I must have committed a good portion of its contents to memory. I also clearly recall its many advertisements, one of which still fascinates me.

From what I have been able to gather, Legendaria was a short-lived gaming magazine published by an outfit called WITS Publishing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, edited and written by Chandler Driggs. I can confirm that there were at least five issues of the magazine. The illustration above, which is quite striking, was done by Helen Goldman, about whom I can find no information. 

For a long time, I thought that Legendaria was a fantasy comic book, owing to my misunderstanding the subtitle, "the illustrated log of the Varna Adventurers' Guild." As you'll see from the following scan of its inaugural editorial, it was nothing of the kind.

Based on this, Legendaria would seem to have been a rather well done amateur publication presenting material derived from the editor's home campaign of Varna. If you poke around online, you can find images of the covers of the five published issues but not much else. Did any readers own copies of this magazine? I'd love to know more about it, if only to satisfy the curiosity that ad from issue #62 engendered almost forty years ago.

Different Worlds: Issue #14

Issue #14 of Different Worlds (September 1981) opens with "Judges Guild and D&D" by Patrick Amory. This is an unusual article, in that it offers an overview of all the Judges Guild D&D/AD&D products, with an eye toward drawing attention to the best ones. This is necessary, in the opinion of the author, because "the Guild has always sacrificed quality for quantity." He hopes to save the reader the need "to wade through masses of rubbish, poor art, and typoes [sic]" before finding a genuinely useful product. That's harsh but fair. The full article is five pages long and singles out those Amory considers especially worth, such as City-State of the Invincible Overlord, City-State of the World Emperor, Tegel Manor, Caverns of Thracia, and First Fantasy Campaign, among a few others. 

"Character Personality Profile" by Mark Lukens presents a system for rating the personality, attitudes, and interests of a character, whether player or non-player. The system is usable with multiple RPGs, since Lukens provides multiple rating scales (2d6, 3d6, d20, d100). The system reminds me a bit of the opposed personality traits system presented in Pendragon, albeit in a less developed form. It's not bad for what it is and I imagine many referees would find some utility in it.

Richard L. Snider offers a preview to the second edition of Adventures in Fantasy. The article is mostly interesting as a historical curiosity, since, unless I am mistaken, this second edition was never published. "Painting Miniature Figures" by Robin Wood is a lengthy but fascinating article, complete with photographs, about the process of painting figurines for use with roleplaying games. Lewis Pulsipher's "Taverns and Inns" provides a system for randomly rolling up drinking establishments – everything from their size to proprietors to patrons. "Familiars" by David F. Nalle provides a handful of short tables for generating familiars, including unique ones. 

"Plausible Geography for Role-Playing Games" by George Hersh is a surprisingly short article, consisting mostly of a recommendation to acquire copies of United States Geological Survey topographical maps to use as the basis for adventure maps. "Come, Clash with the Titans" by Larry DiTillio provides AD&D and RuneQuest stats for the monsters and opponents from the 1981 movie, Clash of the Titans, along with magic items and scenarios employing them. The issue also includes reviews of the Traveller double adventure Argon Gambit/Death Station and Grimtooth's Traps

Gigi D'Arn's gossip column includes quite a few tidbits this issue, starting with rumors that "SPI is losing money rapidly," which is why it is trimming its staff. Gigi also mentions Avalon Hill and Heritage had supposedly made bids on the company. There's also this story:

This is a reference to the module, Palace of the Silver Princess, about which Jean Wells talked a bit in my interview with her some years ago. I find this fascinating, since, at the time, I had absolutely no idea there was any controversy regarding the module. It was only sometime this century that I became aware of and I still sometimes can't believe it actually happened.

Issue #14 is an improvement, in my opinion, over issue #13. There's a great deal more immediately useful gaming material and not a single "theory" article, which is a welcome change. It's worth mentioning that editor Tadashi Ehara began the issue asking readers to send him letters indicating what games they play and which articles they have found most enjoyable. This suggests that Ehara was well aware of the need to better balance in the magazine's content. It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the next few issues.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Fantastic Fun of Dungeons & Dragons

Like a lot of kids of my generation, one of the highlights of school was receiving the monthly Scholastic Book Club order form from my teacher. Over the years, I ordered a lot of books through the club, some of which I held on to for years afterwards. Scholastic also offered issues of its pop culture-focused periodical, Dynamite, which I bought occasionally, depending on the contents. One issue I remember vividly is the March 1981 issue, featuring Gil Gerard and Erin Grey on the cover.

Though I was never much of a fan of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, I had somehow learned – perhaps through the order form's description – that issue #82 included an article about Dungeons & Dragons. As I mentioned last month, from the very start of my introduction to the hobby, I had become an avid clipper of any newspaper and magazine articles I came across that talked about D&D. So, when I discovered that this issue of Dynamite had such an article, there was no question I'd buy it.

The article really grabbed my attention because of the photographs that accompanied it, starting with this one.

I didn't make serious use of miniatures when playing D&D, but I was fascinated by them nonetheless. Consequently, I was amazed by the photo above. That the young woman on the left is holding a copy of my beloved Holmes Basic rulebook only added to its appeal. (Anyone recognize the hex map on the wall between the two leftmost players?)

The article itself isn't all that remarkable. Like many articles of its kind, it's a very basic introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, including a very abbreviated – and Gygax-centric – version of its history. That's understandable, since, even in 1981, D&D wasn't well known. Furthermore, Dynamite was geared toward elementary school-age children. (That said, the Holmes-edited Basic Set came out in 1977, not 1976, as stated in the article.)

The inclusion of such attractive – and large! – painted miniatures no doubt contributed to the appeal of this article for me. The orc depicted below reminds me of something out of Down in the Dungeon; naturally, I loved it. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Citadel of Fear

When I began this series at the dawn of this blog, my original intention was to take a closer look at the stories, books, and authors mentioned in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide. I hoped that, in doing so, I might draw readers' attention to works and writers that, despite their immense influence over the decades, have largely been forgotten by popular culture. Whether I've succeeded in that goal, I'm not in a position to say. What I can say is that my study of these authors has increased my own appreciation of them, as well as bringing to my attention other forgotten authors not mentioned in Appendix N but which nevertheless exercised a great deal of influence on the development of fantasy and science fiction literature.

A case in point is Francis Stevens, the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose most well regarded story, Citadel of Fear, was serialized in the pages of The Argosy, starting on September 14, 1918. I'd never heard of Stevens – or Bennett – until comparatively recently, when I was researching the "dark fantasy" sub-genre. Multiple sources referenced her pioneering work at the turn of the 20th century, with at least one going so far as to dub "the woman who invented dark fantasy." I can't speak to the truth of such a claim, but it's worth noting that, at the time Bennett's stories were published, many people believed "Francis Stevens" was the pen name of Abraham Merritt – a testament to how well regarded they were at the time.

Citadel of Fear tells the story of two explorers, Colin O'Hara and Archer Kennedy. The men's expedition seeking gold in a remote region of South America has gone badly. Hungry, thirsty, and injured, they are near death when Citadel of Fear begins. Despite this, O'Hara refuses to give up or leave Kennedy behind. Together, they survive and stumble upon the entrance to the lost city of Tlapallan. There, they meet another man, a former explorer named Svend Biornson, who tells them what he knows of Tlapallan, having lived among its people for some time.

Sometimes I think they are the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs, who have left nothing to archaeology but a memory. And sometimes—I have other thoughts of them, thoughts that I can’t put into words, for there are no words to express them. I know that they speak the Aztec tongue in all its ancient purity, and yet they are surely not of Aztec blood. However it may be, they are good, true comrades, and my own wife is one of them, but I sometimes wonder if I have not—have not lost my soul in living here! 

The people of Tlapallan are divided in their loyalties between those who serve the god Quetzalcoatl and those who serve the god Nacoc-Yaotl. The rivalry between the two groups simmers below the surface, with each supporting the city in different ways. When O'Hara and Kennedy arrived, the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl are ascendant. Reading through this, I found myself reminded of Robert E. Howard's story of Conan, "Red Nails," or the D&D module it inspired, The Lost City. Lovecraft's The Mound also came to mind. They all feature lost cities populated by "Mayincatec" riven with internal factions – a classic pulp fantasy set-up if there ever was one. 

As in so many of these lost world narratives, the arrival of outsiders, in this case O'Hara and Kennedy, upsets the balance of power in Tlapallan. Open conflict eventually erupts and O'Hara finds himself exiled from the city and Kennedy taken prisoner by the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl. O'Hara cannot find his way back to the city to rescue his fellow explorer and has no choice but to return to the civilization he knows. He succeeds but is left wondering if what he thought he remembers was in fact or not simply a hallucination caused by his hunger and thirst. O'Hara returns to the United States and tries to leave behind his weird experiences/

With that, Citadel of Fear shifts forward in time fifteen years. In the years since his original expedition, O'Hara has been haunted by his memories of his expedition and especially what happened to Kennedy. He organizes another expedition to seek out Tlapallan, but finds no evidence to support what he remembers, which only further causes him to question his sanity. Of course, O'Hara is not insane, as he learns when his past catches up with him and endangers those he cares about.

Citadel of Fear is quite long and rambling at times, traits it shares with much turn of the twentieth century fiction. Despite that, the story it tells is a good one, equal to the best work of Merritt, himself a master of the lost world genre. The city of Tlapallan is both mysterious and weird. Bennett does a good job in presenting a place that is simultaneously familiar and sinister. There are plenty of hints that all is not well in Tlapallan and she develops those hints more fully in the later sections of the novel to fairly good effect. It's little wonder that the serialized novel was popular in its day, even if it might not quite meet with contemporary tastes.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Gygax's Inner Planes

I've commented before that, while I'm no fan of Unearthed Arcana as eventually published, I was conversely a big fan of much of the material Gygax was creating in preparation for his never-written second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This material appeared in the pages of Dragon over the course of several years, presenting new classes (like the barbarian, cavalier, and thief-acrobat), weapons and armor, spells, and monsters, along with expanded conceptions of other aspects of the game. At the time, I liked these articles simply because they provided me with more stuff to use in my AD&D campaign (and use them I did). Now, though, what I like about them is the way they seem to represent a maturing of Gygax's fantasy conceptions, the fruit of years of thought and play, not to mention the need for AD&D to find new frontiers of adventure.

His article, "The Inner Planes," which appeared in issue #73 of Dragon (May 1983), demonstrates this maturation process quite clearly, I think. In it, Gygax offers "a new way to look at the AD&D world." This new way was necessary because, as the game's cosmology evolved, there was a need to reconcile new conceptions to earlier presentations. The para-elemental planes, for example, arose out of wondering about what happens at the point where two elemental planes met. Gygax obviously liked the idea, but soon realized that the thought process that led to them was incomplete. After all, there were other Inner Planes, like the Positive and Negative Material Planes, the Ethereal Plane, and the Plane of Shadow (the latter itself a recent addition to the cosmology). How did they interact with the Elemental Planes and what was the effect of all this interaction?

The result is a cubic representation of the Inner Planes, as depicted in this cut-out included on page 13 of this issue:

"What a mess!" you might reasonably say and it is a mess – an ugly, convoluted, and probably unnecessary one at that, but I love it all the same. There are a couple of things I like about this, starting with the fact that it's clearly an attempt by Gygax to think about AD&D's cosmology in rational way. If para-elemental planes arise due to the meeting of two elemental planes, what happens when an elemental plane meets the Positive or Negative Material Plane? What about a para-elemental plane? The result is baroque, almost to the point of absurdity, but it makes sense. One might argue that this is little different than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and I'm somewhat sympathetic to that point of view. At the same time, given what Gygax had already established about the game's metaphysics and the interactions of those metaphysical forces, this oddly colored cube is a natural, even inevitable, evolution of it all.

That's the second thing I like about this new presentation of the Inner Planes: it's evolutionary. What I mean by that is that it demonstrates that AD&D and the fantasy world it presented was growing and changing, not in a way that, strictly speaking, repudiated anything about its earlier self but rather in a way that added to and expanded upon what had come before. None of this was needed by players or referees solely interested in dungeon crawls or wilderness exploration or all the usual activities of fantasy roleplaying. However, players and referees interested in going beyond that would find it invaluable. Gygax was taking a lot more interest in the other planes of existence, seeing them as the next logical step in exploring the possibilities implied by AD&D's setting. To do that properly, he'd need to think about them more carefully, teasing out the implications and taking stock of all they could offer. Whether one likes the direction he was headed or not, I hope one can nevertheless appreciate the effort.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 191

The City/Town Encounters Matrix on p. 191 of the Dungeon Masters Guide is quite well known, almost entirely due to its harlot sub-table. As amusing as that sub-table is, today my focus is instead on another one that I think offers a great deal more insight into Gary Gygax's conception of the game and its implied world. 

The Encounters Matrix includes two separate dice roll columns, one for daytime and one for nighttime. During the daytime, the most common encounters are with beggars, city guards, laborers, merchants, tradesmen, and similarly mundane individuals. There's nothing at all surprising in this. Indeed, I imagine that most of us, if asked to come up with a random encounter table for a broadly medieval fantasy city, would have come up with something quite similar to this. 

However, during the night, the Encounters Matrix paints a very different picture of an AD&D city. Suddenly, giant rats (and wererats) are more common, as are assassins, bandits, thieves, and the aforementioned harlots. Now, there's also a chance – a small one, to be sure – of encountering demons, devils, doppelgangers, and many forms of undead (up to and including a lich!). These results paint a very different picture of the city, don't you think? 

Remember that OD&D carried the subtitle of "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns" (emphasis mine). Though naturalism was an important part of Gygax's conception of the implied setting of the game, he never neglected the fantastic. The City/Town Encounters Matrix reflects this, since it makes it clear that, when the sun sets, cities undergo a kind of transformation, becoming much more dangerous – and weird – places, Giant rats emerge from the sewers, thieves and ruffians prowl the alleyways, and demons and undead monsters lurk in dark, forgotten corners. It's a wonderfully compelling vision and a reminder that Gygax was, above all, a fantasist.

Another aspect of the Encounters Matrix worth mentioning is the following sub-table, intended to determine the race of individuals encountered:

No doubt what strikes anyone viewing this is that nearly 70% of all encounters are with humans. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Gygaxian humanocentrism, but it's still amazing to see it in such stark terms. Just as amazing, I think, are the percentages of the various demihumans. Dwarves, for example, represent slightly more than one-quarter of all demihumans encountered in a city (and nearly 10% of all characters whose race is determined by this table). Half-elves are just as common. Interestingly, elves and half-orcs are equally common, each representing a little more than 15% of all demihuman encounters (and 5% overall). Gnomes and halflings, on the other hand, are quite rare.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Gygax's chosen percentages, they do paint a picture of the kind of fantasy world he envisioned. Humans are far and away the predominant race, with dwarves and, unexpectedly, half-elves being distant seconds. The greater appearance of half-elves relative to elves suggests that half-elves have a better opinion of humans than do their elven kin, who would seem to keep to themselves. Half-orcs, though not common, exist in much larger numbers than I would have expected, which suggests a few things about orcs and their place in the setting. That both gnomes and halflings are highly unusual implies the Wee Folk keep to themselves, or perhaps that their numbers overall are few. Regardless, there's more detail to be gleaned from the City/Town Encounters Matrix than one might expect.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Elementary Particles

I can't quite recall when I first encountered the notion of the four elements. I suspect it was quite early, probably through my reading of classical mythological stories, though it's possible I learned about it from some other source. However, I vividly recall that, when I cracked open the Monster Manual for the first time in early 1980, I was almost instantly enamored of elementals. There was something powerfully, if you'll forgive the term, primal about beings composed solely of a single substance. Also, the existence of elementals and indeed the entire conception of the four elements served as a useful reminder that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a pre-modern world, one not merely operating according to different laws than our own but one whose inhabitants conceive of it in a different way than we do ours.

Over the years, my interest in the elements and elementals has endured. I remember when I first read about other elemental systems, like those of the great civilizations of Asia. What particularly struck me about the latter was that many of them included a fifth element, a concept not unknown in ancient and medieval European thought but less well known in popular presentations of them. I was likewise struck by the fact that many of these non-European elemental systems included different elements, like wood or metal. As a younger person, this was eye-opening and helped me to realize that there was room for variation within the broader notion of fundamental elements.

Lately, I've been working on a science fantasy setting rooted in Burroughs, Kirby, Wolfe, Zothique, and The Dying Earth – a formerly high-tech setting brought low to the point it appears to be a weird and/or exotic fantasy world. Think Jorune or Tékumel but more immediately accessible than either. As I began to work in earnest, one of my earliest thoughts was its elemental system, which I wanted to be unique and interesting but also intelligible. The result of my cogitations is depicted in the crude image above. While I need to give it some additional thought, I'm quite pleased with the results, especially the way it interacts with the psychic powers and sorcery of the setting. If nothing else, it's different from the usual fantasy presentation of the elements and their relationships, which pleases me. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Fantasy Gaming Goes Underground

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine, Games & Puzzles, contained an article by Steve Jackson of Games Workshop in which he explains Dungeons & Dragons to readers who probably were unfamiliar with the game at the time. I found the article notable for several reasons, starting with the fact that Jackson frames D&D as an outgrowth of the fantasy wargames campaigns that Tony Bath ran in the 1960s. Historically, that's debatable, but I can fully understand Jackson's position, especially when writing for a predominantly British audience. He also includes an example of play and a sample dungeon, whose map and brief key appears below.
The dungeon is called "The Dungeon of the Ground Goblins" and consists of twenty keyed areas. As an illustration for the uninitiated, it's decent enough – it's certainly more straightforward than the world's first dungeon map from Volume 3 of OD&D – though the density of monsters in some areas is questionable (e.g. 15 orcs in tiny room 20). Maps like this tickle my fancy, because I'm fascinated with seeing examples of early dungeon design. Even given the intention behind this particular map, there are still lessons to be learned here about the evolution of dungeon mapping and stocking.

Heroes and Monsters

I'm temperamentally prone to prefer the past to the present, so my opinions on some topics are understandably suspect to many people. This doubly true when it comes to matters of art, which are already highly subjective. Nevertheless, I'm (once again) going to show off a couple of pieces of older fantasy art I greatly prefer to most of what we see nowadays. They're both from the manual for Quest for the Rings. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the artist who created them.

This painting depicts the game's four playable heroes: the warrior (who wields the magic sword, Bloodeater), the wizard, the phantom (a spectral knightshade), and the changeling (possessor of the Mirrorcloak). 
Meanwhile, this painting depicts the nightmare minions of the Ringmaster: the dragons (named Scortha, Goldfang, and Mythrog), the Spydroth Tyrantulus, the doomwinged bloodthirsts, the orcs, and the firewraiths. 

Clearly, Quest for the Rings borrows liberally from Tolkien, but that's hardly surprising. When it was released in 1981, The Lord of the Rings was probably the most popularly known example of epic fantasy. Given that, I think it only makes sense to use it as inspiration for the game's monsters and overall story. Still, these paintings are pretty evocative. Much like movie posters from this era, video games from the '70s and '80s used to boast some impressive artwork. I'd love to see illustrations in this style return to prominence.

Retrospective: To the Aid of Falx

Though I participated in not a single RPGA-sponsored tournament, I was nevertheless a member of the Role Playing Game Association from 1982 to 1986. I initially joined in the hope that I would one day participate in such tournaments, which fascinated me, but I stayed because I enjoyed reading Polyhedron. I was equally fascinated by the exclusive items that the RPGA sold to its members, like the three AD&D adventure modules written by Frank Mentzer.

The first of the modules, To the Aid of Falx, was published in 1982 and is written for characters of levels 5–9. Its premise is that the characters have been "selected from many applicants" to assist the silver dragon, Falx Templamut, and "grandson of old Bahamut himself." Falx is concerned by the recent theft of five potions of silver dragon control from a merchant caravan, fearing they'll be used against him. He asks the characters to enter the lair of the thieves, one of whom is a vampire, since, being a dragon, he is too large to enter. 

Given this set-up, it should come as little surprise that To the Aid of Falx is a contrived, forgettable adventure, filled with traps and monsters (like 32 wererats and 8 wights) intended to "challenge" the characters rather than make sense within the context of the adventure. Normally, I wouldn't have written about a scenario like this, but it include an interesting preface by Frank Mentzer. Pay particular attention to the second paragraph.
Mentzer's comment about "dungeons that could exist as given a for length of game time" is broadly in line with Gygaxian naturalism and, I think, generally laudable. There's nothing inherently wrong with funhouse dungeons, but my personal preference is generally for dungeons that make sense. Based on what he says in the preface, Mentzer feels similarly, though I'm not sure that To the Aid of Falx fits the bill.

Even more intriguing is Mentzer's comment that he is "much opposed to non-standard AD&D games." He elaborates on what he means by this is noting that his own campaign, which apparently began in 1976, contains only two new monsters and no new character classes, spells, or "procedures," by which I assume he means rules procedures. He even offers an aside in which he denigrates the introduction of such new material as "so-called 'improvements.'" 

I'm not quite sure what to make of these statements. On the one hand, I fully understand the desire to play a RPG without any variant materials. On the other hand, nearly every AD&D module ever published, starting with Gygax's own G and D-series adventures, has included new monsters. What then was Mentzer's point in voicing this opinion in To the Aid of Falx? My guess is that it was part of the movement, starting in the early 1980s, to promote the standardization of AD&D first through the RPGA and then through Gygax's columns in the pages of Dragon. 

To the Aid of Falx is not the worst module I've ever read, but it's far from a good one. Compared even to other re-purposed tournament modules, like Slave Pits of the Undercity, it's an uninspired effort. Its main appeal to me is its amusing artwork by the late, great James Holloway, such as the cover image depicted above. If it's at all representative of the kind of scenarios used by the RPGA, I can't say I missed out on much by never participating in their tournemants.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Weird Maps VI

Home video game systems first started to become consumer products during the mid to late 1970s. The one with which I was most directly familiar with was the Atari 2600, first released in 1977. A year later, Magnavox released the Odyssey². There are two things I'll always remember about the Odyssey². The first is a series of commercials for it featuring Leonard Nimoy (or at least his voice). The second is 1981's Quest for the Rings, a fantasy game cartridge/boardgame hybrid that was a genuinely interesting addition to the console (about which I should probably write more).

Quest for the Rings is notable for including the mounted map above, which is absolutely delightful. The names on the map are an odd mix of the banal (Valley of Fear, Forbidden Forest), the punny (Troubled Waters, Dire Straits), and the goofy (Riproaria, Zombia). Still, it's fairly attractive and actually useful in play. Mind you, I am a notoriously easy sell when it comes to maps of almost any kind, so my judgment on this score might be suspect.  

Different Worlds: Issue #13

Issue #13 of Different Worlds (August 1981) opens with an article entitled "The Land of Faerie" by Scott R. Turner. It's an odd piece, in that it contains no game statistics whatsoever. Instead, it's an overview of a variety of  myths and legends about fairies – mostly from the British Isles – strung together as a semi-coherent whole. There's even a bestiary of sorts, which provides brief descriptions of many fairy creatures. Articles like these baffle me somewhat. They're usually too short to present information that most players of fantasy RPGs don't already know. Likewise, the lack of game-specific information limits their utility.

Strangely enough, Iain Delaney's "The Travellers' Aid Society" follows a similar pattern, being both very short and almost entirely lacking in game statistics. Rather, what Delaney offers is a limited and particular interpretation of the iconic organization from GDW's Traveller game. Even more so than "The Land of Faerie," it's too short to present anything a Traveller fan didn't already know, as well as lacking in game rules that might otherwise make it useful.

 The oddly titled "Role-Playing in the Land of Xanth" by Leonard Kanterman is, for the most part, a book review of first three volumes of Piers Anthony's series of fantasy novels. The review also provides cursory suggestions on how to use Xanth as a setting for a RPG campaign. At the risk of repeating myself, I found the article mostly useless, owing to its short length and lack of game rules. but I suppose it's possible that it might serve as an introduction to the setting to the uninitiated (assuming one considers that a good thing).

Jane Woodward's "The Cult of Erlin the Harper" is a gateway cult for RuneQuest. It's a very welcome counterpoint to the previous three articles, in that it contains a great deal of game-specific information that's useful even in RQ campaigns set on Glorantha. There are not only new music-based rune spells but also details of musical instruments and how they can used in the game. Steven Marsh's "Samurai Swords" follows a similar path, offering lots of details on the schools of Japanese sword-making and the weapons they made. Rather than simply being historical in nature, the article also provides rules for each type of sword, including possible magical powers associated with the weapons. It's more detailed than I expect most people need, but I couldn't help but appreciate the detail nonetheless.

John T. Sapienza reviews "Samurai Figures," focusing on those available from Ral Partha, Archive, and Stan Johansen. The accompanying photographs are quite nice. Lee Gold's Land of the Rising Sun and Dave Hargrave's Arduin Adventure are both reviewed positively, though with a few caveats in the case of the Arduin Adventure. Larry DiTillio's "Sword of Hollywood" looks at two movies, one I've heard of and one I have not. The first is Dragonslayer, which DiTillio liked a great deal. The second is The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire, which he also liked – indeed, he liked it well enough that he wants it to become a weekly television series. Gigi D'Arn's column talks a fair bit about a supposed scramble by various publishers to secure the righs to Conan the Barbarian-related game products, as well as hints of trouble at SPI. 

All in all, issue #13 is something of a disappointment to me. My guess is that the shift from bimonthly to monthly left Chaosium with less quality material to choose from for each issue and it shows. I hope that, as 1981 wears on, things will improve.

Monday, May 3, 2021

RIP Richard Halliwell (1959–2021)

Sad news.

Fantasy Not a Threat


Behold the glory of the late 1970s! This is the cover of the March 1978 of the UK magazine, Battle for Wargamers, which is simply delightful. If you poke around online, you can find many more equally astounding covers from the same period. I picked this one, because the issue includes a letter to the editor written by Steve Jackson of Games Workshop fame.

Jackson, it should be noted, had written an article in the December 1977 issue, entitled "An Introduction to Fantasy Wargames." While I've not (yet) seen the article myself, it's my understanding that it's a very good overview of the topic, one that situates fantasy wargaming firmly within the wider wargaming tradition, paying particular attention to the innovations of Tony Bath. Nevertheless, as his letter above indicates, there was some resistance and even hostility to the inclusion of fantasy games in the pages of magazines like Battle for Wargamers.

That fantasy wargaming was initially poorly received in some quarters of the wider wargames hobby is well known and, frankly, not at all surprising. What's interesting to me is that Jackson makes an argument that echoes those made often today:
Before condemning Fantasy wargames out-of-hand, traditionalists ought to ask themselves whether they would like to see large, thriving wargames clubs taking in members from History, Fantasy and Board wargaming players, or would they prefer small struggling clubs concerning themselves with just one aspect of the hobby?

Of course, there's some truth to what Jackson says here. At the same time, are there are any large, thriving wargames clubs today? Did broadening the range of games result in "large, thriving wargames clubs," as he predicted? The answer depends, I imagine, on how one defines "wargames clubs," as well as whether the incontrovertible decline in the popularity of wargaming as a hobby has anything to do with the introduction of fantasy games into its ranks. It's a complex issue and I lack the historical knowledge necessary to offer any conclusions. 

I can only say that, while I am sympathetic to Jackson's perspective, being the intellectual descendant of those early fantasy wargamers, I don't think the situation is quite as clear-cut as he makes it out to be. Change may be "the way of the world these days," but change almost always brings with it destruction. I can't fault anyone who, in 1978, foresaw that the hobby as they knew and loved it, was in danger of changing beyond recognition and resisted that change. I feel much the same about the hobby of roleplaying, whose contemporary form and trajectory are at times utterly alien to me. Fortunately, technology has made it much, much easier today to find others who share my interests and perspective when it comes to the hobby. I can wholly absent myself from whatever the big publishers are doing and not lack for games to play or people to play them with. But, in 1978, that was probably harder, which is why I find myself at least a little bit sympathetic toward "the die-hard traditionalists" whom Jackson decries.

DCS Does Tolkien

Most aficionados of Dungeons & Dragons are, I suspect, familiar with the story of how OD&D originally included explicit references to monsters and beings from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, such as hobbits, balrogs, and ents, among others. They also probably familiar with the fact that legal action was threatened against TSR by "the Tolkien estate" – actually the Saul Zaentz Company – because the inclusion of these creations were entirely unauthorized. What they might not know is that it wasn't Dungeons & Dragons that brought TSR to the attention to the Saul Zaentz Company but rather the 1976 wargame, Battle of the Five Armies.

I have no direct experience with Battle of the Five Armies. I wasn't a wargamer (take a drink) at the time and, in any event, the game was no longer available for sale by late 1979 when I first entered the hobby. I'm sorry I never saw it, as it features a number of pieces by David C. Sutherland III, such as this color box cover illustration, depicting Men, Dwarves, and Elves facing off goblins and wolves.

The cover to the rulebook also features another depiction of a similar scene, this time in black and white.

I'm a huge fan of "lost" artwork like this, which is to say, pieces by established artists that are not widely known. This is particularly true of artists who worked in the early days of the hobby, like Sutherland and Trampier, both of whom contributed immensely not just to the look of D&D but, due to the game's immense influence, to the wider world of fantasy. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The White People

Were there not already over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I might consider re-naming it to something a bit broader, since, strictly speaking, not all of the works I cover in it can be called "pulp fantasy," even by a liberal definition of the term. That's particularly true of many of those written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, which transcend narrow literary categories, despite being foundational to later genres that, in turn, influenced the creators of the first roleplaying games. 

The tales of Arthur Machen are good examples of what I'm talking about, particularly "The White People," which first appeared in 1904 in the pages of Horlick's Magazine but was much more widely read in the 1906 anthology of his fiction, The House of Souls. H.P. Lovecraft famously judged the story second only to Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" in the annals of weird fiction and there can be little doubt that it exercised a powerful influence over his imagination. He called it

"a triumph of skilful selectiveness and restraint, [which] accumulates enormous power as it flows on in a stream of innocent childish prattle … less famous and less complex in plot than The Great God Pan, but definitely finer in atmosphere and general artistic value … a dimly disquieting chronicle."

It's easy to understand why HPL felt so strongly about it. "The White People" begins a prologue in which two men – Cotgrave and Ambrose – engage in a rambling discussion about the nature of morality and sin. Ambrose, a theologian by training, suggests that saints and sinners are not all that different from one another. His argument is that, while most people "are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures [who] … muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and inner sense of things," saints and sinners are like in experiencing "ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life." Ambrose adds that both saints and sinners were rare, especially nowadays.

The materialism of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity, has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents or descents. 

To some extent. Ambrose is voicing Machen's own opinion, or something close to it. He a possessed a strong streak of Christian mysticism that was nevertheless joined to a deep interest in paganism, the occult, and Hermeticism, as well as an earthy sensuality. I bring this up to point out that Machen is a difficult writer to pigeonhole and stories like "The White People" reflect a similar ambiguity.

Eventually, the discussion between Cotgrave and Ambrose reaches an impasse, with Cotgrave demanding "a concrete example" of it from his interlocutor. It's at this point that the story begins in earnest, as Ambrose hands him a "green pocket-book" with a faded binding. Ambrose explains that he :knew the girl who wrote this" and that, once he has read it, Cotgrave "will see how it illustrates the talk we have to-night."

But for a short epilogue, the remainder of "The White People" consists of the contents of the Green Book (as it is called in the text), which is more than two dozen uninterrupted pages of hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness writing – "a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce," in the words of S.T. Joshi. Ostensibly the diary of a girl "thirteen, nearly fourteen," this section describes the unnamed girl's "very singular adventure" about a year after the death of her mother. On that day, which she afterwards called White Day, the girl went for a walk in the countryside, as she had many times before.

I walked a new way, and a little brook led me into a new country, but I tore my frock getting through some of the difficult places, as the way was through many bushes, and beneath the low branches of trees, and up thorny thickets on the halls, and by dark woods full of creeping thorns. And it was a long, long way. It seemed as if I was going on for ever and ever, and I had to creep by a place like a tunnel where a brook must have been, but all the water had dried up, and the floor was rocky, and the bushed had grown overhead till they met, so that it was quite dark.

I think the section quoted above gives a good sense of the style of the Green Book, whose text is written as nearly a single, pages-long paragraph, filled with run-on sentences and dizzying imagery. As a result, the reader is sometimes left wondering precisely what is happening, a situation made worse by the diarist's omissions and circuitous way of describing sights and events that she herself does not seem to comprehend fully. 

During her peregrinations in the woods, the girl sees many strange things – weirdly shaped rocks, stunted trees, shadowy shapes – before finding a valley containing a stream whose water "tasted like bright, yellow wine" and made her giddy. The place reminded her of a memory from when she was very small and her mother was still alive. Her nurse had taken her out and into the forest, where the nurse had met a tall man. The nurse then left her alone beneath a tree, while she and the man went off together deeper into the woods. While she was alone, the girl "two wonderful white people [who] … began to play and dance and sing." 

One was a beautiful lady with kind dark eyes, and a grave face, and long black hair, and she smiled such a sad strange smile at the other, who laughed and came with her. They played together, and danced round and round the pool, and they sang a song till I feel asleep.

Her nurse tried to tell the girl she had been dreaming, "but I knew I hadn't," she says. The nurse then makes her promise not to say a word about what she had seen or she "should be thrown into the black pit." The girl never forgot what she saw, which is why she remembered them on White Day. Frightened – but also enchanted – by what she saw, the girl finds her way back home and is determined to find out more about all she had experienced.

Exactly what the Green Book recounts in "The White People" is unclear. The confusing narrative seems to suggest that the girl who wrote it is being initiated into some sort of secret society or cult, one that has contact with another realm or reality inhabited by the eponymous White People. But who and what are the White People? Are they ghosts? Fairies? Something else entirely? Machen does not elaborate, leaving a great deal to the reader's imagination. This is a technique that Lovecraft used often in his own stories and is likely device her learned – or at least honed – after reading Machen. 

Like many weird tales, "The White People" is a large an exercise in evoking mood and feeling rather than in presenting a clear or coherent plot. Due to the way it's written, the reader is never sure of what is being described, let alone how he is supposed to take it. For some, this might prove frustrating, while for others, it contributes to its success. Until recently, I'd been somewhat indifferent to the tale, but, lately, after reading it aloud, I found it much more captivating and powerful. It's definitely an acquired taste and I cannot blame anyone for being unmoved by it, even as I have come to appreciate it more fully and understand why it was so well regarded in the early 20th century.