Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Retrospective: The Asylum & Other Tales

The news that Chaosium is reprinting many of its earliest Call of Cthulhu products in celebration of the game's 40th anniversary this year, I found myself thinking back wistfully on my early experiences with the game. Even though Shadows of Yog-Sothoth looms very large in my memories, I also think fondly of other products from around the same time, like 1983's The Asylum & Other Tales. Whereas Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was a collection of seven adventures forming "a global campaign to save mankind," The Asylum was merely seven individual adventures with nothing linking them to one another. Perhaps I shouldn't say "merely," because, despite the tendency to associate long, involved campaign-centric products with Call of Cthulhu, adventure anthologies like this one have long existed and provided much needed support to many a Keeper of Arcane Lore. 

In brief, The Asylum's seven scenarios are as follows:  

  • The Auction by Randy McCall, which involves the investigators traveling to Vienna, Austria to participate in an auction of occult books and artifacts on behalf of a patron. There, they become embroiled in a murder investigation.
  • The Madman by Mark Harmon, takes the investigators to upstate New York to look into the disappearances of livestock and people.
  • Black Devil Mountain by Dave Hargrave (of Arduin Grimoire fame), which takes place in rural Maine, where the investigators explore Howl Mound, an Indian burial mound filled with all manner of monsters.
  • The Asylum by Randy McCall is an interesting scenario in that it takes place inside the Greenwood Asylum for the Deranged to which one or more investigators have been committed. Naturally, not all is well within the asylum's walls.
  • The Mauretania by M.B. Willner takes place aboard a luxury liner crossing the Atlantic and filled with many interesting passengers, including a White Russian count – and a murderer.
  • Gate from the Past by John Scott Clegg concerns the investigation of weird, ghostly phenomena near Arkham, Massachusetts.
  • Westchester House by Elizabeth Wolcott presents us with the eponymous house, reputed to be haunted.
As you can see, the seven adventures of The Asylum are a varied lot, though quite a few of them involve a murder investigation, which is simultaneously understandable and unfortunate. According to the book's introduction, each scenario is intended to deal with a common aspect of a Call of Cthulhu campaign, whether it be insanity ("The Asylum"), sea travel ("The Mauretania"), or a hoax ("Westchester House"). It's an excellent approach for an anthology and it's why I have such fond memories of The Asylum: it's very useful.

That said, not all of the included scenarios are top notch. Dave Hargrave's "Black Devil Mountain" is probably the worst of the lot, being pretty much a dungeon transposed into Call of Cthulhu and not a particularly imaginative one at that. On the other hand, "The Asylum" is solid and "The Auction" contains seeds for many subsequent adventures. I'm also fond of "Westchester House," because there's absolutely nothing supernatural or Mythos-related happening in it; perfectly mundane human criminals are behind the strange happenings at the house. It's a great change of pace and one I recall having great fun with, especially after a campaign has gone on long enough for players to start seeing Lovecraftian entities behind every curtain.

Considering its early release date, The Asylum & Other Tales is quite a remarkable product, filled with lots of modular material for use by a harried Keeper. I learned a great deal about crafting good – and not so good – Call of Cthulhu adventures from it. In fact, thinking back on the book and its scenarios makes me wish I were refereeing a Call of Cthulhu campaign right now. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Call of Cthulhu Classic

Looks like we didn't have to wait long to find out the answer to the question I posed the other day. Chaosium is indeed reprinting multiple Call of Cthulhu products from its early days in order to celebrate the game's 40th anniversary. These include:

  • The first edition rules in a deep 2" boxed set
  • Shadows of Yog-Sothoth
  • The Asylum & Other Tales
  • The Cthulhu Companion
  • Trail of Tsothoggua
  • Fragments of Fear
I used to own most of these, but, over the years, they've fallen apart or disappeared. Consequently, I'm gladdened to hear that Chaosium is reproducing them in physical form. I wish more publishers follow their lead, because I suspect there's a market, albeit a small one, for these kinds of things. Good knows I'd love to see the Classic Traveller three little black book boxed set reproduced, for example. I don't hold out much hope that we'll ever see reproductions like this become widespread, but I plan to cheer on any publisher that does so. 

Well done, Chaosium.

Different Worlds: Issue #21

I don't usually write about the letters column of Different Worlds for a number of reasons. However, in the case of issue #21 (June 1982), I want to draw brief attention to a letter by Steve Perrin, in which he responds to an article in issue #20 about heraldry. Perrin is quite complimentary about the article by Robin Wood but wishes to point out a handful of errors and misapprehensions based on his longtime association with the Society for Creativity Anachronism. In looking at the history of roleplaying games, we often forget the role played by the SCA as a crucible for many ideas that would later become important in the hobby (especially on the West Coast of the United States). Seeing this latter reminded me of that, as well as my own ignorance about this aspect of the hobby's prehistory.

"Racial Sight Differences" is the first article of the issue and it's an odd one. To start, it's author is credited simply as Shadowstar, which I can only assume is a pseudonym. Its subject matter is the differences between "human and non-human ways of seeing," starting with infravision but going beyond that into theoretical notions such as texture and vibration sensitivity. The article is short and peculiar – a bit like me, I suppose – and, while it doesn't include any game mechanics, it raises some interesting questions in a Gygaxian naturalistic vein. Also of note is that the article is illustrated by an artist credited as "Michael Mignola," who, at the time, was still a student.

"Healing Plants and Other Herbs" by Robin Wood is an amazing article. Seven pages in length, it's filled with many helpful illustrations of leaves and flowers to accompany straightforward, interesting text about various plants and herbs with healing properties. Most useful, though, is a series of tables at the end of the article to help the referee in designing unique (and fantastical) healing plants for use in his campaign setting. These are the kinds of articles I really enjoy seeing and this one is no exception. "Pistols" by Paul Montgomery Crabaugh offers up a few new handguns for use with GDW's Traveller, while John T. Sapienza's "Grenadier Hirelings, Fighting Men & Specialists" is a review of three different sets of AD&D miniatures.

Larry Best's "Fantasy Is Reality" is listed as a "philosophy" article, which tells you what you're in for. Best recounts his experiences as a graduate student in medieval English literature studying older texts and how what he read in, say, Beowulf or the Greenlander's Saga clashed with his everyday experience of the world. He knew there were no such things as monsters or spirits of the dead and yet all these stories spoke of them as if there were. Best states that 
I realize that technology, education, and shoes have caged me, kept me from a realm too often considered mere fantasy, a world through which I might perceive medieval literature, and all literature, and my entire life from a new and visual standpoint, a beautiful and fantastic world of pure reality.

I really don't know what to make of this article, so I won't even try.

Ken St. Andre's "The Elric Saga: See Battle Near Melniboné" is a solo adventure for use with Stormbringer. It's a fun little scenario based on events from the works of Michael Moorcock. "Creating Jolanti" by Michael Malony and Greg Stafford is a RuneQuest piece describing the constructed race known as the Jolanti. "Making a Magic Staff" by Gerald M. Schmitt is a D&D variant that offers rules and guidelines for making the ubiquitous wizard's staff much more mechanically useful. As is often the case with the articles of Different Worlds, it's not something I'd make use of myself, but I nonetheless appreciate variants of this sort.

This month's reviews highlight Waspwinter and Legend of the Sky Raiders, both for Traveller. The latter is rightly lauded, while the former is not. Also reviewed are Journey to the Center of the Circle (which I do not know) and Descent into the Depths of the Earth. John T. Sapienza's "An Expanded Cleric vs. Undead System" seeks to alter the turning system in order to better take into account the disparity between a cleric's level and that of the undead he's attempting to turn. Gigi D'Arn comments on how hard it is to write a monthly column, with which I can sympathize. Nevertheless, she comments upon the fall-out of the end of SPI, starting with its acquisition by TSR and the establishment of Victory Games. There's also mention of TSR's purchase of Amazing stories and a needlework company, as well as the (unrealized) rumor that Chaosium had obtained the rights to produce a game based on Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. 

I continue to enjoy reading Different Worlds and am curious to see where the magazine goes as the 1980s wear on.

Monday, June 28, 2021

More Play by Post Thoughts

 I'm nearly finished with the player-oriented material for The Vaults of sha-Arthan. The four human classes – adept, scion, sorcerer, and warrior – are more or less done but for some tweaks and I should have the sorcerer spell lists done in a couple of days. That leaves only the equipment list to do and I'll have a solid "player's guide" to give to anyone participating in the campaigns I plan to run.

However, as I mentioned previously, I'm seriously considering refereeing two campaigns, one in real time via Discord or something similar and another asynchronously in a play by post format. I'm still weighing the pros and cons of the various platforms suggested for the PBP campaign – thank you to everyone who offered them. At the present time, I'm leaning somewhat toward Unseen Servant, which looks pretty easy to use and is similar enough to things I've done in the past that I don't there'll be much of a learning curve.

Another possibility, though, is Discord. I've used Discord extensively for my ongoing House of Worms campaign, but never for play by post. Occasionally, I'll post information for the characters in a channel set aside for that purpose, but 99.9% of the campaign is played out in the voice channel every Friday afternoon. Since I'm already decently familiar with Discord and its quirks, I wonder if it might not be simpler just to use it for the play by post campaign too (especially since I already have an Advanced Grognardia server set up for related purposes). 

Do any readers have experience with using Discord for this purpose? If so, I'd like to hear about it. Similarly, I'd be interested in hearing about people's experiences with Unseen Servant, including any downsides. Bear in mind that I'm somewhat technically inept and this colors my preferences. 


Pulp Fantasy Library: The Pit of Wings

Ramsey Campbell is generally called a horror writer, because he was deeply influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whom he first read at a young age. So enamored was he of HPL's tales that he wrote his own pastiches of them as a teenager. He submitted some of them to Arkham House for publication, where they caught the attention of August Derleth. Derleth was impressed with young man's abilities but rejected his submissions, advising him to rework them into stories set in Campbell's native Britain rather than in Lovecaft's New England (if only Derleth had followed his own advice). Campbell did as directed, leading to the publication of The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants in 1964 at the age of eighteen. 

Though the bulk of his work can be called "horror," Campbell has also written a number of fantasy stories featuring the swordsman Ryre. One of these, "The Pit of Wings," appeared in the third anthology in Andrew J. Offutt's Swords Against Darkness series. The series as a whole is well regarded for its inclusion of so many excellent sword-and-sorcery tales, but volume three holds particular interest for roleplayers, as it's singled out by Gary Gygax's list of inspirational and educational reading in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Precisely why Gygax included only the third volume of the series and not the previous two already available at the time remains a matter of debate among those with an interest in such things. 

What's not up for debate, though, is whether Campbell was as good a writer of fantasy as he was of horror. "The Pit of Wings" begins with Ryre traveling by horseback when arrives outside the port town of Gaxonoi. He sees laves, chained and obviously mistreated by their captors, hard at work along the road. 

Ryre hated slavery as only a man who has been enslaved can. Fury parched his throat. Yet he could not fight a town, or its customs, however deplorable.

He elects to ride past the town but cannot do so without a look of obvious distaste growing across his face. One of the slave-drivers notices Ryre "glare of contempt" and counsels him.

"Yes, ride on, unless you're seeking honest toil. We've a place for you, and chains to fit." His slow voice was viciously caressing as a whip. As he gazed up at Ryre, he licked his lips.

Ryre's grin was leisurely and mirthless. Though he could not battle slavery, he would enjoy responding to this challenge. He stared at the man as though peering beneath a stone. "Ridding the world of vermin? Yes, I'd call that honest."

The man's tongue flickered like a snake's. His smile twitched, as did his hand: nervous, or beckoning for reinforcements? "What kind of swordsman is it who lets his words fight for him?" he demanded harshly.

"No man fights with vermin. He crushes them." 

Despite the growing tension, a fight does not break out between Ryre and the slavers – yet. Instead, they allow him to enter Gaxonoi, where he makes his way down toward its docks. There, he enters a tavern and quickly gets the sense that something is odd about the town and its inhabitants. He later learns just what that is: a procession of cowled figures was making its way amidst the wharves.

Their robes were pale as fungus. They emerged two by two from a wide dark street at the edge of the dock. The slow pallid emergence reminded Ryre of worms dropping from a gap. There seemed to be no end to the procession; surely it would fill the wharf.

Despite its size, the procession was unnervingly silent. A distant flapping could be heard. There was violence amid the ceremony: figures struggling desperately but mutely, which seemed to hover in the air among their robed captors. Ryre distinguished that the victims were bound and gagged, and kept aloft by taut ropes held by robed men. The sight made him think of insects in a web.

 As they get closer, Ryre recognizes one of the cowled men as the slave-driver who'd taunted him earlier. This time, the swordsman is unwilling to stay his anger and a melee ensues, one that sees Ryre not only defeated but left alive so that he too could witness whatever it was that these robed figures planned to do with their captives. Needless to say, it's nothing pleasant and Ryre must find a way to free himself and possibly the others before they all die horrifically.

Like the best sword-and-sorcery yarns, "The Pit of Wings" is short and its action moves quickly. Ryre himself is not particularly memorable as a character; he's a fairly typical pulp fantasy warrior in most respects, certainly nothing special when compared to the likes of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Conan. Yet, Campbell's experience as a horror writer serves him well here, elevating the story with his command of rising suspense and hidden menace. Gaxonoi is a genuinely creepy place and the reader can feel Ryre's growing anxiety, which builds throughout the second part of the story until it reaches its unnerving climax – a compelling little story, better than most fare of its kind.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 61

Page 61 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide features a lengthy section entitled "Encounters, Combat, and Initiative." The section is so long and so full of fascinating asides that I'm going to focus only on those paragraphs that address the sometimes contentious topic of the one-minute combat round. Before starting, it's important to remember that, while the one-minute round is most well known is AD&D, it's not unique to it. Both OD&D and Empire of the Petal Throne, two games with which I am quite familiar, also make use of it. However, other versions of D&D, most famously Tom Moldvay's 1981 revision, do not, preferring shorter lengths of time. I'm genuinely agnostic on the matter myself, not seeing it as a hill to die on one way or the other. For this post, my interest is solely on Gygax's reasoning behind one-minute combat rounds.

He begins:

Combat is divided into 1 minute period melee rounds, or simply rounds, in order to have reasonably manageable combat. "Manageable" applies both to the actions of the combatants and the actual refereeing of such melees.

Right off the bat, Gygax suggests that one-minute rounds exist primarily for practical reasons. He continues:

It would be no great task to devise an elaborate set of rules for highly complex individual combats with rounds of but a few seconds. It is not in the best interests of an adventure game, however, to delve too deeply into cut and thrust, parry and riposte. The location of a hit or wound, the sort of damage done, sprains, breaks, and dislocations are not the stuff of heroic fantasy. The reasons for this are manifold.

In typical Gygaxian fashion, these sentences are at once commonsensical and querulous. I think his general point that "highly complex" rules for combat get in the way of the running of "an adventure game" (a term he uses often in the DMG – but that's a possible topic for another post). My own decades-long experience is that, with a few exceptions, I personally prefer simple, straightforward, and easy to adjudicate combat systems over those with more detail. That said, I can't wholly sign on with Gygax's contention that more complex systems "are not the stuff of heroic fantasy," which almost seems like a calculated slight against other RPGs with different priorities than AD&D.

In any case, Gygax uses this as an opportunity to talk about hit points and how AD&D's conception of them ties into the one-minute round. 

As has been detailed, hit points are not actually a measure of physical damage, by and large, as far as characters (and some other creatures as well) are concerned. Therefore, the location of hits and the types of damage caused are not germane to them. 

Again, perhaps I am an outlier, but this makes perfect sense to me, especially in light of the one-minute combat round. If an attack roll does not represent a single cut or thrust but rather an abstraction of many such actions over the course of a minute, I think it quite reasonable that hit points should be similarly abstracted. Oddly, he immediately follows up with this: "this is not true with respect to most monsters, it is neither necessary nor particularly useful." I'm not sure how to read this. Is Gygax suggesting that, for most monsters, hit points are a measure of physical damage or is it that the location of hits and types of damage caused would be germane to them? 

In any case, he quickly gives us more to unpack.

Lest the purist immediately object, consider the many charts and tables necessary to handle this sort of detail, and then think about how area effect spells would work. In like manner, consider all of the nasty things which face adventurers as the rules stand. Are crippling disabilities and yet more ways to meet instant death desirable in an open-ended, episodic game where participants seeks to identify with lovingly detailed player-character personae? Not likely! Certain death is as undesirable as a give-away campaign. 

I think Gygax starts off with an excellent point about charts and tables. If one prioritizes speed in handling combat, too much detail can be a serious impediment. D&D in all its forms has always tended toward the fast and abstract. That's either a bane or a boon, depending on one's own interests, but I don't think it's a "flaw" in the game's design. I've played – and enjoyed – RPGs with more complex combat systems and would happily do so again. There are many unique pleasures in that style of play, just as there are in D&D's. I take no issue with anyone who prefers one over the other, so long as we all recognize the subjectivity of such a preference.

More remarkable, I think, is Gygax's description of D&D as an "open-ended, episodic" game. I don't find that description at all controversial, but I still take note of Gygax's use of it nonetheless, just as I do of his claim that it's a game "where participants seek to identify with lovingly detailed player-character personae." This certainly seems at odds with the popular belief that, for Gygax, player characters were little more than "pieces on a board" to be discarded and replaced with ease. In like fashion, the implication that instant death was not desirable is further evidence that he was no "killer DM" of the sort players have been whining about for as long as I've been involved in the hobby.

With complex combat systems which stress so-called realism and feature hit location, special damage, and so on, either this option is severely limited or the rules are highly slanted towards favoring the player characters at the expense of their opponents. (Such rules as double damage and critical hits must cur both ways – in which case the life expectancy of player characters will be shortened considerably – or the monsters are being grossly misrepresented and unfairly treated by the system. I am certain you can think of many other such rules.) 

Again, I think this comes down to taste. In my House of Worms campaign, I've made use of EPT's critical hit rules since I begin it more than six years ago and I've used it equally against PCs, NPCs, and monstrous enemies. My experience is that it's occasionally proved decisive in a combat but that, by and large, it's not upended things to such an extent that I'd caution against using it. No PC has died due to a critical hit in this campaign (though a couple did in my Dust of Gold campaign set in Mu'ugalavyá). On balance then, I don't share Gygax's concerns about critical hits.

One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of choice with a minimum of complication. This allows the DM and the players the best of both worlds. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. Envision, if you will, a fencing, boxing, or karate match. During the course of one minute of such competition, there are numerous attacks, which are unsuccessful, feints, maneuvering, and so forth. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried. One, or possibly several, have the chance to actually score damage. For such chances, the dice are rolled and if the "to hit" number is equalled or exceeded, the attack was successful, but otherwise it too was avoided, blocked, parried, or whatever.

This is a very helpful section, because it makes more clear what Gygax saw as happening during the course of a single one-minute round. He elaborates on this later, explaining that "a round of combat is not a continuous series of attacks," nor is it "just a single blow and counter-blow affair." That has long been how I conceptualize a round; it's also why, when refereeing a combat, I generally don't describe it in any detail, preferring instead to speak of it in very broad terms. 

I should end here, but Gygax makes one brief aside that I think worthy of attention. He talks about monsters and their hit points. 

With respect to monsters such damage is, in fact, more physically substantial, although as with many adjustments in armor class rating for speed and agility, there are also similar additions in hit points.

For some reason, this doesn't sit well with me, perhaps because Gygax had just previously indicted critical hit systems for treating characters and monsters unequally. Now, he is admitting that he does the same with hit points. Is this an unforgiveable or game-breaking design choice? Hardly. Yet, it does make much more explicit the extent to which all combat systems need to make concessions of one sort or another in order to make them playable and fun. The question is simply what aspects of combat one wishes to emphasize and where one draws the line between "simple" and "complex."

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Classic Reawakens?

Last week, commenter Dick McGee pointed me toward a post over at the official Chaosium blog where the company's president, Rick Meints, teases "a classic reawakening of something from 40 years ago." Meints then adds, "It's been a long time since we had a 2" boxed set." Accompanying the post is the above image, which shows the cover illustration of the original 1981 edition of Call of Cthulhu, along with map of Arkham that accompanied that edition.

When I first read the post, my immediate thought was that Chaosium was planning to make a Call of Cthulhu boxed set that merely used the art and general appearance of the original while still making use of the current rules. But then I remembered that Chaosium already had a Call of Cthulhu boxed set for its current edition – a Starter Set, to be clear – so it seemed unlikely the company would produce a second one of a similar sort. 

This thought was further strengthened by two other details. First, the image above uses the tagline, "Fantasy Role-Playing in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft" (italics mine), which the current edition does not use. Second, the sentence "This is a Complete Fantasy Role-Playing Game, Ready for Use" also appears, exactly as it did back in 1981. Taken together, it now seemed more likely that what Meints was teasing was a boxed reprint of the original edition of the game and not merely wrapping the current edition in the warm blanket of nostalgia

For various banal reasons, I'm not a fan of Call of Cthulhu's current edition. I remain, however, a huge fan of the earlier editions of the game, especially the 1981 version, which is what I first started playing four decades ago. My copy of the game is long gone, worn out from continual use. The idea that I might be able to replace it makes very happy. Fingers crossed that I am not mistaken!

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Retrospective: Rahasia

My feelings about the work of Tracy and Laura Hickman are more complicated than is generally assumed. While I have very little regard for the Dragonlance series and feel that it set Dungeons & Dragons down a path that isn't to my liking, I'm actually quite fond of the roughly contemporaneous Ravenloft, even though it exhibits many of the same elements I dislike in the former. This makes me wonder if many of my criticisms stem from matters of degree rather than substance. I'm not yet committed to that position by any means, but it's nevertheless been on my mind lately.

To test my thesis, I re-read the 1984 D&D module, Rahasia, a lesser known work of the Hickmans. Before diving into it, a brief bit of history. The earliest version of Rahasia, which I have never seen, was self-published by the Hickmans in 1979, along with Pharaoh (another Hickman effort for which I have largely positive feelings). In 1983, Rahasia was released by the RPGA, along with its follow-up, Black Opal Eye. Then, both modules were combined under a single cover as module B7, which is the only version of these adventures I've ever seen. I understand there are a few differences in content between the various editions but they are mostly minor. If I am mistaken in this understanding, please don't hesitate to offer corrections in the comments below.

Make no mistake: Rahasia is just as heavy-handed as most Hickman modules, in that there's a very definite "story" in which it intends to involve the player characters. That story begins with the PCs traveling through a "beautiful elven forest," when they come upon the body of an elf, perhaps slain by bandits. A letter is found on the body and a lengthy one at that. The contents of the letter are reproduced at the back of the module, presumably either to be read aloud to the players or photocopied so they can read it for themselves. Written by an elven maiden named Rahasia, the letter details how a handsome stranger known simply as "the Rahib" had come to the village to seek her hand in marriage. Though everyone else in the village was won over by the Rahib, Rahasia's father was not. 

Not long thereafter, the elven students of a nearby temple disappeared, as did Rahasia's father, who traveled to the temple to determine what happened to them. Like them, he seems to have disappeared. Disappearing along with him was his wealth, which would have been used in part for Rahasia's dowry. Rahasia's betrothed, Hasan, then sets off for the temple too and, like everyone else, does not return. That's when the Rahib reveals – surprise! – that he is behind these shenanigans. He has placed the students under his spell and will not release them until Rahasia turns herself over to him. She will not do so and seeks help from outsiders who'd be willing to brave the temple, defeat the Rahib, and free those whom he has enchanted.

If you can keep all of that straight, good for you! I left out many details (such as the kidnapping of two other elven maids) in the interests of brevity and because, frankly, they only complicate what is already an unnecessarily complex scenario for 1st to 3rd level characters – or so I say. For a great many gamers, I suspect that this type of set-up is greatly appealing, because it gives their characters an obvious hook that immediately embroils them in a fantasy adventure tale filled with heaping helpings of bombast and melodrama. The boxed text scattered throughout the module is exactly what you'd expect, starting with one of the very first.

In the village, the delicate elven dwellings mirror the grace of their people. Yet the faces of the villagers reveal great sadness. You soon are lead to an elven maid, whose veiled face and beauty outshines all others present as the sun outshines the stars – she is Rahasia.

One either cringes at such prose or one embraces it. I fall firmly in the first camp, finding it some of the worst boxed text to appear in any D&D module, but I recognize that not everyone feels that way. Indeed, I suspect that I'm in the minority when it comes to disliking this kind of heavy-handed mawkishness. Leaving that aside, what's more frustrating to me is that, like Ravenloft and Pharaoh before it, the dungeons of Rahasia are actually quite good. Both the Temple of Gray Mountain and Elyas's Tower have interesting layouts with multiple unique encounters and traps. I was particularly struck by how often the best solution to dealing with an encounter is not violence but instead cleverness. This is a commonplace in the Hickmans' work, demonstrating, I think, that they're actually more talented dungeon designers than they're sometimes given credit for, especially in old school circles.

Consequently, Rahasia only adds to my growing uncertainty about how to assess the contributions of Tracy and Laura Hickman on the development of both Dungeons & Dragons in particular and the hobby of roleplaying more generally. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that they stand solidly alongside Gary Gygax himself when it comes to the influence their style has had on subsequent generations of roleplayers. There is little question in my mind that their emphasis on presenting coherent stories, with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, through the vehicle of modules became widely imitated to the point that it's now the unquestioned standard for such things. Regardless of one's feelings on the matter, that's the very definition of a success. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021


I was reading through an old issue of Dragon when I spied this advertisement. A quick search online revealed very little about Neighborhood beyond the fact that it was released in 1982. Does anyone know any more about this game? I wonder if it was anything like Alma Mater when it comes to its treatment of the subject matter, or if it opted instead for a less tongue-in-cheek approach? The ad's focus on throwing rocks, snowballs, and mashed potatoes(?) at your friends suggests it's probably a humorous RPG, but who can say?

Different Worlds: Issue #20

Issue #20 of Different Worlds (March 1982) features a cover by Luise Perenne, an artist I will always associate with RuneQuest, because of the the many illustrations she provided for it. The cover depicts Zarzeena the Sorcereress casting a spell through her scrying stone. Zarzeena, also called La Bella Donna, plays an important role in Steve Perrin's "Zarzeena's World," a "bare-bones scenario" intended to present the setting of a novel by Luise Perenne from a roleplaying perspective. So far as I know the novel in question was never published. The scenario is indeed "bare-bones," since it's more of a sketch of various NPCs and their interactions than a structured adventure. 

Robin Wood's "Heraldry" is a lengthy, 10-page article, complete with examples, that explains the intricacies of European heraldry. I love articles like this, but then I'm a bit strange. On the other hand, Roby Ward's "Giving Birth" is not an article I love. It answers the question, "How should a GM determine whether or not a player-character has gotten herself pregnant?" Words fail me. 

Fortunately, "Race for the 'Specter'" by Doug Houseman is a very good Traveller adventure. It's 9 pages long (including a two-page map spread) and is intended to be competitive. A team of Zhodani characters is assaulting an Imperial research station during the Fifth Frontier War, opposed by an Imperial watch team. The scenario is very well done, with an interesting premise and well presented map, but I do wonder how practical it would be to run two groups at the same time. It's recommended that each group meet in a separate room, with the referee moving between them, something I've tried before but found unwieldy. Houseman also includes notes on "ghosting" the Zhodani, a term I've never heard before but which simply means that the referee runs them rather than a second set of players.

"How to Design Mythology" by David P. Joiner is a decent, if brief, overview of the questions a referee should consider when designing gods for use in his campaign setting. This issue's reviews are a good mix of products, starting with the excellent The Free City of Haven. Also reviewed are Against the Giants and The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, alongside The Iron Wind (for Rolemaster) and several Judges Guild Traveller releases (Tarlkin's Landing, Glimmerdrift Reaches, Crucis Margin). What's interesting is that all of these reviews are positive, in contrast to several previous issues. The issue also includes book reviews, first of The Ice Is Coming by Patricia Wrightson and the Othergates publishing guide. 

The penultimate content of the issue is a short article entitled "The Mimi" by Ernest Hogan, which describes fairy-like creatures of Aboriginal Australian legend. Like most articles of this kind in the pages of Different Worlds, it's completely without game mechanics. Meanwhile, Gigi D'Arn continues to dish the dirt on the buy-out of SPI, this time suggesting that it was TSR, not Avalon Hill, that was looking like the most likely buyer (correct, as it turns out). She also mentions an upcoming Star Trek movie called Unknown Continent and featuring Ricardo Montalban as one of its "guest actors." Never heard that title associated with Star Trek II before!

I continue to be unsure how to judge Different Worlds. Its content is so variable and uneven that, every time I think I can render a verdict on it, I read the next issue and re-assess my perspective. Perhaps that's a good thing ultimately, but I find it mildly frustrating nonetheless. Unlike Dragon or White Dwarf, I don't know what to make of Different Worlds and I suspect that I may never know.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Breaking Free

When I was a younger person, Dave Trampier's Dragon magazine comic, Wormy, regularly confused me. This was partly a consequence of the fact that, by the time I first encountered it, there have been more than fifty previous installments. Another source of my confusion were the multiple narratives, not just with different groups of characters, but also with different settings. I can't quite recall how long it took me to understand that Wormy and his cylcops pal, Ace, were giants and, therefore, much bigger than, say, the ogres or trolls – or indeed the wizard Grimorly and Solomoriah.

Speaking of which: I was always most fond of the strips that featured the wizard and the shadow cat. Grimorly was single-minded in pursuit of his goals and compellingly sinister. He was also the primary window through which readers got to learn about the nature of magic in the world of Wormy. Or should I say worlds? Throughout the comic's run, there were hints from time to time of a bigger, more cosmic picture, one that was never fully explored. 

An example of this can be seen in issue #70 of Dragon (February 1983), when Solomoriah, in order to escape from a battle with Wormy, breaks through the skin of reality into a weird, otherworldly dimension filled with floating spheres. The unstated implication is that each of these spheres is another world, but Trampier never elaborated upon this. There are other strips that touch on these topics and I loved them all, because they presented, albeit in a highly mysterious fashion, a view of other dimensions/worlds/planes that continues to appeal to me to this day.

House of Worms, Session 230

Aíthfo kept his composure upon hearing this news from Menték hiChúritle, administrative high priest of the Temple of Ksárul in Béy Sü. At the moment, the high priest believed – or seemed to be believe, since one never could tell with priests of the Lord of Secrets – that Aíthfo approved and supported the seizure of the colony of Linyaró by agents of the temple. Aíthfo asked what would happen if he, the rightful governor of the colony, were to return. Menték looked puzzled for a moment before asking, "Why would you return? Surely, you can find a better position elsewhere in the Empire?" Aítho continued to press the point, suggesting he needed to return in order to "set things right." He felt that he had an obligation to deal with the consequences of his own prior actions. Menték remained puzzled. "I would highly recommend that you not return to Linyaró." 

Aíthfo thanked the high priest and returned to his comrades staying at the Black Stone clan house. He related what he had learned. Znayáshu was alarmed by what he heard. He suggested that Menték was subtly threatening Aíthfo and that the Temple of Ksárul would likely try to stop him from returning to Linyaró, possibly even going so far as to kill him. With that, they left and met up with Keléno and Kirktá. Together, they sought possible help from the Temple of Keténgku regarding the plague that ravaged the Achgé Peninsula. The temple was located in the eastern side of the capital, across the Missúma River. Along the way, they encountered Grujúng fishing along the riverbank, an activity in which he engaged to deal with anxiety (and he was suffering from great anxiety thinking about his family and clan mates back in Linyaró). 

At the temple, the characters were introduced to a young priestess named Ninggáya hiKadárta. Ninggáya, they learned, had come to the temple recently from the city of Hekéllu. She is known for her unorthodox approaches to the treatment of disease, which is precisely what interested the characters. In conversation, it quickly became clear that Ninggáya is knowledgeable and brilliant but lacking in both social skills – she is very blunt, for example – and respect for tradition and authority. Nevertheless, Znayáshu was impressed with her and explained to her that he and his companions would be heading back to the Southern Continent to deal with an outbreak of the Plague of the White Hand. Ninggáya was quite excited by this prospect, but doubted that it was in fact the Plague of the White Hand. She suggested that it was in fact something else, since the White Hand didn't last nearly as long as the ailment that was seemingly affecting Linyaró.

It was at this point that Znayáshu hit upon the idea of trying to convince various temples and clans to fund Ninggáya's work in the Achgé Peninsula (and make some money for the House of Worms clan at the same time – after all, the clan had missed a year and a half worth of peculation during their absence from the colony). To achieve this, he enlisted Keléno and Kirktá in his plan. He asked that they return to the Palace of the Realm, surreptitiously pilfer reports from the southern Tsolyáni city of Penóm so that he could doctor them to imply that there have been incidents of the Plague of the White Hand there too. The reports could then be returned to the Palace of the Realm, to be "found" later and used to support his contention that Ninggáya's mission – and that of the House of Worms clan – were vital not just for Linyaró but all of Tsolyánu.

Understandably, Keléno was reluctant to participate in this plan. Not only did he feel it mildly ignoble but he worried about the possibility of its being found out. Consequently, he enlisted Kirktá to handle the details. Kirktá had no objections to doing so, but asked that he might be allowed to remain with Ninggáya to talk with her at greater length about her methods of treating disease. Kirktá had long had an interest in such matters, but it was also clear that the young priest of Durritlámish also had an interest in Ninggáya herself, a fact that Keléno also noticed. Later, he would upbraid Kirktá for his behavior and warn him against becoming too involved with the priestess of Keténgku. 

As it turned out, Kirktá's efforts bore fruit. Ninggáya's plan involved isolating individuals afflicted with the disease in separate rooms, regularly cared for by an attendant. Kirktá judged the plan likely to succeed but at great cost. The resources necessary to scale up to a major outbreak would be immense. Rather than being unhappy about this, Znayáshu was pleased. He felt this would make it even easier to solicit large sums of Káitars from clans and temples, since this "innovative, new approach" demanded it. Others were skeptical, but deferred to Znayáshu, as he had greater experience with these kinds of financial maneuvers. He also hit upon the idea of dispatching a note to Avanthár, asking their patron, Prince Mridóbu, for funds. To his surprise, the prince replied positively, a week later, gifting them a large sum of money to support their efforts. Emboldened, Znayáshu penned even more letters, using the fact of Mridóbu's involvement to encourage others to provide more money.

Elsewhere, Nebússa was dealing with the preparation for his upcoming wedding to Lady Srüna. Much of his time was spent running interference between his imperious betrothed and his clan relations, each of whom had very clear ideas on how best to put on an affair that would be long remembered in Béy Sü. In the midst of this, one of his relations approached him in a panic. He explained that Kettukál hiMraktiné had consented to come to the wedding and that he would be bringing with him his "nephew," Kágesh. Nebússa was confused, particularly by the clear suggestion that Kágesh was no nephew of the Tsolyáni general. The relative explained that Kágesh was a pseudonym adopted by Prince Eselné when he wished to travel incognito. When in Béy Sü, he would sometimes appear at social gatherings in the guise of Kettukál's nephew so to avoid some of the usual restrictions on his movements. At the same time, he was still an Imperial prince, an heir to the Petal Throne, and there was no way one could not acknowledge this, even if it had to be done subtly and without drawing undue attention to his presence. Doing so would not be easy, given the fiasco that had occurred some months previously when Eselné attended another wedding.

On top of this, there was another delicate matter. Nebússa's Golden Bough clan is a proud, even arrogant bunch. Though pleased with Nebússa's work over the past few years, they were less impressed with some of his companions. House of Worms is, after all, a merely medium-ranked clan; under normal circumstances, there'd be no expectation that they'd receive invitations at all. However, in deference to Nebússa's long association with them, Golden Bough would allow a few invitations to be extended to them. In the course of negotiation, it was decided that Aíthfo, by virtue of his position as a governor; Keléno, by virtue of his marriage to Nebússa's clan cousin, Hmásu; and Grujúng, by virtue of his military rank in the colonial legion, would all receive invitations. Everyone else would need to stay in the courtyard of the clan house, where various "satellite" celebrations would be taking place. 

Meanwhile, Znayáshu consulted his astrological charts and ephemerides, so that he could cast horoscope for Nebússa and Srüna on the eve of their wedding. To his surprise, he saw no evidence of anything dire in their immediate future. Aíthfo, on the other hand … 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Thieves' House

I've said it many times before, so many that long-time readers are probably tired of my saying it, but, if I had to choose a single author whose writings best exemplify what I mean by "pulp fantasy" as it pertains to the literary inspirations of Dungeons & Dragons (at least in its Gygaxian form), I'd choose Fritz Leiber. More specifically than that, I'd choose Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the first of which was published in 1939, just three years after the death of Robert E. Howard, another serious contender for the title of the single most inspirational author on the creation of D&D. 

One of the primary reasons I choose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser over Conan as prototypes of the D&D adventurer is not their larcenous goals – which they have in common with Conan – but rather because they operate as a team. Lots of people like to point to the Fellowship of the Ring as the closest literary antecedent to a D&D party and I can certainly see why. If one's preferences in fantasy lean toward the epic, the Fellowship isn't a bad model, but, as I've tried to argue here for more than a decade, Dungeons & Dragons makes much more sense if you look to the pulp fantasies that inspired Arneson and especially Gygax. With that firmly in mind, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser inevitably loom very large indeed.

The story "Thieves' House," first published in the February 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, amply demonstrates what I mean. Krovas, master of the Thieves' Guild of Lankhmar, seeks to recover "the skull Omphaal, of the Master Thief Omphaal, with great ruby eyes, and one pair of jeweled hands," which was "stolen from the Thieves' Guild by the priests of Votishal and placed by them in the crypt of their accursed temple." Krovas wishes to recover it so "that it may be given the proper veneration in the Thieves' Sepulcher." Unfortunately, the skull is hidden behind a door "reputed to be beyond the cunning of any thief to pick" and watched over by "a guardian beats of terrible ferocity." Because "men still shudder when they speak of the crypt of Votishal," no one within the Thieves' Guild would dare attempt to recover it – but "there are those outside the Thieves' Guild who can." 

Unsurprisingly, Krovas is referring to "a certain rogue and picklock known as the Gray Mouser" and the "huge barbarian who goes by the name Fafhrd, but is sometimes called the Beast-Slayer." Krovas sends one of his underlings, a man named Fissif, to employ the Twain in this endeavor. His reason for wishing to hire them isn't simply because of their skills as accomplished burglars but because the Thieves' Guild has a score to settle with them for their past crimes against one of Lankmar's most powerful institutions. Fissif is described as "the smoothest of double-crossers" and Krovas expects him to use Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to recover the skull Omphaal and then set them up for a fall.

One aspect of "Thieves' House" that's very striking is that, after the initial build-up about the crypt beneath the temple of Votishal and the difficulty in breaching it, Leiber describes neither it nor the bold theft to find the skull. Instead, he picks up after Fissif has double-crossed Fafhrd and the Mouser, as he flees back to the Thieves' Guild, with the goal of luring them inside. As the brothers in arms pursue the fat thief, Fafhrd senses that this is exactly what Fissif intended, but his friend initially dismisses the idea, claiming, "I know these thieves, Fafhrd. I know them well." Upon reflection, the Mouser concedes that "there may be something to what you say" and he becomes warier.

It's at this point that the story truly begins. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sneak into the headquarters of the guild, the eponymous Thieves' House, with the goal of finding not just Fissif but the skull he had stolen from them. Shortly after entering, though, they're set upon by guards, who try to stop their advance. Working together, they evade the guards and rush toward the guild master's chambers where they assume Fissif must now be. Once they reach the room in question, they find that, in addition to Krovas, it holds a red-haired woman who quickly snatches up the skull and flees beyond a secret door. Their attempt to open the door fails, at which point they recall that Krovas the guild master is still in the room with them.

But the black-bearded man had not taken any notice of the commotion. As the approached him slowly they saw that his face was bluish-purple under the swarthy skin, and that his eye bulged not from astonishment, but from strangulation. Fafhrd lifted the oily, well-combed beard and saw cruel indentations on the throat, seeming more like those of claws than fingers. The Mouser examined the things on the table. There were a number of jeweler's instruments, their ivory handles stained deep yellow from long use. He scooped up some small objects.

"Krovas had already pried three of the finger-jewels loose and several of the teeth," he remarked, showing Fafhrd the rubies and a number of pearls and diamonds, which glittered on his palm.

Fafhrd nodded and again lifted Krovas's beard, frowning at the indentations, which were beginning to deepen in color.

"I wonder who the woman is?" said the Mouser. "No thief is permitted to bring a woman here on pain of death."

The remainder of the story concerns the Twain's efforts to recover the jeweled skull and hands that had been stolen from them and discover exactly what happened to Krovas. In doing so, they explore the twisting corridors, secret passages, and labyrinthine cellars of the Thieves' House. It's a fun story, filled with plenty of action but also with lots of great character moments, allowing Leiber to give us greater insights into his protagonists – who they are, what they value, and what they mean to each other. It's that last bit that most interests me, I think. As I said at the start of this post, Fafhrd and the Mouser are a team. They're true friends and, while they frequently bicker and even occasionally fall out with one another, when the going gets tough, they've got each other's back. I find this quality of the Twain both admirable and touching and much more reminiscent of my experiences playing D&D than the lone wolf adventures of Conan, however exciting. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Play by Post

 I am contemplating refereeing a play-by-post campaign parallel to my real time online campaign of The Vaults of sha-Arthan. My primary reason for doing this is so that I can put the setting and its rules through their paces by exposure to as large a number of people as possible. However, to run a play-by-post campaign properly, I'll need a platform to host it and I have no experience with any of them. Do any readers have any recommendations in this regard? I don't need anything fancy, just a means for myself and players to make posts, both public and private. Some capacity for posting images, like maps, would likely be helpful too.

Thanks in advance!

Friday, June 18, 2021


Stephen Wendell is the player of Aíthfo hiZnáyu, the adventuresome governor of the Tsolyáni colony of Linyaró, in my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. That campaign has been going for more than six years now – it began in March 2015 – making it one of the longest, continuous RPG campaigns I've ever refereed. During that time, I've not only had a great deal of fun, thanks to the participation of Stephen and his fellow players, but I've also forged friendships that mean a great deal to me. It's not exaggeration to say that those friendships played a significant role in giving me the courage to start blogging again after so long an absence.

Stephen is a man of many talents beyond roleplaying my favorite Tsolyáni on the make. Since the start of this year, he's been blogging over at Donjonlands. There, he's using the Holmes rulebook and Monster & Treasure Assortment – as well as his considerable creativity – to stock and explore a 179-room dungeon map produced by another dear friend and player in my House of Worms, campaign, Dyson Logos. It's a fun and inspiring project, especially if, like me, you take pleasure the simple joys of stocking a dungeon from random tables and then trying to make sense of the results.

As I prepare The Vaults of sha-Arthan for play later this summer, I've been thinking a lot more about how to stock and present a large dungeon for weekly play in an unusual setting. Stephen's posts have given me even more to think about and I expect they might do the same for you. Take a look if you have the time.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 28

Page 28 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains numerous short sections about the minutiae of combat. I'm not going to discuss them all in this post. Instead, I'm going to focus on those that I find noteworthy for one reason or another, starting with the section on helmets.

It is assumed that an appropriate type of head armoring will be added to the suit of armor in order to allow uniform protection of the wearer. Wearing of a "great helm" adds the appropriate weight and restricts vision to the front 60' only, but gives the head AC 1. If a helmet is not worn, 1 blow in 6 will strike at the AC 10 head, unless the opponent is intelligent, in which case 1 blow in 2 will be aimed at the AC 10 head (d6, 1–3 = head blow).

I've mentioned before that this is one of my favorite obscure rules in AD&D. It was certainly one I regularly sought out, because I knew it was in the DMG somewhere; I just couldn't always remember precisely where. For the most part, this rule makes sense and is probably an improvement over OD&D's silence on the subject, despite the fact that a helmet is included in the equipment list. 

Next up are magic armor and shields, which have interesting properties.

When magic armor is worn, assume that its properties allow movement at the next higher base rate and that weight is cut by 50%. There is no magical elfin chain mail.

Again, this is reasonable. I only note that Unearthed Arcana, penned by Gygax himself, includes magical elfin chain mail. 

Magic shields are no less weighty than their non-magical counterparts, but they are non-bulky with respect to encumbrance. 

I wonder why magical armor is less weighty but not magical shields. I don't object to the ruling, but I am curious as to Gygax's thinking. In any case, he continues to talk about shields and their use. Gygax begins by noting that

The shield can be used fully only to the left or front of the right handed individual. Attacks from the right flank or rear negate the benefits of a shield.

As a southpaw myself, I appreciate the acknowledgment of left handed combatants! More interesting, though, I think are his combats about large shields.

Therefore, large shields are treated as but +1 to armor class rating without a shield. Optionally, you may allow them to add +2 to this armor class with respect to small (non-war engine or giant hurled) missiles

The last point Gygax addresses is one that I've struggled with many times, namely the matter of weapon versus armor class adjustments. This is something I want to include, because it seems obvious to me that different weapons were created and wielded precisely because some were more effective in certain circumstances than in others. At the same time, the complexity likely required to address this worries me, which is why I've generally never found a system I fully embraced. AD&D includes such a system, but I've never found it very workable, for reasons Gygax discusses.

If you allow weapon type adjustments in your campaign please be certain to remember that these adjustments are for weapons versus specific types of armor, not necessarily against actual armor class.

This is something that's also stated in the Players Handbook, but I think it's important that Gygax reiterates it, lest the table there be misunderstood. That said, he also reiterates another point that I think militates against the system's ultimate utility.

In most cases, monsters not wearing armor will not have any weapon type adjustments allowed, as monster armor class in such cases pertains to the size, shape, agility, speed, and/or magical nature of the creature.

This is exactly why I was never able to adopt the weapon adjustments. If they generally don't apply to attacks against monsters, the most common opponents of characters in Dungeons & Dragons, what's the point of such a system? Worse still, I think Gygax's statement that monster armor class is reflective of size, shape, agility, speed, and so forth throws into question just what "armor class" in a broad sense means. This tension has always existed in D&D's combat system, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that, in trying to include and make sense of weapon adjustments, Gygax has opened up a can of worms that threatens to undermine the entire system. That's why, despite my keen interest in modeling differences between weapons, I nevertheless favor a simple and abstract combat system, which, while not "realistic," at least avoids being incoherent. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Original Conan Fiction on the Way

Conan Properties just announced that, starting in May 2022, Titan Books would begin "a program of original new publishing featuring Robert E. Howard's most famous character, Conan." The announcement goes on to say that "the new fiction will stand firmly within the Conan canon, beginning with a novel and two short stories to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the character."

Honestly, I never know how to feel about announcements like this. On the one hand, I'm always glad to see Conan and other foundational pulp fantasy characters celebrated, especially nowadays, when so much of popular fantasy is so thoroughly deracinated. On the other hand, precisely because of that deracination, I wonder just how well this new fiction will reflect the work and worldview of Howard. Given how well such an effort went down in the 1960s under the stewardship of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (i.e. not very), I am not sanguine. I suppose a great deal depends on who these "finest authors" Titan plans to employ are.

Only time will tell.

House of Worms, Sessions 228–229

The journey by riverboat from Avanthár to Béy Sü was short (just under two days) and peaceful, a welcome change from the chaos and upheaval of the last few weeks. Also traveling on the boat was an older clan mate of Nebússa, Qeqélmu hiSsáivra, the Dritlán of the first cohort of the First Legion of Ever-Present Glory. Since his younger days, Grujúng has been an admirer of Kettukál hiMraktiné, the Kérdu of the said legion. He used this as an opportunity to approach Qeqélmu as a fellow legionnaire and to trade war stories. To his surprise, Qeqélmu proved to be much more approachable than either his clan or exalted position would suggest. From him, Grujúng learned about more about the war in the northeast involving Yán Kór, Sa'á Allaqí, and Milumanayá, as well as Tsolyánu's wait-and-see attitude about the conflict. He added that he was returning to Béy Sü to deliver new orders to Kettukál from the Petal Throne.

At the end of the journey, the characters split up to seek places to stay in the city. Grujúng and Lady Srüna headed to the Golden Bough clan house in the northern part of the city. Since Keléno's first wife, Hmásu, is a member of the same clan and cousin to Nebússa, he joined them, as did Kirktá (who has, more or less, become Keléno's "apprentice"). Meanwhile, Aíthfo sought out the Black Stone clan house, along with Znayáshu, Chiyé, and the Ksárul sorcerers who had accompanied them. Black Stone is the clan of Aíthfo's new wife, Ta'ána, as well as that of Lára hiKhánuma, leader of the sorcerers. Grujúng had no interest in traveling with either group, preferring instead to seek out lodgings in the barracks of the temple guards of the Temple of Sárku. 

At the Golden Bough clan house, Nebússa intended, first and foremost, to speak with his fathers and mothers. When he left Béy Sü several years ago, he did so under the cover of being a sybaritic wastrel, an identity he'd adopted for his work with the Omnipotent Azure Legion. Most of his clan (aside from Múresh hiQolyélmu, an important figure within the Legion) had no idea that his public persona was a carefully constructed pose. Up to this point, Nebússa had been a disappointment to his clan; his family was therefore overjoyed to learn the truth. 

Nebússa followed up this new by introducting Srüna, his betrothed. As a relation of the Disposer of Méku, the hereditary governor of that city, Srüna greatly impressed Nebússa's class-conscious relations. They asked him how soon the pair planned to wed. Nebússa admitted that he and Srüna had not yet set a day. Another question followed: how long was Nebússa planning to stay in the capital? He replied that he had no fixed schedule, though his original intention was to leave in a few days. His family was disappointed; they explained that, since they could not publicly celebrate his activities as an agent of the OAL, they now hoped that they might be able to host his wedding to Srüna in high style. After all, what sort of celebration could he hope to have in far-off Linyaró? 

After a few minutes of discussion, Nebússa and Srüna agreed to the clan's plans, even though it would take time to arrange. For one, it would three weeks at the earliest before Srüna's clan in Méku could be contacted and arrive in Béy Sü for the nuptials. Furthermore, there would need to be many invitations sent to people of significance in the capital. As Nebússa would later learn, one of those invited was Tíkuru hiTlaktonái, clan master of the Tlakotáni holdings in the north of the Empire. Though not a member of the imperial line, Tíkuru was nevertheless an important man in Béy Sü. His attendance at the wedding would be a huge boon to the position of the Golden Bough. Likewise, through one of Nebússa's fathers, an invitation was sent to Kettukál hiMraktiné – another coup for the clan if the Kérdu should choose to attend.

Keléno found little of this of interest. He set off for the Palace of the Realm to meet with its prefect, Di'iqén hiSayúncha, to gain permission to look into Engsvanyáli records about the Southern Continent. Di'iqén received him and happily granted his request. Keléno, aided by Kirktá, then settled in to scour the records. Keléno he might gain greater insights into the current situation on the Achgé Peninsula. The other members of the House of Worms clan spent their time sightseeing in Béy Sü, visiting the Pyramid of Ssirandár III, the Great Square, and the elegant shops and prosperous businesses of the city. After a time, all three groups met up and exchanged information. Znayáshu was slightly vexed to learn about Nebússa's upcoming wedding. He did not wish to remain in the capital for three weeks, suggesting that they needed to return to Linyaró as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him, no one else saw the urgency and instead thought they should take advantage of their current situation. After all, when would they be in the capital of the Imperium again?

Keléno and Kirktá returned to examining records, while most of the others set out to buy themselves attire appropriate to the wedding celebrations. Aíthfo, on the other hand, thought this might be an opportunity to check in with the local Temple of Ksárul seeking an exchange of information. He assumed, as a devotee of Ksárul himself, as well as the governor of Linyaró, he'd be well received, Instead, the temple's administrative high priest, Menték hiSayúncha, met him with some suspicion. It took Aíthfo a long time to convince Menték that they had interests in common and, even then, the high priest remained aloof. Aíthfo explained that he simply hoped to learn more about what he had happened in Linyaró and that, if anyone would know, it was the Temple of Ksárul in the capital. Menték seemed flattered by this suggestion and opened up somewhat. As their conversation continued, Menték admitted that all was well in Linyaró and that "the right people" were keeping the colony safe, by which he strongly implied he meant the Temple of Ksárul. Aíthfo feigned pleasure upon hearing this and learned as much as he could – which was not much, given the distance between Linyaró and Tsolyánu – before leaving the temple and heading back to meet his companions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Tramp Does SF

I sometimes forget that the late, great Dave Trampier did illustration work for non-Dungeons & Dragons products. While looking into another Tramp-related matter, I came across this piece from the 1985 Star Frontiers module, The War Machine (by Ken Rolston). I owned the module at the time, but I don't know that I ever recognized that Trampier had provided artwork for it. 

It's a strong illustration that demonstrates considerable technical improvement over Trampier's earlier work on D&D and AD&D (which, I should add, I adore). I wonder how much more improvement he would have shown had he continued doing professional illustration work rather than abandoning it, as he did. Such a shame!

The Eternal Gods of Inba Iro

When it comes to creating a new campaign setting, my creative process is whimsical. I flit from idea to idea, writing down whatever comes into my head, no matter how incoherent, returning later to elaborate on some of them while casting aside others. Which ones will ultimately earn my attention is unpredictable and not necessarily indicative of anything but a current fancy. Yesterday, that fancy turned to the names and interests of the gods of Inba Iro, the starting point for my upcoming fantasy campaign. 

The list (and even names) of the main Ironian gods presented hereafter is still in some flux, but it's taken firm enough shape that I felt I could share it. In working on this, I also felt like I've gained a better sense of both Inba Iro, its peoples, society, and culture, bits of which might even come through here. 

  • Akor: Goddess of secrets and silence.
  • Daha: A previously minor god of destiny, fate, and fortune, elevated to the role of a psychopomp by the Chomachto invaders.
  • Jilho: "The Protector," "The Dutiful Son," god of family, home, and law; son of the goddess Keru.
  • Jurd: goddess of waters and peace.
  • Keru: goddess of death, hope, and war.
  • Kotaro: god earth, fertility, and vegetation.
  • Nemu: goddess of fire, light, and the stars.
  • Omo: god of disorder, storms, and violence.
  • Sha: god of art, crafts, truth, wisdom, and writing.
  • Tast: god of burial, darkness, mourning, and night.
  • Thomalon: god of kingship, the sky, and the sun; an imported Chomachto deity who assumed the characteristics of several important Ironian gods.
  • Ton: god of the moons, time, and travel.
  • Ukol: god of abundance, agriculture, and medicine.
  • Ulant: goddess of music, oil, and wine.
  • Vulas: goddess of commerce and wealth; an imported Chomachto deity without much support outside the invaders.
  • Wa: "Completer of the World," the deity who brought sha-Arthan out of the primordial void.
As you can see from this brief sketch, the gods of Inba Iro are a mix of mostly native Ironian deities and a handful of imported/amalgam deities whose cults were brought/established by the new Chomachto monarchy and aristocracy. I've always been a big fan of cosmopolitan religious syncretism, but it's rare in most fantasy settings (Glorantha being one of the few that exceptions that springs immediately to mind). I decided to lean heavily into it in sha-Arthan and the final version of this pantheon may reflect that more clearly.

Something else that isn't clear from this list is that many of these gods are strongly associated with certain cities or region of Inba Iro. For example, Thomalon, being a new, amalgam deity has his great temple – and greatest influence – in the new imperial capital of Tamas Tzora (the "New City") and is largely unknown in da-Imer (the "Old City'), where Keru and Ukol are much more significant deities. Likewise, the Ironian pantheon includes dozens of minor gods that act as genii locorum and personifications of culturally important concepts. And that's not counting all the foreign gods worshiped by travelers and merchants to the Empire (as well as outside its borders).

I'm aiming for a riotous and promiscuous religiosity that better reflects the ancient cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. I'll probably only achieve what I'm seeking after the campaign is fully under way, but I'm trying to put things on a good footing to start. We'll see how well I succeed in time.

Retrospective: Hero

Looking back on the early history of the hobby of roleplaying, I'm regularly struck by two things. First – I don't think this is controversial – it took quite a while for the categories of "roleplaying games" and "wargames" to become distinct. One could argue that these categories are still, nearly half a century later, insufficiently distinct. Second – and this is, I think, more remarkable – fantasy as a popular mass media genre, by which I mean "Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula," was still in its infancy during the 1970s and even into the '80s. 

I bring both these points up because they're so easily forgotten, especially from the vantage point of the present day, when the fantasy genre is now so well known and widespread that we regularly see multi-million fantasy films and television programs. But, in 1979, when I first entered the hobby, fantasy wasn't so mainstream. I'm not saying there were no fantasy movies or TV shows – obviously, there were – but they were often low budget, cheesy, and unlikely to be financial successes. (1977's Star Wars, I would argue, played a huge role in changing this dynamic, even though it's often considered science fiction rather than fantasy, even though it's not)

It's against this backdrop that Yaquinto Publications released the subject of today's post. Called Hero, with the subtitle "A Game of Adventure in the Catacombs," it was the first of the company's "album games." According to Hero's back cover, an album game

contains a colorful map mounted on the inside of the "record jacket," a sheet of "sturdy" colored, die-cut counters, two plastic "zip-lock" bags designed to assure flat storage of the counters, and easy-to-use rules and play aids. Pieces and rules are stored in the two pockets of the Album and the entire game package is less than half-inch thick. Convenient, durable, and entertaining!
As you can read from the description, the album in "album game" is a reference to record albums, those relics of a bygone era. That alone firmly places Hero within its historical context, since, as others have noted, album covers were often a vector by which fantasy imagery gained a greater foothold in the popular imagination. Come to think of it, the cover art by John Hagen-Brenner could well have graced a prog rock album from the same time. 

The game bills itself as a "simulation," which it describes in an unusual way.

Simulations are done in many different types of media. A movie or a television program is a 'visual and audio' simulation. A scene described in a book is a 'written simulation'. The parts that make up this game represent a 'gaming' simulation. Absolute realism in any simulation is, of course, impossible but within the organization of the pieces and the rules of this game, the most critical problems faced by the Hero can be duplicated. In other forms of simulation you play a passive role. You watch T.V., listen to Beethoven, read books. In the context of this game, you take an active role. You are, in fact, a HERO.

What a time capsule this paragraph is! As I said at the start of this post, the definition of a roleplaying game and how it differed from a wargame (or "simulation") was still very much in flux. You can see some of that in what the designer of this game, Michael S. Matheny, says here. 

In any case, the game goes on to say that "HERO is a man-to-man (or beast) level simulation of combat in an underground catacomb , where three mighty Heroes try to demonstrate which is the most heroic." The purpose of this demonstration is to win the hand of Alysa, "daughter of the most powerful wizard in the land." Thus, it's not quite a RPG in the way we understand it today but the rules regularly mention that its players "assume the role" of a hero. Likewise, each available hero has unique game stats, with ratings in Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Physical Appearance, weapon proficiencies, etc.

Despite this, gameplay is very boardgame-like. Players move counters across the map, with each square representing 8 feet of distance. There are extensive rules for both movement and  sighting, as well as opening doors and, of course, combat. Play is competitive, with each player's Hero fighting through a separate catacomb (there are four included with the game). Inside the catacombs are monsters and traps to be faced or avoided. The winner is the Hero who both survives his catacomb and achieves the most points (as determined by several distinct factors) to win Alysa's love. 

Hero is a simple game to play and actually quite fun, if limited in its scope. It's definitely closer to a tactical-level board wargame than a roleplaying game, but it nevertheless includes enough nods in the direction of RPGs that, given the date of its publication, I'm not 100% certain of the original intention behind it. Regardless, it's another fascinating window into the first decade of the hobby. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

On the Edge of Time

What a gorgeous, evocative cover! Painted by an unknown artist, versions of this appeared on several printings of the late 1970s Pocket Books edition of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, including the one I first read all those decades ago. In looking for this image, I came across the cover images of many other editions over the years. What struck me is how poor so many of them are, but that's sadly a common problem with Vance's novels and short story collections – a pity.

Again: Ability Scores

I've been spending a lot of time working out the details of The Vaults of sha-Arthan setting I hope to start refereeing in July or August. While I'm using Old School Essentials as the base for its rules, I'm also making changes to many aspects of those rules, such as the character classes, magic, monsters, treasure – well, quite a lot, now that I think about it. Even so, it's my intention that sha-Arthan be recognizable as a descendent of Dungeons & Dragons, much in the way that Empire of the Petal Throne is.

At the moment, I'm devoting my time to writing the rules that players need to generate characters, including the matter of ability scores. As you may recall from my recent posts about ability scores, I have a number of questions and criticisms of the traditional D&D ability scores. At the same time, ability scores are such a foundational element of D&D – and indeed pretty much all traditional RPGs – that I wasn't all that keen to dispense with them entirely, though I did seriously consider it.

My broad thoughts are the following:

  1. In principle, I very much like the idea of randomly generated ability scores, preferably on the 3d6 in order model. 
  2. One of the reasons I like random generation is that it offers a good chance that each character has at least one below average score, which I think lends just as much uniqueness to character as the abilities where he is above average.
  3. That said, if ability scores provide significant mechanical benefits, my fondness for the idea diminishes somewhat.
  4. While I am very much in favor of limiting the presence of certain "special" character classes and races, I am quite convinced that doing so by recourse to ability score minimums only feeds the perceived need for characters to have higher scores and for the generation systems to support that need.
  5. Finally, I increasingly think there ought to be some system by which a character can improve his ability scores over time, whether it be through training as in RuneQuest or gaining levels as in Empire of the Petal Throne or post-TSR versions of D&D.
With all that in mind, I'm now weighing two options for generating ability scores in light of these thoughts. The first and most straightforward is also the most radical: dispense with random rolls. If I take this approach, there seem to be two options: point buy or a typical distribution. In the former, I'd settle on some number of points, say 70, and then allow each player to divide those points among his character's ability scores as he wishes (with 3 being the minimum and 18 the maximum, of course). In the latter, each player distributes the same collection of scores, say 6, 8, 10, 11, 11, 12, 14, and 16 amongst his character's abilities. The advantage of these two approaches is that, while they entirely eliminate the random aspect, they greatly increase – or ensure, in the case of the typical distribution – that a character will have below average scores.

The second approach preserves a bit more of the random element I like. I came across a version of it in the second edition of The Black Hack. In the system presented there, ability scores are rolled 3d6 in order. However, if the score for any ability is 14 or higher, the next ability score is not rolled but is rather simply assigned a 7. The Black Hack also permits the player, after he has rolled all six scores, to swap two of them in order to better suit his intentions for his character. I find this approach strangely attractive, since it preserves the random element while placing the proverbial finger on the scale in order to ensure any high score comes at a cost.

There are probably other alternative approaches to generating ability scores that address my concerns and, if so, I'd love to know about them. For now, I continue to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the approaches presented above, without having made a firm decision toward one or the other. Right now, what's most important (to me anyway) is that I have made my peace with the idea of not using 3d6 in order, something I still very much prefer in principle but that I realize I had been turning into something of an idol. I now have a much better sense of what I want out of ability scores in sha-Arthan; all that remains is deciding the best way to get what I want.