Monday, June 21, 2021

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. 

  • Aku: 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 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.

Spine-Chilling Role-Playing in the 1920's

I remember seeing this advertisement – or one very like it – somewhere in 1981. I also remember being quite excited by it, since I'd long wanted to play a horror-based RPG and, from the ad, Call of Cthulhu looked like it would fit the bill. My copy of the game was not the one depicted here, but one with a shallower box, even though it held the same contents. I played the heck out of that boxed set over the course of the first or two I owned it, cementing CoC as one of my all-time favorite games. Strangely, I haven't actually played it in a very long time, but its influence on my imagination and play style remains powerful nonetheless.

Different Worlds: Issue #19

Issue #19 of Different Worlds (February 1982) is filled with tentacles, starting with its cover by Roland Brown. Inside, many of its articles are devoted to Chaosium's then-new horror roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu, which of course pleases me, as it's one of my all-time favorite RPGs. 

The issue kicks off with two excellent side-by-side articles by Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis, in which each of them discuss the process of creating Call of Cthulhu from their perspective. These are both excellent articles and I wish I could do them justice with a brief summary. In general, Petersen focuses on the design of the game's rules and setting, while Willis talks about the "nuts and bolts" of making the game as a physical product, though each touches on other aspects as well. I already knew some of what was presented in these pieces, such as the origins of the game, but there was much more I'd never heard before. Good stuff!

"Guns Against Cthulhu" by Dick Wagenet presents variant rules for handling firearms in Call of Cthulhu and other modern Basic Role-Playing games. "Underground Menace" meanwhile is a Call of Cthulhu scenario by Sandy Petersen, set in and around Lake Superior in northern Michigan. Following it is a single page of errata and "second thoughts" on the rules of Call of Cthulhu. Not specifically related to Call of Cthulhu but relating to the 1920s time period is "The Gang Leaders" by Glenn Rahman. It's a collection of biographies and game statistics for famous criminals like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd for use with FGU's Gangster! I enjoyed reading it, even though I've never played Gangster!, helped no doubt by the terrific contemporary photographs of the gangsters themselves.

"Safe Storage for Figures" by John T. Sapienza reviews several cases and storage containers intended to hold and protect miniature figures, complete with photos. "Thieves of Sparta" by B. Dennis Sustare presents guidelines for adapting Task Force's Heroes of Olympus to the setting of Thieves' World. The article is notable for the fact that Sustare is himself the designer of Heroes of Olympus. This month's reviews include Call of Cthulhu (very favorable), Adventure Class Ships, Volume 1 (for Traveller, also favorable), and Palace of the Silver Princess. The latter review is interesting in that the reviewer, Anders Swenson, comments on its conflation of "player" and "player character," a pet peeve of mine, which Swenson calls "the perennial FRP identity crisis." That said, his overview opinion of the module is positive.

There are also reviews of the notorious roleplaying game, Spawn of Fashan, other reviews of which I recall from my youth. Amusingly, the reviewer, Charles Dale Martin, spends the entirety of his review criticizing various aspects of the game, but still concludes "it may be still worth buying" on the strength of its referee's section. No similar charity is extended to Patrick Amory's review of Deities & Demigods. Amory lambastes it for its overall approach, saying it "contains monsters not religions." While I largely agree with that particular point, he is much harsher than I, concluding that it "is not of the slightest interest to anyone in the FRP market and should be avoided like leprosy." Ouch!

The issue ends with Gigi D'Arn's column. Most of this issue's gossip is filled with ephemera but a few rumors stand out. Among these are Richard Snider's hiring by Avalon Hill, Lawrence Schick's hiring by Coleco, the upcoming D&D video game for Intellivision, and GDW's cease-and-desist order filed against Edu-Ware for computer games illegally derived from Traveller. There's also talk of an upcoming RuneQuest supplement by Ken Kaufer called Dorastor. A product with a similar title would eventually appear, featuring some of Kaufer's work (along with many others), but it would not appear until more than a decade later during the brief RuneQuest Renaissance of the early 1990s masterminded by Ken Rolston.

Being a fan of Call of Cthulhu as I am, I enjoyed this issue a great deal. I hope I'll be similarly impressed with issue #20.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Alternate Covers

I have a fascination with the cover art of fantasy and science fiction novels from decades past, particularly the 1960s and '70s, which are, to my mind, a Golden Age for the medium. Relatedly, I also have a keen interest in alternate covers, such as those produced for publication in other markets. In some cases, the alternate versions are better than the originals, while in others they're much worse. A good example of both is M.A.R. Barker's first novel of Tékumel, The Man of Gold, whose original cover was painted by the incomparable Michael Whelan. 

Like most of Whelan's work, it's a gorgeous piece of work. Unfortunately, it has almost nothing to do with the content of the novel itself. Interestingly, when the novel was released in the United Kingdom, it featured a completely different cover.
This cover is only slightly more accurate. Its version of the titular Man of God is at least gives a better impression of its true nature, even if the details aren't spot on. That's much more than can be said of the German cover art.
Whatever flaws Whelan's cover had, it was at least attractive. This illustration not only depicts nothing in the novel, it's also quite unattractive. On the plus side, I find the German title amusing.

Do you have any examples of alternate covers you find similarly interesting (or baffling)?

House of Worms, Session 227

The characters found themselves in what appeared to be the same place they had just left, albeit one that was significantly darker and less well maintained. That in itself was no surprise. The characters had observed that the alternate Tékumel in which they had spent the last few weeks seemed to have retained more of the technology of the Ancients than had their home. What concerned them was the possibility that this was not their home branch of the Tree of Time, despite Toneshkéthu's assurances. What if this were yet another parallel Tékumel?

Aíthfo and Nebússa decided to put the matter to the test quickly. They sneaked out of the chamber in which they found themselves, moving ahead in the shadows to see if anyone were present in the tubeway car station beyond. They found no signs of guards or indeed almost anyone present – certainly nothing to match the bustle they observed in the Evú Nithóru of the other Tékumel. Instead, they saw a trio of men walking, seemingly unguarded, one of whom bore clan insignia that identified him as a member of the White Stone clan, a high ranking clan devoted to Avánthe that they knew well from their home city of Sokátis.

Opting for a direct approach, Nebússa approached the trio from behind, tapped one on the shoulder and, after a start, spoke to them in Tsolyáni. They replied in kind, shocked to find anyone else present in this place. Nebússa introduced himself and Aíthfo. The leader of the trio, after composing himself, asked how they had come here and if they were alone. Continuing to speak plainly, Nebússa stated that they had come here by means of a nexus point from an alternate Tékumel. He added that they were not alone but in the company of a large number of his fellows, including Aíthfo, whom he now presented as "Imperial Governor of the colony of Linyaró." The leader didn't seemed fazed by this, but he soon turned to his two companions and told them, "Fetch the guards … immediately."

Before long, the characters and their companions were rounded up by many guards attired in the distinctive blue armor of the Omnipotent Azure Legion. They were led through a series of chambers and up several flights of stairs to a large apartment, where they were told to wait. The men whom they'd met previously returned, along with a slave secretary. He told the characters his name was Chúrisan hiValúra and that he would be conducting the first of several interviews with them, first to determine who they were and, second, to determine if they posed any threat. They had, after all, somehow penetrated the defenses of the imperial fortress of Avanthár, home to the Petal Throne itself. By all rights, their unauthorized presence here should result in their immediate impalement – but there was something about Nebússa's story of having traveled from an alternate Tékumel that intrigued him.

Nebússa thanked Chúrisan for his indulgence. He then set out to explain all that had happened to them since they left Linyaró – from the plot of the Temple of Ksárul on the Achgé Peninsula to their travel to Dormorón Plain and thence to the Citadel of Sighs before reaching an alternate Tékumel where the Bednallján Imperium had never fallen. Nebússa also made certain that Chúrisan understood that he was himself an agent of the Omnipotent Azure Legion and had been sent, like most of his friends, by Prince Mridóbu to the Southern Continent in order to investigate rumors of activity by cultists of the Pariah Gods. Once again, Chúrisan took all this in stride, asking brief but probing questions of Nebússa and his comrades. It was clear that Chúrisan wanted, above all, to get to the truth.

He left the characters for a time, returning later, bearing what he claimed was good news. Chúrisan explained that he had been able to independently verify many aspects of their story, starting with their identities. He added that no one had had any contact with Linyaró in six months, the last report having been sent by its acting governor. This confused the characters as, given the distance between Tsolyánu and the Achgé Peninsula, there's no way anyone in Avanthár should have been in contact with the acting administration they left in charge. 

That's when it became apparent that, while only a few weeks had passed from their perspective, more time had passed on their Tékumel – eighteen month, as it turned out. It was now early 2357 A.S. and much had happened in their absence. Two more imperial princes, Surundáno and Mirusíya, had been revealed, while Prince Dhich'uné had seemingly disappeared; no one has seen him or heard for him in several months. The tensions with Yán Kór had briefly erupted into armed conflict with Tsolyánu, before abruptly ending. The eastern Yán Koryáni city-states rebelled against Baron Ald, refusing to participate in his vendetta against the Second Imperium. Ald then withdrew his forces from Tsolyánu and marched east to quell his rebellious subjects. Since then, a war involving Yán Kór, Sa'á Allaqí, and Milumanayá is under way, with Tsolyánu on the sidelines, deciding how best to take advantage of the situation.

This, Chúrisan explained, is where his good news came into play. Prince Mridóbu had originally tapped the characters for their ability to "stir things up." While he had originally hoped they might do that on the Southern Continent, an opportunity now arose that they might be able to use their unique talents in eastern Yán Kór, acting as spies and agents provocateurs. That is, if they were amenable. After only brief discussion, the characters stated instead that they wished to return to Linyaró and finish what they had started there. After all, there were still two strange other planar entities on the loose – Daráya and Sodrásh Fán – not to mention the mystery of the Hinákho people on the west of the peninsula. Chúrisan found this answer odd, not least because, as he explained, the infamous Plague of the White Hand had supposedly spread from Livyánu to the Southern Continent and was devastating its inhabitants. Odds are that the colony at Linyaró was lost.

This news disturbed the characters, but it also served to strengthen their resolve. They asked permission to make use of a tubeway car. They had in their possession a disc programmed with the coordinates of the Naqsái city-state of Miktatáin, located about a month's travel southeast of Linyaró. If they could get there, it would be, by comparison, a short trek to the Tsolyáni colony. Chúrisan said that he would check with the prince about this plan. If he approved, he would authorize their journey to Béy Sü, whose tubeway car station was operational and capable of transporting them to their destination. Not unexpectedly, Mridóbu approved the plan and the characters were sent by ship southward to the capital of the Imperium and the first step on their way back home.

REVIEW: Symbaroum Starter Set

After more than four decades of playing fantasy RPGs, I don't really need any more. From an objective point of view, I already own more than I'll likely ever be able to play. Even so, it's pretty easy to pique my interest and I'm usually willing to give a new game or setting a try, especially if it's recommended to me by someone whose opinion I respect. 

That's how I first came into contact with Free League's Symbaroum. In the Before Time, when it was still possible to get together around a table to roll some dice with people, a local friend offered to run a session of the game. Unfortunately, world events prevented our ever playing another session, but I enjoyed myself enough that I found myself looking into Symbaroum from time to time. I even grabbed a copy of the Core Rulebook, reading it with great interest.

Then, earlier this year, Free League released a boxed Starter Set  and that caught my attention. Subtitled "Treasure Hunts in Davokar," the set consists of two 64-page softcover books (one a rulebook, the other an adventure compendium), a set of polyhedral dice, two double-sided maps, and six character sheets (five of them describing pre-generated characters). The box itself is incredibly sturdy, being thick and heavy, as well as deep enough to provide space for additional books or gaming materials. Simply as an artifact, it's quite impressive – all the more so thanks to the brooding, evocative artwork of Martin Grip. 

Many fantasy settings include one or more "dark lords" who menace the world, their depredations providing a backdrop for the heroics of the player characters. Symbaroum's setting takes a slightly different approach, occurring two decades after the conclusion of a generations-long war against such a foe. Though victorious, victory came at a price for the Kingdom of Korinthia. The land was devastated by dark magic and the only promise for the future seemed to lay to the north beyond the Titan Mountains, which legend held was the original homeland of the Ambrian people. Korinthia's queen led her subjects on a mass exodus to the edge of the vast Davokar Forest, where she established a new kingdom and, she hoped, a better life.

Davokar is ancient and huge. Within its boundaries are innumerable threats, from barbarian humans to ogres and other monsters. Also found within the dark forest are many ruins associated with the mythical fallen civilization of Symbaroum. As the subtitle of the Starter Set makes clear, the baseline activity of Symbaroum is venturing into Davokar in search of treasure within the ruins of the forest. It's a good starting point for a campaign, part dungeon crawl and part hex crawl, and has a great deal of potential for development over time, thanks in no small part to the large number of factions who also have interests in the ruins of Symbaroum. 

The one immediate drawback of the Starter Set is that its 64-page rulebook does not include rules for character generation. Instead, there are the aforementioned five pre-generated characters and pointers toward the separate Symbaroum rulebook. While I can understand why this was done, I think it's a mistake, especially when you compare it to older "basic" sets, which were complete, playable – albeit limited – games. From my limited knowledge, this seems a common approach nowadays. It's a reminder, I suppose, that I am old and my tastes and preferences are out of step with the times.

That caveat aside, the rulebook is attractive and its rules clear. Characters have eight attributes whose values range from 5 to 15. Most actions are handled by rolling under the attribute on a d20, with various modifiers being applied based on the level difficulty. Characters also have a profession, of which there are four in the Starter Set (warrior, mystic, hunter, and rogue). Professions provide access to abilities, which are a bit like a bundle of skills and/or talents, like Acrobatics or Loremaster or Tactician, in addition to certain mystical traditions. Abilities have three levels – novice, adept, and master – that represent increasing degrees of knowledge/experience, though only the first two levels are detailed in the Starter Set.

Player characters can come from one of several races, though (again) only a few of them are described here, namely Ambrians (humans), goblins, and ogres. Likewise, there are only two magical traditions (theurgy and wizardry) described here, leaving the Core Rulebook to present the others. Unlike the lack of character generation rules, the more limited information on topics like races or magic did not bother me and indeed even made sense in a Starter Set. The point in such a set is simply to introduce the game and its setting to newcomers, in order to give them a taste of the full experience rather than to overwhelm them with unnecessary options. I wish a similar approach had been applied to character generation, though I can understand why it was not adopted.

It's worth mentioning that Symbaroum's rules are what I've heard called "player facing." That is, the players roll all the dice when it comes to determining what happens to their characters. In combat, for example, players roll both to attack and enemy and to defend against their attack. The Game Master's role is simply to adjudicate the results of these rolls rather than make them himself. If you're used to older RPGs, it's a bit strange and, honestly, I'm not convinced that it adds anything worthwhile, except perhaps to alleviate the GM from having to be the one whose rolls could potentially kill a player character. On that point, it's also worth mentioning that the game's death rules are rather lenient in my opinion. A character whose Toughness is reduced to zero does not immediately die (unlike NPCs or monsters) but is simply dying, leading to a series of escalating rolls to determine when – or if – the character finally shuffle's off this mortal coil. This is probably my least favorite aspect of Symbaroum, but one's mileage may vary.

The second 64-page book details the game's setting and provides two introductory adventures, along with information on expeditions into Davokar and the monsters and adversaries to be found therein. Whereas there were several aspects of the rulebook that I did not like, this book is almost universally excellent. First, we get an overview of Thistle Hold, an Ambrian settlement at the very edge of Davokar and a natural launching point for expeditions into the ancient forest. This is followed by rules and guidelines for handling things like movement, supplies, orienteering, and events within Davokar – all straightforward and useful. Symbaroum's monsters are (mostly) new spins on fantasy staples, but the spins are compelling. Elves, for example, are monsters and, therefore, not playable as characters. Long-lived, perhaps immortal, they undergo a variety of physical and mental changes as they age, effectively becoming different creatures at each stage. This is Symbaroum's general approach and it's a very good one in my opinion.

The two introductory scenarios are interesting. The first is quite simple and involves the exploration of ancient catacombs, as well as dealing with elves who take exception to the characters' presence. The second one presents a ruined tower and, more importantly, rival adventurers seeking to explore the same site. I'm a big fan of rival adventurers and am happy to see that Symbaroum includes them in one of its beginning adventures.

 All in all, the Symbaroum Starter Set did a fine job of introducing the game's rules and setting in an attractive and accessible way. My complaints about the lack of character generation rules aside, I think it nevertheless provides more than enough material with which to judge whether one would like other products for Symbaroum. For myself, I continue to find the setting fascinating and might take a look of some other of its offerings. 

Sage Advice by Theronius

I'm a big fan of "lost" or at least forgotten art from the early days of gaming. When I was poking through issue #6 of Strategic Review (February 1976), I came across the illustration.

According to the credits, this issue's illustrations are the work of John Seaton, whose name occurs once or twice in the pages of Dragon but about whom I can otherwise find no information. Fond as I am of wizards with pointed hats, this piece grabbed my attention, as did the fact that the inaugural installment of the venerable "Sage Advice" column was attributed to someone called "Theronius." 

I immediately began to wonder about the identity behind this pseudonym. A quick search online revealed at least one claim that Theronius was Gary Gygax, which I find plausible, though, if true, it's a rare example of his using a pen name (more knowledgeable people can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). Likewise, if it is Gygax, is there any evidence of this publicly available online? That's why I started to think that perhaps Theronius was a collective pseudonym for several TSR staffers and hangers-on, though, again, I have no way of knowing if there's any truth to my hunch.

Does anyone else have insights in this mystery?

Pulp Fantasy Library: One Other

Manly Wade Wellman is one of those authors whose name appears in Appendix N without any specific titles attached to it. One can interpret this fact in several different ways, but I simply assume it's because Gary Gygax thought so highly of all of Wellman's output that he found it difficult to choose just a few of them as representative. No less a luminary than Karl Edward Wagner called Wellman "the dean of fantasy writers," which suggests that Gygax was not alone in his esteem for him.

At the same time, I also assume that Wellman's stories of the Appalachian balladeer Silver John are among those most immediately influential on Dungeons & Dragons. When I say this, some assume, reasonably but mistakenly, that it's because the aforementioned John is a possible literary antecedent for the bard class. I don't discount the possibility, even likelihood, that Silver John played a role in the conception of the bard class, only that this is why the stories might have been in the back of Gygax's mind when he included Wellman in Appendix N. After all, it was Doug Schwegman, not Gygax, who first presented a version of the bard class in the pages of Strategic Review and, in any event, I'm not at all certain Gygax had any special affection for the class (which he relegated to an appendix in the AD&D Players Handbook).

What the Silver John stories all have in common is the deft re-purposing of folklore and local legends. Wellman, like Gygax, never missed an opportunity to put a new spin on an old idea; his Appalachian yarns are rooted in regional myth but many, if not most, go way beyond their origins, presenting the ancient fears of American mountain folk in a new light. Another point of connection with Gygax is the way that Wellman, who had written many science fiction stories, would often work science and scientific speculation, into his tales of fantasy. This is evident in the subject of today's post, "One Other," which first appeared in the August 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

The story begins evocatively, with John climbing a mountain on his own.

Up on Hark Mountain, I climbed all alone, by a trail like a ladder. Under my old brogans was sometimes mud, sometimes rock, sometimes rolling gravel. I laid hold on laurel and oak scrub and sourwood and dogwood to help me up the steepest places. Sweat soaked the back of my hickory shirt and under the band of my old hat. Even my silver-strung guitar, bouncing behind me, felt weighty as an anvil. Hark Mountain's not the highest in the South, but it's one of the steepest.

I reckoned I was close to the top, for I heard a murmuring voice up there, a young-sounding woman's voice. All at once she like to yelled out a name, and it was my name.

Surprised by this, John makes an effort to reach the top of the mountain quickly. Doing so, he found a pool "where no pool could by nature be expected." It was "a clear blue pool, bright but not exactly sweet-looking." Near the pool was a young woman who, by her dress, John took to be a "town girl." She was seated near a fire, where she was engaged in some sort of incantation – burning leaves, melting wax, pouring libations, all the while invoking the names of both John and One Other. 

John speaks to the girl, asking her "Why were you witch-spelling me? What did I ever do to you?" She reveals that, a month before, John had ignored her at a party hosted by Old Major Enderby. John is astounded. "Ignored? I never notice such a thing," he says, to which the girl replies, "I do. I don't often look at a man twice, and usually they look at me at least once. I don't forgive being ignored." She then explains that she had hoped, by means of a charm said three times "beside Bottomless Pool on Hark Mountain," she could cause John to fall in love with her. 

John denies that the charm has worked, but she, whose name we learn is Annalinda, doubts him, pointing out that he climbed Hark Mountain. Why else would he do it, unless it was to find her? Not long thereafter a third person appears, Mr Howsen, from whom Annalinda claims to have learned the spell that brought John to her. She wishes to repay him for his aid, but Howsen corrects her, "No, you pay One Other." John, of course, has no idea who – or what – One Other is, but he has no interest in finding out. He begs Annalinda to leave Hark Mountain with him. Unfortunately, she's too frightened by Mr Howsen's claim that, if either of them leave before One Other appears, "it would be worse for you than if fire burned you behind and before, inside and out."

The meat of "One Other" lies in what happens next, as Silver John and Annalinda await the One Other. As they prepare for that fateful encounter – which is quite memorable in itself – they two converse about themselves, their lives, and their outlooks. In the course of this conversation, John speaks of a "science man" he once heard, who compared existence to a soap bubble and had

said our whole life, what he called our universe, was swelling and stretching out, so that suns and moons and stars pull farther apart all the time. He said our world and all other worlds are inside that stretching skin of suds that makes the bubble. We can't study out what's outside the bubble, or either inside, just the suds part. It sounds crazyish, but when he talked it sounded true."

"It's not a new idea, John. James Jeans wrote a book, The Expanding Universe. But where does the soap bubble come from?"

"I reckon Whoever made things must have blown it from a bubble pipe too big for us to figure about."

She snickered … "You believe in a God Who blew only one lone soap bubble."

This metaphor of the soap bubble recurs throughout "One Other" and it's put to good, even chilling, effect. I think it helps set the story apart from others in the Silver John series and even brings it closer to some of Gygax's more outré speculations about the planes of existence in D&D. Even if you disagree with that last point, it's well worth reading.

Friday, June 11, 2021

House of Worms, Session 226

The tubeway car eventually stopped at what appeared to be a fully functional station. In the course of their travels, the characters had previously visited several such stations but all of them were in some state of collapse and disrepair. This one, however, was quite different: well-lit, clean, functional – and filled with guards in black livery. As soon as the car stopped, the characters observed a pair of guards, armed with spears, advancing up the ramp to meet them. 

Keléno stepped out, along with Nebússa, as they were the only members of the group who could speak Bednallján Salarvyáni, the language most similar to whatever dialect was spoken on this alternate version of Tékumel. Nebússa took the lead, giving Keléno time to use the weird device given to him by Toneshkéthu to contact her in times of trouble. Uncharacteristically, she responded quickly, expressing first pleasure that they had made it safely to Evú Nithóru. He asked her advice on how to handle things, to which she responded, "I'm not sure; I expect you'll probably be taken prisoner. Just do what they say and I'll get to you as soon as I am able." Toneshkéthu's prediction was correct.

The guards led the characters and their entourage down the ramp to an open area, where they were greeted by more guards. Their sergeant asked everyone to turn over their weapons and armor and to follow him to a nearby lift. Fortunately, the guards did not search anyone thoroughly, allowing Znayáshu, Keléno, and Kirktá to retain the eyes they had hidden on their persons. The lift took everyone up two floors, where they were met by yet more soldiers, who escorted the characters to a large, open room, with a door. The door was sealed but not locked, though it was soon apparent that there were several armed guards posted outside it.

A few minutes after arriving, a pair of men in formal robes appeared. One was a younger, smiling man, while the other was older and balding. It soon became clear that the younger man was in charge and the older his secretary or aide. The young man introduced himself as Chikárja Shurúggam and he apologized for having to imprison the characters here. "It's only a precaution," he explained. "This area is beneath King Tarishánde's fortress and it's quite unusual for anyone to arrive unannounced. We're quite curious as to how you came here at all, especially at the present time, when 'religious zealots' seek to unseat His Majesty from his rightful throne." Keléno asked for clarification, "Do you mean 'the Red King?'" Chikárja visibly scowled, "Yes, the self-proclaimed Prophet of Vaomáhl. May Jráka protect us from violent fools like him."

The conversation quickly turned back to how and why the characters had come to Evú Nithóru. A decision was made to simply tell the truth, namely that they had come from an alternate version of Tékumel by magical means and had taken a tubeway car found deep within a Ssú lair." Chikárja seemed strangely satisfied with this answer, but countered with more questions. "That doesn't explain why you thought here was a good place to come or indeed how you came here at all." Keléno spoke truthfully again, "We were given instructions to come here by an acquaintance of ours named Toneshkéthu. Do you know her? She said that there would a nexus point by which we could return to our Tékumel." 

Chikárja's demeanor changed upon hearing this. He looked angry and concerned, though he tried to hide it. "I must go to consult with my superiors," he said, "However, if you would like some refreshments, I can arrange for them to be sent to you." With that, he and his aide left; not long thereafter, slaves bearing food and drink entered the room, providing them with the first sustenance they'd had in some time. Grujúng was disappointed that there was no chumétl amongst the refreshments. The characters partook of the food and drink, waiting for the return of Chikárja.

Before he returned, though, Toneshkéthu made her way into the room, disguised as a servant. She smiled, "We need to get you out of here. They think you're agents provocateurs of the Red King and will probably torture and execute you before long. I can help you get to a nearby nexus point and use it to transfer you back to your Tékumel through it." This immediately frightened the characters. "Where would this nexus point take us exactly?" "The fortress of Avanthár, of course; that's the equivalent locale on your branch of the Tree of Time." That was what worried the characters. "I don't think the Omnipotent Azure Legion will receive us any more happily than did the people here," said Keléno.

Nevertheless, there was no other option. Among the eyes the characters carried was an eye of non-seeing, which would render them invisible for a time. Toneshkéthu suggested they make use of it, follow her out the door, past the guards to the nexus point. Grujúng and Aíthfo approved of the plan, but wanted to recover their weapons, armor, and other gear. Toneshkéthu argued against this, since it would necessarily involve having to fight past guards. The characters briefly considered foregoing their equipment but ultimately decided against it. Toneshkéthu acquiesced and, after several use of the eye of non-seeing, they made their way past the guards outside their room and toward the chamber that held their gear.

There were two guards outside the door to the chamber. The quick use of an excellent ruby eye placed both of them into stasis without drawing attention. Upon entering the room beyond, the characters discovered that Chikárja was there, along with several other men with whom he was engaged in a spirited conversation. Surprised, they had no time to react to the characters, who used the ruby eye again to place them into stasis. Toneshkéthu encouraged them to grab their possessions quickly, use the eye of non-seeing again and follow her once more. She warned that it would not be long before their disappearance from their holding area would be noticed. Once that happened, it would only be a matter of time before they re-captured and, if so, there was little she could do for them.

A few minutes of moving stealthily past guards and patrols, the characters made it to an area where Toneshkéthu indicated the nexus point was located. She performed a quick ritual, opened the nexus and urged the characters through. She said that she would see them again "sometime in your future," but did not clarify further. Dealing with Undying Wizards – event apprentice ones like Toneshkéthu – could be confusing!

Paladin and War Horse

While flipping through The Rogues Gallery, I was struck by its artwork. I remembered most of its illustrations, but there were a couple I didn't recall. The piece above, by Darlene, is on the title page and bears the title "Paladin and War Horse." Though I'm sure I've seen it before, probably many times, for some reason it had simply slipped my memory. 

It's quite a striking image, with the paladin wearing what looks like jousting or parade armor, something for which I have a particular soft spot. I've mentioned before that I adore historical armor, preferring it over the fanciful, impractical, and "cool" armor types we tend to see nowadays in fantasy artwork. So, when I saw this piece, I smiled a little and boggled at the fact that I could have ever forgotten it. 

Random Roll: DMG, p. 125

 At the start of the "explanations and descriptions of magic items" on page 125 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there is a section on potions.

Potions are typically found in ceramic, crystal, glass, or metal flasks in enough quantity to provide one person with one complete dose so as to be able to achieve the effects which are given hereafter for each type of potion. Potion containers can be other than described at your option.

That's straightforward enough, though I recall many referees in my youth allowing a "half-dose" of a potion, with commensurately lesser effects. I don't know how widespread such a house rule was outside of the circles in which I moved, however. Likewise, I remember one referee who had replaced potions with what he called "lozenges," little pills like cough drops that had to be eaten to achieve the appropriate effect. I never understood why he'd made this change, but but it stuck with me decades later.

As a general rule they should bear no identifying marks, so that the players must sample from each container in order to determine the nature of the liquid. However, even a small taste should suffice to identify a potion in some way – even if just a slight urge.

Once again, we see the conflation of "player" and "player character" that is quite commonplace in the early years of the hobby (Empire of the Petal Throne does this often, for example). While I understand why, from a game perspective, potions are not labeled, it's one of those things that doesn't make much sense to me from a setting perspective. Unless the manufacturers of potions have a better memory than I do, it seems like it would be all too easy to forget whether this phial contains a potion of extra-healing or a potion of gaseous form. Drawing once again on my early experiences, I knew of a referee whose potions could be identified by color and taste. Over time, characters learned which were associated with which potions and that made it easier to determine which was which. Of course, he also had greatly expanded the roster of available potions, so it wasn't quite as easy as it might sounds.

As Dungeon Master, you should add a few different sorts of potions, both helpful and harmful, of such nature as to cause difficulties in identification. In addition, the same type of potion, when derived form different sources, might smell, taste, and look differently.

 I don't mean to keep harping on this, because I know opinions differ strongly about the matter. Nevertheless, I am not in favor of this approach as a general rule. I think it's important that a setting, even in its magical aspects, have some degree of intelligibility. Players and their characters should be rewarded for learning over time and it seems to me that shifting the correspondence between color, taste, scent, etc. and effect is intended to undermine the value of that. Clearly, Gygax felt differently.

Unless otherwise stated, the effects of a potion will last for 4 complete turns plus 1–4 additional turns (d4). If half a potion is quaffed, the effect will last one-half as long in some cases. Potions take effect 2–5 segments after they are imbibed.

I find it intriguing that Gygax's rules for "half-doses" are more lenient than those of the referees of old I encountered, who halved not just the duration but the overall efficacy.

While potions can be compounded by magic-user/alchemist teams at a relatively low cost, they must have an actual potion to obtain the formula for each type. Furthermore, the ingredient are always rare and/or hard to come by. 

This is where most fantasy RPGs falter a bit. If magic items are capable of being manufactured, why then aren't they more readily available? The simplest answer is the one Gygax offers: they're hard and expensive to make. That's a fair answer, but, if that's the case, then why do they seem so easy to come by in dungeons and similar places? The simplest answer to that is to limit the presence of magic items across the board, making them quite rare. Again, that's a good answer, but how often was it ever observed, even by Gygax in his published adventure modules? I actually don't know the answer to that question, honestly. Perhaps someday I should do an analysis of the prevalence of magic items in published modules (assuming someone else hasn't already done it).

Not from the DMG but a favorite of mine nonetheless

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Vaults of sha-Arthan

A few people have asked me for more details of the campaign setting I mentioned during my recent interview. Called The Vaults of sha-Arthan, it's an exotic science fantasy setting explicitly modeled on Jorune and Tékumel but intended to be much more "user friendly" and accessible. Rules-wise, it's based on Old School Essentials, with unique character classes, spells, monsters, and magic items. The classes are
  • Adept: A skilled user of psychic disciplines
  • Scion: An adventuring aristocrat, equally adept at combat and intrigue
  • Sorcerer: A master of arcane arts
  • Warrior: An accomplished combantant
  • +3 Nonhuman Classes
The world of sha-Arthan (which means "true world" in an ancient tongue) is one filled with sclerotic, decadent empires, one of which – Inba Iro – was recently conquered and its venerable throne seized. Though the new rulers, from an upstart frontier kingdom, have largely attempted to maintain the old hierarchies without interruption, cracks have nevertheless begun to appear. Hoary traditions once considered inviolable are now being questioned, including exploration of the Vaults beneath the capital city of da-Imer. 

Many large settlements of sha-Arthan are built atop subterranean structures known Vaults. According to common belief, the Vaults are the original home of Man. They are "vast deeps" from which the Litany of the Forgotten states the Ancients came, before even the First Cycle and the establishment of the Empire of the Light of Kulvu. Entering them, let alone looting them of their reputed treasures, is a great sacrilege in most civilized realms – or was until the conquest of Inba Iro. 
Characters begin the campaign as one of the brave souls recruited to explore the Vault beneath da-Imer, despite the taboos against it. They must contend with not only the dangers they surely exist beneath the city but also factions above that seek to help or hinder their progress for their own ends. As time goes on, I expect the characters will become more actively involved with these factions, in addition to traveling to other locales on sha-Arthan and unraveling the mysteries of the world.

In all likelihood, I'll start refereeing The Vaults of sha-Arthan sometime in July or August 2021. Ideally, it'll be a weekly online campaign, like my existing House of Worms campaign. However, it's also possible that I'll be running a play-by-post campaign in parallel, as a way to develop the setting further. I'm a firm believer in learning through play when it comes to setting design. While I already know quite a few high-level details of sha-Arthan, there's a lot more I haven't yet decided – and will only decide once I've had a chance to referee the campaign.

The Vaults of sha-Arthan is an exotic fantasy setting with lots of science fictional elements. It's a chance for me to play with many ideas I've been tinkering with for years but in a completely new context that draws on my years of experience refereeing Tékumel. I'm very excited about it.

The Joys and Woes of Fanzine Production

As I am sure most readers know, since late 2014, I have been producing a fanzine devoted to M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel called The Excellent Travelling Volume. A little over a week ago, I released its thirteenth issue (available in print here and in PDF here). My intentions in creating the 'zine were twofold. First and foremost, I wanted to promote gaming in Tékumel, one of the greatest and most underappreciated fantasy settings in the hobby. Second, I wanted to participate in an aspect of the hobby with which I had only minimal acquaintance. 

Fanzines were very much alive and well when I started roleplaying in late 1979, but I had almost no contact with them. I've always felt that was a serious gap in my gaming "education," because one might rightly argue that the hobby as we know it today was born and nurtured in the pages of 'zines and APAs. Many influential game writers and designers first appeared on the scene in the pages of 'zines. 

The Excellent Travelling Volume, then, was partially an experiment in trying to understand fanzines from the production side. For the first few issues, I wrote everything myself (generally drawing on material from my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign), while Matt Hildebrand generously did the layout and a wide variety of artists – Jason Sholtis, Luigi Castellani, Zhu Bajiee, Stefan Poag being a few among them – bringing my words to life. I'm deeply grateful to all of their help and the 'zine would never have reached thirteen issues over the last six and a half years if it hadn't been for their assistance.

I've always enjoyed writing the fanzine, but that should come as no surprise, because I enjoy Tékumel. What sometimes does surprise people is how much I enjoyed the process of producing each issue – and by "producing," I mean physically. I loved going to my local printer, picking up the issues, and taking them home. At first, I folded and stapled them all myself, but I gave up on that after a while, because the printer could do it so much faster (and better) than I could. Even so, I liked hand addressing each envelope, sticking an issue inside, and then dropping off the issues at the post office. There was something joyous about this process. Over time, I got to recognize names and addresses; I started to feel as if I knew my readers, even though I rarely had any other contact with them. The whole endeavor was delightful and I thought I understood why so many people devoted themselves to producing 'zines back in the day.

Note that many of my verbs are in the past tense. They represent my feelings from the pre-pandemic world. Over the last fifteen months, though, much of the joy I had in the physical production of the 'zine has faded. My printer keeps opening and shutting due to the vicissitudes of local lockdowns. Even when they were open, they were often slow to get things done and made more mistakes than was typical. The post office is even worse: standing in long lines, higher prices, and less reliability. I have had more issues go awry over the last year than I had over the previous five and a half. Assuming an issue doesn't just disappear into the ether, they arrive months late. A purchaser told me that an issue he ordered in August 2020 didn't arrive until February of this year. Others have reported similar delays. 

It's all deeply frustrating and disheartening and I confess that I seriously considered ending the fanzine with issue #12. Fanzines are not a money-making venture. The costs associated with production and mailing are not insignificant, especially if you want your 'zine to look good, as I think TETV does. With the cost of printing and postage rising, I didn't see how I could produce more issues without losing money. That's why issue #13 is being done as a print-on-demand product via Lulu (with PDFs available through DriveThruRPG). 

It's an experiment on my part. I hope that, by offloading a lot of the hassles of production and delivery, I might ease my growing frustrations as well. We shall see if it works. Even if it doesn't and I, for some reason, decided to end The Excellent Travelling Volume for good, I still believe it's been a very worthwhile enterprise. On the most basic level, I've succeeded in producing a lot of new Tékumel material, including artwork. That's not nothing and I'm actually rather pleased by how much I've managed to do with only a small team of people. Beyond that, I think I've gained greater insights into the unique joys and travails of this aspect of the hobby. Indeed, I have so much respect for the gamers of the 1970s who used far less user-friendly and sophisticated equipment to reach far more people than I have. That's a truly Herculean feat and I doff my virtual hat to the men and women of that earlier era. Bravo!