Friday, July 30, 2021

Random Roll: PHB, p. 101

Page 101 of the AD&D Players Handbook contains a long section entitled "The Adventure," in which Gary Gygax the "three major types" of locales in which player characters might find adventure, namely the dungeon, the wilderness, and the town. He then discusses each of these locales separately, highlighting not only what makes them unique but what a character venturing into them ought to consider before doing so. Though his comments on each are short, I think they're nonetheless worthy of a closer look.
Adventures into underworld mazes are the most popular. The party equips itself and sets off to enter and explore the dungeons of some castle, temple or whatever. Light sources, poles for probing, rope, spikes, and like equipment are the main tools for such activity.

I think the equipment Gygax mentions by name is telling: not weapons or armor but torches, poles, rope, and spikes. This is indeed an "expedition," as he terms it elsewhere, one on the model of archeological excavations or perhaps the Victorian adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard (or even "The Tower of the Elephant").

And since none of the party will know the dungeon's twists and turns, one or more of the adventurers will have to keep a record, a map, of where the party has been. Thus you will be able to find your way out and return for yet more adventuring. As you party is exploring and mapping, movement will be slow, and it is wise to have both front and rear guards.

Do RPG campaigns regularly include a mapper anymore? In my youth, it went without saying that someone should be keeping a map. Otherwise, as Gygax says, how would you find your way out again – or, just as importantly, take note of unusual features that suggested there might be hidden chambers nearby? In my House of Worms campaign, the players are blessed to have a professional cartographer in their company, but, even if they didn't, I'm pretty sure they'd keep track of the underworlds they explore.

In the dungeons will be chambers and rooms – some inhabited, some empty; there will be traps to catch those unaware, tricks to fool the unwise, monsters lurking to devour the unwary. The rewards, however, are great – gold, gems, and magic items. Obtaining these will make you better able to prepare for further expeditions, more adept in your chosen profession, more powerful in all respects. All that is necessary is to find your way in and out, to meet and defeat the guardians of the treasures, to carry out the wealth …

That's a very succinct way of describing the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons, don't you think? More than that, it also draws our attention to the things Gygax considered the essential elements of a dungeon: rooms (including empty ones), monsters, treasure, traps, and tricks – a good list!

Adventuring into unknown lands or howling wilderness is extremely perilous at best, for large bands of men, and worse, might roam the area; there are dens of monsters, and trackless wastes to contend with. 

The wilderness is where Gygaxian naturalism lives – literally – hence the following admonitions:

Protected expeditions are, therefore, normally undertaken by higher level characters. Forays of limited duration are possible even for characters new to adventuring, and your DM might suggest that your party do some local exploration – perhaps to find some ruins which are the site of a dungeon or to find a friendly clan of dwarves, etc.

One "problem" with D&D, it's that the wilderness surrounding a dungeon is frequently far more dangerous than the dungeon itself, given the lack of an artificial level-based framework for assessing threat to the characters. Gygax's comments here remind us of that.

Mounts are necessary, of course, as well as supplies, missile weapons, and the standard map-making equipment. Travel will be at a slow rate in unknown areas, for your party will be exploring, looking for foes to overcome, and searching for new finds of lost temples, dungeons, and the like. 

Once again, mapping and slowness are mentioned – but then D&D is primarily a game of exploration. Nevertheless, Gygax quickly notes that that's not all the game is about.

Cities, towns, and sometimes even large villages provide the setting for highly interesting, informative, and often hazardous affairs and incidents. Even becoming an active character in a campaign typically requires interaction with the populace of the habitation, location quarters, buying supplies and equipment, seeking information. 

Though not intended as such, these sentences could serve as a rebuke of critics who deride D&D as a purely "hack 'n slash" game. Some of my favorite moments in D&D (and other RPGs) have arisen from interactions with NPCs in a settlement as the characters sought out rumors, lodging, or equipment. 

These same interactions in a completely strange town require forethought and skill. Care must be taken in all one says and does. Questions about rank, profession, god and alignment are perilous, and use of an alignment tongue is socially repulsive in most places.  

Everything Gygax says here demonstrates the need for the creation of a social structure and culture for the campaign setting. Without these, there can be no context for adventures and many opportunities for fun interactions will be missed.

There are usually beggars, bandits, and drunks to be dealt with; greedy and grasping merchants and informants to do business with; inquiring officials or suspicious guards to be answered. The taverns house many potential helpful or useful characters, but they also contain clever and dangerous adversaries. Then there are the unlit streets and alleys of the city after dark … 

If this section has made anything clear, it's that, in a good campaign, adventures can be found anywhere.  

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Interview: Rick Meints (Part II)

Part I of the interview can be found here.

7. How did you become involved with Tales of the Reaching Moon?

On a whim, in January of 1994 I decided to go to RQ Con 1 in Baltimore. I had just read about this convention in Tales 10, but initially hadn't planned on attending. I didn’t know anyone who was attending and I hadn’t played RuneQuest in years. Then, just a few days before the convention I bought a plane ticket and off I went. While there I met Nick Brooke, who was an active contributor to Tales. He offered to show me around London if I was ever in the UK and, as luck would have it, work brought me to London later that year. I contacted Nick, we had dinner, and he started to introduce me to his friends that worked on Tales, including David Hall and Dan Barker. One of the best decisions I ever made, for both my personal and professional life, was to move to the UK in 1995. I was quickly welcomed into a wonderfully creative and energetic circle of friends collectively known as the Reaching Moon Megacorp. It allowed all of us to contribute our talents to a number of projects including Tales of the Reaching Moon, the Convulsion convention, and a number of independent projects such as Tarsh War, the Rough Guide to Glamour, and even my Meints Index to Glorantha. One of the best parts of the group was its social side. Throughout the seven years I lived in the UK we would meet after work at the Round Table pub in London near Leicester Square almost every Wednesday night. Over pints (make mine a Guinness) we would bring along and discuss the latest Gloranthan projects we were working on. I volunteered to do the layout for Tales 14 (part of my day job was writing computer manuals) and kept doing that until Tales 20, which was the magazine's last. A part of me really misses that era. We attended a lot of European conventions together, and I met my wife through this group of friends. Nick, David, and I attended each other's weddings. What's even better is that we're all still friends, and several of the Tales crew are involved with Chaosium now. 

8. What was the path that took you from working for the Reaching Moon Megacorp to your present one as president of Chaosium?

In the late 90s the Reaching Moon Megacorp was losing steam. A number of us were recently married and starting families. Running conventions and publishing Tales felt too much like work and many on the team scaled back their involvement. With each passing issue of Tales I took on more responsibility with getting the magazine printed and shipped. I enjoyed that side of the business. Moon Design Publications was founded in 1999 because the Megacorp didn't want to take on reprinting RuneQuest material. That deal was struck specifically with Greg Stafford. We started spending more and more time doing business with Greg, and we treated him professionally. We paid him on time. We produced quality products. Greg often consulted us on business matters, especially his own business problems. After the Gloranthan Classics reprint project was wrapped up, we then became the licensed publisher for HeroQuest, and Greg largely retired from publishing to focus on his writing and other interests. He saw what we could do as a company. Having been friends with Greg since the mid-90s we often talked about regular life as well. He knew what my day job was like, which was basically being the Managing Director of a small IT company. One day in 2015 Greg and I were chatting on the phone and he semi-joked "I'd love to find someone like you to run Chaosium, but I don't think you'd ever take the job." I surprised him with "actually, maybe I would". After discussing it with my wife I took the leap, and "ran off to join the circus". It's hard to believe that was a little over six years ago. In some ways, I had been auditioning for the job for over 15 years.

9. How long after you took over Chaosium did you conceive of the idea of the RuneQuest Classic project? What was the original impetus of it and what did you learn from it?

I wanted to reprint the RuneQuest 2nd ed. rules back when we did the Glorantha Classics, but the rights were too fragmented. Chaosium owned the copyright on the text, Avalon Hill/Hasbro owned the Trademark, and Greg owned the "Glorantha" part of it. Greg got the RQ trademark back in 2005 and then licensed it to Mongoose until about 2012. We purchased all of Greg's Glorantha IP and the RQ trademark in 2013. It wasn't until Moon Design got a majority interest in Chaosium in 2015 that we had the final piece of the rights needed to reprint the RQ2 rules. Three of the four volumes of the Glorantha Classics were out-of-print by 2015. The first volume had been printed on old film technology in 1999, so it would have to be redone, plus we had mixed in 3rd edition material into other volumes, so we decided to start fresh and just redo each original RQ2 book individually. The Kickstarter helped breathe more interest back into the RuneQuest RPG. It also raised a lot of money for Moon Design, the profits of which we invested in Chaosium, giving it the funds needed to print the 7th edition books. 

10. Did the success of this project show that there was genuine interest in older editions of your RPGs, thereby laying the groundwork for Call of Cthulhu Classic? Might you consider other similar reprints of classic Chaosium games in the future?

The RuneQuest Classics project did show us that reprinting older RQ material can be lucrative and Kickstarter let us know how many to print without having to guess. I've been an RPG collector for about 40 years now and I have watched the trends in the RPG collectables market for both personal and business reasons. I've also been an auctioneer over 30 times at RPG conventions, and one thing I learned is that older material is sought after, and while some will pay collector prices, many more would happily pay for older items if the price was more reasonable. At Chaosium we have our email which is our main main avenue for all manner of customer inquiries. One fairly common question we get at least every few days, if not every day, is "do you have any copies of old product X lurking in the warehouse" or "do you have any plans to reprint X because I would love to get a copy". Believe it or not, I actually review all of the customer service emails we get, and the team knows to forward ones like those to me to answer directly. Those emails are a big part of why we got Beyond the Mountains of Madness reprinted. That, and I saw people moan about not wanting to pay $200 to get a used copy of it on eBay. As for more such classic reprints of other Chaosium games, the short answer is yes. We're looking at Pendragon in particular, and a few other older licensed properties. Between print on demand, regular print runs, and such we have more options to keep things available than we used to, and why wouldn't we. Some might be cleaned up scans, like Wyrms Footnotes, while others might be fully OCR'd and have their layout redone. It all depends on how big of a demand we see.

11. Are there any upcoming Chaosium projects that might appeal to fans of the company's older material?

There are a number of products that we have in the works that would appeal to fans of our older material. Jason Durall is heading up the development team that is turning the late '70s Chaosium wargame Lords of the Middle Sea into an RPG. It will expand our BRP game universe into another post-apocalyptic future earth setting. The playtests have been going well and we hope to get it into layout soon. Another couple of titles I need to mention are Gaslight and Dreamlands for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. Both of those settings are getting the full color treatment and should also be going into final manuscript form soon. Each of those would also feature a boxed Starter set as your entry point into those realms of the Mythos. As for RuneQuest, the Sartar Campaign pack is also being developed. It builds on material originally written for the Sartar pack we were developing back in the early 80s, around the time when Griffin Mountain and Borderlands came out. Lastly, I need to mention we also have other older titles we will be making available again via POD. We want to get titles similar to Beyond the Mountains of Madness available again, even if we can't update them any time soon. As for which titles, we want to not over promise and under deliver. We will release them as and when we can.

12. Finally, a question I like to ask most people I interview: what RPGs are you playing/refereeing these days?

While I play a lot of one-shot pick-up games at cons and similar, I haven't been able to find the time for a regular weekly or bi-weekly campaign. That said, it is awesome that I work for a company where my colleagues tell me that I need to play more games. My last Heroquest campaign from a few months ago was set just before the Dragonrise, during the start of the Hero Wars. In most situations I prefer to play rather than GM. I have great respect for all the GMs that devote the time to prepare sessions for their players. As for me, I'm generally too much of a last minute person who lives by the motto "If it wasn't for the last minute, I'd have no time at all". I am slowly writing a few things that I hope to GM some day. One is an RQ scenario set in the Upland Marsh, and the other is a 1920s scenario set in the Great Lakes region of the US. I want to play more 7th Sea, but I've been spoiled by only having played the game with John Wick as my GM.

The Vaults of sha-Arthan: The Chenot

Work continues to proceed on The Vaults of sha-Arthan, though a little more slowly than I'd hoped. Even so, nearly all the basic character classes are complete, including three nonhuman classes. I present one of them – the Chenot, a race of sentient plants – in this entry as a taste of what I've been sharing over at Advanced Grognardia. Between now and when I start up the campaign, I may make a few tweaks to the class, but, for the moment, I am content with it. Constructive comments and suggestions are welcome, as are questions about the Chenot and the sha-Arthan setting (though I reserve the right to keep some matters secret for the time being).

Edit: This is an updated version of the class, after reflecting on the comments below, particularly those of James Mishler. Thanks to everyone for their feedback; it is much appreciated.


A Chenot by Zhu Bajiee

Prime requisite:
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 8
Armor: Special (see below)
Weapons: Any appropriate to size

Chenot are a species of small, plantlike beings renowned for their agility and cleverness. They weigh about 50 pounds and stand just below 3’ tall. Chenot typically live in communities of their own, but sometimes dwell among humans, particularly in rural areas. Chenot are fascinated by relics of the Makers, whom they regard as gods. Many Chenot become adventurers precisely so that they can seek out sites associated with their deities.


The central trunk of all adult Chenot is encased within a shell of utechra-metal, giving them protection equivalent to plate armor (AC 3 [16]). Because of this, they can wear no other form of armor, though they can carry a shield, but it must be tailored to their small size. Chenot can use any weapons appropriate to their stature (as determined by the referee). They cannot use longbows or two-handed swords.


The Chenot can hear and speak, but can only speak their own language, which sounds to human ears like rustling, scraping leaves and branches in the wind. However, they can learn to understand other languages. Further, Chenot emit pheromones that enable any living, sentient being who has been within 60’ of them for at least one turn to understand their language, though not speak it (as most species lack the phsyical apparatus to do so). This effect lasts one day. After a week of regular, daily exposure, it lasts a year, and after a month of exposure it is permanent. 

Defensive Bonus

Due to their small size, Chenot gain a +2 bonus to Armor Class when attacked by large opponents (greater than human-sized). 


With their sensitive and flexible tendrils, Chenot can perform certain unusual feats, starting at a 1-in-6 chance of success in each. At 1st level, a Chenot can distribute 2 points among these skills, increasing the chance of success by one per point spent. At every level after first, the Chenot gains an additional point to distribute (to a maximum of 5-in-6 in any skill).

  • Climb sheer surfaces: A roll is required for each 100’ to be climbed. If the roll fails, the Chenot falls at the halfway point, suffering falling damage.  
  • Find or remove traps: A roll is required to find a trap and then another to remove it. This may be attempted only once per trap. 
  • Pick pockets: The Chenot’s roll is penalized by 1-in-6 for every three levels or hit dice of the intended target. The referee should determine the reaction of the target of a failed attempt (possibly using the reaction table). 
  • Search: When actively searching, a Chenot locate hidden compartments and secret doors.


Chenot require sunlight, water, and elemental nutrients for nourishment. They must spend at least 8 hours each day in their presence or suffer 1 point of damage per day they go without it. This damage cannot be healed by any means until sufficient nourishment is procured, at which point they regain 1 hit point per level every 8 hours until fully healed. While undernourished, Chenot move at half normal speed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Retrospective: Dragons of Glory

My overall opinion of Dragonlance is, I think, well known and, in the thirteen (!) years since I first publicly expressed it, I haven't much mellowed. I remain convinced that, while Dragonlance may well have "saved" Dungeons & Dragons in some sense, the hobby is still paying the price of that salvation nearly four decades later. This does not mean, however, that the entire Dragonlance project was wholly devoid of worth. Indeed, in the course of changing the course of D&D and, by extension, the entire hobby, a number of genuinely interesting things were produced.

A case in point is 1985's Dragons of Glory, written by Douglas Niles and Tracy Hickman (though I suspect that it was Niles who was responsible for the bulk of the product). Ostensibly the eleventh module in the original Dragonlance series, Dragons of Glory is, in fact, not an adventure scenario at all but rather a stand-alone wargame set in the world of Krynn, complete with rules, maps, and hundreds of cardboard counters.

I dutifully purchased module DL11 upon its release, as I had all the previous modules in the series. As I've explained before, I was never a fan of Krynn as a setting or even of the specifics of Dragonlance – particularly its pre-generated characters – but I was quite taken with the idea of a lengthy series of connected scenarios that chronicled a war against a high fantasy Dark Lord. Thus, I cannibalized the DL modules to use in a campaign setting of my own devising (about which the less said the better) and rarely regretted that decision. Dragons of Glory was one such occasion. 

You see, the module presented a strategic-level simulation of the War of the Lance, with rules for movement, combat, and reinforcements, among other such details. The rules are simple, probably laughably so for anyone with much experience in the hobby of hex-and-chit wargaming. Not having such experience myself, I wasn't at all bothered by this. In fact, I considered it something of a plus, since, as a neophyte, I wasn't in a position to handle a more sophisticated wargame. 

Dragons of Glory was supposed to serve two purposes. As already mentioned, it was intended as a stand-alone wargame that could be played again and again, much in the way one might play Third Reich or Kingmaker. More interesting is the second purpose of the game: integrating the wargame with the module series. The idea here is that the referee (and another player) could take note of their play of the wargame and then use it to influence the play of the module-based campaign. For example, if a battle takes place in the wargame in a particular place, when the player characters make their way through that same place, the referee could use that fact to affect what those characters see and encounter there. Now, to be clear, there are no actual rules to govern this. Even the guidelines offered amount to little more than vague advice, but I cannot tell you how much the idea of using the results of a wargame to affect the play of a RPG inspired me at the time.

There's another unspoken angle here, namely that Dragons of Glory points the way – tentatively, to be sure – toward "alternate universe" versions of Krynn, where things don't necessarily play out exactly the way the adventure modules intend them to. That's always been one of my biggest beefs with the whole Dragonlance project: its expectation that certain events would happen in certain ways and that certain characters would be involved in them. I hated this approach then and I hate it even more now. If the project had been more flexible in allowing events to unfold differently in each campaign, I might have fewer objections. As it is, Dragonlance is a vast railroad with a pre-determined beginning, middle, and end. 

Dragons of Glory hints at the possibility of other approaches and that's probably why I still retain a certain fondness for it, despite its design shortcomings. DL11 is probably the first and only time that a module in this series toys with the idea of the War of the Lance having different trajectories than those presented in official TSR products, trajectories unique to each campaign. Again, I feel I should reiterate that Dragons of Glory itself does little to support this idea and I am likely being more charitable toward it than it deserves. Even so, I was so positively impacted by what little it does offer that I felt it deserved a second look. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Interview: Rick Meints (Part I)

Rick Meints is the president of the venerable and celebrated RPG publisher, Chaosium – as well as a roleplaying gamer of long standing. Recently, he very kindly agreed to be interviewed, answering some questions about his history in the hobby, the games he's enjoyed playing, and what Chaosium is up to these days. Presented below is the first half of this interview; the second half will appear tomorrow.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying? 

I first played D&D back in late 1978 when I spent my allowance on the D&D Basic boxed set. It opened a whole new world of possibilities. I used graph paper from my math class to sketch out dungeons, and bought a few Ral Partha minis at my local hobby store to move my imagined characters around the map. My parents encouraged reading and told my sister and I that they would buy us any book we wanted. That made it easy to purchase the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979. As a kid that took care of my toys, I still have those books close to hand on a nearby gaming shelf in my home office. During summer vacations I played through the entire Giants and Drow (GDQ) series, happily power gaming all the way. The hook was set deep for what was to come when Tim Webster, our GM, showed us the RQ rulebook and Cults of Prax shortly thereafter...

2. What was your initial impression of RuneQuest and, more specifically, of its setting, Glorantha?

My gaming group started dabbling with RQ a few years after the game came out, mostly with some home-brewed scenarios. I devoured every word of Cults of Prax, especially the stories from "The Travels of Biturian Varosh" that were sprinkled throughout the book. I had previously played a cleric, but the religious side of the character was not fleshed out at all. To be honest I can't even remember which god the character was a cleric for. Playing a warrior who worshipped Orlanth and then a merchant who became a priest of Issaries was a very pleasant change. The depth of the game world of Glorantha intrigued me as well. What set the hook deeply was playing through almost all of the possible adventures in the sandbox campaign Griffin Mountain during the summer of 1981. Everything we encountered while working on Joh Mith's caravan was novel and exciting, be it Jack O'Bears, Citadels built by Giants, the occupying Lunar forces, seeking out the Windsword on Griffin Mountain, carving a Windbery tree branch to make a magic staff, or meeting the legendary Gonn Orta at his castle hidden in the mountains. I actually kept a bit of a game journal back then, which was a first for me. I wanted to write these stories down. We only took a break from RQ to try the next Chaosium game Tim brought home, which was Call of Cthulhu.

3. What did you think of Call of Cthulhu? Were you already familiar with Lovecraft at the time?

I had never read any of his books before playing Call of Cthulhu, and only knew a little about him because I saw a few of his books on Tim, our Keeper's bookshelves. I was keen to play, partially because I really like the 1920s era, and also because my character was able to use a Thompson submachine gun with a 50 round drum. Because it basically used the core rules also used for RuneQuest, it was easy to get playing right away, and we were soon battling various cultists. I enjoyed those game sessions, but we were playing it when there weren't that many supplements published for it yet, so I didn't play through many of the classics. We would have kept playing it but Tim went off to college and his brother Tom brought home a 2" boxed set called Stormbringer for us to try next.

4. Stormbringer is a favorite of mine. What did you think of it? Were you a fan of Moorcock's Elric stories?

I was excited to get a chance to play an RPG set in the Young Kingdoms. I had read several of the Elric novels (classic DAW paperbacks) about a year or so prior to Tom opening the Stormbringer box at our game table. I played a sailor from the Isle of Purple Towns who worshipped Strassha. After reading through the rules I noticed "Impressive Scar" on the Major Wounds table and getting one of those became my first in-game goal. That was followed by getting a Melnibonean Gold Wheel. The combat system was a bit more streamlined, which I liked. The magic system was also streamlined, but that appealed to me less. We all loved demon weapons and armor, and as an Agent I got pretty good at summoning water elementals. I don't remember the mission we were given by Strassha, but when we completed it we got the power to breathe water from him, which came in handy on several occasions during our further adventures. Alas, the closest we got to Tanelorn was Nadsokar. 

5. A common element to most of the games you've mentioned so far are the rules originating in RuneQuest and later known as Basic Role-Playing. What did you find so appealing about those rules when you first encountered them? What do you still find appealing about them?

I initially liked the rules for a number of reasons. It was great that Chaosium uses the same basic rules in all of their games so if you know how to play RQ, learning Call of Cthulhu or Stormbringer or Ringworld is mainly learning about the game world. I also like the way you don't have a restrictive character class that limits what armor, weapons, skills, or spells you can use. With BRP you get to pick and choose a lot more of those things for yourself. I am happy to not have to chase experience points to improve my level and abilities. Skill use and combat also feel far less abstract. It means crunching more numbers, but I like crunching numbers. Most people immediately understand what having a 75% climb skill means and how much protection they get from two point armor. I've played a lot of game systems since the 80s, and the BRP rules still largely work for how I want to play, unless I am playing in a single shot adventure at a con. For one shots I usually prefer a more rules light storytelling type of system.

6. Are there any other memories you have of your early days of roleplaying, whether they be playing a BRP game or something else?

I bought the Holmes boxed Basic D&D set, but didn't know of anyone who played the game. I mainly just read through all the material and rolled up a character, but didn't really play the game until one of my friends in Junior High said he was willing to GM. He had just bought the Players Handbook and the Giants series of modules and was looking forward to running them. Because I was the only player, I played several characters, each of a different class. It worked for Brian and I. We ended up playing through Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, Hall of the Fire Giant King, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo Toa, and Vault of the Drow over the next year or so. With Tim and Tom Webster, the four of us took turns GMing games of Boot Hill, Top Secret, Gamma World, and Traveller. Our interest in each of those didn't last very long though. Gun fights turned out to be too deadly in Boot Hill, Brian and Tim thought the post-nuclear Gamma World was too preposterous (especially when I played a Hoop), the Imperium seemed boring in Traveller even though we liked rolling up veterans, and in Top Secret I had a hard time GM'ing when the three of them decided to become terrorists instead of playing good guys. We ate a fair bit of pizza and had a lot of laughs at the table along the way though. On Boy Scout trips Tom and I would often play the little black box games by Steve Jackson. Arena duels were popular in Car Wars because lots of us could play. We took long bus trips with the troop and would often play fairly late into the night because we could sleep on the bus during the day. We also played Tunnels & Trolls, but all I remember is getting to cast the "Take that you fiend" spell. Up until I went to college we were always playing something throughout the summer, plus weekends year round.

White Dwarf: Issue #2

Issue #2 of White Dwarf (August/September 1977) opens with an editorial by Ian Livingstone in which he addresses the disdain that tabletop wargamers supposedly held for roleplayers at the time. I know, from reading contemporary reports, that there was in fact some friction between the participants in these two related hobbies. I also know that almost all of the early adopters of RPGs were wargamers. Further, my own personal experience – for whatever it's worth – is that there was considerable overlap between the two hobbies. I can't recall ever seeing any evidence of antagonism, though we should bear in mind I didn't start roleplaying for more than two years after this editorial was penned. 

The first article proper is "Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings, a follow-up to the identically titled article in the previous issue. Hemmings provides extensive details of his scoring system for a dungeon he ran at event called "D&D Day," as well as an overview of the "pre-thrown" (i.e. pre-generated) characters used in the scenario. Speaking for myself, I didn't find the scoring system or his discussion of its rationale as compelling as I did the snippets of information he reveals about the dungeon itself, which included such elements as Pandora's Box, Mars, Hercules, Thor, and Monty Python, among others. Would that the article had simply been a write-up of the dungeon itself!

Ian Livingstone reviews "Asgard Miniatures," which he seems to have liked overall. I don't believe I ever own any figures from this line, but I recall their regular advertisements in gaming magazines well into the early 1980s. Lewis Pulsipher, meanwhile, reviews "The Green Planet Trilogy of Game," a series of science fantasy wargames published by Fact and Fantasy Games. I've never heard of any of these three games – Mind War, War of the Sky Galleons, Warriors of the Green Planet – and, from what Pulsipher says, it doesn't sound like I'm missing much (though he himself judges two of the three as "workmanlike" and having "appeal to certain gamers." More fascinating, I think, is his introduction where he bemoans the fact that game reviewers tend to be "faceless" and reveal little of their own "preferences and pet prejudices." To counter this, he lays his own cards on the table, such as his love of "realism" and his detestation of luck "as it allows inferior players to defeat a more skilled one." 

"Before the Flood" by Hartley Patterson is a brief reminiscence of a fantasy wargame (and setting) called Midgard that was played and developed in the pages of a fanzine of the same name. Patterson notes that Midgard predated Dungeons & Dragons but that it nevertheless seems to have anticipated many features of D&D. I love articles of this sort, since it's a useful reminder that there was "something in the air" in the early 1970s that would likely have given birth to RPGs at some point, even if Gygax and Arneson had not done so. 

"Open Box" is the issue's review feature, consisting of four different reviews. The first is for Steve Jackson's Ogre, while the second is TSR's Lankhmar boardgame. Both receive good reviews, though Ogre is better regarded. The third review is very negative and tackles War of the Star Slayers, a science fiction wargame of which I've never heard (a recurring theme in today's post). The final review is by Lewis Pulsipher and deals with Tunnels & Trolls. As one might expect, Pulsipher does not wholeheartedly like T&T, though he (mostly) takes pains to explain why he dislikes aspects of its design. More intriguing, though, is this section of his review, which I reproduce without comment:

The second part of Don Turnbull's "Monstermark System" appears in this issue and, like the first part, I have to say, perhaps to my shame, that I simply didn't see much point in all the ink spilt to measure the relative power of various D&D monsters. I know many referees, then and now, find this kind of thing useful and, if so, more power to them. I'm simply not one of them and thus my eyes glazed over as Turnbull presented his mathematical formulae. 

Much more fun was the "Open Chest" feature, which included submissions by readers. By and large, this consisted of magic items and monsters (like the dune stalker, which would later appear in the Fiend Folio). Also included was a humorous character class, the scientist, and its chaotic counterpart, the anti-scientist, whose level titles are quite amusing.
I can't make up my mind as to whether I find Administrator or Vondaniken funnier. Rounding out the issue is Andy Holt's "The Loremaster of Avallon," which follows his previous "What's Wrong with D&D?" In the article, Holt presents changes to D&D that he uses in his own campaign, focusing more on the magic system than other aspects of its rules. His changes are interesting and involve the use of 38 magical symbols to evoke effects. 

Overall, I'd say that this issue of White Dwarf shows much promise and suggests that it will quite quickly turn into something I will enjoy reading. It's very D&D-centric, of course, but that's to be expected (and is not unwelcome to me at any rate). There is already evidence of many of the traits I'd later come to associate not just with White Dwarf but with Games Workshop more generally, particularly its humor. I look forward to seeing them come even more to fore.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Hand Drawn

I have a great fondness for hand-drawn maps, especially of the sort that commonly appeared in fanzines. Take, for example, this one from the first issue of the UK 'zine, The Beholder, produced by Guy Duke and Michael Stoner, starting in 1979. 

I wish I could better explain my affection for maps like this. Perhaps it's because they remind me of the maps I used to spend hours making in my younger days. For me, map making is very primal, one of the foundational elements of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Even more than dice, you can't play D&D without a map.

Sadly, I don't have many maps from my youth. At some point in my late teens, I threw most of them out, in the foolish belief that my cartography was subpar. One of the few dungeon maps I still have is this one:
I'm not absolutely certain when I made this map, but I suspect it was sometime between 1982 and 1984. Objectively, it's a terrible map – too small and obviously influenced by Quasqueton from In Search of the Unknown. For good or for ill, module B1 was my model of what a dungeon should be for many years. What might not be obvious, however, is that this map was intended to be the first level of my own version of the Temple of Elemental Evil. As I've mentioned many times before, I adore The Village of Hommlet and it bugged me that Gygax's promised module T2 didn't appear in time for me to use it. So, ambitious lad that I was in those days, I set out to create my own Temple and this was its first level. Like the maps of the other levels, I no longer have the key for this one, but I can still remember a few details, like the pools in Room 7, the hidden shrine in Room 11, and the demonic statues in Room 18 that, if not properly propitiated, spring to life and attack. 

I used to be terribly embarrassed by my adolescent efforts at dungeon making. Now, I look back on them with more fondness. Like the map of the Pyrus Complex from The Beholder, there's something very pure about maps enthusiastically drawn by hand before we knew enough to be sheepish about our efforts. Then and now, this is where roleplaying lives.

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Orcs

Whatever one thinks of Gary Gygax's claims about the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the creation and development of Dungeons & Dragons, there can be little question that the orc is one of the game's iconic monsters. Despite this, D&D has never provided a consistent picture of just what an orc looks like. The earliest illustration of them in the game is this one by Greg Bell, appearing in Volume 1 of OD&D (1974):
Leaving aside its lack technical skill, what stands out to me is that this orc looks little very human in appearance – a little more bestial perhaps but not that different from some crazed barbarian. The orcs of the Monster Manual (1977) look very different, being the pig-faced humanoids of which I am so fond.
This depiction of orcs by David C. Sutherland III was very influential and can found throughout the AD&D line, as well as on the title page of the Holmes rulebook (one of my all-time favorite pieces in all of D&D) from the same year as the Monster Manual
Interestingly – and oddly – the Games Workshop version of the Holmes rulebook includes a different interpretation of this scene, one with idiosyncratically one-eyed orcs, something I don't believe I've ever seen anywhere else.
Dave Trampier drew some orcs in module G1 (1978) and clearly took his cue from Sutherland.
Sometime around 1980, the pig-faced orc seems to have fallen into disfavor, as we begin to see a variety of other types, such as this one drawn by Jeff Dee for Slave Pits of the Undercity
Just a short time later, Grenadier Models depicts orcs on one of its boxed miniatures sets in yet another style.
These orcs are green-skinned and more generically monstrous. Interestingly, Timothy Truman seems to have taken elements from several of these depictions with this illustration, which served as the basis for the LJN orc toy.
This in turn influenced the design of the orcs that appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
Since we're on the subject of cartoon-y orcs, I would be remiss if I did not include Clyde Caldwell's cover to the 1988 The Orcs of Thar.
The foregoing only barely scratches the surface of this topic, which reveals, I think, that TSR had no consistent idea of what orcs looked like. Each artist had his own interpretation of them and, while certain characteristics sometimes carried over between the depictions, there is hardly enough continuity to settle on a "canonical" notion of these monsters' appearance. 

Had I the time and patience to do so, I could no doubt have found many, many more illustrations of orcs in TSR products. Instead, I'll leave that to you. Do you have any favorite orc artwork from the days of TSR? 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dragonflight

In my old age, I have become very set in my ways, particularly when it comes to literature. My tastes have hardened and it's rare that I'm willing to give something new a try – and rarer still when I enjoy something new. Such was not always the case, though. In my long ago youth, my prejudices were fewer and I devoured almost any book I came across with a dragon or a spaceship on its cover. 

This was especially the case after I discovered Dungeons & Dragons more than four decades ago. I was so enthralled with D&D that I looked everywhere I could for ideas to incorporate into my games. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time haunting the local public libraries, checking out any fantasy or science fiction book I could get my hands on. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of them and, over the course of a couple of years, I found myself reading books by authors whose names I recognized as well as those I hadn't. 

In the latter category was Anne McCaffrey, whose name I first came across in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. By this time – late 1981 or early '82 – McCaffrey had already published quite a few books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series, so I figured the best place to start was at the very beginning, the novel Dragonflight.

Dragonflight was first published in 1968, but portions of it had appeared as novellas in the pages of Analog the previous year. The version my library had was a hardcover edition with cover art by Michael Whelan, but I liked the original paperback cover so much that I included it in this post instead. That said, what I most remember about Dragonflight is the reaction I had to reading its introduction, which begins as follows:

When is a legend a legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category "Fairy-tale?" And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?

Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star. It had five planets, and one stray it had attracted and held in recent millennia. Its third planet was enveloped by air man could breathe, boasted water he could drink, and possessed a gravity that permitted man to walk confidently erect. Men discovered it and promptly colonized it. They did that to every habitable planet, and then – whether callously or through collapse of empire, the colonists never discovered and eventually forgot to ask – left the colonies to fend for themselves.

When I read this, I was, if not exactly dumbfounded, I was at least surprised. There was a dragon the cover, wasn't there? The book was called Dragonflight, after all, and part of a larger series that had come to be known as "the Dragonriders of Pern." What was going on?

I've mentioned in other contexts that, at this time in my life, I often disliked fantasy that included science fiction elements and vice versa. In the years since, my stance on the matter has changed considerably, but, when I first read McCaffrey's introduction, I wasn't sure what to think about it. My confusion was amplified once I started to read the novel, which, on the face of it, very much seems like a fantasy novel. Nowadays, I'd call it a "secret sci-fi" novel – one where the characters don't realize the science fictional underpinnings of the world they inhabit.

Dragonflight tells the tale of Lessa, the daughter of the rulers of Ruatha Hold, whose parents were killed in a coup led by a usurper called Fax. Lessa had escaped death after experiencing a premonition of danger and now lives as a menial laborer, plotting the downfall of the man who slew her family. Meanwhile, F'lar, a dragonrider, travels to the court of Fax at High Reaches Hold, seeking a woman who could "impress" – mentally bond – with the soon-to-be-born queen dragon. Without such a "weyrwoman," the queen will die and, with her, the dragons themselves. 

This is a terrible fate, because dragonriders, we learn, exist to fight against the Thread, an alien enemy that descends from the sky every couple of centuries to bedevil the inhabitants of Pern. Fax, however, does not believe the Thread will return and thus he sees little cause for concern when F'lar discovers that there's no woman in High Reaches Hold. F'lar then wonders if perhaps he might have more success if he were to travel to Ruatha Hold, whose inhabitants were once reputed to have had families with "Weyr blood." Unsurprisingly, the former ruling family of the hold, believed to be extinct, had such blood. Believed to be extinct, since Lessa still lives …

My brief synopsis, I hope, isn't unfair to the overall story of Dragonflight, because I certainly don't mean it to be. Rather, my intention is simply to highlight the ways in which its plot resembles many of the elements common to fantasy literature: a usurper, the last survivor of a royal family living in obscurity, the imminent arrival of an ancient enemy, ancestral powers, and of course dragons. In its form and presentation, Dragonflight is largely indistinguishable from many of the stories I write about in this series. Again, that's not a criticism, merely an observation and one I bring up because of the way that "fantasy" and "science fiction" are so often set at odds with one another. 

In any case, I enjoyed Dragonflight at the time, though I never read any further books in the Pern series, though I occasionally considered doing so. If any readers have any thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The One-Minute Combat Round

Over at Donjon Lands, Stephen Wendell has written a lengthy blog post about the Chainmail-derived one-minute combat round of OD&D that I found quite compelling. Stephen argues, based on his reading of Chainmail, that man-to-man combat takes place at a different scale from mass combat. Consequently, the common assumption – and assumption it is, since OD&D never explicitly states this – that OD&D melee rounds are one minute in length is mistaken. 

Not being well versed in the mechanics of Chainmail, it's difficult for me to say whether Stephen is correct in his interpretation, but, by my lights, I think the points he raises are persuasive and worthy of further consideration. That said, I can think of one possible objection, namely that AD&D, unlike OD&D, is quite explicit about the length of its melee rounds, which are one minute in length. For all its deviations from the 1974 original, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons isn't that different. More to the point, Gary Gygax was involved in the creation of both (as well as Chainmail). Why include a one-minute melee round in AD&D if he hadn't intended OD&D to have the same? 

Now, I think it possible, if unlikely, that Gygax simply forgot how Chainmail's combat sequence was intended to work and thus perpetuated a misunderstanding through derivative rules. Whether that's actually the case, I couldn't say, which is why I'm curious what others with more knowledge of Chaimail might have to say on the matter. Regardless, I think Stephen raises some interesting questions. I'm frequently amazed by how often I discover that some "rule" is, in fact, no rule at all but merely a widely held interpretation. Could this be another example of that? 

Correction: Stephen does talk about AD&D in footnote 9 of his post.

Update: Stephen has a follow up to this here. Thanks to Zenopus Archives for the help in sorting out where the misunderstanding lay. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

House of Worms, Sessions 232–234

Aíthfo's visits with various government and religious officials, as well as his calls on the great clans of Béy Sü have generated a great deal of interest. The House of Worms clan, otherwise unknown as a purely local clan of Sokátis, soon became the talk of the social elites of the imperial capital, resulting in much gossip – and more than a few invitations from the city's great and good. Among those who did so was Elué hiDlarútu of the Green Malachite clan. Called "the Belle of Béy Sü" for her beauty and extravagant parties, she asked Aíthfo to come to her opulent palace in the northwest of the city.

When Aíthfo finally was able to do so, he found Elué to be quite unlike what he had expected. As a devotee of hedonistic Hriháyal, Aíthfo was prepared to be shocked by her appearance and demeanor. Certainly she was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but she was also oddly restrained in her dress and demeanor – which in fact contributed considerably to her impressive natural gifts. Dressed in a plain and unornamented gown, her hair hanging loose rather than in one of the elaborate styles favored by the noblewomen of Béy Sü, Elué invited Aíthfo to partake of any of the refreshments her slaves brought to him. He thought this odd and demurred, stating he would only do so if she would join him. She agreed to do so and ushered him into a chamber set aside for dining, one of many in her immense home.

Once there, the slaves brought in all manner of food and drink, setting it on a table between the two of them. Elué once again asked Aíthfo to partake of whatever he wished. He asked her what she would recommend and she replied, "The purpose of this visit is to see what you will choose." After some hesitation, he decided to start with a wine, as the House of Worms clan was known for its winemaking back in Sokátis. Aíthfo sought out the darkest red wine he could find and then, as he prepared to drink it, Elué told him, "I wouldn't choose that one if I were you; it's poisoned." Aíthfo instinctively put the wine down and then asked, "I suppose they're all poisoned, yes?" Elué smiled broadly and replied, "Indeed. You learn quickly – but, in Béy Sü, one is rarely warned of danger ahead of time, as I have warned you." She then elaborated, "You are new here and must watch yourself. Many who appear to be your friends are no such thing, while many appear enemies might simply be competitors. Until you learn to distinguish between them all, you must be careful." With that, she summoned her head slave and had Aíthfo removed from her palace.

Baffled by this, Aíthfo returned to his clan mates and told them of his experience. Both Znayáshu and Keléno agreed that Elué had done him a favor. They already feared that the Temple of Ksárul had marked Aíthfo for death after he made it clear he wished to return to Linyaró rather than accept some more important position in the capital or elsewhere. They surmised that she might have been attempting to warn him about imminent danger – or perhaps she was playing some other game. With priestesses of Hriháyal, who could say? In any case, in the ten days remaining before Nebússa's wedding, Aíthfo should be on his guard.

Another invitation came from Táksuru hiViridáme of the Cloak of Azure Gems clan. His cousin, Alída, was a young priestess hoping to produce a book on the flora of the Southern Continent. Táksuru hoped that, owing to their having lived there for the past two years, the characters might be able to provide Alída with firsthand knowledge. In exchange, he promised that he could be "of immense use to them" in Béy Sü, as they navigated high society. Aíthfo agreed to go, accompanied by Keléno, Kirktá, Znayáshu, and Grujúng, though the latter questioned whether he served any purpose in doing so. He was, after all, a soldier and had little knowledge of and indeed interest in such esoteric matters. Nevertheless, he came with the others, who were soon introduced to Táksuru.

Táksuru was handsome, witty, and sophisticated. He was also a devotee of Lord Ksárul, which immediately raised fears among the House of Worms clan mates, fearing that his true purpose was to harm Aíthfo. Those fears were quickly allayed, however, as it became apparent that, if anything, Táksuru shared the characters' opinions of the Temple of Ksárul. Throughout their conversations with him, he regularly hinted that, though a worshipper of the Doomed Prince of the Blue Room, he had little sympathy for its more overtly political factions and secret societies, such as the dreaded Ndálu Clan. With their minds put at ease, the characters agreed to assist and would return the next day with notes and other materials that might assist Alída.

When they returned, Táksuru took great interest in the characters' plans. He probed them repeatedly about their intention to return to Linyaró. Aíthfo played coy with him initially, suggesting that, as a group, they had not yet made up their minds. Táksuru expressed mild disappointment at this, as he hoped the characters were determined to upset the plans of the Temple of Ksárul in the colony. In fact, he was prepared to lend them whatever aid he could, keeping in mind the logistics of traveling to such a far-off location. For he reasons he did not elaborate, he too had a score to settle with the Ndála Clan and outright stated that he would be "very grateful" to the characters if they dealt a serious blow to their plans. With that in mind, they left his company and promised to be in touch after the marriage of Nebússa and Lady Srüna.

Meanwhile, a Pé Chói priest of Keténgku called Chtík p'Qwé approached the characters, claiming to warn them about the "folly" of employing Ninggáya hiKadárta. Chtík explained that she was a "fraud" whose methods not only contradicted "centuries of tradition" within the temple but, more importantly, simply did not work. If the characters took her with them to Linyaró to fight against the plague, they would soon find her remedies did not work. To that end, his temple was prepared to offer them a larger donation to their efforts than originally stated – provided they left Ninggáya behind. This turn of events caused Znayáshu to wonder what was really going on, since, until recently, the temple seemed keen to pawn Ninggáya off on the House of Worms, given her status as a "troublemaker."

Kirktá then invited Ninggáya to meet with him. He wanted to subtly inquire about these matters, but found it difficult to do so when in her actual presence. This led to his decision to attempt to employ ESP on her while discussing related matters, hoping that the psychic spell might reveal something words did not. Unfortunately for him, he failed to cast the spell successfully on his first attempt; when he tried a second time, Ninggáya noticed what he was doing and immediately left his company, seemingly angered by his lack of trust in her. Distraught, he quickly composed a letter of apology,. aided by Keléno, which he sent off to the temple dormitories. Znayáshu likewise composed a letter to the temple, suggesting that it would take more money than offered to reconsider taking Ninggáya with them.

While Kirktá's letter went unanswered, Znayáshu received a prompt reply. The Temple of Keténgku agreed to a higher sum. which only emboldened Znayáshu to ask for more, in this case money and a replacement for Ninggáya. A subsequent reply indicated the temple had no one available to accompany them and, further, that their original offer of a donation was now rescinded. Speculation then abounded in the House of Worms clan. The Temple of Keténgku was behaving very strangely. Given that Ninggáya had not responded to Kirktá's letter, some thought something ill might have happened to her. A suggestion was even made that perhaps Ninggáya was somehow more important to the temple than originally known and the sudden reversals were an attempt to protect her from harm.

Nebússa, extricating himself from wedding preparations, agreed to infiltrate the dormitories of the Temple of Keténgku to look for signs of Ninggáya. Initially, he found no evidence of her presence: her cell was empty and her belongings few. However, he eventually found her within the temple's precincts and approached her, asking what she was doing. She replied that she had "been wrong to flout tradition" and "knew better now." She would no longer be accompanying the characters southward when the time came as "my temple needs me." Reporting this back to the House of Worms clan raised further suspicions that she had been affected by a mind bar or similar spell to control her behavior. Kirktá then despaired that he had somehow brought about this turn of events. He headed to his Temple of Durritlámish to immerse himself in study. 

Less than a week remained until the wedding.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 90

On page 90 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a brief section that sheds much light on how Gary Gygax viewed the game's economic system. He begins:

There is no question that the prices and costs of the game are based on inflationary economy, one where a sudden influx of silver and gold has driven everything well beyond its normal value.

This is a widespread interpretation of AD&D's equipment prices, so it's fascinating to see that Gygax outright confirms this in this passage. He even gives the rationale behind this approach.

The reasoning behind this is simple. An active campaign will almost certainly bring a steady flow of wealth into the base area, as adventurers come from successful trips into dungeon and wilderness. 

This is an important section, because it suggests that the activities of the player characters are not exceptional. The exploration – and looting – of dungeons is, if not commonplace, not unusual and, therefore, has lasting economic consequences. It also suggests to me that the game's economic assumptions are more akin to, say, 16th or 17th century Spain than the earlier medieval period. Gygax seems to have anticipated criticisms of this approach.

If the economy of the area is one which more accurately reflects that of medieval England, let us say, where coppers and silver coins are usual and a gold piece remarkable, such an influx of new money, even in copper and silver, would cause an inflationary spiral. This would necessitate adjusting costs accordingly and then upping dungeon treasures somewhat to keep pace. If a near-maximum is assumed, then the economics of the area can remain relatively constant, and the DM will have to adjust costs only for things in demand or short supply – weapons, oil, holy water, mean-at-arms, whatever.

In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, a regular subject was the "gold piece economy" of Dungeons & Dragons and how "unrealistic" it was. Many a blog post was written on the subject and a fad of substituting silver pieces for gold pieces in one's campaign arose. Games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess even incorporated it into their rules. I don't feel strongly about this subject, but, unless my – and Gygax's – understanding of economics is mistaken, the matters he raises in the preceding paragraph strike me as reasons not to abandon gold pieces as the standard coinage in AD&D.

The economic systems of areas beyond the more active campaign areas can be viably based on lesser wealth only until the stream of loot begins to pour outwards into them. While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of a dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers.

Gygax here says two notable things. The first is his usage of the adjective "heroic," which he will soon elaborate upon. The second is his assertion that he expects player characters in AD&D to have "pouches full of gems" and lots of gold coins. The latter is especially notable, for it gives us some insight into how he saw the "world" of Dungeons & Dragons.

Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means – thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The "reality" AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!

We can see here that "heroic" in the previous section was in reference to the genre of "heroic fantasy," what I usually call "pulp fantasy." His references to the protagonists of such tales is telling and a further buttress of my longstanding contention that Dungeons & Dragons is ill suited to epic or high fantasy of the sort exemplified by The Lord of the Rings or even Dragonlance. With one agrees with that thesis or not, one should also take note of the means Gygax enumerates by which loot may be "lost in a twinkling." We see here is that even AD&D's economic assumptions support the idea that player characters are meant to be rascals and rogues.

You may, of course, adjust any prices and costs as you see fit for your own milieu. Be careful to observe the effects of such changes on both play balance and player involvement. If any adverse effects are noted, it is better to return to the true and true. It is fantastic and of heroic proportions so to match its game vehicle.

This is typically Gygaxian in its approach: feel free to change whatever you like but don't surprised if your changes make the game worse. Take note, too, that he reiterates that the game is "fantastic and of heroic proportions." This is another instance where Gygax shows his hand somewhat, revealing his own preferences and vision for the game. Agree or disagree with that vision, there can be little question that it exists and draws strongly on a very particular strain of fantasy literature, one he calls "heroic fantasy" and that I call "pulp fantasy."

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"Is It Fun?"

Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing is a remarkable little pamphlet. Only sixteen pages in length in the version I first encountered it, BRP isn't just a tightly-written little ruleset; it's also a collection of thoughtful musings about roleplaying as an activity and entertainment. Take, for example, this three paragraph section entitled "Is It Fun? – Cooperation and Competition," which starts off with some sentiments with which I heartily agree.

Gaming is social. If you want to use your imagination alone, you could read a book. But be warned: when a number of people get together cooperatively, they can form a communal fantasy far more interesting and imaginative than could any one person, and the joint effort results in an extremely satisfying experience for all involved.

This is very well said. The emphasis on gaming as a social activity is important, because a big part of why roleplaying works – or doesn't – in any given group comes down to its members' sociability. Just as important is the notion of "communal fantasy." A successful campaign is the result of no single person involved in it, not even the referee, but rather is the fruit of cooperation between everyone involved. As we'll see, though, writers Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis aren't advocating free-form anarchy. 

Players must work together. For instance, a party of adventurers will not survive against a batch of monsters of they are not willing to aid each other, heal each other, and guard each other. This is not to say that you cannot play a back-stabbing thief, only to suggest that if everyone plays that way, there will be no incentive to play together – there must be honor even among thieves, so far as gaming goes. And if all your characters are cut-throats, who will be interested in playing with you?

The matter of evil, untrustworthy, or disreputable characters is a difficult one and I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all way to deal with it. In my House of Worms campaign, for example, all the characters are generally pulling in the same direction, united as they are by bonds of kindship. Instances of back-stabbing (broadly defined) are largely non-existent and that works for this particularly campaign. In other games I've refereed, on the other hand, there have been more examples of dubious behavior player characters and they made sense in context. 

There are also needs to be cooperation between players and the referee. Though the referee does mastermind the world and does set up and run the details, it's also true that the game remains a game for him as well, and that he likes to have fun playing too.

This is a topic on which I've written before: the referee as player. It makes me very happy to see the writers of Basic Role-Playing also saw it as a worthy topic. 

The player-characters should pit themselves against the world, not the referee. The referee should not be afraid to ask others for their opinions on game matters, and the players should not be afraid of debating rules questions or play opportunities with the referee.

This completely comports with my own experiences (and philosophy) as a referee.

Referee rulings should be final, though, and players must be willing to take losses if the referee is adamant in his thinking. Work out questions by discussion, not fiat, and players and referee should be willing to change their minds if necessary, and occasionally change the game somewhat to adjust to the situation at hand. 

To me, this is common sense. I particularly appreciate the fact that Stafford and Willis do not shy away from stating that "referee rulings should be final." In this, they're not very far off from Gary Gygax's comments in the Dungeon Masters Guide on related matters

Simple communication will build an enjoyable and understandable world to play in. The rewards of cooperation are great; hostility and resentment are fatal to play. Remember, the object of all this is to have fun.

This whole section in the BRP pamphlet is very important, but its final sentences quoted above are especially so. Sometimes, when I hear people talk about their experiences playing RPGs, I don't get the sense that they're having much fun doing so and I wonder why that is. If roleplaying games ceased to be fun for me, if all I ever did was complain about the games I'm playing or the people with whom I'm gaming, I would not hesitate to stop playing. 

In any case, I continue to be quite impressed by the original Basic Role-Playing pamphlet. Despite its short length, it contains a great deal of wisdom and is well worth reading if you've never done so. With luck, Chaosium might make it available once again.

Retrospective: Moria: The Dwarven City

I owned – and enjoyed – the first edition of Iron Crown's Middle-earth Role Playing. I also owned several of the Middle-earth setting books published by ICE, such as Bree and the Barrow-Downs. Those supplements were a mixed bag for me, both in terms of how well they were produced and in how much they inspired me when I first read them. Among those of which I thought particularly well was 1984's Moria: The Dwarven City by Peter C. Fenlon, who was also responsible for most of its many maps.

While I remain firm in supporting Gary Gygax's contentious assertion that The Lord of the Rings had little direct influence on his conception of Dungeons & Dragons, it's hard not to waver on the matter when someone brings up Khazad-dûm. Better known as Moria ("black chasm" in Sindarin), it was once the greatest city of the dwarves in all of Middle-earth. This was before its inhabitants famously "delved too greedily and too deep," awakening a Balrog that had hidden itself beneath the Misty Mountains after the War of Wrath. Now a ruin of subterranean chambers, passages, and labyrinths, Moria is filled with orcs and trolls under the command of the Balrog – not to mention untold riches. If ever there were a prototypical D&D dungeon, Khazad-dûm is it.

That's why I readily grabbed a copy of Moria as soon as I came across it. At 72 pages in length, it contains a great deal of information on the dwarven city, starting with descriptions of the land surrounding its location. Everything from topography to climate to flora and fauna are exhaustively detailed, followed by an equally exhaustive history. Looking back on it now, I'd say that both these sections are probably too long for gaming purposes, but, at the time, I didn't care. I had a great deal more patience for voluminous background information. The dwarves of Khazad-dûm, their society, culture, and language get a similar (though shorter) treatment, which ought to give the referee a good sense of what Moria was and is like and why it is constructed in the way that it is.

It's the city itself that is the main attraction in this book and, much as I enjoyed the other sections, it's why I bought it in the first place. About two-thirds of Moria consists of descriptions of the city and its sights, complete with digressions into dwarven architecture and engineering (as well as the philosophy behind them). The reader is treated to details of every conceivable aspect of the city – doors, chambers, chasms, bridges, stairways, and even traps. In almost every case, we're also given drawings and sample maps to illustrate what these features look like and how they are used. It's frankly amazing stuff and precisely what I'd hoped it would be.

As described in Moria, the city is divided into seven levels proper and seven "deeps" – the portions of the city shrouded into darkness used for mining, forging, and related endeavors. It's in these latter areas that the Balrog and his evil minions dwell. Because of how vast Moria is, each of these fourteen layers is given a high-level schematic map, on which certain notable locales are definitively placed. The rest of the layers are detailed by the referee making use of random tables, with the structures and other results correlated to just where one is on a given layer. It's a complex and slightly cumbersome set-up, but, truthfully, I'm not sure how else one could describe a locale as large as Moria without inducing tedium. To its credit, Moria is filled with useful inspiration throughout, which ought to relieve the referee of some of the burden of describing this place.

As a whole, Moria impressed me greatly as a younger man, so much so that I suspect it played a sub-conscious role in my eventual design of my mountain megadungeon Dwimmermount. It's certainly one of the most ambitious "dungeon" products I'd ever seen up to that point and the wonderful maps for which MERP products were known cemented it in my mind as worthy of praise and emulation. Even now, re-reading it in preparation for this retrospective, I felt some of the same awe – and a little sadness, too. I never got the chance to use Moria back in the day. My MERP campaign didn't last long and the player characters never dared venture in the direction of the dwarven city. It's a great pity and one I doubt I'll remedy, but, at my age, I likely only have so many campaigns left in me. Such is life!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021


I am old but not (quite) old enough to have been born before men landed on the surface of the Moon. Consequently, I grew up in the afterglow of the Apollo program, whose last mission occurred when I was three years old. So momentous were the actions of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and the oft-forgotten Michael Collins that I scarcely knew a child who didn't dream of being an astronaut one day. While I no longer have such dreams for myself, I nevertheless still dream that Armstrong's "giant leap for Mankind" might one day become a reality.  

Ad astra.