Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Fantasy Trip

In the course of seeking out information on an unrelated topic, I came across the following image:
In case it's not obvious, this is a portion of a sheet of LSD blotter paper. Blotter paper frequently featured artwork, often psychedelic, occult, or fantastical in nature. Given that, I suppose it was inevitable that there'd eventually be blotter art directly inspired by – or, as in the case above, directly taken from – specific works of fantasy. 

From what I've been able to gather, this blotter paper came from Mexico in 1980 or '81. This matches the period when Marvel licensed its popular Conan the Barbarian comic to Editorial Novaro. This was actually the second time Marvel had licensed the character in Mexico, the first being a decade earlier, when Editorial La Prensa published the series under the title Vulcano el Barbaro. Because the blotter paper identifies the character as Conan rather than Vulcano and features the artwork of John Buscema rather than Barry Smith, the early '80s timeframe makes the most sense. (The history of Conan in Mexico is actually quite an interesting topic. Perhaps I'll delve into that in a future post).

Strictly speaking, none of this has much relevance to the history or play of RPGs, but it's one of those oddities that appeals to me that I like sharing. This makes me wonder if there's ever been any blotter paper with artwork taken from D&D or another roleplaying game … 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Retrospective: Dungeon Masters Adventure Log

When I was younger, I had a strange fondness for office supplies – pens, paper, notebooks, binders, staples, etc. Whenever I was about to begin a new project for school, I'd pop down to the local office supply store and buy whatever supplies I thought were necessary for the completion of the task. For reasons that are obscure, I developed a strong association between office supplies and being "organized" and "prepared." 

Consequently, I was a ready mark for gaming accessories like TSR's Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. Appearing in 1980, it boasts of being "the second playing aid designed specifically for the DM of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™!" (the first presumably being the AD&D Dungeon Masters Screen). Further, the Adventure Log claims to free the referee from having to "rely on memory and sketchy notes to keep track of one's players in the midst of play." Nowadays, I wouldn't see much point in such a product, but, at the time, it appealed precisely to that part of me that thought the Trapper Keeper was the height of technological progress.

The Log is quite a simple product. After a few pages of reproducing various AD&D rules charts, ranging from the genuinely useful (like AC modifiers and XP tables) to the downright esoteric (magical aging causes), the meat of the product consists of a series of two-page spreads that look like this:

On the left hand side, there's space for detailing up to ten player characters. There are columns for most of the expected information, such as player and character names, class, level, race, sex, alignment, hit points, and so on. On the right hand side, there are spaces for marching order, monsters encountered, treasure acquired, light sources, and "unusual events." None of this is especially innovative, but I loved it all the same and made regular use of it at my table. I feel a bit silly about it now, but such is the folly of youth.

Despite the relative weakness of its design (and limitations of its layout), there are nevertheless three things that stand out a noteworthy about the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. The first is the terrific cover illustration illustration by Erol Otus. The second is a four-page centerfold that provides illustrations of many common pieces of AD&D armor and weaponry. Here's a page to give you an idea of what it all looked like:
This, along with the weapon illustrations, was genuinely useful to me, if only because it made it clear that a Lucerne hammer was not, in fact, a blunt weapon). The third and final thing the Log provided were filled-out sample pages of its interior. Besides showing how the product was supposed to be used, it was fun, as you can see:
Click on the image above and take a look at some of the players and the character names. Notice that not only does Black Dougal die (again!), but so too does Sister Rebecca. I have no idea if the information on these pages in any way represents an actual adventure session played by the people involved, but, even if it doesn't, I find it fascinating for the way it depicts the supposed content of such a session. This is why is still retain a certain fondness for the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log after all these years.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Grognard's Grimoire: Yeretshak

Yeretshak (Golden Bloodsucker)

Yeretshaks are 3’-long scuttling creatures common to subterranean locales, though they sometimes venture above ground in search of prey. These beasts use their sharp mandibles to bite and attach themselves to their quarry to suck blood. The carapace of the yeretshak is tough and possesses a sparkly sheen that makes it much prized as a material for armor and shields, particularly by the Ga’andrin.

AC 3 [12], HD 2* (9hp), Att 1 × bite (1d4 + blood sucking), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 120’ (40’), SV D12 V13 P14 B15 S16 (1), ML 8, XP 25, NA 1d8 (2d6), TT Carapace

  • Blood sucking: Upon a successful attack, attaches and drains target’s blood: 1d4 automatic damage per round.
  • Carapace: Worth 1d4 × 10dm to armorers and weaponsmiths (double this amount if sold in Ga’andrin lands).
  • Disease: Bite has 1-in-20 chance of infecting the target (save versus poison). The disease has a 1-in-4 chance of being deadly (die in 2d4 days). Otherwise, the target is sick and bedridden for one month.
  • Detach: If yeretshak drains blood equal to its own hit points or if it or its target dies.

White Dwarf: Issue #12

Issue #12 of White Dwarf (April/May 1979) features a cover by Eddie Jones, who had previously done the cover for issue #10. According to Ian Livingstone's editorial, Jones was the favorite cover artist in the poll he commissioned in the previous issue. For myself, I am regularly struck by how commonly 1970s fantasy art include spaceships and other elements we might today consider science fictional. It's a reminder of just how fluid those two categories were once upon a time. 

Livingstone also comments on a couple of other interesting topics. First, he notes that, thanks to the increase in its readership, White Dwarf is expanding to 32 pages from 28. By my lights, though, it doesn't seem as if those extra four pages are being used for content but rather for more advertising. Second, and relatedly, he notes that "the hobby industry" is not "mass market" and its prices will be accordingly higher. Livingstone then takes aim at "photocopier fanatics" who make copies of rules or magazines rather than buying them. He encourages his readers to give such miscreants "a bad time" and to support game companies by buying their properly printed products. 

"The Fiend Factory" presents eight more monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons. Five of these are creatures I recall from the Fiend Folio, including the githyanki. Notable too is the fact that many feature illustrations by the inimitable Russ Nichsolson. Indeed, some of the illustrations look identical to those that would later appear in the Fiend Folio itself, though it's possible that my aged memory is simply playing tricks on me again. Lew Pulsipher's "Useful Dungeon Equipment" is a short article presenting a collection of pieces of specialized equipment he feels would be of use in dungeon exploration, such as a crowbar, an eyepatch, and noseplugs. I remember reading many articles like this over the years and have a strange fondness for them. They reflect, I think, a real culture of play, in which players regularly came up with inventive solutions to equally inventive obstacles created by referees. Articles like this speak to D&D "as she was played" back in the day and they're every bit as important to understanding the history of the hobby as the ins and outs of designers and companies.

"Open Box" presents five reviews, only two of which are of products with which I am familiar. The unfamiliar products are FGU's Rapier & Dagger (rated 6), Conflict Interaction Associates' Pellic Quest (rated 7), and Gametime Games's Spellmaker (rated 6). The last review is interesting, because the game's creator, Eric Solomon, is given a small space in which to reply to the review's criticisms. The two familiar reviews treat Chaosium's All the World's Monsters (rated 5) and The Arduin Grimoire, Volumes I, II, and III (rated 4). The review of the Arduin books ends with the following comment:
All this issue's reviews are by Don Turnbull, who, in my estimation, tends to be quite harsh in his judgments on non-TSR products. As I've commented before, I can't help but wonder if the combination of his obvious industry – he is one of early White Dwarf's workhorses – and his largely uncritical promotion of TSR played a role in his being made head of TSR UK in 1980.

"Pool of the Standing Stones" by Bill Howard is a "mini-dungeon" for 5th and 6th-level characters. Like so many dungeons of the past, it's an odd mixture of elements. There's a druid who's interested in maintaining the balance between Law and Chaos, bandits, martial artists, mad scientists, and more. There are a few genuinely imaginative elements, like the talking entrance doors, but it's mostly a bizarre mishmash that, while not bad, is still far from good. The best I can say is that it's certainly no worse than many dungeons I created in my youth, though that's very faint praise indeed. 

Part five of Rowland Flynn's "Valley of the Four Winds" appears in this issue, though, as with the previous installments, I can't say much about it, as I lost interest in it several issues ago. "Treasure Chest" offers up a large number of new magic items, a few of which are decent, if not necessarily inspired. Brian Asbury also offers some modifications to the barbarian class that appeared in issue #4, in light of the publication of the Players Handbook. On that very front, Don Turnbull's "A Dip into the Players Handbook" is a two-page examination of certain aspects of the AD&D Players Handbook from the perspective of its innovations over OD&D. I found the article strangely enjoyable. It's a piece of history and provides some insight on how the piecemeal publication of AD&D was received by the existing players of D&D. Turnbull, as one might expect, is a fan of most AD&D's changes, but, even so, his comments are useful bits of data for anyone with an interest in the hobby's history.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Three Hearts and Three Lions

Appendix N includes just shy of thirty different authors whom Gary Gygax considered to have been "of particular inspiration" to him creating Dungeons & Dragons. Of these, Gygax singles out a handle for special mention: DeCamp & Pratt, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, and Merritt. I think it would be difficult for any fair-minded person to find fault with his selection of these authors; their direct influence on D&D (and on the wider fantasy genre) is undeniable. 

Nevertheless, there is one Appendix N author not listed among "the most direct influences upon AD&D" that I feel ought to be there – and, no, I'm not talking about J.R.R. Tolkien. That author is Poul Anderson, particularly with reference to his 1961 novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions. Anderson is generally seen as a science fiction author and understandably so, given his output in that genre, which might explain why he's often overlooked compared to Howard or Leiber or Vance when it comes to seminal D&D inspirations. If you look more closely at his fantasy works, however, I think it becomes harder to deny his direct influence on the game.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a very brief post about Three Hearts and Three Lions. While that post references many of the novel's major connections to Dungeons & Dragons, I thought it worthwhile to return to it at greater length in this post, focusing not just on those connections but on more of the details of its story. Like many older works of fantasy, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, Three Hearts and Three Lions is presented as "true" account of the adventures of its protagonist, as told to the author of the book. In this case, the protagonist is a Danish engineer named Holger Carlsen, who had come to the United States as a university student sometime before World War II. Though enamored of America and intending to stay there, the invasion of his homeland by the Nazis in 1940 awakened in him a patriotic fervor that, within a year, resulted in his returning to Europe to join the resistance in Denmark. 

Carlsen fought in the resistance for a couple of years, evading capture and dealing significant blows to the Nazi war effort. In 1943, he helped Niels Bohr to escape to Sweden and, ultimately, to safety. This endeavor, however, brought him face to face with the Nazis, who shoot him in the head. He blacks out and awakens some time later in a place that is at once familiar but not. Like John Carter, Carlsen is naked, but it doesn't take him long to find some attire. An immense, friendly stallion (named Papillon, according to the engraving on his headstall) approached him, bearing medieval armor and weapons. The armor fits him perfectly – too perfectly – as if it were made specifically for him. His shield bears three hearts and three lions upon it, heraldry very similar to that of the coat of arms of Denmark, which has nine hearts and three lions. 

Carlsen is completely confused and begins to wonder if he is mad or dreaming. Over the course of the next several short chapters – the novel is arranged more or less as a series of vignettes – he comes to realize that, against all logic, he has somehow been transported to Denmark during the reign of Charlemagne. Even so, Carlsen is determined to find some way to return to the 20th century and enlists the aid of multiple magical beings to aid him in this. The first is Hugi the dwarf, but he is soon joined by Alianora the swanmay as well. From them, he learns much about the world to which he has been transported and it's this that is of great interest to players of D&D.

Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Chaos. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants – an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos' under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their shadowy dominion.

This passage and others like it are the ultimate origins of Chainmail's alignment system, which, in turn, would become the basis for that in D&D. They're also, not coincidentally, the origins of Moorcock's own takes on Law versus Chaos from his Eternal Champion stories. Regardless of what one thinks about D&D's use of this idea, it's hard not to find Anderson's version quite compelling. Had D&D done a better job of grounding alignment in a larger, cosmic struggle, I suspect that many, if not most, of the objections to alignment in the game would evaporate (though gamers, being a querulous bunch, would still find ways to complain about it).

As the trio travel across medieval Denmark, they encounter all manner of fantastical creatures, such as elves, a giant, a dragon, and a werewolf. They also make the acquaintance of a Saracen named Carahue and a wizard called Martinus Trismegistus, both of whom provide them with aid. Throughout the story, Carlsen begins to have increasing flashes of memory. He remembers more and more about this fairytale Denmark, as if he'd been here before. In time, he realizes that he's in fact from this time and place originally and that he is in fact Holger Danske, the legendary Ogier le Danois of the Matter of France who was destined to return when Denmark most needed him. 

Three Hearts and Three Lions is a quick read, being about 150 pages in most editions. It's engagingly written and filled with lots of interesting characters and ideas. Aside from the aforementioned presentation of alignment and the swanmay, there's also the first instance of the regenerating troll in fantasy literature and Holger himself, who is a paladin both within the story and as the inspiration for the character class of the same name. There's much to enjoy here, both for fans of classic fantasy literature and archeologists of roleplaying. I wish more people were familiar with this novel.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

RIP: Terry K. Amthor (1958–2021)

Terry K. Amthor, one of the original founders of Iron Crown Enterprises, has died, according to the following announcement from the ICE website:

To all in the ICE family

It is with the greatest sadness that we must inform you that the incomparable Terry Amthor has died. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his sister Tamara, his family and his friends.

The cause and circumstances of his death are still under investigation, so we cannot provide any details on this and will defer to his family on what they choose to disclose in due course.

Terry was a founder member of the original ICE and a cocreator of Rolemaster and Spacemaster, writing and contributing to many of its most iconic products, and to some of the most exceptional 1st edition Middle-earth modules. Most of all, he has shaped our imaginations with his masterful Shadow World epic fantasy setting. He continued to develop Kulthea through his own Eidolon Studio company, before joining forces with Guild Companion Publications to create new sourcebooks and adventures bringing ever more of Shadow World to life, and working as our layout guru for most of our other products.  

Author, designer, world builder, and friend, Terry’s genius has enriched our lives for decades. His creations will continue to inspire us all for years to come.

Rest in peace, Terry.

Nicholas, Colin, John and Thom

In recent months, I'd begun to delve into the Shadow World setting, which was largely the creation of Amthor, so this news is strangely affecting. I now wish I'd had been more familiar with his work and other contributions to the hobby over the years. I now have added impetus to correct this oversight in my gaming education. Rest in peace, Mr Amthor.

Friday, October 1, 2021

"Inscrutable Dungeonmaster Par Excellence"

Had he lived, today would have been the 74th birthday of David L. Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. 

There's not much I can say about him here that others have not already said better – a big change from the days of my youth, when Arneson and his contributions to the hobby weren't as well known as they are today. In the years since his death, Arneson's star has risen considerably, particularly among those of us who favor the earliest editions of D&D. That's as it should be. 

Dave Arneson was, after all, "the innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept" on which the entire game was founded. It's an idea of such remarkable durability and flexibility that it remains a centerpiece not just of D&D and its many imitators but also of other forms of entertainment that have grown up in its wake. In a very real sense, so much of modern popular media was born in the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor in the first years of the 1970s and we have Arneson to thank for lighting the spark that would one day grow into a brilliant flame.

Happy Birthday, Dave.