Thursday, December 30, 2021

My Top 10 D&D Illustrations of the Golden Age (Part II)

Here is the second part of the list I began earlier this week. As always, a reminder that this list is highly personal. The entries here were judged on a variety of criteria, resulting in entries that fall somewhere in that wide, nebulous space between my personal favorites and objectively best with the former likely playing a far larger role in my final determination. Nevertheless, I genuinely do think all the entries below are excellent illustrations of my own early experiences of Dungeons & Dragons, experiences that still influence my view of the game to this day. 

5. Holmes Basic Frontispiece (1977)

Like the cover to the J. Eric Holmes-edited Basic Set, my fondness for this particular piece is no doubt colored by its placement as the very first piece of art inside the Basic rulebook. Consequently, it's seared into my memory in much the same way as the cover itself. However, there's more to my fondness for the piece than primacy of memory. This is a terrific action scene, one depicting two doughty fighters in historical armor – a signature element of Sutherland's art – holding the line against a veritable horde of pig-faced orcs, while a magic-user casts a spell from the safe higher ground afforded by the nearby spiral staircase. I like it because it shows an adventuring party, albeit a small one, in action in a way that suggests the use of tactics. Likewise, I adore how many orcs there are. This is not a fair fight by any means; in fact, it looks downright desperate. This is what dungeon adventuring was like before the appearance of the notion of "balanced encounters." It can't get any more old school than this.

4. AD&D Dungeon Masters Screen (1979)
What a marvelous piece by Dave Trampier! It's really got everything: a dragon, mounted combat against lizard men, the discovery of a magic sword, ghosts, a brave swordsman protecting a woman – a rarity in Tramp's artwork – and, of course, the demon idol of Players Handbook fame (more on that soon). All in all, it's a superb montage of many of the activities that one might have expected from play in a D&D campaign. It also very nicely showcases just how talented Trampier was and of what he might have been capable had TSR valued him more. Like many pieces on my Top 10 list, this is a piece that makes me want to play D&D. Trampier beautifully evokes all the heroism, wonder, and terror to be found in a good game session. It's one of his best efforts and surely deserves to be celebrated.

3. Room of Pools (1977)
This illustration, from the module In Search of the Unknown, is one of my favorites – along with the dungeon chamber it depicts. I was so in love with the Room of Pools that I shamelessly included a version of it in many of my early dungeons. It's not hard to understand why. The Room of Pools is a near perfect example of old school dungeon design principles. There are lots of pools, some of which offer boons and others banes, and it's up to the players to figure out which ones are which, based on cleverness, observation, and trial and error. I'm a huge fan of rooms like this and enjoy sitting back and watching the players' minds work, as they try to puzzle out what's in front of them. Sutherland captures this dynamic perfectly here. He also depicts an adventuring party – a little larger this time – and that always tickles my fancy.

2. A Paladin in Hell

This Dave Sutherland illustration, from the AD&D Players Handbook, simply had to be on this list, as I long ago deemed it "my favorite D&D illustration of all time." More than a decade on from that original post, I largely stand by that assessment. It remains my favorite piece in the entirety of the PHB, as well as the best depiction of a paladin in all of Dungeons & Dragons artwork. What prevents my including it in the top slot is its specificity. This scene depicts a lone character fighting against foes in a very unusual situation. How often do D&D characters venture to Hell itself to take on the forces of the Enemy? Not very often, I'd wager. Likewise, D&D is about groups of characters working together to explore dungeons and relieve them of their treasures. There's plenty of space for individual heroism, of course, but, much as I love this illustration, I don't think the situation it depicts is in any way typical of those found in the average game session. But it's a solid number 2.

1. AD&D Players Handbook Cover (1978)

Was there really any doubt about the number 1 spot? I don't believe there's ever been a piece of artwork for Dungeons & Dragons that is more well recognized and iconic. It is unquestionably the best cover of any D&D rulebook ever and perhaps even the single best evocation of what D&D was about in its early days. It's got pretty much everything you'd want in such a cover: the aftermath of a battle against lizard men, looting, planning, the use of maps, and the great demon idol itself. The idol is what really sells the piece for me. It's simultaneously attractive and repellent, redolent with the kind of mystery I expect in good dungeon features. I'm not sure I can say anything about the piece that hasn't been said hundreds of times before and better. This is a case where the artwork really does speak for itself. Magnificent.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Retrospective: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

I'll briefly reiterate what I wrote in my retrospective post of Slave Pits of the Undercity: I have conflicting feelings about the entirety of the "Slave Lords" series of modules. On the one hand, the central conceit of these adventures – taking down a cabal of slavers – is a terrific one very much in keeping with the pulp fantasy roots of Dungeons & Dragons. It's not hard to imagine Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser engaged in such an endeavor. On the other hand, the modules, as published, feel very contrived and formulaic, owing no doubt to their origins as GenCon tournament modules. There's good stuff in all four of the A-series modules, but none of them quite achieve their full potential in my opinion, which is a shame.

That's especially so in the case of the final module in the series, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Written by Lawrence Schick, the adventure is geared toward characters of levels 4–7, like all of its predecessors, though its introductory "Notes for the Dungeon Master" repeatedly points out that "the player's skill, not the character's level, will determine success." That's because it assumes the characters failed in their assault on the aerie of the slave lords (in the module of this name) and were taken captive. Rather than slay the PCs, the slave lords instead throw them into their dungeons, "totally bereft of equipment and spells." Schick comments on this initial situation as follows:

Many players think of their characters in terms of their powers and possessions, rather than as people. Such players will probably be totally at a loss for the first few minutes of play. It is likely that they will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an "unfair" situation. They will demand or beg concessions. DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY HELP, even if they make you feel sorry for them. Inform the players that they must rely on what they have, not what they used to have, and that this includes their brains and their five senses. Good players will actually welcome the challenge of this scenario. All players will ultimately enjoy the module much more if they out on their own resources, rather than with what hints and clues the DM gives them.

Schick accurately predicted the reactions of my friends with whom I played; they were incensed to have had all their characters' gear taken away. I suspect this reaction was commoner if the module was used as part of regular campaign play, as it was in mine, than in a tournament situation, whose players, in my limited experience, are more accepting of such contrivances. Much more interesting, though, is Schick's insistence that the referee neither give the players any help nor feel sorry for them. "Good players," he intones, "will … welcome the challenge." He was accurate in that prediction as well. Once they got past the initial shock of their characters being tossed, nearly naked and unarmed, into dark, dank, caverns, they started to have fun figuring out how best to survive. 

That's the main reason why I consider In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords perhaps the most interesting of the A-series modules: it does something unique, namely force the players to use their wits to keep their characters alive. Of course, it probably helps that many of the opponents in the eponymous dungeons are fairly weak – kobolds and giant insects of various kinds – but there are still enough genuine threats to keep them on their toes. This is no cakewalk.

And then there are the myconids, for which I have an inordinate fondness. There's just something about mushrooms and fungi generally that I not only find weirdly appealing but that screams "fantasy!" to me. I suppose my boyhood reading of Lewis Carroll played a role in this peculiar fixation of mine. Regardless, I love the myconids, who are not wholly indifferent to the characters' plight. Indeed, if they agree to perform a service to the myconid king, it will reveal to them an easier means of escaping the dungeons. I have always liked the inclusion of neutral factions in dungeons and Schick does a good job, I think, of showing the potential inherent in such encounters.

The conclusion of the module involves a final confrontation with the slave lords amidst a volcanic eruption that is destroying the villains' home base. Like many aspects of the module, it's all rather contrived and, in my opinion, something of an anticlimax not just to this module but to the whole series. Mind you, disappointment is my overall feeling about these adventures. There's unquestionable potential in them, along with a number of genuinely clever sections and elements, but, in the end, the whole winds up being much less than its parts. I can't help but think that, with a bit more work, the A-series could have been truly memorable, on par with the truly great modules of D&D's past. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #21

Issue #21 of White Dwarf (October/November 1980) begins with an editorial by Ian Livingstone in which he opines about magic systems in fantasy roleplaying games. "Not wishing to sit on the fence," Livingstone stakes the claim that D&D's Vancian system is "now a little outdated." He then lauds "the power point system of RuneQuest" as being "more logical." While I have no problem with Livingstone's preference for RQ's system over that of D&D, I find his claim that the latter's system is "outdated" odd. What does that term even mean in this context? The suggestion that RuneQuest's system is "more logical" is equally odd, especially given that Livingstone notes earlier in his own editorial that "there is no real way of testing the fallibility of each system." He's right about that, which is why all we have are personal preferences.

"Lore of the Land" by Andrew Finch is a collection of four new D&D character classes based on characters from the Thomas Covenant novels of Stephen R. Donaldson. Three of these classes are spellcasters, while the fourth one is the bloodguard, which are broadly similar to monks. "Merchants" by Roger E. Moore describes one more D&D character class, the merchant of the title. In Moore's version, merchants are similar to thieves and bards, in that they possess a variety of percentile-based skills focused on personal interactions. The class is clearly very specialized but I can certainly see its appeal.

"Open Box" presents three longer reviews, the first of which is for GDW's Azhanti High Lightning (garnering a score of 8 out of 10). Also reviewed are a pair of micro-games from Task Force Games, Intruder (6 out of 10) and Valkenburg Castle (8 out of 10). I never saw the two games reviewed here, but micro-games were quite trendy in the hobby for a time, with some of them, such as Ogre, proving quite successful and influential. "Survival!" by Bob McWilliams is an example of such a mini-game, whose complete rules and game map are included in this issue/ The game is solitaire, with the player taking the role of Jardine, the sole survivor of a starship whose lifeboat crash landed on the world of Coryphire. The world is uninhabited, but there is an Imperial Scout Service Aid Station located on it. By braving Coryphire's wildlife and environment, he might be able to reach the station alive. 

"Treasure Chest" presents fifteen new D&D spells submitted by a variety of authors, including such notables as Roger E. Moore and Mark Galeotti. "Fiend Factory" does something very interesting. Instead of simply presenting seven new D&D monsters, they're all contextualized within a wilderness area known as "One-Eye Canyon." It's quite clever in my opinion and made me much more interested in the new monsters than I have been in previous installments of "Fiend Factory." 

Bob McWilliams pens another "Starbase" column, this time presenting a short scenario – more of a situation really – involving a wilderness trek during a winter storm. It's fascinating to me how many early Traveller adventures take place in the wilderness or battles against the elements. It's definitely not what I imagine most people think of when they hear the words "science fiction adventure in the far future." The issue ends with "Tomb of the Maharaja" by S. Hartley. It's a short adventure set in an ostensibly Indian-themed dungeon, but that felt to me more like something out of ancient Egypt, complete with a mummy at the end. 

Issue #21 felt like a slight step backwards for White Dwarf, especially after a string of truly excellent issues. That's the nature of submission-driven magazines, I suppose, so I can't judge the issue too harshly, even if its content wasn't quite as appealing to me as that in its immediate predecessors.

Monday, December 27, 2021

My Top 10 D&D Illustrations of the Golden Age (Part I)

Ever since I started doing these Top 10 lists earlier this month, I've received a lot of positive feedback, including email suggestions of other lists I could present. One of the most requested of these other lists concerns the art of Dungeons & Dragons, namely my favorite pieces. There's no question that this is a good topic for a list and will generate a lot of discussion, but I must admit to some hesitation nonetheless. Judging art is often subjective, especially gaming art, appreciation of whose qualities can depend on numerous factors beyond the specific piece of art under discussion. It's also been my experience that there's something of a difference in tastes between age cohorts of D&D players, with those encountering the game in the mid to late 1980s having a different notion of what makes good D&D art than those, like myself, coming from just a slightly earlier era.

Nevertheless, I do think there's something to be gained by proposing a list of my Top 10 D&D illustrations. As before, I am limiting myself to the Golden Age of the game, since it's the era when I first encountered it. The imagery of that era made a strong impression on me and, as a result, most of what I think of as the best illustrations for the game were created during its first decade of publication. Also as before, I make no claims to objectivity or universal appeal. The ten illustrations that will appear here and in its follow-up post later in the week are those that I like, for reasons I will explain. Naturally, some will disagree, perhaps vehemently with my choices and that's fine. My only hope is that, in offering my list, I might encourage conversation rather than mere argument.

10. Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1977)

This painting, by David C. Sutherland, is perhaps the very first piece of D&D art I ever saw and is, therefore, forever linked with the game in my imagination. There was simply no way I could justify excluding it, despite its clear technical deficiencies. Of course, if I were to exclude illustrations on such a basis, I'd have to rule out almost all of those on this list. Even so, there's a lot to like in this particular piece, starting with the fact that it clearly shows a knight in historical armor standing beside a traditional-looking wizard as they face off against a dragon resting atop a vast treasure hoard. For a game called Dungeons & Dragons, this is nearly ideal in conveying what the game is about. I can't tell you how many hours I probably spent staring at this image in late 1979 and early 1980. The illustration reached out and seized me in a way I still cannot adequately explain. In my mind's eye, this is what D&D looks like. 

9. Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set (1981)

This is a slight cheat, in that the cover for the Expert Set by Erol Otus also incorporates a portion of his Basic Set cover as well. That said, I actually like the Expert Set illustration a bit more, since it highlights one of Otus's funky wizards, whom I found equally fascinating and unsettling as a youth. More to the point, since I already owned the Holmes-edited Basic Set (see above), I didn't see any immediate need to buy the 1981 Moldvay set, opting for the Expert Set alone (a situation I would later rectify). In fact, I often stuffed the Expert rulebook inside my Holmes box when I took it with me to friends' homes to play. Together, they formed the basis of my foundational D&D experiences and I find it hard to separate the two. However, I rate this illustration slightly higher solely on the basis of the greater skills of Erol Otus. His illustrations were always weird and evocative and did a lot to broaden my conception of what fantasy was and could be.

8. "Skeleton Trap" (1979)

This illustration, by David S. LaForce, appears in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. In terms of its composition, it's nothing special, but it's a piece that's fascinated me for decades nonetheless. What I think elevates it above so many other "better" illustrations is the sense of inexorable doom it conveys – a key feature of many early D&D sessions. The room is filling with water; the only means of obvious escape is barred. And there's also an animated skeleton in the room, emerging from beneath the water. Does the hapless fighter on the left know he's about to be attacked from behind? Is he simply more concerned about the rising water level in the room? I pondered these questions a lot when I was younger. Consequently, t's an illustration that's stuck with me over the years.

7. "Dragon Attack" (1981)

Unlike many of my peers, I've never been a huge fan of Bill Willingham's artwork. That's not a knock against Willingham's work, which is quite good but a little too "comic book-y" for my tastes. Nevertheless, I consider the frontispiece of the 1981 D&D Basic Set pictured above to be one of my favorite illustrations of the Golden Age. Much like the Sutherland cover to the Holmes Basic Set, it scores a lot of points simply for the fact that it depicts a confrontation with a dragon. Where it is superior to Sutherland's piece – and why it is higher on my list – is that it comes closer to depicting a proper party of adventurers, in this case a dwarf, an elf, a fighter, and a magic-user. The composition is a little odd, in that the adventurers are practically right on top of the dragon, but I can overlook that, because of how dynamic and exciting the scene is. 

6. "Treasure Hunters" (1977)

This Dave Trampier illustration, from the AD&D Monster Manual is favorite of mine for a number of reasons. For one, I think it's among Tramp's best pieces of work. The use of light and shadow is quite effective. For another, I love the faces of the three adventurers. They palpably evince greed, with the one on the far right unable to prevent his hand from reaching into the chest and grabbing what's within. Also, these aren't Hollywood handsome protagonists posing heroically for the cameras. They're rough and tumble rogues of the sort Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, or Fritz Leiber might have created. They're perfect exemplars of the pulp fantasy literary inspirations of D&D that was largely discarded by later editions of the game. We need to see more dubious characters like this in D&D artwork, if you ask me.

Friday, December 24, 2021


Last Friday marked the 250th session of my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign – a fairly significant milestone! 

The campaign began on March 6, 2015 with six players. Four of those original players continue to play to this day. In the years since, three more players have joined them, bringing the regular complement of characters to seven (joined occasionally by various "guest stars," who play for only a short time, as their schedules allow). I doubt the campaign would have made it to this many sessions, never mind nearly seven years of active play, if I were not so fortunate as to have such dependable and dedicated players.

I started the campaign partially as an experiment. While I had refereed campaigns in Tékumel before, I'd never used the original Empire of the Petal Throne rules before. Like a lot of longtime Tékumel fans, I owned a copy of the 1975 boxed set, but it was little more than an artifact of the past. The House of Worms campaign was intended to change this state of affairs by giving me the opportunity to put EPT through its paces, as I had done previously with OD&D.

Though I had hopes that the campaign would last longer than a few months, I had no expectation that it would do so. Indeed, by the time of its first anniversary in 2016, I was frankly amazed that it had lasted this long. Tékumel is an acquired taste, as fantasy settings go. Likewise, EPT is a primitive and occasionally crude ruleset by many standards. That both could hold the attention of players for a full year of more or less weekly play was remarkable to say the least. 

Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised. My experience is that, after a certain point, campaigns develop a sufficient head of steam that it takes effort to derail them. The House of Worms campaign had certainly acquired that kind of momentum long before we reached our first anniversary. The combination of the unique setting, the situations I created, and the delightful characters the players developed was a potent combination, the likes of which I hadn't experienced since the days of my OD&D Dwimmermount campaign and the House of Worms would soon surpass that by almost every metric. 

Looking back on it, I wish I could rightly say what I did that ensured the success of this campaign. Beyond the good fortune of having amazing players, I can pinpoint only two factors that might have contributed to the campaign's continued longevity. The first is consistency. Early on, I decided that, so long as two-thirds or more of the players showed to a session, we'd play. If, as is inevitable, a player or even two was unavailable for a session, we almost always proceeded without them. As a result, we quickly accumulated a goodly number of sessions, which in turn served as an encouragement to keep going. My talk of a "head of steam" and "momentum" is very real. The House of Worms soon moved like a boulder racing downhill.

The second thing I did was provide lots of variety. The early sessions of the campaign took place in a single city but soon moved to another one in a foreign land. Along the way, the characters got to experience intrigue, diplomacy, and underworld exploration. After that, they undertook a lengthy trek across Tékumel, meeting many people and seeing many sites. With each step, their characters got the chance to experience the length and breadth of the setting. I took note of what the players enjoyed and what they didn't and made sure to calibrate the campaign accordingly. Eventually, the characters set off on their greatest journey, a months-long journey to the mysterious Southern Continent, to take up important posts on behalf of the Petal Throne. They remain there to this day – but continue to seek new challenges with each session.

It's hard not to brag about all of this. House of Worms is among the most fun I've ever had playing RPGs. That it's still going strong after all these years amazes me. Even more amazing is that I see no immediate sign of its stopping. The way things are going at the moment, I wouldn't surprised if it lasted many more years. Even if it didn't, I have no regrets about it. I've enjoyed it immensely and will long remember the exploits of the House of Worms clan. This is what roleplaying is all about.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

My Top 10 Classic Traveller Adventures (Part II)

Without further ado, here are the final five entries in my list of my favorite classic Traveller adventures, concluding the post I made earlier this week

5. Divine Intervention

1982's Divine Intervention is one part of a double adventure (the other part entitled Night of Conquest) and is, in my opinion, the more interesting of the two. Interestingly, the scenario is written by Lawrence Schick, formerly of TSR, and marks, so far as I know, his sole appearance as a writer for Traveller (though he was one of the co-designers of the SF RPG Star Frontiers). Divine Intervention focuses on the efforts of the player characters, as agents of an offworld corporation to stage a "message from God" to the leader of a religious dictatorship on the planet Pavabid, said message supporting the corporation's desire to exploit Pavabid's mineral resources. Divine Intervention is an imaginative caper scenario, one that makes good use of the varying tech levels of Traveller worlds. It's also a rare scenario that talks much about religion in the Third Imperium setting, albeit in a very limited fashion. I have fond memories of refereeing this one.

4. Nomads of the World-Ocean

Another fine effort by the Keith Brothers, Nomads of the World-Ocean follows a well-worn pattern for both Traveller adventures generally and the works of J. Andrew and William H. Keith, namely the dubious activities of interstellar corporations on worlds in or near the Third Imperium. In this case, the world in question is Bellerophon, whose surface, as the title suggests, is covered entirely by water. That alone sets this adventure apart; there's lots of excellent detail about the planet, its ecosystem, and its native population, all of which really set the scene for the players. The local inhabitants are Turkish-descended people who dwell on immense seagoing vessels and travel across Bellerophon's oceans in search of its largest native lifeform, the vaguely whale-like daghadasi, which they hunt. Recently, it was discovered these creatures are also the source of a biochemical that might be useful in the creation of life extension drugs, hence the interest of corporate agents. Nomads is a rich, complicated adventure replete with not only great science fictional concepts, but also food for thought about economics, colonialism, environmentalism, and more – superb stuff.

3. Murder on Arcturus Station

Yet another fine scenario by J. Andrew Keith of the prolific Keith Brothers, Murder on Arcturus Station is, as its title suggests, a murder mystery scenario set aboard a space station in the Arcturus star system of the Solomani Rim. What makes it notable and worthy of inclusion on this list is the very flexible way that Keith designed it. Instead of a single, pre-defined murderer and motive, the referee has nine different options, each one of them detailed enough to make his job easier in presenting the chosen one as the killer. This gives the adventure a great deal of replayability, which is certainly a virtue. In addition, the referee is better able to tailor the scenario to his ongoing campaign. Like most murder mystery scenarios, this one depends heavily on the slow, methodical accumulation of clues through investigation and interviews with NPCs. Consequently, it might not be to everyone's tastes. I, however, have always had a great fondness for murder mysteries, particularly well written ones such as this.

2. Leviathan 

Leviathan is a very unusual Traveller adventure in that it was written by Bob McWilliams, a regular writer for White Dwarf, and therefore reflects a UK take on the Third Imperium setting. The scenario is set in the Outrim Void, a region of space rimward of the default Spinward Marches sector. The characters are part of a trading expedition to the largely unknown worlds of this part of space. Thus, a large part of the adventure is travelling from world to world, learning their details and determining the most lucrative sorts of trades one might make with them. In the process, the characters also learn more about the local political situation, including the activities of pirates, corsairs, and the ever-present threat of agents of the Zhodani Consulate. Leviathan is thus a bit like a hexcrawl in space, which is a style of scenario I've always found compelling. In the Traveller context, it works exceedingly well and I got great enjoyment from refereeing this over the course of many weeks in my youth.

1. Legend of the Sky Raiders

In selecting 1981's Legend of the Sky Raiders as my favorite Traveller adventure of all time, I'm actually using it as a surrogate for the entirety of the "Sky Raiders Trilogy," consisting of this adventure and its two sequels, The Trail of the Sky Raiders and Fate of the Sky Raiders. Though each one is theoretically a stand-alone adventure, they work best when used in conjunction with one another. The central conceit of these adventures is the mystery of the eponymous Sky Raiders, an ancient civilization of interstellar marauders who ravaged multiple worlds in a remote sector to spinward of the Third Imperium in the ancient past. Throughout the three adventures, the characters uncover details about the history of the Sky Raiders, leading them on an Indiana Jones-esque chase across many planets, with rivals also intent on learning these secrets hot on their heels. It's brilliant pulp sci-fi of the most engaging sort and, in my view, represents Traveller at its best. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Retrospective: Fifth Frontier War

In keeping with this week's vaguely Traveller theme, I thought I might turn my attention in this post to GDW's Fifth Frontier War. Originally published in 1981, Fifth Frontier War (hereafter FFW) is a board wargame released as part of the company's promotion of a major "event" in the official Traveller setting, namely the war of the game's title. For those of you unfamiliar, here's a brief précis: the Spinward Marches are a region of space between the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate, two human-dominated interstellar empires. For centuries, the two powers have jockeyed for control of several subsectors of the Marches, such efforts often boiling over into conflicts known as the Frontier Wars. After a generation of cold war, the Fifth Frontier War erupted and this game is intended to simulate it.

The game focuses on eight subsectors of the Spinward Marches, presented either in whole or in part. Together, the map board includes close to 150 worlds over which the Imperial and Zhodani players can compete. As a wargame, FFW has two notable features. The first (and less interesting of the two) is the variability of its combat. Though the game as a whole is a "big picture," strategic affair, combat runs the gamut from starship versus starship battles to orbital bombardment to planetary assault. This is an approach it shares with another Traveller wargame, Invasion: Earth (also published in 1981) and one that's rooted in the military doctrine of the Third Imperium setting of Traveller itself.

The second notable feature is its handling of movement. Traveller famously does not include any type of instantaneous interstellar communication. This means that long-range military planning is a "best guess" affair, since there's no reliable way to ensure that the information available to admirals behind the lines is accurate. Furthermore, jumping between star systems takes a week of real time regardless of a starship's drive rating (which, at any rate, is capped at 6 parsecs), thereby creating an additional limit to available information. FFW simulates this by making each player plot his units' movement several turns in advance of executing them. In play, this means that units may jump into a star system expecting very different conditions than are the case when they actually arrive there. As an evocation of the setting, it's wonderful, but, as an element of game play, it can be frustrating, especially if, like me, you're not very good at predictive thinking.

I never had the chance to play many games of FFW, so my judgment of it may be limited. From my experience, it's a solid wargame that does a good job of simulating the nature of interstellar warfare in the Third Imperium setting. Similarly, it shows just how comparatively futile this is and why most of the Frontier Wars have ended in stalemates or very limited victories for one side or the other. The setting's technological limitations prevent even large empires like the Third Imperium from being able to easily conquer worlds and expand their territories. The process of doing is slow, careful, and often tedious, with no guarantee of success, even if one has superior forces. Whether one considers this a good thing or a bad thing, I can't say, though I would imagine anyone expecting a more "space operatic" approach to interstellar warfare might be disappointed.

As an aside, it's worth mentioning that the Fifth Frontier War – the in-setting conflict, not the wargame simulating it – is an early example of an attempt by a game company to "shake up" a setting by introducing a major change to it. Previously, GDW had used Traveller News Service reports in the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society to plant the seeds for scenarios a referee might choose to develop in his own campaign. In the case of the war, GDW was presenting a large-scale event that could have far-reaching consequences for campaigns set in and around the Spinward Marches sector. GDW promoted the war heavily at the time; I imagine the company hoped it would attract a lot of attention to Traveller and fire up its fan base. In the end, like the war itself, it was something of a wet squib, in part, I think, because it had the potential to undermine many existing campaigns. GDW didn't attempt anything so far reaching for Traveller's development again until the so-called Rebellion in 1986 and its fate (and that of Traveller itself) was even worse.

Monday, December 20, 2021

My Top 10 Classic Traveller Adventures (Part I)

Never let it be said that I don't give the audience what they want. That's why the latest in my year end Top 10 lists covers the adventures of Traveller. Like my previous lists, this one comes with a couple of notable caveats. The first is that this list only considers adventures published during the era of classic Traveller, which is to say, 1977–1986. The second is that the adventures in question must have been published as stand-alone products rather than as, say, articles in the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society. The cuts down on the number of possible candidates, it's true, but there are still many possibilities to consider, especially since I'm taking into account licensees like FASA, Gamelords, and Judges Guild (spoiler alert: there are no JG adventures on this list).

I should also remind readers that, like previous lists of this sort, I have deliberately limited it to adventures I've personally refereed or played. That eliminates a handful of worthy contenders for inclusion, to be sure, but not so many that I think it undermines the utility of a list like this one. Still, if in your opinion there's an obvious omission, there's a good chance it's because I don't have any direct experience with the adventure in question. 

10. Twilight's Peak

Twilight's Peak is the third adventure ever published for Traveller and it's a very good one. Indeed, I hesitated to place it so low on the list, because, in some respects, it's a near perfect example of the kind of sober, serious science fiction that Traveller represented (especially in contrast to most other SF RPGs at the time). Unfortunately, the adventure depends heavily on the learning of certain information via rumors in order to proceed from world to world across the Spinward Marches. Even then, these rumors often only lead to the search for yet more information, potentially leading to a long and tedious investigation into matters whose ultimate import is not clear. Admittedly, the final payoff is worth it and the scenario includes a number of interesting stops along the way, but, unlike The Traveller Adventure – which is not included on this list, by virtue of its having been included elsewhere – I found it to lack forward momentum at times. Still, it's well-done and, as I said, a solid example of the kind of restrained science fiction Traveller does better than most SF RPGs before or since.

9. Research Station Gamma

This is the immediate predecessor to Twilight's Peak in terms of publication and deals with many of the same general concepts and themes, most specifically the mysterious, extinct alien species known only as the Ancients. Unlike Adventure 3, Research Station Gamma is more straightforward and therefore easier to use. On the downside, some of that straightforwardness comes in the form of being what is effectively a "dungeon crawl in space" – a common flaw in some of GDW's early Traveller adventures. The fact that much of the opposition in the scenario takes the form of alien animals held inside the titular research station only further contributes to this feeling. On the other hand, the "dungeon" in question is an interesting one, with an unusual architecture that many old Traveller hands look on with some fondness. The adventure is also notable for being one of the few GDW publications to mention, let alone describe, robots, an element of science fiction Traveller largely glossed over.

8. Duneraiders

Published by Gamelords and written by William H. Keith, Duneraiders is a companion piece to the supplement, The Desert Environment (what a surprise!). The scenario itself deals with corporate warfare on the world of Tashrakaar, a mineral-rich planet located outside the borders of the Third Imperium. Tashrakaar has a native population, the so-called Duneraiders, who don't take kindly to the presence of offworlders and with whom the player characters must eventually ally – first simply to survive and later to thwart the machinations of the nefarious Dakaar Minerals corporation. If this all sounds more than a little inspired by Frank Herbert's famous novel series, you're not wrong. Fortunately, William H. Keith is a good adventure designer and he introduces enough new elements into the mix to ensure Tashrakaar isn't just a clone of Arrakis. I must confess to a lot of personal fondness for this adventure, because it's one of the few I first experienced as a player rather than as a referee. I had a lot of fun with it and that plays a role in its inclusion here.

7. Shadows

In addition to its other adventures, GDW published a series of "double adventures," consisting of two shorter scenarios published back to back – and upside down – in imitation of the Ace Doubles released throughout the 1950s and '60s. Double Adventure 1 included an adventure entitled Shadows that is a favorite of mine, due in no small part that it was included in The Traveller Book as one of its sample scenarios (which is where I first encountered it). The adventure focuses on the discovery and exploration of a series of ancient alien pyramids on an inhospitable world. Though another example of a "dungeon crawl in space," Shadows pulls this off exceptionally well, with lots of interesting details and plenty of scope for characters to get into trouble. The pyramids are also a potential source of some remarkable information about their past – nothing earthshattering, mind you, but historically valuable. It's a great scenario with which to introduce newcomers to Traveller and its particular take on science fiction adventure.

6. Death Station

Yet another double adventure and yet another "dungeon in space." Death Station involves the player characters being hired to travel to an orbital laboratory ship with whom their patron has lost communications contact. While he suspects that the problem behind the loss of communications is merely technical in nature, it's possible that it's something more, which is why he outfits the characters appropriately. As presented, Death Station is fairly bare bones, focusing primarily on describing the lab ship in great detail, complete with maps and aids for the referee. However, the true nature of the problem – a psychochemical drug experiment gone wrong – opens up lots of possibilities for a frightening situation. Insane crewmen, escaped lab animals, and lots of hidden ducts and crawlspaces present the perfect environment for a tense handful of sessions. I used Death Station in my Riphaeus Sector campaign a few years ago to good effect. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Intermission

As of today, there are slightly more than 250 entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series and I've decided to take a short break from it. The series began its life on September 1, 2008 as "Pulp Fantasy Gallery," with the very first post depicting Conan's debut cover image from Weird Tales. By the start of early 2009, I had decided to change gears slightly and Pulp Fantasy Library began in earnest. Since then, the series has become one of the signatures of this blog and one of the loudest champions of the otherwise forgotten writers and works of Gary Gygax's Appendix N. Indeed, my posts on some of these subjects are among the only ones to be found easily on the Internet, which gives me a small amount of pleasure. My intention with the series was to bring greater attention to these authors and books and I seem to have succeeded in that to some extent.

The quest to find unheralded writers and stories grows more difficult with each entry I post. Likewise, the Internet now holds a great deal more information about the classics of pulp fantasy than it did a decade ago when I first started writing about the subject. While there is no doubt still an appetite for additional Pulp Fantasy Library posts, I must admit to some fatigue in writing them. Partly, I think it's because I feel an obligation to avoid better known stories, but that's not an easy task, as regular readers no doubt recognize. Had I infinite resources to acquire and infinite space to store all these works, it would still be onerous. Since I have neither, there's necessarily a limit to my capabilities. 

At the same time, I continue to believe that there's a lot to be learned from the foundational writers of the genre we now call "fantasy." Consequently, Pulp Fantasy Library isn't going anywhere just yet, though I am pondering new approaches that might help me in composing entries each week. I still haven't come to any firm conclusions, which is why I'd be grateful for suggestions my readers might have to offer on this score. It may be that there's really no need to change anything at all. I may simply need a break from the series for a few weeks in order to recharge my batteries. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that there won't be any new Pulp Fantasy Library posts for at least the next couple of weeks. The series will likely resume shortly after the new year, whether in its original or slightly modified form.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Ship of Theseus

I started refereeing my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign with six players on March 6, 2015. About a year later, I started a second campaign set in the world of Tékumel. This one involved a different, larger group of players – eight at the start – and became known as the Dust of Gold campaign, after the name of the clan to which all the characters belonged.

Unlike the House of Worms campaign, the Dust of Gold campaign took place not in Tsolyánu, the titular Empire of the Petal Throne, bur rather in the land of Mu'ugalavyá, Tsolyánu's great rival to the west. I did this for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there's not a great deal of information about Mu'ugalavyá in the canon of Tékumel. I hoped to use the campaign as an opportunity to "find out" about Mu'ugalavyá through play, a process I've used many times to good effect in other campaigns (not least of all the House of Worms).

The early sessions took place in and around the city of Gashchné, located at the westernmost edge of Mu'ugalavyá, just south of the Great Desert of Galái and east of the vast expanse of the mysterious Plain of Towers. Before too long, the characters traveled outside Gashchné, seeking business opportunities for their mercantile clan. Eventually, these opportunities led them even farther afield, seeking out the legendary city of Ureshyésha on the far side of the Plain of Towers. 

As the characters traveled, many of them died, most commonly due to combats gone wrong or failed saving throws. Since the characters were far from home, the deceased couldn't simply be replaced by new members of the Dust of Gold clan, as I would have suggested had they been back in Mu'ugalavyá. Instead, the players created characters from among the local tribal people of the southern Plain of Towers. Known as the Nixkámi, these people were socially and culturally quite different from the Mu'ugalavyáni, with whom they'd had little contact prior to the appearance of the PCs. Also along the way, several players dropped from the campaign owing to real life demands.

By the time the surviving characters successfully made it to Ureshyésha, only one of them was still a Mu'ugalavyáni member of the Dust of Gold clan. The rest were all Nixkámi or others picked up along the way. This didn't have to be a problem and, in some sense, it shouldn't have been, but I can't deny that, for me, I increasingly found it hard to find much of a thread connecting the start of the campaign with where it had wound up. I attempted to maintain my enthusiasm for the campaign as the characters explored Ureshyésha and learned more about its weird society, but, after a few months, I found it difficult to do so and admitted as much to the players who, while disappointed, nevertheless understood my feelings.

I often think back to the Dust of Gold campaign and how things unfolded. In particular, I think about the extent to which the large number of character deaths in a wilderness far from their nominal home base severed continuity with the campaign's start to such an extent that I was no longer able to muster much interest in it. To some extent, this is my own fault, in as much as I had hoped to use the campaign as a means of exploring Mu'ugalavyá. Had I not been so fixated on that particular goal, I might have cared less about differently the campaign had turned out from what I'd intended. On the other hand, the discontinuity between where things started and where they ended almost two years later was truly significant. The survival of but a single PC from the start made it hard for me to invest in what was happening and so my interest waned.

One of the reasons I prefer the term "referee" over "game master" or a similar formulation is that I try very hard to keep a certain distance between myself and the actions of the characters. I attempt to be a neutral observer and arbiter rather than being more actively involved. I don't always succeed, of course, but this is the approach toward which I aim. In the case of the failed Dust of Gold campaign, though, I can't help but think I allowed my own feelings get the better of me, to the detriment of the game. Yet, I also continue to ponder the importance of narrative (in the broad sense) continuity in a campaign. How vital is it and was it reasonable for me to feel discouraged by its disappearance? I have no firm answers to these questions. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

My Top 9 non-D&D Adventures of All Time

In a comment to My Top 10 D&D Adventures of the Golden Age (Part II), fellow blogger Adam Dickstein asked me to produce a similar list of my favorite non-D&D adventures. I thought that was an excellent idea and so spent the last week thinking about the matter, resulting in the list below, which I hope will be of as much interest as my previous one. This one is a little different than my D&D-centric one in that it's not in any particular order. Given the wide range of roleplaying games for which these adventures were written, ranking them would, on some level, be like comparing apples and oranges. 

As with my earlier list, this one is highly subjective, based almost entirely on my personal experiences with the adventures in question. I make no claims that any of what follows is "the best" in any absolute sense, only that they're personal favorites from more than four decades of roleplaying. In addition, I have deliberately limited myself to the single adventure I consider my favorite for each game system. I could easily have included multiple Traveller or Call of Cthulhu adventures, for example, but felt a broader list would better illustrate my personal tastes. That's also why there are only nine entries on this list rather than ten: I had a tough time coming up with adventures for ten different games that I have actually used and enjoyed, so I settled for nine. 

The Traveller Adventure

The choice of Marc Miller's 1983 The Traveller Adventure is both obvious and something of a cheat. Unlike some of the entries on this list – though not all, as you'll see – this one more of a campaign framework than an single adventure. Despite its title, The Traveller Adventure gives the referee enough material for months of play in GDW's Third Imperium setting. After the kick-off scenario, the players have an immense range of options, as they pilot their merchant vessel among the worlds of the Aramis subsector of the Spinward Marches. Though there's an overarching narrative thread, it's not heavy-handed. That's vital in a game like Traveller, which, as its title suggests, is built on the characters' freedom to travel where they wish among the worlds of its far future setting. While not perfect – what is? – I've gotten untold hours of fun out of The Traveller Adventure and use it as a model for how to present freewheeling campaign-building material. 

Bugs in the System

You'll find that there are a number of science fiction adventures on this list, which should come as no surprise to those who read this blog regularly. Bugs in the System by Graeme Morris is one of two modules published by TSR UK for Star Frontiers. Unlike many of the scenarios published for the game, this one is relatively slow-paced, focusing on scientific and technological investigation rather than combat. The characters are tasked with figuring out what went wrong on an extraction platform in orbit around a gas giant contact with which has recently been lost. Unraveling the mystery requires careful analysis of the facts on the ground as much as the quick thinking one typically associated with RPGs. What elevates Bugs in the System above so many other modules of this sort is that the central mystery is genuinely science fictional in nature and quite different from what could be found in other Star Frontiers modules. I regularly find myself thinking back on this one.

Trouble Brewing

This one is something of a cheat too, in that it's not a single adventure but rather an overview of a campaign setting, along with several different scenarios, each of which highlights part of that setting. That said, Trouble Brewing is absolutely wonderful, both in its utility to the referee running a Gangbusters campaign and in the options it makes available to the players. The scenarios presented here run the range from law enforcement to journalism to independent and syndicate crime. One of the things I still find incredibly attractive about Gangbusters is the evenness with which it treated character options. The rules treat being an investigative reporter as every bit as viable as being a gangster or private eye. Trouble Brewing follows in the same vein, offering up scenarios and situations intended for all types of characters. I got immense use out of this product.

Legion of Gold

I have been known to call Legion of Gold "the Village of Hommlet" of Gamma World, which is high praise considering that Hommlet is my favorite D&D adventure of all time. I mean that comparison most sincerely. Legion of Gold presents a community of relative safety and prosperity – the Barony of Horn – for use as a home base by a band of newly created player characters. Once established there, the characters begin exploring the surrounding countryside, undertaking small missions for local patrons. In the process, they not only make names for themselves but also start to hear rumors of a growing threat, the eponymous Legion of Gold. The Legion seemingly appeared out of nowhere and, armed with mighty weapons of the Ancients, seems bent on conquest not just of the Barony but all the lands near Lake Mitchigoom. There's plenty of material to sustain a Gamma World campaign for months packed into this module's 32 pages. Great stuff.

The Vanished

FASA's Star Trek the Roleplaying Game remains my favorite adaptation of the venerable science fiction series into the medium of roleplaying. During its existence in the early to mid-1980s, FASA published an outstanding number of truly excellent adventures for the game, many of which compare favorably with episodes from the Original Series. A good example of this is 1983's The Vanished. The scenario is similar in some respects to Bugs in the System above, in that the player characters are investigating unexplained events aboard a space station that has resulted in the disappearance of its crew. This is a slow, methodical scenario that rewards keen eyes and clever thought, but it's also immensely rewarding, as the characters uncover the true cause of what's happening and must resolve it according to the principles of Starfleet. I had much fun with this adventure and still consider it one of highlights of FASA's output for the game.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth

This entry is another cheat in that Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is a campaign for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu rather than a single adventure. On the other hand, Call of Cthulhu tends to be known more for its campaigns than for its individual scenarios, so I feel quite justified in choosing it. More to the point, this is one of the earliest supplementary products published by Chaosium, so its influence and impact cannot be understated. As a neophyte Keeper, I welcomed the release of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth in 1982 and ran it to great success with my players, who enjoyed every bit of it – even the final confrontation with Cthulhu himself. To this day, whenever I think of refereeing Call of Cthulhu, I find myself thinking back to Sandy Petersen's masterpiece. It's exceptionally well done, with lots of variety in its sanity-shattering horrors and the overall structure, while Derlethian in its frame, is quite satisfying.

The Free City of Krakow

Twilight: 2000 is a favorite RPG of mine, one I bought immediately upon its release in 1984 and played with great gusto with my friends at the time. Over the years, I've retained an immense fondness for it, owing in large part to my memories of the days we spent in the then-possible future of the Year 2000. Much of those days were spent in and around the titular Free City of Krakow, a sovereign city-state that conducts itself independently of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Within its walls, almost anything is available for the right price, most especially information. This module, like so many others on this list, presents multiple possible scenarios in which the characters might become involved, in addition to plenty of information about Krakow and its inhabitants. The characters in my campaign of yore spent many months in the Free City, in the process becoming involved in local politics and intrigue. I can't say enough good things about this one.

War in Heaven: Hegemony

Because the focus of this blog is old school roleplaying games, I generally don't write much about RPGs published after the mid-1980s, but one of my favorite games is Fading Suns, first published in 1996. Fading Suns is a science fantasy roleplaying game set thousands of years in the future after the fall of the high-tech Second Republic. What follows is a literal dark age, as the stars themselves begin to fade due to some unknown – and possibly supernatural – phenomenon. War in Heaven: Hegemony is the second part of an unfinished trilogy of adventures dealing with the mysteries of the setting, in this case the enigmatic aliens known as the Vau. The scenario involves the player characters being selected as part of a diplomatic mission to Vau space, during which they learn more about these aliens, the culture, and beliefs. It's a little heavy-handed at times, but I am fond of it nonetheless because of the masterful way author Bill Bridges deploys religious beliefs, esoteric thought, and science fictional concepts to create memorable situations with which the characters must contend.

The Boy King

Again, I cheat – I am sensing a pattern here – in that Greg Stafford's The Boy King isn't a single adventure so much as a campaign framework into which the referee can insert any adventure scenarios he likes. In my defense, I can only say that, despite this, the book does include numerous ready-to-play scenarios, not to mention plenty of background information, locations, and NPC descriptions from which to create many, many more. It's a nearly perfect toolbox for any Pendragon referee, giving him everything needed to run a 80-year campaign, spanning the time between the time of Uther to the death of Arthur. Without exaggeration, The Boy King is the only supplement a Pendragon referee will ever require to keep his campaign humming along for many months, if not years. It's a brilliant piece of work and I've gotten so much use out of it over the years that I had to include it on this list.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Divine Intervention

Though Tékumel is most assuredly an acquired taste, enough of my regular readers are interested in the setting that I probably ought to remind people of the existence of the Hall of Blue Illumination podcast, which I record on a more or less monthly basis with Victor Raymond, a long-time player in Professor Barker's own campaign. Our latest episode, entitled "Divine Intervention," was released yesterday and I think at least some of its content could be of interest to a broader fantasy RPG audience.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Retrospective: City of the Gods

The earliest roleplaying game campaigns – Greyhawk, Tékumel, Glorantha – fascinate me, but none more so than Blackmoor. Blackmoor was the first fantasy campaign and yet, compared to most of those that followed in its immediate wake, it's one of the least well documented. Certainly there are published products from the pen of Dave Arneson that shed a little light on what that venerable campaign was like, but what we mostly have are lots of stories and reminiscences from the people who participated in those foundational adventures rather than anything more systematic.

That's a big part of why the DA-series of Blackmoor modules TSR started publishing in 1986 still hold a lot of interest for me. I see them as a possible source of insight into the campaign setting where it all began, so to speak. Unfortunately, as I would later learn, the presentation of Blackmoor in these modules often bears little to no resemblance to Arneson's actual setting. Precisely why this is the case I couldn't say, but I suspect at least part of it has to do with the exigencies of TSR's publishing plans at the time. 

Even so, I happily purchased modules DA1 and DA2, both of which offered up some additional insights into Blackmoor as a setting. One of the things that both these modules made clear was that Arneson was not at all bothered by the inclusion of science fictional elements in his fantasy setting – quite the contrary! So, when the third module in the series, City of the Gods, was released in 1987, I was very interested. Based on its cover illustration by Doug Chaffee alone, it was clear that this one would feature even more explicitly sci-fi material and that intrigued me greatly, despite my ambivalence toward this at the time. 

City of the Gods details a crashed spacecraft called the FSS Beagle, a vessel of the Survey Bureau of the Galactic Federation. The Beagle crashed on Blackmoor five years before the events of the module and had suffered enough damage that nothing short of a rescue by another starship could return its crew to the Federation. As established in the background material, the Federation is notoriously slow to locate missing Survey Bureau vessels. Consequently, some of the Beagle's crew felt the best course of action would be to contact the inhabitants of Blackmoor, establish cultural ascendancy over them, and the mobiliize them to create an industrialized civilization, one capable of repairing their ship. 

This, however, violated the Federation's principle of non-interference, leading to a schism in the Beagle's crew. Those who favored interference were ultimately defeated, but not before a few of them, led by the ship's chief of security, Stephen Rocklin, escaped. The failed mutineers eventually set themselves up in the swamp that held the Temple of the Frog, which forms the background of the module of the same name. Meanwhile, the other crewmembers simply avoided local contact and waited for help from the Federation to arrive. This is the situation into which the player characters stumble when the explore rumors of a strange "city of the gods" in the desert south of Blackmoor.

City of the Gods is, in many ways, similar to the earlier module, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, right down to the inclusion of lots of weird-looking advanced technology. What separates it from its predecessor is context. We know know very little about the circumstances of the starship's crash in Barrier Peaks. More than that, all of its crew is dead, leaving behind only robotic servants and alien monsters aboard the vessel. In City of the Gods, though, the crew is still very much alive and divided into two antagonistic camps. Even beyond that, one of those factions has had a lasting impact on the world of Blackmoor. This is in stark contrast to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which is a much more self-contained scenario.

On the other hand, the presentation of the titular City of the Gods, as the Beagle comes to be known, is isn't very detailed or indeed interesting. I don't believe this is at all reflective of the original "City of the Gods" adventure that Arneson famously refereed first for his own players and then later for Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz. This is sadly a common problem when it comes to published Blackmoor material. So much of it seems invented by a collaborator – in this case David J. Ritchie – rather than instead presenting what Arneson used in his own campaign. It's a shame, both in this particular case and more generally. I'd love to learn more about the Blackmoor setting as Dave Arneson imagined it. Sadly, the City of the Gods doesn't do that.