Saturday, December 31, 2022

Glyphs and Protective Inscriptions

As anyone who's read it knows, the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains not just excellent advice and suggestions to the referee, but also some odd and easily overlooked details. Take, for example, these examples of possible glyphs of warding at the bottom of page 41:

Gygax suggests that referees "design [their] own or use an encyclopedia to find interesting alphabets to use." He also suggests that the referee might look to the example of The World of Greyhawk for further runes and glyphs. 

On the next page, while discussing the cleric spell aerial servant, Gygax briefly notes that "the spell caster should be required to show you the form of protective inscription he or she has used when the spell is cast." He then provides illustrations for the three forms mentioned by name in the spell's description in the Players Handbook.

In looking at these two sections, I was reminded that, while AD&D has this reputation in some quarters as being very precise and even nitpicky, especially compared with OD&D, there's still a great deal that's left to the individual referee to resolve. In the case of the glyph of warding, for example, its effect is variable to some degree, with just how some of possibilities (i.e. paralysis, blindness, and energy drain) function left unclear. Similarly, there's no clear mechanical difference, if any is intended, between the three illustrated types of protective inscriptions. It's another one of those things the referee is left to decide for himself. 

Frankly, I see this as a strength in AD&D and indeed any roleplaying game. I have little interest in a RPG that leaves no "creative lacunae" where the referee can exercise his own imagination. Moreover, any game that did attempt to cover every base would necessarily be immense in scope, not to mention length. I'd much rather spend my time playing – and making things up – than seeking out every jot and tittle of the rules. I doubt I'm unique in this regard.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Grognard's Grimoire: Omejaldalu (Unmaker)

An Unmaker initiate by Zhu Bajie
The Omejaldalu, or Unmakers, are a loose collection of cults whose leaders see the Makers as having been detached, corrupt, and, above all, stifling to the development of sha-Arthan and its inhabitants. The Unmakers, therefore, seek to free the world from the shackles imposed by the Makers by using both sorcery and science to tear down and destroy every established norm, pattern, or system, including those of reality itself. In so doing, the Unmakers hope to inaugurate an era of unparalleled liberty – or another Epoch of Strife.

(More information about the Unmakers can be found here)


Initiate

Wholly devoted to the Unmaker cult to which he belongs, an initiate hopes his loyalty will one day be rewarded with greater responsibilities – and the power that comes with it.

DR 12, HD 2* (9hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d6 or by weapon), AB +0, MV Near, SV F11 D12 M13 E16 S15 (A2), ML 9 (11 with prophet), XP 25, NA 1d8 (2d12), TT U

    • Unmaker’s Blessing: Each initiate has 10% chance to have received an alchemical boon that increases his DR (1–2), HD (3–4), AB (5–6), or damage (7–8) by +2 (roll 1d8).
    • Zealous: +2 to saves against spells or effects intended to negatively affect an initiate’s loyalty to his cult.

An Unmaker prophet by Zhu Bajie

Prophet

The leader of a cult, a prophet is a living embodiment of the Unmaker philosophy – nihilism and material transcendence made manifest. Each prophet is unique in his particular approach to the Unmakers’ doctrines, as well as in his appearance and powers. 

DR 16, HD 9*** (40hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d4 or by weapon) or 1 × spell, AB +7, MV Near, SV F8 D9 M10 E10 S12 (A2), ML 10, XP 3000, NA 1 (1), TT F

    • Magic Resistance: Unaffected by mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.

    • Spells: Each prophet casts spells as if he were a 9th-level sorcerer.

    • Material Transcendence: A prophet has 1d3 modifications to his body, determined randomly (1d8), re-roll duplicates. Referee is encouraged to create additional modifications.

    1. Displacement: Appears in different place from actual location; attacker suffers –2 to hit.

    2. Energy Immunity: Unharmed by cold or electrical attacks.

    3. Hardened Flesh: All attacks do –1 damage per die.

    4. Heightened Awareness: Never surprised.

    5. Heightened Reflexes: +2 initiative.

    6. Heightened Strength: +2 melee damage.

    7. Regeneration: Regain 2hp per round until slain.

    8. Telepathy: As the adept discipline of the same name. Treated prophet as adept of same level as HD.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Retrospective: The Necromican

Last week, I took a look at Booty and the Beasts, an unofficial bestiary for use with Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games published in 1979. The book is worthy of examination not just for its idiosyncratic content but also for its creators, the most notable of whom are Paul Reiche III and Erol Otus, both of whom would go on to work at TSR during the final years of D&D's Golden Age

Booty and the Beasts is thus a significant historical artifact of the early days of the hobby. However, it was not the only product of the partnership of Reiche and Otus (and Mathias Genser, who does not appear to have any RPG credits beyond these two collaborations). The same year, they also published The Necromican, "a book of spells compatible with most fantasy role-playing games." As with their other effort, "most fantasy role-playing games" very likely meant Dungeons & Dragons, though, in fairness, the spell descriptions are sufficiently loose that they could be used for any FRPG that makes use of spell levels, such as Tunnels & Trolls or Arduin (itself in a rather complex position with regards to its relationship to D&D). The fact that the spells presented in The Necromican range up to level 12 suggests that the authors may well have had an expansive notion of the book's potential audience.

This is what the book's forward [sic] states about its purpose:

This book of spells is not intended to stand by itself, or replace other fantasy role playing game spell lists. Rather, it is intended to supplement the many spell lists in existence, and provide a greater variety and selection for the players. It does not offer an alternate spell system; rather, the spells should be adapted into whatever spell system you prefer. The levels given for the spells are based on our own playing experience, however, it is the privilege of the individual games masters to change the level of any spell so that it will better fit into their own universes.

This is very much in the spirit of reckless invention and experimentation that permeated the early days of the hobby. Unless you're Gary Gygax on one of his bad days, I find it impossible to understand how one could object to a single word written above. In many ways, it's the part of The Necromican I find most inspiring.

The book contains over 130 spells, divided, as I noted, into twelve levels. They range widely in utility – and seriousness. Thus, you find spells like primal premonition, which causes the hairs on the neck of the caster to rise one melee round in advance of danger, or immolation, which causes the caster to burst into flames that are harmless to him but that do damage to anyone who touches him for the duration of the spell. At the same time, there are spells like spell of good groomng, which "will act as a shower, haircut, and laundry for those affected," or color alteration, which "allows the caster to change his skim color." These are in addition to several spells obviously derived from the works of Jack Vance, such as the spell of forlorn encystment and the excellent prismatic spray. 

Like Booty and the Beasts, The Necromican also skirts the edges between fantasy and science fiction with some of its spells. For example, there is the 12th-level spell the sorcerer's spacecraft, which, as its name suggests, conjures a flying saucer that "travels at 10,000,000 miles per hour," enabling transit to Mars as part of a "pleasant afternoon flight." How one takes this, I suppose, depends on the extent to which you enjoy chocolate in your peanut butter, but there is no question that, at the time, it was not at all unusual. If anything, the popular conception of "fantasy" has ossified a great deal since 1979. The Necromican reflects this more "porous" understanding of the genre and is, therefore, a useful corrective to those of us with more straitened horizons.

That said, I'm honestly not certain I'd make use of almost any of the new spells presented here. A great many of them are useful only in very specific circumstances, while others are "game-y" in conception (e.g. competent cartography, which prevents the caster from making a mistake in his mapmaking). Others are simply so idiosyncratic that they likely reflect the circumstances of the writers' own campaigns, such as the benign boots, which transports the caster's corpse back to a safe locale via the Astral Plane. Now, I genuinely appreciate such idiosyncrasy. Indeed, I am a strong advocate for referees and players making their campaigns downright odd and impenetrable to outsiders, but, of course, doing so gets in the way of selling to lots of copies of your latest book, which may explain why we don't see efforts like The Necromican much anymore – a pity!

Behold! The benign boots in action.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Yule Horror

There is snow on the ground,
And the valleys are cold,
And a midnight profound
Blackly squats o’er the wold;
But a light on the hilltops half-seen hints of feastings unhallow’d and old.

There is death in the clouds,
There is fear in the night,
For the dead in their shrouds
Hail the sun’s turning flight,
And chant wild in the woods as they dance round a Yule-altar fungous and white.

To no gale of earth’s kind
Sways the forest of oak,
Where the sick boughs entwin’d
By mad mistletoes choke,
For these pow’rs are the pow’rs of the dark, from the graves of the lost Druid-folk.

And mayst thou to such deeds
Be an abbot and priest,
Singing cannibal greeds
At each devil-wrought feast,
And to all the incredulous world shewing dimly the sign of the beast.

–H.P. Lovecraft,
Weird Tales, December 1926

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Definitive Edition

Toward the end of the summer of this year, I wrote a retrospective on Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series. The series began in 1984 and eventually grew to encompass 29 volumes before the death of Dever in 2016. Dever's son, Ben, intended to use his father's note to bring things to a conclusion (and the total number of books to 32).

To do that, Holmgard Press has announced the Definitive Edition of Lone Wolf in the United Kingdom. This edition consists of hardcover books with all new cover and interior illustrations, along with several other improvements and embellishments. There's no word yet as to when (or if) this edition will be released anywhere else in the world, though I hope it will be, since there's a lot of interest in this series outside the UK. 

You can find out more about the Definitive Edition and other Lone Wolf-related news at its official website

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Dungeon23

An old mantra of this blog has long been that "roleplaying games were born in the megadungeon." By this, I simply mean that most of the earliest examples of what we would today recognize as RPGs were played in the context of exploring an immense, subterranean locale filled with monsters, magic, and mysteries – Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and Empire of the Petal Throne, to cite just three examples, all assume that much of a campaign's action will center around delving into the depths. Obviously, roleplaying games can (and should) include so many more activities, but there's something satisfyingly primal about braving the mythic underworld and returning to tell the tale.

To be worthy of the name, a megadungeon shouldn't merely be vast in size, it should also contain enough to hold the players' attentions for a long period of time. Unlike smaller, more focused "lair" dungeons, like those typically found in published adventure modules, a megadungeon is a sprawling, rambling thing that isn't about any one thing, nor is it possible to "clear" it. Instead, it's a place to which the characters can come again and again over the course of weeks, months, or even years without ever fully exhausting. A megadungeon can thus be the centerpiece of a campaign, in the way that Castles Blackmoor and Greyhawk were in their respective campaigns and the Jak√°llan Underworld was in the earliest T√©kumel campaign.

I was reminded of all of this for two unrelated reasons. First, as you'll know, I've been working on a science fantasy RPG I'm calling The Secrets of sha-Arthan. When I first conceived of the idea a year and a half ago, I called the project The Vaults of sha-Arthan. The Vaults of the title are megadungeons by another name – deep, ancient labyrinths reputed to contain the secrets of the deific Makers. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to develop one of these Vaults as the basis of a sha-Arthan campaign and have been slowly poking at the idea ever since.

Second, Sean McCoy, the creator of Mothership, proposed something that's come to be known as Dungeon23. The idea quite simple: create one room each day for a megadungeon throughout the entirety of 2023 and then share the results. I thought this was a great idea, if only because it took what might otherwise have seemed like an insurmountable endeavor and broke it down into a much more manageable form. Since I was already contemplating the development of one of the Vaults of sha-Arthan for use in a campaign, Sean's idea struck me as worthy of an attempt.

So, among other things, 2023 will see me attempt to flesh out the Vaults beneath the ancient city of da-Imer one room at a time. Since I already have a lot of ideas of what that fabled underworld might contain, I'm pretty confident that I'll be able to keep up the pace for a while. Of course, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The real test comes after a few weeks or even months, after the novelty of the exercise begins to wear off and the realization that a year is a long time to commit to a single project.

I'll undoubtedly have a few more thoughts on this, as I work on it over on my Patreon. For now, I only wanted to say publicly that I intend to pick up the gauntlet Sean has thrown on the ground. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Unspeakable

I've never been very fond of Deities & Demigods, though, being a TSR fanboy, I nevertheless dutifully purchased it. In my youth, the DDG sat on my bookshelf largely untouched, which is why my copy of it looks practically pristine to this day, in stark contrast to my copies of the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and – especially – the Monster Manual. 

Even so, I'd occasionally flip through its pages and read random sections to see what little bits of esoterica I might find. I strongly remember the first time I noticed the following statement at the end of James Ward's preface:

Special thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonean Mythos.

This baffled me, since there are no references to either the creations of Lovecraft or Moorcock in Deities & Demigods. What could this possibly mean? Sometime later, I learned from one of the older gamers whom I knew that there'd been some sort of "legal dispute" between TSR and Chaosium, resulting in the removal of chapters on the Cthulhu and Melnibonean mythoi from the DDG. As you might imagine, this revelation filled me with excitement, though it wouldn't be until I was in college that I'd ever set my eyes on these expurgated chapters.

Thanks to a very kind friend, I now own a copy of the original printing of Deities & Demigods, which has probably seen more reading than my original one, largely because of the two chapters TSR removed. I suspect I've spent more time reading the Cthulhu Mythos chapter than the Melnibonean Mythos chapter and a big reason why is its downright funky art by Erol Otus. 

All of the art in this chapter is awesome, but the piece that really sticks with me is this one:

Supposedly, this depicts Hastur the Unspeakable, who is little more than a name in Lovecraft's works but was a favorite of August Derleth, who decided that Hastur was Cthulhu's "half-brother," whatever that means. The DDG entry describes Hastur as having "a scaled, elongated body, a lizard's head and maw, and taloned lizard claws. It also has 200 tentacles projecting from its body ..." I have no idea where this description comes from, since not even Derleth bothered to describe his favorite Great Old One as far as I can recall.

Regardless, there's no question it's a very striking image. I particularly like the juxtaposition of a fairly ordinary looking medieval castle with this bizarre monstrosity. I've sometimes thought it might be interesting to referee a medieval Call of Cthulhu campaign, perhaps taking inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne series, but I've never pursued the matter seriously. If I ever do, you can be sure I'll take inspiration from this piece by Erol Otus.

Retrospective: Booty and the Beasts

1979 is an important year in the history of roleplaying. Not only did it mark the completion of Gary Gygax's AD&D system (with the publication of the long-awaited Dungeon Masters Guide), but it also saw the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Of the three, Egbert's disappearance is probably the most important, in the sense that it demonstrated the truth of the old adage that "there's no such thing as bad publicity." D&D soon became a household name across the USA and TSR's sales benefited immensely from this sensational news story. As I've recounted here many times before, my own involvement in the hobby is directly related to my father's taking an interest in stories of a "weird game" supposedly played in steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University.

From the vantage point of 2022, it's easy to forget just how new the hobby still was in 1979. Original Dungeons & Dragons had only been released five years previously. Depending on how you count them, there were only about thirty RPGs published by this time, only a handful of which would be remembered even five years later. This was a period of wild, reckless invention when any imaginative fantasy or science fiction fan with access to a typewriter and a photocopier could potentially create something that might potentially take the hobby by storm the way that OD&D did within not-to-distant memory.

Into this environment stepped three high school friends from California: Erol Otus, Mathias Genser, and Paul Reiche III. To anyone familiar with the early history of RPGs, the names of Otus and Reiche should be very familiar, if only for their all-too-brief stints at TSR Hobbies at the tail end of the Golden Age of D&D. Prior to their employment by TSR, Otus and Reiche both contributed to the creation of a couple of generic RPG supplements, the most substantial of which is entitled Booty and the Beasts – subtitled "Monsters and Treasures for Fantasy Role-Playing Games."

Of course, even in 1979, D&D was more or less synonymous with "fantasy roleplaying game" and, while Booty and the Beasts is not specifically written for it, a quick look at its monster descriptions makes it pretty clear the game for which it was written. They include "Hit Dice," "Armor Class," and movement ratings delineated in inches. There's also an entry for "Dexterity," expressed as a range, which might suggest the influence of the Holmes edition of D&D, which used Dexterity for handling initiative, though it could just as easily demonstrate the influence of either Warlock or Arduin, two D&D variants popular in California that used Dexterity in this fashion. (It's also worth noting that Otus had contributed illustrations to the Arduin Grimoire series.)

In any case, Booty and the Beasts definitely expresses the wild and reckless invention of this period of gaming history. Its monsters are completely unlike the rather staid and conventional ones found in the AD&D Monster Manual, for example. Rather than drawing on myth or folklore, the majority of them are whimsically original, such as Living Hills, who "feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits;" the Malevolent Mana Muncher, whose "only desire is to steal the characters' magical items, as it eats them;" and Tortillas, which "look like large yellow gorillas with tortoise-like shells." This is in addition to monsters unashamedly drawn from the works of Jack Vance, such as the Deodand, Leucomorph, and Erb. 

Looking over the nearly 90 new monsters included in its pages, what strikes me most about Booty and the Beasts is how many of its entries have a science fictional bent to them. There is, for instance, an entire section of the book devoted solely to robots and many of its creatures are noted as hailing from another planet, solar system, or even galaxy. The Xenomorph from Alien even makes an appearance under the "clever" name of the Neila – get it? Also among the monsters is the Fling Fern, a plant monster that would later make an appearance in the mini-adventure included with the Gamma World Referee's Screen, written not coincidentally by Reiche while he worked at TSR.

This science fictional and indeed post-apocalyptic bent carries over into the magic items section of Booty and the Beasts. There is an entire section devoted to technological items, like the United States Army Pulse Laser Rifle and the Universal Translator. As you might expect, a great many of these are inspired by SF literature, television, and movies, as was the style in gaming products at the time. There are, of course, more "traditional" magic items as well, like the Unpilferable Pouch and the Helm of the Heinous, but I can't help but feel these are overshadowed somewhat by the sci-fi items, perhaps because they're so obviously different from what you'd typically have found in a D&D product at the time (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks having not yet been published.)

I'm not completely sure what more to say about Booty and the Beasts, because it's such a quirky product with a very distinct vision that it defies easy categorization. I suppose that's ultimately why the book, long out of print and sadly unavailable today (except through used booksellers and auction sites), still fascinates me: it possesses a rough, even raw, quality that is clearly the work of individuals with their own notions of what "fantasy" can and should be. Because these notions don't completely comport with my own, I find them in equal parts repellent and alluring. Booty and the Beasts is, like so many products of the early hobby, a labor of mad love that gives us a glimpse of what the hobby was like before brandification and "lifestyle gaming" carried the day – what a time! 

What did I tell you?

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Old Man and the VTT

My Twilight: 2000 campaign has been going for a little over a year now. The characters, consisting largely of US soldiers caught behind enemy lines after the disastrous Battle of Kalisz (July 9–18, 2000), have recently been spending their time in the Free City of Krak√≥w. There, they regrouped and plotted a course to head westward and into (presumably) NATO-held territory. In last night's session, they finally executed that plan and are now following the course of the Vistula River. hoping it will eventually lead them to the Baltic Sea and, from there, to friendlier places (there are rumors that the forces of the Free Polish Congress – an anti-Soviet government-in-exile – have a presence in the region). It will be interesting to see how the campaign unfolds in the months to come.

At the same time the new edition of Twilight: 2000 was released, Free League also released a virtual tabletop module for use with The Foundry. Because I was a supporter of the crowdfunding campaign for this edition, as part of my rewards I received a code that gave me access to the VTT module and I decided that, since this campaign would be online, I might as well make use of it. Or perhaps I should say attempt to make use of it, because it's been something of an uphill battle for me to try and do so with any facility. Indeed, more than a few of our weekly sessions have been spent trying to figure out how to use the VTT to handle this or that aspect of the game's rules.

Now, as readers undoubtedly know, my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, just a few months shy of its eighth anniversary, has been an entirely online campaign since its inception in March 2015. At the beginning, we made use of Google Hangouts (now called Google Meet, I believe) to communicate with one another during each session, though we eventually abandoned it in favor of Discord at some point. The House of Worms server has a dicebot for handling random rolls, though some players occasionally make use of real dice, which they roll and whose results they then report verbally. We also use of Jamboard to do quick sketches of things like maps when necessary. 

As you can see, the House of Worms campaign is rather technologically unsophisticated, particularly when you compare it to what's available to roleplayers today. However, it works very well for us and there's never been the slightest suggestion that we ought to adopt something more elaborate. I suspect the fact that we're playing a game as simple and straightforward as 1975 EPT probably has something to do with that, as does the fact that almost all of the players, myself included, are middle-aged men in our 50s who are very comfortable with "theater of the mind" roleplaying.

The new edition of Twilight: 2000 makes use of special dice and its hexcrawl through post-war Poland campaign frame means that having a map available to all the players is important. There's also the fact that many aspects of its rules, like combat or keeping track of supplies, demand a higher degree of attention than does EPT. Certainly, one could play Twillight: 2000 without recourse to electronic assistance; were my players seated around my dining room table rather than scattered across the globe, I would probably do so. Playing online, though, this is a bit more onerous, which is why I decided to take the plunge with the Foundry.

The experience, as I have already noted, has not been wholly salutary. Some of this is no doubt a consequence of my being unfamiliar with The Forge and its byzantine intricacies. It's a fairly robust VTT, with lots of bells and whistles. That it would take some getting used to is inevitable. Likewise, even after a year of play, there are still elements of the game's rules, like combat, that we're still learning and that, too, probably contributes to our ongoing difficulties in using the VTT to its full potential – and there's a lot of potential there. The mere fact that character sheets are always available online is terrific, since no player can ever misplace his sheet and, should a player be absent, his character can still participate in the action if necessary. There are many other truly useful and timesaving benefits to The Foundry.

Consequently, I find myself wondering each week whether using a VTT is worth all the trouble I encounter attempting to use one. From what I gather, large numbers of roleplayers make use of them in their gaming, so many, in fact, that many game companies now devote resources to producing modules for their RPGs and adventures. For many roleplayers in their 20s and even 30s, the use of a virtual tabletop is increasingly de rigueur. Likewise, each new iteration of these VTTs and the modules used with them include more features and options, right down to the automation of many aspects of gameplay. Perhaps it's simply my age talking, but I don't much care for this. To my mind, this comes dangerously close to aping video games and I see little point in that.

I intend to keep soldiering on (no pun intended) with The Foundry in my Twilight: 2000 campaign, because I'd like to give it a fair shake before passing final judgment. And, as I said, there are a few elements of the VTT that even I, a cantankerous old Luddite, find worthwhile. For the moment, though, my judgment on the whole thing is mixed to negative and it will take a fair bit to convince me that the hobby is better because of this innovation. 

Dragonroar

Does anyone remember this game? I saw advertisements for it in the pages of White Dwarf in the mid-1980s and was intrigued by it, in large part because of its inclusion of a double-sided cassette tape. One side of the tap is an introduction to the rulebook, while the other side contains a solo adventure. At the time (1985), I don't think I'd ever encountered anything like this elsewhere, so just how it worked was a mystery. 

Unfortunately, like many UK gaming products, I never managed to see it in the wild on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. If anyone else knows more about it, I'd be very curious to hear from you.

White Dwarf: Issue #62

Issue #62 of White Dwarf (February 1985) gives us another cover by Chris Achilleos, whose work was, by this point, a common sight on the cover of many different Games Workshop publications – not that I minded. In this issue's editorial, Ian Livingstone notes that the trend of "making role-playing games based on well-known characters" seems likely to continue, based in part on the fact that several miniatures companies "are now making licensed ranges of character figures." He cites as an example of what he means Grenadier's Lord of the Rings figure, whose existence I had completely forgotten until reading this editorial. Talk about a blast from the past!

"A Place of Damp and Darkness" by Garth Nix is a fun little article about "adventuring in the depths of cities," by which he means primarily sewers. Though short, the article is quite inspiring, with discussions of drains, tunnels, cisterns, barges, and more, as well as the seeds of scenarios involving sewers. It's genuinely great stuff, though I do wish it had White Dwarf hadn't attempted to get all fancy with its layout and used black text on a gray background. It was hard enough to read when I was a teenager and now, as an old man, it's even more difficult.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" reviews multiple books that are sequels to previous published ones, such as So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams. He thinks very little of it, calling it "full of padding" and "guff," though he notes that Adams would likely "agree with me all the way to the bank." He also excoriates Anne McCaffrey's The Survivors: Dinosaur Planet II: "the writing's slipshod and the science dodgy." Is it wrong that I only really enjoy Langford's column when he's in high dudgeon and speaking ill of the books he's reviewing? For good or for ill, those are the most fun to read; the rest of the time my eyes tend to glaze over.

"Open Box" features dueling reviews of a sort, in this case looking at two different superhero RPGs reviewed by the same person (Marcus L. Rowland). The first is Games Workshop's own Golden Heroes, which receives a 10 out of 10 score. This is based largely on two factors. The first is that the game is UK-focused and thus likely of greater interest and utility to the majority of White Dwarf readers. The second is that Golden Heroes is very focused on campaign play, with its improvement system tied closely into that focus. Rowland finds this quite congenial and I can't say that I disagree with him. He also reviews TSR's Marvel Super Heroes (8 out of 10), along with multiple supplements for it: The Breeder Bombs (7 out of 10), Time Trap (6 out of 10), Murderworld (6 out of 10), Judges Screen (4 out of 10), and Avengers Assembled (8 out of 10). Overall, Rowland likes MSH, but is critical of the way it seemingly limits itself to an established comics setting. He also finds its rules much more "simplistic" than those of Golden Heroes. 

"Struck by Lightning" by Dave Morris and Robert Dale is a collection of rune spells (for RuneQuest, naturally) derived from Celtic myth and legend, like the breath of Llyr and Balor's eye. They're all well done and flavorful. Part of "The Dark Usurper" by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill is yet another escape from prison Fighting Fantasy scenario, only this time you play the duke's rightful heir rather than one of his guardsmen. It's a little shorter than its predecessor, which probably helps mitigate its repetitiveness somewhat. "En Garde" by Gary Drabwell is an (in my opinion) unnecessarily complicated percentile system to handle parrying in AD&D combat. While I genuinely understand the desire to spice up the game's very stylized combat system, adding a calculation that tallies level, class, Strength, Dexterity, weapon speed factor, and more is not the way to do it. 

Much more interesting is Jae Campbell's "An Alien Werewolf in London," a Traveller adventure that involves a time travel experiment on Terra gone wrong. A wolf-like Vargr has made use of an Ancient device – a temporal matter transporter, or T-Matt – and traveled back to London in 1888. Suffice to say, the characters must also travel back in time to bring him back, lest the course of history be altered irrevocably. It's an admittedly clich√©d premise, especially with the Jack the Ripper angle, but I like it in spite of myself. 

I likewise liked Part 4 of "Eye of Newt and Wing of Bat" by Graeme Davis and Anthony R. Allan. This installment focuses on the manufacture of magic swords and other weapons and somehow feels a lot more useful and, dare I say, fun than previous ones. In part, I imagine it's because the forging of a magic sword has a much stronger literary and legendary pedigree than the crafting of most other magic items. Also, Davis and Allan come up with a nice schema for categorizing magic swords that gives the whole thing some much needed flair. I suspect I'm simply biased on this matter, as this part is in most respects little different than its predecessors, except in subject matter. Go figure.

"O Caber" by John Chapman presents three new monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons, all of whom are spirits released from pine trees by a powerful druid. Sadly, these did little for me, especially given that the author had difficulty coming up with any interesting adventure seeds for using them. Marginally more compelling is John Grandidge's "Hermits and Hags," though it suffers from the same problem as "A Place of Damp and Darkness" by having black text on a gray background that is hard to read. They're both eccentric spellcasting NPC types encountered in the wilderness, with hags having a decidedly more sinister nature. 

"Crawling Chaos" is a new Call of Cthulhu column, edited by Marc Gascoigne. The premier column translates several of Brian Lumley's Mythos creations into CoC terms. Joe Dever and Gary Chalk's "Facing Facts" is a detailed overview of the ins and outs of painting faces on miniature figures. As ever, this is fascinating, even to someone such as myself, who never painted many minis. "The Scrap Pile" is a random collection of tidbits written by Steve Jackson for use with Car Wars, such as expanded power rules and an erratum about double-decker buses. Jackson also notes that, as of October 1984, Car Wars had surpassed 100,000 copies sold, which just boggles my mind. Finally, we get new episodes of "Thrud the Barbarian," "The Travellers," and "Gobbledigook."

I was pleasantly surprised by this issue of White Dwarf and was genuinely happy to have had the chance to re-read it. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Adventure in Lemuria

If you look at the nearly 300 entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series on this blog, you'll notice that there are a number of names that recur again and again – Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, C.L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith, to name just a few. By and large, I expect that many, if not most of these names, would be familiar even to casual readers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as they're among the writers of the Pulp Era generally acknowledged to be the best and most worthy of lasting attention. 

At the same time, they're not the only writers from that storied period of popular literary history. For every Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft, who are esteemed widely today, there are probably a dozen other workaday writers whose tales entertained their readers in the past but who have subsequently been forgotten. As a mediocre writer myself, I can't help but feel a little kinship with these men and women, more than a few of whom, I think, are worthy of interest, if not necessarily of effusive praise. 

A case in point in Frederic Arnold Kummer, Jr. He was born and grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland, where I spent my own formative years. His career as a pulp fictioneer was short; he published 34 stories during a two-year period between 1939 and 1940. While most of them could broadly be called "science fiction" in nature (many were sword-and-planet or space operas), a handful belong to the category of sword-and-sorcery. One such fantasy yarn was "Adventure in Lemuria," which appeared in the May 1939 issue of Fantastic Adventures, edited by the legendary Ray Palmer (later of Amazing Stories).

"Adventure in Lemuria" is another entry in the very popular genre of fantasy stories set in the prehistoric past of Earth, before one or more mythical continents had sunk beneath the waves following a cataclysm of some kind. I imagine it was Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World that kicked this genre off, but, in the years after its initial publication in 1882, many others had elaborated upon his claims or developed their own. As its title suggests, Kummer opted not for Atlantis or Hyperborea as the setting for his tale, but rather Mu, located somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Lemuria is another, older name for Mu and one Kummer uses primarily for the title. 

The story's protagonist is a stranger to Mu.
"Khor the Wanderer, men call me," he said. "From the land of Crete in the Upper Sea, I come. For more than a hundred moons have I traveled east. And now I have reached this land of Mu, called by the travelers the home of the gods."

Khor's world would seem to be vaguely like Howard's Hyborian Age in that it's heavily based on aspects of the ancient world of Earth, though mythologized and including many fantastical elements. Khor's Crete, for example, would seem to be some analog of the Bronze Age Minoans, given by his use of a double-headed axe in battle, said weapon being an important symbol of that ancient civilization. On the other hand, the reader should no more mistake Khor's Crete for the real Crete than he should Conan's Cimmeria for the real one. Kummer, like Howard, is using the names and broad details of the ancient world as a foundation on which he builds his fantasy.

Shortly after arriving on Mu, Khor observes "a slender dark-haired young man clad in a blue mantle" attempting to fend off an attack by "four warriors in gleaming gilded armor, squat swarthy men, their faces aglow with fierce exultation."  

Khor marveled at the skill with which the youth, armed only with a light hunting sword, defended himself against the four flashing blades; yet it was evident that his was a losing battle, that the men in the golden armor were intent upon keeping him occupied until a loss of blood and exhaustion would cause him to drop, an easy victim, at their feet.

It was this latter fact that decided Khor. Brave men, he felt, would fight to kill ... but this wearing out an opponent and then slitting his throat at one's leisure was the work of cowards. Grimly he raised the burnished bronze axe, and, with a shout of encouragement to the man in the blue mantle, sprang from the shadow of the trees.

Khor's attitude is another way in which "Adventure in Lemuria" reminds me of Howard's work. The Cretan wanderer adheres to a rough but honest code of honor of a sort not too different from that of Conan. He saves the youth, who name we learn is Jador, not because he objects to what appears to be banditry but because he disapproves of the way that the four golden-armored men toy with their would-be prey. 

Jador thanks Khor for his assistance and reveals that he is the ruler of Zac, "which is part of the great nation of Lemuria ... Mu."

"A prince!" Khor grinned ironically, glancing at the bodies of the gold-clad warriors. "And these ...?"

"Followers of my half-sister, Lalath." The youth's face darkened. "Five years since, when I was still a child, she seized the throne of Zac. Only through the loyalty of my guard was I able to escape. Five years in hiding, I spent, and now, having come of age, I seek to regain my throne, reestablish the worship of Narayama, the true god, in place of blood Molech. Today, accompanied by a few loyal retainers, I came here to await the arrival of those who espouse my cause, peasants, merchants, nobles, all sworn to assemble here during the night, attack the city tomorrow. By mischance we encountered Lalath's warriors ... and the rest you know."

Khor, being an experienced and well-traveled man, tells Jador that "no handful of rebels" will be sufficient to achieve what he intends. The prince, however, is unperturbed and explains that "Narayama the true god shall aid us." He then adds, "When I return to the throne of Zac, you will be rewarded. Thanks and may the gods keep you."

Despite his intention to leave the young man to his doom, Khor cannot abandon Jador. Instead, he joins him in his ascent up a nearby mountain, upon which "lies the secret tomb of [Jador's] ancestors," where he shall pray to Narayama for guidance. The prince takes Khor's change of heart as evidence that the Cretan "must have been sent by the true gods," just as he does the wanderer's suggestion he might could aid him by entering the city alone and "at the appointed hour fall upon the guards of some postern gate, open it to admit your armies" – a plan to which Jador readily agrees.

Of course, things don't go quite as simply as that. Khor is captured before he can execute his plan and he is taken as a prisoner before Lalath, where he is given the choice of joining her or becoming another sacrifice to Molech. It's at this point that the story really takes off and Kummer – and Khor – reveals he has a trick up his sleeve, leading to a fairly satisfying climax. "Adventure in Lemuria" is a brisk, straightforward yarn that held my attention for the entirety of the time I was reading it. Certainly, it doesn't hold a candle to even the lesser entries in, say, the Howardian canon, but it was fun and, when it comes to pulp fantasy, that's not nothing. If you'd like to give it a read yourself, it's been collected, along a number of other similar tales, in Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Jeff Easley in Savage Sword of Conan

A commenter to my earlier post pointed out that former TSR staff artist Jeff Easley was responsible for the frontispiece to issue #30 of Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan (June 1978). I did not know this, so I poked around online for a little bit and found the image in question. The issue in which it appeared was published almost four years before Easley began work at TSR, so it's a good example of artwork from earlier in his career and I thought others might be interested in seeing it. There are no doubt many more examples of Easley's pre-TSR art to be found.

The Hidden Influence of Empire of the Petal Throne

Though Empire of the Petal Throne is a game with which I am now intimately familiar, I didn't really know all that much about it until the early 1990s, when the growth of the Internet made it possible for me to make contact with RPG players outside my local circle. Prior to that, I only knew two things about EPT: it was very expensive and that its setting of T√©kumel was weird and inaccessible. Because I never ran into anyone who was actively playing the game in those days, I assumed that it was due to a combination of these factors, particularly the latter. 

There's almost certainly some truth to my youthful surmise. Empire of the Petal Throne and its setting of T√©kumel have never had much mass appeal, even in a hobby filled with creative, imaginative people with a high tolerance for eccentricity. However, that doesn't mean EPT didn't leave its mark on the development of the hobby – quite the contrary, in fact. I was reminded of this the other day when I stumbled upon the following image:

This is an illustration of a monster from Tom Moldvay's Lords of Creation RPG. Called a "scavenger wheel," it appears in the game's The Book of Foes and is described as having "a 4 foot wide spherical body covered with tentacles between two 6 foot tall wheel-like appendages." Compare that illustration to this one, which appeared in issue #4 of Dragon (December 1976):
The creature in the back is the Vriy√°gga (seemingly illustrated by Dave Sutherland, though the style doesn't quite look right to me). The article it accompanies describes it as having "a huge pair of wheel-like appendages [that] revolve around central axes like the treads of a tank" and "from the lower part of the parody of the face depend four (or more in larger specimens) great tentacles covered with powerful suckers." The Vriy√°gga is such a singularly bizarre thing that I think it highly unlikely that Moldvay wasn't inspired by it.

However, that's not the only instance where a monster from EPT inspired one in another game. There are (at least!) two others that come immediately to mind and, in these cases, we have confirmation of this fact from none other than Gary Gygax. The first is the Ng√≥ro, which is described as "huge (30 feet in length) creatures lie flat upon the floor of a chamber and appear much like the rough stone flooring of the Underworld, although they may feel a little springy to walk upon." The second is the Biridl√ļ, "cape-like, black, flying creatures which cling to ceilings and drop down upon the unwary. They then suffocate their victim, gibbering and shrieking in their powerfully muscled folds." These are very clearly the original sources of the trapper and lurker above respectively.

Though not a popular success, I increasingly get the impression that Empire of the Petal Throne was much better appreciated by many of the roleplayers who would one day become game designers themselves. As a result, its influence was much wider than many might imagine, given its seemingly small footprint in the hobby at large. After all, we have EPT to thank for the introduction of double damage critical hits to roleplaying and that's got to be one of the most well-known and pervasive house rules of all time (and eventually an official feature of D&D's own Third Edition, despite Gygax's earlier denunciation of the concept). 

I now find myself wondering where else EPT might have left its mark on the hobby without our realizing it.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Blue Flame, Tiny Stars

Stephen Wendell of the Donjonlands blog (as well as the player of A√≠thfo hiZn√°yu in my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign for nearly eight years now) has written a memoir of his early experiences in the hobby, entitled Blue Flame, Tiny Stars. 

As you might guess from its cover, those early experiences were formed, as they were for a lot of us, by playing the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set whose rulebook was edited by the late J. Eric Holmes. This fact alone likely explains my enjoyment of Stephen's memoir. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his recollections are both engaging and often insightful, as any good memoir should be.

Blue Flame, Tiny Stars is now available in multiple formats through DriveThruRPG.

Dedication

When I was re-reading the Dungeons & Dragons Companion Rules before writing yesterday's retrospective post, I was surprised by the final paragraph of the set's preface, which reads:

This game is like a huge tree, grown from the seeds planted in 1972 and even earlier. But as a plant needs water and sun, so does a game need proper "backing" – a company to make it. As the saying goes, "for want of a nail, the war was lost"; and for want of a company the D&D game might have been lost amidst the lean and turbulent years of the last decade. This set is therefore dedicated to an oft-neglected leader of TSR, Inc; who, with Gary Gygax, founded this company and made it grow. The D&D Companion Set is dedicated to 

BRIAN BLUME  

Brian Blume is a figure from the early days of the hobby who, when he's remembered at all, is usually demonized, in large part, I suppose, because of the roles he and his brother, Kevin, played in the "exile" of Gary Gygax to California (to head up TSR Entertainment) and in facilitating the takeover of the company by the even more demonized Lorraine Williams. Leaving aside my own feelings on the matter, I nevertheless find it remarkable that Frank Mentzer, who often talks about "my friend, Gary" in reference to Gygax, would, at this late a date, write so glowingly about Blume. 

At the time the D&D Companion was published (1984), tensions between Gygax and Blumes were already well past the boiling point. Indeed, Gygax would soon begin his Cent-Jours, returning from Hollywood, replacing Blue as president and CEO of TSR, and attempting to right the company's direction by a whirlwind program of publishing books like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, among many others. Ultimately, this attempt failed and Blume and his brother were instrumental in assuring that failure. 

Given all of this, why did Mentzer go out of his way to include this dedication? The cynic in me wants to believe that this was mere flattery of the boss, since Blume was still in charge of TSR at the time the Companion was in production. Equally plausible is that Mentzer simply felt, as I do too, that, whatever else you may think of him, Brian Blume did play an important and indeed pivotal role in ensuring that TSR and, more significantly, Dungeons & Dragons, came into existence. For that, he deserved genuine thanks and appreciation, hence the dedication.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Companion Rules

The first time I ever read the words "D&D Companion supplement" – or, more accurately "D&D® Companion supplement" – was in the pages of the 1981 D&D Expert Rulebook, which explained that it would "detail levels up to 36 in more detail." [sic] That version of the D&D Companion never appeared. Instead, just a couple of years later, TSR released yet another version of the D&D Basic Rules. A new Expert Rules followed soon thereafter and then, a year later (1984), a box set finally appeared bearing the title, Companion Rules.

Consisting of two rulebooks, one for players and one for the Dungeon Master, the Companion Rules was the third set in Frank Mentzer grand revision of Dungeons & Dragons, with the goal of making it more accessible to a new generation of players. From what I have gathered, it was quite successful in this goal, selling more copies than any previous version of D&D (how it compared to AD&D sales, I'm not certain). 

Unlike what had been stated in David Cook's Expert Rulebook, Mentzer's Companion only covered levels 15–25, leaving levels 26–36 to the later D&D Master Rules. If this irked me at the time, I can't really recall. What I do know is that I was very grateful to see any extended treatment of the levels above 12 or so covered in an official D&D product, even if it was part of the "kiddie D&D" line. I'd long been fascinated by the idea of very high-level play, even though only one character had ever managed to reach such lofty heights. Consequently, I greeted the publication of the Companion Rules with some excitement. I snatched up a copy while I was on vacation with my family in North Carolina and spent many an hour poring over its pages.

The 32-page Players Companion book interested me primarily for its inclusion of its prestige classes avant la lettre. Neutral clerics of 9th level or above could, for example, opt to become druids, while Lawful fighters who eschewed domain rulership could become paladins. This was a very strange concept to me at the time, since I already knew druids and paladins as classes in AD&D that a player could choose at 1st level. Likewise, the D&D line had until this point kept to the formula of only four human and three demihuman classes without exception. Mentzer was now tinkering with this formula in a way that felt simultaneously innovative and transgressive. I wasn't completely sure I liked it, but it certainly had caught my attention. 

The 64-page Dungeon Masters Companion had a lot more that I liked unreservedly, in part because I felt then, as I do now, that it had finally made good on the promise of D&D's post-adventuring endgame, something that even AD&D had never really done. Thus, Mentzer provided rules for administering a dominion and handling large scale combat without recourse to miniatures battles, two things I felt missing in previous versions of the game. Likewise, he began to touch on the matter of planar adventures, though not nearly as much as I would have liked. On the other hand, he did greatly expand the variety – and power – of monsters and magic items, both of which I consider absolutely necessary to the success of a high-level campaign.

Taken together, the two books of the Companion Rules are creditable first steps toward showing in practical terms what it might be like to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign at very high levels, which is why I have always had a fondness for it. Its reach exceeds its grasp, of course, but I don't see that as a grave defect. If anything, it's strangely inspiring, since Mentzer has already laid a foundation on which an enterprising DM can build. For example, I found the domain management system as presented too limited for my own purposes, so I expanded upon it until I felt it sufficient for what I wanted to do. To my mind, that's what all the best RPG products should do: encourage players and referees to exercise their own creativity. Judged on this basis, the D&D Companion Rules is perhaps the best thing Frank Mentzer ever wrote.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

RIP Kim Mohan (1949–2022)

Kim Mohan as caricatured by Phil Foglio
I've now seen reports that Kim Mohan, former editor-in-chief of Dragon, has died at the age of 73. Mohan was also the author or editor of several gaming products from TSR, New Infinities, and West End Games, perhaps most notably the Wilderness Survival Guide for AD&D. By all accounts, he was a hardworking, creative, and, above all, kind man. His death marks the passing of yet another of our hobby's elders and he will be missed not just by those who knew and loved him, but by all those who were touched by his work.

Rest in peace, Mr Mohan.

White Dwarf: Issue #61

Issue #61 of White Dwarf (January 1985) has a very strange cover by Chris Achilleos. I'm not sure if the armored bird (?) man with a whip is supposed to be a hero or a villain. Perhaps the ambiguity is the point. In any case, it's certainly striking, if a bit confusing to a man of my limited imagination. In his editorial, Ian Livingstone announces that, starting next issue, WD will include regular columns devoted to both Call of Cthulhu and GW's own Golden Heroes. I recall CoC content being a staple of the magazine during the period when I was a subscriber, so this is no surprise. Likewise, by the mid-80s, Games Workshop was well on its way toward becoming more than just a distributor and publisher of UK editions of American games, so shining the spotlight on Golden Heroes makes a great deal of sense.

Oliver MacDonald's "The Spice of Life" for RuneQuest offers an expansion of the alchemy rules in game's rulebook. It's fine for what it is, though, in my opinion, it focuses far too much on the details of the Alchemists Guild than it does on the products of its members. I'd personally have preferred more alchemical substances than the article provides, but that's a matter of taste, I suppose.

"Open Box" kicks off with a review of the Dungeons & Dragons Companion Set, to which the reviewer gives a very fair 7 out of 10. Also reviewed is Pacesetter's Timemaster RPG (7 out of 10) and an adventure for it, Crossed Swords (7 out of 10). Pacesetter's Chill is here too, scoring 7 out of 10, along with the scenario Village of Twilight, which only nets 6 out of 10. The much more obscure Witch Hunt from Statcom Simulations receives 5 out of 10 because of its "limited" scope, with the reviewer suggesting that he couldn't "imagine players wanting to bother playing it more than once or twice." Finally, there's the review of The Adventures of Indiana Jones, which gets – and I know you'll be surprised by this – a 7 out of 10 (yes, yes, I know the reviewers weren't responsible for the numerical scores). More interesting to me is that the reviewer is quite evenhanded in his treatment of Indiana Jones, a game that's usually viewed with utter revulsion. While recognizing its limited nature, reviewer Adrian Knowles nevertheless found it fun and understood that it was written "entirely with a young market in mind."

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" is what it is, for good and for bad. For me, it's rough going, not merely because I frequently disagree with Langford's assessments of the books he reviews, but also because I find it difficult to muster much interest in brief reviews of books from more than three decades ago. This issue, he tackles, among other books, Robert Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice, a book about which I have decidedly mixed feelings (like most of Heinlein's oeuvre). Reading Langford's comments, I found myself wondering what I'd think of Job were I to delve into again (not that that's very likely).

Part 3 of "Eye of Newt and Tongue of Bat" by Graeme Davis continues, focusing on rings, armor, and shields. Like its predecessors in the series, this one is fine – neither inspired nor terrible but perfectly adequate for its quixotic task of making the crafting of magic items in AD&D interesting. Andy Slack's "The Motivated Traveller," on the other hand, is much more intriguing. In it, he puts forward an alternate experience system for use with Traveller (and other SF RPGs, like Space Opera, Star Frontiers, and Universe). The system is built on the idea that each character can have up to three "motivations," such as adept, altruist, hedonist, killer, miser, and so on. A character earns "victory points" (VP) based on his pursuit of his motivations, with success bringing him an increased "victory level" (VL) that brings with it reputation and influence. Slack's system is really only an outline, but it's an interesting one that might work well in games that are about more than fighting and looting (not that there's anything wrong with that). 

Ian Marsh's "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" is a fantasy scenario that's remarkable for the fact that it is dual-statted for both Fighting Fantasy and D&D. However, it's not a programmed adventure but instead a traditional one that requires a referee to play. The scenario takes place in an unnamed city and involves the hunt for a youthful storyteller who's gone missing after appearing several nights, to great acclaim, in a local inn. The characters are tasked with unraveling the mystery of what happened to the storyteller. It's a surprisingly moody and expansive adventure that includes lots of interesting details, not to mention twists and turns. 

Meanwhile, "The Dark Usurper" by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill is a straight-up, 104-entry Fighting Fantasy solo adventure. The player assumes the role of a knight wrongly imprisoned, who must escape the tower where he is held – fairly conventional stuff. Simon Burley's "Days of Future Past" is the final part of his article looking at setting up a superhero campaign. This time, he focuses on how on to make use of adventure modules for other games (and genres), converting them to the conventions of superheroism. It's an admittedly odd approach and one I wouldn't have expected, but I think Burley does a good job with it. 

"All Creepies Great and Small" is a collection of new bugs for use as D&D monsters by Russell May. Most of these are wholly imaginary insects rather than simply being giant versions of terrestrial arthropods, though we do get a few real-world examples, like the giant mosquito. I'm a well-known fan of vermin monsters, so this article definitely caught my fancy. "Treasures" is a collection of four unique magic items for RuneQuest. They range from the relatively mundane (stones that glow in the dark) to the mythological (fang warriors who spring from hydra's teeth) to the epic (the helm of a hero of old). I'm also a sucker for unique magic items, so I enjoyed this article as well.

"Prize Competition" announces an adventure design competition. Entrants are to use a map (see below) provided by White Dwarf and then write a 4000-10,000-word scenario for a game of their choosing. The winner's submission will be published and he will receive a cash prize of £150. 

I'll be curious to see the winning entry.

"High and Dry" by Gary Chalk and Joe Dever looks at dry-brushing techniques for miniatures. As usual, the article is accompanied by lots of color illustrations, which is a delight to a guy like me, whose painting skills have always been poor. The issue also includes "Gobbledigook," "Thrud the Barbarian," and "The Travellers." Needless to say, I enjoyed them all, particularly "Thrud," which pokes fun at the well-worn trope of a weakling spending years developing his body and unarmed fighting skills to seek vengeance against those who mocked him. Mind you, "The Travellers" is great this issue too, as it continues to parody every science fiction franchise Mark Harrison can think of.

All in all, White Dwarf continues to impress. The magazine is now in a very comfortable spot, with a very diverse coverage of games for every taste. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Outlaws of Mars

Otis Adelbert Kline, despite having a very memorable name, is one of those authors of the Golden Age of the Pulps that almost no one remembers today. To some extent, that's understandable, since his most successful stories are often erroneously described as being little more than rip-offs of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The most well regarded of these – the two novels set on Mars – probably also suffer from not sharing a protagonist, unlike, say, the tales of John Carter to which they are unfavorably compared (or, for that matter, Kline's own Venus stories, all three of which feature the character of Robert Grandon). 

I've previously written about the first of Kline's Martian novels, The Swordsman of Mars, and declared it better than its sequel, The Outlaws of Mars. Having just re-read the latter in preparation for today's post, I now wonder if my earlier judgment might have been mistaken. While both novels are breezily written and full of heroic exploits, Outlaw is notable in that its lead character, Jerry Morgan, is notably more fallible (and, therefore, more relatable) than Swordsman's Harry Thorne. Indeed, the initial action of Outlaws rests heavily upon the negative consequences of Morgan's leaping before he looked, as we shall see.

Like its predecessor, The Outlaws of Mars was originally serialized before being collected together under a single cover decades later. Also like its predecessor, the serial appeared in the pages of Argosy Weekly, starting with the November 25, 1933 issue and running for the next six issues. Though Kline was an assistant editor at Weird Tales (and had been since its premiere in 1922), none of his longer serials appeared in the Unique Magazine. I would imagine this was to avoid any appearance of favoritism, though several of his yarns did appear in WT's sister periodical, Oriental Stories.

The novel begins as Jerry Morgan, described as "a tall, broad-shouldered young man with steel-gray eyes and sandy hair," steps off a train at "the diminutive Pineville station." Morgan is in Pineville to visit his uncle (and former guardian), Dr. Richard Morgan, whom readers may remember as the eccentric scientist who enabled Harry Thorne to travel to the Red Planet in The Swordsman of Mars. Jerry believes his visit will be a surprise, but his uncle seems to be expecting him.

Jerry stared in amazement as he took his uncle's proffered hand. "Expecting me? Why, I told no one, and fully intended to surprise you. It sounds like thought-transference, or something."

"Perhaps you are nearer the truth than you imagine," replied the doctor, seating himself.

Setting aside his uncle's cryptic remark, Jerry admits that "I've disgraced the family – dragged the name of Morgan in the dirt." Again, Dr. Morgan claims to know this already and again Jerry boggles at this. Morgan then proceeds to prove that he knows why his nephew has come by recounting, in precise detail, the unfortunate circumstances that led him to his doorstep. The long and short of it is that Jerry had been framed by a romantic rival so as to not only lose the affections of his fianc√©e but also to be cashiered from the army regiment in which he had served proudly up to now. 

Needless to say, Jerry is astounded by how much his uncle knows.

"You have said, half in jest, that I appear to read your mind. Without realizing it, you have hit upon the truth. I do and have always read your mind, since the death of your parents placed you under my guardianship. I have never needed your letters or telegrams to inform me of your doings, because since the day when I first established telepathic rapport with you, I have been able at all times to tap the contents of your subliminal consciousness, which contains a record of all you have thought and done."

Rather than dwell on the uncomfortable – to modern readers anyway – implications of this secret telepathic rapport, Dr. Morgan instead reveals that he has recently, thanks to his telepathic contact with "the people of Olba, a nation on the planet Venus," constructed a spaceship that will enable humans to travel to Mars "in the flesh," in contrast to the more mystical means employed in the previous novel, The Swordsman of Mars. While he would like to go to Mars himself, the urgency of his other work has prevented this. Naturally, Jerry offers to go in his stead, to which his uncle readily agrees.

Though Jerry's primary purpose in traveling to Mars is as "a valuable scientific experiment" that will "increase the sum total of terrestrial knowledge," it has the added benefit of giving him "new scenes, new adventures, and forgetfulness – these and a chance to begin life over again." This theme of "starting over," being given the chance to leave behind a shattered past, is a common one in sword-and-planet stories, starting with A Princess of Mars. I suspect it plays a big part in the lasting appeal of the genre and may have held particular resonance with readers during the depths of the Great Depression.

Jerry's transit to Mars is far less interesting than what happens upon his arrival. He finds himself not far from a Martian city, whose inhabitants "did not show any marked difference from terrestrial peoples" beyond "their strange apparel and the fact that their chests were, on average, larger than those of Earth-men," this latter feature being a consequence of the thinner atmosphere of the Red Planet. Jerry observes that many of the city's buildings feature roof gardens. In one of these gardens, he sees an extremely beautiful woman – of course! – with "an ethereal beauty of face and form such as he had never seen on Earth, or even dreamed existed." 

I could not blame anyone for assuming at this point that the criticisms of Kline as a mere Burroughs imitator are correct. Thus far, The Outlaws of Mars is little different from the sword-and-planet material cranked out by the ream after the publication of A Princess of Mars and its sequels. However, that assessment of the novel would, in my opinion, be mistaken. When Jerry introduces himself to the young Martian beauty, she is frightened and looks ready to flee. Confused, the Earthman looks around for an explanation and seemingly finds it in the form of a strange Martian beast leapt from behind the shrubbery of the garden with "a terrific roar" and "a yawning, tooth-filled mouth as large as that of an alligator." 

In an act of chivalry befitting John Carter himself, Jerry slays the alien creature, believing he had saved her from danger.

At the sound of the shot the girl had sprung erect. For a moment she peered down at the fallen beast. Then, her eyes flashing like those of an enraged tigress, she turned on Jerry with a volley of words that were unmistakably scornful and scathing, despite the fact that he was unable to understand them.

Suddenly her hand flashed to her belt and came up with a jewel-hilted dagger. Jerry noticed that the blade straight and double-edged, with tiny, razor-sharp teeth. For a moment, he did not realize what she intended doing. But when she raised her weapon aloft and lunged straight for his breast, he caught her wrists just in time.

We soon learn that the animal Jerry had slain was, in fact, the beloved pet of Junia Sovil, daughter of the emperor of Kalsivar, the greatest kingdom of Mars. Worse still, the slaying of the dalf (as the animal is called) is a capital crime – and the people of Kalsivar believe in swift justice. Thus, our hero has barely stepped foot on Mars and he has already made an enemy of an imperial princess and found himself condemned to death. Jerry Morgan works fast!

Naturally, Jerry does not die only a few chapters into The Outlaws of Mars and indeed soon finds himself entangled in the vicious court politics of Kalsivar, but I was nonetheless charmed by the way that Kline kicked off his adventures on Mars. Jerry's ignorance of Mars and its customs and language cause him no end of headaches early on. Likewise, his headstrong nature and gentlemanly ideals lead him astray almost as often as they aid him. It's almost as Kline were playing with and commenting upon the conventions of the sword-and-planet genre, though I have no evidence that he did so intentionally. 

Regardless, The Outlaws of Mars is a fun, fast read, filled with plenty of pulpy action and dastardly deeds. To call it a classic would be overstating its simple virtues, but virtues they are nonetheless. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to re-read this and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys sword-and-planet stories.