Saturday, January 22, 2022

And Silence I Was Born

Robert E. Howard (January 22, 1906–June 11, 1936)
By rose and verdant valley
And silence I was born;
My brothers were the mountains,
The purple gods of morn.

My sisters were the whirlwinds
That broke the dreaming plains-
The earth is in my sinews,
The stars are in my veins!

For first upon the molten
White silver sands I lay,
And saw the ocean beckon
With eyes of burning spray.

And up along the mountain,
And down along the lea,
I heard my brothers singing,
The river and the tree.

And through the ocean’s thunder,
And through the forest’s hush,
I heard my sisters calling,
The sea-wind and the thrush.

And still all living voices
Leap forth amain and far,
The sunset and the shadow,
The eagle and the star.

From caverns of the ocean
To highest mountain tree,
I hear all voices singing
Their kinship unto me.

Friday, January 21, 2022

"Presents the Wrong Image"

Last week, I discussed James M. Ward's (in)famous "Angry Mothers from Heck" editorial, which appeared in issue #154 of Dragon (February 1990). It's possible to read Ward's editorial as disingenuous or at the very least canny – an act of "wink, wink" public relations intended to burnish the image of D&D in the eyes of a vociferous minority with whom the good folks at TSR no longer wished to deal. I'm not wholly convinced that's the case, but, even assuming it is, let's look at a different article appearing in Dragon exactly three years earlier. 

This article, by David Cook, is part of a series of "designer's notes" on the forthcoming second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a project for which he acted as lead designer. Entitled "Who Dies?", the article appears in the February 1987 issue of Dragon (#118) and discusses which AD&D 1e classes will carry over into the new edition. Cook's answers to the article's titular question are more or less as one would expect, as are most of the reasons he offers. In the case of the assassin sub-class, he has this to say:

His first point, that the assassin is "disruptive of party harmony," is an odd one in my opinion. I don't at all deny that the inclusion of an assassin character could, in certain groups, be disruptive, but in all of them? I suspect Cook was making a blanket assumption about the kinds of campaigns AD&D is intended to support, namely one in which evil player characters have no place. Since assassins must be of evil alignment, they don't belong, according to Cook. (My interpretation of his assumption is based largely on the discussion of evil PCs in the 2e Player's Handbook, which states that "the AD&D® game is a game of heroic fantasy" and that playing an evil character "is not a good idea.")

This leads to the second and, I think, stronger comment, that the assassin class "presents the wrong image about AD&D games" [italics mine]. Perhaps I am reading too much into what Cook wrote, but, as I look at it, this seems to suggest that, from its conception, Second Edition was intended to be a more "family friendly" version of the game, one that scrubbed many of its more "gritty" (for lack of a better word) elements, in favor of ones that promoted "heroic fantasy." 

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, of course, and it may well be that TSR saw the sanitization of the game as a way to increase its sales. They might even have been correct, for all I know. All that said, I think, in light of statements like this by David Cook, it's incontrovertible that bowdlerization was baked into the 2e cake from the beginning. What Ward says in "Angry Mothers from Heck" may well be wholly insincere, but it wasn't a last minute decision by TSR but rather something the company had committed to years earlier, as it charted the course of AD&D sans Gary Gygax. 

Again, one can view this as positive or negative, according to one's own tastes; that's not my point. Rather, I wanted to cite an example of the kind of tonal shift that occurred with the creation of Second Edition, one that likely contributes to the casual dismissals of that version of AD&D in many corners of the old school scene. These days, I'm much more sympathetic to 2e than I have been in the past, but there's no denying that, on many levels, it's a very different game than its predecessor and those differences are foundational.

White Dwarf Interviews Marc Miller

Issue #23 of White Dwarf features a lengthy – and insightful – interview with the creator of Traveller, Marc Miller. I'm always interested in early interviews with foundational designers of the hobby. In this case, though, I'm especially interested, as Traveller is a game that's near and dear to my heart. The unnamed interviewer (Ian Livingstone?) asks a number of excellent questions and Miller's answers tell us a great deal about himself, GDW, and the origins of Traveller.

Miller's comment that he initially disliked D&D in intriguing, in light of the fact he (and Loren Wiseman) produced some of the earliest D&D-related comics in the pages of The Strategic Review. I also continue to boggle at the usage of "FRP" as shorthand for the hobby of roleplaying. It's not one I regularly encountered myself, but, based on what I've read, it was once quite widespread.

This perspective was, I think, quite commonplace in first half-decade of the hobby, but became less so as time went on. Certainly by the mid-1980s, if not sooner, roleplaying's connections to miniatures or board wargaming were tenuous to the point of non-existence. That said, GDW seemed to be a company that tried to maintain the connections, as evidenced by its publication of both miniatures rules and board wargames to support Traveller, for example.
While there is lots of useful information here, I find the acknowledgement of D&D's influence the most important. Of course, the presentation of Traveller in the form of three digest-sized booklets revealed this already, but Miller's admission clinches the matter.
This section of the interview is, for me, the single most important one. I've often encountered people who believe that Traveller was primarily inspired by cinematic science fiction. Miller certainly makes a concession to this possibility – "Movies and television particularly affected me." – but I think it's significant that all the direct influences he mentions are literary, from Anderson to Tubb to Niven and Pournelle. It's not an accident that, when pressed, the titles Miller rattles off are books, most of which were written in the two decades prior to Traveller's release. 

The interview, as I said, is quite lengthy and touches on a number of important topics regarding Traveller's design, such as why it has no levels or experience rules ("Most people in their real lives don't improve much as they live out their lives."), why many characters are middle-aged, and even why the game uses two six-sided dice ("Six-sided dice are ubiquitous; they are easily obtained, and most people are familiar with them."). Miller's answers are always interesting and, much as I'd like to share them all here, I don't want this post to go on interminably. However, I will include his answer to a longstanding criticism of Traveller, one that I think roleplayers have been making since 1977.
And there you have it!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Merit of Merritt

From the vantage point of our present day, Abraham Grace Merritt is probably not the most obscure name on Gary Gygax's Appendix N, but he's nevertheless in the running. This is especially true when one compares him to some of the more widely recognized names, like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack Vance, or – especially – J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, I'd be amazed if there were many other places on the Internet besides this blog that take even the slightest note of his 138th birthday today. 

Even someone as naturally censorious as I can't muster any vitriol about this. The simple truth of the matter is that tastes change. That Merritt's popular literary reputation has likely suffered more than some of his contemporaries doesn't alter this reality. Neither does it alter the fact that Merritt remains a foundational author of fantasy. Many of his works, while largely unknown today, have nevertheless exercised an outsized influence over later writers, popularizing many of the archetypes and elements of the genre. 

For that reason, here's a collection of links to previous posts I've made about Merritt and his writings:

If you have a few minutes, take the time to read a couple, especially if Abraham Merritt isn't an author with whom you're familiar. Better yet, try reading something he wrote. They're pretty much all in the public domain now and are easily obtainable online.

Grognard's Grimoire: Tharantal

Tharantal (Silent Deceiver)

The Heritor Lords of the Epoch of Wonders applied their sciences to beget many strange creatures, like the shapeshifting tharantal, whom they employed as spies and assassins. Standing 7' tall, the tharantal's natural form is that of a spindly, pale-skinned humanoid with a single eye. In the present cycle, sorcerers and potentates sometimes enlist them and independent bands of them dwell in secluded locales, including, it is said, the Vaults.

AC 5 [14], HD 4*** (18hp), Att 2 × fist (2d4), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 90’ (30’), SV D6 V7 P8 B8 S10 (10), ML 10, XP 225, NA 1d6 (1d6), TT E

  • Change Form: May take on the appearance of any person or creature observed three times per day. Takes 1 round.
  • Healing: Regains 4d4 hit points upon changing to a new form.
  • Surprise: On a 1–4, due to stealth.
  • Tracking: Without error.
  • Reversion: If killed, reverts to its original form.
  • Spell Immunity: Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.
A tharantal by Zhu Bajiee

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Retrospective: Ivinia

I feel about Hârn the same way many feel about Tékumel or Glorantha: it's a great setting to read about but I don't think I could ever run a campaign there. 

I don't mean that as a criticism of Hârn – far from it, in fact. Rather, it's simply a statement that, for the kind of fantasy roleplaying gaming I enjoy, Hârn isn't now nor has it ever been a particularly good fit. What I mean by that is that, as much as I admire and appreciate the work of its creator, the late N. Robin Crossby, it's a bit too grounded a setting for my tastes. I prefer my fantasy worlds a little weirder and, well, fantastical. (Yes, I am aware of the Gargun and, yes, they are weird, but that's simply not enough for me.)

Nevertheless, the overwhelming quality of the materials produced for Hârn has ensured I've bought a number of them over the years, a few of which I think very highly. One of these is the Ivinia regional module, which was originally released as a boxed set in 1985. Ivinia is the name of an area to the northeast of the island of Hârn, one that's home to a collection of petty kingdoms that bear some similarity to those of early medieval Scandinavia.

If there's one thing fantasy roleplayers like, it's Vikings and Ivinia definitely scratches that itch. The book included with the boxed set gives this northerly region the same treatment as Hârn. There's an overview of Ivinia's history and culture, including religion, law, and military capabilities. There are also descriptions of the numerous Ivinian kingdoms and their rulers. What strikes me about this material is the way that Crossby presents something that feels very much like one's imaginings of Viking era Scandinavia without simply copying it. This was the same approach he took with Hârn itself, which feels like Anglo-Saxon England without duplicating its specific details. 

That might not seem like an impressive feat but it is. Too often, in my experience, fantasy settings are little more than copy-and-paste reproductions of medieval Europe with elves, dwarves, and magic added to them (and, to be fair, even Hárn suffers from this to an extent). Ivinia tries to avoid by varying the details of the local cultures from the real world ones that inspired them. For example, the Ivinians practice formal polygamy, which has far-reaching consequences for the way their society is structured. Changes like this, along with unique Ivinian names and words, go a long way toward making the region feel unique and distinctive.

Like Hârn, Ivinia includes an absolutely beautiful map of the region. Maps are one of those aspects of Hârn products that has always set it apart from most other fantasy settings. The map style reminds me a bit of those from National Geographic or a historical atlas. 

I'm a sucker for maps of all kinds. That probably explains why I've bought as many Hârn products as I have. Whatever else one can say about them, the maps are gorgeous and almost worth the price of admission alone.

I really like Ivinia and wish I could say that I've made extensive use of it over the years. Of course, that's true of all of the Hârn products I own. It's very well made, filled with lots of interesting details and artwork. I've enjoyed reading it many times, but I've never quite felt inspired enough by it to make use of it in a campaign. That probably says more about me and my own preferences than it does about Ivinia and thank goodness for that. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Official AD&D Figures Collection is Here

TSR fanboy that I was, I was naturally also a buyer of the AD&D miniatures produced by Grenadier Models. How could I not be? After all, these were "the only figures officially approved for use by the AD&D Game Originators," in the strange turn of phrase of the advertisement below (which appeared on the back cover of White Dwarf issue #24).
I remember lots of ads for Grenadier in  Dragon (usually the inside back cover), but they were mostly pretty goofy and didn't include close-up photos of the figures, as this one does. What's interesting is that Grenadier only had the AD&D for a short period of time – 1981–1983, I believe – during which they produced a lot of boxed sets and blister packs. That's likely one of the reasons why I so strongly associate the company with my memories of AD&D. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Maze of the Enchanter

A characteristic of older fantasy that's fallen out of favor in recent decades is the more whimsical – or at least less rigorous – approach to world building than that evinced in, for example, Middle-earth and its legion of imitators. The action of many pulp fantasies occurred in weird worlds whose creators cared little for consistency, let alone plausibility. Clark Ashton Smith's Xiccarph is a world of this sort, an alien realm possessed of three suns and four moons. Consequently, its nights are short and its most abundant forms of life are a wide variety of deadly and toxic plants. 

Smith wrote only two tales of Xiccarph, the first of which was "The Maze of the Enchanter." He had a great deal of trouble selling the story, which suffered repeated rejections, first at the hands of Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and then Astounding Stories and Esquire. Nevertheless, Smith was very pleased with it. In a letter to August Derleth, he described it as "ultra-fantastic, full-hued and ingenious, with an extra twist or two in the tail for luck." With no other outlet for the piece, he included it in The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, a 30-page volume Smith self-published in June 1933. (An abbreviated version would eventually appear in Weird Tales under the title "The Maze of Maal Dweb" in October 1938.)

The story opens with a man named Tiglari, his "naked body smeared from crown to heel with the juice of a jungle plant repugnant to all the fauna of Xiccarph," surreptitiously attempting to enter :the ever-mysterious and terrible house of Maal Dweb." Maal Dweb, we learn, is a "half-demoniac sorcerer and scientist," who rules as a tyrant and whom Tiglari hopes to slay

not for himself but for the girl Athlé, his beloved and the fairest of his tribe, who had gone up alone that very evening by the causey of corundum and the porphyry stairs at the summons of Maal Dweb. [Tiglari's] hatred was that of a brave man and an outraged lover for the all-powerful, all-dreaded tyrant whom no man had ever seen, and from whose abode no woman came back; who spoke with an iron voice that was audible at will in the far cities or the outmost jungles; who punished the rebellious and the disobedient with a doom of falling fire that was swifter than the thunderstone. 
Tiglari is not alone is his "uncouth adoration" of Athlé. The warrior Mocair is the most formidable rival for the maiden's affections and Tiglari believed that he had already made his way to the home of Maal Dweb ahead of him. There was thus no time to delay, lest Mocair rescue Athlé rather than himself. 

Like any tyrannical sorcerer-scientist worthy of the name, Maal Dweb had protected his home with numerous traps, as well as monstrous guardians of many sorts, not least of them being "iron servitors … whose arms ended in long crescent blades of tempered steel." Against all these dangers, he was well prepared; he made his way past them all until he found himself in the sorcerer's harem, "peopled with all the girls that the enchanter had summoned to his mountain dwelling over the course of decades." 

In fact, it seemed that there were many hundreds, leaning or recumbent on ornate couches, or standing in attitudes of languor or terror. Tiglari discerned in the throng the woman of Ommu-Zain, whose flesh is whiter than desert salt; the slim girls of Uthmai, who are moulded from breathing, palpitating jet; the queenly amber girls of equatorial Xala; and the small women of Ilap, who have tones of newly greening bronze. But among them all, he could not find the lilied beauty of Athlé.

As he surveys the women, Tiglari notes that they "had been made the thralls of a death-like spell of immortal slumber," making them appear almost as if they were statues. He pressed on, toward a nearby chamber, in which he beheld a man reclining as if in sleep. 

The face of the man was a pale mask of mystery lying amid ambiguous shadows; but it did not occur to Tiglario that this being was any other than the redoubtable tyrannic sorcerer whom he had come to slay. He knew that this was Maal Dweb, whom no man had seen in the flesh, but whose power was manifest to all; the occult, omniscient ruler of Xiccarph, the overland of kings; the suzerain of the three suns and of all their moons and planets. 

Unfortunately for Tiglari, he soon learns that the man before him is an illusion, a mirrored image – another trap of Maal Dweb, who laughed at him, unseen, before asking, "What do you seek, Tiglari?" The young man boasted of his intention to find and free Athlé, to which the voice replied,

"Athlé has gone to find her fate in the labyrinth of Maal Dweb. Not long ago, the warrior Mocair, who had followed her to my palace, went out at my suggestion to pursue his search amid the threadless windings of that never to be exhausted maze. Go now, Tiglari, and seek her also … There are many mysteries in my labyrinth; and among them, mayhap, there is one which you are destined to solve." 

"The Maze of the Enchanter" is an unusual story om that, as Smith claimed in his letter to Derleth quoted above, there's a twist or two in its conclusion. I won't spoil it here, but will only say that the story's ending is not a happy one – unless one is Maal Dweb. Smith is almost unique in the history of pulp fantasy for sympathizing with his evil sorcerers, or at least presenting their thoughts and perspectives sympathetically. It's what sets him apart from both Lovecraft, whose antagonists' motives are largely inscrutable, and Howard, whose dark magicians are never portrayed as anything but villains to be cut down. It's one of the reasons I think Smith and stories like this are well worth reading: they do something different in a genre that is too often filled with banal imitation.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Elemental Honorifics

The Olyosh Dras Chamri (“Principles of Hidden Power”) asserts that there are five primordial elements out of which everything in the Four Worlds is constituted: energy, matter, mind, time, and void. The sages of the Light of Kulvu incorporated this idea into their metaphysics, thereby ensuring it became widespread. In doing so, they also popularized the custom of granting special honorific prefixes to people, places, or objects demonstrating exemplary qualities thought to spring from an element. These honorifics all derive from Hejeksayaka, the so-called “Exalted Speech” of the Makers in which many magical texts are written.

Energy: ja– (“mighty”)

The element of energy denotes power, motion, and heat. Energy feeds the element of mind, making sorcery possible. It also accelerates the element of time, thereby playing a role in the end of all things.

The archons of the final cycles of the Empire of the Light of Kulvu routinely added this honorific to their regnal names. Meanwhile, Men acknowledge the deeds of the Ga’andrin hero Hejneka by declaring him ja-Hejneka (though the Ga’andrin themselves do not do so).

Matter: ba– (“invulnerable”)

The element of matter refers specifically to inorganic substances, such as clay, glass, or metal. Matter feeds energy, which is why sorcerers typically avoid carrying items associated with this element. Matter also impedes the element of mind.

The fortress of Kuruma, which withstood continuous siege for eight years without yielding to the forces of Nektekash, is often referred to as ba-Kuruma in recognition of its impregnability. Likewise, the warrior-king Meshakur is lauded as ba-Meshakur for his single-handed defense of Suritanesh Pass during the legendary battle of that name.

Mind: sha– (“true”)

The element of mind includes all immaterial substances, including both spiritual entities and concepts. Mind perceives the element of time and comprehends the element of void.

The world of mortal beings is dubbed sha-Arthan in the belief that it is the True World, in contrast to the False or Mirror World. Similarly, devotees sometimes dub the Light of Kulvu sha-Takun – “the true teaching” – as a sign of respect.

Time: da– (“eternal”)

The element of time encompasses past, present, and future, which places it in the paradoxical role of simultaneously upholding fixity, transience, and change. Time is generally held to weaken the element of matter and to generate the element of void, though this interpretation is not universally accepted.

The ancient capital of the king-emperors of Inba Iro, da-Imer, bears the honorific of time, owing to its great antiquity. Also, the people of Allakun-Tenu regularly invoke their god as da-Ten, because they believe him to be everlasting, unlike the lesser gods of other lands.

Void: cha– (“barren”)

The element of void describes cold, emptiness, and entropy. Void is held to dissipate energy but also to coalesce into matter, suggesting that, despite its generally negative qualities, it plays a role in creation and the generation of new things.

There is an island located in the Sea of Mejal all of whose inhabitants, both human and animal, disappeared more than a millennium ago in a magical cataclysm. Now called cha-Siritana, the island is home only to ruins.

Double Damage and "Instant Death"

 Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) contains the following section:

This is the first appearance of what would later be called a "critical hit" in the history of roleplaying games. Since the start of my ongoing House of Worms campaign, I've made use of this rule without modification. According to one of the players, there have only been four such "lucky hits" (as Professor Barker called them) in the nearly seven years we've been been playing, all of which affected opponents of the characters – until our most recent session.

During Session 253, the characters were exploring a series of caverns beneath a ruined step pyramid they'd found on a coastal island. There was plenty of reason to suspect the caverns were inhabited, not least of which being that they seem to have been picked clean of anything organic. This worried Kirktá, the apprentice to Keléno, scholar priest of Sárku. For that reason, he volunteered to keep watch on the ledges of a large cave while his comrades explored nearby. His worries proved well founded, as a large insectoid creature began to crawl down one of the ledges, apparently attracted by the echoes of the characters' actions.

Aíthfo and Grujúng rushed to meet the creature, attacking it as it slowly descended the wall of the ledge. They soon realize that its carapace protected it well and that, owing to its size, it would take a great deal of effort to slay it. Initially, the fight went well, with the creature failing to land a blow on any of the characters. However, on the third round of the fight, I rolled for a 20 and then a 19 against Aíthfo, resulting in his instant death. I decided that the creature's mandibles sliced through the unlucky Aíthfo's neck, severing his head from his body. 

Needless to say, this shocked everyone. No character had ever suffered an instant death due to the critical hit rule before. Ironically, Aíthfo had failed a saving throw some years ago that had resulted in his death, but he was eventually restored to life by Naqsái magic (which led to some long-ranging consequences). Now, though, the characters were quite far from any means of revivifying Aíthfo and worried that this might indeed be his end. Znayáshu, however, had an idea. After sewing his decapitated head back onto his body – Znayáshu is an accomplished embalmer – he made use of his excellent ruby eye on Aíthfo's remains. This device of the Ancients freezes its target in a moment in time. In this way, the body would be immune to decay or corruption until Znayáshu used the eye on it again. The body was then submerged in the water of an underground river to keep it safe.

The characters continue to explore the caverns. Once done, they plan to seek out some means of revivifying Aíthfo and will return to the caverns to do so. How or when this will occur is still unknown. Given the way this campaign unfolds, it could well be many, many more sessions before it comes to pass, assuming it ever does. But that's the nature of this campaign: it's unpredictable. In the meantime, Aíthfo's player has taken up the role of Lára hiKhánuma, a sorceress of Ksárul and a relative of Aíthfo's new wife (or should I say widow?). It will be fascinating to see what happens next.
Aíthfo in happier times

Friday, January 14, 2022

Grognard's Grimoire: Dritlor

Dritlor (Doomed Dead)

The people of Inba Iro burn their dead, believing the soul can only return to the eternal gods if so liberated from the prison of the flesh. For this reason, the priests of Jilho the Protector deny condemned lawbreakers cremation. Through sorcery, they instead compel them to serve after execution as guardians of the upper levels of the Vaults. Only fire can permanently end a dritlor's earthly bondage or else it reanimates not long after its apparent destruction. 

AC 7 [12], HD 2* (9hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d8 or by weapon), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 60’ (20’), SV D12 V13 P14 B15 S16 (1), ML 12, XP 25, NA 2d4 (4d6), TT None

  • Guardians: Always attacks on sight
  • Undead: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.
  • Reanimation: If destroyed (0hp), stitches itself back together and fights again in 2d6 rounds.
  • Fire: Cannot reanimate if burned after destruction.
A dritlor by Zhu Bajiee

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Le Château des Sortilèges

Le Château des Sortilèges appeared in issue #4 of the French games magazine, Jeux et Stratégie in 1980. Designed by François Marcela-Froideval, it's not quite a roleplaying game as we'd understand it today, but neither is it a simple boardgame. Instead, it seems to be a hybrid of the two, like a more sophisticated version of Dungeon! Here's the map:
The influence of Dungeons & Dragons on Le Château des Sortilèges is very clear, particularly when you look at its counters.
The depictions of the zombie, ghoul, troll, and goblin all look remarkably like those in the AD&D Monster Manual. For comparison, here's Dave Trampier's goblin from the MM:
The second collection of counters also includes illustrations that are obviously derivative of those in the Monster Manual. Pay close attention to the demon, for example, which appears to have been cribbed from Sutherland's Asmodeus. Several of the other counters show resemblances to artwork by both Trampier and Dave Sutherland.
I'd never heard of Le Château des Sortilèges before and am grateful to reader Adamo Dagradi for sharing these images with me. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a fascinating time, as many of the foundational concepts we now associate with fantasy were in the process of being formed. I imagine this process was especially fascinating in countries outside the English-speaking world about which I know comparatively little. Le Château des Sortilèges is a good example of what was happening in France during this period. I have no doubt there are many more fantasy games like this one that offer insight into the early development of the genre. 

"I am the emperor of dreams"

I can think of no better way to commemorate the 129th anniversary of the birth of Clark Ashton Smith than to quote, as I will below, the first stanza from his 1922 poem, "The Hashish Eater (or The Apocalypse of Evil)." This is likely Smith's most famous poem, written nearly a decade before his name first appeared in the pages of Weird Tales. Smith, one must recall, began his literary career as a poet, the protégé of George Sterling. Likewise, in the years following the deaths of both his friend, H.P. Lovecraft, and his parents, Smith abandoned fiction entirely to return to poetry, a pursuit that, along with sculpture, occupied him for the remainder of his life. Smith wrote fiction to pay the bills, but it was poetry that mattered most to him, hence my decision to mark his birthday with this excerpt.


Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.
Like rampant monsters roaring for their glut,
The fiery-crested oceans rise and rise,
By jealous moons maleficently urged
To follow me for ever; mountains horned
With peaks of sharpest adamant, and mawed
With sulphur-lit volcanoes lava-langued,
Usurp the skies with thunder, but in vain;
And continents of serpent-shapen trees,
With slimy trunks that lengthen league by league,
Pursue my flight through ages spurned to fire
By that supreme ascendance; sorcerers,
And evil kings, predominantly armed
With scrolls of fulvous dragon-skin whereon
Are worm-like runes of ever-twisting flame,
Would stay me; and the sirens of the stars,
With foam-like songs from silver fragrance wrought,
Would lure me to their crystal reefs; and moons
Where viper-eyed, senescent devils dwell,
With antic gnomes abominably wise,
Heave up their icy horns across my way.
But naught deters me from the goal ordained
By suns and eons and immortal wars,
And sung by moons and motes; the goal whose name
Is all the secret of forgotten glyphs
By sinful gods in torrid rubies writ
For ending of a brazen book; the goal
Whereat my soaring ecstasy may stand
In amplest heavens multiplied to hold
My hordes of thunder-vested avatars,
And Promethèan armies of my thought,
That brandish claspèd levins. There I call
My memories, intolerably clad
In light the peaks of paradise may wear,
And lead the Armageddon of my dreams
Whose instant shout of triumph is become
Immensity's own music: for their feet
Are founded on innumerable worlds,
Remote in alien epochs, and their arms
Upraised, are columns potent to exalt
With ease ineffable the countless thrones
Of all the gods that are or gods to be,
And bear the seats of Asmodai and Set
Above the seventh paradise.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Impossible Whoppers

Retrospective: Outdoor Survival

I don't think I'd ever heard of Outdoor Survival prior to 2007. That's the year when I first started looking seriously into the history of Dungeons & Dragons, with a special focus on the original 1974 version of the game. What I soon discovered is that this rather odd 1972 Avalon Hill game played a role, albeit a minor one, in the development of D&D. Nowadays, I think this fact is pretty well known, even among those who don't play old school RPGs, but, at the time, it was news to me. This is in spite of the fact that Volume 1 of the Little Brown Books includes Outdoor Survival on page 5, as the second entry in its list of "recommended equipment," right after D&D itself.

The actual use of Outdoor Survival in D&D isn't explained until fairly late in OD&D, about halfway through the third and final volume. There, in a section entitled "The Wilderness," it's suggested that the referee use the game's board for "off-hand adventures in the wilderness," which is to say, adventures whose wilderness locales are not determined by the referee beforehand. Because of this, it was once quite fashionable in the OSR to base one's starting campaign map on the one in Outdoor Survival, a fad I myself could not resist

None of this says anything about Outdoor Survival itself, though. As I said in my opening paragraph above, it's designed by James F. Dunnigan, a legend in the wargames world. His first design, Jutland, was published by Avalon Hill in 1967, followed by many others, including PanzerBlitz in 1970 (also from AH). Dunnigan was also the founder of SPI and, believe it or not, the designer of the Dallas RPG. It's worth noting here that the game indicates that it was "produced and jointly distributed by the Avalon Hill Game Company … and Stackpole Books." Unlike Avalon Hill, Stackpole Books still exists and is a publisher of nonfiction books about arts and crafts, travel, and the outdoors. (As I understand it, Dunnigan claims, in his The Complete Wargames Handbook, to have designed Outdoor Survival as part of a bet about his ability to design a game on any subject.)

In addition to the game rules and the components needed to play, Outdoor Survival included a 24-page booklet entitled "A Primer about Wilderness Skills for Players of the Game." This is an honest-to-goodness handbook on the basics of surviving in the wild, covering everything from direction finding to killing and tracking game to first aid and more. Flipping through it reminded me of Boy Scout Handbook I had in elementary school. Its back page is an advertisement for larger treatments of all these topics in books sold by, you guessed it, Stackpole Books.  

The game proper is comparatively simple. As its title suggests, it's intended as "a simulation of the essential conditions for staying alive when unprotected man is beset by his environment." The celebrated game board represents a wild area consisting of 13,200 square miles, with a wide variety of terrain types (woods, rough, desert, swamp, etc.). This area is divided into hexagons five kilometers (three miles) across. This makes me wonder if OD&D's use of five-mile hexes is the result of a misreading of the rules to Outdoor Survival or a deliberate choice on the part of Arneson and/or Gygax. I doubt I'm the first person to have noticed this seeming discrepancy.

Play depends on which of five scenarios one chooses. They consist of "Lost," "Survival," "Search," "Rescue," and "Pursue," each with slightly different rules and victory conditions. In general, though, each scenario involves the player or players – solo play is possible – attempting to navigate the board's variable terrain in order to find food, water, and shelter, while avoiding various natural hazards. Each player keeps track of his counter's "life level," which measures food and water consumption. The less of each recently consumed, the slower the counter can move. Play is actually quite simple at its base, though there are a number of optional rules that add further "realism" and complexity, should one desire such a thing.  

Though I own a copy of Outdoor Survival for "research purposes," I've never actually played it. From what I have gathered online, opinion about its virtues is quite divided, with some viewing it as a straightforward, easy-to-learn introduction to simulation games and others seeing it as dull and tedious. Whatever the truth of the matter, it has a place in the early history of Dungeons & Dragons for the role it played in the conception of wilderness travel. That's not insignificant. If nothing else, it's a reminder that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Knights of Camelot Art

The more I look into TSR's 1980 boardgame, Knights of Camelot, the more entranced I've become by it. Take a look at some of its counters, with art that looks to me like the work of Dave Sutherland:

Mind you, I have an inordinate fondness for counters, so perhaps not everyone will be as impressed as I am. In that case, here are some interior illustrations for your delectation:

If you're a fan of TSR's artwork from that remarkable period between 1979 and 1982 as I am, this is like catnip. Darlene's map, which serves as the game board, is similarly eye-catching.
What a terrific looking game this must have been! I wish I'd seen a copy back when it was originally released. The legends of Arthur and his knights played a huge role in my early introduction to the hobby, so I imagine I would have enjoyed this game as much as I did Greg Stafford's masterful Pendragon.

Thanks, once again, to Thaddeus Moore for providing me with these images.

White Dwarf: Issue #23

Issue #23 of White Dwarf (February/March 1981) features a striking cover by Emmanuel, probably best known for the cover of the Fiend Folio. It might well be my favorite cover of the magazine so far and beautifully encapsulates the arcane, almost forbidden quality I strongly associate with the first few years of my involvement in the hobby. Ian Livingstone's editorial is shorter than usual, in which he briefly muses about the possibilities home computers might afford roleplaying gamers in the future. From the vantage point of 2022, it's easy to poke fun at Livingstone's naivete and optimism, but he wasn't wrong to expect that developments in computer technology have an effect on how we play – and indeed conceive of – RPGs.

"An Introduction to Dungeons & Dragons" by Lewis Pulsipher is the first part of what is described as a series "written for those who have little or no experience of playing" the game. Much like "The Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Games" from the pages of Imagine, I can't help but question the purpose of articles like this. Would anyone utterly unfamiliar with D&D ever buy or read a copy of White Dwarf in order to become better informed about the hobby? Perhaps it was intended to be given to neophytes to read by someone hoping to expand his circle of players? 

The first part reads almost like a history – and prehistory! – of Dungeons & Dragons itself, with Pulsipher relating the fact that Dave Arneson had described the activities of his original Blackmoor campaign to him in 1972, long before he had any real understanding of just what was aborning in Minnesota. That Pulsipher highlights the contributions of Arneson is fairly remarkable to my mind, seeing as his was a name that wasn't much spoken in 1981, at least in the circles in which I moved. Pulsipher also states that "D&D is not a pastime for crackpots." He supports this claim by explaining that "one of the designers is in his early 40's, a minister and former insurance executive." Is he referring to Gary Gygax here? Gary would have been 43 at the time of this issue and he did work as an insurance underwriter, but minister? Did I miss something about Gygax's life?

Next up is a lengthy interview with Marc Miller of Game Designers' Workshop. It's a superb interview filled with lots of insights into Traveller – so superb, in fact, that I'll be devoting an entire post to it later this week. "Fiend Factory" continues after the model established a couple of issues back by a series of related monsters and then a scenario that makes use of them. In this case, the monsters are the Flymen by Daniel Collerton, a collection of humanoid houseflies, which I have to admit strikes me as faintly ridiculous. The accompanying adventure, "The Hive of the Hrrr'l," is better than it has any right to be, given the silliness of the monsters. It presents a large, twisting hive of Flymen whose internal conditions are at times quite alien and disorienting to non-insects. 

"Open Box" reviews four products, starting with GW's own game, Warlock (8 out of 10). I've always felt somewhat uncomfortable with a publisher reviewing its own releases, but this review seems even-handed and fair. Cults of Prax for Chaosium's RuneQuest and receives a much deserved 10 out of 10, while TSR's Deities & Demigods achieves only 8 out of 10, which I think is generous. The final review of the issue is Leviathan for Traveller (9 out of 10).  

"The Elementalist" by Stephen Bland is a new class – a variant magic-user – for use with D&D. As its name suggests, the class specializes in elemental knowledge and magic, including more than two dozen new spells. Not having had the opportunity to use the class in play, I can't speak to how well it stacks up against other classes. Based on reading it, I like it what Bland is attempting to do with it and think it might be a good addition to certain kinds of campaigns. "A Spellcaster's Guide to Arcane Power" by Bill Milne is a proposal for a power point magic system for AD&D. Again, I've not had the chance to use it, but it looks much like one would expect. The only thing about it that caught my eye is that Milne indicates that he modeled it on AD&D's psionics system, something I don't believe anyone has admitted to doing before.

"Khazad-Class Seeker Starship" by Roger E. Moore is a new small craft for use with Ttraveller, described in brief detail, along with a set of deckplans. "Non-Magic Items" describes four unusual but non-magical items for the referee to introduce into his D&D campaign. That sounds more exciting than it is, since three of the four items are simply exotic weapons (and the fourth "item," an odd plant, is there mostly for its damage-dealing capacity). That's too bad, because I'm generally of the mind that most D&D campaigns include too many magical items, even as I recognize the need for providing memorable rewards for the player characters. A collection of truly odd but non-magical items that aren't just weapons would go some way toward alleviating this concern of mine.

Issue #23 is a solid one. I particularly like the increasing presence of Traveller coverage in White Dwarf's pages, as well as its willingness to do things differently than magazines like Dragon. I'm keen to see what the next issue will bring.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Angry Mothers from Heck

My recent post about the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved unexpectedly popular, if the number of comments it generated is any indication. I suppose I underestimated the affection gamers a little bit younger than myself have for the edition, which is quite fascinating in and of itself. As I said, I have no particular fondness for 2e, but I can't bring myself to abominate it the way that some within the old school scene do, in part, because I view it as a very bland edition (or, if I try to be less inflammatory, I might call it mild). 

Some of the more strongly anti-2e commenters reminded me that this mildness took the form of eliminating from the game anything might incur the wrath of, in the words of James M. Ward, "angry mothers from heck." Ward used this amusing turn of phrase in an editorial that appeared in issue #154 of Dragon (February 1990). By this point, I was no longer a subscriber to the magazine and only saw issues irregularly. I don't recall seeing this particular piece until years after it was first published and so it made little impression on me at the time.

In that editorial, Ward explained that

Ever since the Monster Manual came out in 1977, TSR has gotten a letter or two of complaint each week. All too often, such letters were from people who objected to the mention of demons and devils in that game book. One letter each week since the late 1970s adds up to a lot of letters, and I thought a lot about those angry moms. When the AD&D 2nd Edition rules came out, I had the designers and editors delete all mention of demons and devils. The game still has lots of tough monsters, but we now have a few more pleased moms as well. 

So, if there's anyone to blame for the removal of demons and devils – not to mention assassins and half-orcs, among other things – it's James M. Ward, who, I assume, was in charge of TSR's RPG division at the time (perhaps someone more knowledgeable about the company's inner workings at the time can shed some light on the subject). Based on what he says here, this was a deliberate choice designed to appease a vocal minority that likely consisted of the same people who also thought the Care Bears were Satanic. He goes on to say that

Avoiding the Angry Mother Syndrome has become a good, basic guideline for all of the designers and editors at TSR, Inc.

Ward elaborates on this shortly afterward, in a paragraph that includes some truly frustrating statements.

TSR prides itself on the quality of the covers and interior art presented in every product. The male and female figures shown are heroic and good looking, and would get either G or PG movie ratings. Our artwork serves to promote the image of high adventure in our games, but it doesn't deal in blood and gore. That isn't the image we want to project. 

While I might not be entirely behind the idea that D&D should be G or PG-rated, I can understand TSR's desire to aim for the largest possible audience. There is, after all, a good reason why so few lucrative films are rated R. Even so, the idea that all the art in such a version of Dungeons & Dragons should only depict "heroic and good looking" figures seems downright foolish, if not bizarre. Is it any wonder, then, that those of us introduced into the hobby in the late 1970s or early '80s look on 2e as being esthetically banal? 

Ward calls these statements, along with several more specific ones he discusses in his editorial, "a policy statement of TSR, Inc." He further explains that the policy he articulates exists because TSR "care[s] about its products and want as few angry moms as possible." I don't begrudge anyone who thinks well of Second Edition, particularly those who are still having fun with it to this day. That's completely laudable in my opinion and, as I feel I must reiterate, my own feelings toward the edition's rules are far from critical. But, when it comes to 2e's overall esthetics, I'm afraid I'm much more negative in my appraisal, all the more so when I take into account the stated reason why the game's art direction changed so drastically in 1989. How cowardly!

A New Challenge from TSR

One of the things that strikes me about some of the game companies of my youth, like TSR, is how many different games they produced – so many, in fact, that, even a TSR fanboy like myself, couldn't keep up with them all. I owned (and played) most of TSR's RPGs and many of its boardgames, but there were still several that escaped my grasp.

I was reminded of one of them, Knights of Camelot, when I saw this advertisement on the back cover of White Dwarf #22. Was this ad unique to the UK market? If it wasn't, I never saw it prior to this point. Mind you, I never actually saw Knights of Camelot itself outside of the pages of TSR's "Gateway to Adventure" catalog. That's odd, because my local area had excellent distribution of gaming products generally and it was rare that at least one of the game or hobby shops I frequented didn't stock a given product. Judging from the exorbitant prices of used copies of the game, I'm guessing its print run might have been small.

This is a pity. In looking into the game, Knights of Camelot seems quite interesting. For one, it's designed by Glenn and Kenneth Rahman, who are probably best known for another TSR design, Divine Right. For another, it's illustrated by Jeff Dee, Dave Sutherland, Dave LaForce, and includes a map by Darlene that looks quite stunning from the images of it I've seen. 

Looks like I have another game to add to my list of white whales …

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vulthoom

Starting at least with the 1897 H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds – and intensifying after the publication of A Princess of Mars in 1917 – the Red Planet and its inhabitants cane to occupy pride of place in "fantastic" literature of all sorts. Writers as different as Olaf Stapledon, Edmond Hamilton, C.S. Lewis, and Robert E. Howard, among many others, penned Martian tales, each presenting their take on Mars. Even Clark Ashton Smith got in on the act, producing a short cycle of three stories that use the Red Planet as its backdrop.

As one might expect, Smith's vision of Mars is dark and eldritch, a place of weird horrors and creeping doom. The first Martian tale, "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," is one of his most well regarded works and is a good introduction to Smithian Mars, though many prefer the more gruesome "The Dweller in the Gulf." Regardless, both are worthwhile reads and I recommend them without any reservation.

The same cannot be said of "Vulthoom" in my opinion, despite its many fine qualities. First published in the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, it's a strange conclusion to Smith's Martian stories, in that it's much more straightforwardly adventuresome take on the Red Planet, albeit one with a darker ending than one might have expected in the hands of another writer. Consequently, there are fewer chills than long-time CAS fans might wish, but the central conceit of the story is nevertheless a solid one that almost makes up for its deficiencies in other areas.

The story begins in a way that I think highlights my description of it as "adventuresome."

To a cursory observer, it might have seemed that Bob Haines and Paul Septimus Chanler had little enough in common, other than the predicament of being stranded without funds on an alien world.

Haines, the third assistant pilot of an ether-liner, had been charged with insubordination by his superiors, and had been left behind in Ignarh, the commercial metropolis of Mars, and the port of all space-traffic. The charge against him was wholly a matter of personal spite; but so far, Haines had not succeeded in finding a new berth; and the month's salary paid to him at parting had been devoured with appalling swiftness by the piratic rates of the Tellurian Hotel.

Chanler, a professional writer of interplanetary fiction, had made voyage to Mars to fortify his imaginative talent by a solid groundwork of observation and experience. His money had given out after a few weeks; and fresh supplies, expected from his publisher, had not yet arrived.

The two men, apart from their misfortunes, shared an illimitable curiosity concerning all things Martian. Their thirst for the exotic, their proclivity for wandering into places usually avoided by terrestrials, had drawn them together in spite of obvious differences of temperament and had made them fast friends.

This sounds to me like the beginning of a fairly typical pulp science fiction story of the era, though it does have the advantage of introducing readers quickly to its two protagonists and their predicament on Mars. Haines and Chanler soon encounter a huge example of one of the native Martian – the Aihai – who extends to them an invitation:

"My master summons you," bellowed the colossus. "Your plight is known to him. He will help you liberally, in return for a certain assistance which you can render him. Come with me."

"This sounds peremptory," murmured Haines. "Shall we go? Probably it's some charitable Aihai prince, who has gotten wind of our reduced circumstances. Wonder what the game is?"

"I suggest that we follow the guide," said Chanler, eagerly. "His proposition sounds like the first chapter of a thriller."

The giant Aihai, whose name we later learn is Ta-Vho-Shai, leads the two Earthmen to his master's home, which is located in a forgotten corner of the old city. More than that, it is located underground, which gives Chanler some pause, especially after a long elevator ride deep into the bowels of the planet.

"What do you suppose we've gotten into?" murmured Chanler. "We must be many miles below the surface. I've never heard of anything like this, except in some of the old Aihai myths. This place might be Ravormos, the Martian underworld, where Vulthoom, the evil god, is supposed to lie asleep for a thousand years amid his worshippers."

Overhearing this, Ta-Vho-Shai confirms that his mysterious master is, in fact, Vulthoom. Haines is initially dismissive, suggesting to his comrade a plausible explanation for what the Aihai had said to them.

"I've heard of Vulthoom, too, but he's a mere superstition, like Satan. The up-to-date Martians don't believe in him nowadays; though I have heard that there is still a sort of devil-cult among the pariahs and low-castes. I'll wager that some noble is trying to stage a revolution against the reigning emperor, Cykor, and has established his quarters underground."

"That sounds reasonable," Chanler agreed. "A revolutionist might call himself Vulthoom: the trick would be true to the Aihai psychology. They have a taste for high-sounding metaphors and fantastic titles."

Ta-Vho-Shai takes no further heed of the Earthmen's conversation and leads them into a cavern that is entirely empty but for "a curious tripod of black metal." The tripod bears a block of crystal and, upon it, what appears to be a frozen flower with seven petals – petals that Smith describes as "tongue-like." After a few moments, a voice seems to emanate from the bottom, "a voice incredibly sweet, clear and sonorous, whose tones, perfectly articulate, were neither those of Aihai nor Earthman."

"I, who speak, am the entity known as Vulthoom," said the voice "Be not surprised, or frightened: it is my desire to befriend you in return for a consideration which, I hope, you will not find impossible. First of all, however, I must explain certain matters that perplex you."

The voice then goes on to explain that he is himself an alien to Mars, a traveler from "another universe" whose ether-ship crashed on Mars eons ago. The kings and priests of the planet at that time saw him and the advanced technology he offered as threats to their power. They then spun dark tales about him, claiming he was an interplanetary demon and so, to protect himself, and the Aihai who were attracted to what he offered, he fled beneath the surface of Mars. Vulthoom knows the scientific secret of immortality after a fashion – alternating thousand-year periods of slumber and wakefulness for all eternity – and he offers this freely to those who would help him, such as the Aihai and even Earthmen like Haines and Chanler.

Indeed, this is why he has summoned the two of them to his subterranean refuge.

"I have grown weary of Mars, a senile world that draws near to death; and I wish to establish myself in a younger planet. The Earth would serve my purpose well. Even now, my followers are building the new ether-ship in which I propose to make the voyage."

Vulthoom is forthcoming with information about his plans and the role the two Earthmen will play in his achieving them, but I won't reveal them here. I will only say that they are not wholly to the liking of Haines and Chanler and the remainder of the story concerns their attempts to foil them.

The overall narrative of "Vulthoom" is one I imagine most readers, then and now, will have encountered many times before. Solely on that basis, I can't really recommend the tale. However, Vulthoom himself is a strangely compelling character, as is the concept behind him: an alien being who forms the basis for the Martian version of the Devil. Beyond that, though, what we mostly have is Smith's incomparable prose and that might not be enough to overcome the hackneyed plot of "Vulthoom." Much as I hate to say it, this is not one of Smith's best works; only completists interested in his Mars cycle will find it of lasting value.