Monday, January 31, 2022

Mago

An illustration of a wizard (mago) from the second edition of the Italian fantasy roleplaying game, Kata Kumbas (1988).

Kata Kumbas

Second edition cover by John Howe
Because I know so little about the early roleplaying game scenes outside the English-speaking world, I appreciate it when readers educate me. Recently, Adamo Degradi shared some information about the 1980 French game, Le Château des Sortilèges, about which I previously knew nothing. I thanked him for this and he then asked me if I'd like to know something about an early Italian RPG, Kata Kumbas. Naturally, I was quite interested, since I'd never heard of the game before, let alone seen it. 

Designed by Agostino Carrocci and Massimo Senzacqua, Kata Kumbas was the second Italian language roleplaying game ever published. It first appeared in 1984 just a few months after I Signori del Caos. Unlike its predecessor, Kata Kumbas featured an original rules system – I Signori del Caos was derivative of AD&D – and, more importantly, a setting based on a fantastical version of Italy (or Laitia). Laitia has many inspirations, from Orlando Furioso to Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales to sword-and-sandal movies. As a result, Kata Kumbas has a comedic and picaresque tone, especially when compared to most English-language games available at the time.
Map of Laitia
There are several genuinely unique aspects of the game's design, a couple of which I want to highlight. First, the characters are the players themselves, whose minds have been transplanted to another reality. Once there, the players must choose a new persona from among four different kin (Hyperboreans, Roma, the Ancient People, and the New People) and thirteen classes (or castes). Speaking only for myself, I find this premise fascinating, not least because it strongly echoes many early fantasy stories, in which the protagonist is a stranger to the world, having come to it from present-day Earth. I'm hard pressed to think of any English-language RPGs where this is the case, so it's all the more remarkable that Kata Kumbas embraces it.
Contents of the first edition boxed set
The second unique aspect to the game I want to draw attention to is the inclusion of a five-minute hourglass, in addition to dice. The hourglass was apparently used to keep track of how long a spirit remained bound to a summoner. Once again, this is something I can't recall ever seeing incorporated into an English-language RPG. 

There is, I am sure, a great deal more that could be said about Kata Kumbas, but I will leave that to readers who have actually seen and played the game themselves. Based solely on the little I've gleaned about it, I think it's something I'd probably have enjoyed. It's also a reminder of how delightfully different the RPG scenes of other countries can be from those with which I am already familiar.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Flower-Women

Clark Ashton Smith clearly had a fondness for the character of Maal Dweb. After the completion of "The Maze of the Enchanter," he penned a second story set on the alien world of Xiccarph, entitled "The Flower-Women." Like its predecessor, the story met with resistance from the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, who called it "well done" but deemed it "a fairy story rather than a weird tale proper." Lovecraft, who was ardent admirer of many of Smith's efforts, didn't think much of this particular yarn either, calling it "below par" in a contemporary letter to R.H. Barlow. 

Wright eventually changed his opinion and "The Flower-Women" was published in the May 1935 issue of Weird Tales. The story opens with Maal Dweb experiencing intolerable ennui, an emotional state he resolves to alleviate.

"There is but one remedy for this boredom of mine," he went on — "the abnegation, at least for a while, of that all too certain power from which it springs. Therefore, I, Maal Dweb, the ruler of six worlds and all their moons, shall go forth alone, unheralded, and without other equipment than that which any fledgling sorcerer might possess. In this way, perhaps I shall recover the lost charm of incertitude, the foregone enchantment of peril. Adventures that I have not foreseen will be mine, and the future will wear the alluring veil of the mysterious. It remains, however, to select the field of my adventurings."
I doubt I'm alone in finding this set-up quite compelling – and reminiscent of the kind of thing a high-level D&D character might do after finding his most recent adventures insufficiently challenging. Maal Dweb then consults his magical orreries and resolves to pay a visit to the farthest planet of the star system, Votalp.

Votalp, a large and moonless world, revolved imperceptibly as he studied it. For one hemisphere, he saw, the yellow sun was at that time in total eclipse behind the sun of carmine; but in spite of this, and its greater distance from the solar triad. Votalp was lit with sufficient clearness. It was mottled with strange hues like a great cloudy opal; and the mottlings were microscopic oceans, isles. mountains, jungles, and deserts. Fantastic sceneries leapt into momentary salience, taking on the definitude and perspective of actual landscapes, and then faded back amid the iridescent blur. Glimpses of teeming, multifarious life, incredible tableaux, monstrous happenings, were beheld by Maal Dweb as he looked down like some celestial spy.

By means of "a deep and hueless cloud," which affords Maal Dweb "access to multiple dimensions and deeply folded realms of space conterminate with far worlds," the mighty sorcerer makes his way to Votalp. There, he makes his way into a valley where heard "an eerie, plaintive singing, like the voices of sirens who bewail some irredeemable misfortune."

The singing came from a sisterhood of unusual creatures, half woman and half flower, that grew on the valley bottom beside a sleepy stream of purple water. There were several scores of these lovely and charming monsters, whose feminine bodies of pink and pearl reclined amid the vermilion velvet couches of billowing petals to which they were attached. These petals were borne on mattress-like leaves and heavy, short, well-rooted stems. The flowers were disposed in irregular circles, clustering thickly toward the center, and with open intervals in the outer rows.  
Maal Dweb approached the flower-women with a certain caution; for he knew that they were vampires. Their arms ended in long tendrils, pale as ivory, swifter and more supple than the coils of darting serpents, with which they were wont to secure the unwary victims drawn by their singing. Of course, knowing in his wisdom the inexorable laws of nature, he felt no disapproval of such vampirism; but, on the other hand, he did not care to be its object.

I find it interesting that, while Maal Dweb is the protagonist of this tale, Smith does not shy away from the fact that he is an evil man. His ready acceptance of vampirism contrasts with the reactions of more traditional pulp fantasy protagonists, who would likely view the flower-women as frightful creatures. Instead, Maal Dweb finds them "lovely and charming." There isn't a hint of fear or condemnation, only the recognition that he must be wary of them. 

The sorcerer nevertheless forgets himself and falls prey to their "wild and sweet and voluptuous singing, like that of the Lorelei." He finds that the melody "fire[s] his blood with a strange intoxication" and he is soon drawn to the flower-women. Once in their presence, he regains something of his mental faculties and uses his "power of divination" to learn more about them. He then discovers that five of their kind had been uprooted over the course of five successive mornings by "certain reptilian beings, colossal in size and winged like pterodactyls, who came down from their new-built citadel." Known as the Ispazars, these reptile-men were themselves magicians of no mean talent, as well as "masters of an abhuman science."

Now, through an errant whim, in his search for adventure, he had decided to pit himself against the Ispazars, employing no other weapons of sorcery than his own wit and will, his remembered learning, his clairvoyance, and the two simple amulets that he wore on his person.

"Be comforted," he said to the flower-women, "for verily I shall deal with these miscreants in a fitting manner."

With that, "The Flower-Women" suddenly becomes a different story, one in which the villainous Maal Dweb, the tyrant of six worlds, becomes more than the protagonist of the story. To the flower-women, at least, he becomes a hero, as the remainder of the story chronicles his efforts on their behalf, avenging the destruction of their kind by the Ispazars. It's quite a startling thing to read and I found myself wondering whether or not Smith had intended this shift, however subtle, to point toward a change in Maal Dweb's character. Even if that wasn't his intention, he does seem to signal an intention to tell more stories of Maal Dweb's adventures among the worlds he rules.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. "The Flower-Women" is the second and last story of Xiccarph. No further stories of the magician ever appeared and, so far as I know, there's no evidence any more were planned. It's a pity, as Maal Dweb is a genuinely interesting character, and I can't help but wonder what more might have awaited him. In just two stories, he went from antagonist to protagonist to something approximating a hero. That's the kind of transformation that few writers could pull off, but Clark Ashton Smith made a good start of it here. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

The Sorcerer of Xiccarph

In light of a recent Pulp Fantasy Library entry, I thought readers might enjoy this write-up of Clark Ashton Smith's sorcerer, Maal Dweb. The description originally appeared in the "Giants in the Earth" column appearing in issue #30 of Dragon (October 1979), written by Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay (though I suspect, given his love of Smith, that Moldvay was likely the author of this particular character).

The Many Deaths of Aíthfo hiZnáyu

Aíthfo as drawn by Zhu Bajiee
Regular readers will recall that, two weeks ago, one of the longstanding characters in my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, Aíthfo hiZnáyu, died as a result of EPT's instant death rule. Shocking though this was, this wasn't the first time Aíthfo had died. He had died once before, also as a result of a bad dice roll – this time a saving throw versus spells – and the consequences of his death and unusual resurrection played a huge role in the progress of the campaign.

Several years ago, long before the first session I discussed on this blog, the player characters were exploring a weird temple in the jungles of the Achgé Peninsula of the Southern Continent. The temple had numerous guardians, both human and monstrous, who attempted to stop the characters' explorations. During one particularly fraught combat, Aíthfo decided to undertake a very risky maneuver. Aíthfo, you see, is an adventurer, an optional EPT character class created by Glenn Rahman (designer of Divine Right, among other things) that appeared in issue #31 of Dragon. The adventurer is a jack-of-all-trades class that mixes fighting and sorcery. Though Aíthfo is one of the group's front-line warriors, he frequently supplements his battle tactics with the handful of spells he knows.

On Tékumel, magic can be "short circuited" by the proximity of any sort of metal. This isn't generally a problem, since most of its major cultures don't use metal for weapons or armor, relying instead on the fiberglass-like hide of the Chlén-beast. However, metal arms and armor do exist and are highly valued for their strength. Aíthfo at this time possessed both a steel sword and steel armor. His usual practice was to divest himself of these before casting a spell, but he felt he had no time to do so in this instance and decided to take a chance that there might be no ill effects from doing so. Unfortunately for him, things did not go as planned and the resulting spell failure slew him instantly (the aforementioned saving throw having failed).

The other characters took possession of Aíthfo's body and resolved to find some way to restore him to life, though they had no idea what that might be. At the moment, they were deep in the jungles of the peninsula, far from their home base of Linyaró, The nearest outpost of civilization was the Naqsái city-state of Mánmikel, of which they'd heard but never before visited. At best, it was several days away; at worst, it was several weeks. Since they intended to go there eventually anyway, the group headed into the general direction of Mánmikel. Znayáshu made use of his embalming skills to preserve Aíthfo's body against the heat and humidity of the region, though even his skills had their limits.

Eventually, the group did make it to Mánmikel, where they sought out anyone locally who might have the power to raise Aíthfo from the dead. This led them to the leader of the city-state, a priest who acted as regent for his god, Eyenál (many Naqsái city-states are supposedly ruled by deities, who act through high priests who govern in their names). The regent agreed to do return Aíthfo to life, on the condition that an alliance be struck between Mánmikel and Linyaró, an alliance that would ultimately result in a war against a second Naqsái city-state. The characters agreed, as they had no other option. Aíthfo was the governor of Linyaró and his death would destabilize an already unstable situation.

What the characters didn't understand at the time was that the "resurrection" the regent offered was, in fact, a ritual that called on Eyenál to take Aíthfo's mortal remains as his vessel. Aíthfo awoke alive, but he also gained the ability to speak and understand Naqsái tongues, as well as to see the presence of magical energy. The priests of Eyenál told him that, in time, the incarnation of Eyenál would grow stronger, as more of the god's power manifested in him. At the end, Aíthfo as he was would be no more, replaced by the living god Eyenál.

The campaign at that point focused on the complications of the alliance between Mánmikel and Linyaró, as well as the consequences of Aíthfo's sharing his body with a strange, foreign deity. None of this was planned out in advance by me. I largely made up the details on the fly, once it became clear the other players wished to find a way to resurrect Aíthfo. Initially, I was prepared to let Aíthfo stay dead and that would be the end of it, but an idea started to form in my mind during the sessions while the PCs were traveling to Mánmikel and decided to run with it. In the end, this led to many wild and wonderful places, culminating with the divine energy housed in Aíthfo's body being emptied out to seal a vast interplanar nexus point that served as prison for several malign entities. 

Since then, Aíthfo resumed his life as a merely mortal being – his mortality proven definitively with his death a couple of sessions ago. But an idea from long ago, one that first sprang into existence during his original death percolated in my brain and I thought it might be worth running with it. That the characters once again thought they might try to restore their clan mate and boon companion to life again only made it easier to do so. So it was that, last week, the characters discovered that something strange was happening to the body of Aíthfo. His body was not only stitching itself back together but it radiated potent energies of Stability, one of the two foundational elements of the Tsolyáni worldview. Soon, he was alive again, with no memory of the intervening time or how he had managed to return to life.

Many old school referees are opposed to the idea of spells like raise dead and believe quite strongly that dead characters should stay dead. I'm sympathetic to this perspective. At the same time, I believe that a character's death is an opportunity that can be seized upon to explore the game world and its cosmology. This is especially true in a weird and wonderful setting like Tékumel, which is filled with unanswered questions and unexplained elements. That's why Aíthfo hiZnáyu is once more among the living. Why and what this means for the campaign are things the players will discover in the weeks and months to come.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

A World of Sorcery and Science

Artwork by Zhu Bajiee and Graphic Design by Lester B. Portly

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Speaking of Micro-Games

Here's an advertisement from issue #24 of White Dwarf, highlighting a collection of "pocket games" by Task Force Games. I never played any of those shown here, but I remember seeing Valkenburg Castle and Battlewagon on store shelves in the early 1980s. In case, it's another reminder of just how many games of this sort were published by a number of publishers at the time. 

Retrospective: Kung Fu 2100

I'm a huge fan of "micro-games" (also known as "mini-games" and "pocket games," among many other monikers). I was an avid player of TSR's forays into this field, but it was the designs published by Steve Jackson Games that first introduced me to the concept. Broadly speaking, most micro-games existed in a space somewhere between boardgames and wargames and came in small containers, whether ziplock bags, plastic clamshells, or pocket boxes. All micro-games featured relatively simple rules and components, which is why they were generally playable in about an hour or so. This was a big part of the appeal of micro-games to me and my friends. We'd often pull out Revolt on Antares or Ogre when we were waiting for the rest of the gang to assemble for D&D. They were a fun way to pass the time, even if you were just watching others play them (most micro-games were two-player). 

Last night, a friend mentioned a micro-game I hadn't thought about in a long time, Kung Fu 2100. Originally appearing in the pages of issue #30 of The Space Gamer (August 1980), the game would eventually be released as a separate product later that same year. That's how I first encountered it, as I rarely saw, let alone read The Space Gamer. Nevertheless, I was a keen player of Steve Jackson's micro-games (especially Car Wars) and snapped them up whenever I came across new ones. In the case of Kung Fu 2100, that happened while on vacation with my family and I chanced upon a little game store that was surprisingly well stocked with games I'd never seen before, including this one.

Kung Fu 2100 is wonderfully strange. Designed by Dennis Sustare, whose contributions to the hobby are many, the game's premise is a delightful goulash of 1970s pop cultural concerns, from cloning to martial arts to the end of human civilization. According to the history presented in its rulebook, human cloning is perfected in 2006, a complicated process that requires not only high technology – take a look at the computer banks and dot matrix printer depicted on the cover! – but the wealth to afford it. The cloning process involves the growth of a physical copy of the biological donor, as well as a copy of the donor's personality, memories, and experiences. Taken together, this opens the door to virtual immortality to those with financial means, setting off riots and unrest, as the masses realize what this means for society. The powerful, who come to be known as CloneMasters, eventually restore order, but only be repressive means, right down to outlawing the possession of most modern technology by anyone but themselves.

If this sounds utterly ridiculous, it is, but, as the premise of a game where one player takes the role of members of a secret society pledged to end the tyranny of the CloneMasters, it's perfect. Members of the Society of Thanatos, as it is known, train from childhood to use only their bodies to fight, since most weaponry is now forbidden to anyone but the CloneMasters and their servants, some of whom are Thanatos turncoats. The masses, who revere these martial artists as heroes, call them Terminators and cheer them on. The game itself focuses on an attack by the Terminator player on a CloneMaster fortress, with the goal of slaying the CloneMaster who dwelled within. The goal of the CloneMaster player, of course, is to prevent this from happening. 

Kung Fu 2100 consisted of a fortress map, some counters, a rulebook, and record sheets – fairly standard components for a micro-game. The sequence of play involves multiple phases of movement, combat, and recovery within each turn, with the Terminator and CloneMaster players alternating between them. Combat, specifically hand-to-hand combat, is quite interesting, in that Terminators (and their enemy counterparts, the Janizaries [sic] or "Jellies") having a choice of tactics to choose from, such as Iron Fist, Lightning Foot, Monkey Soul, and Body of Mist. These tactics are compared to one another on a combat results table, with some each having situational advantages and disadvantages. It's a neat little system that's both easy to use and flavorful. Like many micro-games, Kung Fu 2100 also includes rules for solo play, which is useful on days when no one else is available.

Sadly, this wasn't a game I played much back in the day, not for lack of interest. However, with so many other micro-games available to us, we tended to opt for those that we'd played before, leaving Kung Fu 2100 an also-ran at best. I'm not quite sure what happened to my copy of it. After my conversation last night, I find myself wishing I still had it, if only to take a closer look at its components and luxuriate in the warmth of late '70s pop culture cranked up to 11. Even better would be to get the chance to play it again.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Dungeon Master

As promised.

White Dwarf: Issue #24

Issue #24 of White Dwarf (April/May 1981) features a cover by Dave Pether, an artist whose name I don't recognize. Ian Livingston's opening editorial touches on the growing popularity of roleplaying as a hobby, noting that "Last year TSR sold 500,000 sets of D&D." Whether that figure is strictly accurate or not, it's nevertheless a useful reminder of just how successful Dungeons & Dragons was, despite being, in Livingstone's words, "an esoteric hobby." He later suggests that the success of RPGs has led to an overall improvement in their quality, not just in their physical appearance, but also in their designs, as "no manufacturer can afford to have a turkey in his range." Opinions vary, of course, but I'm not sure this was truly the case in early 1981, but it's undeniably the case that RPGs had, by this point, come a long way from "three badly written rulebooks in a little box."

Lewis Pulsipher continues "An Introduction to Dungeons & Dragons" with a second installment dedicated to "Dungeon Mastering styles." He identifies four such styles, which he labels "simulation," "wargame," "absurd," and "novel." Simulation, as you might expect, is concerned with "reflect[ing] reality as much as possible." Pulsipher associates this style with games like Chivalry & Sorcery and then boldly asserts that simulationists "have no place in D&D." The wargame style is "how D&D is designed to be played" and prioritizes character survival and enrichment as the the game's primary goals. The absurdist style "condones unbelievable occurrences" and "arbitrary" outcomes. This style, I suspect, is that of the "funhouse dungeon." In Pulsipher's view, "the average game tends to fall between wargame and absurd game." The final style is "an oral novel in which the players are participating characters." The article teases out the strengths and weaknesses (in Pulsipher's opinion, of course) of each style and their consequences for a campaign. While I can't say I agree with all of its perspective, it is a genuinely interesting article that, if nothing else, gives the reader a glimpse into how some viewed D&D and its play at the time.

"Backdrop of Stars" by Andy Slack is a Traveller article focused on building a campaign setting. Slack goes over the pros and cons of using GDW's Third Imperium versus "rolling your own" and then looks at the various decisions the referee must make in the latter case. It's a solid, "meat and potatoes" article of the sort that I used to enjoy when I was young and inexperienced. Meanwhile, "Open Box" reviews three games I've never played and a Traveller adventure. Said adventure is Twilight's Peak, which I recently included as one of my Top 10 Traveller adventures (it scores 10 out of 10 here). The games reviewed are Eon's Quirks (9 out of 10), Yaquinto's Shooting Stars (8 out of 10), and Games Workshop's own Valley of the Four Winds (9 out of 10). I mentioned before that I'm not a fan of magazines running reviews of their own publisher's products, but it was standard practice once upon a time (and perhaps still is). 

"Detectives" by Marcus L. Rowland is a character class for use with AD&D. The detective is like a cross between a thief and ranger, with a small selection of detection spells. It's an intriguing idea for inclusion in certain types of campaigns, but I don't see it as having wide utility. "The Lair of Maldred the Mighty" by Mark Byng is a lengthy AD&D adventure for a party of high-level characters led by a cleric or paladin. The scenario concerns an expedition to the secret lair of an evil wizard the past, who once ruled a kingdom in thrall to devils. There's perhaps the core of a good idea here, but it's so densely written and buried under unnecessary detail that it's hard to say for sure. 

"Laser Sword and Foil" is a very short Traveller article by Bob McWilliams in which he touches upon the adventure possibilities in starship malfunctions. McWilliams says he will expand upon these possibilities in a future article. "Alignment in Role-Playing Games" by O.C. Macdonald begins as an overview of the concept before inevitably noting that, outside of D&D, few games use this concept, which is just as well, because it "adds little to the game." What an unexpected conclusion … 

"Fiend Factory" presents a five silly monsters in honor of April Fool's Day. They range from the bonacon, based on genuine medieval legend, to the llort (a reverse troll, which degenerates) and the Dungeon Master. The last is fairly amusing, actually, and I'll post its full description in an upcoming post. "Special Rooms, Tricks & Traps" describes four examples of the kind of thing you might find in Grimtooth's Traps (complete with a diagram in one case). Not being an avid user of traps, it's difficult for me to judge these, but, on first glance, they seem decent enough. One is written by Roger E. Moore, which, as a longtime reader of Dragon, is fun to see.

All in all, this was a pretty good issue of White Dwarf – or at least one I enjoyed reading!

Monday, January 24, 2022

Are You An … Enslaved God?

An advertisement from the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales:

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Death of Malygris

The final story of Smith's Poseidonis cycle was, appropriately, "The Death of Malygris." By his own account, he was pleased with the tale, particularly for its inclusion of "much genuine occultism and folklore." The editor of Weird Tales, the redoubtable Farnsworth Wright, didn't think much of the story and rejected it as "more like a prose poem than a story" – a common criticism of Smith's tales he rejected. H.P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, admired it, calling it "splendid" in a letter to Robert Bloch. Smith would later re-submit "The Death of Malygris" to Wright, who was more well inclined this time. He not only published the story in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales, but even commissioned Smith to provide an accompanying illustration as well.

The sorcerer Malygris, who had previously appeared in "The Last Incantation" (ironically, the first episode of the Poseidonis cycle), had long exercised power over Susran, capital of Poseidonis, power greater than that of even its king, Gadeiron. Recently, rumors arose that Malygris had at long last died, a claim denied by the other wizards of the city, but one that Gadeiron and his chief advisor, the magician Maranapion, hoped to be true. Because Malygris was a "master of illuding shows, of feints, and beguilements," Gadeiron believes that the old sorcerer pre-emptively made use of his enchantments to hide the fact that he has died, so that, even in death, he might still lord it over the people of Susran. For this reason, the king addresses the assembled wizards.

"Not idly have I called ye to this crypt, O sorcerers of Susran: for a work remains to be done. Verily, shall the corpse of a dead necromancer tyrannize over us all? There is mystery here, and a need to move cautiously, for the duration of his necromancy is yet unverified and untested. But I have called ye together in order that the hardiest among ye may take council with Maranapion, and aid him in devising such wizardry as will now expose the fraud of Malygris, and evince his mortality to all men, as well as to the fiends that follow him still, and the ministering monsters."

Seven of the twelve wizards agree to assist Maranapion in this endeavor. Two others, the brothers Nygon and Fustules, conceived an "audacious plan" of their own. During the next night, they carefully stole into the tower of Malygris, which they soon found devoid of any guardians or protections. Emboldened by this, they sought out the chamber of Malygris, at the center of which contained his "chair of primeval ivory" upon which sat "the old archimage … peering with stark, immovable eyes."

Nygon and Fustules felt their awe return upon them, remembering too clearly now the thrice-baleful mastery that this man had wielded, and the demon lore he had known, and the spells he had wrought that were irrefragable by other wizards. The specters of these things rose up before them as if by a final necromancy. With down-dropped eyes and humble mien, they went forward, bowing reverentially. Then, speaking aloud, in accordance with their predetermined plan, Fustules requested an oracle of their fortunes from Malygris.

There was no answer, and lifting their eyes, the brothers were greatly reassured by the aspect of the seated ancient. Death alone could have set the grayish pallor on the brow, could have locked the lips in a rigor as of fast-frozen clay. The eyes were like cavern-shadowed ice, holding no other light than a vague reflection of the lamps. Under the beard that was half silver, half sable, the cheeks had already fallen in as with beginning decay, showing the harsh outlines of the skull. The gray and hideously shrunken hands, whereon the eyes of enchanted beryls and rubies burned, were clenched inflexibly on the chair-arms which had the form of arching basilisks.

"Verily," murmured Nygon, "there is naught here to frighten or dismay us. Behold, it is only the lich of an old man after all, and one that has cheated the worm of his due provender overlong."

Perhaps predictably for a Clark Ashton Smith yarn, the true situation is not as the wizard brothers believe it to be. One of the familiars of Malygris, the viper featured in "The Last Incantation," springs upon them, while a voice echoes "Fools! ye dared to ask me for an oracle. And the oracle is – death!"

Meanwhile, Maranapion, knowing nothing of the fates of Nygon and Fustules, led the seven remaining wizards in a series of "impious charms and unholy conjurations, and fouler chemistries" intended to prove that Malygris is indeed dead, as he suspected. They start with a spell of invultuation, the crafting of plasmic copy of Malygris, which they cursed with their spells so that, by the principle of sympathy, the body of Malygris might decay. Then, making use of "the blue, monstrous eye of the Cyclops" – a crystal ball – they watch as their enemy seated in the tower above Susran slowly rotted. 

Too easy, the reader might think and indeed it is. Malygris did not ascend to the heights of power in Poseidonis without being well prepared against the machinations of his foes, especially those as potent as King Gadeiron's wizardly advisors, as the reader soon discovers. "The Death of Malygris" is a story of hubris and revenge, filled with images of creeping doom and putrescence. It's thus a fitting end to the stories of Poseidonis, the last outpost of Atlantis.

Smith's own depiction of Malygris in his chair.

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