Monday, February 28, 2022

Coming Soon

Pulp Fantasy Library: Under the Pyramids

By the time he wrote most of the foundational stories of the Cthulhu Mythos for which he is remembered today, H.P. Lovecraft had already established himself as an important writer within the genre of weird fiction. So well regarded was he that, in early 1924, he was asked by J.C. Henneberger, the owner of Weird Tales magazine, to work as a ghostwriter for the world famous escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini.

Houdini was a regular contributor in the first year of The Unique Magazine's existence, providing a column ("Ask Houdini"), along several works of short fiction (the latter ghostwritten, perhaps by Walter B. Gibson, creator of The Shadow). Despite this, Weird Tales was in bad financial shape and needed a blockbuster issue to get itself out of debt. Henneberger's plan was to release a special "anniversary issue" in May 1924 that sold for twice the usual cover price but contained "fifty distinct feature novels, short stories, and novelettes," including a lengthy one by Houdini.

So important was this story that Henneberger not only turned to Lovecraft to ghostwrite it – he was very regarded by the magazine's readership at the time – but he also paid him $100 in advance. This was a significant amount of money at the time and Lovecraft was perpetually in need of remuneration, all the more so now that he was about to be married and move to New York City. He called the story was commissioned to ghostwrite "Under the Pyramids," but it was retitled "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" upon its publication. The tale purports to be a first person account by Houdini of his experiences in Egypt in 1910, though the entirety of its content is fictitious and based on ideas proposed by Houdini and extensively expanded by Lovecraft.

"Under the Pyramids" is surprisingly compelling, drawing as it does on the mystique of ancient Egypt. If the story has a flaw that might explain its relative obscurity among readers today, it's that its first part is replete with historical, cultural, and geographical information, so much so that it sometimes reads more like an encyclopedia or travelogue rather than a work of fiction. Here's a relevant example of what I mean:

The Pyramids stand on a high rock plateau, this group forming next to the northernmost of the series of regal and aristocratic cemeteries built in the neighbourhood of the extinct capital Memphis, which lay on the same side of the Nile, somewhat south of Gizeh, and which flourished between 3400 and 2000 B.C. The greatest pyramid, which lies nearest the modern road, was built by King Cheops or Khufu about 2800 B.C., and stands more than 450 feet in perpendicular height.

And so on. 

In his defense, I suspect that Lovecraft's readers would have been fascinated by these details. One must remember that Howard Carter had discovered Tutankhamun's tomb only two years before the publication of "Under the Pyramids," creating a global sensation that reverberated throughout the 1920s. Furthermore, this enumeration of mundane details grounds the story in mundane reality, perhaps leading the unsuspecting reader to believe that the tale's second part will be similarly prosaic. 

Part two is where "Under the Pyramids" truly takes flight. Houdini is set upon by his local Egyptian guides, who bind him, hand and foot, and toss him into a "Stygian space" beneath the Temple of the Sphinx. One of these guides 

mocked and jeered delightedly in his hollow voice, and assured me that I was soon to have my "magic powers" put to a supreme test which would quickly remove any egotism I might have gained triumphing over all the tests offered by America and Europe. Egypt, he reminded me, is very old and full of inner mysteries and antique powers not even conceivable to the experts of today, whose devices had so uniformly failed to trap me.

Lovecraft is unrelenting in maintaining that the narrator is Harry Houdini and, as in the excerpt above, there are frequent references to his athleticism and skill at escapology. However, Houdini's abilities are of little avail in the face the increasingly fantastical things he witnesses in the darkness. 

I saw the horror and unwholesome antiquity of Egypt, and the grisly alliance it has always had with the tombs and temples of the dead. I saw phantom processions of priests with the heads of bulls, falcons, cats, and ibises; phantom processions marching interminably through subterraneous labyrinths and avenues of titanic propylaea beside which a man is as a fly, and offering unnamable sacrifice to indescribable gods. Stone colossi marched in endless night and drove herds of grinning androsphinxes down to the shores of illimitable stagnant rivers of pitch. And behind it all I saw the ineffable malignity of primordial necromancy, black and amorphous, and fumbling greedily after me in the darkness to choke out the spirit that had dared to mock it by emulation.

Lovecraft gives his imagination free rein in the second part of the tale, presenting a panoply of bizarre and suggestive imagery. The reader, like Houdini himself, is never sure whether what he is seeing is real or if it is in fact a waking dream brought on by the physical rigors of his current predicament. This possibility is buttressed by the fact that Houdini, after the fashion of a true Lovecraftian protagonist, faints not once but three times over the course of the story. I've seen some commentators, like S.T. Joshi, suggest that this was intended as a joke of some kind and I suppose it's possible, but, speaking for myself, I found it distracted from an otherwise captivating narrative.

Throughout "Under the Pyramids," Houdini is troubled by what he calls an "idle question," namely "what huge and loathsome abnormality was the Sphinx originally carven to represent?" I doubt anyone will be startled to learn that, before its conclusion, the tale presents an answer to this question and a satisfyingly lurid one at that. For me, though, it is the phantasmagoria of frightful sensations Houdini experiences that held my attention, such as this one:

From some still lower chasm in earth's bowels were proceeding certain sounds, measured and definite, and like nothing I had ever heard before. That they were very ancient and distinctly ceremonial I felt almost intuitively; and much reading in Egyptology led me to associate them with the flute, the sambuke, the sistrum, and the tympanum. In their rhythmic piping, droning, rattling and beating I felt an element of terror beyond all the known terrors of earth—a terror peculiarly dissociated from personal fear, and taking the form of a sort of objective pity for our planet, that it should hold within its depths such horrors as must lie beyond these aegipanic cacophonies. The sounds increased in volume, and I felt that they were approaching. Then—and may all the gods of all pantheons unite to keep the like from my ears again—I began to hear, faintly and afar off, the morbid and millennial tramping of the marching things.

If you're a fan of Lovecraft and his idiosyncratic style, "Under the Pyramids" is delightful. The story lacks some of the weightiness – and self-seriousness – of his Cthulhu Mythos efforts, but it nevertheless presents a clever weird tale that holds the reader's attention and contains a genuine surprise or two. Owing to the fact that I first encountered it early in my introduction to HPL, it's always been a favorite of mine; I hope others might find it as enjoyable.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Slaying Monsters Should Be Mostly Fun and Games

The Eternal Effigy of Alu Zai

by Zhu Bajie
Among the most recognizable pieces of sculpture on sha-Arthan is the Eternal Effigy (or da-Rikan) of Alu Zai. A seven foot tall statue of marble, the Eternal Effigy is the work of a nameless pre-Luminous artist whom history has dubbed simply the Sculptor of Alu Zai. As its name suggests, the da-Rikan was found in the ruined coastal city of Alu Zai before being transported to the Repository of the Archons in Omoritash. The Great Effigy is believed to have been destroyed in that city’s sack in 6:12, but rumors persist that it survived and now lies in one of several hidden treasure troves across the True World (depending on the story), waiting to be found again. 

The original subject of the da-Rikan is unknown. A common opinion is that it depicts Dro Vanta, the tutelary goddess of Alu Zai, whose blessings and protection ensured the city’s prosperity. However, the sages of the Ruketsa school taught that the statue in fact was a product of the False Dawn – a foretoken of the Light of Kulvu from pre-Luminous times. According to this interpretation, the Eternal Effigy is an icon of Asha (harmony), a foundational concept of The Mirror of Virtue. For that reason, the image of the da-Rikan is used to illustrate many of that exalted tome’s principles.

The Mirror of Virtue teaches that the three faces of Asha represent past (the leftmost face), present (forward), and future (right), as the Light of Kulvu illuminates all times and places. Likewise, Kulvuans are enjoined to learn from the past, be mindful of the present, and prepare for the future; doing so is the path to harmony. Asha wears a threefold crown of subaktu-fish, themselves ancient symbols of rectitude, virtue, and wisdom. 

Coiled at Asha’s feet is Chuleksakash, a serpentine monster who symbolizes fear, ignorance, and lawlessness. The beast wears the mask of a Man to hide its true nature, which serves as a reminder to Kulvuans that great evil is not always immediately apparent. Fortunately, the Nen Cha or “blade of light” stands ready to fight Chuleksakash, should Asha require it (and despite the brute’s attempt to seize it for itself – another warning to be wary of disharmony). Similarly, two jaran-serpents coil around Asha’s right arm, one placid and the other coiled to strike. The Mirror of Virtue connects this to Urkuten’s Allegory of the Blind Craftsman and the difficulty of distinguishing between two choices that outwardly seem identical.

Asha’s left hand rests atop three star polyhedrons, each of which represents one of the Four Worlds. At the bottom is the Old World, which, though now barred to Man, is nevertheless the place of his origin. Atop it is the False World, whose inherent instability reveals itself by the way it teeters beneath the True World, as represented by the topmost polyhedron. The Mirror of Virtue is silent on the matter of why the World Between is not included in the Eternal Effigy. Needless to say, this has led to much debate among the schools (and, regrettably, the Exegetical War of 1:282–284).

As the Empire of the Light of Kulvu spread, so too did the Great Effigy of Alu Zai, copies of which appeared throughout its territories. In the present cycle, it is strongly associated with both the glories of that fallen dominion and the philosophical faith that animated it for so long. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Cracks in the Wall

Earlier this month, I recounted how a player character in my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, Aíthfo hiZnáyu, had been (seemingly miraculously) returned from the dead and that the process of his resurrection had left him changed. As described in the linked post, Aíthfo was now afraid of fish. More than that, he was convinced that they were following and plotting against him. This made it difficult for him to travel by water, as he felt the fish in the water all around the vessel and this made him uneasy. Likewise, he forbid the catching, let alone eating, of fish in his presence, much to the chagrin of his uncle Grujúng, who frequently whiled away the hours of sea travel by angling over the side of whatever boat upon which he found himself.

Exactly why Aíthfo had such an irrational fear and hatred of fish was unknown. One of the characters, Znayáshu, was convinced that it held a clue as to the nature of his resurrection. As it turns out, Znayáshu – or, more precisely, his player – was correct. I intended this strange behavior to be the first clue as to what had happened to Aíthfo. However, I was the only person in the campaign who knew the truth; not even Aíthfo's player had any certain knowledge, only guesses and theories. This is typical of the way I referee my campaigns: I'm constantly tossing out little tidbits of information to pique player interest and to encourage them to pursue certain avenues of investigation, but it's entirely up to them to piece them together.

Another clue appeared in last week's session, as the characters' vessel put in at the port of the Naqsái city-state of Chámara. Chámara is an important trade hub between the Naqsái peoples of the eastern part of the Achgé Peninsula and the somewhat mysterious Hnákho peoples of the western part. Since the characters were on their way westward to learn more about the Hnákho, whom they believed to have some connection to the legendary Empire of Llyán of Tsámra, stopping by Chámara made good sense. Furthermore, they needed to resupply, since it had been several weeks since they left the city-state of Pichánmush and their fresh water was dwindling.

Upon leaving their ship, Aíthfo noticed something unexpected. Everywhere in the city he looked, he saw flaws, imperfections that he knew for certain he could exploit militarily. There were weaknesses in the construction of Chámara's walls, defects in the rushqá-ceramic armor and weapons its soldiers carried, and faults in the way its streets and thoroughfares were laid out. In an instant, all Aíthfo saw was evidence that this city of some 200,000 Naqsái was ripe for conquest, if only saw what he did. Idly, he reckoned out loud that, with maybe 60 or 70 well-trained Tsolyáni soldiers, he could took on the whole of Chámara and win. It was all so clear to him that he marveled at the fact that no one else had ever noticed it before and exploited it.

Hearing this was enough to convinced Znayáshu of what had happened to him clan mate. The faiths of several Tsolyáni deities forbid their followers from eating fish for obscure doctrinal reasons. One of these deities is Chegárra the Hero-King. The Naqsái have a god of their own called Eyenál, whose characteristics are not dissimilar to those of Chegárra, leading Znayáshu to surmise that perhaps Eyenál is simply the local name of Chegárra. Previously, Aíthfo had been resurrected from the dead by the high priest of Eyenál and this sorcery had resulted in his body being inhabited by some part of Eyenál. Perhaps, Znayáshu reasoned, that part still remained within him and effected his second resurrection, this time manifesting within him different special abilities than he'd displayed previously.

As of yet, there's no proof that Znayáshu's theory is correct, in whole or in part, but it seems to fit the limited evidence the characters currently possess. At the very least, it's a reminder that the gods of Tékumel are both real and have been known to meddle in mortal affairs for their own inscrutable reasons. Given that much of the mess currently engulfing the Achgé Peninsula seems to relate to the activities of She Who Must Not Be Named, the dread Goddess of the Pale Bone, who seeks to eliminate all life from the face of Tékumel, it is not at all unreasonable to assume the other gods would find a way to oppose her, as they have done in the past. 

Is that what has happened to Aíthfo? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Mall Memories

Regular readers of this blog know that I am frequently critical of the impact of consumerism on the hobby of roleplaying. Yet, the reality is that, without the consumerist impulse, the hobby would probably have never become big enough for me to become aware of it, let alone participate in it. I was struck by this recently as I reflected on how closely some of my earliest RPG memories are intertwined with that monument to consumerism, the shopping mall.

In 1981, about a year and a half after I first played D&D, a new mall opened up not far from my home.
By the standards of the day, the mall was quite large and, as luck would have it, included multiple stores that sold RPGs, wargames, and related paraphernalia. There were, for example, two bookstores whose names are well known to anyone who lived through those years: Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. 
B. Dalton was the store I relied upon to pick up copies of Dragon magazine, which, for some reason, I had a harder time locating elsewhere in the mall. That said, Waldenbooks generally had a better selection of RPG products, particularly those published by TSR, which were my favorites

Also located in the mall was Kay-Bee Toys & Hobby. In fact, at one point, owing to a bizarre turn of events, there were two separate Kay-Bee stores in the mall, each of which had slightly different selections of goods for sale.
I bought my first set of polyhedral dice at Kay-Bee – the notorious "low impact" dice that many of us associate with the Holmes Basic Set. I also picked up quite a few TSR boardgames, like Escape from New York and The Awful Green Things from Outer Space

The store I liked the most, however, was Games 'n' Gadgets.
Games 'n' Gadgets, as its name suggests, sold a wide variety of entertainments, from boardgames to puzzles to electronic diversions. Naturally, what most interested me were its selection of RPGs, wargames, and miniatures. This is the store where I first picked up Traveller, Gamma World, and too many other non-D&D games to remember. I spent more time staring at its shelves than I can recall; it was a truly wondrous place for me and my friends. Eventually, Games 'n' Gadgets changed its name – to Electronics Boutique and, later, EBGames – and its focus. By the late 1980s, its shelves were taken up almost exclusively by video games and I no longer had much interest in visiting it and an era had come to an end.

Retrospective: The Klingons

I was quite young when I first encountered Star Trek – perhaps five or six years old. I did so thanks to a paternal aunt who watched it during its original 1966–1969 run, when she was still a teenager. Episodes of the show were a staple of Saturday afternoon syndication during the 1970s and, through them, my aunt introduced me to Gene Roddenberry's masterpiece. I was instantly hooked and, for a long time afterward, I'd proudly call myself a fan. 

Consequently, the release of FASA's Star Trek RPG in 1983 was a momentous event, combining as it did my childhood love of the Final Frontier with the hobby of roleplaying to which I'd been later introduced. I can still remember the time spent playing the roleplaying game with my friends and could even now, if pressed, recount in detail the adventures of the USS Excalibur (II) and its crew. Suffice it to say that much fun was had, thanks in no small part to the excellent adventures and source material FASA produced for the RPG over the course of the time the company held the license.

Among these, one of my favorites is the 1983 boxed set entitled simply The Klingons. As you might expect from its title, The Klingons was an expansion of the basic game, enabling players to generate Klingon player characters for use in a Klingon-based campaign. To do this successfully, the expansion had to provide more than just new rules and tables; it also had to provide plenty of details about the Klingon Empire and its society and culture. You must remember that, at the time, there was very little to go on, just a handful of episodes and a single movie in which the Klingons played a role. This meant that it fell to writers John M. Ford, Guy McLimore, Greg Poehlein, and David Tepool to fill in a lot of blanks in the space of the 64-page sourcebook included in the boxed set.

Fortunately, they were more than up to the job and the end result was a remarkable piece of work, one that made the Klingons more than just mustache-twirling villains. Instead, we learn about the Klingon belief in "the naked stars" that keep watch over great deeds performed beneath them, as well komerex zha, "the perpetual game" that governs one's place within the Empire and its hierarchy, and much more. As presented in The Klingons, the Empire operates according to its own internal logic, one based, to a large extent, on the philosophy of "grow or die," hence the Klingon emphasis on – or need for – conquest. Internally, there is a constant jockeying for power between individuals and power groups, with order imposed through a combination of propaganda, fear, and brute force. It's a brutal, cutthroat society but it makes sense by its own lights, which is important for the players to believe in it enough to play an adventure or campaign within it.

The Klingons also includes a couple of sample adventures, each of which demonstrates the kinds of adventures one might undertake as a member of the Klingon Imperial Navy. In a way, they're like a funhouse mirror version of Starfleet. There is new to subjugate and new civilizations to war upon, as well becoming involved in the great game of power and influence within the imperial hierarchy. It's probably not to everyone's taste, but, for many, it's a welcome change of pace from the high-minded ideals of the Federation and the do-gooders of Starfleet. 

My friends and I didn't spend much time playing as Klingons, but, when we did, we had fun. More than that, though, it gave us all a better understanding of who these aliens were and how their Empire operated, which was a terrific boon when they served as antagonists in Starfleet adventures. John M. Ford would later write a Star Trek novel, The Final Reflection, which built on the ideas presented in this boxed set. It's probably one of the best Star Trek novels ever written – a low bar, I know – and I've often felt, without much evidence, to be sure, that it has subtly influenced subsequent portrayals of the Klingons in the Star Trek franchise. Regardless of the truth of that, the fact remains that The Klingons is a masterclass in in how to expand upon existing source material to produce something genuinely imaginative for use in a roleplaying game. Nearly three decades later, it has few rivals.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Make Your Mark in the Gaming Field

White Dwarf: Issue #28

Issue #28 of White Dwarf (December 1981/January 1982) is the first issue of the magazine not to include its publication date on the cover. I suspect this is part of the ramp up to its going monthly in a few issues. The cover illustration, by Terry Oakes, is another eye-catching science fictional one, something WD did much more often than Dragon, as I've noted on multiple occasions. In his brief editorial, Ian Livingstone alludes to this obliquely when he notes that "role-playing games now cover a multitude of themes." Still, I wonder why it is that SF was so much better covered in White Dwarf than Dragon or Different Worlds. Was there something in the then-current UK zeitgeist that explains it?

The issue begins with a very peculiar article by Andy Slack entitled "The Magic Jar." The purpose of the article is to provide brief conversion guidelines between four different pairs of RPGs: En Garde! to AD&D; Spacequest to Traveller; AD&D to Chivalry & Sorcery; and Spacefarers to Traveller. The guidelines offered are limited primarily to comparing dice probabilities and bits of advice on differences in feel between the paired games. I'm honestly unsure how useful this article would be, but I nevertheless find it fascinating for the games Slack includes. AD&D and Traveller figure prominently, as one might expect. The others are much more obscure today and I can't help but wonder how significant they were at the time of publication. 

"Sorry!" is a Traveller scenario by Bob McWilliams specifically written for characters who "shoot first and ask questions later." Basically, McWilliams presents a situation involving multiple alien life forms with which the characters are not familiar and only be observation and thought can they be sure which is – or is not – a threat. Adventures like this are interesting for what they suggest about the play styles of the time. For example, the reference to "shoot first and ask questions later" at the start would imply that The Travellers was more than mere satire. 

"Open Box" reviews a variety of game products, starting with the Fiend Folio (8 out of 10), which is it calls "advantageous … [but] not essential to own." ICBM by Mayfair only scores 4 out of 10, in part because it might "have the effect of endorsing Reagan's arms build-up." OK, then. More positively reviewed are Judges Guild's Ley Sector for Traveller (6 out of 10), Marooned/Marooned Alone (10 out of 10), and Library Data (A–M) (9 out of 10), also for Traveller. Finally, there is Undead by Steve Jackson Games (8 out of 10). 

"War Smiths" is a new class for AD&D created by Roger E. Moore. It's an unusual class that is somewhat reminiscent of the paladin in that it's a fighter sub-class that can use spells. However, its focus is, as its name suggests, the creation of weapons and armor whose quality improves as they level up. I don't see the necessity for such a class myself, but Moore seems to have done a good job in designing it. I could say similar things about Steve Cook's "On Target," a critical hit system for use with Traveller. "Operation Counterstrike" by Marcus L. Rowland is a D&D adventure for use with the space travel rules he presented in the preceding issues. The adventure is loosely based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells – hardly a surprise coming from the writer who'd create the Forgotten Futures RPG.

"Treasure Chest" presents five new magic items, including Jeckyll's [sic] Potion, inspired by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It's worth noting that two of the five items are written by Roger E. Moore and another by his wife, Georgia. Meanwhile, "Fiend Factory" details five new sylvan monsters for AD&D, like the (unexpectedly good) black unicorn and birch spirits. While I'm not always keen on the specific monsters featured in these columns, I very much appreciate editor Albie Fiore's use of environmental themes as an organizing principle.

This is another strong issue of White Dwarf. I'm likely biased in this regard, because of my love of Traveller and AD&D, articles for which I generally enjoy. Even so, I don't think it can be disputed that the magazine's quality continues to improve with each issue. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

A Tale of Two Adaptations

Interestingly, "The Price of Pain-Ease" was adapted twice in comics form. The first one appeared in the first issue of DC's Sword of Sorcery series (March 1973). Veteran Denny O'Neil is listed as writer, while newcomer Howard Chaykin is the artist. This was, in fact, Chaykin's first significant assignment for DC, so the adaptation has a certain historical importance.

As an adaptation of the story, though, it's awful. O'Neil truncated the story, eliminating the ghosts of Ivrian and Vlana, thereby eliminating much of the tale's melancholy tone, not to mention the central motivation of the Twain. I honestly can't fathom what O'Neil was thinking here, as his excisions undercut everything that make "The Price of Pain-Ease" memorable.

Fortunately, Chaykin at least had a chance to redeem himself, though this time as a writer rather than illustrator. At the start of the 1990s, Marvel's Epic imprint published Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a four-issue series that adapted many of the stories featuring the titular pair, including "The Price of Pain-Ease," which appeared in issue #3 (January 1991). 

Chaykin's adaptation is vastly more faithful to the story than was O'Neil's, which would be enough to set it apart from its predecessor. Almost as remarkable is its artwork, provided by a pre-Hellboy Mike Mignola, with the inking done by the legendary Al Williamson. The Epic adaptations are universally excellent, both in terms of their fidelity and the imagery. Mignola's moody, expressionist style is well suited to Nehwon and especially suits the tone of "The Price of Pain-Ease." All the Epic comics were eventually collected in a single volume by Dark Horse in 2007. It's still in print, so far as I know, and I greatly recommend picking it up, if you've never seen it before.

Make Monsters, Not Monstrosities

Larry Elmore joined TSR as a staff artist in late 1981, after which his artwork became a staple of the company's many products, from Dungeons & Dragons to Gamma World and Star Frontiers, among many, many others. My own earliest memories of Elmore's distinctive style are from the pages of Dragon, such as this piece, which appeared in issue #59 (March 1982).

I'm fond of this piece for its humor, a trait I generally associate with the work of the late Jim Holloway. I also have a weird fascination with illustrations that depict ordinary people playing or thinking about roleplaying games, so this one scratches that itch. Take note, too, of Elmore's rendition of Dave Trampier's iconic artwork from the Dungeon Master's Screen, which I think adds to the charm of the whole thing.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Price of Pain-Ease

Starting in 1968, Ace Books began collecting Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, many of which had previously been published in various periodicals starting in the late 1930s, into a series of paperbacks. In addition, Leiber penned several new short stories intended to fill in the gaps in the chronology of the Twain's lives, two of which appear in the collection Swords Against Death (1970)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the captious nature of fantasy fans – or indeed fans of any sort – not all of these new tales have been well received. Some of the complaints focus on the content of the additions, which is a little less rollicking than earlier entries in the series, while others focus on their style, which is wordier. Both these complaints have merit, I think, which is why I can't wholly dismiss them as just the cantankerous grumblings of dyspeptic nerds. 

Yet, at least in the case of "The Price of Pain-Ease," these complaints sell the story short. Certainly, this story feels different from its predecessors, but, rather than detract from its place within the canon of Nehwon, I think that its differences strengthen it. Take, for example, the opening of the story:

The big barbarian Fafhrd, outcast of the World of Nehwon's Cold Waste and forever a foreigner in the land and city of Lankhmar, Nehwon's most notable area, and the small but deadly swordsman the Gray Mouser, a state-less person even in careless, unbureaucratic Nehwon, and man without a country (that he knew of), were fast friends and comrades from the moment they met in Lankhmar City near the intersection of Gold and Cash Streets. But they never shared a home. 

Overly fastidious devotees of Leiber's prose might deem the above in stark contrast with the fast-moving, buoyant tenor of his earlier works. There's no doubt that his style has changed between the publication of "Two Sought Adventure" in 1939 and 1970, but I don't see that as in any way diminishing the yarn he is about to spin, which is every bit as delightfully idiosyncratic – and, above all, human – as any other in the annals of Lankhmar. 

The Twain are still mourning the deaths of "their first and only true loves – Fafhrd's Vlana and the Mouser's Ivrian." who had been "foully murdered" in "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and this dark fact hangs like a cloud over the entire story. Drunk after an evening's revels at the Golden Lamprey inn, the friends stumble upon the little estate of Duke Danius, a local aristocrat presently away from the city.

It rested on six short cedar posts which in turn rested on flat rock. Nothing then would do but rush to Wall Street and the Marsh Gate, hire a brawny two-score of the inevitable nightlong idlers there with a silver coin and a big drink apiece and promise of a gold coin and bigger drink to come, lead them to Danius's dark abode, pick the iron gate-lock, lead them warily in, order them to heave up the garden house and carry it out – providentially without any great creakings and with no guards or watchmen appearing.

That's right: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, with the help of forty men, steal an entire house and transport it to an empty lot behind the Silver Eel tavern. It's a remarkable feat of thievery, even for the greatest thieves in all of Lankhmar, but it's only the beginning of the story. The pair then settle down to living in the Duke's garden home, which turns out to have been the nobleman's love nest, filled as it is with two thick-carpeted bedrooms and whose walls are festooned with erotic murals. It also holds a library of similarly "stimulating" books, which attracts Fafhrd's attention.

The theft was highly successful, they had no trouble from Lankhmar's brown-cuirassed and generally lazy guardsmen, no trouble from Duke Danius – if he hired house-spies, they botched their too-easy job. And for several days the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd were happy in their new domicile, eating and drinking up Danius's fine provender, making a quick run to the Eel for extra wine, the Mouser taking two or three perfumed, soapy, oily, slow baths a day, Fafhrd going every two days to the nearest steam-bath and putting in a lot of time on the books, sharpening his already considerable knowledge of High Lankhmarese, Ilthmarish, and Quarmallian.

Later, Fafhrd discovers a second library, whose books dealt "with nothing but death … at complete variance with the other supremely erotic volumes." The northerner then devotes himself as fervently to these tomes as he had to the more prurient ones he'd found earlier. The two comrades try to enjoy themselves and their stolen home.

However, they didn't invite any girls to their charming new home and perhaps for a very good reason, because after half a moon or so the ghost of slim Ivrian began to appear to the Mouser and the ghost of tall Vlana to Fafhrd, both spirits perhaps raised from their remaining mineral dust around-about, and even plastered on the outer walls. The girl-ghosts never spoke, even in the faintest whisper, they never touched, even so much as by the brush of a single hair; Fafhrd never spoke to Vlana to the Mouser, nor the Mouser to Fafhrd of Ivrian. The two girls were invariably invisible, inaudible, intangible, yet they were there.

After just a few days of these apparitions, both Fafhrd and the Mouser "were rapidly going mad" This compels the pair to seek out – secretly and separately from one another – the aid of "witches, witch doctors, astrologers, wizards, necromancers, fortune tellers, reputable physicians, priests even, seeking a cure for their ills … yet finding none." The apparitions continue and, one night, the Mouser flees from the wraith of Ivrian and into Fafhrd's room, which he finds empty. 

Worried, the Mouser heads over to the Silver Eel, where he asks the houseboy there if he'd seen his friend. "Yes," he replies. "He rode off at dawn on a big white horse." But Fafhrd doesn't own a horse. "It was the biggest horse I've ever seen. It had a brown saddle and harness, studded with gold." It's then that the thief notices "a huge jet-black horse with black saddle and harness, studded with silver." Throwing caution to the wind, he approaches the horses, mounts it, allowing it to carry him into the unknown, in the belief that it would lead him to Fafhrd – and perhaps an end to the apparitions that so trouble his sleep and his spirit.

I'm a sucker for moody, melancholic tales and "The Price of Pain-Ease" is very much that sort of story, dealing as it does with the Twain's attempts to get over the deaths of their lovers, deaths for which they blame themselves. The tale's moodiness unquestionably sets it apart from earlier entries in the series and that might not make it to everyone's taste. At the same time, there is plenty of humor – some of it dark – action, and camaraderie, all of which I strongly associate with Leiber's Nehwon works. This very much is a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, but it's one written by an older, more experienced Leiber and both in content and style it shows – not that I mind in the slightest.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Here We Go Again

Issue #39 of Dragon (July 1980) featured an article on critical hits entitled "Good Hits and Bad Misses" by Carl Parlagreco. I've mentioned before that this article had a huge effect on me in the early days of my gaming; I carried around a photocopy of its tables in my DM binder for years. Apparently, Gary Gygax didn't think as well of it as I. He wrote a letter Dragon on the matter, which appeared in issue #41 (September 1980), in which he not only mocks the idea of critical hits and misses but also offers up his own ideas on (tongue-in-cheek?) ideas on the subject:

Friday, February 18, 2022

"Particularly Offensive to the Precepts of D&D"

After writing my post on double damage and "instant death,"  I started looking into the history of critical hits in roleplaying games. In doing so, I came across an installment of Gary Gygax's "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column in issue #16 of Dragon (July 1978). Among many other topics, Gygax touches on the topic of critical hits. This is, I believe, the first time he specifically addresses the topic in print (though I'm prepared to be corrected, if I've overlooked an earlier text on the subject).

Purely from a historical point of view, Gygax's position strikes me as odd. Firstly, there's the matter of Empire of the Petal Throne, published by TSR in 1975. EPT includes critical hits, the first published roleplaying game to do so, and yet I can find no evidence that Gygax was particularly exercised about the inclusion of this mechanical innovation. I suppose it's possible that his opinion on the matter changed. After all, the section about appeared in 1978, which is more than enough time for him to have decided, on reflection, that critical hits were a problem.

Alternatively, it's possible that Gygax's condemnation of critical hits was a narrow one. He calls them "particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D," not "to the precepts of roleplaying games." He may simply have felt that Dungeons & Dragons was designed with a particular type of experience in mind and that critical hits ran counter to that design. Thus, the presence of critical hits in EPT was of no concern to him, since his opinion was solely concerned with D&D. 

However, if that's the case, we have to reckon with the existence of the sword of sharpness and vorpal blade, two magical weapons introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk in 1975, the same year as Empire of the Petal Throne was published. These weapons include the possibility of instant death by the severing of an opponent's neck and the possibility of this happening is much greater than that of an instant death critical hit in EPT or even the more traditional "double damage on the roll of a natural 20" favored by most versions of the rule in wider circulation. No doubt Gygax would (reasonably) say that these weapons are rare and their inclusion is entirely up to the individual referee. Still, I think there's more than a little mechanical similarity between the way these weapons work and critical hits and that somewhat undercuts Gygax's stated position.

From a purely personal perspective, I can't quite recall when I first encountered the concept of critical hits, but I suspect it was quite early in my introduction to the hobby. By the early '80s, critical hits were one of those rules that everyone knew about and many used, even without being able to point to a section of D&D's actual rules that supported them. For many years, I carried around a photocopy of the critical hit tables from issue #39 (July 1980) and occasionally made use of them. I've never had any really strong feelings for or against the concept, which is why I find Gygax's vehement denunciation of them so odd. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022


One of the best things about re-reading gaming magazines from the early days of the hobby is finding illustrations by well known artists that you'd never seen before. A good case in point is Erol Otus, who's probably most remembered for his work on the 1981 Basic and Expert sets (especially their iconic covers). During his tenure at TSR, he also did a number of pieces – many of them in color – that appeared in the pages of Dragon, such as the one below from issue #43 (November 1980). The illustration accompanied a write-up for Amazons written by Roger E. Moore.

A Radical Proposal (Part II) Follow-Up

Last week, I proposed, without explanation, the names of six abilities – Strength, Knowledge, Willpower, Dexterity, Constitution, and Acumen. Readers quite reasonably assumed these abilities were intended as replacements for those in Dungeons & Dragons. In truth, they're part of my process of thinking out loud about The Secrets of sha-Arthan setting that I'm continuing to develop, albeit more slowly than I'd like. Now, the rules for Secrets are based heavily on those of D&D, specifically those found in the Basic and Expert rulebooks (and their closest contemporary clone, Old School Essentials), so there's a fair degree of overlap. Nevertheless, most of my thoughts on these matter pertain specifically to this current project of mine, even if there is applicability to D&D more generally.

After further thought and reading many of the comments posted to that post and related ones, my thinking continues to shift. However, in the interests of furthering what has proven to be a very useful conversation – and I'd like to thank everyone who's offered their own thoughts – I wanted to explain where I was coming from when I put together that last of six abilities.

Strength: Of all the ability scores in D&D, this is the one with which I have the least issues. I believe a measure of a character's physical strength is much needed, especially in a game where melee combat plays such an important role. In addition, I want some way to measure how much weight a character can carry unaided and this seems as good a way to do it as any other I've seen. 

Knowledge: I've long been unhappy with Intelligence as an ability. Most of the time, it's taken as a measure of how much a character knows. Look, for example, at its only explicit use in OD&D, namely, how many languages a character can speak. Given this, I thought it made some sense to shift the ability into something closer to education, both formal and informal. 

Willpower: I think I now favor the term "Will," but the point remains that I dislike Wisdom even more than Intelligence. Wisdom has always been a weird, catch-all ability, simultaneously being the prime requisite for clerics and a gauge of a character's resistance to magic/mental attacks and his perceptiveness, among other things. It's a mess and I thought focuses on the mental fortitude aspect made the most sense, especially given that sha-Arthan has no cleric class.

Dexterity: I kept this one around mostly out of tradition. Its long association with missile combat seems reasonable and, being a Holmes baby, I can't help but imagine it as being important to the determination of individual initiative (even as I now favor simpler group initiative). Then there's the matter of defensive bonus introduced in Greyhawk about which I am ambivalent. If I had better ideas, I might change or eliminate this entirely.

Constitution: Part of me wants to roll this ability into Strength to create a new one, like Physique or something, but, again, the pull of tradition kept it around. I am conflicted about the hit point bonuses for high scores (since I prefer lower hit point totals overall), but I do like "withstand adversity" and its later developments. 

Acumen: Empire of the Petal Throne has no Charisma score and that's probably influenced my thinking in replacing it (there's also the way other RPGs treat the matter). Instead, I opted for a broader ability that measures a character's ability to "read the room" to facilitate advantageous social interactions, whether to persuade, intimidate, or deceive. This is better suited to the kinds of campaigns I run, which include lots of diplomacy and intrigue.

This was my thinking when I wrote my post last week, but, as I said above, my thoughts remain in a state of flux. I have some vague notions now to cut down the abilities to five and associate them with sha-Arthan's elemental system and/or the saving throw categories. I also have equally vague notions to expand the list of abilities beyond six to include additional qualities I'd like to see quantified. It's all frankly a whirl at the moment and it may be some time yet before I've seen my way through to ordering my thoughts. For now, I continue to muse.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Retrospective: Gods of Hârn

As a general rule, I am very much opposed to the common practice among RPG hobbyists of buying products solely for reading purposes. I feel that game books should be bought with the intention that they be used in play, which explains why I buy so few new game books these days. I've only got so much free time in my life and, between refereeing two weekly campaigns and playing in a couple more, the odds of my making use of anything new I buy is limited. I realize this puts me at odds with a lot of my fellow gamers, who make a habit of picking up new gaming materials solely out of interest in their subject matter or because they're a collector to some degree. 

That said, I am a hypocrite on this matter when it comes to Hârn, a fantasy setting I've never used but whose support products I've nevertheless bought in surprising amounts. Everything I've purchased for Hârn is very well done, both in terms of content and presentation. There's an obvious love in these books that's almost infectious and I've often found myself picking them up over the years, despite my avowals not to do so. We all have our weak spots, I suppose, and the richly detailed fantasy world of Hârn is one of mine.

Of all the Hârn products I've bought (and never used) over the years, perhaps my favorite is Gods of Hárn. Originally published in 1985, the book is an overview of the ten gods of the setting's pantheon, along with information about the religions that worship them. For me, this is the most important part of what makes Gods of Hârn so special. There have been plenty of RPG books published about deities and divine beings, but few of them provide much in the way of useful information about the structure and activities of their mortal worshipers. Cults of Prax comes to mind, but, even there, the focus is more on the mythological role of the various gods of Glorantha than on the faiths of their followers.

Each god in Gods of Hârn receives a description of his or her personality and role in the pantheon, but more detail is heaped on their church. The theological and social missions of the churches is discussed, along with information about their holy days, symbols, history, and clerical organization. Each of these categories is fleshed out in sufficient detail that both the player and referee would find them useful in play. Though there's plenty of detail in Gods of Hârn, the book doesn't luxuriate in detail for its own sake; nearly everything here is presented with the goal of enhancing play, which is particularly useful for players of priests or zealous devotees of a particular god. As a fan of Tékumel, believe me when I say that I adore setting detail. At the same time, I also recognize that there can be such as a thing as too much detail. I believe that Gods of Hârn strikes a good balance between leaving everything up to the referee's imagination and overloading him with needless minutiae.

There are no game statistics for the gods of Hârn's pantheon to be found here. The emphasis is more on the mortal side of religion, which is how it should be in my opinion. Throughout history, religions have played an important role, for good and ill, in human events. Often those roles were a direct consequence of the beliefs and structures of the religions themselves, a fact that Gods of Hârn clearly recognizes. The historical sections of the book detail many instances when one or more of the churches influenced events on Hârn and elsewhere. Likewise, the sections detailing their hierarchies and present activities provide plenty of scope for the referee to make religion matter in a way it sometimes doesn't in fantasy settings.

If nothing else, Gods of Hârn is a good model to emulate for creators and referees looking to present gods and religion in their settings and that's why I'm glad I own it, even though I've never played a campaign set on Hârn – at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #27

Issue #27 of White Dwarf (October/November 1981) features a science fictional cover by Allan Craddock, an artist who'd later do work on the Fighting Fantasy series. Ian Livingstone's editorial notes that 1982 "should be the year of monthly WD," thanks in no small part to the large number of submissions made to the magazine in answer to last month's appeal for them. The advent of monthly White Dwarf coincides precisely with my own awareness of the periodical, so I look forward to re-reading those issues with which I have contemporary acquaintance.

The issue begins with Part 3 of Roger Musson's "The Dungeon Architect." This month's installment discusses "The Populated Dungeon," by which Musson really means how and why the dungeon is the way it is. He starts, for example, with the "cybernetic dungeon" – an odd turn of phrase, to be sure, but one that refers to a computer-generated, which is to say, random dungeon. Such a dungeon is contrasted with the "ecological dungeon," whose layout and contents make sense according to naturalistic principles. Musson discusses other types of dungeons, too, like the "silly dungeon" and "improvised dungeon," among others. His overall point, though, is that the referee's approach to designing his dungeons has consequences for not just its final form but also how players might receive it. Like its predecessors, this installment is filled with excellent food for thought, even for experienced dungeon makers.

Robert McMahon offers up "The Imperial Secret Service," a new career for use with Traveller. This is an advanced career like those found in Mercenary or High Guard and covers the civilian secret agents of the Third Imperium. It's fine for what it is, but nothing special. Meanwhile, "Open Box" reviews the Deluxe Edition of Traveller (10 out of 10 for newcomers to the game; 4 out of 10 for old hands), Griffin Mountain (9 out of 10), Starfleet Battles (8 out of 10), IISS Ship Files (9 out of 10), Traders and Gunboats for Traveller (9 out of 10), and the GDW boardgame Asteroid (8 out of 10). That's a lot of science fiction gaming material! It's precisely because of White Dwarf's heavy SF focus that I relished any copies I came across in my youth, since that was my own preferred genre (and Traveller my favorite RPG).

Lewis Pulsipher's "An Introduction to Dungeons & Dragons" with its fifth part, this time dedicated to "Characterisation and Alignment." This is a much short part than the previous four and is mostly filled with the usual sorts of advice one might expect on the subject of "how to roleplay a character." The main points of interest (to me anyway) are that he recommends that the referee give experience to characters that are roleplayed well and in accordance with their stated alignments and that he suggest character decisions need not be done in "real time." That is, Pulsipher sees nothing wrong with a player who takes his time to determine what his character's actions might be rather than making a quick decision on the fly. I find this interesting in that it suggests Pulsipher doesn't see any necessity in a player's strongly identifying with his character; there's still some psychological "distance" between the two and this affects how a character is played.

Marcus L. Rowland's "The Dunegon at the End of the Universe" is a follow-up to last month's "DM's Guide to the Galaxy," which talks about D&D in space. This time, Rowland focuses on the intricacies of zero-G combat, ship-to-ship combat, and new spells and magic items that make sense within the context of outer space adventures. "Hell's Portal" by Will Stephenson is a short AD&D scenario about two groups – one the PCs, the other rival NPCs – attempting to find the arms and armor of a dead revolutionary in the ruins of a prison known as Hell's Portal. The competitive aspect of the adventure is an interesting one (and common in many White Dwarf scenarios). Also noteworthy is how many of the adventure's monsters are to be found in the Fiend Folio – British pride, no doubt!

"On the Cards" by Bob McWilliams is a short article recommending the creation and use of index cards to handle the details of weapon statistics in Traveller. "Summoners" is a new spellcasting class by Penelope Hill. As you might imagine, the class is based around the summoning of elementals, demons, devils, and other extraplanar beings. I actually like the idea behind classes like this, but I've long felt they tend to be too narrowly conceived to be generally useful and this article does little to change my mind. 

"Fiend Folio" features five "near misses" – monsters that were almost included in the Fiend Folio but ultimately rejected, largely for matters of copyright. For example, there's the white ape from the Barsoom tales and the wirrn from the classic Doctor Who episode "The Ark in Space." How much one likes monsters of this sort depends, I think, on how tolerant one is of the blatant ripping off of ideas from other idea. For myself, I find them charming artifacts from a simpler time. Finally, "Treasure Chest" details seven new D&D spells, including a couple by Roger E. Moore.

White Dwarf's quality has, by this issue, acquired a degree of consistency that approaches that of other professional gaming magazines of the time. What sets it apart is the types of articles it publishes. They're generally a bit more off-beat than those in US periodicals and often focus on games, like Traveller, that don't get as many articles devoted to them in, say, Dragon or Different Worlds. That holds great attraction to someone such as myself, which is why I'm looking forward to the issues to come.

Monday, February 14, 2022

A Question re: Strength

If one uses, as OD&D, AD&D, and Empire of the Petal Throne do, a one-minute combat round, I think you're committing yourself to a broadly abstract approach to combat. As Gary Gygax explains in the Dungeon Masters Guide: "During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried." 

If one understands combat in this way, I think it makes sense to avoid talking about "to hit" rolls, since, over the course of the round, there may be many attacks, some of them even landing a blow on an opponent. Rather, the combat roll determines whether or not any of those landed blows are strong enough to overcome the opponent's armor and deal damage. Thus, the "to hit" roll is really more like a "to damage" roll.

Consider how common it once was – and perhaps still is, for all I know – to criticize the way D&D uses armor class. Why, I recall being asked, does wearing plate mail make a character harder to hit than if he were wearing chainmail or leather armor? The answer is that it doesn't. Rather, certain types of armor make a character harder to damage, which is why I recommend dropping the use of phrases like "roll to hit" and the like.

All of this brings me to my question about Strength. Prior to Supplement I, a high Strength score conferred no mechanical benefits beyond a bonus to earned experience for fighting men. With the publication of Greyhawk, this changed. Now, a high Strength granted a bonus to "hit probability" and to damage. Given the understanding of the combat roll I propose above, does it make any sense for a high Strength score to do both

A bonus to the chance to deal damage (called "hit probability") makes sense to me, since what that really indicates is an increase in the likelihood that a character can land a hit solid enough to harm his opponent. I find it reasonable that a high Strength might assist in this. Why, then, a bonus to damage dealt as well? Isn't that "doubling up" on the Strength's role in combat or am I overthinking this, as I often do?

I hope I've explained myself clearly enough so that my question is intelligible. If not, I'll do my best to clarify my position in the comments.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Phoenix on the Sword

While writing last week's entry in this series, I realized that I had somehow never written a post about "The Phoenix on the Sword," the very first published yarn of Conan the Cimmerian," and I resolved to rectify the matter as soon as possible. As is well-known, "The Phoenix on the Sword" is a reworking of another story, "By This Axe I Rule!," which Howard wrote for the character Kull of Atlantis in 1929. Twice rejected at the time of its writing, REH set the tale aside for several years before he turned it into the debut of Conan, resulting in its publication in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales.

Like its immediate sequel, "The Scarlet Citadel," "The Phoenix on the Sword" is a story of Conan after he has become king of Aquilonia. Indeed, there's a remarkable degree of similarity between the two stories, at least when it comes to their overall plots. In both, a conspiracy consisting of noblemen aided by a sorcerer works to overthrow Conan and place one of their own on the throne. There the resemblance ends. 

"The Phoenix on the Sword" is likely the most quoted tale of Conan, beginning as it does with the following:

"KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."—The Nemedian Chronicles

Whatever else one can say about the story – or indeed about Robert E. Howard's work in general – I don't think there can be any question that the excerpt above is a remarkably evocative bit of writing. With just a handful of sentences, Howard firmly establishes his setting, its mood, and his protagonist. It's an amazing bit of literary economy and I can't help but be envious of how much he did with so few words. 

After this, the reader is introduced first to the outlaw Ascalante and then to the Rebel Four who have "summoned [him] from the southern desert." The Four are

Volmana, the dwarfish count of Karaban; Gromel, the giant commander of the Black Legion; Dion, the fat baron of Attalus; Rinaldo, the hare-brained minstrel

Each of the Rebel Four has his own reasons for wanting to see Conan, "a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land," dethroned, but all are united in wanting to see it done by any means necessary. That's why they have turned Ascalante, a ruthless bandit with a reputation for achieving what he sets out to do. Unbeknownst to them, Ascalante has his own plans.

As for me – well, a few months ago I had lost all ambition but to raid the caravans for the rest of my life; now old dreams stir. Conan will die; Dion will mount the throne. Then he, too, will die. One by one, all who oppose me will die – by fire, or steel, or those deadly wines you know so well how to brew. Ascalante, king of Aquilonia! How do you like the sound of it?

The outlaw boasts of his plan to his slave, a Stygian who bemoans his own fate.

"There was a time," he said with unconcealed bitterness, "when I, too, had my ambitions, beside which yours seem tawdry and childish. To what a state I have fallen! My old-time peers and rivals would stare indeed could they see Thoth-amon of the Ring serving as the slave of an outlander and an outlaw at that; and aiding the petty ambitions of barons and kings!"

This is one and only direct appearance of the wizard Thoth-amon in the Howardian canon. Yet, so memorable is this appearance, that it left a lasting impression on the minds of many pasticheurs, like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who then concocted the idea that he was somehow Conan's arch-nemesis. The Marvel Conan comics of Roy Thomas perpetuated this notion, from which it passed into the imaginations of many others.

While Ascalante and the Rebel Four plot against him, Conan is unhappily reflecting on his current situation as a barbarian ruling a civilized kingdom.

"When I overthrew the old dynasty," he continued, speaking with the easy familiarity which existed only between the Poitainian and himself, "it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the time. Looking back now over the wild path I followed, all those days of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seem like a dream.

"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.

Conan's last statement sums up well the plot of "The Phoenix on the Sword" and why it's so compelling. Conan is a good king; he rules Aquilonia and its people more fairly than his predecessor. Yet, he is a foreigner and a barbarian at that. Many of his subjects do not accept him as their ruler and now foolishly recall the tyrant Numedides with misplaced fondness. The conspiracy of the Rebel Four is built, at least in part, on Conan's lack of acceptance by a populace who do not fully understand how lucky they are to have this barbarian rule rather than one of their own. Conan knows this and laments it, just as he laments the way that his crown binds him and keeps him from the freedom he once enjoyed. This is powerful stuff and near-perfect grist for the pulp fantasy mill. It's not a perfect tale by any means, but it's well worth a read, if you've never had the chance to do so before. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

An Aside re: Charisma

From Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), p. 6:


Charisma is the ability of a character to arouse popular loyalty and enthusiasm by the force of his own personality and reflects his ability to command men in battle. It is a natural talent growing out of other characteristics. To find a character's basic Charisma, add his Intelligence, Wisdom, Appearance, Bardic Voice, and Dexterity scores, and divide the total by 5. If he is over 6 feet tall, add 1 point. Add all bonuses to the total.

From RuneQuest (1978), p. 12:

Charisma is a nebulous quality, and increasing or decreasing it is often up to the referee's whimsy. However, the following instances can have some effect:

a. Each 25% skill with Oratory learned increases a character's CHA by 1 point. Maximum of 4 points.

b. Each 25% increase in the use of one's main weapon (after 50%) adds 1 point. No limit to points.

c. Possession of good, showy, magical objects raises CHA by 1 point. Just 1 point is gained here. It does not matter if the character has just one or one hundred showy items.

d. Successful leadership of an expedition (i.e., the loss/gain ratio is satisfactory) can add a point to the character's CHA. A character may roll his CHA as a percent or lower for a gain, or the Referee may have some other criterion.

e. Unsuccessful leadership can lose CHA. A really disastrous expedition can cause the leader to have to make his CHA as a percentage or lose 1 to 3 CHA points. 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Barrett's Raiders

Regular readers will, of course, know about the House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign I've been refereeing for nearly seven years now. However, that's not the only campaign I'm currently refereeing. In early December, I started a Twilight: 2000 campaign, using the latest edition of the game published by Free League

Known as Barrett's Raiders, the campaign focuses on eight characters – seven Americans and one Russian POW – trying to make their way through central Poland in the aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Kalisz (July 9–18, 2000). The battle was the last big push by NATO forces against the Warsaw Pact and it ended terribly for the West. During the ensuing chaos, the characters fled south in a HMMWV and LAV-25, making their way to a forest between Kepno and Złoczew before continuing southeast to the area between Kluczbork, Praszka, and Krzepice.
The characters in the group consist of:
  • Lieutenant Colonel Joseph "JD" Orlowski
  • Sergeant Andrew Alexander "Double A" McLeod
  • Sergeant Hiram "Dutch" Everts
  • Sergeant Tom Cody
  • Staff Sergeant John J. "Headshot" Miller
  • Sergeant First Class Jess "Cowpoke" Gartmann
  • Michael (a civilian intelligence agent who'd been posing as a Pole)
  • Dr Vadim Konosev (Russian captured before the Battle of Kalisz)
Though we've been playing for two months now, only three days of game time have passed. The characters have been doing their best to stay hidden and avoid conflict with Warsaw Pact forces still in the area. With the exception of an encounter with some scouts of the Soviet 129th Motorized Rifle Division, they've largely been successful, though it's increasingly clear that their luck can only last so long. 

A map captured from the scouts suggests that the Soviets have their own internal problems. Many of their troops have deserted and turned to marauding. The map also seems to imply a concentration of US forces in the town of Dobrodzień, but there's no way of knowing if it's true. Moreover, given the general breakdown in unit cohesion and discipline on all sides, is it any safer to hook up with even their fellow Americans? These are the questions that occupy Lt. Col. Orlowski as he tries to keep this little band alive in unfriendly territory.

Like the House of Worms campaign, I'll write occasional posts about Barrett's Raiders and how it's unfolding. That's in addition to my thoughts about the new Twilight: 2000 rules and my experiences using them. Thus far, we've been having fun and I have high hopes that the campaign will be a long one (though perhaps not as long as House of Worms – few are!). 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Burn, Witch, Burn!

The wheels of publishing turn slowly. Nevertheless, the Centipede Press edition of the classic Abraham Merritt story, Burn, Witch, Burn! to which I contributed an introduction will be making its appearance sometime next month. Like all Centipede Press books, this will be limited edition of only a few hundred copies, but I have no doubt it'll be a gorgeous one. When I have more specific information to share about the book, I'll write another post about it.

A Radical Proposal (Part II)


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Lost in a Forbidding Land

Here's a 1982 advertisement for Milton Bradley's electronic fantasy boardgame Dark Tower

Retrospective: The Best of Dragon

The first copy of Dragon I ever purchased was issue #62, which first appeared in June 1982, though I'd read a smattering of issues before this. I began subscribing to Dragon with issue #68 (December 1982) and maintained that subscription for the next five years (stopping only when I went away to college). Consequently, I largely missed out on the first five or six years of the periodical's run.

I say "largely," because I had previously acquired two volumes of Best of (the) Dragon, which appeared in 1980 and 1981 and, through them, I got a small glimpse of the magazine's early days that would otherwise have been unknown to me. The first volume I bought while on vacation with my family; the second during Christmastime, probably from Waldenbooks, my usual purveyor of gaming magazines. For many years afterward, they were among my most prized gaming possessions and took them everywhere with me. It's a testament to my fastidiousness that I still have those very same copies today, not much worse for wear after more than four decades.

Of the two, Volume I was by far my favorite, if only because it was so strange – or so it seemed to me when I first set eyes on it. To begin, its cover, by John Barnes, is quite unlike the covers of Dragon with which I was already familiar, reminding me of some weird portrait one might find hanging on the wall of a reclusive eccentric. Having always been attracted to the weird, this was a point in the collection's favor and almost certainly contributed to my picking it up when I first laid eyes upon it.

The cover, though, wasn't the only thing I deemed weird at the time. The content, too, was unusual, featuring as it did a mishmash of content, some which made little immediate sense to me at the time. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about Metamorphosis Alpha. What was this game that seemed to be so much resemblance to my beloved Gamma World and yet was so obviously something else entirely? I'd read the name Metamorphosis Alpha before in both the Dungeon Masters Guide and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, of course, but I never gave it much thought prior to reading these articles in Best of the Dragon, after which it became an obsession of sorts, as I feverishly sought, to no avail, to lay hands on a copy of this predecessor to Gamma World.

The weirdness didn't end there, though. Volume I was filled with what then seemed like oddities, such as James Ward's "Deserted Cities of Mars," Gary Gygax's "Sturmgeshutz and Sorcery," and strange variants of already existing AD&D classes, like the illusionist, ranger, and bard. At the time, I didn't realize that these articles were the original versions of these character classes, intended as additions to OD&D. Aside from the Holmes and Moldvay Basic Sets, I'd not yet seen anything directly connected to the 1974 version of the game and I was both baffled and fascinated by these articles. They lent the first volume an aura of mystery that kept me reading and re-reading its articles.

There were also plenty of articles I immediately appreciated and used in my games, like Lee Gold's "Languages" and "Demon Generation" by Jon Pickens. This was even more the case for Volume II, which contained a huge number of articles that piqued my interest, starting with all the so-called NPC classes. NPC classes were a staple of Dragon, even when I was regularly reading it. They occupied a peculiar place in the eyes of D&D players, since they weren't formally intended for use for players characters but everyone knew a referee who was lenient and allowed someone to play a samurai or berserker. Dragon, as the organ of TSR, pooh-poohed such behavior, of course, but these classes were very popular with readers and so they kept appearing. 

Volume II included lots of other goodies that appealed to me, such as the articles on tesseracts, undead, poison, and, of course, "The Politics of Hell" by Alexander von Thorn. That last article left a very strong impression on me as a kid and forever colored my conception of devils in D&D, despite its very idiosyncratic take on the infernal regions. When I came to Toronto in the early '90s, I discovered, quite by accident, that one of the owners of the game store I frequented here was, in fact, the author of that article. Life can be strange! 

Subsequent volumes of Best of Dragon never impressed me as much, because they covered time periods when I was a regular reader. I already had access to their contents, so why would I need them in anthologized form? Those first two volumes, though, were one of my earliest windows into the much more wild and woolly world of the hobby, one I'd missed by a couple of years and whose echoes, still occasionally heard even in the early 1980s, didn't always make sense to me. Best of Dragon filled in a few of the details, but what it really did was point me in the direction of seeking out more information about what had come before I started playing. I'm still very grateful for that.