Sunday, May 15, 2022

Wandering DMs

Dan Collins and Paul Siegel have once again asked me to appear on their Wandering DMs channel this afternoon at 1pm EDT. This time, I'll be talking about the ups and downs of refereeing a RPG campaign for the last seven years. Though obviously some of what I have to say will be specific to my ongoing House of Worms campaign, much of it – most of it, I hope – will have more general applicability to any long-running RPG campaign.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #36

Issue #36 of White Dwarf (December 1982) features a cover by Brian Bolland, one of the comics artists most closely associated with Judge Dredd. At the time this issue appeared, I was only dimly aware of the existence of Dredd as a character. What little I did know was gleaned from the pages of White Dwarf, as I'll soon discuss.

Appropriately, the issue kicks off with an article by Ian Livingstone, in which he talks about the creation and history of the Judge Dredd comic. He then uses that as a springboard to talk about the design of the Judge Dredd boardgame reviewed in the previous issue. This is an article I remember quite well, since it was likely my first serious introduction to Dredd, Mega-City One, and the bizarre rogues gallery of perps that inhabit it. It'd still be several more years, I think, before I laid hands on a copy of the Judge Dredd comic, but I nevertheless has fond memories of this issue and Livingstone's article.

The "Fiend Factory" serves up but a single new monster for use with Dungeons & Dragons this month – "The Loculi" by Eric Hall. The titular creatures are intelligent reptilians with a wide range of abilities, including spells and psionic abilities. In addition, their combat effectiveness, not to mention their likelihood to own and employ magic items, increases with age, as demonstrated on an accompanying table. The loculi are thus flexible opponents, equally suitable for characters of any level. Sadly, beyond their combat abilities, there's not much more to the loculi. We learn very little of their society or culture, which is a shame, because I think there's potential here.

Part 1 of Andy Slack's "An Introduction to Traveller" focuses on both players and characters. As presented, it's remarkably basic in its approach, with lots of attention given to explaining the meanings of character ability scores, dice rolling, even hexadecimal notation. As with those "intro to D&D" articles that appeared in the pages of Imagine, I find myself wondering once again the purpose of articles like this or the target audience. I can only presume that it's for readers of White Dwarf who are as ignorant of Traveller as I was at the time of Judge Dredd. If so, I would guess they'd find the article useful, though it's tough going for anyone with much familiarity with the game beforehand. 

Another Traveller article is "Sector and Starburst" by Marcus L. Rowland, which presents the code for two ZX81 programs. Both programs generate sector for the game, with the latter doing so in a more minimalist fashion. Obviously, this article las almost no use today except as a museum piece – I'm completely unfamiliar with the ZX81 computer – but I got a kick out of it nonetheless. The early days of consumer computers coincided with my entry into the hobby of roleplaying and will thus be forever linked in my memory. Seeing articles like this triggered a powerful wave of nostalgia.

"The Druid's Grove" by Mark Byng is a fascinating and fun little aid for use with AD&D. Its purpose is to provide a map and ancillary rules for adjudicating the trials by combat needed for druids to advance beyond 11th level, since members of the class must beat their superiors to do so. This isn't something every campaign will need, but I appreciate its inclusion nonetheless, not least because it makes it any effort to liven up the combat with hazardous terrain and flora and fauna that could prove beneficial or detrimental. This is the kind of article that White Dwarf would do from time to time that really captured my imagination, even if I never had an opportunity to use it.

"Open Box" reviews several new items, starting with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (10 out of 10), followed by Trollpak, which somehow only rates a 9 out of 10. Yaquinto's Pirates and Plunder RPG also rates a 10 out of 10, which only adds to my sense that WD's reviews were often wildly out of a sync with my own perceptions. Finally, there are reviews of several FASA Traveller products: Merchant Class Ships (8 out of 10), Aslan Mercenary Ships (7 out of 10), and the FCI Consumer Guide (9 out of 10) – again, all very positive reviews. I'm not one who relishes negative reviews and indeed sometimes feels that too many reviews are unduly negative. However, neither do I see much value in overly effusive reviews. Perhaps it's the numerical rating system that's distorting things.

"Rules Additions" by Simon Early is a strangely titled introductory scenario for RuneQuest that is written in a way to challenge a wide variety of the characters' skills to succeed. The main "rules additions" handle one character assisting another in their tasks. "More Necromantic Abilities" by Graeme Davis is a follow-up to the previous issue's "The Necromancer." Here, Davis provides thirteen new powers for use by the class.

Finally, Lewis Pulsipher's "A Guide to Dungeon Mastering" series concludes with Part III. He talks a bit about the importance of keeping a campaign difficult enough to hold the players' interests, lest they reach high level too easily. He goes further in suggesting that D&D doesn't handle high-level play very well from a mechanical perspective and that, as a result, there will be a host of issues a referee must contend with. Finally, he emphasizes the need for each referee to pursue his role in a fashion that gives him the most enjoyment. Though I disagree with some of his observations, I nevertheless found this installment of the series my favorite. I generally enjoy reading about the philosophy of refereeing and this article is no different in this regard.

As I say repeatedly, periodicals are almost always a mixed bag, though I find that White Dwarf, perhaps due to its smaller pool of talent, tends to be much more wild in its variability, with some issues being profoundly mediocre and others being transcendent. Issue #36 tends more toward the former, though I retain a personal affection for the issue, because of my memories of having read it at the tender age of thirteen. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

"The Playable One"

An unexpected joy of re-reading White Dwarf is coming across advertisements like this one for Star Frontiers, which, so far as I know, was unique to the UK market. The ad is interesting for several reasons, starting with the original artwork that accompanies it. Equally interesting, I think, is the inclusion of a cartoonish looking wizard as a kind of corporate mascot. Again, this seems unique to the UK market, though a similar wizard character does appear on the box of the 1982 TSR children's boardgame, Fantasy Forest. Both, I imagine, are callbacks to the old TSR wizard logo from the late 1970's to very early 1980s.

Most interesting of all, at least to me, is that the advertisement emphasizes the supposed playability of Star Frontiers over its competitors in the SF RPG market. At the time this ad appeared (1982), Traveller was likely the most popular and successful science fiction roleplaying game on the market, followed by Space Opera. I can certainly believe that Space Opera was widely seen as complex, but was Traveller viewed in the same way? My no doubt rose-colored memories don't include that perception at all, but that doesn't say much. Even given the sorts of hyperbole to which advertising is prone, I can't help but wonder about the claim that Star Frontiers "will change your opinion of science fiction role playing games."

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Right Hand of Doom

There can be denying that, during his lifetime, Robert E. Howard was an extremely successful – and popular – writer. Consequently, illustrations depicting his stories appeared on the cover of Weird Tales thirteen times, since the advertisement of a yarn by Howard served as a powerful enticement at the newsstand. Yet, like all writers for the pulps, he regularly encountered disinterest and rejection by his editors, most notably the mercurial editor of the Unique Magazine, Farnsworth Wright. Sometimes, REH would rework these rejected stories for resubmission elsewhere (or even again to Weird Tales). At other times, he simply abandoned these stories and it would not be until decades after his death that anyone even became aware of their existence, let alone had a chance to read them.

Such is the case with "The Right Hand of Doom," a very early story of Puritan adventurer, Solomon Kane. The story was likely written and rejected sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, but its first publication didn't occur until 1968, when it appeared in Red Shadows, an anthology named after the Kane story of the same name. Produced by Donald M. Grant, Red Shadows was a limited run book, with fewer than 900 copies in its first printing. However, the book sold out quickly, thanks in part to the growing interest in Howard's original texts, unadulterated by the "revisions" of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. The inclusion of previously unknown tales like "The Right Hand of Doom" no doubt played a role as well.

The story begins in a tavern, where a drunken man with "a high-pitched grating voice" boasts of the fact that a man is to hang out dawn.
"Roger Simeon, the necromancer!" sneered the grating voice. "A dealer in diabolic arts and  worker of black magic! My word, all his foul power could not save him when the king's soldiers surrounded his cave and took him prisoner. He fled when the people began to fling cobble stones at his windows, and thought to hide himself and escape to France. Ho! Ho! His escape shall be at the end of a noose. A good day's work, say I."

But not everyone in the tavern is impressed by the boasts of the man, whose name we learn is John Redly. Seated near the fireplace is "a tall silent man" who was "gaunt, powerful and somberly dressed." 

"I say," said he in a low powerful voice, "that you have this day done a damnable deed. Yon necromancer was worthy of death, belike, but he trusted you, naming you his one friend, and you betrayed him for a few filthy coins. Methinks you will meet him in hell, some day." 

Redly is offended by such an accusation but chooses not to tangle with the man by the fireplace, whom the others in the tavern call "dangerouser than a wolf" – Solomon Kane. Redly likewise thinks little of the vengeance the necromancer swore to take on him. Now that Simeon was in the hands of the authorities, he could enjoy the wages of his betrayal in safety. Naturally, Redly is mistaken in this and, by the morning, he is dead in his bed and Kane is there to determine just how this happened.

"The Right Hand of Doom" is a very short story, just a few pages in length and it wastes few words on unnecessary dialog or description. If I have a complaint about the story, it's that there's very little action in it. Kane is almost passive in the story, which unfolds without his involvement. He is there to witness Simeon's revenge upon the man who betrayed him and then react to it. He rights no wrongs, as he usually does, nor is he ever in any danger. Instead, Kane is simply present, though Howard does a good job, I think, in depicting his resolute demeanor and upright character. 

"The Right Hand of Doom" is thus a very different kind of pulp fantasy. It's essentially a ghost story of a sort, one you might tell around the campfire at night rather than a tale of heroic derring-do in the early 17th century like Howard's more well known stories of Solomon Kane. Perhaps that explains why "The Right Hand of Doom" was never published during Howard's lifetime: it's something of a departure from his usual style and subject matter. Personally, I'm fine with that and think it's a fun little tale of supernatural revenge well worth reading if you can find a copy.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Cross Pollination

Briefly: I am fine. Thank you to everyone who reached out to check in on me, concerned that my having not written a post in the last week portended something unpleasant. The truth is I simply wanted to take a break. Spring is here; the weather is warmer and now seemed a good time to start working on my garden, among other vernal chores. Regular posting will resume in due course.

In the meantime, here's another question to keep you occupied: have you ever imported a rule from one RPG into another? That is, have you ever come across a rule (or rules interpretation) in one game that you liked so much that you thought a different game would benefit from its adoption? In my own case, I found the way that Empire of the Petal Throne handles the rolling of hit points upon gaining a new level so clever that I've made use of it in every level-based RPG with increasing hit points that I referee. For those unaware, EPT says that, once a new level is gained, the player rolls all his character's hit dice and adds up the total. If the sum is less than his character's current hit points, he gains no new hit points; if the sum is greater, it becomes the character's new hit point total. I like the rule because it evens out a PC's hit points over time while still respecting the inherent randomness of using dice.

What are your favorite rules you've borrowed from another game?