Tuesday, July 26, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #43

With issue #43 of White Dwarf (July 1983), we are well within the range of issues I remember strongly from my youth. This is the period before I'd actually subscribed to the magazine – that would come a little while later – but after I'd made it a point to pick up a new issue each month. Consequently, I still have a vivid recollection of this Jim Burns cover. Strangely, I also recall Ian Livingstone's editorial in which he suggests that computer games can never replace tabletop RPGs (or even boardgames) for the satisfaction they provide in playing them with (or against) human beings. Nearly forty years later, I find it hard to disagree.

Part 2 of Marcus L. Rowland's "Cthulhu Now!" presents two mini-scenarios and one campaign outline for use in a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in the 1980s. One of these, entitled "Trail of the Loathsome Slime," would become the basis for a licensed CoC adventure published by Games Workshop at a later date. Since I never owned that particular book, I can't say how closely it hews to Rowland's original idea. I really enjoyed this article back in 1983 and it encouraged me to try my hand at modern day Call of Cthulhu.

"Open Box" reviews Warhammer in its initial release, earning 8 out of 10. I've mentioned before that I've never had the chance to look at this version of the game and now I wish I had. It's a pity that it's nigh impossible to find a copy at a reasonable price. Oliver Dickinson gives Questworld, Chaosium's alternate setting for RuneQuest, a mere 6 out of 10, which surprises me, as my (admittedly hazy) recollection is that it was more interesting than that. I shall have to re-read it sometime soon to see if I agree with Dickinson's assessment. Finally, there's a review of the play-by-mail game, The Tribes of Crane, which garners a 9 out of 10 – high praise indeed! I never got into play-by-mail games, but I'm fascinated by them, so such a positive review only piques my interest further.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" looks at a number of books, starting with a couple casting skeptical eyes on psychic and related phenomena. He follows it up with reviews of Alfred Bester's The Deceivers and The Insider by Christopher Evan. I've read the former, but I've never even heard of the latter. Go figure. "Hanufa's Little Sister" is Oliver Dickinson's final short story of Griselda. The tale includes a note that information on her further exploits can be found in Chaosium's Pavis. This is true: the boxed set released the same year as this issue includes another short story of Griselda, also written by Dickinson (though her game stats appear in Big Rubble, along with those of her associates).

"Magimart" by Lewis Pulsipher briefly discusses the ups and downs allowing the buying and selling of magic items in a D&D campaign. As with so many of Pulsipher's articles, he offers sound advice, though it's difficult, from the vantage point of the present, to appreciate it fully, since so much of what he has to say has since passed into the collective wisdom of the hobby. "Vehicle Combat" by Andy Slack, meanwhile, remains of lasting interest. It's a nice, simple system for adjudicating vehicle combat in Traveller without recourse to Striker (though it does make use of Mercenary). I had a lot of fun, thanks to this article, so it remains a favorite of mine to this day.

The centerpiece of the issue is Part 2 of Daniel Collerton's "Irilian." As with last issue, Collerton describes a single section of the city, along with an adventure set in that part of Irilian. This part focuses attention on an abbey and an inn, both of which are given complete maps and both of which figure prominently in the scenario. The remainder of the article describes on living in Irilian, with an emphasis placed on what houses look like, family arrangements, coinage, and similarly mundane but nevertheless useful features. It's another great installment in a terrific series; it remains one of the highlights of White Dwarf during the period when I was reading it.

"Happy Landings!" by Thomas M. Price is a very good three-page article for Traveller. Price looks at starport design, an overlooked aspect of Traveller in my opinion (and not just because I worked on a book concerning this topic). What makes the article especially good are the half dozen or so sample maps included with it. Traveller characters spend an awful lot of time in starports; having more examples of possible layouts is this extremely helpful to the harried referee. This was another favorite of mine. "Arms Talk" by Oliver Dickinson is a discussion of damage absorption in RuneQuest. It's a fairly dense little essay, filled with plenty of musings about RQ's combat system. At the time, I wasn't playing the game, so I paid little heed to it. Nowadays, I wouldn't give it much attention either, since the complexities of the combat system are my least favorite aspects of RuneQuest.

"And Some Came Riding" is a fun installment of "Fiend Factory," describing several new D&D monsters that make use of mounts of one type or another. I especially like the Bug Riders, insect men who make use of a variety of arthropods as riding beasts. "Bujutsu" by Graeme Davis details Japanese weapons for use by AD&D monks, which was a well worn genre of article in the gaming magazines of the '80s. Finally, there's the first appearance of the comic Gobbledigook by Bil (who, I believe, is Bill Sedgwick, who did art for Games Workshop). I loved many of White Dwarf's comics, including Gobbledigook, so it was great seeing his debut in this issue.

Issue #42 of White Dwarf is an excellent one, perhaps one of the best I ever owned. The mix of D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller material was welcome, since they were my three main RPGs back in the days of my youth. Even now, they remain among my favorites. It's a real pleasure to revisit issues like this one and I look forward to those that follow it, as I recall that many of them are just as superb as this one.

Monday, July 25, 2022

"Robot Role-Playing Game"

The "Coming Attractions" column in issue #99 of Dragon (July 1985) included an entry for a new science fiction roleplaying game entitled Proton Fire.

The entry does not specify a release date, which only makes sense, because the game was never released. Steve Winter, who worked at TSR at the time, explained that Proton Fire was in fact completed (and even playested) but that it was canceled due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of both TSR and its distributors. Nevertheless, I still sometimes think about Proton Fire and what it might have been like, but then I am also a connoisseur of vaporware RPGs, so that should come as little surprise.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pickman's Model

Though I'd read some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft before the release of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, it was the publication of that roleplaying game that greatly accelerated my knowledge and appreciation for the works of HPL, as I suspect it was for others as well. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I believe the first edition of CoC includes an introduction or an essay by Sandy Petersen, in which he talks about his first encounter with Lovecraft at a tender age. As I recall it, Petersen states that the first Lovecraft tale he read was "Pickman's Model" and that it left a lasting impression on him (just as my first HPL story, "The Tomb," did for me). 

Seeing that in the pages of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook was recommendation enough for me and I quickly sought out the story. I found it in a paperback collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. The story was every bit as memorable as Petersen had implied it would be. Like "The Tomb," it remains a favorite of mine, despite the fact that, by many measures, it's not one of Lovecraft's most well crafted stories. On the other hand, its central ideas are powerful ones and there are passages in the tale that I continue to find moving.

"Pickman's Model" first appeared in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales. Like so many Lovecraft stories, it's told in the first person, in this case from the perspective of a man named Thurber, who tells his tale to yet another man, Eliot. Thurber begins by saying, "You needn't think I'm crazy, Eliot," which is rarely an auspicious beginning, particularly in a H.P. Lovecraft story. Thurber goes on to say that he had recently "begun to cut the Art Club" in order to "keep away from Pickman."

"Boston had never had a greater artist than Richard Upton Pickman," Thurber declares. 
 Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.

If that sounds a bit like Lovecraft himself speaking, you're probably correct in your assessment. Much of what Thurber says about art in "Pickman's Model" echoes Lovecraft's own sentiments at the time. These passages are fascinating if you're interested in the evolution of HPL's own thought, but they sometimes get in the way of the narrative. 

Pickman, we learn, is an artist of the "morbid" and the "weird," whose works had "repelled" the upstanding members of the Boston arts scene. Thurber, at least initially, was more open-minded in his assessment. Indeed, he begins to spend a great deal of time with Pickman.

Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum. My hero-worship, coupled with the fact that people generally were commencing to have less and less to do with him, made him get very confidential with me; and one evening he hinted that if I were fairly close-mouthed and none too squeamish, he might shew me something rather unusual—something a bit stronger than anything he had in the house.

Remember that, at the beginning of the story, Thurber confessed to Eliot that he had started to "keep away from Pickman." At this point in his tale, though, he was instead the painter's friend and confidante. What, then, could have effected this change in his attitudes?

Pickman lives in the dilapidated North End of Boston, since any "sincere" artist would "put up with the slums for the sake of the massed traditions." 

God, man! Don’t you realise that places like that weren’t merely made, but actually grew? Generation after generation lived and felt and died there, and in days when people weren’t afraid to live and feel and die.

Again, this is clearly Lovecraft speaking through the mouth of Thurber, but I've long had sympathy for his preference for organic growth over rational planning when it comes to many human endeavors, so I'll let it pass. Regardless, Pickman eventually reveals to Thurber that he has "another studio" elsewhere "where I can catch the night-spirit of antique horror and paint things that I couldn't even think of in Newbury Street." This studio is located in a cellar near Copp's Hill Burying-Ground and it's here that he keeps his most shocking paintings, which Thurber sees for the first time.

There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify. There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood. The backgrounds were mostly old churchyards, deep woods, cliffs by the sea, brick tunnels, ancient panelled rooms, or simple vaults of masonry. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which could not be many blocks away from this very house, was a favourite scene.

The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground—for Pickman’s morbid art was preëminently one of daemoniac portraiture. These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. Ugh! I can see them now! Their occupations—well, don’t ask me to be too precise. They were usually feeding—I won’t say on what. They were sometimes shewn in groups in cemeteries or underground passages, and often appeared to be in battle over their prey—or rather, their treasure-trove. And what damnable expressiveness Pickman sometimes gave the sightless faces of this charnel booty! Occasionally the things were shewn leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats. One canvas shewed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs.

Thurber is most impressed by how realistic these paintings are, as if Pickman had not conjured them from his imagination but rather had painted them from life. That is, of course, the "surprise" twist of "Pickman's Model" and I hope no one will be aggrieved at my having revealed it here. The story is nearly a century old at this point and, besides, Lovecraft telegraphs the tale's ultimate revelation several times before explicitly presenting it. 

At any rate, it's not the conclusion of the story that matters so much as the ideas it presents and the manner in which Lovecraft does so. Lovecraft is deeply concerned with realism in art, which he considers to be essential to its power. This is why he spends so much time in his stories set the scene, enumerating seemingly insignificant details, and grounding his whole narrative in elaborate histories. One might justifiably quibble with his execution of this approach in some instance, but his reasons for doing so are quite sound, given his interest in literary realism. "Pickman's Model" is by no means a flawless masterpiece, yet it points the way forward for Lovecraft's later career and, for that reason alone, deserves one's attention.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Frodo Was a 2nd-Level Fighter

As I noted in my examination of issue #38 of White Dwarf (January 1983), Lewis Pulsipher provided AD&D game statistics for the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Here they are:

Let's take a brief look at these stats, starting with Gandalf, who is an 8th-level cleric with a slightly modified list of spells. I find that fascinating, especially in light of Gary Gygax's comment in Dragon – can anyone recall the specific issue? – that Gandalf was not a magic-user but a cleric (and a fairly low-level one at that). It's also noteworthy that Pulsipher lists him as a "Man" rather than a Maia. 

Aragorn is described as a "ranger-paladin." Whether that's meant to represent a multi/dual class is open to interpretation, since Pulsipher only indicates a single level (7th) for the character. It's an odd, though understandable, way to represent the character, since Aragorn does demonstrate a number of abilities that are akin to those of an AD&D paladin. On the other hand, the ranger class only exists as a way to represent Aragorn as a Dungeons & Dragons character. That Pulsipher didn't think the class adequate to the task is intriguing.

Boromir is just a straight-up fighter, which makes perfect sense. The same is true of Gimli and, aside from his relatively low level, I don't think anyone could find fault with this interpretation. Of course, Legalos (also a fighter) is similarly low level, so there's likely a method to Pulsipher's madness here.

The hobbits are interesting. Only Frodo is a fighter, while Sam, Pippin, and Merry are all thieves. I can see a logic to Sam's being a thief, given his skill at sneaking about. Likewise, Merry makes sense too; he did, after all, help defeat the Witch-King of Angmar with perhaps one of the greatest backstabs in all of fantasy literature. Pippin, though, seems like he ought to be a fighter. He showed considerable skill in battle, eventually defeating a troll. Likewise, he later became Thain of the Shire, a largely military office. 

Attempting to provide game statistics for literary characters, as Dragon did in its "Giants in the Earth" series, is always a fraught endeavor. While inspired by literature, D&D was never intended to emulate its specific. The game's character classes (and their abilities) generally have game-specific origins and purposes. Consequently, definitively pronouncing that any literary belongs to a particular class or is of a particular level is never going to be wholly satisfying. That said, I think Lewis Pulsipher did a fair job in this case, especially in light of his goal of using The Lord of the Rings as a way to introduce newcomers to Dungeons & Dragons. I can quibble about the fine details, but not the general direction of his adaptation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Retrospective: Cthulhu Companion

I've written before about my fondness for the concept of companion volumes to roleplaying games. By "companion," I don't simply mean a rules supplement, though many RPG companions do include augmented, expanded, and/or new rules. Rather, a companion – or a good companion, at any rate – isn't focused solely on the mechanical aspects of a game; neither does it consist entirely of "fluff." Instead, it's a buffet of options, ideas, and inspiration for players and referees alike, particularly those who've been playing a game for some time. 

The first such companion I ever owned was 1983's Cthulhu Companion, subtitled "Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore." Released two years after the publication of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu. CoC was – and is – one of my favorite RPGs. After my initial purchase of it in 1981, I played the heck out of it with my friends. Consequently, I was more than ready for this companion when it was released. I was eager for additions and expansions to the original game, not to mention inspiration for my own adventures. I found all of that and more in this book.

Cthulhu Companion begins with a brief overview of the changes appearing in the upcoming second edition of the rulebook. The changes are quite minor, the most significant being that the characteristic Charisma is replaced by Appearance, for reasons that are never explained. At the time, I simply accepted this change, which was subsequently employed in several other Basic Role-Playing variants, like Pendragon. Nowadays, I find it a bit odd. If ever there were a game where a character's physical appearance should matter little, it's Call of Cthulhu. All the rules changes presented in Cthulhu Companion are small and that's one of the things I've long admired about CoC: until very recently, every edition of the game and its support materials were mechanically compatible without almost any effort.

Highlights of the companion are "The Cthulhu Mythos in Mesoamerican Religion" and "Further Notes on the Necronomicon." Both of these faux academic articles try to contextualize the entities of Lovecraft and his imitators within real world cultures and mythologies. The former takes a cue from Zealia Bishop's "The Mound" (ghostwritten by HPL) and focuses primarily on Aztec religion, while the latter casts a broader net, delving into Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic legendry. I love these sorts of articles, which provide excellent pointers for how to make the Cthulhu Mythos feel more "real" and grounded. I read and re-read both of these many, many times in my younger days.

Also included are lots more details about prisons in the 1920s, along with a large list of new insanities and Mythos beings. These might be called the "bread and butter" of companion volumes like this, since they're useful to any referee – I mean Keeper of Arcane Lore – regardless of the kind of campaign he is running. Of particular interest to me, both then and now, are the inclusion of deities from the works of Clark Ashton Smith. I've long felt that one of the strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it's infinitely capable of expansion beyond the works of Lovecraft himself. Indeed, I think the game is improved by occasionally shifting its focus elsewhere, lest it become too monomaniacal in its devotion to the Lovecraftian canon (however defined).

Of course, no companion would be complete without adventures. Cthulhu Companion includes four, ranging from the brief to the lengthy. Each of them is unique and illustrates a different aspect of Call of Cthulhu. For example, "Paper Chase" is a short scenario that brings the investigators into contact with a a Mythos being that is not entirely antagonistic – an unusual occurrence! "The Mystery of Loch Feinn," meanwhile, is an example of couching an old legend in Mythos terms. "The Rescue" is a "mundane" horror scenario involving non-Mythos creatures (werewolves), while "The Secret of Castronegro" imagines what a Mythos tale might be like if set in the American Southwest rather than Lovecraft's New England. Even if not used as-is, all the adventures contain plenty of ideas and inspiration the Keeper can use in crafting his own.

Cthulhu Companion is a classic Chaosium product, filled with plenty of imagination and inspiration. Aside from the original boxed set, this is probably the Call of Cthulhu product from which I got the most use back in the day. Even now, paging through, thoughts of a campaign centered around a subterranean expedition in search of blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N'kai – all thanks to the little hints about each mentioned in the Mesoamerican Religion article. It's precisely for that reason that I'm such a big fan of companion books and takes such pleasure in them. Here's hoping we might see more books of this sort in the future!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #42

Issue #42 of White Dwarf (June 1983) is one of a handful of issues for which I have particularly strong memories, in large part because of the two articles that feature on the cover: "Irilian" and "Cthulhu Now!" The magnificent cover by John Blanche also likely played a role, as it nicely incorporates the historical, creepy, and goofy elements I so strongly associate with British fantasy in the '70s and '80s (and that Warhammer honed to perfection). Ian Livingstone's editorial notes that he'd received a certain amount of what he describes as "hate mail" concerning the changes to the magazine's appearance that began with issue #39. Long-time readers apparently preferred the "quaint" look of the earlier issues. As a proud hater of change, this does not surprise me to say the least.

The issue kicks off with the first part of "Cthulhu Now!" by Marcus L. Rowland. The purpose of the article (and the series it inaugurates) is to provide rules additions and expansions to make playing Call of Cthulhu in the 1980s possible. This issue's installment focuses on new skills, firearms, and careers (including rock musician). While I am no longer as enamored of the idea of playing Call of Cthulhu in the present day, I simply adored this article in my youth.

"... to Catch a Thief …" by Graham Staplehurst is an article devoted to crime prevention, detection, and perpetration in Traveller. It consists entirely of new technological items, such as alarms, locks, IDs, and personal gear of various sorts. The article is fine for what it is, though, even in 1983, I felt that the last thing Traveller – and, by extension, most SF RPGs – needed was yet more technological items. "Shamus Gets a Case" by Oliver Dickinson is another tale set in New Pavis featuring Griselda. Like its predecessors, this is a fun story that offers a unique spin on Glorantha's most famous city and its denizens.  

"Open Box" begins with a review of SoloQuest 3: The Snow King's Bride for RuneQuest. The reviewer, Oliver Dickinson, has some minor quibbles with the solo scenario but is otherwise quite pleased with it, giving it a score of 8 out of 10. Marcus Rowland is similarly pleased with two new Fighting Fantasy books, The Citadel of Chaos (9 out of 10) and The Forest of Doom (10 out of 10). I have a particular fondness for The Forest of Doom myself, so this pleases me. On the other hand, FASA's Grav Ball – a game I only know from old advertisements in Dragon and elsewhere – gets a mere 4 out of 10. Neither The Morrow Project nor its scenario, Liberation at Riverton, do much better, earning 5 and 6 out of 10 respectively.   

In his "Critical Mass" column, Dave Langford offers his opinions on the nominees and winners of various science fiction and fantasy awards, including the Hugos. I remember a time when I not only recognized but had read many of the books on such awards lists. Nowadays, like so much else, I have no knowledge of them. "Castles in the Air" by Lewis Pulsipher is a short but interesting article in which he muses about why dungeons might exist in a fantasy setting. In the process, he implicitly raises the equally relevant question of why so many fantasy worlds resemble copies of medieval Europe, despite the presence of magic and monsters that would, for example, obviate the utility of traditional castles. "Careers in Traveller" by Marcus Rowland presents the code for a computer program that will randomly generate Traveller characters – a staple of 1980s gaming magazines.

Daniel Collerton's "Irilian" is the first part of a six-part series describing the titular city of Irilian. Each part includes a scenario that introduces a new aspect or portion of the city, along with additional information about Irilian's society and culture. The first part, in this issue, is mostly an overview of the city, detailing its laws, calendar, diseases, religion, and so on. What stands out is that Collerton makes use of Old English words to name the people and places of Irilian, which gives it a unique flavor. I adored this article in my youth, along with its sequels. I read and re-read them many times and even placed Irilian into one of my old campaign settings.

Phil Masters continues his "Inhuman Gods" series, this time giving us information on the deities of norkers, svirfneblin, and trolls, among others. "Rune Rites" presents "Horses" by Graham Cobley, a collection of RuneQuest game statistics for different breeds of horses. In principle, I've long liked the idea of such details; in practice, though, it's rarely been the case that any player has cared as much as I did. "The Sorceror's [sic] Spell Book" by Gary and Terry Saul is a fairly typical collection of new spells for use with D&D. The only truly memorable one is Valin's Total Inversion, which kills its target by turning him inside out. The spell was quite infamous in many of the gaming circles in which I moved back in my youth and understandably so.

It's difficult for me to be objective about this particular issue, since it was one of my favorites of old. "Irilian" remains the issue's centerpiece and I think it holds up quite well, even after all these years. I look forward to re-reading the next five issues, which further develop the city and its inhabitants.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Grognard's Grimoire: Rashthul

Rashthul (Hive Walker)

A deadly pest of the deserts of sha-Arthan is the rashjalum, a flying, carnivorous insect that dwells in enormous hives. Each hive has a complex society under a single "high queen," protected by several dozen "war queens" that command swarms of insects that search for threats and food. A war queen typically parasitizes a desert-dwelling animal, such as the barkoa land-crab, hijacking its nervous system and mutating its body to serve as a mobile sub-hive from which to attack foes and defend her high queen.

When a war queen parasitizes a Man, the result is a rashthul. Its bones unpredictably mutated into a chitinous exoskeleton and its brain consumed, a rashthul has no will of its own. It exists only as a vehicle for these terrible insects, roaming the deserts of the True World with no purpose other than to destroy whatever its controlling war queen commands.

AC 4 [14], HD 4+1** (19hp), Att 2, 3, or 4 × weapon (1d6 or by weapon), THAC0 15 [+4], MV 90’ (30’), SV D10 V11 P12 B13 S14 (4), ML 10, XP 275, NA 1d6 (2d6), TT Nectar

  • Immunities: Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells. 
  • Half-damage: Suffer only half-damage from sharp and/or edged weapons. 
  • Weapons: 4×1-handed, 2×1-handed and 1×2-handed, or 2×2-handed.
  • Attack multiple opponents: Up to 3 per round.
  • Rashjalum swarm: Automatically damages opponents within a 10' × 10' area surrounding the rashthul: 2hp per round if wearing armor, 4hp without.
  • Warding off: A brandished torch or other source of flame and/or smoke causes the swarm to retreat into the body of the rashthul.
  •  Nectar: 1d4 tamu of medicinal nectar may be found within each rashthul's body. Properly remedied, each tamu heals 1d6 hit points if consumed in its entirety. The presence of this nectar gives the rashthul an oddly sweet smell, detectable within 60'.
A rashthul by Zhu Bajie

Dragonlance is Coming

 From Dragon #82 (February 1984):

Little did we know ... 

Pulp Fantasy Library: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Once again, I stretch the terms "pulp," "fantasy," and perhaps even "library" beyond the breaking point in an effort to write about an entertainment that nevertheless exercised an influence over Dungeons & Dragons. In this particular case, I offer no apologies, since I've been intending to write (again) about the 1974–1975 television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and this space seemed as good a place to do so as any. The show was, along with Star Trek, a favorite of mine as a child – influenced, in both cases, by my paternal aunt, who had a love for things scary and science fictional, hence her also taking me to see Star Wars in June 1977. 

In the early part of this century, a friend gave me a DVD collection of the entire series, whose twenty episodes I've regularly watched and re-watched in the years since. Sadly, the collection was a poor one. The video transfers were grainy and the DVDs themselves were double-sided. It's a cheap, money-saving measure on the part of the manufacturer that all but ensures the discs will eventually become smudged and scratched, as mine eventually did. But I loved the series enough that I suffered through the slow degradation of my discs.

Fortunately, in 2018, a company called Kino Lorber released a high definition restoration of the original 1972 TV movie, also called The Night Stalker, followed soon thereafter of a similar restoration of its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler. These were amazing pieces of work in every possible way and I hoped the company might eventually turn its attention to the television series as well. My wish was granted in the fall of 2021, when Kolchak: The Night Stalker received a similarly lavish HD restoration. It took me a while to get my hands on a copy, but I eventually did, which is why I wanted to write this post.

The original TV movie was based on an unfinished novel by Jeff Rice and adapted by Richard Matheson (best known for I Am Legend and his work on Roger Corman's various Edgar Allan Poe movies from the early 1960s). The movie was, in turn, directed by John Llewellyn Moxie (who'd directed several films starring Christopher Lee) and produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame. Both it and its sequel were presented as straight-up horror movies, albeit with a "crusading reporter" edge that was very relevant to post-Watergate America. 

By contrast, the television series was an odd bird, equal parts horror, comedy, and social commentary. The precise mix of these three elements varied from episode to episode – and sometimes scene to scene – and that's probably why, as a child, I had such a fondness for the show. Though, like most children, I enjoyed being frightened, I nevertheless appreciated the breaks from terror afforded by Darren McGavin's comedic hijinks (and those of the show's terrific guest stars, like Jim Backus, Phil Silver, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, among many, many others). As I've said previously, the show was scary but not too scary

The series only had twenty episodes before it was canceled. Its cancellation was largely the result of Darren McGavin's dissatisfaction with its direction. While many of the people involved with the show wanted it to be more serious and genuinely frightening, McGavin preferred a lighter, more comedic tone. There were thus many behind-the-scenes tussles between the show's star and its production staff regarding the content and feel. This background tension sometimes gives episodes a schizophrenic quality. At other times, though, I think it actually contributes to the success of certain episodes. I also think it's fair to say that Kolchak: The Night Stalker is an "uneven" series, whose high points nevertheless more than make up for its lows.

Among its high points are:
  • "The Zombie," which presents a frightening, Voodoo-inflected version of the zombie (that Holmes references in his D&D Basic Rules)
  • "The Devil's Platform," in which Tom Skerrit plays a politician who's sold his soul to the Devil.
  • "The Spanish Moss Murders," Forbidden Planet's creatures from the id meet Cajun folklore (and the inspiration for a foe in my Dwimmermount campaign)
  • "Horror in the Heights," the episode that introduced Gary Gygax to the rakshasa
  • "Chopper," a story of a headless motorcycle writer, written by Robert Zemeckis
That said, I enjoy even the less well regarded episodes, because many of them contain interesting characters, situations, and characters. And, of course, Darren McGavin is fun to watch. One of the pleasures of the Kino Lorber remastered collection is that each episode includes commentary, often by film and television historians, who shed light on aspects of the show's production and influence. It's fascinating stuff if, like me, you enjoy learning about all the work that goes into making popular entertainment. Likewise, it's remarkable to discover just how many individuals who worked on Kolchak: The Night Stalker would later go on to success later in their careers. 

I may still write further posts on the series in the weeks to come, but, now that I've had the chance to gush a bit about it today, I can resume making more "traditional" posts in this series next week. Thanks for your indulgence.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

More Postal Humor

Since my previous post on this topic was well received, here are three more examples of the humorous fake envelopes included on the White Dwarf letters page, from issues #36, #37, and #38 respectively. While the inspirations for the last two envelopes are obvious to me, the first one eludes me. Can any readers help me make sense of it?

Retrospective: Wizardry

One of the many disadvantages of living in the aftermath of any kind of revolution is failing to appreciate fully just how remarkable were the initial sparks of that revolution. In 2022, computer roleplaying games are now so commonplace as to be unexceptional, even banal, to the point that there's even a widely used – and understood – abbreviation for them, CRPG. That wasn't always the case, though. In the first decade after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, computer technology was still sufficiently primitive that, despite the enthusiastic hopes of many (including Gary Gygax), there was still room for reasonable doubt about the likelihood that a computer program could ever translate the experience of playing a roleplaying game into a digital format.

Along came Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord in September 1981 to send the naysayers packing. Certainly there had been other computer RPG programs before Wizardry. Just a few months prior, in June 1981, the original Ultima was released to great acclaim – and before both of them there were The Temple of Apshai and Akalabeth: World of Doom (the latter a kind of "rough draft" of Ultima), not to mention numerous simple dungeon crawlers and text-based games. However, none of these enjoyed the same kind of initial success or influence as Wizardry (though good arguments can be made in favor of Ultima's longer shadow over the development of subsequent computer games and genres). Since this post is from my point of view, I feel quite justified in focusing on Wizardry, since it was, along with Telengard, the first computer roleplaying game I ever played.

Like so many early computer RPGs – or, frankly, most computer RPGs ever Wizardry takes its cues from Dungeons & Dragons. Characters may be of the standard four classes (fighter, priest, mage, thief) and five races (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, and hobbit). A simple three-way alignment system is also present, though rather than chaos, law, and neutrality, it's evil, good, and neutrality. Characters also have six attributes (Strength, IQ, Piety, Vitality, Agility, and Luck) that, while somewhat different from their D&D counterparts, are obviously inspired by them. Interestingly, the game introduces the idea of "elite classes," which are somewhat similar in concept to the Third Edition D&D notion of prestige classes. For example, there's a class called a "lord" that is open to good fighters of high enough attributes. If a fighter meets all the requirements, he gains the ability to cast priest spells, much like a paladin in D&D. 

The premise of the game is that an evil wizard, Werdna – Andrew spelled backwards and derived from the name of one of the game's creator, Andrew Greenberg – has stolen a magical amulet from the titular Mad Overlord, Trebor, and used its power to create a vast maze beneath Trebor's castle. This maze consists of ten levels of increasing complexity and difficulty. Trebor now recruits adventurers willing to brave the maze and face Werdna, which is where the player's characters come in. The player creates a party of six characters to explore the dungeon, locate its treasures, and increase in level as they do so. It's a very thin premise, but probably no more so than many early D&D campaigns. Indeed, I suspect a big part of Wizardry's appeal was how similar it was, both conceptually and mechanically, to Dungeons & Dragons, then and now the most popular fantasy RPG.

Like so many early computer roleplaying games, Wizardry was unforgiving. There was no ability to map within the game itself, meaning that a player, if he didn't wish to become lost, had to create his own map using paper and pencil, just like in "real" D&D. Also like real D&D, Werdna's mazes are filled with hidden doors, one-way doors, magical seals, and teleportation traps. These frustrate attempts to create an accurate map, This is in addition to the various monsters and other hazards that exist on each level. Wizardry did not allow the player to save his progress within the dungeon. Neither could a character gain a new level. To do either, the characters had to exit the dungeon and return to the safety of the Adventurer's Inn on the surface. Making one's way through the dungeon is extremely tense, since failure had genuine consequences. This is especially true in the deeper levels, since exiting them took a lot of time and effort and there was always a chance one might encounter more monsters along the way.

By today's standards, Wizardry is primitive, both in terms of its graphical presentation and gameplay. Even the simplest, most basic computer RPG of the 21st century is lightyears ahead of Wizardry when it comes to its rules and graphics. Yet, for all that, I don't think I've encountered a contemporary CRPG that has held my attention quite as powerfully as did Wizardry. Neither have I found one that struck the right balance between risk and reward, frustration and joy. Doing well in Wizardry took patience, cleverness, and not a little bit of luck, much D&D did back in those days. Succeeding felt like a genuine accomplishment and you quickly learned to cherish characters that survived more than a couple expeditions into the maze – and felt loss at their inevitable demise. Wizardry was by no means perfect – what game is? – but it was a hell of a lot of fun. I still look back on the many hours I spent hunched over my friend's Apple II playing with great fondness.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Postal Humor

I'm not completely certain when the practice began – I should probably scour through my back issues to check – but I can't help but find the fake envelopes that graced the White Dwarf letters page amusing. Here are some representative examples from issues #39, #40, and #41 respectively. I'll try to pay closer attention to them when I re-read each new issue, in case there are more that are worthy of sharing.

White Dwarf: Issue #41

My memory of White Dwarf is of a magazine whose articles were largely devoted to Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, and RuneQuest (and, later, Call of Cthulhu), hence my great enjoyment of it. This estimation is especially true of issue #41 (May 1983), which includes material for all three of those RPGs (CoC material is in the near future, however). John Harris provides the issue's cover illustration, another science fiction piece of the sort that, to my recollection at least, was much more common for White Dwarf than for Dragon. 

Ian Livingstone's editorial mentions the closures of both SPI and Heritage Models as evidence that the faddishness of roleplaying and wargaming may be fading. He opines that, in the 1970s, it was much easier for a company "to churn out mediocre games" and not suffer financially as a consequence. In the '80s, though, businesses that engage in such behavior is no longer sustainable as consumers become more selective in their purchases. There's definitely some truth to what he says, though, at least in the case of SPI, its demise was partly due to enemy action by TSR. Still, it's useful to be reminded of the cyclical nature of the hobby's popularity.

"Battle Plan!" by Allan E. Paull is an adjunct to last issue's "Dungeon Master General" article, in which he offered up a simple mass combat system for use with D&D. This time he presents both game statistics and tactical information for the armies of dwarves, elves, kobolds, and orcs. Not having made use of Paull's rules, I don't know how well they work in play, but the information he provides in this article strikes me as quite helpful. Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" takes a look at several novels of the time, the only one of which that I recall ever reading is Frank Herbert's The White Plague. Langford likes the novel, with some reservations, which, in my opinion, is a blanket statement that could be applied to most of the author's oeuvre.

"Open Box" reviews three products, starting with GDW's The Solomani Rim. Reviewer Andy Slack likes it better than The Spinward Marches, giving it 9 out of 10. In large part, his preference relates to the much higher production values and ease of use in the later product. Marcus L. Rowland reviews Yaquinto's Man, Myth, & Magic, along with its first two adventures, Death to Setanta and The Kingdom of the Sidhe. He didn't think too highly of any of them, giving them ratings of 5, 4, and 6 out of 10 respectively. Finally, there's a review of FGU's Star Explorer, a boardgame derived from its RPG, Starships & Spacemen. The reviewer, Allan E. Paull, found the game fun and well balanced, giving it a 9 out of 10.

"A Tasty Morsel" by Oliver Dickinson is another installment in his series of Gloranthan fiction, in which he tells the story of Griselda's exploits in New Pavis. Like most of these stories, it's quite enjoyable, particularly if you like Glorantha or picaresque tales. "Sorcerous Symbols" by Peter Hine is a fascinating article devoted to introducing magical marks and sigils into D&D as an alternative to scrolls and other expendable magic items. Hine presents not only examples of such sigils but a system for producing them, including the costs and time required to do so. It's a solid set of variant rules that a referee might find useful in certain types of campaigns.

"The Snowbird Mystery" by Andy Slack is an espionage-related adventure for Traveller. The scenario makes use of both the Explorer Class Scoutship introduced in issue #40 but also an accompanying article, "The Covert Survey Bureau." The Bureau is an Imperial spy agency that occasionally makes use of freelance operatives, hence their utility in an ongoing Traveller campaign. The adventure itself revolves around a corrupt governor's efforts to hide his illicit activities from the Empire, as well as a rivalry between the CSB and Naval Counter Intelligence. The resulting adventure is quite complex and includes plenty of scope for further development.

"Unarmed Combat II" by Oliver Dickinson is based on a collection of submissions and comments by readers regarding the best ways to expand and further develop unarmed combat in RuneQuest. It's an interesting article in that it doesn't settle on a single approach, but instead offers a number of options from which to choose. Being something of a rules tinkerer myself, I can't help but appreciate this approach. "Assignment: Freeway Deathride!" by Marcus L. Rowland is a scenario for use with Car Wars, a game I don't recall seeing supported much in the pages of White Dwarf.

Part III of "Inhuman Gods" by Phil Masters offers up yet more monstrous deities, like the lava children and grimlocks of the Fiend Folio. I don't wish to be too critical of this series, because I know I would have adored it as a younger person. From the vantage point of today, though, I nevertheless question its utility, especially for the more obscure (and rarely used) monsters of AD&D. Inspired by the movie, TRON, Paul McCree has penned "Discs as Weapons in AD&D," which does just that. He presents eight magical disc-shaped throwing weapons, a few of which have unique uses and effects. The biggest takeaway from this article for me, though, is a reminder of just how much of the content of D&D and other RPGs depends on "borrowing" from other media. The hobby is and always has been a creative goulash.

Issue #41 certainly held my attention, anchored by its superb Traveller material. As I have no doubt said on several occasions previously, White Dwarf published some of the best Traveller material outside of GDW's own. If you were a huge fan of the game as I was (and am), this was frequently a must-have periodical. I look forward to seeing more such material in coming issues, along with support for some of my other favorite RPGs. Speaking only for myself, we are entering the Golden Age of White Dwarf.  

Monday, July 4, 2022

Rod Serling and CAS

I've often remarked on this blog how rare it is for the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard to receive good adaptations in visual media and I think I'm more than justified in saying so, but at least HPL and REH got adaptations, no matter how poor. The same cannot be said for Clark Ashton Smith, whose pulp fantasies have left almost no footprint in contemporary popular culture, despite his being one of the most popular and influential writers to have written for Weird Tales during the Golden Age of the Pulps. 

Of course, "almost no footprint" is not the same as "no footprint." As it turns out, one of Clark Ashton Smith's stories has been adapted – and by Rod Serling no less. During the third season of his 1970–1973 television anthology series, Night Gallery, there was an episode that adapted, albeit loosely, Smith's 1931 tale, "The Return of the Sorcerer." Compared to the groundbreaking The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery is somewhat more uneven in quality. However, it does feature a number of genuinely excellent episodes, most which focus on horror or occult subjects, thus giving the series a different overall tone to its illustrious predecessor.

Though "The Return of the Sorcerer" is not one of the show's best episodes, let alone a completely faithful adaptation, it's not without its charms. The primary one is the performance of Vincent Price as John Carnby, the story's titular sorcerer. Price is always a pleasure to watch, even (especially?) when he's hamming it up, as he does here. Bill Bixby plays the translator of Arabic whom Carnby hires (called Ogden in Smith's original and Noel Evans here) to help him decipher a passage from the Necronomicon. The broad outline of the story is the same as its source material, though there are a number of additions that serve no real purpose. Chief among them is the creation of a new character, Fern (Tisha Sterling), who is Carnby's assistant and whose sole purpose in the TV narrative is to add some titillation. I find that odd, because if any Weird Tales author knew when to make good use of sensuality, it was Clark Ashton Smith and he saw no need of it here.

As adaptations go, it's not the worst. It's certainly closer to its source than, say, Conan the Barbarian, but it's nevertheless not something I'd urge anyone to seek out. The episode is more of an oddity than anything else, a unique example of Hollywood taking notice of Smith. Given the treatment Lovecraft and Howard have received over the years, perhaps it's just as well that the Bard of Auburn has largely been ignored.

The Mass Combat Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Though I was (eventually) an avid reader of White Dwarf, my direct experience with most of Games Workshop's other products was quite limited. I largely missed out on games like Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play until many years after the fact and even then my experience of it was cursory. That said, I do remember quite vividly the original marketing campaign for the very first edition of Warhammer, featuring the advertisement below.

Though I never bought the game – primarily because I never saw it in any of the hobby shops I frequented – I was nevertheless greatly intrigued by it. Warhammer's subtitle of "the mass combat fantasy role-playing game" intrigued me greatly. Around the time this was released (1983), I had begun to see a need for a stronger integration between personal and mass combat in roleplaying games. Consequently, Warhammer caught my attention. Had I been able to find a copy locally sooner, I likely would bought a copy. By the time I could, I had already read the lukewarm reviews of it in Dragon and so decided to pass on it. I now rather regret that, since that original edition is probably the only one whose complexity is within the range my feeble brain can handle. Ah, well!

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Blade of the Slayer

An aspect of the Golden Age of the Pulps I find especially congenial is the freedom with which its authors borrowed from and included homages to the works of their comrades. H.P. Lovecraft famously encouraged his fellow Weird Tales fictioneers to take whatever they wished from his tales and make use of them as they saw fit; he, in turn, did the same. It was all in good fun and speaks to the easy collegiality of those bygone days (something that, perhaps unsurprisingly, reminds me of the early days of the Old School Renaissance as well). 

I was reminded of this when I recently re-read "The Blade of the Slayer," the fourth of Richard L. Tierney's Cthulhu Mythos-tinged historical fantasies featuring Samaritan gladiator-turned-Gnostic-magician Simon of Gitta. The tale originally appeared in the first issue of Pulse Pounding Adventure Stories (December 1986), a fanzine produced by Cryptic Publications that featured artwork by Stephen Fabian. The 'zine was very short-lived, with only two issues, the second of which (released in December 1987) also included another Simon of Gitta yarn.

"The Blade of the Slayer" takes place in January, A.D. 32, which is relatively early in the career of Simon, as he travels through Parthia on the run from the agents of Rome. The story's action picks up quickly, with Simon evading a band of cutthroats in the desert. While attempting to hide, he encounters an old man, "tall and white-bearded, clad in a dark greenish robe inscribed with the symbols of the Persian Magi." 

"Ho, stranger." The voice of the old man was nearly as thin as the cold wind. "Why do you come here to the site of the First City?"

"The–what?" Simon rose from his fighting crouch and approached the old man cautiously. "What are you talking about–?"

"And you have not heard that the spirit of the First Slayer, who founded it, still lingers about this ridgetop, waiting for unwary strayers?"

Simon glanced about at the numerous worn boulders, at the dry grasses blowing under the chill wind. "Aye, I've heard such tales. But, surely, no city ever stood here–"

"The legend is true. No outsider is safe in this place. You must go."

Simon is more concerned with his immediate safety and so is not put off by the warnings of the Magus. He beseeches the old man to hide for a short time, assuring him he has no interest in anything else. The old man relents, leading him into "a small room carved from the living rock and meagerly furnished with a cot, a wooden table, and two stools." He offers Simon some food, but again warns him about the spirit of the First Slayer, which the old man claims will overwhelm the Samaritan without magical protection. Simon scoffs and boasts that he, too, "[has] been trained in magical arts by Parthia's very own Magi."

"Aye, I know you now," said the oldster, his manner becoming a bit less suspicious. "You are Simon of Gitta, a pupil of the Archimage Daramos. I saw you several months ago, when I and several other priests of my order visited Daramos in Persepolis. Daramos mentioned to us that you were his most accomplished adept."

Simon, too, relaxed a bit more. "Thank you. But your memory is better than mine. I recall your visit, but not your name–"

"I am K'shasthra, priest of the Order of the High Guardians. At least one adept of our Order is always stationed here to guard the secret that–that for now must be kept from mankind. We have kept guard thusly for nearly two years. So much I may reveal to you, who have already been initiated into many secrets of the Magi. Perhaps I shall tell you more–but only with the understanding that the outer world must never know, until the Order has decided that the time is right."

In time, K'shasthra recognizes Simon as a powerful ally and agrees to reveal the secret his Order hides from the rest of mankind. The cave in which the old man dwells is part of a series of underground chambers that were dug beneath the First City, reduced to dust after thousands of years. Despite its name, the First City was actually "a walled fortress, founded by the First Slayer in fear of many who, fired by his example, sought to pursue and slay him."

"But the Slayer was under the curse of the great world-creator Achamoth," K'shasthra went on, "–the Demiurge who has fashioned the First Men to serve him. For his rebellion a Mark was set upon the Slayer; all who saw it shunned him in fear, and he was cursed to leave his city to his followers and wander forever over the face of the earth, hating and slaying, spreading new hatred and death."

"You mean," gasped Simon, "–this was–the city of Enoch …?" 

The strength of the Simon of Gitta stories is the way that Tierney deftly blends the history, myths, and religions of the ancient world – including those of the Bible, as in this case – with all manner of occult and Lovecraftian nuttery to present compelling, almost Howardian tales of blood and thunder. Likewise, Tierney regularly engages in the same kinds of borrowings, homages, and in-jokes as his Weird Tales forebears. In this particular case, he does more than simply have Simon's saga intersect with that of the Biblical first murderer. He brings him into contact with another pulp fantasy character inspired by those same stories. The result is every bit as fun as those of Lovecraft, Howard, or Smith, hence my fondness for "The Blade of the Slayer."

The saga of Simon of Gitta has long been out of print. Fortunately, Pickman's Press has collected them all into a single volume very recently and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in this unusual series of sword-and-sandal stories.