Thursday, August 18, 2022

"No Game is Worth Dying For ..."

The disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III on August 15, 1979 plays an important role in both the history of Dungeons & Dragons and in my own personal history of involvement in the hobby of roleplaying. The media hoopla surrounding what became known as the "steam tunnels incident" brought D&D to the attention of the American public for the first time and, with it, fears that the game was somehow "dangerous" to those who played it. 

For that reason, it's unsurprising that Tim Kask, editor of Dragon at the time, would pen a lengthy editorial in issue #30 (October 1979), in which he talks about recent events and D&D's purported role in them. Kask is clearheaded and direct: the involvement of D&D in Egbert's disappearance is a mere speculation based on minimal evidence. As we would later learn, D&D played no significant role in this incident and all of the wild tales told about the game and its supposedly baleful effects upon its players were hogwash.

I've reproduced the entirety of Kask's editorial below. It's certainly held up better than the yellow journalism of 60 Minutes, which credulously accepted the unsubstantiated claims of Patricia Pulling. While I personally never experienced any disapproval from family or friends regarding D&D – quite the contrary, in fact – I know many people did. That's why I think it's still important to set the record straight about the events of August 1979 more than four decades later. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

"Abandonment of D&D"

The publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979 completed the rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This event was heralded in the pages of Dragon by numerous articles and essays by people associated with the project, most importantly Gary Gygax, its chief designer. If the letters to the editor that appeared in the following months are any indication, not every Dungeons & Dragons player greeted this news with pleasure. Indeed, there seems to have been some anxiety on the part of some D&D players, who felt that Gygax was not simply "abandoning" his first RPG, but also belittling its players. From the vantage point of the present, these concerns remind me a bit of those voiced by players of other editions of D&D upon learning of a new edition of the game on the horizon. I guess some things never change! 

In the case of AD&D's arrival, it's clear that Gygax's use of "non-game" and similar terms to describe OD&D raised some hackles, as evidenced by letters to the editor in the pages of Dragon. In one case (issue #30, October 1979), such a letter prompted the following response from one of the editors of Dragon (either Tim Kask or Gary Jaquet). The response is fascinating, not just because of its obvious intent assuage concerns about AD&D, but also what it says about the state of the hobby at the time.

Retrospective: Steve Jackson's Sorcery!

I've opined before that the Fighting Fantasy series of solitaire gamebooks must have been very successful for both Penguin/Puffin Books and creators Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Between 1982 and 1995, fifty-nine FF books appeared, penned by many different authors (including a few, as it turns out, by Jackson's American namesake). I read and enjoyed several of them upon their initial release; they were a great way to pass the time when I was unable to get together with my gaming buddies in person. Consequently, I generally looked on the series as a "diversion" rather than a "real" game (something that it arguably didn't become until the publication of Advanced Fighting Fantasy in 1989).

That said, the publication of the first book of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! in 1983 certainly got my attention. Though not explicitly marketed as part of the Fighting Fantasy series, it nevertheless used the same basic game mechanics and format. This made it very easy for readers already familiar with the main FF line to make use of it without too much trouble. However, Sorcery! introduces a number of innovations that set it apart from its predecessors and convinced me that I should give it a go.

To begin with, the story Sorcery! is presented in four different books. Each volume is theoretically playable without reference to the others, but, taken together, the four books forms a continuous narrative that builds on what came before. Rather than rolling up a new character for each book, as one did in other Fighting Fantasy books, the reader of Sorcery! can use the same character from book to book – assuming he survives, of course. This continuity of character might not seem like a big deal, but, at the time, it certainly was. I don't believe any other Fighting Fantasy book did this and the Lone Wolf series, which was quite similar to Sorcery! in this respect, would not appear until 1984.

Another innovation of this series was the capacity to play either a warrior or a wizard. A warrior character was in no way different from the character one typically played in FF books. A wizard, meanwhile, was a rather different experience, thanks in no small part to The Sorcery Spell Book companion volume. The Spell Book describes forty-eight different spells for use with the gamebooks. Each spell had a three-letter name, such as ZAP, which created a lightning bolt or SIX, which created a mirror image of the caster. Spells cost Stamina to cast, limiting the number a wizard could use in the course of a book, since Stamina doubles as your character's hit points. 

More interestingly, the player of a wizard is expected to study the spell book and commit as many of its three-letter spell codes to memory as possible before playing through any of the other books. Referring to the book during play or writing down any of the codes is tantamount to cheating. It's an interesting and immersive way of balancing the use of magic in Sorcery! and I must say I thought it was quite clever when I first encountered it (though I will sheepishly admit to having peaked at the Spell Book occasionally in my initial playthroughs). 

In addition to the Spell Book, Sorcery! consists of four gamebooks: The Shamutanti Hills, Kharé – Cityport of Traps, The Seven Serpents, and The Crown of Kings. Together, they present the situation in which the reader's character finds himself. An evil archmage has stolen an ancient magical artifact known as the Crown of Kings. The Crown grants its wearer supernatural charisma. The archmage intends to make use of it to unite a lawless region under his control and then launch an attack against the civilized nations of the Old World. The reader's character sets out to stop him; his journey takes place over the course of the four books of the series, with each one presenting another portion of it before he finally confronts the archmage in his home territory. 

In terms of its story, Steve Jackson's Sorcery! is nothing special – a salmagundi of fantasy tropes and clichés that we've all seen many times before. However, their presentation is strangely evocative, helped in no small part by the moody artwork of John Blanche, who'd later go on to define much of the world of Warhammer for Games Workshop. Indeed, there are places here and there in Sorcery! where you can catch glimpses of Warhammer before the fact, so the series is of lasting interest from a historical point of view as well. Of course, it's also fun as a gamebook, too. Almost forty years on, I still look back on it very fondly. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

White Dwarf Needs You

White Dwarf: Issue #46

Issue #46 of White Dwarf (October 1983), with its striking cover by Gary Mayes, is one I owned but about which I have few strong memories. I'm not entirely sure why that is, because it's not a bad issue by any means. Were I to guess, I imagine it has more to do with the fact that many of its preceding issues are simply so good that, by comparison, it seems less remarkable. That's actually a fairly common problem during the early '80s when it comes to RPG products more generally: there was a surfeit of good material being published at the time, so much so that it's easy to overlook some of it in retrospect.

Phil Palmer's "Strangers in the Night" kicks off the issue. It's an article devoted to the subject of wandering monsters in AD&D. Palmer's musing on the matter are quite good in my opinion, emphasizing the need to tailor wandering monster tables to the locale to which they're connected, as well as the utility of including random events among their entries. This isn't groundbreaking advice by any means, but it's the kind of thing that gets overlooked, even by experienced referees, so I appreciate his discussion of it.

"Open Box" offers up lengthy reviews of three products, starting with the RuneQuest Companion, which earns an 8 out of 10. Also reviewed is the second edition of FGU's Chivalry & Sorcery. This, too, receives a rating of 8 out of 10, which surprised me somewhat. C&S has a deserved reputation for being quite complex and I assumed that would be held against the game. However, C&S also has a lot of genuinely clever ideas within its pages (e.g. its magic system) and the reviewer felt that those ideas more than outweighed its mechanical unwieldiness. Finally, there's the Mayfair boardgame Sanctuary, based on the Thieves' World series, which received a 7 out of 10. 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" column is very hit or miss with me, in part because the books he reviews vary considerably in content. That's completely understandable, of course. However, it does mean, especially when I re-read these columns, that my interest is often commensurate with whether I've read the books in question. Since this issue's column doesn't include a single book I can recall having read, I'll confess to my eyes glazing over a bit. Apologies to all the Langford fans out there! 

Charles Vasey looks at two fantasy boardgames at some length, Dragonhunt and Titan, both from Avalon Hill. Vasey likes both games, though he gives Titan a slight edge in terms of its design. On the other hand, Dragonhunt seems to him to be more truly fantastical in terms of its presentation and overall subject matter. I own a copy of Dragonhunt, but have never played it, so I can't speak to his claims. I've sadly never set eyes upon Titan, a game that interests me, since it was designed by the late, great TSR artist, Dave Trampier. 

Part 3 of Dave Morris's "Dealing with Demons" is the finale of this series describing demons for use with RuneQuest. It's a very good entry for the same reason that Part 2 was: the demons detailed here are wholly original creations without any basis in existing folklore or mythology. I appreciate the creativity that went into imagining these dark beings, not to mention his enumeration of the books and authors that inspired him. "Worldly Power" by Phil Masters presents a handful of new government types for use with the Traveller world generation system, along with a few adventure seeds that make use of them. This is a perfectly fine article. However, as a Traveller snob, I find most of the material unnecessary, since the existing Traveller government codes can handle nearly all of those Masters proposes without the need for creating new codes.

"The Wizard's Library" by Lewis Pulsipher is a genuinely interesting article. In it, he proposes to look for inspiration for RPGs in non-RPG books. Hardly revolution, you might say and you'd be correct if the books he proposes to use were fiction. Instead, he suggests looking to non-fiction books, such as history, archeology, and architecture books, among others. Like so many things Pulsipher writes, none of this is revolutionary but it's clever nonetheless and might serve as a source of unlikely inspiration for harried referees looking to spice up their campaigns.

Part 5 of Daniel Collerton's "Irilian" presents yet another section of the city, complete with a map, along with an adventure set in this area. The focus this time is on guilds, companies, and societies within the city. There's also a full map of a wizard tower that plays an important role in the accompanying scenario. As with previous entries, this is all very well done and its true value lies not so much in any individual installment as in the piling up of details that lead to a fuller picture of Irilian and its inhabitants. As I believe I mentioned before, in my youth, I found Irilian so well done that I dropped it right into my old campaign setting, albeit under a different name. This is an excellent series and proof of why White Dwarf was such a terrific magazine once upon a time.

"Play-by-Mail Games" by A.D. Young is an overview of computer-moderated PBM games, which, apparently, was a new and interesting thing at the time. Though I never participated in any PBM games, despite my interest, I (again) must confess that this article never got my full attention. That's not a comment on its quality, so much as its age. Neither of the games discussed – Empyrean and Heroic Fantasy – ever crossed my radar back in the day and neither sounds sufficiently interesting even as historical curiosities, alas.

We get more Thrud, The Travellers, and Gobbledigook, which makes me happy, especially the first two comics. "Death in Green" is a D&D/AD&D mini-scenario dealing with yet another secluded rural village that has come under attack by unknown forces. In this case, the forces are a variety of plant monsters – six kinds in fact – that are this month's "Fiend Factory" entries. "Swashbuckler!," meanwhile, is a collection of rules suggestions for spicing up combat in RuneQuest with moves worthy of Errol Flynn. Finally, there's "The Hellwalk Spell" by Lewis Pulsipher. Inspired by Roger Zelazny's Amber series, the spell transports its target to a pocket dimension, where they must engage in combat against random foes. As a one-off challenge, this could be fun, I suppose. However, I think it would get tedious if it were used too often in a game.

As you can see, this is a perfectly fine issue, filled with a variety of different articles for many different games. Unfortunately, with the exception of the latest Irilian entry, none of them really grabbed my attention in the way previous issues' articles did.  Though I stand by the theory I advanced at the beginning of this post, another possibility occurs to me. During this period, White Dwarf was rapidly expanding, adding more content with each issue, including several new columns devoted to other aspects of gaming beyond roleplaying. It could be that the addition of these new pages diluted the perceived goodness of the other articles to such an extent that I no longer saw some issues as being as good as they actually were. I'll keep this in mind as I look at future issues.

Monday, August 15, 2022

"The Last Word on Dwarven Women's Beards"

The issue of whether or not female dwarves have beards is a longstanding one in the hobby. It has its roots in Appendix A of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which says of dwarf women that "They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart." Some readers assert this statement is ambiguous, though it seems pretty clear to me.

Of course, whether or not dwarf women have beards in Middle-earth doesn't have much bearing on whether or not they do in Dungeons & Dragons – just ask Gary Gygax. In issue #41 of Dragon (September 1980), in response to a letter to the editor, Gygax said the following:

I don't claim to be an expert in Teutonic and Norse mythology, but, based on my reading, I'm hard pressed to recall a single instance of a female dwarf, bearded or otherwise. Consequently, I can't help but feel that Gygax is being disingenuous when he claims that D&D's bearded female dwarves are derived solely from mythology – and I say this as someone who's generally sympathetic to his claims elsewhere that D&D and The Lord of the Rings don't mix well. Am I missing something? Is there, in fact, a mythological basis for bearded dwarf women or Gygax simply trying to obfuscate the matter?

Who's This?

For a long time, Dragon ran an advertisement that featured the following image:

Since the ad was for subscriptions to Dragon, I've always assumed, perhaps falsely, that the fellow in the photo was a staff member of either the magazine or TSR, but I have no firm basis for that assumption. In any case, I'm prevailing upon readers more knowledgeable than I to help me determine the would-be jumper's identity. Is he perhaps Tom Wham, creator of Snit's Revenge? Or is he someone else?

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vandy, Vandy

In the years since I first started writing this series, I've developed a great deal of affection for certain writers, some of whom are not very well known today. Among their number is Manly Wade Wellman. Though included in Appendix N, Gary Gygax didn't specify which of Wellman's stories, books, or series he felt had had the most "immediate influence" upon him. That's too bad, because it makes it much more difficult, I think, for those interested in tracing the creative genealogy of Dungeons & Dragons to home in on writers and tales of particular significance. 

Though Wellman had a very long and prolific career as a writer – primarily of short fiction – if I had to hazard a guess as to which of his many creations might have had a strong influence over Gary Gygax's imagination, I'd certainly select John the Balladeer, sometimes called Silver John, after the silver strings of the guitar he carries with him everywhere. John is a traveling singer, who wanders the Appalachian Mountains, where he encounters all manner of supernatural beings and witchcraft drawn from the legends of the region. Wellman's stories of John are generally short in length but long in staying power. They read like genuine folktales of rural America and they never disappoint.

"Vandy, Vandy" is a perfect example of what I mean. First appearing in the March 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where much of Wellman's work appeared during the '50s), the story concerns John's visit to "that valley [that] hadn't any name" where "no lumberman had ever cut the thick, big old trees." Near sunset, John comes a family playing music and dancing outside their secluded cabin. Naturally, their somewhat suspicious of the unexpected arrival of a stranger, even one as seemingly friendly as John. He asks for a place to sleep and the eldest of them, "a long-bearded old man with one suspender and no shoes" suggests that he go elsewhere to find a place "to stretch out."

John tries another approach.

"I heard you all playing first part of Fire in the Mountains."

"Is they two parts?" That was the boy, before anyone could silence him.

"Sure enough, son," I said, "Let me show you the second part."

The old man opened his beard, likely to say wait till I was asked, but I strummed my own guitar into second part, best I knew how. Then I played the first part through, and, "You sure God can pick that," said the short-bearded one. "Do it again."

This wins the family over and the old man, who identifies himself as Tewk Millen, invites John to have a dinner of "smoke meat and beans" with his family, which consists of his son, his daughter-in-law, and their son, along with his own wife and daughter. The daughter, who had "her hair like yellow corn silk and … eyes like purple violets" is named Vandy. Her name attracts John's attention.

"Vandy?" I said after her father.

Shy, she dimpled at me. "I know it's a scarce name, Mr. John, I never heard it anywhere but among my kinfolks."

"I have," I said, "and it's what brought me here."

Mr. Tewk Millen looked funny above his whiskers. "Thought you said you was a young stranger man."

"I heard the name outside in a song, sir. Somebody allowed the song's known here. I'm a singer. I go after a good song."

The song tells the story of a rich man who comes to court a young woman named Vandy. He promises her "gold and silver," "a house and land," and "a world of pleasure," but she nevertheless rejects him, saying she already has a sweetheart, "a man who's in the army" and has been away for "seven long year." The Millens claim the song is a very old one, passed down in their family from generation to generation. They perform it for John, who observes that 

the notes were put together strangely, in what schooled folks call minors. But other folks, better schooled yet, say such tunes sound strange and lonesome because in old times folks had another note scale from out do-re-mi-fa today.

The performance is interrupted by the sudden appearance of another man, one who bears a gold-headed black cane. 

He was built spry and slim, with a long coat buttoned to his pointed chin, and brown pants tucked into elastic-sided boots, like what your grandsire had. His hands on the cane looked slim and strong. His face, bar its crooked smile, might be handsome. His dark brown hair curled like buffalo wool, and his eyes were the shiny pale gray of a new knife. Their gaze crawled all over the Millens and he laughed a slow, soft laugh.

The family treats the man, whom we learn is called Mr. Loden, with respect born out of fear and offer him a place to sit, as well as an offer to stay for dinner. Mr. Loden plays the part of a gracious guest, but it's clear the family is uncomfortable around him, "nervous as a boy stealing apples." He brings gifts for everyone present – except John, whom he is surprised to see – including a necklace for Vandy, whom he begs to "let it rest on your heart, that I may envy it."

Mr. Loden doesn't like John, though he behaves politely toward him. For his part, John is skeptical of Mr. Loden and his interest in Vandy. He also sees the effect his presence has had on the Millens.

The menfolks sat outside and said nothing. They might have been nailed down, with stones in their mouths. I studied about what could make a proud, honorable mountain family so scared of a guest I knew it was only the one thing. And that one thing wouldn't just be a natural thing. It would be a thing beyond nature or the world. 

John is right, of course, as he usually is and the remainder of the short story deals with the revelation of Mr. Loden's true identity and intentions. Fortunately for the Millens, John has learned a thing or two about dealing with things "beyond nature or the world" in his travels. He's a great example of how a bard might work in Dungeons & Dragons – a wandering entertainer who recognizes how much wisdom and knowledge are hidden in ancient traditions and folklore and uses them to good ends. John the Balladeer is a terrific character and all of his adventures are worth a read, but "Vandy. Vandy" is an especially good one in my opinion. Seek it out, if you can.

Saturday, August 13, 2022


With reference to the eternal questions of what's "official" and the nature of OD&D as a "non-game," we have the following letter to the editor, which appeared in issue #43 of Dragon (November 1980), along with a response by Gary Gygax. Both the original letter and Gygax's reply cover several different topics, but the central point at issue in both are the differences between OD&D and AD&D and how those differences play out with regards to the interpretation of rules and the addition of new material. As I've explained often, I don't have much interest in Gygaxian AD&D these days, but doesn't change the fact that AD&D was avowedly "aimed at uniformity of play," as stated below. One can agree or disagree with this goal; what one can't do is deny it.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Calling All Teachers

A month after a seeking out "real-life clerics" in the pages of Dragon, the following ad appeared in issue #41 of Dragon (September 1980). Like its predecessor, I can only assume that it was part of a public relations campaign intended to counter all the negative claims about Dungeons & Dragons and its effects on young people.

Sage Smackdown

The "Sage Advice" column of Dragon was often of interest to me in my youth, largely because I wanted to know the "right" way to interpret the rules of D&D and (especially) AD&D. While Jean Wells acted as the magazine's Sage, there was a certain semantic bluntness to many of her replies. Take, for example, this one from issue #39 (July 1980): 

Wells minces no words about the fact that, in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is no such thing as either a lawful neutral or a dwarf paladin. How could she say otherwise? The entire purpose of the "Sage Advice" column was to present the "official" answer to readers' questions and that's the official answer. If you wish to play AD&D by the book, as Gygax intended, you don't allow either lawful neutral or dwarf paladins in your campaign. End of story.

Of course, that raises another question: do you wish to play AD&D by the book? In my experience, not many people did, mostly out of an unwillingness to be bound by each and every rule presented in the rulebooks, some of which were, I don't think it can be denied, difficult to understand. I know it's popular in some circles to suggest that AD&D simply cannot be played "by the book," should one be desirous to do so. I don't think that's true at all, though, as I said, I rarely encountered instances of it. Even now, I suspect it's quite uncommon among all but the most dedicated referees and players.

I don't see this as good or bad one way or the other. I think there are benefits and drawbacks of strict "by the book" play, just as there are benefits and drawbacks of more flexible (for lack of a better word) approaches to the game. Mind you, I am temperamentally much better suited to the "non-game" of Original D&D than the highly structured baroqueness of AD&D, so perhaps I am not fit to judge the matter. I can only say that, while my younger self, cared deeply about playing the game the "right" way, nowadays, I care more about playing it my way.

Retrospective: Lathan's Gold

Lately, I've found myself strangely interested in historical attempts by game companies to produce solo or small-group roleplaying adventures. This is a field pioneered by Tunnels & Trolls, whose Buffalo Castle is, I think, the first example of a "solitaire dungeon" in the hobby. (If I am mistaken in this surmise, I am sure my readers will let me know in the comments.) Other companies followed suit, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in the following years. However, I don't think it was until the success of the Fighting Fantasy series – which I suspect was very successful indeed – that TSR put much effort into solo gaming and, even then, the approach was scattershot and frequently gimmicky

One of the better examples of TSR's forays into this market is 1984's Lathan's Gold, written by Merle M. Rasmussen. Rasmussen is perhaps best known for having designed Top Secret, but it's worth noting that, in the very same year as Lathan's Gold, he also penned Midnight on Dagger Alley, another solo adventure, albeit employing a rather different approach. In fact, Lathan's Gold evinces a rather different approach in a number of areas, which might explain why I think much more highly of this solitaire module than I do of others of its kind, as I'll explain.

One of my biggest complaints about previous TSR solo modules is that they're quite limited when it comes to the types of characters one can play. In most cases, they're limited to a single, pre-generated character or several characters that are all fairly similar to one another. Lathan's Gold, conversely, gives the player the choice of six characters, each one of a different class: elf, dwarf, cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief – all that's missing is a halfling. This might seem like a small thing, but it's not, especially when one considers that several of these characters are spellcasters, something for which I don't believe any previous solo modules made allowances. Consequently, Lathan's Gold feels a bit more "open," even if, of necessity, the range of choices is still very restricted when compared to a "normal" Dungeons & Dragons module.

Related to this is the fact that each character has his own quest, which the player uses to guide his choices. For example, the elf Lathan, after whom the module is named, is on a quest to raise 1000 gp to pay the ransom of his betrothed. Meanwhile, Suparjo the magic-user is on a quest to find a rare seven-headed hydra and Krag Skraddle the thief is seeking a buried pirate's treasure. The other four character each have unique goals as well. All these goals have time limits placed upon them, ranging from about 20 to 90 days. To "win" while playing a particular character, the player needs to succeed in his character's quest within the given timeframe. That's yet another way in which Lathan's Gold differentiates itself from other solitaire modules.

Like the Fighting Fantasy books (or Choose Your Own Adventure books), Lathan's Gold is presented as a series of numbered sections. As a character proceeds through the module, the player turns from section to section, each one describing the situation as it unfolds. In doing so, the player makes use of an "expedition record sheet." The sheet tracks your character's hit points, money, and rations, as well as the number of days that have passed. This is a rare example of a published module where the passage of time plays a central role to a character's ultimate success. It's a genuinely remarkable thing.

Also remarkable is the module's alternate combat system. Rather than having the player play out every combat between his character – and his hirelings; yes, you can bring along hirelings – and any opponents he might encounter, Rasmussen has devised a simpler way to determine the results of a fight. The player compares the number, level/hit dice, and armor classes of those engaged in a fight and then rolls on a few tables to find the outcome. The tables remind me quite a bit of those used in hex-and-chit wargames. Some might find them less satisfying than "real" D&D combat, but I find they work quite well in the context of a solitaire adventure, where the player has to handle all aspects of gameplay. Obviously, opinions will vary on this front.

Lathan's Gold is not a highly detailed adventure. Rather, it's a collection of procedures for handling a character's journey in urban environments, on the seas, and on one or more mysterious islands in the seas. These procedures are quite expansive in their available options, especially when compared to most solitaire adventures, but they're sketchy at times, leaving a lot to the imagination of the player. That's the price for the openness I mentioned earlier. Unless the module for many times larger than it is, I don't see any way that it could be anything but somewhat skeletonic in its presentation. Ultimately, I'm not sure Lathan's Gold fully succeeds in its goals. Even so, it's much better than I remembered its being and far better than TSR's other experiments with solo adventures.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #45

Issue #45 of White Dwarf (September 1983), featuring a very weird cover by Gary Ward, is an important one in the history of the magazine, at least for me. First, this issue marks the premier of two new comic strips, both of which are very dear to me. Ian Livingstone would seem to agree, since he uses his editorial to announce this fact and urges readers to give the new comics "a chance to settle in." I gather from his comments that not all readers like comics in their gaming magazines, which is understandable, as gaming comics tend to be very hit or miss (mostly the latter, in my experience). Second, this issue also marks the appearance of the very first battle scenario for Warhammer in the pages of White Dwarf. It is an omen for things to come.

The issue kicks off with "Open Box," which reviews Avalon Hill's Wizards. This is a game I regularly saw in game stores but never owned or played. The reviewer, Alan E. Paull, found its presentation somewhat frustration, but liked its gameplay enough to give it 7 out of 10. Meanwhile, Oliver Dickinson gives Pavis 9 out of 10, which is, I think, a little stingy. The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the output of Chaosium in the late '70s and early '80s, with Pavis and Big Rubble among its masterpieces. Also reviewed are three modules for AD&D and one for D&D: Tomb of the Lizard King (9 out of 10), Pharaoh (10 out of 10), Oasis of the White Palm (10 out of 10), and Blizzard Pass (6 out of 10) respectively. With the exception of Blizzard Pass, I think these ratings are a bit generous, but tastes differ, of course, and I recall thinking much better of the "Desert of Desolation" series at the time than I do now.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" spends most of its space on a lengthy review of C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, which was the winner of the previous year's Hugo Award for best novel (for what it's worth). Langford seems genuinely well disposed toward Cherryh as a writer, but doesn't think this is her best effort. He also does quick reviews of three other books, including Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, which is an admittedly strange book to review in White Dwarf, though "Critical Mass" frequently devoted itself to books other than those that could easily be called fantasy or science fiction. 

Part 2 of Dave Morris's "Dealing with Demons" focuses on lesser demons, describing them and their abilities for use with RuneQuest. The article's main attraction, in my opinion, is that these demons are (mostly) original rather than drawing on real world myths and legends. It's a clever approach to the topic, I think, though they're a good fit for RQ's Glorantha setting is another matter (assuming that was the intention, since the article is silent on the matter). "Gateway to Adventure" by Bob McWilliams is a "cameo" adventure, which is a coinage of McWilliams for "small scenes or themes that could be fitted into an ongoing campaign." In this case, the cameo is about researching an interplanetary transport device – the titular Gateway – that leads somewhere else. McWilliams doesn't provide any information on what's beyond the gate, leaving that to the referee to decide, which is admittedly a little unsatisfying. On the other hand, the set-up is fairly good and it's an unusual one for Traveller, which is a plus.

"Stop, Thief!!" by Marcus L. Rowland is a short article detailing the contents, along with individual weight and costs, of the items in a typical thieves' kit. I personally don't care for this level of detail, but I can appreciate its utility in certain circumstances. Part 4 of Daniel Collerton's "Irilian" is as good as its predecessors. In addition to the usual mix of local businesses, this installment describes the town's guards, bureaucracy, and ruling council. It's packed with the kind of detail that a referee needs if he intends to use a town as regular locale for his campaign. There's also an adventure set in the town relating to religious corruption and false relics – good stuff!

As I mentioned earlier, this issue marks the debuts of two new comic strips. The first is Thrud the Barbarian by Carl Critchlow. Thrud is a delightful parody of Conan and his mighty-thewed knock-offs. Most of Thrud's adventures involve random mayhem and destruction as a result of his penchant for attacking first and then thinking later, if at all. I'm especially fond of his encounter with an Elric clone, but most of his stories are great. Also premiering in this issue is Mark Harrison's The Travellers, which is a similarly broad parody of science fiction, filtered through the lens of GDW's Traveller. If anything, it's even more delightful than Thrud and I simply adored it back in the day (and still do).

"Divinations" by Oliver Dickinson is largely a collection of errata and clarifications to RuneQuest and RQ products. As such, it's only of interest to diehard fans. "Thistlewood" is a Warhammer Fantasy Battles scenario intended for two, four, or six players, plus an umpire. The scenario is a fairly typical "defend a sleepy little village against invaders" kind of thing, but it's filled with lots of charming details and information from the early days of Warhammer, before it became the behemoth of later years, so I find it strangely compelling nonetheless. Of particular note is the fact that the scenario is written by Joe Dever, best known for his work on the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks.

"Fiend Factory" offers up four new elemental monsters for use with D&D and AD&D. The somewhat misnamed "Elemental Items" by Daniel Hooke is actually a collection of eight new magic items that pertain to the para-elemental planes. Finally, "Super Mole" is a gossip column about the RPG industry, written by an anonymous author, after the fashion of Gigi D'Arne of Different Worlds but without the bitchiness. Most of the gossip is ephemeral stuff that has little lasting value, but I did find the section relating to Chaosium and its licensing of RuneQuest to Avalon Hill fascinating. According to Super Mole, Greg Stafford stated that the Chaosium crew simply wanted to design games and had no interest in "printing, selling, credit control," and the more tedious, business-related aspects of producing RPG materials. This is something I've long suspected to be the case (and indeed may have read somewhere else), but it's fascinating to see it stated here so baldly.

Issue #45 is another solid one. White Dwarf has really hit its stride in my opinion, though I am undoubtedly biased, since I'm now well into the run of issues with which I am most familiar. We're not quite yet at the point when I was a regular subscriber, though that will come soon and I'm rather excited to revisit those particular issues. In the meantime, though, I continue to enjoy these revisits to one of the truly great magazine's of our hobby.

Monday, August 8, 2022


I'd like to offer my thanks to Rob Conley, who pointed out that the title page of the first edition of FGU's Chivalry & Sorcery includes a dedication by the authors to the Society for Creative Anachronism (S.C.A.). The role of the SCA in the history of fantasy fandom (and, by extension, roleplaying games) is still underappreciated, I think. Since I've never been a member or attended any of the Society's events (though my college roommate went to Pennsic every summer), this is a topic about which I know very little. I'd love to know more about it, though, especially as it relates to the influence it may have had over the early days of the hobby.

Fantasy Realism!

I love looking at old advertisements of all kinds, but especially for roleplaying games. Here's a great one for RuneQuest, which appeared in issue #40 of Dragon (August 1980). 

I want to take a look at each paragraph of the ad, because I think each one includes some fascinating boasts about RQ. Before doing that, though, I simply want to draw attention to the ad's title, which plays off a very common concern in the hobby during the early to mid-1980s – realism. This is a topic that gets a lot of coverage in the RPG magazines of the era, including Dragon, and one about which I have opinions of my own. Those aside, what interests me most about this particular case is the way that Chaosium frames the question of "realism" beyond simply having a high degree of verisimilitude in its combat system (though that is part of their pitch).  
This is genuinely remarkable. I can't say with any certainty that this is the first time that a RPG company has claimed that one of its games allows players to "legitimately simulat[e] the great dramas of fantasy," but it's not a boast I recall being made often. I don't believe any TSR edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever made such a claim, even AD&D 2e, which is frequently derided as the "Ren Faire" edition of D&D by grognards more cantankerous than I. It's also worth noting that the ad goes on to state that RuneQuest's "technically-accurate role-playing mechanics" are "not merely collected encounter and resolution systems." That suggests, at the very least, Chaosium believed that RQ had achieved something genuinely new and indeed different from its predecessors and competitors. Does this make RuneQuest the first storytelling game, at least in its own self-conception? 
That having been said, Chaosium is nevertheless quick to point out how realistic its combat system is. The fact that its combat system was "created by a charter member of the Society for Creative Anachronism" – this is a reference to Steve Perrin, who joined the SCA at its inception in 1966 – is highlighted. Even in my youth, it was commonplace to knock D&D for its "unrealistic" combat system with those of other RPGs being held up as examples of better design in this regard. Because of my own prejudices, I wasn't very familiar with RQ at the time, so I can't recall its being cited as one of these putatively realistic games, but, based on this advertisement, Chaosium apparently thought it was.
"Practitioners of real magic?" Even given that, at the time, Chaosium was a California-based company, this is a bizarre statement. Were I to suspend my natural skepticism, the larger point remains that I can't detect much in the way of "real magic" in the magic systems of RuneQuest. They strike me as artifacts of game design – good design, to be fair – but they don't seem to have much in common with any historical systems of magic with which I am familiar. Perhaps my education is simply lacking. On the other hand, I do think RQ deserves credit for making religion and religious beliefs much more significant in play than, say, D&D does. Whether this is the result of RQ's having been "patiently assembled by scholars and practitioners of … the Old Religion" I leave to others to determine. 
What I find most notable here is that Chaosium wishes to draw attention to the fact that RuneQuest takes inspiration from "all the faces of fantasy," not merely those drawing on medieval European history and legend. As a fan of Tékumel, I very much appreciate fantasy settings that draw on other sources of inspiration than the European Middle Ages. Glorantha does borrow from European history and legend, though that's mostly of a pre-medieval kind, such as the Heroic and Classical Ages of the Mediterranean. It also takes a lot from the Near and Middle East, so this isn't a boast that's wholly without merit. I mostly find it fascinating that Chaosium chose to boast about this in the ad. I think it speaks to what was going on in the wider RPG scene at the time.

In any case, I thought this advertisement was well worth sharing. It's a compelling historical document of the hobby from just six years after the publication of OD&D. In just a few short paragraphs, the ad reveals a lot about the state of RPG design at the time, as well as the larger concerns within the hobby about what constituted "good" rules and setting design. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Witch Shall Be Born

Like many who made his living writing for the pulps, Robert E. Howard (and his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian) is easy to reduce to a caricature. I can certainly understand why this is the case. Not all of Howard's stories are of equal quality and, even leaving aside a handful downright stinkers – "Vale of the Lost Women," I'm looking at you – there's often a degree of sameness to many of his yarns. Even at his worst, though, REH frequently has a lot to offer. Indeed, I feel he doesn't always get enough credit for his willingness to try out different styles and approaches, not to mention content, in his established series.

I thought of this fact as I re-read "A Witch Shall Be Born," which first appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Critics of Conan generally consider this story middling at best, while some judge it more harshly. Even those who think better of it largely do so because it contains perhaps the most memorable scenes in all of the Cimmerian's adventures: Conan's crucifixion – a scene so unforgettable that it was included in the 1982 John Milius film, albeit in a very different context. 

Again, I can certainly understand this perspective. "A Witch Shall Be Born" is no "Red Nails" or Hour of the Dragon; it's not even "The Pool of the Black One." At the same time, I genuinely feel as if Howard was attempting to do something different with this story. For example, a lot of the story's actions focuses on characters other than Conan – in particular, two women: Taramis and Salome. It's almost as if Howard knew that Conan was such a draw for Weird Tales that he had sufficient leeway with its notoriously demanding editor, Farnsworth Wright, to experiment with his own proven formula. Whether he succeeded or not is a question for each reader, though I personally feel as if "A Witch Shall Be Born," while a lesser Conan tale, is nevertheless a worthy one.

The story begins as Taramis, Queen of Khauran, awakens from her sleep to see a figure standing over her bed:

In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman's head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared—and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis's throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

"Ishtar!" gasped Taramis. "I am bewitched!"

Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

"Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery."

"Sister?" stammered the bewildered girl. "I have no sister."

"You never had a sister?" came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. "Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?"

"Why, once I had a sister," answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. "But she died."

As the text suggests, the figure is in fact Salome, the twin sister of the queen. From birth, Salome bore the mark of being a witch – "a scarlet half-moon between her breasts" – and, for this reason, she was left exposed in the desert to die, lest disaster befall the kingdom. Rather than dying, she was found by a magician "from far Khitai," who raised her and taught her his "black wisdom." Now, Salome has returned to Khauran to fulfill her destiny by taking the place of her twin sister and ruling in her place.

In this, Salome has the aid of Constantius, a foreign mercenary commander whose army Taramis had allowed to cross her borders on the way to other lands. Once Salome has assumed the identity of Taramis – the real Taramis being thrown into the palace dungeon – she makes Constantius her consort and places his mercenaries in charge of the realm's defense. This sudden turn of events does not sit well with the queen's captain of the guard, Conan the Cimmerian.

Purely from a narrative perspective, it's fascinating that Howard has other people talk about Conan before he actually appears in the story himself. Conan's suspicion of the orders given by Salome-as-Taramis and his subsequent battle against the soldiers of Constantius isn't something we see firsthand. Instead, we hear others describe these events and their reactions to them. This is what I meant above when I suggested that Howard was experimenting with this story. In it, Conan almost appears as a legend, a larger-than-life figure of rumor and tall tales, as if Howard was slyly offering commentary on the popularity of his own creation.

Despite his great strength and skill in battle, Conan was eventually overcome by Constantius' men, who capture him and then cart him out to the desert, where he is to be crucified for his defiance. Being a barbarian, Conan is loyal to the real queen Taramis, the woman to whom he had sworn an oath of allegiance and nothing, not even the threat of death by crucifixion, is enough to make him foreswear that loyalty. This is an important theme within "A Witch Shall Be Born," along with Howard's perennial musings on the relative merits of civilization and barbarism. 

Before leaving him to die, Constantius mocks Conan.

"I am sorry, captain," he said, "that I cannot remain to ease your last hours, but I have duties to perform in yonder city—I must not keep your delicious queen waiting!" He laughed softly. "So I leave you to your own devices—and those beauties!" He pointed meaningly at the black shadows which swept incessantly back and forth, high above.

"Were it not for them, I imagine that a powerful brute like yourself should live on the cross for days. Do not cherish any illusions of rescue because I am leaving you unguarded. I have had it proclaimed that anyone seeking to take your body, living or dead, from the cross, will be flayed alive together with all the members of his family, in the public square. I am so firmly established in Khauran that my order is as good as a regiment of guardsmen. I am leaving no guard, because the vultures will not approach as long as anyone is near, and I do not wish them to feel any constraint. That is also why I brought you so far from the city. These desert vultures approach the walls no closer than this spot.

"And so, brave captain, farewell! I will remember you when, in an hour, Taramis lies in my arms."

Astute readers might well see a parallel between Conan's abandonment to die in the desert and that of Salome, the twin of the queen whom Conan serves. Like Salome, Conan does not die in the desert but instead escapes the fate intended for him to forge his own destiny, namely the defeat of those who tried to slay him and who have usurped Taramis through deceit.

While "A Witch Shall Be Born" is far from a masterpiece, it has much to recommend it. In addition to the stylistic experimentation I mentioned earlier, it's also a fast-paced story of loyalty and revenge, two favorite themes of Howard's fiction. Further, the story touches on the themes of identity and duality, as exemplified by the twin sisters who advance much of the tale's actions, not to mention the theme of personal destiny. The result is a fairly satisfying story that I think catches more flak from Conan fans than it deserves. This is, in my opinion, a story that's much better than its reputation and well worth a read.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

"Let's See What's Behind ..."

From Dragon #24 (April 1979):

The Greater-than-Gods

Gary Gygax was a great admirer of the works of A. Merritt, highlighting several of his works for particular mention in his Appendix N. One of these is The Dwellers in the Mirage. The story was first published as a serial in Argosy in early 1932 before being its installments were collected together into a novel later that same year. Among other things, Dwellers is notable for including an homage to Lovecraft in the form of Khalk'ru the Kraken, an ancient octopoid entity similar to Cthulhu.

While Merritt and his works are largely unknown to most fantasy fans these days, that wasn't the case back in the earliest days of the hobby. Issue #45 of Dragon (January 1981) included the following entry in the magazine's "Bazaar of the Bizarre" column, inspired by The Dwellers of the Mirage. 

Grognard's Grimoire: Ven Mor

Ven Mor (Beast Man)

A ven mor by Zhu Bajie
In the Thirty-Second Year of the Sixth Cycle, a strange affliction appeared in Rayaldama. Dubbed the Curse of the Makers, it is magical in nature. Its first victims were adventurers who had entered Rayaldama's Vaults, contrary to the Everlasting Edicts of Akamra. The Curse's first symptom is high fever, followed by violent madness, and finally unconsciousness, during which time the victim's body rapidly transforms into that of a bestial humanoid. Those so transformed retain little of their former identities. Instead, they are consumed by a desire to kill and spread the pestilence that afflicts them to others, thereby propagating their kind.

The physical manifestation of the Curse varies from victim to victim; there is no single "standard" appearance of a ven mor. Some sages suggest a connection between the last meal of animal matter consumed by the afflicted and his bestial transformation, while others scoff at this as superstition. True or not, the peasantry of Inba Iro and surrounding lands long ago adopted a vegetarian diet as a precaution against the Curse. An outbreak of the Curse in civilized lands is thus a serious threat and no effort is spared to contain it by starving it of potential hosts.

AC 5 [14], HD 2* (9hp), Att 1 × weapon (1d6 or by weapon), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 120’ (40’), SV D12 V13 P14 B15 S16 (2), ML 10, XP 25 (narahan: 50), NA 2d4 (1d6 × 10), TT D

  • Weapons: Prefer clubs and other blunt weapons. 
  • Curse of the Makers: At the beginning and end of any melee combat with one or more ven mor, save versus poison with a +2 bonus. Those who fail both rolls transform into a beast man after an illness of 1d4 days. There is no known cure, though rumors persist that the priests of Ukol possess a spell to counteract it.
  • Narahan: Groups of 20+ are led by a more powerful ven mor (called a narahan) with 3HD (16hp).
Another ven mor

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Maximum and Ideal Party Size

In light of the discussion in the comments to this post, I find myself wondering about readers' experiences with party size in their play of various RPGs over the years. In particular, I'm curious about both the maximum number of players with whom one has ever played successfully and what one considers the ideal number of players. I realize that one's ideal size might vary from game to game. A game like Dungeons & Dragons is much easier to run with a large number of characters, while one like Top Secret probably has a smaller number of ideal players. Nevertheless, I think most of us who've gamed for a long time has a general sense of what works best and I'd like to hear about it in the comments.

For myself, the largest group I've ever played with successfully consisted of ten or eleven players. This was a D&D game and the players were surprisingly well organized in their actions and ability to communicate it to me as the referee. That was the exception rather than the rule, though. Most of the successful games I've played in since have had probably half that number, which may explain why I tend to consider five to seven players to be ideal in most circumstances.

What about yourself? 

Do You Dream of Adventure and Glory?

Does anyone remember this advertisement, which first started appearing in 1985 in the pages of Dragon? As I have no doubt mentioned innumerable times over the years, I never participated in a single play by mail game, but the concept intrigued me. For years, I'd seen lots of ads for various PBM games, like The Tribes of Crane. However, I never pulled the trigger and actually joined in, partly because of the costs involved. Most of these games had an initial start-up fee. which might include the first move, as well as additional fees for subsequent moves. Back then, that was a significant investment, all the more so when one considers my unfamiliarity with the exactly what a play by mail game entailed.

Given my unrepentant TSR fanboyism at the time, this particular PBM intrigued me even more than the others. There was a couple of articles in Dragon – issues #97 and #98, I believe – that talked a bit more about the game and its setting. The articles were written by Jim Dutton, the president of Entertainment Concepts, the company ran the AD&D PBM (and also, not coincidentally, the company behind another PBM, The World of Silver Dawn). Though they certainly whetted my appetite, the costs involved kept me at bay. They were, if anything, more expensive than those of other PBMs I'd seen, perhaps due to the costs involved in acquiring a license from TSR.

Did anyone reading this take the plunge? 

Retrospective: The Gem and the Staff

An aspect of the Little Brown Books of OD&D that's often commented upon is the statement, early on in Volume 1, that a single campaign consists of "from four to fifty players." By contemporary standards, that's quite a large number of players. In truth, it was quite large even in my own youth, though it wasn't at all uncommon to encounter RPG groups of a dozen or more. I can't speak to how common that was, outside of organized game clubs, but I get the impression that, in the first few years of the hobby, there was an expectation that a "typical" adventuring party consisted of six to twelve characters.

At some point, though, that expectation started to change. I can't pinpoint precisely when the shift occurred, but it's clear that it did so. By the 1990s, if not before, I started to notice that gaming groups (and, by extension, adventuring parties) were getting smaller and smaller, with three or four characters being much more typical. I have lots of unsubstantiated theories about why this shift might have occurred. Regardless of the reason, I contend that gaming groups in the second decade of the hobby were smaller than those in the first decade.

Circumstantial evidence in support of my thesis is the fact that, throughout the 1980s, TSR experimented with multiple formats to facilitate the playing of solo and one-on-one Dungeons & Dragons. There were modules like Blizzard Pass and Midnight on Dagger Alley, not to mention the D&D-branded Endless Quest books, which, while not as genuinely game-like as, say, the Fighting Fantasy series, were nevertheless an attempt to present a solo D&D "experience." Another approach was the one adopted by 1984's The Gem and the Staff by John and Laurie Van De Graaf. Written for a single player and a Dungeon Master, module O1 is the only example of this kind of module from TSR. I assume, based on the fact that there were never any similar modules, it was not as well received as the company might have hoped.

Like TSR's previous solo efforts, The Gem and the Staff comes with a pregenerated character, Eric the Bold. Also like TSR's previous efforts, Eric belongs to a class with thief abilities (in this case, being an actual thief). I find it fascinating that every TSR module in this general class of adventures relies on the player character being a thief or thief-like class. I'm certain this is because thief abilities provide an obvious way to handle non-combat actions. Indeed, all these modules are structured in a way that's reminiscent of the 1980 video game, Rogue, which has proven extremely influential in the decades since.

In the case of The Gem and the Staff, the module consists of two distinct scenarios, "Tormaq's Tower" and "The Staff of Fazzlewood." In each, Eric is expected to steal a valuable item in the possession of the wizard Tormaq. To succeed, the player must use stealth and quick wits to overcome not just traps (both mundane and magical) but also monsters and other opponents (such as Tormaq himself). To aid in visualizing the various rooms Eric must navigate, the module includes a map book for players that's somewhat akin to the cardboard dungeon floors I occasionally used as a kid. Also included are little cut-out figures to mark the locations of Eric and his potential opponents. This is a nice little feature in my opinion and it certainly helps both the player and referee to get a good handle on Eric's progress.

As presented, the idea behind The Gem and the Staff is that, after the completion of the first adventure, the player and referee swap places with one another. I'll admit that it's an odd conceit and I have no idea how many people who bought the module ever followed its instructions in this regard. Of course, because of its set-up – a single pregenerated character of 8th level and very limited scopes for the two scenarios – I have to wonder how many people ever made use of it at all. I certainly never did, though I repurposed the player's maps for something else entirely.

I'm not really sure what to make of The Gem and the Staff. The module has its origins in a tournament event from the late 1970s, which may explain its "boxed in" feel, not to mention the slightly "adversarial" nature of its one-on-one presentation. The result is something that's a lot more explicitly "game-y" than many D&D modules, more like a puzzle that needs to be solved than an exercise in roleplaying as I typically understand it. In that respect, my earlier reference to the video game Rogue is not far from the mark, though The Gem and the Staff predates it (in its original form, prior to TSR's publication of it). In the end, I suspect this is simply another failed experiment from a period seemed to be throwing lots of ideas against the wall to see what might stick. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

An Experiment

Dritlor (Doomed Dead)

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

STR 2d6+6 (13), CON 1d6 (4), DEX 3d6 (11), SIZ 3d6 (11), INT 0, POW 0, CHA 0, HP 8, DM 0, MP 0, MR 15, Armor Leather (2), Treasure 0, Dodge 10%, Persistence 100%, Resilience 100%, Close Combat 35%: Longspear (1d8), Medium Shield (1d6)

  • Guardians: Always attacks on sight
  • Undead: Immune to all diseases, fatigue, poisons, and mind control.
  • Reanimation: If destroyed (0hp), stitches itself back together to full hp and fights again after 2d6 rounds.
  • Fire: Cannot reanimate if burned after destruction.
A dritlor by Zhu Bajiee

Mapmaking as a Game within a Game

When I first heard about Dungeons & Dragons, an aspect of the game that both fascinated and confused me was that it didn't have a board, unlike any other game with which I had experience up to that point. The lack of a board was something I remember reading in the many newspaper accounts of the game I saw during the late Summer and Fall of 1979. How could it be a game without a board? Furthermore, many of the media accounts of the game also talked about how the players made use of sculpted miniature figures to play. Figures? But no board? What was going on? 

My confusion only increased after my encounter with Dungeon! over the Christmas break of that same year. Dungeon! most certainly did have a board and it certainly seemed quite similar to D&D, though it didn't make use of any sculpted figurines. In time, I made more sense of it all, thanks in part to various gaming mentors, who showed my friends and I the "right" way to play D&D, including the fact that the game's "board" was a hand-drawn map that a player drew as his party of adventurers explored a dungeon. This lesson from my elders was potent and, to this day, I continue to associate D&D strongly with maps and, more importantly, mapmaking. 

Mapmaking is an aspect of D&D that, so far as I can tell, has largely disappeared or at least has been downplayed over the years. In the present moment, one might even say that it's been superseded by technology like virtual tabletops that obviate the need for graph paper and pencil. Nevertheless, maps themselves remain an important part of gameplay. Nearly every adventure, whether prepackaged or homebrewed, includes a map of its most important locales and, in many of them, exploring that map is a central feature of gaming sessions. 

From my extremely anecdotal survey of the situation, I have the impression that many gamers today don't really miss the days of making their own maps. Some have even admitted that they never really enjoyed mapmaking, which they found, by turns, tedious, frustrating, and generally unpleasant. I completely understand this point of view, especially when you consider the kinds of dungeon maps that frequently appeared during the first decade of the hobby. They're filled with mazes, one-way and secret doors, teleportation traps, shifting and sliding walls, dead end corridors, and similar annoyances, all of which are specifically intended to foil or at least hinder accurate mapmaking. Where's the fun in that?

The question is more than fair in my opinion and I don't begrudge anyone who has limited or no tolerance for the vicissitudes of mapmaking – or the labyrinthine dungeons that necessitated them. At the same time, I think it's a mistake to think manual mapmaking has simply been supplanted by virtual tabletops and the like. It's increasingly my feeling that mapmaking – by hand, based on the referee's verbal descriptions – is a key activity of the game, since D&D is as much a game of exploration as it is of, say, combat. I'd also argue that it's a game with a strong element of puzzle solving and tricky dungeon maps play a big part in facilitating that element of the game.

None of this is to suggest that D&D can only be played with manual mapmaking, only that something is lost when it's not included. That's why certain races, character classes, spells, and magic items have or grant abilities that pertain to exploring the physical environment of a dungeon – finding secret doors, sloping passages, etc. It thus seems pretty clear to me that, at least as envisioned by Gary Gygax (and probably Dave Arneson as well), the play of Dungeons & Dragons revolved around, at least in part, "solving" the puzzle of a dungeon's layout, much in the same way that players did in early computer games like Wizardry or Telengard.

I don't know. I'm still trying to figure this out for myself. It may well be that manual mapmaking is simply a transitional technology that isn't nearly as integral to the way its creators intended D&D to be played as I'm suggesting here. Nevertheless, I can't shake the feeling that there's more going on than we realize and that the large scale abandonment of fumbling around with pencil and graph paper is another step on the road to a fundamental shift in the way Dungeons & Dragons is conceived and played.