Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Retrospective: Dragonlance Adventures

Although there are nearly four thousand posts on this blog, one of the most widely read remains "How Dragonlance Ruined Everything," published all the way back in 2008. Though the title is intentionally hyperbolic, I largely stand behind what I wrote then, namely that the release and success of the Dragonlance series of adventure modules was the crowning achievement of the Hickman Revolution and forever changed the trajectory of Dungeons & Dragons. I don't think this is disputable. Since 1984, D&D – and indeed roleplaying games in general – have been slowly evolving into a much more story-driven, character-focused form of entertainment than the by-blow of miniatures wargaming it was in 1974. Whether one views this evolution as good or bad is irrelevant to the truth of it.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that, as Dragonlance's star rose ever higher, TSR would attempt to use it as a platform to change the game mechanically as well as conceptually. Dragonlance Adventures demonstrates precisely what I mean. Published in 1987, DLA is a 128-page hardcover volume on the model of previous AD&D tomes like the Players Handbook. Though billed as a "source book," its content is not simply setting material; the book contains many new rules that augment or outright replace those of standard AD&D. In fact, many of these new rules, as we'll see, appear to be dry runs for rules that would later be incorporated into Second Edition when it appeared in 1989. 

The most obvious changes in Dragonlance Adventures come in the form of its character classes. Almost every standard AD&D class is either altered or replaced in DLA, the only exceptions being fighter, barbarian, ranger, thief, and thief/acrobat. Consequently, the book provides quite a few new classes, such as three different types of clerics, wizards, and Knights of Solamnia, all of which tie closely into the history and cosmology of the world of Krynn. Also presented is the tinker class for use by the setting's unique take on gnomes. Other nonhuman races are similarly reimagined or, in the case of halflings, replaced entirely (which has the added benefit of severing some of D&D's most direct connections to Tolkien's Middle-earth – there are no orcs on Krynn, for example). 

Though these changes, as I note, are presented in order to bring the rules more into line with the realities of the setting, they also enable Tracy Hickman, who is credited as the book's "designer," to tinker with some of AD&D's rules in ways that, at the time, were genuinely original. For example, the three types of wizards – White, Red, and Black – are distinguished not simply by their alignment, but also by which "spheres" of magic to which they have access. These spheres are simply AD&D's schools of magic (abjuration, conjuration, etc.) renamed. The effect of this change is to differentiate wizards by their background and training, much in the way that Second Edition would do with specialist wizards. Similarly, clerics would have access to different spheres of spells based on the interests of the gods they served.

The mechanical treatment of Krynn's races is quite similar, fiddling as it does with the verities laid down in the Players Handbook. Not only does Hickman shift the ability score ranges, he alters both the availability of classes and, more significantly, their level limits. Silvanesti Elves, for instance, can be paladins and they're unlimited in their advancement, two remarkable deviations from the Gygaxian canon of earlier AD&D. There are also rules for playing minotaurs, who, while brutal, are not inherently evil or unintelligent – another notable shift away from the "facts" of the game as it was known at the time.

From the vantage point of present day D&D, filled as it is with innumerable new character classes, nonhuman species, and nary a level limit to be seen, none of this likely appears worthy of mention, let alone suspicion. Yet, at the time, these tentative steps away from the humanocentric, pulp fantasy picaresque of Golden Age D&D were truly revolutionary, especially coming from TSR, which had previously resisted – and, under Gygax, mocked – any such attempts to upend the game's presentation and focus. A great many people, myself included, welcomed these changes and felt that they presaged a a great sea change in the game. As it turned out, we were more prescient than we realized and Dragonlance Adventures served as the herald of the new age aborning, just as the Dragonlance adventure modules had done several years previously.

There's a lot more that could be said about this book and the role it played in changing the design of AD&D, such as its inclusion of the non-weapon proficiencies of the Dungeoneer's and Wilderness Survival Guides as baseline features of the rules. While I don't want to minimize the significance of their inclusion, even more significant, I think, is the overall presentation of DLA, which offers the reader – more on that in a moment – a coherent setting whose rules are designed to emulate and reinforce its flavor and themes. Krynn is explicitly a setting that "promot[es] the power of truth over injustice, good over evil, and grant[s] good consequences for good acts and bad consequences for evil acts." The Angry Mothers from Heck would be pleased.

Let me conclude with a brief note about the book's preface, which states that "you can certainly enjoy this book without playing the game." Though Hickman and Weis quickly enjoin the reader to play, I think it's significant that the preface even countenances the idea that one might buy Dragonlance Adventures without wishing to play AD&D. We must remember how popular – and lucrative – the Dragonlance novels were and how many people became fans of the setting and its characters as a result. I'd wager that, while Dragonlance was very profitable for TSR, the number of new players it introduced to playing D&D was not nearly as great. Dragonlance (and, by extension, D&D) was a powerful brand and that's all that mattered. Once again, Dragonlance was a forerunner of what was to come.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #48

Issue #48 of White Dwarf (December 1983) boasts what is, I suppose, a winter-themed cover illustration by Alan Craddock, though someone ought to give the poor woman something a bit warmer to wear! The issue begins with "Open Box," in which a passel of game products are reviewed, starting with several D&D and AD&D modules. They are Beyond the Crystal Cave (9 out of 10), Dungeonland (9 out of 10), The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (9 out of 10), and Curse of Xanathon (7out of 10). The Traveller Starter Edition is given 8 out of 10, because it lacked a few things (rules for drugs and self-improvement) that other editions of the game included. Two adventures for use with Call of Cthulhu (published by TOME), Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich score 7 and 8 out of 10 respectively. Finally, there are reviews of Autoduel Champions and the Car Wars Reference Screen, rated at 8 and 6.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" brief tackles a number of different books this month, including novels by Robert Silverberg, Tanith Lee, and Brian Aldiss. One of the things I always liked about Langford's reviews was the coolness of his praise, while his criticisms frequently ran very hot indeed. Nowadays, I find his reviews a bit more mean-spirited than I did in my youth, but that probably says more about my middle-aged softness than it does about Langford, many of whose reviews are still fun to read.

"By the Gods!" is a short article by Lewis Pulsipher – did he write something for every issue of White Dwarf? – in which he touches on the questions of the extent to which the gods might involve themselves in the outcome of mortal battles. Pulsipher marshals several arguments, based largely on Earth mythology, that the gods won't interfere much, but I'm not convinced myself. After all, why should the gods of a fantasy world follow the pattern laid down in The Iliad or Norse sagas rather than a logic all their own? That said, I understand why he offered this answer and am somewhat sympathetic to it. On the other hand, divine intervention is a possibility in many fantasy RPGs and it seems a shame not to consider it.

"Stomp!" is a fun little article by Rick Priestley, in which he presents rules for adding giants into Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Of particular amusement is the section entitled "Giants and Alcohol," which explains that "giants have a very irresponsible attitude towards alcohol" and then notes that elves believe this is due to "'environmental factors' and 'widespread social and economic deprivation'." Because giants are likely to be drunk when encountered, the article provides procedures for simulating their staggered movement. As I said, it's great fun and a pleasant reminder of when fantasy gaming put greater stock in whimsy and humor.

"The Dark Brotherhood" by Chris Felton is a collection of advice on better integrating assassins into an ongoing AD&D campaign, along with sketches of a few scenarios involving this deadly character class. The article is nothing special, but not everything in an issue is going to be gold, is it? "The Game of the Book …" by Charles Vasey touches on the extent to which various wargames accurately reflect the books that inspired them. This is a topic of some interest to me, though my lack of direct familiarity with many of the games Vasey cites limits it utility to me.

"Database" by Marcus L. Rowland is a sensible expansion of the computer rules in Traveller, something that nearly everyone who played the game felt was necessary. Even in the early 1980s, before personal computers were ubiquitous, gamers found Traveller's approach to the topic inadequate, leading to a plethora of articles like this one. "Ice, Desert, and Swamp" presents three new monsters for use with RuneQuest, including the Cactus Devil, show here:

"The Lone and Level Sands" by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson is a scenario for use with both AD&D and RuneQuest. As I recall, this was a common practice in the pages of White Dwarf, suggesting, I think, just how popular RQ had become in Britain by this time. The scenario itself involves a trek across the desert to explore a partially buried temple complex, populated with all manner of deadly enemies, including several that appear in this issue's "Fiend Factory" installment. The whole thing is atmospheric and well done, but then I'm a sucker for a good old fashioned excavation in the desert sands.

"The Demonist's Grimoire" by Phil Masters is a collection of new spells for use with the demonist class introduced in issue #47. I wish I could say that any of the spells was so good that it changed my mind about the utility of the class itself. Instead, this is just another filler article of the sort that all gaming magazines published regularly. Fortunately, there are more installments of the comics "Gobbledigook," "Thrud the Barbarian," and "The Travellers" to keep me happy. 

Issue #48 is perhaps a bit of a letdown compared to its immediate predecessors. That was probably inevitable, since issue #47 marked the conclusion to the excellent "Irilian" series and there was nothing this time to rival it. Even so, the AD&D/RQ adventure is memorable and the Traveller article welcome. With luck, issue #49 might better grab my attention.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sunken Land

Originally published in the February 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds, "The Sunken Land" is an early adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the fourth in terms of publication). Consequently, it's somewhat shorter than many of his later and more famous tales of the Twain. I don't mind this in the least, as my patience with the ever-increasing length of fantasy and science fiction literature grows thinner with each passing year. The plot of "The Sunken Land" also seems somewhat derivative of other earlier works, such as Lovecraft's "Dagon" and Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis." Again, I don't mind this, as I think "originality" is over-valued when it comes to fiction. In addition, both of the aforementioned stories are fine evocations of supernatural horror, which I consider an important part of what makes a good sword-and-sorcery yarn (as opposed to mere "fantasy"). 

"The Sunken Land" begins with Fafhrd and the Mouser aboard a "cranky sloop," as it makes its way across the "huge, salty Outer Sea" en route to Lankhmar. While the Mouser is unhappy about their maritime journey – something about the "uniformly stormless weather and favorable winds disturbed him" – Fafhrd is having the time of his life. His people are renowned sailors and he enjoyed being once more aboard the deck of a ship. More than that, his bow-fishing had brought him an unexpected boon. The belly of one of the fish he's reeled in contains a prize.

The object did not seem very small even on Fafhrd's broad palm, and although slimed-over a little, was indubitably gold. It was both a ring and a key, the key part set at a right angle, so that it would lie along the finger when worn, There were carvings of some sort. Instinctively the Gray Mouser did not like the object. It somehow focused the vague unease he had felt for several days now.

Naturally, Fafhrd does not share his friend's pessimistic view. Indeed, he proclaims that he "was born with luck as a twin" and proudly displays the ring on his hand. Despite this, something about the ring roused "strange memories" in Fafhrd, perhaps due to the fact that the carving on the ring "represented a sea monster dragging down a ship."

"I think they called the land Simorgya. It sank under the sea ages ago. Yet even then my people had gone raiding against it, though it was a long sail out and a weary beat homeward. My memory is uncertain. I only heard scraps of talk about it when I was a little child. But I did see a few trinkets carved somewhat like the ring, just a very few. The legends, I think, told that the men of far Simorgya were mighty magicians, claiming power over wind and waves and the creatures below. Yet the sea gulped them down for all that."  

The Mouser takes an interest in these legends and suggests that perhaps they now sail over top the sunken land of Simorgya. If so, would it not be better if Fafhrd threw the ring overboard? Who knows what curse might be laid upon it? Later, as if to prove the Mouser right, a strange storm blows up and he once again urges his friend to get rid of the ring. Even stranger, Fafhrd sees something appear out of the storm – "the dragon-headed prow of a galley."

Needless to say, neither expected to see another ship come upon theirs in the middle of such a terrible storm, especially not a ship that resembled that of Fafhrd's own people. The sight of it so catches the big barbarian off-guard that, for once, he fails to pay attention to his surroundings aboard the deck and is knocked overboard. Adrift on the stormy sea at night, Fafhrd loses sight of the sloop on which he was traveling – and the Mouser. In time, he is rescued by the crew of the galley, who were "Northerners akin to himself. Big raw-boned fellows, so blond they seemed to lack eyebrows." 

The Northerners did not save him out of any kindness. They need an oarsman to replace one of their own who had been swept into the sea during the storm. Like Fafhrd's discovery of the ring in the fish's belly, he himself has become an unexpected gift to his rescuers. Put to work, Fafhrd learns from another oarsman that the leader of the Northerners, Lavas Laerk, had "sworn to raid far Simorgya," the exact same legendary land about which Fafhrd has spoken to the Mouser earlier. Quite a coincidence! Even more remarkable is the fact that, sometime thereafter, the ship's steersman cries out, "Land ho! Simorgya! Simorgya!" Somehow, against all odds – against all reason – the Northerners had found Simorgya, a magical land supposedly sunk beneath the waves ages ago …

"The Sunken Land" is a terrific bit of economical but nevertheless engaging storytelling. It's more of a ghost story than a typical sword-and-sorcery tale of rollicking adventure but that doesn't take away from my pleasure in reading it. Leiber is a master of mood and creeping horror and he puts that mastery to good use in "The Sunken Land." It's a great reminder that horror is a species of fantasy and it ought not be neglected, either in literature or fantasy roleplaying games. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

In Defense of the Killer DM

One of the unique – and often frustrating – things about roleplaying games as a form of entertainment is how variable one's experience of them can be. More so than other types of games, one's enjoyment of an RPG is heavily dependent on the referee. In this, an imaginative, quick-thinking referee is every bit as important as solid rules. Of course, imaginative, quick-thinking players are vital too, but, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the referee.

If a good referee contributes to one's enjoyment of a roleplaying game, it stands to reason that a bad one can detract from it. I don't think this is controversial, though I suspect there's likely disagreement over just what constitutes a "bad" referee. Even so, I frequently hear criticism of a particular species of bad referee, the so-called "Killer DM." The Killer DM is the kind of referee who supposedly delights in torturing the characters in his campaign by presenting them with unfair fights and unavoidable traps, not to mention belligerent and unhelpful NPCs. He's a cruel tyrant rather than the impartial arbiter demanded by the role of referee.

Fear of the Killer DM is widespread – so widespread, in fact, that many RPGs not only contain explicit admonitions against the types of behaviors that are the purported hallmarks of the species, but often design their rules in such a way as to give them rather than the referee the final say on how things are to be adjudicated in the game. Lest anyone think this is simply a grognardly rant against "kids today," I am quick to point out that fear of the Killer DM goes back decades and the changes to the presentation of games I mention above are almost as old. 

Nevertheless, I do think that fear – or at least vocal disapproval – of the Killer DM is more commonplace than ever, despite (or perhaps because of) the near-extinction of the species. Roleplayers continue to talk about the Killer DM as if one were likely to encounter him lurking beneath every gaming table, waiting for his chance to strike, but how often is he actually seen in the wild in the 21st century? In my experience, the Killer DM is now mostly a myth and a cautionary tale rather than an ever-present danger against whose sadistic power-trips games must be designed to guard. 

All that said, I'd like to come to the defense of the Killer DM, or at least to that sub-species of him I encountered several times over the course of my decades in the hobby and for whom I retain a certain affection. The most memorable example of the Killer DM of my acquaintance was a childhood friend's teenaged older brother. He, along with their father, would sometimes referee adventures for us and it was always a struggle to survive them. There was also an older fellow who'd regularly show up to the local library's games days and referee an incredibly deadly dungeon crawl for anyone who dared to take a seat at his table. My old college roommate was cut from similar cloth and I distinctly remember many hours spent braving his insidious labyrinths.

Two things unite all these referees. First, they ran their games in a ruthless fashion and definitely took delight in watching characters suffer as a result of the bad decisions of their players. Second, their games were a lot of fun, in large part because they were a challenge. Whereas nowadays I think the emphasis is placed more on the roleplaying aspect of RPGs, in the past it was not at all uncommon to find who referees who emphasized the game aspect. For referees of this sort, an adventure was a battle of wits (and luck) between the referee and the players. Their fun was had in coming up with cleverly fiendish ways to test the intelligence, imagination, and perseverance of the players – and I can attest to the fact that it was indeed fun.

I don't think there's as much interest in (or tolerance for) this style of play anymore. This is the culture out of which things like Grimtooth's Traps arose and, if you know that legendary product, you might have better insight into the kind of Killer DM of whom I am still fond. The games these referees ran are not my preferred style of play, then or now. Yet, I find myself regularly reminded of them and the joy my friends and I took in occasionally besting them on their home turf. I think even they secretly enjoyed seeing us grind out a hard-earned victory once in a while, because they knew better than anyone how difficult it was to do that. 

Tom Moldvay claimed in his Basic Rulebook that "winning" and "losing" didn't apply to D&D – but that's only because he never played with my friend's older brother. Anyone whose character made it out of one of his dungeons alive knew well what it meant to win.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

D&D Fatigue

Except for a period in the 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most popular and bestselling RPG (and, before anyone mentions Pathfinder's brief ascension during the 4e debacle, I pre-emptively respond: Pathfinder is D&D). D&D is most people's introduction to the hobby of roleplaying; it's also the only RPG that non-gamers know by name. D&D is thus the proverbial 800-lb. gorilla of roleplaying games. In a very real sense, the entirety of the hobby (and the industry supporting it) owes its very existence to D&D. 

I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say this. Not only is it a historical fact that roleplaying games, as we know them today, are all ultimately descended from Dungeons & Dragons, but I contend that most of them would never even exist were it not for a phenomenon I'm going to call "D&D fatigue." As I'll explain, D&D fatigue takes two distinct forms and each of them plays a vital role in the continued existence of other RPGs – and perhaps of D&D itself.

The first form of D&D fatigue comes is the more rarefied, experienced by those whose weariness with the game compels them to write their own game. For example, the second roleplaying game, Tunnels & Trolls, owes its existence to Ken St. Andre's dissatisfaction with Dungeons & Dragons, but neither St. Andre nor T&T are unique in this regard. Indeed, if you were to look at the history of RPGs, you'll quickly find many examples – many of them quite early – of people who felt that D&D was somehow lacking and resolved to improve upon it. 

The second form of D&D fatigue is more common but no less important. This is a more literal type of fatigue, one experienced by those who've simply played D&D so much that they want to play something different. In my youth, my friends and I suffered many bouts of this kind of D&D fatigue. We'd play D&D furiously for weeks or months on end, enjoying ourselves all the while, and then, at some point, one of us would look up from our copy of the Players Handbook and ask, "Do you want to play something else?" Almost invariably, we did and thank goodness for that; otherwise, we might never have had the chance to play other great RPGs like Gamma World, Traveller, or Call of Cthulhu

D&D fatigue is not a bad thing. As I stated at the beginning of this post, the existence of a larger roleplaying hobby depends, in large part, on people becoming dissatisfied with or tired of Dungeons & Dragons and creating and/or seeking out alternatives to it. Very few of those alternatives ever came close to rivaling D&D's popularity or sales – but they didn't have to. During the days of D&D's first faddishness, there were more than enough players to support many RPGs and the companies, large and small, that produced them. Simply by existing, D&D created a demand for alternatives that others stepped forward to fill.

Over the course of the more than four decades I've been roleplaying, I've fallen in and out of love with Dungeons & Dragons multiple times, for a variety of different reasons. In each case, I'd eventually return to playing it, because I do like D&D, warts and all. While I was feeling the full force of D&D fatigue, I'd explore other options, in the process learning to love other games I otherwise might not have noticed. I also learned to appreciate better the things I liked about D&D, so that, when I returned to playing it, I often had more fun with it than I did before. 

As I said, D&D fatigue is not a bad thing. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Sage Disagrees

The "Sage Advice" column in issue #33 of Dragon (January 1980) contains the following question and answer:

The question itself is a genuinely interesting one, as I don't believe either the Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide explicitly answers it (as always, please correct me in the comments if I am mistaken). More interesting, though, is the answer by the Sage (Jean Wells), where she states both the official rule and her own disagreement with it, along with her preferred interpretation. During her tenure as the Sage, Wells often expressed her own opinions, often drawing on her experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons. However, I can't recall any other time where she admitted to disagreeing with the official rules and then offering her alternative.

Simply from a historical perspective, this is remarkable. With the publication of the DMG in August 1979, AD&D is complete and that completion ushers in the era of wholly official answers to any question one might have about the rules. This is the Everything-I-say-is-God's-Holy-Word era, which makes it all the more striking that Wells would state her disagreement in such an unambiguous way. I suspect this might be because Wells began playing D&D quite early, in the wild and woolly age of "why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" Her job required her to state the official answer and so she did, but she was still very much a woman of the afterward [sic] to the 1974 rules. 

Retrospective: Lone Wolf

Lately, I've had a great deal of interest in solo fantasy gaming. Though there were plenty of early examples, starting with Buffalo Castle in 1976, the trend toward solitaire adventures really started to pick up steam in the early 1980s, with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. The success of that book – and the Fighting Fantasy series more generally – showed that there was definitely a large audience for solo gaming and it wasn't long before innumerable knock-offs and imitators appeared on the scene. 

While some of these imitators weren't very good, a few of them stand out in retrospect as having brought something genuinely original and imaginative to the table. Among these is the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk. Like Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Lone Wolf was a series of connected gamebooks, in which the reader takes on the role of a single character whose adventures form a single narrative. In each of its five books (published over the course of 1984 and '85), the narrative advances toward its conclusion and the character along with it.

The character the reader plays is Silent Wolf, the last surviving member of the Kai, a monastic order of warriors known for their remarkable skills and disciplines. At the start of the first book in the series, Flight from the Dark, the Kai monastery is attacked by flying creatures sent by the Darklords, the eternal enemies of the lands of Sommerlund and Durenor. Silent Wolf only survives because, while his masters and fellow initiates are preparing for a great celebration, he is in a nearby forest collecting firewood, as punishment for his inattention in his lessons. When he returns, it is too late to stop the slaughter and Silent Wolf has no choice but to seek out the king of Sommerlund to warn him of the Darklords return.

In broad outline, the narrative of the Lone Wolf series is broadly similar to that of Sorcery! and indeed of many fantasy novels, with the reader playing a pivotal role in staving off an invasion by evil forces. That's no knock against it, since it makes it immediately accessible to anyone with an interest in fantasy, especially the younger readers for whom this series was likely written. What sets it apart, at least from the perspective of other solitaire gamebooks, is its approach to advancement, which substitutes for more complex experience systems in RPGs. 

The Kai possess knowledge of certain disciplines – quasi-magical abilities like healing, mindshield, and sixth sense, that aid him in his quest. To begin, Silent Wolf only possesses a few of these disciplines. However, as he progresses from one book to another in the series, his mastery of the disciplines increases and the reader may select more disciplines to learn. By the end of the series, then, Silent Wolf is much more powerful – and versatile – in his abilities. This is important, as the challenges he faces increase as well. This is another way in which the Lone Wolf series simply but enjoyable replicates the escalating nature of D&D-style fantasy roleplaying games.

Much like the Fighting Fantasy books, Lone Wolf's game mechanical elements are quite simple. There are only two ability scores, Combat Skill and Endurance, both of which are employed primarily when engaged in combat against enemies. Combat is not complicated, but it's more interesting than one might expect in a gamebook. Rather than relying on random rolls, there's a random number table that looks like a checkerboard whose squares all contain a number from 0 to 9. The reader is directed to close his eyes and point a pencil at the table, with the result being wherever the pencil's point lands. The result is then used in conjunction with the ratio of the Combat Skill ratings of both attacker and defender to generate a result. It's not a perfect system by any means, especially since, after a while, one becomes familiar with the layout of the random number table, even when one's eyes closed. However, as presented, the system isn't wholly predictable, which means combat can turn unexpectedly deadly if one is not careful.

All in all, the Lone Wolf series is fairly fun. Each book in the original series of five – there were many more published after its conclusion – has a large number of entries, which opens up a good range of choices to the reader. That's important in solitaire adventures, since they're necessarily more limited than adventures played with actual human beings. Lone Wolf is helped, too, by the evocative artwork of Gary Chalk. The illustrations nicely set the tone of the whole series and blew me away when I first saw them. Like the Russ Nicholson art of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain or John Blanche's illustrations in Sorcery!, Chalk's pieces in Lone Wolf gave these books a unique look unlike anything produced in the USA at the time. British fantasy of the early 1980s was truly remarkable and the Lone Wolf series is yet another example of why.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

A Thief, A Reaver, A Slayer, A Corsair ...

From "Thrud the Barbarian" by Carl Critchlow (White Dwarf #47, November 1983):

Cursed Scroll

From Dragon #21 (December 1978), by Will McLean

White Dwarf: Issue #47

White Dwarf regularly featured very striking covers. Whether because of their style, subject matter, or both, I generally can't help but find them much more compelling than those of other gaming magazines from the same period of time. The cover of issue #47 (November 1983) is no exception to this, with its undead samurai as painted by Gary Chalk, who's probably best known for his work on the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks (about which I'll talk more later this week). 

"The Demonist" by Phil Masters is a new character class for use with AD&D, following in the footsteps of the demon summoning rules for RuneQuest presented in the previous three issues. The class is basically a variant (evil only) cleric, with a unique spell list, including some original spells, like soul shield and summon imps. New character classes – or "NPC classes," if it's published in the pages of Dragon – have been a staple of the hobby since 1974. Most of them aren't especially interesting, so Masters deserves some credit for creating one that's not dull. That said, I'm not sure there's much need for the demonist as a distinct class, when simply creating new spells for evil clerics would suffice.

"Open Box" reviews four products this month, starting with FGU's Privateers and Gentlemen, which earns 9 out of 10 – much higher than I would have expected. The Asylum and Other Tales also receives 9 out of 10, while Starfleet Battles Supplement #1 is rated 7 out of 10. Big Rubble, on the other hand, gets a fairly nuanced rating: 10 at best, much 8–9, some scenarios 5–6. Nuanced ratings is nothing new to White Dwarf. Many ratings are divided between presentation, rules, playability, and complexity, with a single overall rating for the entire package. This is the first time, though, that I can recall seeing the "overall" rating (which is what I usually report in my posts) broken up in this way. 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" reviews Asimov on Science Fiction, a nonfiction book in which Isaac Asimov offers his thoughts and opinions about the genre and its practitioners. Langford's opinion of the book is mixed. Much of it is clear, lucid, and sensible. However, Asimov's own prejudices and his incessant self-promotion mar what might have otherwise been a solid tome. Fond though I am of much of Asimov's oeuvre, I find it difficult to disagree with Langford's assessment. "Zine Scene" by Mike Lewis is the inaugural column devoted to gaming fanzines. Lewis introduces himself to the reader, along with a handful of 'zines he thinks worthy of mention.

"Extracts from the Travels of Tralk True-Eye" by Ian Bailey presents details and game stats for several types of goblins for use with RuneQuest. The goblins are imaginative and varied, which is nice, though I'm not sure how well they'd fit into Glorantha. Mind you, I often forget that White Dwarf regularly published "generic" RQ articles that were not tied to Glorantha and this appears to be another of them. I suppose it's a testament of how ingrained Glorantha is to my own conception of RuneQuest that I even think to ponder questions like this. "Aliens" by Phil Masters presents two new non-human species for use with Traveller: the crustacean-like Phulgk'k'k'k and the small ape-like Ghashruan. 

The conclusion to Daniel Collerton's "Irilian" gives readers a two-page color map of the entire city. Irilian's main buildings are keyed but, to make full use of it, one must possess the previous five issues of White Dwarf. Accompanying the map is the final part of the six-part adventure, "The Rising of the Dark," which takes place within the city's walls, along with random encounter tables and information on civil and religious law. It's a terrific end to a terrific series of articles. "Irilian" was what finally convinced me to subscribe to White Dwarf after picking up single copies of it for years. That likely explains the fondness I have for the whole series and the city it depicts.

"Rune Rites" presents two very short articles for use with RuneQuest. The first, "Daily Health" by Paddy Barrow is a very odd one. It's a set of random tables to determine "how a player character feels on a certain day." Sub-tables are used if a character feels particularly good or bad, with game mechanical effects coming into play. Perhaps this might be useful on occasion, but it strikes me as a perfect example of the randomness fetishism that frequently afflicts long-time gamers. Much better is Dave Morris's "Force of Will," which codifies a system for measuring a character's ability to resist debilitating/demoralizing effects. The system is simple and easy to use; it makes a for a consistent alternative to the haphazard way RQ used to handle this sort of thing.

"Kwaidan" by Oliver Johnson and Dave Morris is a nifty little adventure scenario for Bushido. As its title suggests, it presents a ghost story set in feudal Japan. It's quite well done, with detailed NPCs, maps of a village, a monastery, and a manor house, and of course the ghosts wreaking havoc in the region. I haven't had the chance to play Bushido in years; reading "Kwaidan" makes me wish I were. "Treasure Chest" presents a mini-scenario based around a couple of weird magic items, including the "Dorianic Portrait," while "Mini-Monsters" offers five small monsters for use with D&D. The issue concludes with the latest installments of "Thrud the Barbarian" and "The Travellers," the former of which is especially amusing.

As I alluded to earlier, this issue comes from the period when I was reading White Dwarf religiously, as a companion and counterpoint to Dragon, to which I was also subscribing. Consequently, I have a lot of affection for these issues. At the same time, it's obvious in retrospect that White Dwarf was changing – becoming slicker, more professional, and diversifying its content. In addition, Game Workshop was itself changing and those changes would soon enough impact White Dwarf itself. This knowledge doesn't adversely affect my delight in re-reading issues like this one, but it does remind that Golden Ages rarely last long, no matter how great their glory.

Monday, August 22, 2022

"Ya Don't Tug on Superman's Cape"

As I'm sure readers of this blog already know, "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" was the name of Gary Gygax's regular column in the pages of Dragon. It was here that he would share previews of upcoming AD&D rules additions and changes, as well as offer his opinions on various topics of the day. Those opinions were often controversial, particularly when they pertained to the "right" way to play Dungeons & Dragons and generated a lot of pushback in the letters pages to Dragon. In retrospect, I wonder if that wasn't part of their point.

The column that appeared in issue #27 (July 1979) is quite unusual, because Gygax turns it over Bob Bledsaw of Judges Guild. Bledsaw uses the space to offer up a "personal opinion," entitled "What Judges Guild Has Done for Dungeons & Dragons." It's a fairly interesting read in its own right, but there's a short section toward the end of the piece that I want to highlight in this post.

I find it remarkable that, while Bledsaw praises uniqueness and originality in one's own campaign, he also suggests that rules changes, especially those relating to "play balance," run the risk of changing the game so much that one is no longer playing D&D. This is the position Gary Gygax himself advanced in many of his "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" columns and elsewhere. Agree or disagree, there's a logic to it and I suspect that Bledsaw, whose company produced official D&D (and, later, AD&D) materials under license from TSR, knew that this was a line he had no choice but to toe.

After that, Bledsaw then gives an example of when Gygax corrected him regarding rules changes he was using in his own campaign. This concerned the "instant kill rule (20 … 19 or 20)." What's he talking about here? No edition of D&D with which I am familiar has an instant kill rule, let alone the one he seems to describe. On the other hand, Empire of the Petal Throne does and the rule Bledsaw mentions seems almost identical to it. Is this the rule Bledsaw meant? Had he imported the EPT rule into his home campaign? If so, why did Gygax care? I understand that Gary strongly disapproved of critical hits, which is fair. However, if Bledsaw was using them in his home campaign, what difference did it make? So long as he wans't importing them into Judges Guild D&D products – and he says he was not – I don't see why Gygax should "call [him] on this very subject."

Have I misread what Bledsaw is saying? 

Another View of Orcus

While issues 44, 45, and 46 of White Dwarf offered up rules for demon summoning in RuneQuest, issue 20 of Dragon (November 1978) did the same for Dungeons & Dragons, with an article entitled "Demonology Made Easy: How to Deal with Orcus for Fun and Profit" by Gregory Rihn. The article is quite interesting in its own right, but what immediately stands out about it is the following illustration that accompanies it:

That's Orcus, the Demon Prince of Undead, as drawn by Dave Trampier. So far as I can recall, this is the first (and only?) time Trampier ever drew Orcus. The rendering doesn't completely match the demon prince's description in either Eldritch Wizardry or the Monster Manual – his ram's horns, for example, are absent – but I like it nonetheless. Along with Dave Sutherland, Tramp is one of the artists whose work defines D&D for me, so it's always a joy when I discover a new piece of his that I'd previously not seen.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cold Gray God

Though C.L. Moore is probably best known for her stories of the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry, it's her tales of interplanetary smuggler Northwest Smith that I've long found most appealing. Smith debuted in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales and, over the course of the next six years, appeared in a dozen more stories in the Unique Magazine and elsewhere. Like adventures of John Carter and other early science fiction, these yarns are now wholly improbable, based as they are on incomplete or just plain erroneous science. They're also a lot of fun, filled with memorable characters and exciting situations.

"The Cold Gray God" opens in the "outlaw city" of Righa at the North Pole of Mars. A mysterious woman, hooded and cloaked in "the concealing folds of rich snow-cat fur," strolls down the down the cobblestoned streets of the city in search of someone. She only stops when she spies 

a man as he belted his heavy coat of brown pole-deer hide and stepped briskly out into the street. He was tall, brown as leather, hard-featured under the pole-deer cap pulled low over his eyes. They were startling, those eyes, cold and steady, icily calm. Indefinably he was of Earth. His scarred dark face had a faintly piratical look, and he was wolfishly lean in his spaceman's leather as he walked lightly down the Lakklan, turning up the deer-hide collar about his ears with one hand. The other, his right, was hidden in the pocket of his coat.

This is Northwest Smith, the very person for whom she's looking. She asks him to come with her, but he's reluctant to do so.

"What do you want?" he demanded. His voice was deep and harsh, and the words fairly clicked with a biting brevity.

"Come," she cooed, moving nearer again and slipping one hand inside his arm. "I will tell you that in my own house. It is so cold here."

Smith allowed himself to be pulled along down the Lakklan, too puzzled and surprised to resist. That simple act of hers had amazed him out of all proportion to its simplicity. He was revising his judgment of her as he walked along over the snowdust cobbles at her side. For by that richly throaty voice that throbbed as colorfully as any dove's, and by the subtle swaying of her walk, he had been sure, quite sure, that she came from Venus. No other planet breeds such beauty, no other women are born with the instinct of seduction in their very bones. And he had thought, dimly, that he recognized her voice. 

When at last the woman takes Smith to her home, she flings back her cloak "in one slow, graceful motion," revealing her face for the first time. The smuggler's "iron poise" is shaken by what he sees; not only was she a "breath-taking beauty," she is a famous woman.

Judai of Venus had been the toast of three planets a few years past. Her heart-twisting beauty, her voice that throbbed like a dove's, the glowing charm of her had captured the hearts of every audience that heard her song. Even the far outposts of civilization knew her. That colorful, throaty voice had sounded upon Jupiter's moons, and sent the cadences of "Starless Night" ringing over the bare rocks of asteroids and through the darkness of space.

And then she vanished. Men wondered awhile, and there were searches and considerable scandal, but no one saw her again. All that was long past now. No one sang "Starless Night" any more, and it was Earth-born Rose Robertson's voice which rang through the solar system in lilting praise of "The Green Hills of Earth." Judai was years forgotten.

And now she was standing before Northwest Smith in a criminal haven atop the Red Planet. Judai explains that she had come because "something called" to her and she "could not resist it." "I have been searching for a long time … for such a man as you – a man who can be entrusted with a dangerous task." Though suspicious, Smith is nevertheless intrigued and wants to know the nature of this task. 

"There is a man in Righa who has something I very much want. He lives on the Lakklan by that drinking-house they call the Spaceman's Rest … The man's names I do not know, but he is of Mars, from the canal-countries, and his face is deeply scarred across both cheeks. He hides what I want in a little ivory box of drylander carving. If you can bring that to me you may name your own reward."

Like any good story of a noir-ish sort, nothing, including Judai of Venus, is what it seems, but, of course Northwest Smith is a man accustomed to such situations. Still, he is ever in need of money and, when Judai agrees to his terms – "Ten thousand gold dollars to my name in the Great Bank of Lakkjourna, confirmed by viziphone when I hand you the box." – he accepts the job. He soon finds himself entangled in a mystery far worse than he could have imagined, involving one of the dark, nameless "gods" that once ruled over Mars millennia before the coming of Earthmen.

"The Cold Gray God" is a quintessential Northwest Smith tale, in which the world-weary interplanetary smuggler finds himself face-to-face with a malevolent cosmic entity when he agrees to help a beautiful woman in trouble. What sets it apart from others with a similar plot are the very personal stakes for Smith. He finds that it's not Judai who is seeking "a man like [him]," but rather the something that called her to Mars. It's a compelling set-up and it contributes greatly to the success of the tale, especially if, like me, you're fond of science fiction from the first half of the last century.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

We Love Crafts

While I normally mark the anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft's birthday by writing a sober, thoughtful piece about HPL's importance to the history of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, this year I thought I'd instead celebrate it with a brief bit of jocularity. 

Lovecraft has an undeserved reputation for having been humorless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Not only do some of his tales contain elements of intentional humor, but his letters are filled with examples of his fondness for puns, jokes, and drollery, to which the reminiscences of his many friends and colleagues can attest. Like all human beings, Lovecraft had many faces and it would do his life a disservice to reduce him to a single dimension – a practice of which we're all sometimes guilty when it comes to our forebears.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Dear Abby

From "Sage Advice" column of Dragon #32 (December 1979) by Jean Wells:

Like the Back of My Hand

In the more than four decades I've been involved in the hobby of roleplaying, I've played a lot of different games – and spent a lot of time exploring the settings associated with those games. I was reminded of this during the past week, because I'm going to be playing in a new Traveller campaign set in the universe of GDW's Third Imperium. As I was generating my character, I very quickly found myself imagining who he is and how he fits into the larger setting of the game. Indeed, it was quite easy for me to view the results of my random rolls through the lens of the setting of the Third Imperium and this, in turn, provided me with additional ideas about my character's history and personality. For example, the fact that he has a low Social Standing score and was repeatedly passed over for commissioning as an officer in the Imperial Navy suggested to me that he might have a grudge against the hidebound aristocracy of the Imperium. Of course, the rolls themselves suggested very little of this; I was simply interpreting them in this way because of my deep knowledge of the Third Imperium setting.

Later, I marveled a bit at this. I do know a great about the Third Imperium, having been a fan of Traveller since 1983. I was also heavily involved in Traveller fandom in the '90s, which eventually led to my writing for Traveller: The New Era and GURPS Traveller. Consequently, it makes a great deal of sense that I should know the setting as well as I do. At the same time, there's a certain sense in which this is profoundly weird. Knowing the minutiae of a wholly imaginary place is a peculiar kind of knowledge. It'd be one thing if I were ramble on at length about the Napoleonic Wars, the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII, or the Russian Civil War, but it's wholly another if I do the same about the Interstellar Wars, the Psionic Suppressions, or the Imperial Civil War. I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with knowing so much about a fictional setting, only that I can't help but find it a little odd.

Of course, Traveller's Third Imperium isn't the only fictional setting about which I know a great deal. I also know a great deal about Tékumel, knowledge gained in no small part due to my refereeing a longstanding campaign in the setting, not to mention producing a well regarded fanzine about it. Just like the Third Imperium, I can talk at length about the intricacies of this imaginary planet, including its history and inhabitants – and do so with a confidence that might suggest, to the uninitiated, that I was talking about a real place rather than a fictitious one. That's a testament to the power of the imagination, to be sure, but, as I said above, it's also more than a little weird.

Am I alone in thinking this? For that matter, does anyone else possess a similarly high degree of knowledge about an imaginary place, particularly one designed for roleplaying games? I assume there must be, for example, Glorantha-philes who know as much about that setting as I do about Tékumel, but what about other RPG settings? I'd be very curious to hear what others have to say on this topic, as it's been on my mind quite a bit lately.

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.