Monday, October 31, 2022

Hallowe'en in a Suburb

 The steeples are white in the wild moonlight,
     And the trees have a silver glare;
Past the chimneys high see the vampires fly,
     And the harpies of upper air,
     That flutter and laugh and stare.

For the village dead to the moon outspread
     Never shone in the sunset’s gleam,
But grew out of the deep that the dead years keep
     Where the rivers of madness stream
     Down the gulfs to a pit of dream.

A chill wind weaves thro’ the rows of sheaves
     In the meadows that shimmer pale,
And comes to twine where the headstones shine
     And the ghouls of the churchyard wail
     For harvests that fly and fail.

Not a breath of the strange grey gods of change
     That tore from the past its own
Can quicken this hour, when a spectral pow’r
     Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne
     And looses the vast unknown.

So here again stretch the vale and plain
     That moons long-forgotten saw,
And the dead leap gay in the pallid ray,
     Sprung out of the tomb’s black maw
     To shake all the world with awe.

And all that the morn shall greet forlorn,
     The ugliness and the pest
Of rows where thick rise the stones and brick,
     Shall some day be with the rest,
     And brood with the shades unblest.

Then wild in the dark let the lemurs bark,
     And the leprous spires ascend;
For new and old alike in the fold
     Of horror and death are penn’d,
     For the hounds of Time to rend.

– H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, October 29, 2022

King-Emperor Trelu of Inba Iro

Trelu by Zhu Bajie
Trelu, known in Iromijan as Purushen (or "Devoted"), is the -great-great-grandson of Magdor and fifth Chomachto ruler of the Empire of Inba Iro. He inherited the Solar Throne of the First City while still a boy, with his mother Akatla and Hirano Chokan, the Great Royal Minister of the Right Side, acting as his regents. Trelu chafed under their guidance, which he saw as a repudiation of the policies of his father, Mabru, whose memory he revered. He also suspected that Hirano coveted the throne, if not for himself, then for an ambitious Ironian ally.

Shortly after his formal accession, Trelu executed Hirano and exiled his mother to Ha'avya, where she died not long thereafter, a victim of the White Plague, it is said. He then began a bloody purge of any who had attempted to stymie his father's reforms of the court and the priesthoods. Within two years, Trelu was in firm control of both the First City and the Empire. Not even the normally restive kings of Eshkom and Miyajal dared oppose him.

So secure did Trelu believe his position to be that he devoted the first decade of his reign to the completion of his father's dream: a new capital for the Empire at Tamas Tzora. Once finished, he moved the court and scribes there. This unprecedented action did not sit well with the priesthoods, who reminded Trelu that he was emperor of the Twenty Cities only because he was king of da-Imer – and that required his physical presence within the First City. By upending tradition in this fashion, he was inviting calamity upon himself and his people. As he had before, Trelu responded harshly, stripping his critics of positions and privileges while elevating those who supported his efforts.

In the years since, the king-emperor has given himself over almost entirely to strengthening the reforms begun under his father and expanded by himself. This has earned Trelu many enemies, particularly among the ancient Ironian dynasties, some of whom have never really accepted the Chomachto as the rightful rulers of Inba Iro. Cabals against him grow and there are whispers of conspiracies to depose and replace him with a ruler more amenable to the old ways. Only the eternal gods know what the future holds.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Secrets of sha-Arthan: Study

Although most of the skills a character possesses are determined by his class, species, and ability scores, it is possible to acquire others through study. First and foremost, study requires time and money; it may also require the finding of a teacher

Time and Cost

The time and cost necessary to learn a new skill depend on its complexity.

The table below assumes the character is involved in active study: at least eight hours each day during the required length of time devoted solely to study the skill he wishes to acquire. The days need not be consecutive, but the character cannot make a study roll until he has devoted one month (30 days) of 8-hour periods to the skill.


The difficulty of finding a teacher is highly variable. Many of the larger cities of sha-Arthan (e.g. da-Imer or Chabaktechel) are home to one or more institutions of learning. Temples or philosophical academies are another source of teachers. Characters might also turn to any groups with which they are currently aligned (see Alignment). Finding an appropriate teacher could even form the basis of an adventure or extended series of adventures. 
Alternately, a character might choose to study on his own without a teacher. This option is available only for skills of Complexity 1 or 2. Self-study increases the time required and halves the cost. The values in parentheses on the table above are those for self-study.

Study Rolls

At the conclusion of every month of active study, the character must make a study roll. The study roll is the same as the character’s untrained skill save (see Skill Saves), modified by his Wits (see Ability Scores). If successful, the character advances in his study. Once a character has made successful study rolls for every month required of the skill he is studying, he has acquired the skill.

If unsuccessful, the character has learned nothing during the past month and must redo it (and the skill roll), provided he devotes the required time and money to the task. This process continues until either the character succeeds or he spends three consecutive months not engaged in active study (see Time and Money above), in which case he is considered to have abandoned study of the skill. He then loses all progress made up to this point and must restart the study of the skill from the beginning. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Grognard's Grimoire: Kijai

Kijai (Slimy Scavenger)

A kijai is a loathsome, sickly yellow mass of semi-translucent slime found throughout the middle and lower reaches of the Vaults. Sages debate whether it is a form of animal or plant life, though none dare deny its dangers. 

DR 11, HD 5* (22hp), Att 1 × touch (2d6), AB +4, MV 30' (10'), SV F12 D13 M14 E15 S16 (3), ML 12, XP 300, NA 1 (0), TT None

  • Immunity: Unharmed by all attacks except cold and fire.
  • Division: Fulmination or attacks with weapons cause the kijai to divide into 1d4+1 2HD hijai that do half damage.
  • Acid: After a successful attack, sticks to victim and exudes acid. The acid inflicts 2d6 damage per round to flesh and destroys cloth, leather, or wood in one round (stone and metal are unaffected).
  • Seep: Can squeeze through small holes and cracks.

A hijai by Zhu Bajie

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Retrospective: Cthulhu by Gaslight

Alongside Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller, Call of Cthulhu occupies a special place in my heart. The source of my affection is twofold. First, I've simply played the game a great deal in the decades since I first encountered it. Second, the game further familiarized me with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and those of his friends, disciples, and imitators, many of whom has since become my favorite writers. In short, Call of Cthulhu has been the source of much enjoyment to me and that counts for a lot in my estimation.

Though I played CoC during the end of my time in elementary school and throughout high school, it was during my college years that my first truly memorable campaign took place – and a big part of that was due to the publication of Cthulhu by Gaslight. Published in 1986, Cthulhu by Gaslight was one of those delightful boxed sets Chaosium produced throughout the 1980s. As its subtitle makes plain, it's a CoC supplement focused on "horror roleplaying in 1890s England," which was right up my alley at the time, obsessed as I was with the twilight of the 19th century and the birth of the so-called Modern Age that followed. 

Unlike some fans of the game, I never felt that Call of Cthulhu and the 1920s were inseparable. After all, the choice of the game's temporal setting was always an arbitrary one. What is arguably the first story of the Cthulhu Mythos, "Dagon," was published in 1919 and many of Lovecraft's most celebrated works, such as At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and The Shadow out of Time weren't published until the 1930s. Consequently, when Chaosium decided to release its first supplement dedicated to an alternate time period for CoC, I happily snapped it up and inflicted it on my college friends, who, as it turned out, were just as enthusiastic for "Victorian Cthulhu," as we often called it. 

The boxed set consisted of two staple-bound booklets and a large map of London. The larger of the two booklets was "A Sourcebook for the 1890s" and was quite similar to, though larger than, "A Sourcebook for the 1920s," which had come in the original Call of Cthulhu boxed set I owned. Even at 56 pages in length, the Sourcebook is necessarily brief in in the topics it covers. After providing new and alternate occupations, updated skills, and weapons, it focuses primarily on the basic facts of life in Victorian England, with a special emphasis on London. There are thus discussions of politics, social class, technology, crime, and of course the occult, given the popularity of the subject in the late Victorian world. There are also, rather oddly in my opinion, rules and suggestions for time travel in Call of Cthulhu, in the event that either the Keeper or the players wish to transport their 1920s characters three decades into the past instead of making new 1890s investigators.

The second booklet, "The Yorkshire Horrors," a lengthy scenario that involves the era's most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his family in the machinations of the Napoleon of Crime, James Moriarty, who has now allied himself to the forces of the Mythos. Even at the time, I found it all a bit silly and over the top, something that the author of the boxed set, William A. Barton, seems to have recognized. He provides alternate names for all the major Holmesian characters so that the Keeper can avoid the inevitable eyerolling that might come upon the revelation that you're fighting worshipers of the Great Old Ones beside Holmes and Watson. 

In the years since the publication of Cthulhu by Gaslight, there have undoubtedly been several better – or at least more comprehensive – treatments of the Victorian Age for use in RPGs. Even so, the virtue of this particular supplement was that I both made use of it to play Call of Cthulhu but that it encouraged me to read and research more extensively into a number of historical topics that I might otherwise not have. I have little doubt, for example, that my continued fascination with Victorian occultism was jumpstarted as a result of owning Cthulhu by Gaslight. All my favorite RPG books, supplements, and scenarios have done the same thing: made me want to make use of them with my friends and encouraged me to go beyond them. 

Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Cthulhu by Gaslight did just this, which is why I rank it so highly even today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

White Dwarf: Issue #55

Issue #55 of White Dwarf (July 1984), with its cover by Les Edwards, is one I remember quite well, in part because it was published during the time when Games Workshop USA was located in Columbia, Maryland. Maryland being my home at the time, this situation made it much easier for me to find issues of WD, both current and back issues. The fact that the cover was science fictional in nature probably also plays a part in my memory of it.

In his editorial, Ian Livingstone mentions that TSR "had to sack about 150 employees during the last year and several other companies have ceased trading." 1984 was definitely a significant year for the history of both TSR and the wider hobby, though of course I didn't realize it at the time. Livingstone goes on to say that "this is not the end; it merely signals change." He suggests that "adventure gaming," as he calls it, is still growing in popularity and that book companies and computer games companies will benefit from the "changing desires" of the buying public. He was probably more correct in his prognostications than he imagined.

The final installment in Marcus L. Rowland's "The Name of the Game" focuses on RPGs other than fantasy and science fiction. He puts particular emphasis on superhero and espionage games, though games like Call of Cthulhu, Gamma World, and Car Wars also get nods. The main benefit of articles like this is historical; they're a good snapshot of the time in which they were published. Speaking of history, "Spiderbite" by Oliver Johnson is an introductory scenario for both D&D and AD&D whose premise involves historical research. The characters are approached by a cleric of scholarly bent who wishes to learn more about an ancient tomb complex located in the jungles of the south. Though short and relatively straightforward, the tomb is a well-done little dungeon seemingly inspired by the adventures of Indiana Jones and other pulp treasure seekers.

"Open Box" reviews a number of notable products, starting with Forces of Fantasy, the first supplement for Warhammer, which scores 7 out of 10. Four (A)D&D modules are also reviewed: Temple of Death (10 out of 10), The Assassin's Knot (7 out of 10), Tomb of Martek (9 out of 10), and Ravenloft (8 out of 10). I find it fascinating that the reviewer, Dave Morris, gave Temple of Death a perfect score, his only complaint being that it was written for Expert rather than Advanced D&D. Equally fascinating is his complaint that Ravenloft is the module's "series of tedious puns" – a fair criticism but far from the worst aspect of this highly influential scenario. Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective is viewed with great favor (9 out of 10), as are three volumes Commander's SSD Books for use with Starfleet Battles (all scoring 9 out of 10). 

I suppose it's a reflection of how poorly read I am compared to Dave Langford that only one of the books he reviews in this month's "Critical Mass" – Stephen R. Donaldson's Daughter of Regals – has ever graced my shelves. Actually, that's not true: he also mentions Moorcock's The Weird of the White Wolf and Bane of the Black Sword, though he says nothing much about them. Much more intriguing is "The Unquiet Grave" by Phil Holmes, in which he takes a look at the undead as portrayed in myth and literature, with an eye toward their use in fantasy RPGs. "Punks in 2034" is a short and self-explanatory Car Wars article by Steve Jackson (the USA one, not the UK one). It wouldn't be the '80s without some punks, after all ...

"Man and Beast" by Tom Parry and Jerry Vaughn is a treatment of zoolatry – animal worship – as the basis for cults in AD&D. The article provides information on initiation and advancement within the cults, as well as animal talismans, which are magic items that grant various powers related to the cult's animal patron. Interestingly, advancement within a cult isn't tied to a character's experience level, but is something independent of it. I rather suspect that the idea behind this is derived from the cults of RuneQuest – not that I mind, since cults are one of the most compelling ideas in RQ.

Part 4 of Dave Morris and Yve Newnham's "The Castle of Lost Souls" solo adventure appears in this issue and is as enjoyable as the previous parts. Normally, I skip over the letters page; I will make an exception this issue, because of the following "letter," which I found amusing:

As usual, we get more "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers." There's also "Flying the Flag" by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk, which talks at some length about the trials and tribulations of creating flags and standards for use with miniature figures. It's a surprisingly interesting article and I say that as someone who's never been much of a miniatures guy. "Mystic Triptych," as its name suggests, is a collection of three small articles for use with RuneQuest, my favorite being Oliver Johnson's stats for the night shriekers from Dougal Dixon's After Man. 

"The Gods of the Shapelings" by Fred Lee Cain is a follow-up of sorts to last month's "Fiend Factory," which introduce the naturally invisible shapeling race. Their gods are written up Deities & Demigods-style and are vaguely interesting (which is more than can be said of the shapelings themselves). "Arch Enemies in FRP" by J.H. Dickson is about what you'd expect: a bit of advice to the referee about making memorable enemies. Finally, there's "The Edge of Infinity" by Marcus L. Rowland, an excellent Ttraveller piece that considers alternate approaches to sector design, including curved and folded space, in addition to wormholes and parallel dimensions. Good stuff!

Though this issue is one I remember well, it's not one of my favorites. That's no knock against it, mind you. Rather, it's (yet more) recognition that it's difficult to put together a consistently excellent periodical, since it's so dependent on its submissions. With luck, next issue will be one of the greats.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Hey Look!

Anyone reading this ever encounter one of these figures? I must confess that, until I saw this advertisement, I was completely unaware of the existence of Fighting Fantasy miniature figures. Interestingly, the figures seem to have been made of plastic rather than metal, which, unless I'm mistaken, was unusual at the time. Mind you, I was never a huge collector of minis, so I speak largely from ignorance. 

The Least Important Attribute

I was recently poring over a number of different RPGs to see how they defined and handled ability scores. One of the games I examined was Chaosium's 1981 game, Stormbringer, written by Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin. Section 2.1.7 of its rulebook says the following about the attribute of Charisma:

This is a measure of leadership, charm, and of personality. It is not necessarily a measure of physical beauty, although it may be used as such from time to time. CHA helps your character in dealings with other player and non-player characters. In reality, it is the least important attribute. (italics mine)

Charisma (or its equivalent) is regularly deemed a "dump stat" in many RPGs, but I think this is the first time the text of a game explicitly makes this claim. The irony is that, while Charisma isn't as broadly useful as many other attributes in Stormbringer, it nevertheless plays a role in demon summoning and binding – significant activities in the world of the Young Kingdoms. Still, I find this section of the rulebook fascinating, since it would seem to be a rare instance of the designers speaking directly to the reader about the relative utility of some aspect of the game's rules.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Hoofed Thing

This being the week before Halloween, I felt an obligation to write a post about a "horror" tale by a pulp writer of note. Since the entire oeuvres of both H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith could by most definitions called such, I settled instead on the remaining member of the Weird Tales trinity, Robert E. Howard. 

Over the course of his career, REH wrote a number of extraordinary horror yarns, the most celebrated of which is no doubt "Pigeons from Hell." He also wrote a number that are not as well-known but that I nevertheless think worthy of attention. One of these is "The Hoofed Thing," a story that did not see print during Howard's lifetime. Under the title "Usurp the Night," it first appeared in the third issue of Weirdbook (1970), one of many fanzines from the late 1960s and early '70s that took it upon themselves to re-introduce the world to the work of Robert E. Howard freed from the editorial vandalism of Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp.

Unlike many of Howard's other horror tales, which belong to the Southern Gothic tradition, "The Hoofed Thing" is written in obvious imitation of H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, some critics have gone so far as to suggest that "The Hoofed Thing" is REH's version of "The Dunwich Horror." Although I can see certain superficial similarities between the two stories, they're actually quite different from one another and it's precisely for this reason that I decided to make this post. No one reading "The Hoofed Thing" could mistake it for one of Lovecraft's efforts; it is a thoroughly Howardian take on horror.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man named Michael Strang. His fiancée, Majory Ash, owns a "fat Maltese" with the unfortunate name of Bozo. At the start of the tale Bozo, "had failed to appear after his usual nightly prowl." Since a number of other pets had already disappeared in the neighborhood, Marjory is "disconsolate." Michael suspects that "some human pervert" with a "sadistic mania for poisoning animals" had killed the cat, but he still agrees to "sall[y] forth in search of the missing pet, though [he] had little hope of finding him."

In the course of his search, Michael comes to "a run-down, rambling estate which had recently been occupied – though not rejuvenated – by a Mr. Stark, a lonely, retiring sort of a man from the East." Stark reveals himself to be "an eccentric scholar of taciturn nature and with money to indulge his whims." He walks with a limp, as Michael discovers when he first sees him. The two men converse briefly about Bozo, about whose whereabouts Stark knows nothing, though he expresses sorrow at the cat's loss. He then asks the younger man inside.

Michael finds Stark to possess "evident erudition" and the pair spend nearly an hour discussing various academic topics. 
I took my departure, promising to return soon, and as I went out the door, it occurred to me that, after all, I had learned nothing of my host. He had carefully kept the conversation in impersonal channels. I also decided that though he knew nothing of Bozo, the presence of a cat in the house might be advantageous. Several times as we talked, I had heard the scampering of something overhead, though on second thought the noise had not particularly resembled the movement of rodents. It had sounded more like a tiny kid or lamb, or some other small hoofed animal, walking across the floor. 

Unable to locate Bozo, Michael buys Marjory "a waddling, bench-legged bulldog with a face like a gargoyle and as loyal a heart as ever beat in a canine breast." She is immediately taken with the animal, who then becomes her constant companion. The following week, Michael makes a point of calling on Stark again, whom he discovers to be well versed in all manner of subjects, whether they be "science, the arts, economics, philosophy."  

Charmed as I was by his flow of conversation, I nevertheless found myself listening to the curious noise I had heard before, and I was not disappointed. Only this time the tapping sound was louder than before and I decided that his unknown pet was growing. Perhaps, I thought, he kept it in the house fearing it would meet the same fate as the banished cats, and as I knew the house had no basement or cellar, it was natural that he would keep it in some attic room. A lonely and friendless man, it was probable that he felt a great deal of affection for it, whatever it might be.

Michael promises to visit Stark as often as he is able, since the two men enjoyed each other's company. Business prevents him for doing for several weeks, during which time dogs begin to go missing in the neighborhood. Marjory claims that someone had attempted to kidnap her bulldog – whom she dubbed Bozo in memory of her lost cat – and "the incident must have made Bozo suspicious toward strangers, for it was only the next morning that [he] was called on to rescue Mr. Stark from him." According to Stark, he was taking a walk around his estate when Bozo suddenly appeared and attacked him. Michael apologized for the incident and promised it would never happen again. While talking to Stark about this, he "again heard the tap-tap of hoofs upstairs." The sound was now so loud that he almost asked the older man about its nature but "refrained from such presumption ... feeling that Mr. Stark needed rest and quiet."

A week later, there was another unexplained disappearance: "a three-year-old tot who was seeing playing in a lot near its own yard just before sun-down." Despite the best efforts by the police, no trace of the missing child was found. Another two weeks later, four more children had vanished without explanation. "An aura of fear hung like a pall over the city, and through this pall shot an icy wave of shuddering horror." After the disappearance of a local vagabond, "grim-faced men patrolled the streets heavily armed, and as night fell, a suffocating tension settled over the whole city."

Not long thereafter, Stark calls Michael on the phone and asks him to come to his home. He explains that his cabinet door is jammed and the cabinet contains the drugs he needs to overcome insomnia. The young man dutifully comes over; he finds the house nearly dark, lit only by dim candlelight. This discomfits Michael somewhat, who comes to worry that perhaps Stark is behind the rash of disappearances. He even thinks he sees the old man stealthily approaching him with a mallet, his face "unfamiliar and hideously distorted." Instead, Stark offers him the mallet to aid in his efforts to open the jammed cabinet, which he does quickly before rushing out of the house.

Michael returns home and falls asleep while reading, only to be awakened by a phone call from Mrs Ash, Marjory's mother. 

"Why, Michael, Marjory has been gone for more than an hour! I heard her talking over the phone, and then she told me you wanted her to meet you by the grove on the corner of the Stark place, to take a ride. I thought it was funny that you didn't drive by the house like you always do, and I didn't like the idea of her going out alone, but I supposed you knew best – you know we always put so much faith in you, Michael – so I let her go. You don't think – you don't think – anything – anything –"

It's at this point that Michael Strang does accept the possibility that Stark might have a hand in what's been happening in the city and that the peculiar, hoofed steps he'd been hearing have some connection to it all. He then vows to get to the bottom of the mystery and, he hopes, to extricate his fiancée from any danger.

"The Hoofed Thing" is no great work of fiction, even by the standard of the pulps, but it is fun. It's especially so as Michael transforms himself, in the final third of the story, from an affable, thoughtful, and eminently reasonable man to a – literally – sword-swinging hero, thanks to an heirloom his family has kept for centuries. Of course, it's absolutely ridiculous if you value verisimilitude or expect the protagonist in an eldritch horror tale to faint away upon the revelation of what is transpiring. Before I'd read the story for the first time, I'd been told by others that it was awful and not worthy of my time. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. As I already said, it's far from great, but I couldn't help but find it enjoyable in spite of that fact. Perhaps you will too.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Real Adventure Was the Random Encounters We Had Along the Way

While there is not – and probably never will be – a universally accepted definition of what constitutes old school gaming, I'd like to make the modest suggestion that some degree of randomness is an essential characteristic of its play (though one should take care not to overdo it). This is not a new suggestion on my part, nor do I think it's an especially controversial one. Take a look at most of the major RPGs of the first decade of the hobby, whether it be Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, or even RuneQuest, and you'll almost certainly find one or more significant elements of gameplay that depend on the random throw of some dice. In addition, randomness respects the fact that the referee is also a player by taking certain things out of his hands, which, in turn, paves the way for the emergence of a satisfyingly unpredictable campaign. 

Nowhere do I think this aspect of old school play more apparent than in the case of random encounters. D&D, for example, includes the possibility of such encounters both in the dungeon and in the wilderness. In a similar vein, Traveller, whose basic structure owes a great deal to OD&D, includes an even wider range of random encounters, from the vessels one might find while jumping into a new star system to the alien animals on uncharted worlds to the potential patrons one might run across in starports. I could cite more examples from other games, but I hope my point is clear: old school RPGs considered random encounters an important driver of gameplay, one every bit as important as prepared locales or scenarios. 

Earlier today, I was considering the various campaigns I'm refereeing or have refereed over the past few years, particularly my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne and Riphaeus Sector Traveller campaigns. In both cases, I have made regular use of the various random encounter tables to determine who or what the characters meet as they chart their course across the world. That's because a freewheeling campaign of any size would simply be impossible without them. No referee, not even the most fastidious, could ever hope to key every inch of the map or keep track of all the monsters, NPCs, settlements, and factions of the game world. Random encounters – and the tables that facilitate them – are thus one of the most important tools of any referee.

The House of Worms campaign demonstrates this again and again. Many of its most memorable moments came not from any plan of mine but through the results of random encounters. Within the first year of the campaign, for instance, the characters found themselves, as the result of a magical mishap, teleported far away from the lands they knew. Because I hadn't anticipated that this might occur, I had nothing prepared and instead made use of a random encounter table, the result of which was an "evil magic-user." I took this cue and ran with it, the evil MU becoming an important antagonist for a while. Later, they were traveling through a desert and I rolled up an encounter with a large number of the dreaded Ssú – too many for them to take on by themselves, leading to their forming an alliance with and organizing the inhabitants of a nearby village in order to fight the Enemies of Man.

Over the course of the last seven and a half years, random happenstance has been the impetus for so many of the little events that have contributed to the campaign's ever-growing color and texture. Indeed, I could convincingly argue that they've played a much bigger role in this regard than most of what I, as the referee, have deliberately introduced into the campaign. That's not to downplay the importance of the referee or his choices. However, I want to suggest that, were the course of the House of Worms campaign left entirely up to things that I had decided, I doubt it would have had the staying power it's demonstrated thus far. I surely would have run out of ideas by now, or at least fallen into predictable ruts, neither of which is conducive to long-term success. Random encounters have helped keep the campaign fresh by throwing me – and the players – curveballs with which we might otherwise not have had to deal.

Consequently, random encounters are not incidental to the play of a successful old school roleplaying game campaign; rather, they are its lifeblood. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Retrospective: Pool of Radiance

My late childhood and early teen years coincided not just with the ascent of fantasy and science fiction in popular media but with the (likely related) ascents of RPGs and video/computer games. By the time I first encountered roleplaying games, there were already serious efforts to combine these two hobbies – and my friends and I were very interested in seeing what they had to offer. That's why we greedily snapped up Wizardry and Telengard and Adventure and many more, all of which we enjoyed but none of which fulfilled our dreams of an electronic entertainment that truly brought the fun of a fantasy RPG to a console or desktop.

There were many reasons why we felt this way, most of them related to the technical limitations of computers in the early to mid-1980s. Another reason was that none of the computer or video games at the time made use of a rules system as complex as that of most pen-and-paper RPGs, which had a negative impact on their depth of play. Wizardry was a solid step in this direction, which is why I loved it, but it was still sufficiently primitive in the scope of its rules that it couldn't hold a candle to Dungeons & Dragons or any other tabletop roleplaying game.

This largely remained the state of affairs until the late 1980s, when advances in both computer technology and program design saw the rise of increasingly sophisticated offerings. By this time, I was away at college and, while I didn't have a desktop computer of my own, many of my friends did so. It was through one of them that, in the Fall of 1988, I was first laid eyes on Pool of Radiance. Produced by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), Pool of Radiance was the first official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game. Unlike the AD&D-branded Intellivision games of earlier in the decade, this one made use of the actual AD&D rules available at the time. This was a huge selling point to me, since all previous fantasy computer games used their own rules systems, which, as I noted above, were much less robust. 

The other thing that caught my attention was that Pool of Radiance was not a generic fantasy game. Instead, it made use of the then-new official AD&D setting of the Forgotten Realms. I'd been a fan of the Realms since I first encountered Ed Greenwood's articles in the pages of Dragon, so the use of the setting in Pool of Radiance was also a point in its favor. Further, the overall scenario of the game was designed not by the staff of SSI but by a team of RPG designers working at TSR, among them James Ward, David Cook, and Steve Winter. TSR fanboy that I was, this last fact assured me that, with Pool of Radiance, we were finally getting the goods: an honest to Crom digital adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons rather than a knock-off.

As one might expect, the centerpiece of Pool of Radiance was its character generator. The player is given the ability to generate up to six characters for use as his party of adventurers in the game. Ability scores are generated randomly, though the player possesses some capacity to alter them according to his preferences. Characters can belong to any of six races (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling) and any of four classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief, with demihumans given the opportunity to multiclass). Though representing only a portion of AD&D's full possibilities – there are no sub-classes or half-orcs, for instance – everything included in Pool of Radiance works the way it ought to in the tabletop version of the game. This was not a version of the game simplified for computers but the Real Deal™.

The game assumes the characters have come to the city of New Phlan and entered into the service of its council to reclaim the Old City, which has fallen into ruin and is now inhabited by a variety of monsters and evil humanoids. As the characters venture into these ruins, they gain experience and treasure, which enables them to explore ever more dangerous – and lucrative – areas. In time, they become sufficiently powerful and accomplished to move beyond Phlan and explore other locales that likewise would benefit from their presence. In short, Pool of Radiance is a good translation of the structure of most D&D campaigns into computerized form. 

The game's scenario is not groundbreaking or revolutionary in any real way, but it is nonetheless quite enjoyable, precisely because it is so similar to many people's experiences of playing AD&D. This similarity is buttressed by the inclusion of myriads of little rules and game elements, like saving throws, spell selection, magic items, and even demihuman level limits. To play Pool of Radiance is to play AD&D, albeit one that lacks the social interactivity that is, in my opinion, the foundation of why roleplaying is such a fun hobby. Even so, the game had a lot to offer and my friends and I spent far more time playing it than we probably ought to have.

In the decades since its release, computer RPGs have become vastly more sophisticated and immersive than was Pool of Radiance. Everything from their graphics, scenario design, and rules implementation have advanced by leaps and bounds, strengthened by improvements in technology and years of experience. Because of this, I doubt I could go back and play Pool of Radiance (or any of the many SSI AD&D computer games that followed in its wake) with any enjoyment. Yet, there's no question that this game was an important milestone in the development of the CRPG genre and for introducing a wider audience to Dungeons & Dragons – quite the legacy, if you ask me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Affection for Second Edition

Since its inception, the focus of this blog has been on the first decade of the hobby of roleplaying – 1974-1984 or thereabouts, though I have regularly strayed outside this arbitrary period of time when the mood struck me. I did this because I felt this was the most interesting era of the hobby and also because the latter half of that decade was the period of my own introduction to it. Obviously, I continued to roleplay after 1984, but I long had the impression that most of my regular readers came here out of interest in the Golden Age of Dungeons & Dragons and other early RPGs.

On those occasions when I have wandered outside the confines of that seminal first decade, I've noticed much more interest than I would have expected. This is particularly the case with posts relating, even tangentially, to the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There is a marked increase in the pageviews and comments on posts about 2e, so much so that it frankly surprised me. There is, for example, much more interest even in posts gentling mocking the art of Second Edition than there typically is of my Pulp Fantasy Library entries. 

My surprise at this is entirely the result of my own myopia. Though I played 2e and even enjoyed doing so, it's never been My Edition. Likewise, when I finally abandoned playing Dungeons & Dragons in any form, it was during the Second Edition era, which probably clouds my judgment of it and its relative popularity. I've said before that, on reflection, I don't bear any ill will toward 2e and, in fact, don't think it's nearly as bad as its reputation in some old school circles.

I now find myself wondering both how widespread is the nostalgia for Second Edition and whether or not its fans feel that they're judged unfairly by aficionados of earlier versions of D&D. Because I only interact with a small sub-set of the larger old school RPG fandom – and likely a peculiar one at that – I have no real sense of how beloved AD&D 2e might be in the wider world. I can only say that, based on the response to my few posts about it, there's clearly some affection for it among my readership and I find that fascinating.

So, Second Edition fans: what do you think? Is 2e treated like the redheaded stepchild of the old school world or is it widely celebrated? I'm very curious about this, since I don't interact often with people whose favorite version of D&D is Second Edition AD&D and I'd love to know more about its place in the pantheon of RPGs. Please, enlighten me.

White Dwarf: Issue #54

Memory is a strange thing. Though I owned many of the issues of White Dwarf about which I've been writing in this series, some of them stand out more than others. Issue #54 (June 1984) is one of those I remember very well, in large part because of its striking cover by Peter Andrew Jones. In my opinion, the covers of Dragon were consistently good, while the covers of White Dwarf were more hit or miss. However, very few of the covers of Dragon stick in my head the way that White Dwarf's covers do. I suspect it's because the WD covers were generally wilder and more varied. They were rarely "safe" in the way that Dragon's were. That's not to say all of White Dwarf's covers were brilliant – they were not – only that many more captured my youthful imagination than did their counterparts on the front of Dragon.

Issue #54 is also memorable for its editorial by Ian Livingstone, which touches on the issue of the Satanic Panic. I reproduce his words here in their entirety:

Livingstone pretty well says it all, so I have nothing more to add beyond my usual bafflement that this actually happened. 

"Law of Nature" by Christopher Hunt is a good article on the subject of "logic in fantasy worlds." More precisely, Hunt is concerned with ensuring that fantasy settings make sense and follow intelligible rules, even though those rules may differ from "the constraints of our present world." I'm probably well disposed toward articles of this sort, because Hunt's advice is not far removed from my own general approach. In a similar vein, "Visiting Other Plains" by Ian Marsh offers advice on presenting barbarian cultures in fantasy (with an emphasis on RuneQuest) by reference to real world tribal cultures. Again, it's a good, if short, article of the sort I used to really enjoy reading.

Part 3 of Marcus L. Rowland's "The Name of the Game" focuses on science fiction RPGs, with Traveller taking pride of place, though he also references Star Frontiers, Space Opera, Star Trek, and Laserburn (which I presume had a strong presence in the UK than it did in the USA). Meanwhile, "Microview" by Russell Clark reviews two computer games, Apocalypse (6 out of 10) and Battle 1917 (7 out of 10). "Tabletop Heroes" by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk takes a look at miniature figures from Essex, Citadel, and Ral Partha with an eye toward their utility in Warhammer. 

"Open Box" reviews Murder on Arcturus Station for Traveller, rating it 7 out of 10, which seems a little low to me, especially since the reviewer, like myself, enjoyed it greatly. Kharé – Cityport of Traps, the second volume of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! gets an 8 out of 10. Espionage! and the adventure Border Crossing from Hero Games receive scores of 8 and 9 respectively. Finally, there's Pursuit to Kadath, an adventure for Call of Cthulhu published by Theatre of the Mind Enterprises. The scenario is rated 8 out of 10. All in all, a good selection of products that I think give a true sense of what the hobby was like at the time in terms of its diversity.

While Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" is usually quite forgettable for me, this issue's installment is a rare example of one that I still remember to this day. First, I remember that Langford simply refused to read, let alone review, Frank Herbert's Heretics of Dune. Second, he offers a lengthy excoriation of Battlefield Earth and its author, L. Ron Hubbard. He also reviews several other books that he likes, such as Pavane by Keith Roberts, but it's his takedown of Battlefield Earth that is the main event of his column: "It's dreadful and tedious beyond endurance."

Part 3 of "The Castle of Lost Souls" solo adventure by Dave Morris and Yve Newnham is as fun as its predecessors. I really enjoyed this series of articles when it was first published. "Down Among the Dead Men" by Alex McDonald is an examination of the undead in RuneQuest. More specifically, it expands on the treatment of the undead creatures found in the RQ rulebook. The article also mentions "Games Workshop's forthcoming Questworld pack," which, sadly, never came to pass. There are new episodes of "Thrud the Barbarian," "The Travellers," and "Gobbledigook," which are as delightful as ever.

"Temple of the Doomed Prince" by Phil Holmes is the first adventure I ever encountered for Tékumel. Statted for use with Empire of the Petal Throne, AD&D, and RuneQuest, it details a ruined temple to Ksárul, the titular Doomed Prince of the Blue Room. Though its overall design is nothing special, it's filled with plenty of atmosphere and cultural oddities that piqued my interest. At the time, I'd only ever heard of Tékumel, so this whetted my appetite for more information, though it'd be several more years before I'd actually hold a copy of Empire of the Petal Throne in my hands.

"Now You See Them, Now You Don't" by Fred Lee Cain presents two new monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons: surrogates and shapelings. Surrogates are invisible golems, while shapelings are a naturally invisible humanoid species. Despite the descriptions of each, I found the monsters themselves rather thin gruel, notable primarily for their invisibility and little else. Finally, "Goals for Role-Playing" by J. Anthony Nanson is a short piece that outlines the kinds of goals characters might pursue – risk, business, romance – and then offers for suggestions for including them in adventures. Since the article is short, I can't really fault it for its vagueness, though I can't help but feel it barely touched upon the possibilities of its premise.

As I said at the beginning of this post, issue #54 is one that I remember very vividly, even though, by objective standards, it's not one of the magazine's best. Still, the mere presence of an adventure for use with Tékumel is certainly notable, since almost no EPT scenarios were ever published in any venue, not even the pages of TSR's own Dragon. Once again, White Dwarf demonstrates its uniqueness.
And then there was this photo from the back of the issue. Yes, it's real.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Who Goes There?

Last week, I wrote about Clark Ashton Smith's "The Devotee of Evil," whose original appearance in the pages of Stirring Science Stories featured an illustration by the incomparable Hannes Bok. Seeing that illustration led me down a rabbit hole of investigation into the life and work of Wayne Woodard, known to history by his artistic pseudonym, Hannes Bok (apparently derived from the name of the composer Johannes Sebastian Bach). Among Bok's most famous pieces is the cover of the 1948 collection of science fiction stories by John W. Campbell, Jr, Who Goes There? (appended to the end of this post).

The collection's title comes from its lead story. Campbell first published it in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, the magazine he edited from 1937 to 1971. He did so under the nom de plume, Don A. Stuart, a pen name he'd used even before he took up editorship of the premier SF pulp of the Golden Age. In its original form, Who Goes There? is a novella consisting of twelve chapters, while the version that appeared a decade later in the collection mentioned above is expanded to fourteen chapters. An even longer version, bearing the title, Frozen Hell, was discovered just a few years ago among Campbell's papers, but it never appeared during his lifetime.

Despite their differences in length, the 1938 and 1948 versions are nearly identical in their essentials. The story concerns a team of thirty-seven men, most of them scientists of one type or another, stationed at an Antarctic research facility who have stumbled upon something strange. In this, the tale bears a superficial similarity to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, which appeared in three successive issues of Astounding a little less than two years prior. The similarity is primarily their shared setting of Antarctica, a continent still largely unknown in the 1930s, the decade that saw several scientific expeditions to it, most notably those of Richard Byrd. As an admirer of Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness is usually in my mind whenever a think of Antarctica and stories set there, particularly those of a science fictional and/or horror variety; Who Goes There? is both.

The novella begins shortly after the Secondary Magnetic Pole team under the leadership of the facility's second-in-command, McReady, returns, bearing an unusual find: the body of what appears extraterrestrial being frozen in a block of ice. The body was found on the South Polar Plateau, where it was "frozen since Antarctica froze twenty million years ago." The team that found it, consisting of McReady, Barclay, Blair, Dr. Copper, Norris, and Van Wall, speculate that 

"It came down from space, driven and lifted by forces men haven't discovered yet, and somehow – perhaps something went wrong then – it tangled with Earth's magnetic field. It came south, out of control probably, circling the magnetic pole. That's a savage country there, but when Antarctica was still freezing it must have been a thousand times more savage. 

They further speculate that one of the ship's passengers – the thing they brought back with them – had managed to get clear of spaceship's wreck and then quickly froze to death in the cold of Antarctica. The team hoped to examine the ship more closely, but their use of decanite and thermite bombs to soften the ice in which it was encased inadvertently set the ship's magnesium metal hull on fire and it, along with whatever secrets it might have held, was lost in a blinding inferno of heat and light.

There is disagreement between Norris, a physicist, and Blair, a biologist, regarding the danger in thawing the thing in the ice, with the former thinking it dangerous and the latter seeing no cause for concern. Norris worries that the thing, even if dead, might be host to microscopic organisms that, when thawed, could unleash a new plague upon the world. Blair, for his part, argues that alien germs would probably be no threat to Earth, since their biologies would probably be incompatible. The debate between the two goes on for some time with neither scientist ceding ground to the other. 

Before the facility's commander, Garry, can make a decision, Blair eagerly gives the men present a look at the thing, hoping that, by doing so, he will win the others over to his point of view. 

The room stiffened abruptly. It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken haft of the bronze ice-ax was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow –

Seeing the alien's appearance has the opposite effect, shifting the men's mood against the possibility of thawing it. Nevertheless, Blair is persistent and Dr. Copper largely agrees with him. He believes that much could be learned about the nature of extra-terrestrial life and that this knowledge was worth the risk. The pair eventually win over Garry by arguing "things don't live after being frozen," especially not "higher animal life." Reluctantly, the commander acquiesces to their wishes and the block of ice is allowed to thaw overnight, under the watchful eye of Connant, the facility's cosmic ray specialist.

During his vigil, Connant falls asleep and, when he awakes, discovers that the presumed alien corpse is gone. 

"Your damned beast got loose. I fell asleep about twenty minutes ago, and when I woke up, the thing was gone. Hey, Doc, the hell you say those things can't come to life. Blair's blasted potential life developed a hell of a lot of potential and walked out on us." 

Copper stared blankly. "It wasn't – Earthly," he sighed suddenly. "I – I guess Earthly laws don't apply."

"Well, it applied for leave of absence and took it. We've got to find it and capture it somehow."

The men of the facility fan out, looking for the thing, assuming that it couldn't have got very far in the confined spaces of the buildings in which they dwell, They likewise assume that the extreme cold of the outdoors – the tale takes place toward the end of the Antarctic winter – would freeze it again and so it would avoid leaving the facility. 

Soon, Connant believes he has located the alien. It's made its way to Dogtown, the building where one of the men, Clark, houses the huskies used to pull their sleds. The dogs are howling, yelping, and snarling at one of their own, a dog named Charnauk. Charnauk reveals himself to – somehow – be the alien, its three red eyes giving it away. A combination of bullets, ax blows, and finally 220 Volts of electricity seemingly kills the thing, whose corpse Blair wants to examine more closely. In doing so, he concludes that the alien had somehow turned itself into Charnauk.

"Turned?" snapped Garry. "How?"

"Every living thing is made up of jelly – protoplasm and submicroscopic things called nuclei, which control the bulk, the protoplasm. This thing was just a modification of that worldwide plan of Nature; cells made up of protoplasm, controlled by infinitely tinier nuclei. You physicists might compare it – an individual cell of any living thing – with an atom; the bulk of the atom, the space-filling part, is made up of the electron orbits, but the character of the thing is determined by the atomic nucleus."

"This isn't wildly beyond what we already know. It's just a modification we haven't seen before. It's as natural, as logical, as any other modification of life. It obeys exactly the same laws. The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus."

"Only in this creature, cell-nuclei can control those cells at will. It digested Charnauk, and as it digested, studied every cell of his tissue, and shaped its own cells to imitate them exactly. Parts of it – parts that had time to finish changing – are dog-cells. But they don't have dog-nuclei."  Blair lifted a fraction of the tarpaulin. A torn dog's leg, with stiff gray fur protruded. "That, for instance, isn't dog at all; it's imitation. Some parts I'm uncertain about; the nucleus was hiding itself, covering up with dog-cell imitation nucleus. In time, not even a microscope would have shown the difference."

"Suppose," asked Norris bitterly, "it had had lots of time?"

It's then that the men first begin to realize that the alien thing possesses the ability to assimilate any living thing. Worse still, there was a good chance that the thing was still at large and that one or more of the men had already been copied by it ...

Who Goes There? is a remarkable classic of science fiction, all the more remarkable because it was written in 1938. Campbell's writing is spare and dialog-heavy and his cast of characters, most of whom don't even have names, are often difficult to tell apart from one another. Nevertheless, the central idea of the story and the scientific basis for it remains compelling even today. It's no wonder that it inspired multiple films, the most faithful of which is John Carpenter's The Thing, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary earlier this year. If you've never read the original story, I highly recommend it.

Bok's cover illustration from the 1948 collection containing the story

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Wyst: Alastor 1716

Though Jack Vance is probably best known among fans of roleplaying games for his works of fantasy, such as his The Dying Earth and its sequels, his works of science fiction are every bit as remarkable, filled with the same memorable characters, imaginative locales, and wild reversals of fortune that are the hallmarks of his long career as a writer.  

During the 1970s, Vance wrote three science fiction novels set in an area of human-colonized space known as the Alastor Cluster. The third of these, Wyst: Alastor 1716, follows the travels of a restless young man who enters and wins an art contest, the prize for which gives him a round-trip ticket to any world in the Cluster he chooses, along with some spending money. The young man chooses Wyst, whose society is governed by the philosophy of "egalism" that decrees that every person is equal to every other – with somewhat predictable results. Like so many of Vance's works, Wyst is thus equal parts adventure story and satire.

I mention this all because Sword Fish Islands, the company behind the excellent Hot Springs Island, has published an illustrated, fine press version of Wyst: Alastor 1716 in cooperation with Spatterlight Press, which preserves and promotes Jack Vance's literary legacy. Sword Fish Islands very kindly asked me to write the afterword to this edition, which touches on, among other things, the role Vance's stories played in inspiring many of the earliest creators of roleplaying games, particularly Gary Gygax.

If you're a fan of well made, limited editions of classic literature, you might find this lovely new edition of Wyst to your liking.  

Oink! Oink!

When people ask me what I mean when I say that AD&D Second Edition was not well served by its art, I think of illustrations like this one, which appears in the 2e Dungeon Master's Guide. 

Doing It Wrong

I've been re-reading the AD&D Second Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, as part of my continuing exploration of the concepts of experience and level. I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at how the various TSR editions of the game handle these matters. In doing so, I was surprised to see this bit of highlighted text:

As an option? What's going on here? Prior to looking at this section for the first time in untold years, I had assumed that, when it came to the awarding of experience points, 2e followed closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, with XP being given for the defeat of foes and the acquisition of treasure. That's certainly how I remember XP awards working in Second Edition. It's also how I remember playing the game back in the late '80s and early '90s. Was I playing the game wrong all those years ago?

Yes, apparently. If you play AD&D 2e by the book, there are only two ways that characters earn experience points. The first are the group awards, earned for "victory over their foes." This type of award has existed in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons since 1974 and is based on the hit dice and special abilities of the enemies defeated. The second are individual awards, given out on the basis of a character's class. Thus, a fighter gets an individual award of 10 XP per hit die of a defeated enemy per level, while a magic-user gets one by using spells "to overcome foes or problems" at a rate of 50 XP per level of the spell cast, among other awards. This second type of award is new to Second Edition.

When you look at the individual class awards, you'll notice something interesting. A class award for thieves is 2 XP per gold piece value of treasure obtained. What used to be a default means of obtaining experience – a "group award" in Second Edition's parlance – is now exclusive to thieves (and other rogues) and at twice the previous rate. I can see the train of logic that led to this element of the new edition's design: if you're committed to the idea of individual class-based awards, it makes sense that thieves ought to be rewarded for, well, stealing. However, the rules develop this notion in a way that completely excludes other classes for benefiting, experience-wise, from the acquisition of treasure. 

This is a huge shift away from the design of all prior editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which accepted the implicit pulp fantasy assumption that, to one degree or another, all characters are thieves, in the sense that they all benefit from treasure hunting, tomb robbing, and similar larcenous activities. Second Edition is a tacit repudiation of that conception of D&D, which I suppose only makes sense for a post-Dragonlance edition. The shift toward a more "heroic" presentation of the game was well under way by this point and perhaps this change is yet more evidence of it.

How I somehow managed not to take notice of it, though, is a genuine mystery.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Retrospective: Adventure

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1970s and '80s, I was simultaneously obsessed with and frustrated by the emerging technology of videogames – obsessed because, even in those benighted days, their potential was obvious; frustrated precisely because they were still a very long way from fulfilling that potential. Nevertheless, many of the videogames of my youth were truly amazing things, primitive though they must look to 21st century eyes. The best of them were paradigms of one's reach exceeding one's grasp, since technical limitations often prevented even the most talented designers from truly achieving what they set out to do. 

Neophilia is nevertheless a powerful thing. My friends and I enjoyed playing whatever video or computer games we could get our hands on, especially those with fantasy or science fiction themes. One of the earliest of the former that I remember playing was Adventure, released in 1980 for the Atari Video Computer System (rebranded as the Atari 2600 in 1982). The brainchild of Warren Robinett, who'd previously designed Slot Racers for Atari, Adventure is generally considered the world's first graphical fantasy game and it's precisely for that reason that I so loved it in my youth.

Behold! The Chalice
The premise of the game is quite simple: an unnamed Evil Magician has stolen the Enchanted Chalice and hidden it somewhere in the Kingdom. The player, whose "character" is represented by a square, must find the Chalice and return it to the Golden Castle where it belongs. Naturally, this is not as easy as it sounds. The Magician has created three dragons to hinder the player in his quest. These are Yorgle the Yellow Dragon, Grundle the Green Dragon, and Rhindle the Red Dragon. At higher levels of difficulty – there are three levels in all – there is also a Black Bat that carries objects throughout the Kingdom. This makes the player's quest more difficult, because the Bat not only moves important items around, it can also swap an item it's carrying with one you're carrying. This is especially annoying when you're carrying something like the Sword that's needed to slay the dragons – or even the Enchanted Chalice, as you're hurrying toward the Golden Castle to win the game.

Beware! Rhindle
Objectively, Adventure is not a particularly complex game or, at its lowest level of difficulty, a very hard one. Like many early videogames, much of its apparent difficulty comes from the limitations of the software and hardware of those bygone days. However, difficulty levels 2 and 3 genuinely up the ante, by introducing a number of random elements, mostly involving the placement of important items, that change gameplay in significant ways. They also include some features, like invisible mazes, that I absolutely dreaded as a child, because they were pretty much a death trap if a dragon were pursuing you. At the higher levels of difficulty, Adventure was thus more of a challenge.

Of course, it was precisely the challenging nature of the higher difficulty levels that made one feel as if one had accomplished something by succeeding in bringing the Enchanted Chalice back to the Golden Castle. That this often took many, many attempts only reinforced in our imaginations the immensity of what he'd done. That it all took place against the pixelated backdrop of a fantasy setting added further to its appeal. Outside of playing Dungeons & Dragons, which we'd only just discovered in the months prior to Adventure's release, there was no other game like it available at the time. In 1980, simply being the first was enough to hold our attention.

Ultimately, that connection to D&D, however tenuous, is probably what elevates Adventure to the lofty heights of the games most influential over my imagination. Like D&D itself, Adventure was released at just the right time in my own life, when I was at the start of my lifelong love affair with fantasy adventure games and when I'd not yet become a fault-finding snob who hates everything. Back then, I could still find wonder and excitement and even a little fear in a game where your in-game avatar is nothing more than a colored square and fearsome dragons look like ducks. I miss those days sometimes ...
The glory of the Golden Castle!

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Stafford House Campaign

Four years ago today, Greg Stafford, creator of Glorantha and one of the founders of Chaosium, passed into the eternity of the Gods World. In celebration of his memory, Chaosium has released the first volume of a new series called the Chaosium Archival Collection. This volume, The Stafford House Campaign, is a collection of essays Stafford wrote about his then-ongoing RuneQuest campaign during the period between 1978 and 1981, some of which originally saw print in Amateur Press Associations, like The Wild Hunt. 

I don't yet own a copy myself, so I can't speak of its complete contents. However, there's a lengthy excerpt available for free download on the Chaosium website. If that catches your fancy, you can buy the full 84-page version, in either a PDF or POD form. Based solely on the download, it looks like the whole collection will be worth it for anyone interested either in the development of Glorantha or in the early history of the hobby of roleplaying.

White Dwarf: Issue #53

Issue #53 of White Dwarf (May 1984) boasts a cover by Angus Fieldhouse depicting wgar appear to be orcs in the service of Saruman from The Lord of the Rings – notice the sigil of the white hand on their shields and battle standard. If so, it's an odd choice, since the issue contains a scenario for use with Warhammer based on the Battle of Pelennor Fields in which Saruman's forces did not participate, having already been defeated at Helm's Deep a couple of weeks prior. Even so, I like the illustration quite a bit; it nicely encapsulates many of the features I strongly associate with the Games Workshop "house style" for artwork.

Editor Ian Livingstone touches again on the issue of the roleplaying hobby's continued growth. He opines that gamers "who have been in the hobby for many years" might be "a little peeved" that "thousands of newcomers who view the hobby less seriously" than they have intruded their "exclusive" domain. It's an age-old aspect of the hobby, one I've experienced from both sides. If nothing else, this simply proves that there really is nothing new under the sun. Livingstone states that White Dwarf will continue to assist newcomers "by publishing introductory articles and scenarios," but that it would not do so "at the expense of its main editorial features." Whatever one thinks of this approach, I think it's instructive to consider that Games Workshop still exists today, while most of the other mainstays of the hobby, most notably TSR, no longer do so. 

Part 2 of Marcus Rowland's introduction to RPGs, "The Name of the Game," appears in this issue. This time, he focuses on games other than Dungeons & Dragons, starting with RuneQuest, which receives the bulk of the article's coverage. Rowland's comments on RQ are interesting. He emphasizes its detailed setting of Gloratha, its unique magic systems, its religions and cults, and, above all, its combat system, which he calls "the main reason for the game's success." He also includes brief discussions of several other RPGs: Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry & Sorcery, Warhammer, and Man, Myth & Magic – quite an odd assortment to me, but perhaps this reflects the idiosyncrasies of the UK market in the mid-1980s.  

"Minas Tirith" by Joe Dever is a huge article that presents the Battle of Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King as the basis for a Warhammer fantasy battle scenario. The scenario is designed for two sides, the forces of Gondor and its allies and the forces of the Witch-King of Angmar. Of course, each side has enough units and sub-factions, not to mention named characters, that it would be quite easy to divvy them up into several players. The article includes not only stats for all the forces but suggestions of miniature figures appropriate to represent them. Though I've never been much of a miniature wargames player, I found the article weirdly inspirational and wished I could somehow get the opportunity to play it.

"Open Box" starts its reviews by looking at Games Workshop's Caverns of the Dead, an ostensibly system-neutral (yet obviously intended for D&D) boxed scenario that includes lots of maps and even a referee's screen. The reviewer rates it 7 out of 10 and notes that it's not quite as good a value for the money as a typical D&D module. Two more Fighting Fantasy books, Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King are reviewed, each earning 8 out of 10. I have a personal affection for Deathtrap Dungeon, due to its difficulty, which greatly appealed to me at the time. Finally, there's a review of Scouts for Traveller (7 out of 10). 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" comments upon another of Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels, Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn, and Diana Wynne Jones's The Homeworld Bounders, among a few others. Meanwhile, "The Moonbane" is a piece of original fiction, "a short tale of gothic horror" by Chris Elliot and Richard Edwards. Much more interesting – to me anyway – are the latest installments of the comics "Gobbledigook," "The Travellers," and "Thrud the Barbarian." Also more interesting is Lewis Pulsipher's "Sign Here Please ...," a brief rumination on making pacts with devils in the context of fantasy roleplaying games. 

"The Naked Orc" by Rufus Wedderburn is "a study of orcish society." In some ways, it's a bit like Dragon's "Ecology of ..." series, except that it's focused on the politics and sociology of orcs rather than their biology. It's fine, I suppose, though there's nothing particularly clever or revelatory about it. "Spare Parts" is a Car Wars article written by none other than the game's creator, Steve Jackson himself (apparently written on his British namesake's typewriter while on a visit to England). It's mostly a puff piece in which Jackson talks about his plans for game, including a computer version from Origin (which did indeed come out in 1985).

Part 2 of Dave Morris and Yve Newnham's "The Castle of Lost Souls" solo adventure appears here, continuing the scenario begun in the previous issue. "Three of a Kind" by Michael Clarke presents three NPCs for use with Traveller; they can be used either as patrons or antagonists. "Of Oak, Ash, and Mistletoe" by Robert Dale is a collection of spells drawn from Celtic myth for use with RuneQuest. "Under Siege" by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk is a discussion of sieges in the context of miniatures wargaming, complete photographs. 

"Slave Hunt" is this month's installment of "Fiend Factory." Like many of the early installments of the feature, editor Albie Fiore weaves a loose scenario around four new monsters for use with D&D. The new monsters, all submitted by different authors, are all small humanoid creatures of various kinds, none of them particularly notable in my opinion – but that's a common problem of new monsters for the game. Finally, there's "Bits and Pieces," a random collection of material for Dungeons & Dragons. While the material isn't particularly memorable, it's listed as having been collected by Roger E. Moore, who was already an editor at Dragon at the time and would go on to be its editor-in-chief in 1986.

This is another solid issue of White Dwarf with a diverse range of articles covering a variety of games. What I most notice is the growing presence of articles dedicated to Warhammer and miniatures wargaming more generally. This is a trend that will only increase in the coming years and eventually lead to the magazine's becoming explicitly a house organ of Games Workshop in a way that it hadn't been previously. It also would lead to my ceasing to read, since I read primarily for its coverage of D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller.