Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Retrospective: Alien Module 4: Zhodani

A good villain is hard to find.

In the Third Imperium setting of GDW's Traveller, that vital role is played by the Zhodani, humans transplanted to another world by the mysterious Ancients some 300,000 years before the founding of the Imperium. On their new homeworld of Zhdant (or Zhodane, as the Imperium calls it), the Zhodani developed a unique culture and society, one characterized first and foremost by its open embrace of psionics, a practice the Imperium and its subjects consider morally, not to mention politically, abhorrent. Needless to say, this profound difference has fostered mutual suspicion and animosity between the two peoples and has led to five Frontier Wars

Alien Module 4: The Zhodani aims to lift the lid on Zhodani society, providing the reader with a clearer and indeed more sympathetic portrayal of "the Psionic Masters" than had previous Traveller materials. By the time of its publication in 1985, the Zhodani were already a well-established facet of the Third Imperium setting, having first been mentioned in The Spinward Marches in 1978 as practitioners of "the Psionic Heresy." Until the early 1980s, when an article about them appeared in the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, the Zhodani were little more than mustache-twirling space opera villains of a somewhat Orientalist cast – the Sassanid Persians to the Imperium's late Romans. 

With the arrival of further information on the Zhodani came a more nuanced portrayal. Alien Module 4 is the culmination of that process and it's a generally excellent bit of science fictional speculation. Like previous Alien Modules, this one starts with information on the physical characteristics of the Zhodani homeworld and its solar system. Much more detail is given to the history of the Zhodani, including how they first discovered psionic abilities and the impact it had on their society. In short, the Zhodani learned that some humans are naturally gifted in these abilities and from them arose a noble caste. Those who are not naturally gifted in psionics but who, with training, could become so form the intendant caste. Those who lack psionic abilities form the prole caste. The interstellar state they eventually formed, the Zhodani Consulate, is a democracy with a franchise limited to psionically gifted nobles, making it an interesting mirror image to the feudal aristocracy of its rival, the Third Imperium.

Where Alien Module 4 really shines is in its treatment of Zhodani society and the impact that psionics has had on it. Compared to Imperial humans, the Zhodani is much more peaceable and conformist, in part due to the regular use of telepathy and other abilities to detect "deviant" thoughts and behavior before they become a problem. This is where the infamous – to Imperials anyway – Thought Police have a role. The Zhodani view the Tavrchedl' (or "Guardians of Our Morality") not as policemen but as firemen, whose job is to deal with depression, frustration, and disillusionment among the populace. That the Zhodani have developed advanced means, both medicinal and psionic, to deal with these conditions only makes the Thought Police even more effective.

All the Alien Modules strive to give their subjects their due, presenting them and their societies and cultures from their own perspective. This is very much in evidence in this one's treatment of the Zhodani. Though building on information presented in early '80s Traveller material, Alien Module 4 goes a very long way toward presenting the Zhodani not as stock villains but as solid antagonists with their own plausible point of view, given their starting premises. It does such a good job at this that, when I first read the module, I was somewhat taken aback. I'd spent several years seeing the Zhodani in one way – the Imperial perspective – that I never considered the possibility that there might be another legitimate portrayal of them.

Sympathetic though it may be, Alien Module 4 nevertheless paints a picture of a profoundly alien society, all the more so, I think, because it's peopled by human beings that are physiologically little different from us. The ubiquity of psionics and its effect on Zhodani society cannot be understated. The Zhodani, for example, have little concept of privacy and tend to view Imperial humans as inherently dishonest simply because they will not submit to routine telepathic scans. From their perspective, only someone with something to hide would be worried about such a thing. Likewise, their caste society, based on one's natural mental powers, runs counter to the reader's likely preference for some kind of social egalitarianism (even if the Imperium itself falls short of that ideal as well).

Alien Module 4: Zhodani is thus an excellent supplement for use with Traveller, one that not only provides insight into the Imperium's main enemies but also gives players and referees alike the ability to create and play Zhodani characters. I'm not sure how many people have ever attempted, let alone succeeded, at a Zhodani-focused Traveller campaign, but I doubt it would be very many. Still, the benefit of being able to understand better these antagonists is immense and the Third Imperium setting is richer and more believable because of it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Navy War Bonds

Another fun example of White Dwarf's postal humor, this time with a Traveller theme.

The Light of Kulvu

Kulvu is a word in the ancient Onha language with many meanings: balance, harmony, law, nature, order, and reason. Some three centuries before the commencement of the First Cycle, the sage Urkuten used the word to describe the underlying principle of reality. Urkuten taught that happiness consists in understanding and conforming oneself to that reality, which is rationally organized and thus evidence of the Divine. Urkuten sometimes used “the gods” as a synonym for the Divine but he is otherwise silent on the matter of what, if any, deities exist. It is precisely for this reason that his doctrines, called in later ages the Light of Kulvu, achieved such wide acceptance, as they were metaphysically flexible and, therefore, compatible with many pre-existing religious practices.

The Light of Kulvu spread across sha-Arthan along with the empire that would bear its name. Over the course of the empire’s 1229 years of existence, schools dedicated to Urkuten’s teachings were founded on every continent but Alakun-Tenu (where the god, da-Ten, brooks no rivals, even non-dogmatic ones), establishing itself as one of the most widespread and enduring belief systems of the last ten cycles. Though rarely the dominant faith of any land at present, the Light of Kulvu nevertheless exercises great influence over the societies and cultures of many, including several in the Hashaya Peninsula, most importantly the Empire of Inba Iro.

The Mirror of Virtue

Sometime during the administration of the Archon Herekshumal (1:100–120), the text known today as Chunik Choredri ("The Mirror of Truth") first appeared. A product of the Ruketsa philosophical school of Kulvu, the book is a distillation of and commentary on Urkuten’s teachings. Chief among those teachings are eight axioms, collectively known as Unquestionable Precepts. The Precepts are:

  • Reality is ordered.
  • Order is evidence of reason.
  • Only the Divine possesses reason potent enough to order reality.
  • Being a product of the Divine, this order is inescapable.
  • Virtue consists in understanding order and conforming one’s actions to it.
  • Wisdom distinguishes between those actions that are in conformity with order, namely, courage, knowledge, restraint, and justice; and those that are opposed to it, namely, fear, ignorance, lawlessness, and license.
  • Therefore, avoid all that is irrational and disordered.
  • Accept that illness, pain, and death are no less ordered than health, pleasure, and life.  

Thanks to the fervent efforts of generations of sages, the Unquestionable Precepts have achieved wide dissemination, forming the basis of dozens of schools of the Light of Kulvu (the Bejandrai and Kamarjantil schools being notable exceptions), as well as at least one entirely distinct religion (Viruktiyel). Despite their differences, all share the belief that happiness can be achieved by acceptance of the Divine order and one’s place within it, including the duty to understand not only reality itself but one’s fellow creatures, so as to treat them fairly and justly. If there were a single creed one could call central to the diverse peoples of sha-Arthan, the Light of Kulvu probably comes closest to it. 

White Dwarf: Issue #59

Issue #59 of White Dwarf (November 1984), with its cover by Peter Andrew Jones, is another issue I remember well, since it was published during the run of years when I had a subscription to the magazine. In his editorial, Ian Livingstone notes that the "Fiend Factory" feature, which began all the way back in issue #6 and many of whose entries formed the basis for TSR's Fiend Folio, would now be presenting new monsters for more RPGs than just Dungeons & Dragons. Small though this change is, it is nevertheless an important turning point in the history of White Dwarf and reflects, I think, the rise to prominence of other games on the UK scene. 

The issue begins with "The Mad Gods' Omelette," a parodic fantasy short story by Dave Langford. It's actually quite funny in the way it skewers the increasing self-seriousness of the contemporary works in the genre, particularly those that took their cues from Moorcock. One of my favorite bits in the story is a comment by the protagonist Erryj, possessor of "the black, runecarved artificial leg Slugbane," upon hearing that "the Dark Gods walk the earth once more."

"The Dark Gods?" Erryj gave Dylan Worm a searching glance. "Aye, I have heard tell of such. Speak you of the Elder Gods? ... The Younger Gods? The Dead Gods? The Agnostic Gods?" With each utterance, a greater stillness filled the room.
As I said, it's quite funny and much more enjoyable than Langford's "Critical Mass" column this or any other month. Mind you, this month's installment of the book review column holds some interest in that Langford looks at William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, which he likes a great deal, though he criticizes its "frenetic" pace. I suppose it wouldn't be a proper "Critical Mass" column if Langford didn't find fault in nearly everything he reviews.

"Open Box" takes a look at three different adventures for Call of Cthulhu: The Curse of the Chthonians (9 out of 10) from Chaosium, Glozel est Authentique! (5 out of 10) from TOME, and The Horrible Secret of Moneghan Island (7 out of 10) from Grenadier. These reviews are all fair, based on my own experience. Also reviewed are the Gamemaster Pack and For Your Information for James Bond 007, which earn 4 out of 10 and 3 out of 10 respectively. This continues the trend of giving rather negative reviews to James Bond 007 RPG products, something I find inexplicable, given my own fondness for the game. On the other hand, neither of the reviewed products are exceptional in any way, so perhaps they are fairer than it might seem on first glance. Finally, there's a review of Chaosium's Ringworld, which receives a mediocre 6 out of 10, even though the reviewer praises both the background information and the rules set – odd!

"The Ninja" by Chris Elliott and Richard Matthews is yet another stab at a ninja character class for AD&D. Though there are a few new wrinkles – such as non-magical "spells" – the class is just another Japanese-flavored assassin variant with too many abilities. The class is intended to be used in conjunction with "Hour of the Tiger," an AD&D scenario also included in this issue. The adventure involves the infiltration of an imperial palace and demands stealth and cunning, not to mention reconnaissance, to succeed. It's well done and probably challenging, particularly to players for whom brute force is standard operating procedure.

Marcus Rowland's "A Matter of Faith" presents four religious cults for use with a variety of modern-day RPGs, such as Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes; Top Secret, James Bond 007, Superworld, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Golden Heroes, and Villains & Vigilantes. The cults range from The Temple of Excellence, Inc., which teaches that transcendence is possible through the acquisition of skills, to Technodeology, which believes that God does not yet exist and must be created as a computer. Rowland fleshes out each cult briefly and provides notes for customizing it for the RPG in which it's used. Very good stuff!

"Two Decks are Better than One" is a Car Wars article by Steve Jackson about the inclusion of double-decker buses into the game. "Eye of Newt and Tongue of Bat" by Graeme Davis is the first part of a series of articles intended to provide a system for the manufacture of magic items in AD&D. This installment focuses on staves, wands, and scrolls. I've long liked the idea of a system like this in principle, because I think that the process of creating new magic items should be both involved and interesting. However, most such systems offer only tedium without much else and, sadly, this system isn't much different.

"On the Road" by Anna Price is an outline for a RuneQuest scenario in which the characters accompany a caravan across the Plains of Prax. Though skeletonic, it provides enough detail, including several random tables, to make the overall situation compelling. "A Brush with the Lore" by Gary Chalk and Joe Dever tackles the matter of choosing an appropriate brush and paints for miniatures. "Core" introduces the Consular Office of Reconnaissance and Exploration, a Zhodani organization intended to be used as antagonists in an ongoing Traveller campaign. Like many such things, it's fine for what it is, but not especially memorable. 

"Gladiators in RuneQuest" by Matthew Pook briefly discusses the matter of blood sports in the game, while "Pit Fighting" by James Waterfield contextualizes somewhat the practice within the setting of Glorantha. "The Great Hunt" by Simon Iff describes the Reavers, powerful minions of the demon prince Orcus who do his bidding on the Prime Material Plane. This article includes lots of background material about the Reavers and their origins, as well as their activities. Though very high-powered, I immediately saw uses for these creatures in certain campaigns. "Ars Arcana" by Kiel Stephens continues to look at unusual uses for D&D spells and does so quite engagingly. Any article that can teach me a few new tricks for a game I've been playing for decades earns a gold star.

This is a very good issue, filled with lots of variety, in addition to old favorites like "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers." To my mind, this is peak White Dwarf and is what I think of when I think of the magazine in its heyday. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Lich

Here's an interesting piece of artwork from the 1985 book, The Art of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Game. Does anyone know the artist? It doesn't look like one of the usual TSR heavy hitters from that era.

Addendum: I am apparently blind, since the artist's name – John Totleben – is on the piece itself. Perhaps I should get new eyeglasses!

REVIEW: Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic

Much like Dungeon Crawl Classics – another fantasy roleplaying game that sometimes catches flak for its deviations from old school orthodoxy – a remarkably creative community has sprung up around Mörk Borg. Dubbed the "Mörk Borg cult," this community has produced an abundance of new material for the game, some of which can be found on its official website, as well as scattered across forums and blogs across the Internet. Periodically, some of the best material from these sources is collected into a printed 'zine, the first of which I reviewed last year.

Heretic is the second such 'zine and, like its predecessor, it contains a varied selection of material for use by players and Game Masters alike, though, as is usually the case with products of this sort, it's generally of more immediate interest to GMs. Also like its predecessor, Heretic employs an anarchic graphic design suffused with arresting colors and cacographic fonts to assault the eyes of its readers. Like it or not, this is an essential part of Mörk Borg's appeal; the game and its supplements simply wouldn't be the same if they were more visually self-restrained. 

Heretic is a 62-page staple-bound book with a gatefold cover on which content is also included, such as "Seeds of a Cult," a series of random tables to aid the Game Master in generating a villainous secret society. Everything from the cult's name to its headquarters to enemies can be quickly determined with a handful of rolls, "Unheroic Feats," meanwhile, details thirty-six unusual abilities that a character might acquire when getting better, Mörk Borg's version of leveling up. Examples include Beastly Scholar, which gives a character the ability to scry by means a dead animal's viscera, and Piper, which enables a character to befriend and speak with rats. Most of these feats provide only a small mechanical benefit but all of them are fairly flavorful. Heretic also presents two new classes, the Sacrilegious Songbird, a bard who's made a demonic pact, and the Shedding Vicar, a religious devotee who sheds his flesh to gain power.

"Graves Left Wanting" describes the cemetery of Graven-Tosk and its weird inhabitants. "Bloat" is a much smaller (6-room) dungeon that was once an underground temple dedicated to an obscure goddess of fat and plenty. "Sepulchre of the Swamp Witch" presents the lair of a drug-fueled serpent cult found within the final resting place of an ancient sorceress. None of these are ready-to-run scenarios so much as locales that could serve as the basis for scenarios with some additional context provided by the GM. That's fine by me, since I prefer having a store of raw materials from which to build my own adventures and each of these gives me just that, with "Graves Left Wanting" being the best of the bunch.

"You Are Cursed" is a useful – and fun – collection of random tables for handling the nature and effects of curses upon a character, in addition to the method of lifting it. "The Merchant" offers an example of a cursed individual, Wretched Old Mikhael, an undead seller of peculiar goods. Just what he sells depends on where he is found and the results of rolls on a random table. Mikhael's an intriguing NPC and I can easily see him becoming an important part of a Mörk Borg campaign. "Blackpowder Weapons for the Rich and Foolhardy" are some simple rules for introducing primitive firearms into your game. As this variant's title suggests, such firearms are expensive but using them is not nearly as foolish as I had hoped they'd be. Mostly, they they're loud and slow to reload rather than potentially harmful to their own users, which seems like an opportunity missed to me.

"The Bone Bowyer" is a unique monster, a bogeyman said to slay children and fashion clothing and weapons from their bodies. Though simple in concept, the presentation is well done, complete with a creepy nursery rhyme to accompany it. The "Borg Bitor" is a giant centipede-like monster whose presentation is less compelling. More effective is the "Rotten Nurse," the risen corpse of a nurse executed for aiding and abetting the necrobutcher, Vretul Kanth. The creature is showcased in a short adventure, "Nurse the Rot," that sees the characters pay a visit a ruined chapel.

Also included with Heretic is "The Hexed Gauntlet of Kagel-Secht," which takes the form of a fold-out poster consisting of a series of comic panels that seem to tell a story involving the discovery and use of the titular magic item. Interspersed throughout the comic panels are game stats for monsters, traps, and the Hexed Gauntlet itself. There's also a "word map" of Necrohell Manor; rather than being a graphic map, it employs words, lines, and arrows to show spatial relations. I'm honestly not entirely sure what to make of this last bit of Heretic, which seems more an exercise in idiosyncratic design than a useful piece of game material. Indeed, it's almost a parody of Mörk Borg and its unorthodox approach to both content and (especially) presentation.

Ultimately, Heretic is probably of most use to those who play or intend to play Mörk Borg, though it contains a number of ideas, such as the monsters, NPCs, and locales that could easily be used with other old school fantasy games. That said, the book's style and content are still very much in line with Mörk Borg's garish, irreverent, and occasionally puerile sensibilities, which will certainly limit its appeal to those not already sold on them. I don't mean that as a criticism. One of the things that I appreciate about Mörk Borg is that it's a game that knows what it's about and makes no apologies for that. It's not trying to be a crowd-pleasing lowest common denominator fantasy RPG but instead a brash and quirky take on "doom metal fantasy" and all that entails. If that's up your alley, Heretic is well worth it.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Insects from Shaggai

The real appeal of many of the stories I discuss in this series isn't so much their plots or characters as their ideas. This isn't to suggest that pulp fantasy tales necessarily lack interesting plots or compelling characters. Rather, it's to emphasize that their greatest value, particularly from the perspective of roleplaying games, often lies in the author's imaginative conceptions of strange lands, weird magic, or terrifying monsters. One need not look very far into the contents of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, to find examples of ideas inspired by – if not outright stolen from – the works of fantasy and science fiction authors popular during the younger days of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax. 

The early horror stories of Ramsey Campbell demonstrate my point quite effectively, I think. Like his fellow Brit, Michael Moorcock, Campbell began writing fiction at a very young age. His first professional sale was to Arkham House in 1962, when he was only 16 years old. This early success encouraged him to submit several more stories. Arkham House's editor, August Derleth, initially rejected them on the grounds their New England settings didn't ring true, since Campbell, a native of Liverpool, had never visited the region. Instead, he encouraged the young Campbell to rework the stories by setting them in England, leading to his development of the Severn Valley and its fictional city of Brichester. The result was the 1964 anthology, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants.

Among the best stories included in The Inhabitant of the Lake is "The Insects from Shaggai." Campbell later explained that the tale

is based on [an] entry in the Commonplace Book, or rather on my misreading of it. Lovecraft wrote "Insects or some other entities from space attack and penetrate a man's head & cause him to remember alien and exotic things – possible displacement of personality," a superb idea I rushed at so hastily that I failed to notice he hadn't meant giant insects at all ... Of all my stories, this is probably the pulpiest. As such, it has some energy, I think, but I wish I'd left the note alone until I was equipped to do it justice.

This is a very fair and indeed self-aware assessment of "The Insects from Shaggai." Campbell recognizes that its central idea, one he borrowed from Lovecraft's Commonplace Book – his notebook of story germs – is a strong one. He also recognizes that, at his young age, he wasn't quite up to the task of fleshing it out into a fully satisfying story. Yet, for all that, I still think it a story worth reading, if only for that central idea, which has stuck with me all these years and which likely served as the inspiration for at least one of my own creations.

The story itself is told from the perspective of a writer of fantasy, Ronald Shea, who "feel[s] bound to write down some explanation for [his] friends," since he "must not be alive after sunset," as his "continued existence might endanger the whole human race." This is another variation on a tried-and-true Lovecraftian formula: a narrator who wishes to explain his actions and why they were necessary to safeguard mankind, no matter how insane they might sound. When one considers that this is the work of a very young author who was attempting to imitate his literary idol, I think it's a forgivable set-up. 

While drinking at a hotel bar in Brichester, Shea is approached by a middle-aged teacher who promises to tell him "all the Severn Valley legends which might form plots of future stories." The teacher speaks of a meteorite that fell in Goatswood sometimes in the 17th century. The meteorite soon attracted the attention of the local folk, including one who discovered a metal cone "made of a grey mineral that didn't reflect, and more than thirty feet high." The cone had a "circular trapdoor on one side" and "carved reliefs" on the other. When he got near the cone, he heard "a sort of dry rustling inside," as well as "a shape crawling out of the darkness inside the trapdoor."

Shea is unimpressed with the legend's vagueness and Campbell uses this as an opportunity to mock the conventions of many Lovecraftian pastiches.

"Too vague – horrors that are too horrible for description, eh? More likely whoever thought this up didn't have the imagination to describe them when the time came."

It's a solid jab at the worst of HPL's imitators – and, honestly, some of the worst of HPL's own stories – that I can't help but think that Campbell was using it at least in part to cover for the flaws in "The Insects from Shaggai." In any case, Shea is nevertheless interested enough in the legend, vague though it is, that he seeks out more details and then sets out to look for the supposed location of the metal cone. 

Shea succeeds in finding the cone in a clearing within Goatswood – something he had not expected, given the vagueness of the legend. Equally unexpected was the fear he felt upon seeing it and hearing the "faint dry rustling sound which came from somewhere in the clearing." Not long thereafter, the circular trapdoor opened and

a shape appeared, flapping above the ground on leathery wings. The thing which flew whirring toward me was followed by a train of others, wings slapping the air at incredible speed. Even though they flew so fast, I could, with the augmented perception of terror, make out many more details than I wished. Those huge lidless eyes which stared in hate at me, the jointed tendrils which seemed to twist from the head in cosmic rhythms, the ten legs, covered with black shining tentacles and folded into the pallid underbelly, and the semi-circular ridged wings covered with triangular scales – all this cannot convey the soul-ripping horror of the shape which darted at me. I saw the three mouths of the thing move moistly, and then it was upon me.

The insect-creature flew straight into Shea's head but he "felt no impact" and, when he turned to look behind him, there was no sign of it. Yet, "the whole landscape seemed to ripple and melt, as if the lenses of [his] eyes had twisted in agonizing distortion." He then realizes that the thing "had entered [his] body and was crawling around in [his] brain." It's here that the story truly becomes interesting – or at least grapples toward being so. 

With the insect-creature somehow ensconced like a parasite within his mind, Shea experiences strange perceptions and equally strange thoughts. The young Campbell then attempts to convey the twisting, phantasmagoric experience of Shea's being a host to an Insect from Shaggai and, while the end result doesn't quite succeed, I appreciate his effort nonetheless. What the reader gets echoes the experiences of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time," as his mind travels through time in bodies other than his own. It's a potent idea and should be at once wondrous and terrifying – if it weren't for the fact that Campbell uses this as an opportunity to regale the reader with a needlessly lengthy exposition of the history of the Insects, the home planet, their worship of Azathoth, and many other details. The elaborate exposition undoubtedly pleased August Derleth, whose own Lovecraftian pastiches luxuriated in similar catalogs of otherworldly places and entities, but it does little to improve the story.

And that's a great shame. As I said at the beginning, some pulp fantasies are best appreciated for their ideas than for their plots or characters and "The Insects of Shaggai" is a prime example of this. I absolutely adore the idea of psychic parasites that employ human beings as their vehicles on Earth. Likewise, the bizarre sensations and knowledge that come with playing host to these entities is worthy of exploration, since it's a splendid way to convey the cosmicism of Lovecraft's literary vision. Unfortunately, Campbell is quite right in judging that "The Insects from Shaggai" falls quite short of the mark. Yet, for all that, it's still of genuine interest to readers for whom ideas are paramount.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Computer God

Something I've observed is that, if you look at the totality of a creator's work, you'll sometimes notice patterns in their creations. By "patterns," I mean subject matter or themes that keep cropping up again and again. Sometimes, this is done deliberately, with the creator explicitly embracing this, while at other times, it's done subconsciously. There are plenty of exceptions to this, of course; not every creator is given to this behavior. Indeed, one could make a reasonable case that the best creators are those whose works are genuinely varied in their subject matter or themes. 

Yesterday, I posted a story about an "AI agent" that had supposedly become very adept at playing Diplomacy. In reflecting on it, I realized that one of the reasons the story so intrigued me is not simply for its connection to a game I enjoy, but because it connects to a recurring subject within my own creative endeavors: computers as gods. I was suddenly struck by the fact that, without my specifically intending to do so, I'd been playing around with this idea under a variety of different guises. Clearly, it's something that has fired my imagination, hence the prevalence of it in my works to date.

The initial intention behind my Dwimmermount campaign setting was to create a setting for D&D that was outwardly fairly ordinary and traditional but with a secret science fiction background. Part of this background is that the gods of the Great Church were, in fact, artificial beings created by technological advanced Men in the ancient past and whose civilization was ultimately destroyed as a consequence of their hubris. None of this was ever revealed in the course of the campaign, but it provided the intellectual frame by which I understand the setting.

In my House of Worms Tékumel campaign, the characters have spent a long time, both in game and in the real world, interacting with several strange cultures of the mysterious Achgé Peninsula. Among the many ways these cultures differ from those of the characters' homeland of Tsolyánu are the gods they worship. One of the most important is called Eyenál, who is generally depicted as a war god. Some months ago, while interacting with a device of the Ancients, the characters learned of the existence of "ANL/1043," described as being "a 301st generation strategic agent" – in short, Eyenál is some sort of artificial intelligence, possibly charged with Tékumel planetary defenses.

Likewise, in the Secrets of sha-Arthan, I've imagined many different artificial beings created by "the Makers" whose ruins are scattered across the True World. Some of these beings are mere automatons without much in the way of individual will or intelligence, while others are closer to Men. Others still possess vast and alien intelligence utterly unlike that of any other intelligent species. Some of these direct and guide cities or even entire nations, ruling them as gods, though, of course, few on sha-Arthan understand this. 

In each case, knowledge of the true nature of the gods as artificial beings is largely unknown within the setting. Naturally, I know the truth and occasionally the players (as opposed to their characters) catch on to what's really going on. The reaction has been universally positive, so far as I can recall. I distinctly remember the revelation about Eyenál being met with pleasure by several of the players, who felt it provided a clever and unexpected re-interpretation of many of the details they'd already collected about the Achgé Peninsula and its history. 

I presume regular return to the subject of artificial gods is rooted in my lifelong love of science fiction. Stories of "computer gods" or, at least, computers viewed as gods are commonplace in the genre. I wonder, though, if there's more to it than that and, if so, what it is. Clearly, I'm trying to grapple with something through the vehicle of my imagination, though I'm not yet sure what it is. Regardless, I find it fascinating that I continue to revisit this idea and wonder if others find that they return to the same ideas over and over within their own creations.

A Single Roll of the Dice

One of Gary Gygax's most famous – and often lampooned – assertions in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is that "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" [capitals Gygax's]. I'd like to suggest that even more important to a meaningful campaign is the inclusion of randomness. The traditional way this is achieved is through the use of dice, but I'm quite willing to accept other forms of randomness, such as cards, chits, or even coin flips. What's important is not the method so much as the fact that not every aspect of gameplay is within the control of its participants, including that of the referee himself. Some degree of what transpires in a roleplaying game must be left to the whims of chance.

No one who's read this blog for very long should be surprised by this. I am, after all, a huge proponent of the oracular power of dice, as well as the belief that "gamey-ness" is no less important to what makes an RPG an RPG than its "roleplaying." This is a big part of why I'm opposed to any definition of roleplaying games that likens them to an activity of "collaborative storytelling," unless that definition also includes collaboration with random elements. Without some degree of randomness – including the concomitant possibility of failure – my level of interest diminishes (and I say this as someone whose ongoing Empire of the Petal Throne campaign often goes weeks without a single die roll).

I was reminded of my feelings about this during a recent session of the Barrett's Raiders Twilight: 2000 campaign I began in December of last year. The characters are currently in the process of exfiltrating the Free City of Kraków, which they have come to realize is a nest of vipers liable to get them all killed. However, one of the characters, a CIA field agent who'd been posing as a Polish civilian prior to the outbreak of the war, recently received information that suggests an important contact is being held captive in an abandoned farmhouse northwest of the city. Since his captors were likely Soviet agents, the character felt an obligation to rescue his contact or, failing that, to ensure he didn't divulge operational secrets to the enemy. 

To that end, he and one of the other player characters set off, under cover night, to the location of the farmhouse. The farmhouse was surrounded on one side by a copse of trees that his player felt would provide excellent cover, especially in the dark. What the player didn't know was that the same copse of trees was being used by a Soviet lookout. Thus, when the character and his companion (another PC) entered the copse, I called for a Recon skill roll, this being the skill used in Twilight: 2000 for determining, among other things, if a character can successfully travel through an area without being seen.

The dice were in the characters' favor that day – so much so, in fact, that they not only succeeded in not revealing themselves to the hidden lookout, but they also succeeded in spotting him. Armed with this knowledge, they decided that discretion was the better part of valor and retreated back in the direction they came. Of course, events could have just as easily gone badly for them, in which case they'd likely have alerted not simply the lookout but the other Soviets patrolling the grounds of the farm. In that event, there's a very good chance that the player characters would have been badly wounded, if not captured or killed, since they were outnumbered and outgunned. 

I found this tiny moment in the session quite thrilling, as did the players involved. Though they didn't realize it at the moment I called for a skill roll, a lot hung on the results of that throw of the dice. Indeed, the entire course of the next session, which involved a planned raid on the farmhouse, might have gone completely differently had the characters failed that Recon roll. This is precisely why I so value randomness in RPGs: you can never be sure what will happen next. The entire course of my House of Worms campaign was altered by a single failed saving throw, for example. Indeed, many of my fondest memories of playing roleplaying games include unexpected moments occasioned by the results of a single roll of the dice. 

I can't speak for anyone else, but that's how it should be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Diplomacy in the News

It's relatively rare to see a news story in the mainstream media that touches upon one of my interests. Consequently, I was surprised this morning to read about the claim that an "AI agent" named Cicero had "achiev[ed] human-level performance in the strategic board game Diplomacy."  Needless to say, this story caught my attention, as I was once a very avid player of Diplomacy and still retain a great fondness for it, though I haven't actually played it in many years. 

I'm naturally skeptical of these kinds of claims. I likewise lack the specific technical knowledge necessary to evaluate their veracity. Nevertheless, this is quite fascinating to me, since, if correct, it would represent a significant step in the evolution of computing. Mind you, much like chess, the degree to which being good at Diplomacy has any correlation to intelligence is separate question. In high school, my friends and I liked to flatter ourselves because we enjoyed playing "cerebral" games like this. I wonder if this story might be something similar, with the bravado of AI researchers standing in for that of fifteen year-old boys. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

What Does It All Mean?

Over the course of the last year, I've been sharing a number of creatures from the science fantasy setting I'm developing, sha-Arthan. If you look carefully, you'll notice there have been small but significant changes to the creatures' game statistics. The stats of the earliest entries are nearly identical to those found in Old School Essentials, which is itself nearly identical to the TSR era Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rules. As I've developed sha-Arthan more and done some preliminary playtesting of it, I've also deviated from OSE and those changes are reflected in the game statistics of the creatures I post here. Since a number of readers have asked me to explain those changes, I thought I'd do so briefly in this post. 

I'll use the stats of the kelthaga as an illustration:

DR 14, HD 3** (13hp), Att 1 × touch (1d6 + Vigor drain), AB +2, MV 18p (6p), SV F12 D13 M14 E15 S16, ML 12, XP 65, NA 1d4 (1d6), TT None (see below)

DR stands for "Defense Rating" and is more or less the equivalent of the creature's ascending armor class score. 

HD is, of course, "Hit Dice" and is the number of d8 rolled to determine the creature's hit points. The asterisks indicate the number of special abilities the creature has for the purposes of calculating experience points, while the number in parentheses indicates its average hit points.

Att indicates the number and type of a creature's attacks, along with the damage caused by each one.

AB is "Attack Bonus" and represents the bonus added to a creature's d20 attack roll, which is compared against an opponent's Defense Rating.

MV is the speed at which the creature moves, given in paces, a unit equivalent to 5-foot (or 1.5-meter) increments. The first number is the creature's base movement rate, while the second one in parentheses is its encounter movement rate.

SV represents the creature's saving throws, with the letters being the following:

  • F = "Fortitude"
  • D = "Devices"
  • M = "Mental attacks"
  • E = "Evasion"
  • S = "Spell"
ML is the morale rating.

XP is the experience point value of defeating the creature.

NA is "Number Appearing," with the first number being the number encountered wandering through the Vaults beneath sha-Arthan, while the second indicates the number encountered in a lair. 

TT is "Treasure Type" and is used in conjunction with a table to determine the amount of treasure, if any, a creature has on its person or in its lair.

As you can see, most of the game statistics are like those found in most forms of Dungeons & Dragons, with a few changes here and there to better reflect the setting of sha-Arthan and my personal preferences as a referee. Like all such things, I continue to tinker with these details; they will probably not reach their final form until I've had the chance to playtest them more fully (which I hope to begin in the new year, but I make no promises).

Grognard's Grimoire: Kelthaga

Kelthaga (Hateful Dead)

A kelthaga by Zhu Bajie
A kelthaga is a mindless undead being fueled by hatred of the living. There are two known means by which a kelthaga comes to be. The first is death through obliteration (see Magic); the second is through a recondite version of necromancy known to certain sects (see Alignment). The only difference between the two types is the singular focus of the first compared to the more general malice of the second. Once a kelthaga of either type comes within 6p of living beings, it will relentlessly pursue them until it is physically unable to do so. 

DR 14, HD 3** (13hp), Att 1 × touch (1d6 + Vigor drain), AB +2, MV 18p (6p), SV F12 D13 M14 E15 S16, ML 12, XP 65, NA 1d4 (1d6), TT None (see below)

        • Undead: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading disciplines and spells.
          • Mundane weapon immunity: Only harmed by spells or magic weapons.
            • Regeneration:  A damaged kelthaga regains 1hp at the start of each round, as long as it is above 0hp. Severed limbs reattach.
              • Return from death: If killed (0hp), will regenerate and fight again in 2d6 rounds.
                • Fire: Cannot regenerate damage from fire. The only way to kill a kelthaga permanently.
                  • Vigor drain: Victims lose 1 VIG per hit. Recovers after 8 turns. If reduced to 0 VIG, the victim becomes a kelthaga.
                    • Necromantic plaque: Kelthaga created by necromancy wear a plaque worth 500dm for its materials alone, possibly more to a connoisseur of the arcane.

                The V.I.P. of Gaming

                Issue #99 of Dragon (July 1985) contains the advertisement below. It's for a gaming magazine that is completely unknown to me. Looking into it, I discovered it had only five issues, published between October 1985 and September 1986 and was published by a company called Diverse Talents, Inc. The same company was also responsible for publishing Space Gamer for a short time in the late 1980s. Since I know nothing of The V.I.P. of Gaming Magazine – what a mouthful! – I'd be curious to hear from anyone who knows anything more, especially if you actually read it when it was released.

                Thursday, November 17, 2022

                Grognard's Grimoire: Gorodaka

                Gorodaka (Haughty Dead)

                A gorodaka by Zhu Bajie
                Death knows no distinctions of power or status. This abiding truth has not stopped sorcerers throughout time from seeking a means of sidestepping it. One such means is laid out in the Kadil Sho'i ("The Breaking of the Cycle"), which provides a complex alchemical formula for extending one's life indefinitely. The successful execution of the formula arrests the process of physical decay, transforming the sorcerer into something simultaneously greater and less than human – a  gorodaka.

                Initially, a gorodaka looks no different than it did in life, except that it no longer breathes, eats, or sleeps. Over time, putrescence sets in, leading many gorodaka to hide their rot behind masks, as well as ornate suits of armor or other similar finery. Despite their unnatural origins, not all gorodaka are wicked, though nearly all see themselves as superior to the living.

                DR 19, HD 9+5**** (45hp), Att 1 × touch (1d10 + paralysis), AB +8, MV 60’ (20’), SV F8 D9 M8 E11 S4 (Sorcerer 14), ML 10, XP 3700, NA 1 (1), TT A

                • Undead: Makes no noise, until it attacks. Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.
                • Energy immunity: Unharmed by cold or electricity.
                • Mundane damage immunity: Can only be harmed by spells or magic weapons.
                • Paralysis: For 2d4 turns (fortitude save). 
                • Spell immunity: Immune to magic causing death or polymorph.
                • Sorcerer: Casts spells as a 14th-level sorcerer.

                Retrospective: Swords & Glory

                As early roleplaying game go, Empire of the Petal Throne is fairly well known, if only for the fact that it was the second RPG published by TSR, just about a year and a half after the release of OD&D. EPT is legendary, too, for its price tag – $25 – which was a considerable sum in 1975 (D&D, by contrast, retailed for $10). Of course, what makes the game truly stand out is its setting, the alien planet of Tékumel, one of the greatest works of the imagination in the history of the hobby.

                Tékumel stands out in part because it differs in many ways, both small and large, from the assumptions of D&D's idiosyncratic brand of fantasy. Instead, it draws more "from Egypt, the Aztecs and Mayans, the Hellenic Age, Mughal India, and mediaeval Europe," giving it a strong and unique flavor of its own. For all of its virtues, Empire of the Petal Throne didn't wholly do justice to it and so it was perhaps inevitable that there would one day be a "second edition" of sorts, one that might more fully exemplify Tékumel and its rich history and cultural details.

                That putative second edition arrived with two boxed sets from Gamescience released under the title of Swords & Glory. The first of these, Tékumel Source Book: The World of the Petal Throne, appeared in 1983 and consisted of a 136-page softcover book and a large, double-sided map in full color. The second, Tékumel Player's Handbook: Adventures in Tékumel, came with a 240-page softcover book, some character sheets, and two polyhedral dice. Together, they constitute an attempt to present a more fully realized vision of Tékumel as a setting for fantasy roleplaying. They only partially succeed in the attempt, for numerous reasons, as I shall explain.

                The Tékumel Source Book is a truly wondrous volume. In its cramped columns, whose tiny text is decorated with innumerable hand-drawn accent marks, the reader is treated to an exhaustive examination of nearly every aspect of the setting. The Source Book begins with a treatment of the physical aspects of Tékumel – its solar system, geography, weather – and then moves on to its lengthy history, inhabitants (both human and nonhuman), and the cultures, both large and small, that can be found on one of its continents. Each of those cultures is further described in detail. Everything from family and social structure, religion, entertainments, militaries, housing, and more is laid out in a dry, quasi-academic style that would be severely off-putting if it weren't so compelling. Compared to nearly anything else available on the market at the time, the Tékumel Source Book is masterwork of RPG setting design.

                The Tékumel Player's Handbook is far less impressive. Much of it is given over to needlessly complex and detailed treatments of various mid-1980s roleplaying obsessions, particularly in the area of combat. Rather than better grounding the rules in the setting of Tékumel – something that would have been welcome – the reader is instead subjected to discourses on encumbrance, skill development, and height-build factors, among other things. I don't mean to be overly critical of this; plenty of RPGs at the time were similarly punctilious about this kind of thing. However, little of this does much to support the setting of Tékumel, which is the main selling point of Swords & Glory. At least the spells presented in the Player's Handbook do this very well or else there'd be little else to recommend the book.

                There should have been a third boxed set that would have presented material intended for the referee, such as monsters, magic items, and other information necessary to use the first two sets as part of an extended campaign on Tékumel. However, that set never appeared and, as a result, Swords & Glory was never really playable in the way that Empire of the Petal Throne was, despite its inadequacies as a vehicle for presenting Tékumel to roleplayers. That's certainly unfortunate, but I reckon that Swords & Glory was already something of a misstep even before it became clear that it would never be a complete game system.

                That's the real tragedy of a game like Swords & Glory. What was originally intended as a better presentation of a rich and complex setting like Tékumel became bogged down in minutiae and unnecessary accretions to the point where it likely turned many people off ever giving the setting a fair hearing. While I adore the Tékumel Source Book and its lengthy digressions on the governmental structures of remote tribal peoples and the entertainments enjoyed by the flying Hláka species, they're likely discouragements to newcomers who simply want a straightforward presentation of Tékumel, why it's a terrific fantasy RPG setting, and, above all, what to do with it all. Nowhere does Swords & Glory even approach working toward providing any of this, leading to a game that was probably less read or played than the original Empire of the Petal Throne.

                As a diehard fan of Tékumel, I can't help but shake my head at the missed opportunity that Swords & Glory represents. Tékumel is too good a setting to languish in the shadowy corners of roleplaying history. Yet, it's never really had a solid, approachable game version that would be appealing to complete neophytes. Instead, it's been saddled with a succession of ill-conceived and poorly presented games that have only reinforced the false notion that Tékumel is inaccessible to all but a chosen few. What a shame ...

                Tuesday, November 15, 2022

                White Dwarf: Issue #58

                Issue #58 of White Dwarf (October 1984) has a terrific cover by Chris Achilleos, an artist whose work I've long appreciated. Ian Livingstone's editorial bemoans the fact that Chaosium has signed a deal with Avalon Hill to publish the next edition of RuneQuest, which will retail at a much higher price in the UK, owing to import costs. Those import costs will be necessary since Avalon Hill has terminated Games Workshop's license to produce a British edition of the game. Livingstone goes on to speculate that this move will undermine RQ's growth in the UK. Whether he was correct in his prediction, I can't say. All I know for sure is that, for several years in the 1980s, RuneQuest was more popular than Dungeons & Dragons in Britain, which baffled my younger self, who could scarcely conceive the possibility that D&D would ever play second fiddle to another fantasy RPG (or indeed any other game).

                The issue proper begins with Stephen Dudley's "It's a Trap!," which looks at designing traps in AD&D and other fantasy games. Though short, it's a thoughtful look at the subject and includes an example to illustrate Dudley's main points. In short, he suggests that while traps need not be "realistic," they should nevertheless function according to an intelligible logic. Likewise, the referee should include a means of disarming them or, lacking that, a means to circumnavigate them, even if doing so presents different challenges. 

                "Open Box" begins with a mediocre (5 out of 10) review of FGU's Lands of Adventure, a game I've long wanted to see but never have. If the review is any indication, I'm not missing much. More favorably reviewed is Middle-earth Role Playing. The game scores 9 out of 10 in its book form and 7 out of 10 in its boxed form, based on the fact that the boxed set is more expensive and doesn't offer enough any significant additional value. Bree and the Barrow Downs, on the other hand, only garners 6 out of 10, because it's more a sourcebook than an adventure and thus of much more limited utility. Q Manual for the James Bond 007 RPG receives a much deserved 9 out of 10. It's one of the few RPG equipment books I've ever felt deserving of real praise. Finally, there's Star Trek the Role Playing Game, another favorite of mine. The reviewer gives it 9 out of 10 and I'd be hard pressed to disagree.

                Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" keeps chugging along, reviewing plenty of novels I've never heard of, let alone read, along with a few I have. Most notable this issue is his praise for Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and his dislike of Jack Chalker's Twilight at the Well of Souls. The third part of "Night's Dark Agents" by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards is surprisingly good. Whereas the previous two installments were filled with the usual mid-80s gaming material about ninjas, this one focuses on the nitty gritty details of how ninjas operated in the field. The material on their preparations and the tactics employed is both interesting and useful, as is the material intended for referees in running ninja-based games. Not being as enamored of ninjas as many gamers, I was impressed that this article held my attention as much as it did.

                "Beyond the Final Frontier" by Graeme Davis is not, as its title might suggest, an article about roleplaying in the Star Trek universe. Rather, it's an examination of the beliefs of various real world historical cultures about death and the afterlife in the context of continuing to play a character in a fantasy RPG after he has died. The article is sadly short, but Davis offers some useful ideas for how to handle this in a campaign. "Grow Your Own Planets" presents a computer program, based on then-current astrophysics, that generates star systems and the details of the planets therein. Given the date of its creation, the program is necessarily limited in its output, but I can imagine it would have been very appealing to referees of science fiction RPGs.

                "Strikeback" by Marcus L. Rowland is an adventure for use with Champions or Golden Heroes. The scenario is a fun one involving time travel, the Bavarian Illuminati, Baron Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and more. It's a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen romp before the fact and, speaking as someone who made use of the adventure at the time, I highly recommend it. "Chun the Unavoidable" by Oliver Johnson, meanwhile, is an adaptation of certain elements of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth for use as a low-level AD&D scenario. I really liked this in my youth, largely for its write-ups of archveults, deodands, and pelgranes, in additional to the eponymous Chun the Unavoidable. 

                "For a Few Credits More" by Thomas Price looks at the subject of money in Traveller. This is a solid treatment and I appreciate the way Price considers the ways that technology, whether high or low, might impact currency. Naturally, as an article written in the pre-Internet age, some details look dated – or perhaps "quaint" is a better word – but then Traveller has always been slightly retro, so this isn't really a knock against it. "Thinking in Colour" by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk presents helpful hints on the matter of shading, highlighting, and mixing paints for miniatures. Once again, I find myself wishing I'd devoted more time and effort to learning how to paint in my youth.

                "Cameos" by Peter Whitelaw presents two short scenarios for use with RuneQuest. Both are set in Pavis and are quite short, so the referee will need to flesh them out considerably before making use of them. That said, they're both quite flavorful and do a good job of showing off what makes Glorantha such a compelling fantasy setting. "Bigby's Helping Hand" includes yet more ideas for using AD&D spells in unusual ways, along with ideas for using beggars as NPCs. Also included in this month's issue are further episodes of "Gobbledigook," "Thrud the Barbarian," and "The Travellers," the last of which receives a two-page spread.

                This is a very good issue of White Dwarf and one whose content I enjoyed and made use of once upon a time. Re-reading it, I was reminded on several occasions of just how vibrant the magazine was at its height. There's a good variety of material and it's quite well presented. Though I was naturally more well inclined toward Dragon, there's little question in mind that, when White Dwarf was firing on all cylinders, it was the superior magazine. Issue #58 is a good example of that superiority. 

                Monday, November 14, 2022

                Pulp Fantasy Library: The Demon of the Flower

                In previous posts about the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, I've sometimes mentioned contemporary criticisms of them. The claim that Smith's fiction often consists of prose poetry is a common one, followed closely by the suggestion that his tales often lack action. That was certainly August Derleth's assessment of "The Demon of the Flower" when he read a draft of it before CAS sent it to Strange Tales. He felt certain that Harry Bates, editor of the magazine, would reject it for this very reason. As it turned out, Derleth was partly mistaken. Bates initially accepted the story for publication. only to be overruled by his publisher, William Clayton. The story met the same fate when Smith submitted it to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales. 

                Eventually, "The Demon of the Flower" found favor with F. Orlin Tremaine of Astounding Stories, who published it in the December 1933 issue (note the Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Administration on the left side of the cover). While there's some truth to Derleth's assertion that the story lacks action, its central idea is powerfully evocative – so powerful that it more than compensates. In my opinion, this is true of much of Smith's oeuvre and it's the reason why I consider his yarns every bit as inspirational as those of more celebrated pulp fantasists like Howard or Lovecraft.

                "The Demon of the Flower" takes place on another world, a planet called Lophai, whose plants and flowers were utterly unlike those of Earth.

                Many were small and furtive, and crept viper-wise on the ground. Others were tall as pythons, rearing superbly in hieratic postures to the jeweled light. Some grew with single or dual stems that burgeoned forth into hydra heads, and some were frilled and festooned with leaves that suggested the wings of flying lizards, the pennants of faery lances, the phylacteries of a strange sacerdotalism. Some appeared to bear the scarlet wattles of dragons; others were tongued as if with black flames or the colored vapors that issue with weird writhings from out barbaric censers; and others still were armed with fleshy nets or tendrils, or with huge blossoms like bucklers perforated in battle. And all were equipped with venomous darts and fangs, all were alive, restless, and sentient.

                Of all these sentient plants, the most important was the "supreme and terrible flower known as the Voorqual, in which a tutelary demon, more ancient than the twin suns, was believed to have made its immortal avatar." The Voorqual grew atop the summit of a step-pyramid in the equatorial city of Lospar, where also dwelled King Lunithi. Lunithi also served as the leader of a priesthood that served the nourishment of the Voorqual. 

                This nourishment consisted first of "a compost in which the dust of royal mummies formed an essential ingredient," but it also consisted of the lifeblood of one of its priesthood, chosen each year at the summer solstice by the demon within the ancient and monstrous plant. This year, the Voorqual had chosen the priestess Nala as the sacrifice, a young woman who was to be wed to King Lunithi in a month's time. Needless to say, Lunithi was none too pleased by this turn of events and impiously begins to ponder how he "could cheat the demon of its ghastly tribute."

                Amid such reflections, Lunithi remembered an old myth about the existence of a neutral and independent being known as the Occlith: a demon coeval with the Voorqual, and allied neither to man nor the flower creatures. This being was said to dwell beyond the desert of Aphom, in the otherwise unpeopled mountains of white stone above the habitat of the ophidian blossoms. In latter days no man had seen the Occlith, for the journey through Ayhom was not lightly to be undertaken. But this entity was supposed to be immortal; and it kept apart and alone, meditating upon all things but interfering never with their processes. However, it was said to have given, in earlier times, valuable advice to a certain king who had gone forth from Lospar to its lair among the white crags.

                In his grief and desperation, Lunithi resolved to seek the Occlith and question it anent the possibility of slaying the Voorqual. If, by any mortal means, the demon could be destroyed, he would remove from Lophai the long-established tyranny whose shadow fell upon all things from the sable pyramid.

                When the king at last comes upon the Occlith, which looked like " a high cruciform pillar of blue mineral," he prostrated himself before it and asked its counsel concerning the Voorqual. 

                "It is possible," said the Occlith, "to slay the plant known as the Voorqual, in which an elder demon has its habitation. Though the flower has attained millennial age, it is not necessarily immortal: for all things have their proper term of existence and decay; and nothing has been created without its corresponding agency of death... I do not advise you to slay the plant... but I can furnish you with the information which you desire. In the mountain chasm through which you came to seek me, there flows a hueless spring of mineral poison, deadly to all the ophidian plant-life of this world..."

                The Occlith went on, and told Lunithi the method by which the poison should be prepared and administered. The chill, toneless, tinkling voice concluded:

                "I have answered your question. If there is anything more that you wish to learn, it would be well to ask me now."

                Lunithi dared not ask any further question, but instead set off to find the poison of which the Occlith had spoken and then to return to Lospar to save his betrothed. This being a Clark Ashton Smith story, I do not think it will surprise anyone to learn that things do not go quite as the priest-king had planned.\

                "The Demon of the Flower" is a short and no-nonsense story that nevertheless presents its fanciful, almost fairytale-like narrative, in lovely, hypnotic language. It's one of those stories that almost demands to be read aloud. More importantly, its central idea – a world where sentient plants ruled "and all other life existed by their sufferance" is a potent and frankly creepy one, all the more so when one reads the details of the annual choosing the Voorqual's sacrifice. It's well worth a read if you have twenty or thirty minutes to spare.

                Saturday, November 12, 2022

                Frontiers of Adventure

                Thanks to Traveller Map
                When Traveller first appeared in 1977, GDW's  game of science fiction adventure in the far future followed the model of Original Dungeons & Dragons in being a generic ruleset without an explicit setting. Of course, like OD&D, Traveller's rules included within them assumptions that laid for the groundwork for an implied setting. An illustrative example of what I'm talking about is the relative slowness of interstellar travel and the concomitant lack of a separate (and faster) form of interstellar communications. Thus, Traveller may not have included its own integral setting, at least initially, but its rules certainly pushed referees in certain directions as they created their own settings, much as OD&D had done before it.

                This situation didn't last long, though. Starting with the appearance of Mercenary in 1978, GDW started including references to "the Imperium" in its products. Initially, the Imperium was just a stand-in for any remote interstellar government of the sort that Traveller's rules implied. By the time of the release of The Spinward Marches in 1979 (if not before), it had started down the path that would soon make it the explicit setting of the game. From my conversations with the late Loren Wiseman and others, this shift in emphasis was one that players of the game wanted, based on feedback that GDW received from them. I can hardly blame them for catering to their buying public.

                More to the point, I've always loved the Imperium. By the time I began playing Traveller, there was very little sense that the game had ever been a generic ruleset without an explicit setting and I was quite content with this situation. That said, most of GDW's efforts in describing the Imperium were focused on its frontiers, sectors of space like the aforementioned Spinward Marches and the Solomani Rim. Likewise, the various third parties licensed by GDW to produce their own materials setting set in and around the Imperium tended to follow their lead, whether they were Judges Guild or Gamelords or FASA. By comparison, there was little or no material set in the core sectors of the Imperium.

                I was reminded of all this recently because a good friend of mine offered to referee a Traveller campaign and he chose to set it in the Crucis Margin sector, in the region trailing the Imperium. The sector is in close proximity to the Imperium, as well as the Solomani Confederation, the Two Thousand Worlds, and the Hive Federation but none of these major interstellar powers has any presence here. Instead, there are multiple smaller governments, usually no more than a dozen worlds in size – the very same model I used in my Riphaeus Sector campaign. 

                I think it's pretty obvious why this is such an attractive set-up for a RPG campaign setting: frontiers are where adventures happen. Sometimes this is quite explicit. For example, there are The Keep on the Borderlands for D&D and Borderlands for RuneQuest, to cite just two very obvious examples. Back in the realm of science fiction, there's Star Frontiers and Star Trek, whose televisual inspiration dubbed space the final frontier. I rather suspect that one of the reasons that RPGs set in the modern day generally do poorly is that most of them lack a clear frontier and thus the possibilities for adventure are more limited. The only exceptions I can think of are horror games like Call of Cthulhu or Vaesen, where I would argue that the supernatural (or at least extramundane) constitutes a frontier of sorts.

                If we turn back to Traveller, it would seem that GDW learned this lesson as well. Most of the editions of the game after its initial one were explicitly set not just in the Imperium setting but during a time when there were lots more frontiers. MegaTraveller (1987) shattered the Imperium in a civil war that resulted in the foundation of antagonistic successor states, while Traveller: The New Era (1993) takes place when much of interstellar civilization is rebuilding in the aftermath of that same civil war. I suspect a big part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World is the way they take a staid, familiar setting, like Earth, and fill it with frontiers again. 

                None of this is to suggest that it's impossible to have a satisfying roleplaying game campaign set in the core areas of a stable society, but, as I scan my bookshelves, looking at the games I have played most often, I see few obvious examples of them. I don't think that's mere coincidence.

                Friday, November 11, 2022

                By Any Other Name

                Like most people who got into the hobby in the late 1970s or early '80s, my first roleplaying game was Dungeons & Dragons. However, my second RPG was Gamma World and one of the things that struck me about it at the time was that it didn't have a special name for its referee. For some reason, I'd assumed that, just as D&D has a Dungeon Master, Gamma World would have something equally distinct, perhaps a Mutant Master. That it didn't was a bit of a disappointment. 

                I don't know where I'd gotten the idea that the referee in every RPG should have a special name for its referee, because most of the games I encountered in those first years after I'd discovered D&D did not. Generally, they used Game Master, Referee, or even Judge. There were exceptions, of course, like Top Secret's Administrator and Call of Cthulhu's Keeper of Arcane Lore, but they were actually few and far between.

                Are there any other notable examples of RPGs from prior to 1990 or so that use an unusual name for their referees?

                Thursday, November 10, 2022

                When Anton Met Ashton

                (left to right): Robert Barbour Johnson, George F. Haas,
                Clark Ashton Smith, Howard Stanton Levey
                One of the consistent contentions of this blog is that roleplaying games bubbled up at the decades-long confluence of multiple streams of culture, both high and popular. Those streams are many and include not simply the works of pulp fantasy that are a particular preoccupation of mine but many more – and stranger – things besides. I thought about this when I stumbled across the above photograph, for reasons I'll explain shortly. I can find no precise date for it, but it seems likely to have been taken after 1954, when Clark Ashton Smith moved from his childhood home of Auburn, California to Pacific Grove following his marriage to Carolyn Jones Dorman. 

                Smith largely gave up the writing of fiction by 1937, the conclusion of a period of several years that saw the deaths of both of his aged parents, as well as his friends and colleagues, Robert E. Howard and H.P, Lovecraft. The last surviving member of the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales, he retreated into his secluded cabin to work on his poetry and sculpture. Despite his disengagement from the growing science fiction and fantasy scene that he'd helped to found, admirers – some from as far away as Japan – would nevertheless call on him, both in Auburn and then later in Pacific Grove. 

                The photo above was taken on the occasion of a visit by several of his admirers. On the far left is Robert Barbour Johnson. Johnson was an artist and writer of weird fiction, as well as a dedicated Fortean. Standing next to Johnson is George F. Haas. Haas is perhaps most famous nowadays as an early devotee of cryptozoology, specifically the hunt for Bigfoot. Next to Haas is, of course, CAS, with his signature blazer and cigarette holder. At the far right is Howard Stanton Levey, who was, among other things, a regular hanger-on in the science fiction and fantasy fan community of San Francisco. A few years later, Levey had renamed himself Anton LaVey and began to peddle Ayn Rand in devil horns as Satanism. 

                There is, of course, no record of what occurred during this visit, which is a shame. I would like to think that Smith, while outwardly gracious and gentlemanly as ever, would have seen right through a huckster like LeVay. In my mind, though, I'd like to believe that any attempt by LeVay to intimate he had knowledge of genuine diabolism would have been met with skepticism akin to Christopher Lee's reply to Peter Jackson on the subject of what happens when a man is stabbed in the back. Of course, this was more than a decade before the founding of the Church of Satan, so the subject might not never have arisen. Still, a man can dream!