Monday, January 30, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Swords and Deviltry

On September 1, 2008fifteen years ago, if you can believe it – I inaugurated a new series for the blog that I called Pulp Fantasy Gallery. I intended the series to be a regular look at the evolution of not just fantasy art over the decades but of specific fantasy characters and settings over time. The series didn't last long, in large part because it very quickly evolved into the more literary-focused Pulp Fantasy Library series, which continues to this day (and is my second longest-running series, after Retrospective). 

On some level that's a shame, because I continue to think the evolution of fantasy art is a fascinating subject, especially for those of us who favor the esthetics of earlier times. Because of this – and because I've found myself unexpectedly busy over the last week and thus unable to devote myself properly to Pulp Fantasy Library – I've decided to pen a new entry in Pulp Fantasy Gallery today. Whether I'll continue to do so on a regular basis, I don't know. 

For now, let's take a look at five different cover illustrations created for the various English editions of Fritz Leiber's Swords and Deviltry. The first of these was published by Ace in May 1970 and featured artwork by Jeff Jones. Ace continued to use variations on this cover for more than fifteen years on its US editions of the book.
Not long thereafter, in December 1971, the New English Library released a UK edition of the book. The cover (by an unknown artist) bears a clear similarity to the Ace cover above.
A second UK edition appeared in December 1977 from George Prior Publishers, with artwork by Wayne Barlowe.
Just two years later, a third UK edition appeared from Mayflower, illustrated by Peter Elson.
Continuing a theme, we have a fourth UK edition, this time from Grafton in July 1986, with Geoff Taylor doing the cover.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Nothing New Under the Sun

This week's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library discussed Robert E. Howard's story of Kull, "The Cat and the Skull." To the extent that the story is known at all, it's because it features the first appearance of the undead sorcerer. The revelation of his involvement in the events of the tale is quite memorable.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

"Thulsa Doom!"

"Aye, I guessed as much!" exclaimed Ka-nu.

"Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!" the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly. "The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis! You have won this tilt but, beware, there shall be others."

Years ago, when I first read this story, I was convinced that it had to have been the origin of D&D's lich. While I knew the lich from the AD&D Monster Manual, with its unforgettable illustration by Dave Trampier, the lich was introduced into the game through Supplement I to OD&D, Greyhawk. There, liches are described as "skeletal monsters of magical original, each Lich being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and now alive only by means of great spells and will." The longer description in the Monster Manual adds that a lich possesses not just a skeletal form but "eyesockets mere black holes with glowing points of light." That sound a lot like REH's description of Thulsa Doom to me.

The early 1970s was a remarkable time for aficionados of Robert E. Howard's writing. Not only was Lancer releasing its paperback editions of Howard's sword-and-sorcery yarns, but Marvel Comics was producing comic adaptations of many of them as well. In addition to the much more well known and celebrated Conan the Barbarian (and, later, Savage Sword of Conan), Marvel adapted Howard's characters and stories in other

magazines, such as Monsters on the Prowl. Issue #16 of that magazine (April 1972) featured an original Kull story called "The Forbidden Swamp," in which Thulsa Doom is introduced to comics readers. As drawn by the brother and sister team of John and Marie Severin, Thulsa Doom shares a lot with D&D's lich, don't you think?

For years afterward, I held on to my theory that it was Thulsa Doom who had inspired Gary Gygax in his creation of the lich. Not only was there much similarity between their descriptions, but Thulsa Doom's earliest published appearance, whether in Lancer's King Kull anthology or Marvel's comics, occurred just before the publication of OD&D. There was thus a certain plausibility to the one having been inspired by the other.

As it turned out, my theory was wrong – or at least not the whole story. Many years later, in one of his many online question and answer threads, I recall that Gygax admitted he swiped the lich from "The Sword of the Sorcerer," a Kothar story by Gardner F. Fox. In that tale, Kothar encounters an undead sorcerer named Afgorkon, who is repeatedly referred to by the word "lich," something that cannot be said of Thulsa Doom so far as I can tell. That's not to say that Thulsa Doom might not have exercised some influence over the creation of D&D's lich, only that he wasn't, at least as far as Gygax claimed, the primary one. It's not as if the idea of a skeletal, undead sorcerer is a wholly unique idea anyway.

That's something I keep in mind whenever I look almost any element of Dungeons & Dragons. Very little of it is genuinely unique to the game. I'd wager that almost all of its monsters, spells, and magic items derive from a pre-existing story, comic, movie, or TV show. Indeed, it probably wouldn't take much work to demonstrate this, since Gygax and others were often quite open about the earlier creators and works that inspired them. I don't mean this to be a criticism – far from it! Rather, I bring this up simply as a reminder that what makes D&D special is not any of its individual elements, very few of which are original, but rather the strange alchemy of their admixture. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Retrospective: Blackmoor

Since last week's Retrospective was about Greyhawk, it seemed only right that this week's should be about Blackmoor. It's also appropriate because Supplement II to Original Dungeons & Dragons occupies a special place in the story of my explorations into the history of the hobby of roleplaying. When I was in high school, my father told me about a hobby shop near his workplace that was selling off all their "old D&D stuff" and he asked if were interested in any of it. I told him that, without a list of the titles they had on offer, there was no way I could answer. The next day, he went back to the store and brought me "samples" of what they had, among which was Blackmoor.

At the time, I think I'd seen the occasional references to Blackmoor, such as in the preface to the Monster Manual. And, of course, I was familiar with the land of Blackmoor as it was briefly described in the World of Greyhawk. However, that was close to the extent of my knowledge, this being several years before the publication of the DA-series of D&D modules that began with Adventures in Blackmoor. Consequently, I was very excited to read this weird, little, brown book and see what secrets it might reveal.

I can't say for certain that Blackmoor revealed any secrets to me at that time, but I did find it a very peculiar book nonetheless. Gary Gygax's effusive foreword included references to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, as well as how he "would rather play in his campaign than any other." This certainly whetted my appetite for information about the campaign itself. Indeed, I was hoping that this little book might shed light on the mysterious northern land mentioned in the World of Greyhawk folio.

Instead what I found was a collection of disconnected rules, many of which looked like early versions of material I'd later see in various AD&D books. There were write-ups for the monk and assassin character classes, sages, diseases, and aquatic monsters – all stuff I'd seen previously in slightly different forms. The only rules in Blackmoor I hadn't seen before were the "Hit Location During Melee" sections. Though they intrigued me, I also found these rules somewhat out of place in Dungeons & Dragons, which conceived of hit points in a fairly abstract manner. 

I was feeling a little confused and even let down by all of this. That's when I decided to look more closely at the sample adventure that took up almost twenty pages of Blackmoor. Entitled "The Temple of the Frog," it was quite different from any adventure I'd seen before. For one, its maps were clearly hand drawn, unlike the much more polished maps with which I was hitherto familiar from TSR's products. For another, its primary antagonist, the high priest of the Temple, Stephen the Rock, was described in great detail – including the fact that was "an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension!" This really grabbed my attention, especially after it became clearer that Stephen possessed high-tech weapons and armor of a science fictional sort.

By this point, I'd already read Gygax's own Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which also mixed the peanut butter of science fiction with the chocolate of fantasy, so the ideas presented in "The Temple of the Frog" weren't completely unfamiliar to me. At the same time, Arneson's adventure had a very distinct feel to it, one that differed considerably from Gygax's. The crashed alien spaceship in Barrier Peaks is basically a one-off dungeon, a weird locale separated from the wider world. The Temple of the Frog, though, is an active player in the world of Blackmoor; the Brothers of the Swamp are a rising power, whose ideology of batrachian supremacy over mankind might one day threaten the order of things. That their new high priest just so happens to be an alien possessed of advanced technology only makes the situation more potentially volatile.

When I first opened the pages of Blackmoor, I expected I'd probably find some new rules and ideas derived from Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Instead, what I got was a mishmash of ideas I'd mostly seen before and that, as I later learned, were largerly the work of other hands (Steve Marsh primarily). But then there was "The Temple of the Frog." Though it's almost completely lacking in larger details about the Blackmoor setting, its ideas and presentation took me by surprise. After reading the adventure, I wanted to know more about Arneson's odd setting and the way it might have mixed elements of science fiction and fantasy together.

That would have to wait a few more years, of course, but Blackmoor was the first step I took down that road. Prior to this, Dave Arneson himself was just a name I'd occasionally see in the credits of my D&D books and Blackmoor was just a mysterious land at the top of the World of Greyhawk map. Now, I knew a little better and for that reason I'll always be fond of OD&D's Supplement II.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cat and the Skull

Of all of Robert E. Howard's characters, I would argue that Kull is perhaps his most misunderstood – and not without reason. Though Howard wrote more than a dozen stories featuring the Atlantean king of Valusia, only three of them were published during his lifetime. Compared to, say, Conan or Solomon Kane, who appeared in many more stories, Kull seems almost like an afterthought, a character Howard discarded after the publication of "Kings of the Night" in November 1930. 

Conan, who first appeared twenty-five months after Kull's published swan song, plays a huge role in explaining why Kull is largely unknown today. Even among those aware of Kull, there's often a false sense that he's little more than a "rough draft" of the Cimmerian, an impression that isn't helped by the knowledge that Howard re-purposed a rejected Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!," for Conan's debut, "The Phoenix on the Sword." 

This is a great shame in my opinion. As characters, Kull and Conan have similarities, to be sure, but they also have differences. These differences are much more apparent when one reads the various unpublished Kull stories that Glenn Lord found in REH's famous storage trunk. Lord, a fan and fellow Texan, tracked down "the Trunk," as it is sometimes known, in 1965, finding that it contained about half of everything Howard had ever written, most of which had never been published in any form – including numerous Kull stories in various stages of completion.

Two years after the discovery of the Trunk, the anthology King Kull was released by Lancer, who'd already found great success with its line of Conan paperbacks. And just like those Conan paperbacks, this volume included posthumous "collaborations" between Robert E. Howard and editor Lin Carter. In this case, Carter finished three incomplete tales of Kull to varying degrees of success. Among the wholly Howardian stories presented for the first time in King Kull is one entitled "Delcardes' Cat" therein but whose proper title is "The Cat and the Skull."

The start of the tale is compelling.

King Kull went with Tu, chief councillor of the throne, to see the talking cat of Delcardes, for though a cat may look at a king, it is not given every king to look at a cat like Delcardes'. So Kull forgot the death-threat of Thulsa Doom the necromancer and went to Delcardes.

Thulsa Doom! Now, there's a name to seize the imagination. Though generations know him as the antagonist in John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, he is, in fact, the archnemesis of Kull and this story marks his first ever mention (and, as it later turns out, appearance) in fiction.

Kull is no fool and is thus skeptical of the existence of a talking cat. Tu is even more "wary and suspicious" in part because "years of counter-plot and intrigue had soured him." Indeed, he suspected that the supposed talking cat "was a snare and a fraud, a swindle and a delusion," not to mention "a direct insult to the gods, who ordained that only man should enjoy the power of speech." Does this sound at all like the opening of a Conan story? The yarn begins almost whimsically and I cannot deny that I was immediately seized with interest in seeing where Howard took things.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, is the companion – not pet! – of Delcardes, a Valusian noblewoman, who is herself described as "like a great beautiful feline," whose "lips were full and red and usually, as at present, curved in a faint enigmatical smile." She has come to the court of Kull to crave a boon from the king. The boon in question is marriage to Kulra Thoom of Zarfhaana, a match that would be forbidden, because "it is against the custom of Valusia that royal women should marry foreigners of lower rank." Delcardes knows this and argues that "the king can rule otherwise," much to the consternation of Tu, who reminds Kull that such a breach of tradition "is like to cause war and rebellion and discord for the next hundred years."

Kull will have none of this.

"Valka and Hotath! Am I an old woman or a priest to be bedevilled by such affairs? Settle it between yourselves and vex me no more with questions of mating! By Valka, in Atlantis men and women marry whom they please and none else."

Delcardes sees this as the perfect opportunity to remind Kull of the cat who accompanied her. The cat 

lolled on a silk cushion, on a couch of her own and surveyed the king with inscrutable eyes ... she had a slave who stood behind her, ready to do her bidding, a lanky man who kept the lower part of his face concealed with a thin veil which fell to his chest. 

The noblewoman explains that Saremes was "a cat of the Old Race who lived to be thousands of years old." She then asks him to ask the cat her age.

"How many years have you seen, Saremes?" asked Kull idly.

"Valusia was young when I was old," the cat answered in a clear though curiously timbered voice.

Kull started violently.

"Valka and Hotath!" he swore. "She talks!"

Delcardes laughed softly in pure enjoyment but the expression of the cat never altered.

"I talk, I think, I know, I am," she said. "I have been the ally of queens and the councillor of kings ages before even the white beaches of Atlantis knew your feet, Kull of Valusia. I saw the ancestors of the Valusians ride out of the fear east to trample down the Old Race and I was here when the Old Race came up out of the oceans many eons ago that the mind of man reels when seeking to measure them. Older am I than Thulsa Doom, whom few men have ever seen.

"I have seen empires rise and kingdoms fall and kings ride in on their steeds and out on their shields. Aye, I have been a goddess in my time and strange were the neophytes who bowed before me and terrible were the rites which were performed in my worship to pleasure me. For od eld beings exalted my kind; beings as strange as their deeds."

This is great stuff in my opinion. Apparently, Kull thought so too, because his interest is greatly piqued, so much so that he then asks the cat.

"Can you read the stars and foretell events?" Kull's barbarian mind leaped at once to material ideas.

"Aye; the books of the past and the future are open to me and I tell man what is good for him to know." 

It's at this point that Kull's skepticism of the existence of a talking cat – a skepticism that Tu still holds – gives way to hope, hope that Serames might possess knowledge that will enable him to make the right decisions as he ponders how to rule Valusia and meet the challenge of Thulsa Doom the necromancer. 

What follows is an odd pulp fantasy tale, one in which the barbarian king of a civilized land spends much time discussing fate, prophecy, and free will with a talking cat. I ask once again, does this sound like a Conan story? "The Cat and the Skill" is a fun story, one that nicely balances thoughtfulness with action, honesty with intrigue. That – and I hope no will be surprised to learn this – Serames is revealed to be a fraud, just as Tu warned, in no way takes away from my enjoyment of the story. What transpires before this revelation is thoroughly captivating and a much-needed reminder that Kull is no "rough draft" of anyone, but rather a uniquely engaging character in his own right.   

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Robert E. Howard, Escape Artist

REH (age 18) costumed as a pirate (August 1924)


I am the spur
That rides men's souls,
The glittering lure
That leads around the world.

–Robert E. Howard, Letter to Clyde Tevis Smith (1926)

Today marks the 117th anniversary of the birth of Robert Ervin Howard, creator of such icons of pulp fiction as Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, among many, many more. I don't think it's possible to overstate Howard's importance to the development of sword-and-sorcery literature. The character of Conan is, without a doubt, one of the most well-known fantasy characters of all time and the tales of his adventures established a template that has been widely imitated ever since his first appearance in 1932. These facts alone justify commemorating this day each year.

Of course, like many writers of the past, Howard has his fair share of contemporary detractors, those who criticize not just his writing but also his character. In general, I'm not much given to defending the personalities, choices, or opinions of men who died decades before I was born – not because I cannot recognize their very human flaws but because I know that I, too, might one day be judged by those with the luxury of hindsight. To believe that we, in this present age, have somehow transcended history and, unlike our forebears, hit upon all the Right Ideas that will henceforth be held by all who come after us is the height of hubris. Therefore, I try, not always with success, to limit my criticisms to the fruits of an individual's life.

A common criticism of Howard as man is that, for all the hotblooded machismo of his writings, he was himself a bookish weirdo who lived with his parents for the entirety of his thirty years of life. Howard never travelled outside the state of Texas [This is incorrect; see this comment – JM] nor was he a ladykiller, unlike the charismatic adventurers about whom he so often wrote. Instead, say these critics, REH played at being these things, as evidenced by the many photographs that depict the writer wielding a sword, wearing a sarape with a pistol at his hip, or sparring in boxing gloves. He was thus a fake and a fraud, a mama's boy given to bouts of performative masculinity of the sort who ought to be pitied rather than admired.

Like many criticisms, there are germs of truth in even these, but, also like many criticisms, they don't tell the whole story. Howard possessed many idiosyncrasies and his direct experience of the wider world was limited, in some ways more limited even than that of H.P. Lovecraft, which is indeed saying something. However, REH read widely and, through his many friends, both in Texas and across the United States, was able to imagine what it might have been like to sail the seas of Asia with Steve Costigan, to stand his ground against evil with Solomon Kane, and to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth with Conan. 

Reading – and, of course, writingenabled Robert E. Howard to escape from the circumstances of his birth, to escape life in a rough-and-tumble boomtown where someone with his interests and proclivities would always been viewed as an outsider. How many of us reading this have not done the same? One of the lasting joys of the best pulp stories is their ability to transport the reader to exotic locales where he can witness remarkable events and rub shoulders with even more remarkable people. Howard was one of the best tellers of pulp stories who ever lived, perhaps because, before those stories transported his readers, they transported him – away from the Great Depression, his small-minded neighbors, his mother's lingering illness, and the likelihood that he might never amount to anything.

That last fear proved utterly untrue. Though he died never knowing it, Robert E. Howard had a lasting impact on the world, one that can still be felt to this day, especially in this corner of it. Through his stories and the characters they introduced, he not only laid the foundations for an entirely new and popular genre of literature, but he also enabled other bookish weirdos to escape, if only for a little while, from their own circumstances. To me, that's well worth celebrating.

Friday, January 20, 2023

How Soon We Forget

TSR, Inc., as a publisher of books, games, and game related products, recognizes the social responsibilities that a company such as TSR must assume. TSR has developed this CODE OF ETHICS for use in maintaining good taste, while providing beneficial products within all of its publishing and licensing endeavors.

In developing each of its products, TSR strives to achieve peak entertainment value by providing consumers with a tool for developing social interaction skills and problem-solving capabilities by fostering group cooperation and the desire to learn. Every TSR product is designed to be enjoyed and is not intended to present a style of living for the players of TSR games.

To this end, the company has pledged itself to conscientiously adhere to the following principles:


Evil shall never be portrayed in an attractive light and shall be used only as a foe to illustrate a moral issue. All product shall focus on the struggle of good versus injustice and evil, casting the protagonist as an agent of right. Archetypes (heroes, villains, etc.) shall be used only to illustrate a moral issue. Satanic symbology, rituals, and phrases shall not appear in TSR products.


TSR products are intended to be fictional entertainment, and shall not present explicit details and methods of crime, weapon construction, drug use, magic, science, or technologies that could be reasonably duplicated and misused in real life situations. These categories are only to be described for story drama and effect/results in the game or story.


Agents of law enforcement (constables, policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions) should not be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. When such an agent is depicted as corrupt, the example must be expressed as an exception and the culprit should ultimately be brought to justice.


Crimes shall not be presented in such ways as to promote distrust of law enforcement agents/agencies or to inspire others with the desire to imitate criminals. Crime should be depicted as a sordid and unpleasant activity. Criminals should not be presented in glamorous circumstances. Player character thieves are constantly encouraged to act towards the common good.


Monsters in TSR's game systems can have good or evil goals. As foes of the protagonists, evil monsters should be able to be clearly defeated in some fashion. TSR recognizes the ability of an evil creature to change its ways and become beneficial, and does not exclude this possibility in the writing of this code.


Profanity, obscenity, smut, and vulgarity will not be used.


The use of drama or horror is acceptable in product development. However, the detailing of sordid vices or excessive gore shall be avoided. Horror, defined as the presence of uncertainty and fear in the tale, shall be permitted and should be implied, rather than graphically detailed.


All lurid scenes of excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, filth, sadism, or masochism, presented in text or graphically, are unacceptable. Scenes of unnecessary violence, extreme brutality, physical agony, and gore, including but not limited to extreme graphic or descriptive scenes presenting cannibalism, decapitation, evisceration, amputation, or other gory injuries, should be avoided.


Sexual themes of all types should be avoided. Rape and graphic lust should never be portrayed or discussed. Explicit sexual activity should not be portrayed. The concept of love or affection for another is not considered part of this definition.


Nudity is only acceptable, graphically, when done in a manner that complies with good taste and social standards. Degrading or salacious depiction is unacceptable. Graphic display of reproductive organs, or any facsimiles will not be permitted.


Disparaging graphic or textual references to physical afflictions, handicaps and deformities are unacceptable. Reference to actual afflictions or handicaps is acceptable only when portrayed or depicted in a manner that favorably educates the consumer on the affliction and in no way promotes disrespect.


Human and other non-monster character races and nationalities should not be depicted as inferior to other races. All races and nationalities shall be fairly portrayed.


Slavery is not to be depicted in a favorable light; it should only be represented as a cruel and inhuman institution to be abolished.


The use of religion in TSR products is to assist in clarifying the struggle between good and evil. Actual current religions are not to be depicted, ridiculed, or attacked in any way that promotes disrespect. Ancient or mythological religions, such as those prevalent in ancient Grecian, Roman and Norse societies, may be portrayed in their historic roles (in compliance with this Code of Ethics.) Any depiction of any fantasy religion is not intended as a presentation of an alternative form of worship.


Fantasy literature is distinguished by the presence of magic, super-science or artificial technology that exceeds natural law. The devices are to be portrayed as fictional and used for dramatic effect. They should not appear to be drawn from reality. Actual rituals (spells, incantations, sacrifices, etc.), weapon designs, illegal devices, and other activities of criminal or distasteful nature shall not be presented or provided as reference.


Narcotic and alcohol abuse shall not be presented, except as dangerous habits. Such abuse should be dealt with by focusing on the harmful aspects.


The distinction between players and player characters shall be strictly observed.

It is standard TSR policy to not use 'you' in its advertising or role playing games to suggest that the users of the game systems are actually taking part in the adventure. It should always be clear that the player's imaginary character is taking part in whatever imaginary action happens during game play. For example, 'you' don't attack the orcs--'your character' Hrothgar attacks the orcs.


It is TSR policy to not support any live action role-playing game system, no matter how nonviolent the style of gaming is said to be. TSR recognizes the physical dangers of live action role-playing that promotes its participants to do more than simply imagine in their minds what their characters are doing, and does not wish any game to be harmful.


While TSR may depict certain historical situations, institutions, or attitudes in a game product, it should not be construed that TSR condones these practices.

Original here

The Latest

While I don't want this blog to become dominated by posts relating to the Open Game License, the truth is that it's a very important topic for those of us in the OSR, because most of our foundational texts (OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry) were all created through its use. Consequently, any attempt by Wizards of the Coast to "de-authorize" earlier versions of the OGL will have – and already has had – profound repercussions. That's why this stuff is important, even if it's also more than a little confusing at times. 

To that end, I would like to direct your attention toward this post by Rob Conley, in which he quite clearly and intelligibly dissects WotC's proposed v.1.2 of the OGL and what its implementation would mean for our little corner of the larger hobby. Rob does a far better job of laying it all out than I ever could and I'm grateful for his continued posts on this matter. I'll almost certainly have some further thoughts of my own later, but, for the moment, I highly recommend the above link.

In Defense of Abe Merritt

Today is the 139th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Grace Merritt, better known by his byline of A. Merritt. In past posts commemorating his nativity, I've referred to him as the "forgotten father" of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, since his works, though highly influential during his lifetime – he died in 1943 – aren't much read anymore. Despite this, they exercised a huge influence over the imagination of Gary Gygax. In a comment in Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax places Merritt alongside the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, and H.P. Lovecraft as having played a significant role in his conception of Dungeons & Dragons. That's not only high praise but also, I think, a testament to his unheralded importance as a writer of fantasy.

A few months ago, I devoted myself to reading S.T. Joshi's magisterial, two-volume biography of H.P. Lovecraft, I Am Providence. Merritt's name comes up several times throughout, since HPL both admired Merritt's work (particularly The Moon Pool) and collaborated with him on the round-robin tale "The Challenge from Beyond." The biography notes that, about a month before he died, Lovecraft wrote a letter to C.L. Moore, in which he offered his "final assessment" of Merritt.
Abe Merritt – who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M.R. James ... if he had but chosen – is so badly sunk that he's lost the critical faculty to realise it ... Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one's subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That why Merritt lost – he learned the trained-dog tricks too well, & now he can't think & feel fictinally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks – & they have a record of genuine creative achievements beside which a whole library-full of cheap Ships of Ishtar & Creep, Shadows remain essentially negligible. 
I must confess I was somewhat taken aback by Lovecraft's seeming change of heart about Merritt. Even given HPL's well known snobbery and views about the vocation of writing, this assessment comes across as exceedingly harsh, even cruel.

At the same time, I can see Lovecraft's point. Merritt's stories do include many of the "artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance," from square-jawed heroes to diabolical villains to innocent damsels in distress. The presence in his stories no doubt explains why they were so popular with his readers – and why Merritt enjoyed a much more successful career as a writer than did Lovecraft. Many, if not most, of Merritt's stories touch upon the same themes and play with the same concepts as HPL's tales of cosmic horror, but the cosmicism of Merritt's stories are leavened with the human. They are thus much more approachable and appealing to a wide audience, something Lovecraft never even attempted to understand.

The irony, of course, is that both of Lovecraft's great correspondents and friends, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, understood this. Neither shied away from crafting stories that would make them more saleable and popular, even if both would occasionally grumble at having to do so. That's why they both, like Merritt and unlike HPL, were able to provide for themselves and their parents with steady streams of work. Howard, Smith, and Merritt all had no qualms about playing to their markets, even as they produced excellent work that has, in my opinion, stood the test of time.

For me, that's the real point here. Merritt's best stories, like The Moon Pool or The Metal Monster, both of which Lovecraft appreciated, are not lessened by their inclusion of down-to-earth characters and sentiments – what HPL called "pulp hokum" in one of his letters. Their greater accessibility is not a flaw. To put it another way, simply because something is popular does not mean that it is necessarily bad. Lovecraft, I fear, commits the error – I know this because I often guilty of it myself – of assuming that anything that is loved by the masses must by lacking in substance. In addition, he's judging Merritt's success as a writer by his own subjective (and deeply idiosyncratic) standards, which is, in my opinion, deeply unfair.

Yet, for all of this, there can be no question that Lovecraft's own work owed a great deal to the stories of Abraham Merritt. Without The Moon Pool, for example, there might never have been "The Call of Cthulhu," a tale upon which so much of HPL's eventual fame rests. No sneering critiques of his "magazine trick[s] & mannerism[s]" can change that. Nor can they change the fact that writers as diverse as Robert Bloch, Michael Moorcock, Richard Sharp Shaver, Karl Edward Wagner – and, yes, Gary Gygax – thought very highly of him and his imagination. That's not nothing.

In the end, Merritt needs no defense against H.P. Lovecraft or indeed anyone. His work speaks for itself, however poorly known it is in the 21st century. That's why I urge you, if you haven't done so already, to seek out his stories and read them. Most are available for free online and are well worth your time. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

By Hand

Last month, I mentioned that I'd be participating in Dungeon23, a challenge to create a 12-level, 365-room megadungeon one room at a time over the course of 2023. One of the reasons I decided to take this up was because I'd already intended to begin more extensive playtesting of the rules for my The Secrets of sha-Arthan RPG this year. Having a large subterranean locale ready for players to explore would help me in this effort, as well as providing me with an opportunity to flesh out the setting further. Thus was born the Vaults of da-Imer.

Though I was very excited by the prospect of detailing the Vaults, one aspect of this project gave me pause: mapmaking. Even in my youth, when I had the time to devote to such things, I was never very good at cartography. Of course, back in those days, I also wasn't very self-aware and so my obvious shortcomings didn't much affect me. I'm not so lucky in my middle age; I am keenly aware of the inadequacy of my mapmaking skills. However, I am elected to proceed nonetheless, drawing the Vault's maps by hand, in the hope that doing so might, if nothing else, encourage me to keep at it until I reach some mediocre level of proficiency.

To that end, here's the first map I drew for the Vaults of da-Imer. It's from a section of Level 1 known as "The Threshold." I've opted to give the Vaults a node-like structure rather than the more traditional approach to dungeons. Hence, Level 1 consists of five complexes of 4–8 rooms, each effectively its own "mini-dungeon" within the larger whole of the Vaults. I've never done a dungeon like this before, let alone one consisting of 365 rooms, so it'll be interesting to see how it turns out in the end.

The Highest Level of All

One of the stranger games to have been released during the first decade of the hobby was Fantasy Wargaming. Though I've never played it (and unlikely to ever do so), the game nevertheless exercises a strange fascination over me. I still have a copy of it on my bookshelf and take it down a couple of times each year to browse. In a strange way, I find re-reading it oddly heartening, because it's quite clear that, for all its many oddities, Fantasy Wargaming was a true passion project by its authors.

Mike Monaco of the Swords & Dorkery blog is even more enamored of Fantasy Wargaming than I am. That's why he recently wrote a scholarly book on it, published by Carnegie Mellon University's ETC Press. Entitled The Highest Level of All: The Story of Fantasy Wargaming, the book presents the story of the game's creation, as well that of its creators. Because it's an academic work, I'm not sure how widely distributed it will be, but I'll definitely keep my eye out for a copy. This is a topic that greatly interests me and I suspect it will be a fascinating read.

A Touch of the Folkloric

I'm playing in a casual Dungeons & Dragons game with some old friends of mine. In our most recent session, the player characters were traveling by boat toward a frontier town the bulk of whose population had either died or fled the place thirty years prior as the result of a magical plague. The PCs had been warned beforehand that one of the consequences of this large-scale abandonment was that many of the town's domesticated animals had gone feral and now posed a threat to travelers in the area. The characters were also told to be especially concerned about feral pigs, some of whom, it was said, had taken to walking on their hind legs and carrying weapons.

It's funny. This was just a small detail – a wild rumor given to the characters as they stopped by a village they passed on their way toward the aforementioned town. Yet, that rumor was terrifically evocative and compelling to me. It punched far above its weight as a throwaway explanation of the origin and nature of that stalwart D&D enemy, the orc. Admittedly, I've always been a fan of pig-faced orcs, but this little bit of background information grabbed me, so much so that, here I am, writing a post about it.

I think the reason this in-game rumor so seized my imagination is that it felt like something out of real world folklore, a horrific just-so story to explain the inexplicable. That's something D&D has rarely done at all, let alone done well. The game's approach to monsters, as exemplified by the Monster Manual, is too orderly, too rational, almost to the point of being scientific. That's the downside to Gygaxian Naturalism; it denudes the monsters of their montrosity by unambiguously laying out the truth of the matter in black and white. Come to think of it, the same is true of D&D's presentation of magic too, whether in the form of spells or magic items.

To some extent, this is inevitable. Dungeons & Dragons is a game and games have rules. Those rules need to be expressed as clearly as possible and doing so often militates against the sort of ignorance and mystery that's needed for good folklore. Fortunately, the rules of D&D have never been exemplars of clarity, which leaves space for the individual referee to put his own spin on things from time to time, as my friend did last night with his version of orcs. D&D – and fantasy RPGs generally – need more of this kind of thing. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Traveller Open Content

Though I'm a committed classic Traveller fan, I've lately been taking a much greater interest in Mongoose Publishing's Traveller line, which I've (largely) found to be a solid updating of both the rules and the Third Imperium (Charted Space) setting. Earlier today, Matthew Sprange posted the following:

In light of recent events, Mongoose Publishing is going to be introducing a brand new Traveller Open Content programme, allowing gamers and publishers to build their own projects using the most recent edition of Traveller rules.

We will be working with existing Traveller OGL publishers to build a new SRD based upon the Traveller Core Rulebook Update 2022, using their feedback to ensure best utility, and a logo licence will be made available to clearly mark compatible products.

At this time, we are looking to the ORC licence to maintain openness, now and in the future.

The current TAS programme on Drivethru, which allows the publishing of material set in the official Charted Space universe, will continue to run separately, but alongside, Traveller Open Content.

More news as it develops!

Retrospective: Greyhawk

After more than 300 posts in this series, it's often difficult to come up with an appropriately interesting subject for each week's Retrospective. As a general rule, I try to stick to RPG products published before 1989 or thereabouts, since that marks the beginning of D&D's Bronze Age and a sea change within the larger hobby. I likewise try to stick to RPG products I owned and/or used at the table, or that were at least important to me in some way, though I've often broken this rule over the years. Ultimately, my point is that choosing a product to discuss each week is more of a chore than one might suppose.

In thinking about what to write this week, I eventually realized that, while Original Dungeons & Dragons has always been a staple of this blog, I'd somehow never written specifically about its very first supplement, 1975's Greyhawk. I'd referenced Greyhawk innumerable times, of course, but I'd never given it a proper Retrospective-style treatment. This is an egregious oversight on my part, not simply because of how important Supplement I is to the history of D&D, but also because I've given both Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demigods & Heroes this kind of attention, which seems unfair.

From the vantage point of 2023, nearly a half-century after its initial publication, it's likely impossible to appreciate just how significant the appearance of Greyhawk was at the time. Most of its additions to OD&D, from paladins and thieves to new spells, magic items, and monsters, were all later incorporated into the much more widely read Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Consequently, a reader coming to Supplement I for the first time might mistakenly fail to see what the big deal was about this 68-page digest-sized booklet. Yet, in many very real ways, this is the volume that transformed OD&D into the game that most of us recognize today, even those playing editions that wouldn't be released until the 21st century.

How could it not? At 68 pages long, Greyhawk is more than half the length of all three volumes of OD&D. The sheer bulk of the new material more or less guaranteed that any adoption of it would change both the character and complexity of the campaign in which it's used. In his foreword, Gary Gygax – then the humble "Tactical Studies Rules Editor" – agrees, noting that "what is herein adds immeasurably to the existing game." Greyhawk, he later explains, includes "new rules, additions to existing rules, and suggested changes." This is true, as far as it goes, since each section of the supplement carries a parenthetical notation, such as "(Additions and Changes)" or "(Corrections and Additions)." However, the overall thrust of the supplement is one of supersession, with the new material being more than simply suggestions the individual referee can either adopt or not, as he sees fit. 

Even if that was not the intention, that seems to have been how Greyhawk was widely received at the time of its publication. It is my understanding – and those older than I, who remember those days, can correct me if I am mistaken – that most referees gleefully incorporated the new material into their campaigns without much complaint. After all, they'd already been adding their creations and those of others, too, so why wouldn't they accept the latest word from OD&D's own publisher? Indeed, the cynic in me can't help but wonder if Greyhawk was published so that TSR could get out in front of the torrent of content for D&D being created by someone other than themselves. 

As I stated at the start of this post, Supplement I forever changed the face of D&D. For one, it presented two new character classes, a new race (half-elves), and new options for multiclassing by non-humans that further muddled the question of the "right" way to interpret OD&D's notoriously unclear rules about elves. For another, it expanded the mechanical utility of ability scores and changed the way hit dice and hit point accumulation worked. All of this alone would have been sufficient to make OD&D + Greyhawk a very different game than OD&D alone, but Greyhawk offers up even more game changers, like the new experience point awards for defeating monsters. The new system is much less generous than OD&D original system, which the text of Greyhawk dubs "ridiculous." There's also the alternate weapon (and monster) damage system and an early version of AD&D's weapon vs AC table.

Then, there are the new spells, with their expanded level ranges. Magic-users now have spells have up to 9th level and clerics up to 7th, where before they were limited to 6th and 5th respectively. Among the new spells introduced in this supplement are many mainstays of the game, like magic missile, web, and silence, 15' radius, as well as many more higher-level spells, like the various power words and resurrection. The cumulative effect of all of this is to raise the power and utility of spellcasters, something that remained true for decades afterwards.

The new monsters include numerous D&D hallmarks, like beholders, umber hulks, and gelatinous cubes, not to mention the Queen of Chaotic Dragons (not yet named Tiamat, however). The list of new magic items is similarly filled with things people now associate strongly with the game, like vorpal blades, bracers of defense, portable holes, and decks of many things. Like the new spells, these additions greatly expand the scope of the game in myriad ways. They also contributed to D&D's growing distinctiveness as a thing unto itself rather than just the random mishmash of ideas and concepts liberally swiped from mythology, folklore, comic books, and pulp fantasy.

I cannot state strongly enough how important the publication of Greyhawk was to the history of Dungeons & Dragons. I'd go so far as to say that no supplement published has ever had as wide-ranging and profound an effect on the game's identity or its content. For good and for ill, the Dungeons & Dragons that exists today, both as a game and as a brand, was born in Greyhawk.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Experience a Legend

Despite my well-known dislike of the way that the Dragonlance series changed AD&D (and roleplaying), the fact is that I actually looked forward to the appearance of the first Weis and Hickman novel in November 1984. As a TSR fanboy, I dutifully bought it, along with its two sequels, though, in retrospect, it's difficult to say exactly why. I suspect the sheer novelty of a "D&D novel" – Quag Keep doesn't really count in my estimation – was enough to inflame my interest. 

I had just turned fifteen at the time and Dungeons & Dragons meant a lot to me. I suppose I saw the advent of the Dragonlance novels as some kind of validation of all the time, energy, and love I poured into this rather odd pastime. From the vantage point of middle age, it's mildly embarrassing, but adolescent enthusiasms often are. 

White Dwarf: Issue #64

Issue #64 of White Dwarf (April 1985) features a cover by Peter Andrew Jones that, as so many previous covers of the magazine have, mixes elements of fantasy and science fiction. Meanwhile, Ian Livingstone's editorial discusses his visit to Planet Photon in Dallas, Texas, the originator of the "laser tag" phenomenon of the '80s and '90s. What I find interesting is that Livingstone seems to think, as many people did at the time, that "real" roleplaying was an inevitability and that venues like Planet Photon were the first steps on that road. Nearly forty years later, I'm still unconvinced that even VR technology will ever prove more than a novelty.

"News of the World" by Jon Smithers is a lengthy article that looks at "government, law, and conflict in fantasy campaigns." It's basically an extended examination of how the referee can use governments and their laws to foster compelling conflicts in a RPG campaign. It's a worthy topic and the article is decent enough. My main complaint is that Smithers devotes a lot of space to a single type of conflict, war, while reducing less blatant forms of conflict to afterthoughts.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" is, as I've commented before, a source of frustration to me. Most columns I find rather dull, in large part because it's difficult to muster much interest in decades-old reviews of books I've never read (and, in many cases, never heard of). At the same time, it's clear that Langford is a talented and often witty writer, though I have long suspected that, like many reviewers, he played to his audience by amping up his negativity and general curmudgeonliness – not that I'd know anything about that. Amusingly, this month's column begins by noting that readers have complained he has become "too nice." Langford is, of course, mock appalled at this and explains that, if the charge is true, it's only because that "publishers have hit on the idea of offering [him] good stuff." He then proceeds to gush over Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic, thereby undermining what he just said. (I kid ... maybe? I realize I'll be a pariah by admitting this, but I've never liked Pratchett's writing and find the Discworld series rather puerile, but there it is, my dark secret revealed.)

"Open Box" devotes most of its two pags to a massive review of the third edition of RuneQuest. This is the edition published by Avalon Hill, which caused a stir at the time for both its price and its removal of Glorantha as the default campaign setting of the game in favor of "Mythic Earth." Overall, the reviewer, Oliver Dickinson, seems pleased with the new edition (9 out of 10). Also reviewed is Secret of the Ancients for GDW's Traveller, an adventure the reviewer, Marcus L. Rowland, liked better than I did (7 out of 10). That said, he recognizes its many flaws and recommends it primarily for completists and those deeply invested in the backstory of the Third Imperium setting.

If you're looking for something in a Traveller vein that's more fun, I present you with the issue's installment of Mark Harrison's The Travellers comic. This month, we're treated to "Gavin's Swan Song," as the titular xeno-hating psychopath indulges in ultra-violence while singing the following:
I'm sure it speaks poorly of me that I found – and still find – this quite funny. This issue's "Thrud the Barbarian" and "Gobbledigook" are amusing, too, but it's The Travellers I still remember all these years later.

"Starfall" by Marcus L. Rowland is a terrific (and long) adventure written for use with FASA's Star Trek. The scenario involves a distress call from a civilian Klingon vessel in the vicinity of the Neutral Zone. The twist is that, while the distress signal is genuine and the Klingons aboard are political dissenters fleeing execution by the Empire, they're also extreme hardlines who believe that the Empire is too soft in its dealings with the Federation. The whole thing has a delightfully late Cold War quality to it – go figure; it's from 1985 – making it one of my favorite Star Trek adventures of all time. I had a lot of fun using it back in the day.

"Megavillains" by Simon Burley and Peter Haines is the inaugural entry in the new "Heroes & Villains" feature for Games Workshop's Golden Heroes (which I really must write a post on someday). The article presents Earthlord, an angry elemental earth-spirit angry at the despoiling of the Earth. Ho-hum. Much more interesting is "Dawn of Unlight" by Graham Staplehurst, which presents an adventure in Middle-earth's Mirkwood for both AD&D and Middle-earth Role Playing. The scenario features a cult of Men devoted to Ungoliant, which creeped me out as a younger person, but then I hate and fear spiders. Because of that I was weirdly fascinated by this adventure, as well as by its AD&D conversion. Around this time, I was in the midst of one of my periodic fits of obsession with Tolkien and "Dawn of Unlight" scratched that itch.

"Dark Agents of the Night" by Phil Masters is yet another article about ninjas, this time focusing on modern, science fiction, and superhero games. For what it is, the article is fine, even good, because it includes examples of how to make use of ninjas in these genres. However, I simply cannot understand why White Dwarf published so many articles about ninjas in its pages – oh, right, yes I do: it was the 1980s. "Trogaar" is the name of this month's "Fiend Factory," presenting four new (A)D&D monsters themed around the desert: sand golem, desert orc, cactus cat, and sand sniper. I hate to snark at these, since they're all serviceable but mostly obvious additions to D&D menagerie and I find it hard to muster any enthusiasm for any of them.

"Bearers of the Mark" by Steve Williams and Mark White is a cult for use with Call of Cthulhu. It's fine but rather vague in its immediate utility. For example, many details are left (intentionally?) undescribed, meaning that the Keeper will need to do a fair bit of work before including the cult in his own campaign. "Proxy Painting" by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk is another good piece relating to minis painting. This time, they tackle the subject of painting services that, for a fee, will paint your figures for you. The article is accompanied by photos of these services' handiwork. As a non-painter, I found this article particularly fascinating. Finally, there is "Spells for Friends" by Martin Fowler and David Marsh, which offers up six new D&D spells that provide benefits to two individuals bound by the spell. It's a solid idea and some of the spells look like they'd be handy in certain campaigns.

Issue #64 is one of those issues that I remember quite well, primarily because of its two big adventures, both of which I liked a great deal. Re-reading them now in preparation for this post was enjoyable. They served as great reminders of why I subscribed to White Dwarf during my high school years. It's a pity the magazine would, within a few more years, become little more than an advertisement for Warhammer. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Where Things Stand

Over the last few days, there have been a number of developments in the saga of Wizards of the Coast's plans to "de-authorize" version 1.0a of the Open Game License and replace it with a more draconian (i.e. effectively non-open) version 1.1. Perhaps the most significant of these is the announcement by Paizo, publisher of Pathfinder, that it intends to create "a new open, perpetual, and irrevocable Open RPG Creative License (ORC)." At its announcement, Paizo was joined by numerous other RPG companies, including Chaosium. Later, Goodman Games, publisher of Dungeon Crawl Classics, indicated that it too would be adopting ORC

For its part, Wizards of the Coast issued "an update on the Open Game License" that was clearly intended to dampen the outrage through feigned conciliation. While WotC appears to have walked back some of the provisions of v.1.1, their update is notably silent on the matter of whether they still intend to proceed with their attempt to "de-authorize" v.1.0a. I suspect that's a deliberate attempt at obfuscation on their part, in the hope people will somehow forget this crucial part of their plan. I say "crucial," because so many of the OSR's publications made use of the OGL and the d20 SRD. Without it, creators, both large and small, will need to make appropriate adjustments.

At the same time, one of the things that I hope has become clearer to more people is that there is no need to use any kind of open license to create new old school games, let alone products for use with an existing one, provided copyrights and trademarks are respected. The OGL was never necessary, though it was certainly useful, given what was included in the d20 System Reference Document. Certainly, the uncertainty regarding the status of v.1.0a makes things potentially difficult for the creators behind retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Old School Essentials, but they are not insurmountable. Both Basic Fantasy and Swords & Wizardry have already announced plans to proceed without the OGL in the future and there is no reason why other creators cannot do the same.

The OSR is much too small a portion of the hobby for Wizards of the Coast to care about us. I don't for a minute believe that their proposed changes to the OGL had us in their sights. Why should they? I've now sat out two editions of Dungeons & Dragons in a row. I'm not one of their customers and likely never will be, so my feelings and preferences are none of their concern. Nevertheless, a part of the hobby that matters to me may suffer significant collateral damage due to their shenanigans and that's a shame. I almost wish I had been a customer of WotC so that I could somehow register my disapproval of their intended actions.

Until something of significance happens on this front, this is my last post on the matter for a while.

A Face Only a Child Could Love

Since I was talking about LJN's AD&D toys last week in connection with Quest for the Heartstone, I thought readers might enjoy being reminded of the Fortress of Fangs playset, which was released in 1983. For once, I'll keep me snobbery to myself in commenting on these toys. Instead, I'll focus on something a little different, namely, that these were Advanced Dungeons & Dragons-branded rather than merely Dungeons & Dragons-branded. I have long suspected that this was done for legal/financial reasons relating to TSR's settlement with Dave Arneson about royalties for D&D, but I've seen no solid evidence that my suspicion is true. Even if it is, I still find the whole situation odd purely from a brand-building perspective, doubly so when you're dealing with a product aimed at kids.

In any case, as toys of this kind go, I can't deny this one looks pretty fun. I'm not exactly certain what it's supposed to be, but that rarely matters to an imaginative 8-year-old. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The People of the Pit

As many of you no doubt already know, Gary Gygax not only includes Abraham Merritt in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide but also includes him among a select handful of authors whom he deems as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D." With Merritt's 139th birthday looming later this week (January 20), I thought it fitting to take a look one of his earliest stories – his second, as it turns out – as a way to celebrate him and the influence he had upon the Gygaxian conception of Dungeons & Dragons.

"The People of the Pit" first appeared in the January 5, 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly, though it was much reprinted from the late 1920s onward. It is, in many ways, a prototype for many of Merritt's most well-known tales, in that it involves a lost world and a hidden, subterranean city – themes to which he and those influenced by him would return again and again. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was an avowed admirer of Merritt's works. He frequently cited "The Moon Pool" as a favorite, though I can't help but wonder if the snowy boreal setting of "The People of the Pit" might have contributed in some small way to his At the Mountains of Madness. 

The story concerns a pair of prospectors, Starr Anderson and the unnamed narrator. While on an expedition somewhere north of the Yukon River, they observe a peculiar shaft of light.

North of us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came from behind the five peaks. The beam drove up through a column of blue haze whose edges were marked as sharply as the rain that streams from the edges of a thunder cloud. It was like the flash of a searchlight through an azure mist. It cast no shadows.

As it struck upward the summits were outlined hard and black and I saw that the whole mountain was shaped like a hand. As the light silhouetted it, the gigantic fingers stretched, the hand seemed to thrust itself forward. It was exactly as though it moved to push something back. The shining beam held steady for a moment; then broke into myriads of little luminous globes that swung to and fro and dropped gently. They seemed to be searching.

The comrades continue to observe this oddity and theorize about its nature. Not long thereafter, the two men hear first an "eager" whispering sound and then something else entirely.

Through the whispering had broken a curious pad-pad and a rustling. It sounded as though a small bear were moving towards us. I threw a pile of wood on the fire and, as it blazed up, saw something break through the bushes. It walked on all fours, but it did not walk like a bear. All at once it flashed upon me—it was like a baby crawling upstairs. The forepaws lifted themselves in grotesquely infantile fashion. It was grotesque but it was—terrible. It grew closer. We reached for our guns—and dropped them. Suddenly we knew that this crawling thing was a man!

It was a man. Still with the high climbing pad-pad he swayed to the fire. He stopped.

"Safe," whispered the crawling man, in a voice that was an echo of the murmur overhead. "Quite safe here. They can't get out of the blue, you know. They can't get you—unless you go to them—"

He fell over on his side. We ran to him. Anderson knelt.

"God's love!" he said. "Frank, look at this!" He pointed to the hands. The wrists were covered with torn rags of a heavy shirt. The hands themselves were stumps! The fingers had been bent into the palms and the flesh had been worn to the bone. They looked like the feet of a little black elephant! My eyes traveled down the body. Around the waist was a heavy band of yellow metal. From it fell a ring and a dozen links of shining white chain!

Anderson and the narrator are baffled by the sudden appearance of the man and ponder the nature of his injuries. They also ponder the band around his waist, from which the narrator frees him by filing it. 

It was gold, but it was like no gold I had ever handled. Pure gold is soft. This was soft, but it had an unclean, viscid life of its own. It clung to the file. I gashed through it, bent it away from the body and hurled it far off. It was— loathsome!

When the man awakes later, he says that his name is Sinclair Stanton, a graduate of Yale University and an explorer, who'd "gotten too far North." He asks his rescuers a couple of odd questions:

"Was there any light up there last night?" He nodded to the North eagerly. "Any whispering?"

"Neither," I answered. His head fell back and he stared up at the sky.

"They've given it up, then?" he said at last.

"Who have given it up?" asked Anderson.

"Why, the people of the pit," replied the crawling man quietly.

We stared at him. "The people of the pit," he said. "Things that the Devil made before the Flood and that somehow have escaped God's vengeance. You weren't in any danger from them—unless you had followed their call. They can't get any further than the blue haze. I was their prisoner," he added simply. "They were trying to whisper me back to them!"

Stanton insists that he is not insane. He then tells the story of his ill-fated expedition, starting with his partner, who had "sickened" along the way. He sent him back south with some of their Indian guides, as he pressed onward. As he got closer to a place he called Hand Mountain, all his remaining guides abandoned him, believing it cursed – correctly, as it turned out. 

Stanton, however, was undeterred and inexplicably discovered "a fine smooth stone road" that "passed between two high rocks that raised themselves like a gateway."

"They were a gateway," he said. "I reached them. I went between them. And then I sprawled and clutched the earth in sheer awe! I was on a broad stone platform. Before me was—sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide and with the bottom dropped out. That is what I was looking into. It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll! On the far side stood the five peaks. They looked like a gigantic warning hand stretched up to the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.

"I could see down perhaps a thousand feet. Then a thick blue haze shut out the eye. It was like the blue you see gather on the high hills at dusk. And the pit—it was awesome; awesome as the Maori Gulf of Ranalak, that sinks between the living and the dead and that only the freshly released soul has strength to leap—but never strength to cross again.

"I crept back from the verge and stood up, weak. My hand rested against one of the pillars of the gateway. There was carving upon it. It bore in still sharp outlines the heroic figure of a man. His back was turned. His arms were outstretched. There was an odd peaked headdress upon him. I looked at the opposite pillar. It bore a figure exactly similar. The pillars were triangular and the carvings were on the side away from the pit. The figures seemed to be holding something back. I looked closer. Behind the outstretched hands I seemed to see other shapes.

"I traced them out vaguely. Suddenly I felt unaccountably sick. There had come to me an impression of enormous upright slugs. Their swollen bodies were faintly cut—all except the heads which were well marked globes. They were—unutterably loathsome. I turned from the gates back to the void. I stretched myself upon the slab and looked over the edge.

"A stairway led down into the pit!"

What Stanton finds when he descends the stairs and reaches the bottom of the pit I'll leave to the reader to learn. I will say only that, in the best pulp tradition, Merritt does an excellent job in building tension and holding the reader's interest till the end of his story. 

Reading "The People of the Pit," it's easy to see why someone like Lovecraft admired Merritt so much, combining as he does a superb adventure story with elements of cosmic horror. That the story has directly inspired not one but two different old school fantasy adventure modules, both of which share their title with Merritt's tale, is, I think, another point in its favor. It's a fun and enjoyable yarn.

Friday, January 13, 2023

To the Daemon

Tell me many tales, O benign maleficent daemon, but tell me none that I have ever heard or have even dreamt of otherwise than obscurely or infrequently. Nay, tell me not of anything that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space: for I am a little weary of all recorded years and charted lands; and the isles that are westward of Cathay, and the sunset realms of Ind, are not remote enough to be made the abiding-place of my conceptions; and Atlantis is over-new for my thoughts to sojourn there, and Mu itself has gazed upon the sun in aeons that are too recent,

Tell me many tales, but let them be of things that are past the lore of legend and of which there are no myths in our world or any world adjoining. Tell me, if you will, of the years when the moon was young, with siren-rippled seas and mountains that were zoned with flowers from base to summit; tell me of the planets gray with eld, of the worlds whereon no mortal astronomer has ever looked, and whose mystic heavens and horizons have given pause to visionaries. Tell me of the vaster blossoms within whose cradling chalices a woman could sleep; of the seas of fire that beat on strands of ever-during ice; of perfumes that can give eternal slumber in a breath; of eyeless titans that dwell in Uranus, and beings that wander in the green light of the twin suns of azure and orange. Tell me tales of inconceivable fear and unimaginable love, in orbs whereto our sun is a nameless star, or unto which its rays have never reached.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Ryan Dancey Speaks

While I'm sure that some readers have already tired of hearing about the Open Game License and Wizards of the Coast's rumored plans to undermine it, it's nevertheless a potentially significant topic for those of us in the old school world, given the role the OGL and the d20 SRD played in the production of OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry, among others. That's why I'm especially keen to hear what Ryan Dancey, co-creator of the OGL, has to say on the matter. 

Fortunately for me, the Roll For Combat YouTube channel sat down with Dancey for more than two hours yesterday and he answered numerous questions about the OGL, WotC, and Hasbro that are very illuminating. He even mentions that the advent of retro-clones was something that genuinely surprised him. If you have an interest in this topic and the time to devote to it, I recommend taking a look.