Friday, March 31, 2023

Fear of Ruination

As my House of Worms campaign starts its ninth year, I've regularly found myself wondering, "How long can I keep this going?" House of Worms is, by a long shot, the longest continual campaign I've ever refereed and I'd like to keep it going for as long as possible. This campaign is regular source of satisfaction and joy for me and, I hope, for the players as well. These feelings are almost certainly why I so often worry that I'm on the verge of ruining it through poor judgment or some misstep on my part. I worry that, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the campaign isn't nearly as sturdy or resilient as it appears to be and that it could all come crashing down in an instant if I'm not careful.

To many of you reading this, that probably sounds irrationally anxious and you're probably correct in thinking this, but please allow me to explain where I am coming from. From its inception in March 2015, the House of Worms campaign has been very player-driven. After its initial kick-off, I rarely presented the players with "adventures," as they're usually understood. Instead, I strove to present a variety of situations and opportunities within the world of Tékumel that the players, through their characters, could either pursue or not, as they desired. Further, if the players wanted to pursue other opportunities, ones I'd not immediately considered, that was fine too. Truth be told, I prefer it when the players do most of the heavy lifting for the campaign, because I am by nature a lazy referee. Plus, it's been my experience that allowing the players to do their own thing is one of the keys to campaign longevity.

Over the past eight years, House of Worms has chugged along very smoothly, flitting from one situation to the next according to the interest of the players. Sometimes, the players have had clear and obvious goals, such as return home after a magical mishap hurled them far away, but most of their goals over the years have been much more open-ended and elusive. One of the advantages of this is that it's given me lots of opportunities to show different parts of Tékumel to them through play. I feel that's where a rich and detailed setting really pays off. 

Though the players and their interests are the main drivers of the campaign, that doesn't mean I don't have ideas of my own, ideas that I'm interested in exploring through play. A good example of this concerns the nature of the gods of Tékumel, including their natures and purposes with regards to lesser beings. Looking back over the course of the last eight years, I now recognize that this has been an important underlying element of it, with multiple instances of divine invention, encounters with computer "gods", and deity-centered mysteries informing the course of its action. Overall, I think this element has not only helped keep everyone interest but has also helped to make the House of Worms feel distinct from other fantasy campaigns I've refereed. There's a sense that the characters are slowly unraveling some of the bigger mysteries of Tékumel, which is heady stuff.

And that's precisely the source of my occasional worries. Over the course of the campaign, I've given quite some thought to these questions and have come to some tentative conclusions. At any given moment, I'm happy with them. Indeed, I often find them genuinely clever and compelling – to me, if no one else. These conclusions inform my approach to the characters' actions; they're part of the slowly emerging truths of Tékumel. So far, the players have responded well to them, but there's a part of me that worries, "Have I gone too far? Have I ruined this campaign that we've all enjoyed for nearly a decade?" 

My anxiety is based, in large part, on the fact that, as I reveal more and the characters come to understand more, I am changing the setting in various ways, or at least changing the players' perspective on it. A few sessions ago, one of the players commented that, in light of new things his character had learned, that character would have to re-evaluate what he believes and wants to do. The player didn't say this ruefully – far from it, in fact. Nevertheless, there was a sense that the character had lost some of his innocence; he could no longer look at Tékumel as he once knew it. This was definitely a moment of growth for the character, but it is also signaled that the campaign had rounded a particular corner and there was no going back.

Have any other referees felt similarly about their campaigns? Have you ever felt that you'd introduce something into a campaign that had changed things in such a way that you worried it might do lasting violence to the campaign? Or is this just another of my overthinking of things? 

Thursday, March 30, 2023


There are few things more frustrating than spending time and energy on a blog post about a very interesting topic only to discover, after having nearly completed it, that I'd already written on this exact topic thirteen years ago, but had forgotten I'd done so.

With just shy of 4000 posts in the archive of Grognardia, I suppose this was inevitable. Unfortunately, it seems to be happening more and more lately. Either I'm getting more forgetful or I'm running out of things to say. I'm honestly not sure which is a more frightful prospect.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Retrospective: Cthulhu Now

Since its original release in 1981, Call of Cthulhu's default setting has been the 1920s. As a result, the venerable horror roleplaying game is inextricably linked to the Jazz Age in the minds of most gamers. This linkage is, however, a mere accident of history, a consequence of the fact that most of H.P. Lovecraft's tales, including the eponymous "The Call of Cthulhu," were written and published during that decade. 

Of course, to Lovecraft and his readers, his stories of cosmic horror were set, not in the past, but in the present. Indeed, much of their power comes from the juxtaposition of ancient terrors and the perceived progress of the "modern world." On some level, it's thus always been a bit odd that Sandy Petersen Call of Cthulhu chose to retain the 1920s setting for the game rather than the here and now. Had he lived longer, I have little doubt that Lovecraft would have set his stories in whatever was the current date at the time, since that had (mostly) been his practice since he first took up writing.

At least some players of Call of Cthulhu agreed with this perspective, since, almost from the very beginning, I knew of those who'd set their campaigns in the then-present rather than the '20s. Indeed, within only a couple of years of the game's initial publication, White Dwarf magazine presented a two-part article by Marcus L. Rowland entitled "Cthulhu Now!". As I noted in my discussions of the issues in which it appeared, I adored Rowland's too-brief stab at the topic of updating Call of Cthulhu for the 1980s and readily made use of its rules expansions and additions. At the time, I thought a more contemporary setting made much more sense than the 1920s, which, in my gaming circle at least, we tended to associate with RPGs like Gangbusters.

So, when Chaosium published a new softcover rules supplement for Call of Cthulhu in 1987 with the title Cthulhu Now, I assumed that it was simply a further expansion of Rowland's original article and happily snapped it up from my local hobby shop without ever bothering to look inside its covers. When I did, I discovered that it was a similar but not entirely identical beast to that two-part White Dwarf offering of a few years prior. The name of Marcus Rowland was nowhere to be found. Instead, like so many Chaosium products of old, the book bore the bylines of no fewer than seven different authors, including Sandy Petersen himself. Over the years, I have long wondered why a book bearing an identical title (sans the exclamation point) and focusing on similar subjects doesn't even acknowledge Rowland's original. This is a gaming mystery that remains unsolved.

What's immediately noticeable about Chaosium's version of Cthulhu Now is that, of its 128 pages, less than a third are devoted to rules additions, alterations, or expansions – and more than a third of that is devoted to new equipment, particularly firearms. None this material is bad, let alone useless, but it feels rather beside the point. Of course the 1980s has lots of technology that didn't exist in the 1920s and it's important to provide game stats for the most significant examples of that technology. In my opinion, though, what really separates the present – whether the 1980s or the 2020s – from the 1920s, at least from the perspective of a Call of Cthulhu campaign, are social/cultural/political differences that would have an impact on how investigators might go about their business. We get a few nods in this direction, most notably in the form of a solid section on forensic pathology, but it's still not enough to aid the Keeper in setting his campaign in the modern era.

I suspect that Chaosium felt that the four scenarios Cthulhu Now includes would do a lot of the heavy lifting in this regard, providing practical examples of what a modern day CoC adventure might be like. As presented, the adventures contain a lot of good ideas and concepts, but they're often poorly implemented and verge on railroads at times – a common problem in Call of Cthulhu scenarios – so their utility as guides is limited. That said, they do show off the possibilities of contemporary gaming, ranging from an underwater investigation to dream research to space exploration and more. Admittedly, all four scenarios feel a bit dated now, largely because nearly four decades have passed since the book's publication and technology and society have continue to change.

Ultimately, though, I think my dissatisfaction with Cthulhu Now has more to do with my own ambivalence about setting Call of Cthulhu in the present day. As I stated earlier, this is something I've always felt made sense and that I instinctively wanted to do with the game. Yet, conversely, there's no denying that the Cthulhu Mythos, at least as its popularly conceived, has become almost quaint in its vision of cosmic horror, so quaint that it only really works well as a period piece. That's not to say that a contemporary approach to Lovecraftian horror is impossible, only that doing so effectively requires a lot more work and imagination than most people realize and Cthulhu Now is largely lacking in both.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Individually Approved

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the lines of D&D and AD&D miniatures that Citadel briefly produced between 1985 and '86. As one might have expected, the line was heavily advertised in the pages of White Dwarf. In issue #69, the above ad appeared and it really caught my eye, not only for its Warhammer-esque artwork and photos of the actual miniatures themselves, but also for its placement of Gary Gygax himself within it.

This particular image of Gygax is one I am sure I have seen before in another context – indeed, possibly in another advertisement – but my aged brain is simply unable to recall it at the moment. Regardless, I think the prominence of Gygax, "originator of the fantasy role-playing game industry and an author of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS®," is noteworthy, especially in September 1985, a mere thirteen months prior to his formal departure from TSR Hobbies. 

The supposed fact that Gygax had "individually approved" each figure is presented as a point in favor of these lines and I imagine that, in the minds of many, it might well have been so. I don't think there's ever been a figure in the history of roleplaying games quite like Gary Gygax. He was likely the first – and only – celebrity the hobby has ever known, someone recognizable by name and face and opinion in a way that I don't think anyone, before or since, has ever been. To some, he was a hero, to others, a devil, but there can be little doubt that we shall not see his like again.

White Dwarf: Issue #69

Issue #69 of White Dwarf (September 1985) is one of which I have no memory whatsoever. As I mentioned last week, I'm now looking at issues published after I ceased my subscription to the magazine, so my recollections of them are generally hazy. In this particular instance, they're non-existent, so my reading in preparation for this post may well be the first time I've ever set eyes on the issue. The cover is another by Mark Bromley, featuring what would appear to be a dark elf (drow?) lashing a slave under his charge. 

Ian Livingstone's editorial focuses on the tenth anniversary of the Games Day convention. He notes not just the long queues to enter the event, but also the fact that its attendees now number in the thousands rather than the hundreds that first turned out for it in 1975. I have a vague memory that Games Workshop brought a version of Games Day to Baltimore sometime during the '80s, though I never attended it. I wonder how similar it might have been to the original in the UK.

The issue kicks off with "Rationale Behavior" by Peter Tamlyn. The article is actually an extended discussion of the concept of alignment within Dungeons & Dragons, including its limitations. Tamlyn then notes that GW's superhero game, Golden Heroes, includes a series of "campaign ratings" that measure a character's relationship with the in-game world, such as, for example, Public Status and Personal Status. These ratings, he contends, do a better job of describing a character than a simplistic alignment system. For that reason, Tamlyn puts forward an alternative to alignment that takes into account a character's religious attitudes, social status, public piety, and so on in order to give a fuller picture of his place in the fantasy setting. It's an intriguing idea and not without some advantages over alignment, though its use requires considerably more work on the part of both the referee and the player. Still, it was a thought-provoking article.

The second part of Peter Blanchard's "Beneath the Waves" appears, focusing this time on "developing civilizations." As with its predecessor, this article's purpose is to consider the ramifications of life underwater in a fantasy setting. Also like its predecessor, the second installment is well-done but much too brief. Blanchard wisely looks at many of the obvious considerations of the submarine environment, along with less apparent ones, like writing, working metal, construction, and even magic. Unfortunately, most of these topics get a couple of paragraphs at most – better than nothing but still barely scratching the surface of a huge topic. The article would have done well with more examples of how to employ its principles, I think.

"Open Box" starts off with short reviews of three different adventure modules for TSR's Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars (7 out of 10), Lone Wolves (6 out of 10), Cat's-Paw (6 out of 10). Interestingly, reviewer Marcus L. Rowland calls Cat's-Paw his favorite of the three and yet it does not receive the highest rating of the three, another indication that these scores were given not by the reviewer but by someone else on the White Dwarf staff. Also reviewed is Toon Strikes Again (8 out of 10) and the boardgame, Chill: Black Morn Manor (8 out of 10), two products with which I have no direct familiarity, though I remember being very intrigued by advertisements for the latter. Finally, there's a review for TSR's Conan Role-Playing Game. The reviewer, Peter Tamlyn, is generally impressed with the game (7 out of 10), but his enthusiasm is dampened by its many editing, proofreading, and typesetting errors. He hopes that there might be a second edition that corrects its many deficiencies..

Dave Langford continues to do his thing in "Critical Mass." At this stage, I find I most enjoy his reviews when he shares my own prejudices, hence why the only things I can remember about this month's installment is his skewering of both Barbara Hambly and Piers Anthony, two writers whose popularity has always baffled me. "Close Encounters" by Ian Marsh similarly held little interest for me. Marsh presents what he thinks RuneQuest really needs: an expansion of the game's strike rank system that takes into account weapon length ... 

The saga of "Thrud the Destroyer" concludes as it was destined to do so: with Thrud and his fellow mercenaries screwing things up for their peasant patrons. "The Travellers" includes more character write-ups, including game statistics, this time for the characters of Hayes and Gavin. "Gobbledigook" likewise reappears. "The Surrey Enigma" is a solid, if inconsequential, Call of Cthulhu adventure by Marcus L. Rowland (did he write everything in WD in the mid-80s?), in which the characters investigate unfounded rumors of witchcraft only to discover something much more sinister. I find it fascinating that the adventure takes the time to explain the old British, pre-decimal currency system to readers. Had its existence already been forgotten by 1985?

"Plague from the Past" by Richard Andrews is an AD&D adventure for 5th–7th level characters. The scenario is clever in a folkloric way that fantasy adventures frequently are not. The village in which it takes up is built atop the body of a long-dead giant and present-day actions are resulting in the giant's restoration to life. Good stuff! "Battle Stations" by J. Evans and E. Wilson presents an alternate – and more complex – damage system for use with Traveller's High Guard. To each his own, but I cannot say I see the appeal. Mind you, the older I get, the more convinced I am that simple, straightforward rules are usually best if your goal is to sustain a campaign long-term, so I am probably biased against articles of this sort.

"The Starlight Pact" by Peter Haines and David Smith is the latest installment of the venerable "Fiend Factory" column. Up till now, "Fiend Factory" showcased new monsters for use with Dungeons & Dragons. This month, the column instead presents five superheroes for use with Golden Heroes, each of which is inspired by a miniature figure produced by Citadel. The times they are indeed a-changin' at White Dwarf. "Shopping for Inspiration" by Joe Dever briefly offers up the names and addresses of stores that sell supplies of interest to miniatures painters, along with the usual tantalizing photos of some of the author's own handiwork. Finally, "Poison" by Graeme Davis presents yet another "new and easy-to-use" system for handling toxins in AD&D – once again, more complexity than I'd ever need, but your mileage may vary.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Arkham House Congratulates Weird Tales

As I noted in my earlier post, "The Master of the Crabs" first appeared in the 25th anniversary issue of Weird Tales. You can take a look at the contents of the entire issue here, including its advertisements. Among those ads is this one, placed by none other than Arkham House:

This is a good reminder of just how significant to the history of fantasy and science fiction Arkham House once was. It's also a reminder of just how ephemeral tastes can be. Of the nearly twenty authors listed, less than half of them have had any lasting literary influence and fewer still remain well known and read today. However much I might wish to decry this, it remains a fact and will likely only become truer as the decades grind on. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Master of the Crabs

Something that's often overlooked when discussing the "Big Three" of Weird Tales is that, while both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were dead by March 1937, Clark Ashton Smith lived for another quarter-century. Now, it is true that, following the death of his own father in December 1937, CAS largely abandoned fiction writing in favor of both his original avocation, poetry, and sculpture, he nevertheless continued to write fiction, albeit with far less industry than he had during the fruitful period between 1926 and 1935. Often, he did so at the behest of others, who encouraged him to pen new stories for his most famous literary cycles.

A good example of this is "The Master of the Crabs," a tale of Zothique he wrote after being asked by Associate Editor Lamont Buchanan to contribute to the upcoming 25th anniversary issue of Weird Tales. This issue would appear in March 1948, making it the second to last Zothique story Smith ever wrote (the last being "Morthylla"), though, like so many of his later fiction efforts, it was based on an idea he'd had years earlier (in this case, 1932 or earlier). Though "The Master of the Crabs" is by no means one of Smith's best works, it's both comparatively short and contains enough imaginative elements to make it worthwhile.

The story is almost Vancian in its set-up: two rival sorcerers – Mior Lumivix and Sarcand – contend for possession of "the fabulous chart of Omvor," which 

was a thing that many generations of wizards had dreamt to find. Omvor, an ancient pirate still renowned, had performed successfully a feat of impious rashness. Sailing up a closely guarded estuary by night with his small crew disguised as priests in stolen temple-barges, he had looted the fane of the Moon-God in Faraad and had carried away many of its virgins, together with gems, gold, altar-vessels, talismans, phylacteries and books of eldritch elder magic. These books were the gravest loss of all, since even the priests had never dared to copy them. They were unique and irreplaceable, containing the erudition of buried aeons.

Omvor's feat had given rise to many legends. He and his crew and the ravished virgins, in two small brigantines, had vanished ultimately amid the western seas. It was believed that they had been caught by the Black River, that terrible ocean-stream which pours with an irresistible swiftening beyond Naat to the world's end. But before that final voyage, Omvor had lightened his vessels of the looted treasure and had made a chart on which the location of its hiding-place was indicated. This chart he had given to a former comrade who had grown too old for voyaging.

No man had ever found the treasure. But it was said that the chart still existed throughout the centuries, hidden somewhere no less securely than the loot of the Moon-God's temple. Of late there were rumors that some sailor, inheriting it from his father, had brought the map to Mirouane. Mior Lumivix, through agents both human and preterhuman, had tried vainly to trace the sailor; knowing that Sarcand had the other wizards of the city were also seeking him.

Despite this, "The Master of the Crabs" is told in the first person from the perspective of neither of the wizards, but of Manthar, the apprentice of Mior Lumivix, whose primary task up to now has been the grinding of ingredients for his master's "most requested love-potions." Manthar's youth and inexperience make him a good viewpoint character, just as his ignorance of arcane matters and the details of the quarrel between Sarcand and Mior, provide excellent excuses for Mior – and Smith – to pontificate amusingly to the reader. 

By occult means, Mior had spied upon his rival, in the process learning of his recent actions and whereabouts.

"Tonight I did a dangerous thing, since there was no other way. Drinking the juice of the purple dedaim, which induces profound trance, I projected my ka into his elemental-guarded chamber. The elementals knew my presence, they gathered about me in shapes of fire and shadow, menacing me unspeakably. They opposed me, they drove me forth... but I had seen — enough."

Sarcand, Mior explains, had traveled by boat westward to the island of Iribos, which in the past had been known as the Island of Crabs. Urging Manthar to gird himself with weapons like himself, Mior decides to set out after Sarcand.

"My familiars warned me that Sarcand had left his house a full hour ago. He was prepared for a journey, and went wharfward. But we will overtake him. I think that he will go without companions to Iribos, desiring to keep the treasure wholly secret. He is indeed strong and terrible, but his demons are of a kind that cannot cross water, being entirely earthbound. He has left them behind with moiety of his magic. Have no fear for the outcome."

With that, the master and his apprentice set out for Iribos – and their confrontation with Sarcand. Their journey to the island takes three days. Iribos is rocky and covered with sparse "funereal-colored vegetation." It is also uninhabited – by human beings at any rate – which only heightens the seeming danger of the place. Rowing closer, the pair eventually spy "the low, broad arch of a cavern-mouth" that Mior Lumivix takes to be worthy of closer inspection. Because of the highness of the tide, piloting their sailing vessel past the archway proves difficult. The low roof of the cavern snaps the boat's mast and, in doing so, causes additional damage that the vessel, which soon takes on water and begins to sink.

The master and apprentice survive by swimming and make their way into the dark cave beyond. Inside is a stretch of sand and a wrecked boat not unlike their own. They also saw "two reclining figures," which they approached warily, their weapons hidden beneath their clothing.

As we neared the figures, the appearance of a yellowishbrown drapery that covered them resolved itself in its true nature. It consisted of a great number of crabs who were crawling over their half-submerged bodies and running to and fro behind a heap of immense boulders.

We went forward and stopped over the bodies, from which the crabs were busily detaching morsels of bloody flesh. One of the bodies lay on its face; the other stared with half-eaten features at the sun. Their skin, or what remained of it, was a swarthy yellow. Both were clad in short purple breeks and sailor's boots, being otherwise naked.

'What hellishness is this?" inquired the Master. "These men are but newly dead — and already the crabs rend them. Such creatures are wont to wait for the softening of decomposition. And look — they do not even devour the morsels they have torn, but bear them away."

It's here that the story approaches its climax, leading to a fairly satisfying, if not entirely unexpected, conclusion, one very much in keeping with Smith's penchant for black humor.

Compared to his best stories of Zothique, "The Master of the Crabs" is undoubtedly one of Clark Ashton Smith's more modest efforts. Nevertheless, it contains all of the elements one expects of such a tale – mystery, mounting horror, baroque vocabulary, and a touch of wit – that I think it worth reading at least once, especially if you've never done so before. My primary pleasure in reading it are its little details about Zothique and its geography and peoples, as it's my favorite of Smith's fictional settings. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Graveyard and the Satanic Pit

The Graveyard as it exists today, courtesy of Google Maps
At the start of Fourth Grade, my family moved into the house I most strongly associate with my childhood. The house was part of a new development in an area that had previously been farmland, so there were lots of wild, largely untamed woods nearby, not to mention creeks and ponds. My friends and I spent many an hour exploring these places, sometimes as part of a game we called "hide and seek tag" and sometimes just for the fun of it. We encountered lots of fascinating – and sometime frightening – things in those woods, including plenty of spiders through whose webs we'd regularly run in the course of our adventures. There was the occasional snake too, though never the dreaded water moccasin about whom we'd heard many tales (probably because it's not native to the region, but such little details didn't stop us from fearing it).

Outside of the wooded areas, the housing development was exactly what you'd expect from suburban America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It wasn't exactly like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie, but it's in the same ballpark. My friends and I spent nearly all of our time outside, even during the peak humidity of August and September, though we'd often visit one another's back yards on a rotating basis, depending on whose deck was most in the shade at any given hour. This is where we'd gather to play Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games, rolling dice – often unsuccessfully – across the tops of picnic tables and contending with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of mosquitos, wasps, and Japanese beetles that swarmed during the warmer months.

In the midst of the development, there was one area that remained inexplicably wild: the Graveyard. That's not it's real name; that's what my friends and I called it. On a cul-de-sac street behind where we all lived, there was this low hill, covered in patchy grass and sparse trees. For no obvious reason, the place had been left intact rather than being leveled and having several more houses built on it. Somehow, the legend had grown up that the reason the hill had been left alone is that it was the burial place of members of the family who'd originally owned the land and, therefore, could not be disturbed, hence why we – and all the other kids in the neighborhood – called it the Graveyard.

I should stress that there was only the most circumstantial evidence to support this theory. Indeed, to call it a "theory" is being charitable. At the same time, there was clearly something weird about this little hill. Not only was it still there when so much else in the area had been cleared to make way for homes, but the newsletter of the neighborhood association, which handled things like snow removal and garbage collection, often included notices that children were not to play on this hill, though no reasons for the prohibition were given. Needless to say, my friends and I spent untold hours atop the hill during the warmer months. Shaded by its trees, we even devoted ourselves to finding "proof" that the place was indeed a graveyard as we imagined it to be. One of my friends brought a shovel to dig, to little avail.

The Graveyard was not the only mysterious locale in my neighborhood. Within the remaining woods, there was another place that captured our youthful imaginations: the Satanic Pit. The Pit was a circular bit of raised concrete, maybe three or four feet across, with a metal grate across its top. If you looked down into it, you could see there were metal handholds along one side and that it extended some unknown distance into the dark. At certain times, steam would rise from it, often smelling quite foul. I presume the Pit was actually connected to the local sewer system in some fashion, but, to us, it was always the Satanic Pit. Despite our best efforts, we never managed to remove the grate from the top of the thing and our dreams of descending into the unknown depths were forever barred to us.

The Graveyard and the Satanic Pit linger in my memories even now. I sometimes even have dreams of going down into the Pit with my friends and then getting lost or being unable to return to the surface again for some reason. It's funny how these formative experiences can continue to have a hold on you many decades later. I'm actually quite grateful that the little world of my youth included mysterious places like these. They gave me a chance to explore, to flirt with "danger," and, above all, to imagine. I have little doubt that the hours I spent on or near the Graveyard and the Pit, not to mention pondering their presumed secrets, played a role in my ready embrace of Dungeons & Dragons when I eventually encountered it. For that, I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Happy Birthday, William Shatner

Unbelievably, today marks the 92nd birthday of William Shatner, whom I – and likely everyone else – will forever remember for his portrayal of James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise during the original run of the science fiction series Star Trek and its subsequent spin-offs. 

As I have mentioned before, Star Trek was my original fandom. I was introduced to it in the mid-1970s through the influence of my paternal aunt and godmother, who was a teenager when Star Trek was first broadcast. Indeed, I attribute many of my earliest interests, whether it be science fiction or cryptozoology, to the time she spent with me as a child. Every Saturday, I used to visit my grandparents, where my aunt still lived before she married, and we'd watch reruns of Star Trek on a local independent TV station. These are among my most cherished childhood memories and William Shatner is a big part of why.

Being a bookish and generally nerdy kid, you'd have thought that Leonard Nimoy's Spock would have been my role model. While I loved Spock, Captain Kirk was who I wanted to be, probably because he was so different from myself – courageous, self-assured, decisive, and, above all, protective of his friends and crew. Kirk was everything I hoped I might someday be and Shatner breathed life into him in a way no one could have.

Nowadays, I know it's more or less required that we sneer at Shatner as a big, fat ham of an actor, but, even with the benefit of an adult's perspective, I still think his portrayal of Jim Kirk is phenomenal. Shatner imbued Kirk with the fundamental decency and indeed humanity that are vital to the character's appeal. Far from being the swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood of many people's imaginations, Shatner gave Kirk a degree of thoughtfulness and sensitivity that is often underappreciated. I didn't fully recognize this as a child; I only knew that I liked Kirk and wanted to be more like him, which I think would be high praise for any actor.

Happy Birthday, Mr Shatner! My younger self owes you a lot.

Basic Roleplaying: The Universal Game Engine

Over at their official blog, Chaosium recently announced that a new edition of Basic Role-Playing – or should I say Basic Roleplaying, since the old school hyphenation is no more? – is on the way, with a PDF version appearing next month and a hardcover release sometime later this year. This edition represents not only an updating of the popular and successful BRP rules, but also the first time that these rules have been released as royalty-free open content. 

After the brouhaha earlier this year about the status of the Open Game License, I'm not at all surprised that Basic Roleplaying is being released under the terms of the Open RPG Creative License (ORC) created by Paizo. As I recall, Chaosium was an early supporter of this alternate license and it appears their commitment to it has not wavered. I'll admit I haven't been following the development of ORC at all since its initial announcement, so I can't say for certain if BRP is the first significant RPG to be released under its terms or not. Regardless, the publication of an open version of this venerable and respected ruleset is significant.

As an admirer of the original, I'm happy to see BRP continue to thrive well into the 21st century, though I still hold out hopes that Chaosium might one day publish a slimmer version of it more akin to the one included in my 1st edition Call of Cthulhu boxed set way back in 1981. In any case, I'll be keeping an eye on this and hope it might lead to a wider appreciation of these classic roleplaying game rules.

Retrospective: The Final Enemy

Published in 1983, The Final Enemy is the conclusion of the trilogy of AD&D adventure modules that began with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and continued in Danger at Dunwater. Like both its predecessors, module U3 was written by Dave J. Browne with assistance from Don Turnbull. This authorial continuity is important, lending a consistency of content and tone to the three modules that was missing in, for example, the slightly earlier Slave Lords series (though, to be fair, the latter were originally written for tournament use). 

Unfortunately, this consistency does not extend to the module's artwork. Whereas Saltmarsh and Dunwater featured some excellent illustrations by James Holloway and Harry Quinn, The Final Enemy includes some of the least attractive artwork Keith Parkinson ever produced, which gives the whole thing a drab, uninspiring feel. That's too bad, because, like the other adventures in the series, module U3 possesses some unique elements that set it apart from the AD&D adventures of its time.

The Secret of Saltmarsh was, at base, a mystery. Meanwhile, Danger at Dunwater focused on reconnaissance and diplomacy. The Final Enemy also includes a significant reconnaissance element, as the player characters, aided by up to 20 NPCs, scout out the sahuagin fortress in preparation for the main part of the scenario – an all-out assault on the fortress of the evil underwater humanoids. That assault forms the bulk of the module's content, with lots of attention given to the fortress, its many inhabitants, and their tactics in defending their lair. The whole affair has, in my opinion, a very naturalistic cast to it, with the sahuagin behaving in a rational manner in response to a combined attack by the PCs, the people of the town of Saltmarsh, and their lizard men allies (assuming they were successful in forging an alliance with them in Danger at Dunwater).

One might reasonably question whether a military-style assault against evil humanoids genuinely offers anything we haven't seen many times before in Dungeons & Dragons. The very first AD&D module ever published featured something in a similar vein and many of the scenarios that followed in its considerable wake followed its pattern. What distinguishes The Final Enemy from its forebears is its attention to planning and preparation, not to mention the additional forces the PCs can bring to bear in their efforts. Remember that this module is intended for use with characters of levels 3–5, which is still well within the level range where PCs can easily die if they are not careful.

This is a fact the module mentions several times, starting with its introduction: 

The DM must recognise from the outset that this is a very dangerous module for the characters. Play-testing has shown that the mission can be accomplished by a courageous, thoughtful party whose members have planned their incursion into the fortress carefully. Equally, play-testing has demonstrated that careless players who fail to plan ahead can quickly land their characters in serious trouble, in which case those characters are fortunate if they are able to escape from the fortress area alive.

Similar warnings are found throughout the text and rightly so. The Final Enemy could indeed be called a military-style adventure with plenty of opportunities for combat against monstrous foes. Despite that, it is not a hack-and-slash adventure and appropriately-leveled characters who behave as if it were will soon find themselves dead. Instead, players are well advised to make good use of their reconnaissance and allies to defeat the sahuagin through equal parts ingenuity and boldness.

There's an additional aspect of this module that sets it apart from its contemporaries, as well as contributing to its potential danger to the unprepared. Much of the sahuagin fortress is underwater, meaning that the player characters and many of their allies will be at a disadvantage when fighting unless they take precautions. These precautions come in many forms, including magic items and spells that enable the PCs to breathe water, but few are easily obtainable without making full use of reconnaissance and, in one case, thoughtful interaction with a potentially friendly NPC. Underwater adventures are rare, so many players will not have much experience with their niceties. The Final Enemy makes good use of this fact to present a memorable and quite challenging adventure, one that's fun in its own right and as a satisfying conclusion to the entire U-series of modules.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #68

Issue #68 of White Dwarf (August 1985) features a cover by Brian Williams, who's probably best known for his work on the Lone Wolf series (though he also produced covers for both Games Workshop and TSR UK). For me, the issue marks the first one in several years when I was not a subscriber. I still picked up copies from time to time, but I was inconsistent in doing so. Consequently, many of the issues that I'll look at in the coming weeks are ones I didn't see at the time of their original publication or that, in some cases, I never read at all.

In his editorial, Ian Livingstone theorizes, based on reader feedback, that the readership of White Dwarf is in the vicinity of 100,000. That seems implausibly high to me, especially for mid-1985, but I must confess I've never had a good sense of the actual size of the hobby. Livingstone states that "our hobby is growing fast" and I can only presume he had better information on this than I ever have. Regardless, I always find it fascinating to ponder the size and growth of the hobby over the decades and this is yet another data point to consider.

"The Artificer" by David Marsh is a new character class for use with AD&D. As its name suggests, the class focuses on the construction and use of mechanisms of various sorts. Unfortunately, as presented, the class is simply a spellcaster with a unique (and very focused) spell list and some thief abilities thrown in. While I can understand why this approach was taken, it's disappointing to me. I've long wanted an artificer (and alchemist) class that was genuinely different in its presentation and not simply a magic-user or cleric with some unusual spells. Oh well.

"Open Box" very favorably reviews Blood Bath at Orcs Drift (9 out of 10), a scenario for use with Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Also reviewed are Dragon Roar (5 out of 10), the computer game Chaos (7 out of 10), Legacy of Eagles (7 out of 10), an adventure for Golden Heroes; and The Worlds of Boris Vallejo boardgame (3 out of 10). From my perspective, though, the most notable review is Marcus Rowland's harsh one of Twilight: 2000 (5 out of 10). Rowland's many criticisms are not for the rules themselves but for the game's basic set-up and "moral stance and attitudes," which he calls "fairly loathsome." By and large, he seems to find the idea of the aftermath of a limited-nuclear World War III an unfit subject for a roleplaying game, "one written for and by Americans, with little or no understanding of European attitudes or desires." 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" continues to do what it always does: briefly – and snarkily – review science fiction and fantasy novels from the '80s that I either never read or don't remember, with a handful of exceptions here and there. He also continues to take potshots at L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, which I can't really criticize but neither can I applaud it, since it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Meanwhile, "Free the Spirit" presents two new additions for use with Call of Cthulhu, both of which are add-ons to the excellent "Haunters of the Dark" article from last issue: the clergyman profession and the hypnotism skill. Sadly, neither of these expansions are as good (or useful) as the original article.

"Beneath the Waves" by Peter Blanchard is the promising start of a series dedicated to aquatic adventures in AD&D. Blanchard begins by looking at the nature of the underwater environment, including how it affects one's movement and senses, as well as the need for some means of breathing. I give the article bonus points for referencing the 1960s anime, Marine Boy, which I strangely loved as a young child. I definitely look forward to future installments in the series, since underwater adventures have long held my imagination, even though (because?) I've largely never managed to make them work as well as I would have liked.

"Solo Series" by Simon Burley looks at the ins and outs solo adventuring in a superhero RPG. It's a very good overview of this topic, one made all the better in my opinion due to the prevalence of lone heroes in the superhero genre. "Lone Dragon" by Phil Masters is a lengthy but well-done scenario for Traveller that makes use of both Mercenary and Striker. The characters are hired by a mysterious "nobleman" from a nearby world that has fallen into political and civil unrest for what he presents as a quick smash-and-grab mission in search of wealth. Naturally, things are quite as simple as that. 

Speaking of Traveller, "The Travellers" comic begins a series of presenting its characters in game terms, starting with Captain Horatio Flinn and his sometime love interest Syrena Medussa. I'm a sucker for things like this, especially when, as in this case, the author understands the RPG system in question and uses it to humorous effect. The issue also includes further installments of "Thrud the Barbarian" and "Gobbledigook." In the former, writer/artist Carl Critchlow once again appears, this time as the narrator delivering useful exposition. 

I mentioned above how disappointed I was with the artificer class, right? Interestingly, the issue includes a very clever adventure by the same author, intended to highlight the utility of the class and its role in AD&D. Entitled "Star of Darkness" the scenario tackles the old trope of technology vs magic but does so in an intriguing and flavorful setting, complete with lots of maps, NPCs, and challenges. I did not expect to like this as much as I did, but it's an imaginative and fun little adventure for characters of levels 3–4.

"Words of Wonder" is a collection of new AD&D spells of varying utility, which is the usual pattern with articles of this type. "The Magic Frame" by Joe Dever continues to explore the question of photographing miniatures, with lots of thoughts on approaches and techniques. Dever's columns in White Dwarf continue to be my favorites, in spite of my own relative inexperience with miniatures. He clearly has a passion for the subject, not to mention remarkable skills, and he manages to convey both through his words and photos. As ever, I find myself wishing I'd devoted myself to this aspect of the hobby when I was younger and in a better position to acquire some skills of my own.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Vance on CAS and HPL

A comment to yesterday's post reminded me of a longstanding mystery: the influence, if any, of the works of Clark Ashton Smith on those of Jack Vance. Purely on the basis of subject matter and style, I'd long assumed that Vance's tales of The Dying Earth had been influenced by Smith's own tales of Zothique. I eventually read something – I cannot recall precisely where – that addressed the matter, claiming that Vance had not in fact read Smith and, therefore, any resemblance between the two mordantly witty writers was purely coincidental.

The aforementioned comment, however, spurred me to look into the question once again. In doing so, I discovered a new piece of information, new to me at any rate. The May 2005 issue of Cosmopolis reprints an old interview with Jack Vance from September 1981. The interview is fascinating for a number of reasons, but it's what Vance has to say about Clark Ashton Smith (and H.P. Lovecraft) that is of most immediate interest. The relevant section begins with the interviewer, Charles Platt, referencing Smith:

I mention that Don Herron, a critic who contributed to a symposium on Vance, deduced that Vance had been heavily influenced by the work of Clark Ashton Smith. 

"That's true. Can't help it; Smith is one of the people I read when I was a kid. But it only influenced The Dying Earth.

"I was one of those precocious, highly intelligent kids, old beyond my years. I had lots of brothers and sisters, but I was isolated from them in a certain kind of way. I just read and read and read. One of the things I read was the old Weird Tales pulp magazine, which published Clark Ashton Smith. He was one of the generative geniuses of fantasy. The others, Lovecraft, for instance, were ridiculous. Lovecraft couldn't write his way out of a wet paper sack. Smith is a little clumsy at times, but at least his prose is always readable.

"When I wrote my first fantasies, I was no longer aware of Smith – it had sunk so far into my subconscious. But when it was pointed out to me, I could very readily see the influence."

Leaving aside Vance's, I think, unfairly harsh assessment of Lovecraft, I find it strangely vindicating to see him admit to the influence of Smith on his own work. That's not something I'd ever seen acknowledged previously, though, as it now appears, Don Herron correctly surmised it more than four decades ago. Regardless, a longstanding mystery over I'd puzzled for years has been resolved.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Abbot of Puthuum

Many adjectives could be ascribed to the pulp fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, but "heroic" is generally not among them. Yet, for all of its intimations of hidden horror and ancient secrets (to paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft's own assessment of the story), I cannot help but feel that "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" is a rare example of a largely heroic tale within Smith's canon. First published in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales, the yarn belongs to the Zothique cycle, which chronicles the people and events of the last inhabited continent of Earth sometime in the distant future. As I've noted before, Zothique is one of my favorite imaginary settings, so it's always a pleasure to return to it in the Pulp Fantasy Lilbrary series.

The tale begins simply enough. A pair of mercenaries, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, are traveling as the bodyguards of Simban, the chief eunuch of King Hoaraph's harem. Together, they are making "a tedious journey through the tract known as Izdrel" in order to acquire "a young maiden of celestial beauty" rumored to dwell among the herders of the area. Zobal and Cushara, we are told,

had poured many a libation to their friendship in the sanguine liquors of Yoros and the blood of the kingdom's enemies. In that long and lusty amity, broken only by such passing quarrels as concerned the division of a wine-skin or the apportioning of a wench, they had served amid the soldiery of King Hoaraph for a strenuous decade. Savage warfare and wild, fantastic hazard had been their lot. The renown of their valor had drawn upon them, ultimately, the honor of Hoaraph's attention, and he had assigned them for duty among the picked warriors that guarded his palace in Faraad. And sometimes the twain were sent together on such missions as required no common hardihood and no disputable fealty to the king.

Perhaps it is the use of "the twain" above, but this introduction to Zobal and Cushara reminded me a little of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, at least with regards to their friendship in arms. In any case, the trio make their way to the tribe of herders without any trouble. There, Simban sets about his business on behalf of the king.

Cushara and Zobal, on their part, were instantly smitten by the charms of the maiden, whose name was Rubalsa. She was slender and of queenly height, and her skin was pale as the petals of white poppies; and the undulant blackness of her heavy hair was full of sullen copper gleamings beneath the sun. While Simban haggled shrilly with the cronelike grandmother, the warriors eyed Rubalsa with circumspect ardor and addressed to her such gallantries as they deemed discreet within hearing of the eunuch.

Again, something about this passage brought to mind Leiber's heroes, but perhaps I am seeing something that's not really there. Regardless, Simban is successful in his endeavor and, having acquired Rubalsa, he and his two guards begin the journey back to the kingdom of Yoros. Their journey is interrupted by

a peculiar pitch-black darkness had covered a great portion of the sky and hills, obliterating them wholly. This darkness, which seemed due neither to cloud nor sandstorm, extended itself in a crescent on either hand, and came swiftly toward the travelers. In the course of a minute or less, it had blotted the pathway before and behind them like a black mist; and the two arcs of shadow, racing northward, had flowed together, immuring the party in a circle. The darkness then became stationary, its walls no more than a hundred feet away on every side. Sheer, impenetrable, it surrounded the wayfarers, leaving above them a clear space from which the sun still glared down, remote and small and discolored, as if seen from the bottom of a deep pit.

Zobal and Cushara believe the darkness to be "devilry" and fear the "pestilential mist." Nevertheless, they press forward, hoping that they might somehow outrun it or, if necessary, pass through it. Within the magical gloom, they hear "a horrible multitudinous clamor as of drums, trumpets, cymbals, jangling armor, jarring voices, and mailed feet that tramped to and fro on the stony ground with a mighty clangor" and they believe themselves beset by an enemy army. 

As "the terrain grew rougher and steeper" and twilight was soon upon them, the trio sees a cloaked figure approaching them, bearing a lit lantern, In the distance, behind the figure, they also see "a square dark mass ... [that] was evidently a large buildng with many windows." The figure soon reveals himself to be a large, dark-skinned man "garbed in the voluminous robe of saffron such as was worn by certain monkish orders, and crowned with the two-horned purple hat of an abbot." Seeing their surprise, the man introduces himself.

"I am Ujuk, abbot of the monastery of Puthuum," he said, in a thick voice of such extraordinary volume that it appeared almost to issue from the earth under his feet. "Methinks the night has overtaken you far from the route of travelers. I bid you welcome to our hospitality."

Ujuk then leads them back to his monastery, where he offers them food and drink – but partakes of neither himself. Though Zobal and Cushara assume that this is simply because the abbot has already eaten, they are also wary, all the more so when he seems to know who they are and what they are about.

"How far have we gone astray from the route to Faraad?" asked Simban.

"I do not consider that you have gone astray," rumbled Ujuk in his subterranean voice, "for your coming to Puthuum is most timely. We have few guests here, and we are loth to part with those who honor our hospitality."

"King Hoaraph will be impatient for our return with the girl," Simban quavered. "We must depart early tomorrow."

"Tomorrow is another matter," said Ujuk, in a tone half unctuous, half sinister. "Perhaps, by then, you will have forgotten this deplorable haste."

Upon hearing this, the two warriors become even more suspicious and choose not to partake of "the powerful ale of Puthuum," which both Simban and Rubalsa had drunk and which had quickly made them drowsy. Ujuk then offers them all beds in which to spend the night before bidding them good night and leaving them alone. 

As Smith baldly telegraphs, things are not right in the monastery and the abbot and his fellow monks do not have the best interest of these four travelers at heart when they offered them their hospitality. This is precisely the point when "The Black Abbot of Puthuum" takes a turn that differs from that of most CAS tales. Normally, one would expect a bleak, perhaps darkly humorous, ending; that is, after all, Smith's stock and trade. In this case, though, what we get in something that is genuinely heroic, as the two comrades in arms, Zobal the archer and Cushara the pike-bearer, work together to defeat the evil within the monastery, as well as to protect Rubalsa not merely from the terrors of the monastery but also her fate as another odalisque in King Hoaraph's harem. This is a fun pulp fantasy very much in the spirit of Leiber and is well worth a read.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

"Look, It's supposed to be a fantasy game, innit?"

Zhu Bajiee recently pointed me toward a television program called Tucker's Luck, which was broadcast on BBC Two between 1983 and 1985. At the beginning of the episode below (from December 3, 1985), there is a brief scene in which several of the character play what is obviously Dungeons & Dragons, complete with the AD&D Dungeon Masters Screen (Tramp's art is unmistakable). (Also of note is that the referee is played by Charley Boorman, son of John Boorman)
In general, the popular media has – and continues to be – terrible at portraying roleplaying games. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, though the biggest reason is probably that, to outsiders, the whole endeavor appears boring, hence the perceived need to spice up the proceedings with lots of props that very few gamers actually use in real life. What's fascinating in the case of the episode above is that D&D plays only a very small role (no pun intended) in its overall plot and it's presented fairly accurately (albeit simply). I can't help but wonder why it is was included in the episode at all.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Bronze Anniversary

A constant theme of this blog since I returned to it in 2020 is the need for long campaigns. One of the reasons I've become so fixated on this particular point is my experience refereeing my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, which celebrates its eighth anniversary today. When I posted a call for players on Google+ all those years ago, I had no idea that it would last as long as it has. Nevertheless, I did hope that it might endure, since I do not begin any campaign lightly and indeed have come to be repulsed by the idea of "one shots" and "mini campaigns."

One of the most common topics of the emails I receive from readers concerns the "secret" of the longevity of the House of Worms. I struggle with answering this question, because I'm not sure there is a secret to the campaign's success. However, if pressed, I usually point to three "ingredients" that I genuinely believe have played a big role in keeping the dice rolling each week. The first – and most important in my opinion – are the players. I have seven regular players, each of whom brings something different to our virtual table, thereby helping to make it greater than the sum of its individual parts. One player is a mapmaker extraordinaire, another a wily schemer, and yet another a bold adventurer. I could go on, but my point is quite simple: the House of Worms campaign would be nothing without its players. Their imagination, creativity, skill, and dedication have ensured that we continue to have a lot of fun exploring Tékumel together.

Speaking of dedication, that's the second ingredient. This one is easy to overlook, because it seems so basic as to barely be worthy of comment. Yet, I can't stress enough how vital it is that we all show up each week. While there have been plenty of weeks over the years when we haven't played for one reason or another, we strive to play every week that we have sufficient players to do so (in general, I prefer we have five out of seven players, though we've sometimes played with fewer). The cumulative effect of this is momentum. Each session builds upon the one before it. As weeks become months and months years, the campaign acquires a mass that ensures that it keeps growing and changing – and entertaining us.

That brings us to the third ingredient: change. When the House of Worms began, the player characters were all 1st-level nobodies in the city of Sokátis, bossed around by their elders to do errands for their clan. Now, they are the Imperial-sanctioned rulers of a colonial outpost of Tsolyánu in a far-away land, making momentous decisions for themselves and indeed Tékumel itself. At each step in the characters' journey, the campaign has shifted and changed – from delving in the underworld to wilderness exploration to colonial governance to the present, when the PCs contend with gods and wrestle with the deeper mysteries of the setting. Though there is a strong thread of continuity between March 2015 and March 2023, there is also a great deal of change, which has kept things fresh for both myself and the players.

None of these ingredients alone would suffice to keep the campaign going after eight years. Together they combine in ways that continue to surprise and delight both myself and the players, which is what any good RPG campaign should do. I make no predictions on how long House of Worms will continue. A couple of times in the past I briefly thought the campaign was running low of "fuel" and might finally end, but I was mistaken in this. At the moment, events have shifted toward some new problems and a new phase of the campaign seems to have begun. This has once again injected more energy into our sessions and I don't see an obvious end in sight – but who knows? After eight years, the campaign has a life of its own and it will do what it wishes. I'm simply grateful to be along for the ride, however long it lasts. 

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Fantasy Comes Alive

In my post about issue #67 of White Dwarf, I noted that editor Ian Livingstone boasts about the gains the UK hobby industry had made by the mid-1980s. I also noted that there's quite a bit of truth in what he says. In evidence, there's this advertisement, which appears on the back cover of the issue.

The history of licensed Dungeons & Dragons miniatures is a vast topic in and of itself and one someone with more knowledge than myself really ought to write. Nevertheless, I think the brief eighteen-month period, starting in 1985, when Games Workshop's subsidiary, Citadel Miniatures, held the official D&D miniatures license is an episode well worth examining. 

Citadel acquired the licensed immediately after the disastrous two-year period during which TSR made a go at making its own minis. I owned a couple of the TSR boxed sets – one for AD&D and another for Star Frontiers – and can attest to their poor quality. Perhaps they were better received elsewhere, but, among my circle of friends, I think I was the only one who ever bought them and, after a few desultory attempts to paint some of them, they went back in my closet, never to be looked at, let alone used. 

It's a testament to the rising power of Games Workshop – and Warhammer Fantasy Battle – that TSR would turn to Citadel to manufacture its miniatures in the aftermath of their own failure in the minis market. From what I gather, these figures were quite good and were notable for, among other things, introducing three-stage player character sculpts, one each for the low, mid, and high levels. Unfortunately, I don't think I ever saw them outside of advertisements; the brief lifespan of the line probably didn't help.

If you owned or made use of the Citadel D&D miniatures, I'd love to read about your memories and impressions of them,

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Retrospective: Danger at Dunwater

Released in 1982, Danger at Dunwater is the sequel to The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and the middle adventure in the trilogy of U-series modules. Indeed, action picks up almost immediately after the events of its predecessor, which makes it quite easy to use at the table. Equally significant is that the module encourages and rewards thoughtful play, just as Saltmarsh did. Writer Dave J. Browne (with assistance from Don Turnbull) is to be commended for having penned another module that is quite unlike anything else being produced for AD&D at the time. The praise that this series of modules has thus received over the years is, in my opinion, quite well deserved.

Danger at Dunwater hinges on some curious clues discovered during the course of the previous adventure. While tangling with the smugglers besetting the town of Saltmarsh, the player characters discover evidence that, in addition to their other illicit activities, the smugglers were selling arms and armor to lizard men. The characters even uncover a map that indicates the location of the lizard men's settlement. Once Saltmarsh's ruling council learns of this information, they become alarmed, assuming that the lizard men, whose settlement is located at the nearby Dunwater River, are preparing to march against them. Alarmed, they ask the PCs to investigate the truth of this and, if necessary, deal with the looming threat to Saltmarsh.

What then follows is a short trek through the marshland in and around the Dunwater, where a few low-level threats lurk, such as giant snakes and bullywugs. However, the bulk of the adventure takes place within the lizard men's fortress. There, the characters encounter a lot of lizard men, who are quite prepared to defend their lair. Among them, the characters also find females and children, in keeping with the generally naturalistic tone of the U-series modules. Of course, this fact might also prick the consciences of all but the most bloodthirsty adventurers – and it is, in fact, supposed to do so. 

The central "trick" of Danger at Dunwater is portraying the lizard men not as monsters but as intelligent beings with whom the player characters might parley and from whom they might learn something. If they undertake this course of action, the PCs soon realize that the situation is not as the people of Saltmarsh fear. Yes, the lizard men are arming themselves in preparation for war, but it is not a war against the people of the village. The only reason the lizard men are now occupying this fortress is because they have been driven out of their original home by the evil sahuagin. Now, the lizard men are forming an alliance with other coastal and sea-dwelling races to launch an attack against the sahuagin and reclaim their homes.

This is certainly an unexpected turn of events, or so I recall finding it in 1982. At its start, Danger at Dunwater looks to be yet another low-level module where the characters are tasked with eliminating the encroachment of human lands by monstrous humanoids, as in The Keep on the Borderlands. In reality, it's something quite different, as a conversation with the lizard man chief and his aged advisor soon makes clear. The lizard men originally did not believe humans would be much use in their fight against the sahuagin. After seeing their effectiveness in battle firsthand, perhaps an alliance with them as well might be in order, thereby setting up the action of the third module in the series. Before that can happen, though, the characters must turn over any treasure they took from the lizard men and pay weregild for any lizard men they slew before realizing the truth. How's that for unexpected?

Like The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater is a module that turns many Dungeons & Dragons adventure assumptions on their heads. The result can be satisfying, but, even more so than its predecessor, the success of this adventure depends on how quickly the characters recognize that things are not at all what they seem. It's also possible that some players might feel cheated by having the metaphorical rug pulled out from under them, not to mention the loss of treasure (and money) to assure a positive outcome for Saltmarsh. I think that's certainly fair, though it's been my experience that most players enjoy being surprised and Danger at Dunwater offers that in spades.