Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Retrospective: The Fungi from Yuggoth

I find it a great irony that, while Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu has undoubtedly played an outsized role in the increased visibility and recognition of the works of H.P. Lovecraft in popular culture, the game itself owes more to August Derleth's idiosyncratic interpretation of HPL's Mythos than it does to the views of the Old Gent himself. This is no criticism, just a statement of facts as I look back on more than four decades' worth of Call of Cthulhu adventures and campaigns, starting with Shadows of Yog-Sothoth in 1982. Except for a handful of exceptions, Chaosium's vision differs only in details from that of Derleth's lurid, melodramatic The Trail of Cthulhuhe Trail of Cthulhu, in which scholar-adventurer Laban Shrewsbury battles the forces of the Mythos (and its human toadies) across time and space.

I was reminded of this recently when I re-read Keith Herber's eight-chapter campaign, The Fungi from Yuggoth. First published in 1984, the book carries the subtitle "Desperate Adventures Against the Brotherhood." This is both a reference to its primary antagonists, the Brotherhood of the Beast, and a signal that, like Shadows of Yog-Sothoth before it, The Fungi from Yuggoth is more of a Mythos-tinged Republic serial than a subtle evocation of Lovecraft's cosmicism. I reiterate: this is no criticism. However, I feel it's important to deflate the all-too-common pretension that Call of Cthulhu has ever been a particularly faithful adaptation of the worldview of Lovecraft's tales to the roleplaying medium, as products like this one make clear.

The premise of the campaign is that, in the 18th century B.C., an Egyptian priest called Nophru-Ka – not to be confused with the dark pharaoh Nephren-Ka, who is apparently a different person altogether – uttered a cryptic prophecy that was eventually preserved in the Necronomicon. As interpreted by the madmen who founded the secret society known as the Brotherhood of the Beast, the prophecy spoke of a time when a descendant of Nophru-Ka, who would usher in a new world ruled by the beings of the Mythos. At the start of the campaign (mid-1928), the Brotherhood long ago found Nophru-Ka's descendant, Edward Chandler, whom they have been grooming for his prophesied role since he was a child. Naturally, it's up to the Investigators to prevent this.

In typical Call of Cthulhu – and cliffhanger serial – fashion, preventing the ascendancy of Edward Chandler requires the Investigators to travel across the globe, searching for clues, artifacts, and allies to aid them in their efforts. Over the course of the campaign's eight chapters, the Investigators travel from New York to places as different as Boston, Transylvania(!), Egypt, Peru, and San Francisco, with an optional stopover at the Great Library of Celaeno in the Hyades Cluster, some 150 light years away from Earth (a site invented by August Derleth in the aforementioned The Trail of Cthulhu). Along the way, they tangle with an equally diverse group of foes: gangsters, cultists, mummies, Deep One hybrids, the titular Fungi, and more. There's plenty going on in this campaign and I have no doubt whatsoever that it would be a lot of fun to play.

At the same time, The Fungi from Yuggoth, with its global conspiracy to shepherd the rise of a Mythos Antichrist, doesn't feel much like Lovecraft. There are plenty of plot elements derived from Lovecraft in its eight chapters, but they're strung together in a way that feels like more an Indiana Jones movie than something coming from the pen of HPL. As I re-read the book, I could practically hear the John Williams soundtrack and see an animated red line traveling across a globe, marking each city or location the Investigators visited in their "desperate adventures against the Brotherhood." All that's missing are the Nazis, though, since the campaign takes place in the late 1920s, that's understandable (though one of the main cultists is German).

The Fungi from Yuggoth is weapons grade Derlethium – and that's fine. As I stated at the beginning of this post, nearly every Call of Cthulhu adventure ever published, including the deservedly praised Masks of Nyarlathotep, is, at base, a pastiche of Derleth's pastiches of Lovecraft. Many of these products, including The Fungi from Yuggoth, are very well done. As roleplaying game scenarios, they're some of the best things the hobby has ever produced and I do not hesitate to recommend them. I have enjoyed Call of Cthulhu since its original release in 1981 and hope to one day get the chance to enjoy it again. 

In all those years, however, I don't believe I've ever played an adventure or a campaign that offered more than the occasional genuinely Lovecraftian moment. The rest of my experiences were of pulp adventure with a Mythos twist. That's probably for the best. I'm not sure that an "authentic" experience of Lovecraft's nihilistic cosmicism would be a lot of fun to play out at the table. Ultimately, that's probably why nearly everything Chaosium has ever published for Call of Cthulhu unintentionally looks to Derleth for its inspiration: it's just more fun. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hubble, Bubble, Toil & Death

Here's an advertisement for the Warhammer scenario pack, McDeath, described as follows:

The evil, sadistic and thoroughly unpleasant McDeath has murdered the rightful King Dunco and usurped his throne. But, in the spirit of great tragedy, the forces of justice are gathered to do battle against McDeath and his depraved minions. Orcs, Men, Dwarfs and Treemen fight it out in a titanic struggle for power, money and alcohol.

The more I learn about stuff like this, the more I realize that I missed out by paying more attention to the early days of Warhammer. Sounds like it was a lot of fun!

White Dwarf: Issue #76

Issue #76 of White Dwarf (April 1986) features a cover by Peter Andrew Jones, whose art has appeared on the cover of the magazine several times in the past, the most recent being a year before, with issue #64. Like his previous work, this cover is quite striking, depicting a hippogriff – a mythological creature not often shown in fantasy gaming illustrations, so it definitely wins points in my book for its uniqueness (though its inclusion here is in reference to the issue's AD&D adventure).

Ian Marsh's editorial notes that the "unannounced demise" of many long-running columns in WD, such as "Starbase" for Traveller, "Heroes & Villains" for superhero gaming, "Crawling Chaos" for Call of Cthulhu, "Rune Rites" for RuneQuest, and, most significantly, "Fiend Factory," a staple of the magazine practically since its inception. Marsh claims that, "with the greater variety of popular games on the market, having a department for each is impractical, and indeed restricts the content of the magazine." Future issues would include articles according to different metrics, such as themes. Issue #76 is the first example of this, focusing as it does on thieves. 

The issue begins with a longer than usual "Open Box" that devotes three pages to its many reviews. The first is ICE's Riddle of the Ring boardgame, which received only 6 out of 10. Better reviewed is another ICE product, Ereech and The Paths of the Dead for MERP (9 out of 10). Chaosium's solo Call of Cthulhu adventure, Alone Against the Wendigo, receives 8 out of 10, while the Paranoia scenario, Send in the Clones, is judged slightly more harshly (7 out of 10). TSR's Lankhmar – City of Advenure, meanwhile, gets a rare perfect score (10 out of 10), which is slightly generous in my opinion, but I can't deny that the product is a good one nonetheless. Two adventures for FASA's Dr. Who RPG, The Iytean Menace and Lords of Destiny, are reviewed positively and, oddly, receive a joint rating of 8 out of 10. Finally, there's Hero Games's Fantasy Hero (8 out of 10). That's quite a large number of products for a single issue – and not a single GW product among them!

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" does its usual thing and I do my usual thing of mostly not caring. More interesting to me is the first of this issue's thief-themed articles, "How to Make Crime Pay," by John Smithers. It's written as if it were a lecture given by a guildmaster to apprentice thieves and it's all the better for it. Smithers presents lots of practical advice on how to handle a wide variety of larcenous activities within a fantasy RPG. What makes the article stand out is that its framing device makes it such that the article is useful to both players and referees without having to shift perspectives or divided itself into different sections. Articles of this sort are hard to pull off, so I'm all the more impressed that Smithers succeeded.

"You're Booked" by Marcus L. Rowland is an expansion of Games Workshop's Judge Dredd RPG, introducing the "misunderstood" Accounts Division of Mega-City One's Justice Department. The article lays out the purpose of Acc-Div, as it is known, and how it could be used within a campaign, with several scenario outlines presented as examples. The division is not suitable for Player Judges, but its inclusion in an adventure or campaign could help to flesh out the Justice Department and add a note of levity, as Judges deal with paperwork and expense accounts. 

"Glen Woe" is a Warhammer miniatures scenario by Richard Halliwell. It's intended to expand upon the material provided in McDeath – a Shakespeare-inspired scenario pack released around this time. Not being a Warhammer player, I can't to much about the quality of the material presented here, only my amusement at knowing there was ever a miniatures scenario based around MacBeth. "Banditry Inc" by Olivier Legrand looks at thieves guilds within the context of AD&D from the referee's point of view. While hardly revolutionary, it nevertheless raises some useful questions about the organization and operation of the guild that any referee should consider if thieves and thieves guilds become important in his campaign.

"Caped Crusaders" by Peter Tamlyn is a three-page article on "running Golden Heroes campaigns," though most of its advice is equally applicable to superhero campaigns using another RPG system. Tamlyn covers a variety of topics and the quality of his advice will depend, I imagine, on how familiar one is with both refereeing and the superhero genre. I judge it pretty positively myself, though I imagine others might find it old hat. "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers" are all here, among a handful of only a few remaining connections to the eatly days of White Dwarf. Since I was not a reader of the magazine at this time, I can't help but wonder how much longer they will continue to grace its pages.

"Castle in the Wind" by Venetia Lee, with Paul Stamforth, is a lengthy AD&D scenario aimed at characters of 5th–8th levels. As its title suggests, the adventure concerns the sudden appearance of a "sky castle" above a desert in the campaign area. There are several things that make "Castle in the Wind" stand out aside from its length. First, there's its vaguely Persian setting, a culture that doesn't get much play in fantasy games in my experience. Second, there's the clever design of the sky castle itself (including its hippogriff nests). Finally, there's the open-ended nature of the adventure itself, which spends most of its text presenting a locale rather fleshing out a traditional "plot" for the player characters to follow. 

"How Do You Spell That?" presents a collection of six new AD&D spells culled from reader submissions. The article is listed as being part of the "Treasure Chest" column, which surprised me, since so many other standbys of White Dwarf were axed this issue. Part two of Joe Dever's look at oil painting closes out the issue. In addition to the usual color photographs that always accompany it, the article also includes a mixing guide for how best to achieve certain results when using oil paints.

I must admit, I found this issue a bit of a slog. I don't know that it was objectively any worse than most issues. Indeed, I suspect it was probably better than many I'd read in the past. Nevertheless, I can't shake the feeling that the magazine has changed and that change has started to sap my enthusiasm for reading it. Of course, I might simply be tired of this series. Slightly more than three-quarters of the way to 100 issues, I hope I can be forgiven a little White Dwarf fatigue. Still, I will attempt to soldier on for a little while longer.

Monday, May 29, 2023

By the Guts of the Green God

I've talked about the Sword of Sorcery comic before. It's a remarkable example of DC's multiple forays into the fantasy genre throughout the 1970s. Like most of the other fantasy comics DC published during that time – Arak, Son of ThunderBeowulf, Dragon Slayer; Claw the UnconqueredStalkerThe Warlord, and more – Sword of Sorcery didn't last long. However, it has the distinction of having adapted several Fritz Leiber stories to the comics medium, including "Cloud of Hate," which appeared in its fourth issue from October 1973. 

As is often the case, the adaptation isn't a straight one, though most of its alterations concern the tale's order of events than their actual content. Likewise, the dialog is not directly taken from Leiber's text, though it's clearly inspired by it. For me, though, the main joy of the comic is its artwork by Howard Chaykin, which is excellent. (In a twist of fate, Chaykin would later return to comics based on Leiber's Lankhmar stories in 2007, only this time as a writer rather than artist.)

DDG Hate

TSR's 1980 AD&D book, Deities & Demigods, includes a chapter devoted to what it calls the "Nehwon Mythos" – characters, monsters, and deities derived from the works of Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In light of today's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library, I thought it might be fun to post that chapter's write-up of the malevolent entity, Hate.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cloud of Hate

One of the reasons I find pulp fantasies so congenial is that their preferred format, the short story, actively works against tales that are unnecessarily complex and overwrought. Indeed, many of my favorite fantasy stories are little more than situations, in which characters I like encounter a problem and then use their wits in order to overcome it. The stakes are straightforward and largely personal – nothing epic or world-changing, just a simple yarn in which cleverness and swordplay win the day for the protagonist (I don't say "hero," because the best pulp fantasy characters would probably blanch at being called such).

Of course, the truly great writers of pulp fantasy were capable of threading the needle, so to speak, by doing everything I just described above and nevertheless finding a way to invest it with greater significance. Fritz Leiber was such a writer and his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser demonstrate this again and again. Take, for example, "The Cloud of Hate," which first appeared in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination. On the one hand, it's just another story of the Twain on the make, but, on another, there are intimations of their adventures having a larger significance, even if they do not realize it.

"The Cloud of Hate" opens, not with the protagonists, but beneath the streets of Lankhmar, in the subterranean Temple of Hates, "where five thousand worshipers knelt and abased themselves and ecstatically pressed foreheads against the cold and gritty cobbles as the trance took hold and the human venom rose in them." 

The drumbeat was low. And save for snarls and mewlings, the inner pulsing was inaudible. Yet together they made a hellish vibration which threatened to shake the city and land of Lankhmar and the whole world of Nehwon.

Lankhmar had been at peace for many moons, and so the hates were greater. Tonight, furthermore, at a spot halfway across the city, Lankhmar's black-togaed nobility celebrated in merriment and feasting and twinkling dance the betrothal of their Overlord's daughter to the Prince of Ilthmar, and so the hates were redoubled.

This ritual within the Temple of Hates – what a wonderfully evocative name! – has a purpose beyond mere worship. Led by the Archpriest of the Hates, the worshipers have called forth "tendrils, which in another world might have been described as ectoplasmic" which "quickly multiplied, thickened, lengthened, and then coalesced into questing white serpentine shapes" and then billowed out of the temple to the streets above. Once there, this "billowing white" fog "in which a redness lurked" began to seek out victims among Lankhmar's populace.

It's at this point that the reader is introduced to Fafhrd and the Mouser, who are employed as watchmen during the aforementioned festivities in honor of the Overlord's daughter. The northerner states that "There'll be fog tonight. I smell it coming from the Hlal." His smaller companion is dubious of his prognostication, but Fafhrd insists "There's a taint in the fog tonight." Meanwhile, the fog summoned at the Temple of Hates makes its way into the Rats' Nest tavern, where it finds "the famed bravo Gnarlag." Touching him with a "fog-finger,"

Gnarlag's sneering look turned to one of pure hate, and the muscles of his forearm seemed to double in thickness as he rotated it more than a half turn.

Elsewhere, Mouser asks his friend about their lot in life, specifically why they are not dukes or emperors or demigods. Fafhrd explains that it's because they're "no man's man ... We go our own way, choosing our own adventures – and our own follies! Better freedom and a chilly road than a warm hearth and servitude." Mouser is skeptical of these explanations, pointing out how often they've chosen to serve others, but their philosophizing is interrupted by Fafhrd once again stating that something ill is afoot. His sword, he says, "hums a warning! ... The steel twangs softly in its sheath!" And once again, Mouser expresses disbelief.

The fog continues to make its way through Lankhmar, seeking out first "Gis the cutthroat" and then "the twin brothers Kreshmar and Skel, assassins and alleybashers by trade." In each case, the fog 

intoxicated them as surely as if it were a clouded white wine of murder and destruction, zestfully sluicing away all natural cautions and fears, promising an infinitude of thrilling and most profitable victims.

The "hate-enslaved" marched together in the fog "toward the quarter of the nobles and Glipkerio's rainbow-lanterned palace above the breakwater of the Inner Sea." Unfortunately for them, the Twain stand guard this night.

"The Cloud of Hate" is one of Leiber's shorter stories of Nehwon, but that works to its advantage in my opinion. Its brevity enables it to focus on what most matters, namely the inexorable movement of the otherworldly fog across the city of Lankhmar and the point when Fafhrd and the Mouser come into contact with it. This meeting is compelling first because the Mouser is initially so dismissive of the idea that there is anything odd happening and second because the reader has no idea what effect the fog might have on these comrades-in-arms. Would they, like all the others before them, become "hate-enslaved" or might they somehow escape this horrible fate? Leiber's answer to this and other questions is clever and offers insights into two of the most fascinating characters in fantasy – highly recommended.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Secrets (Again)

Earlier this month, I posted about my fumbling attempts to come up with an alternative to D&D-style abstract experience points for use in Secrets of sha-Arthan. I received a lot of helpful comments and they, along with private discussions and internal playtesting of the game's draft rules, have begun to bring me closer to a satisfactory solution. That said, there's still a lot of work to be done to get it just right, but then that's the sort of thing with which wider playtesting should help.

It is by now a truism, I think, to state that a roleplaying game's experience/advancement system, whatever form it takes, encourages certain activities and approaches to play by rewarding them. For example, Dungeons & Dragons awards experience points primarily on the basis of treasure, with a smaller but still more significant amount of XP given for defeating opponents. Consequently, D&D, at least in its classical form, is a game where treasure hunting and monster slaying take center stage, since those are the activities by which experience points are earned and characters can advance in levels. Advancement comes through different activities in other games, such as skill use in those derived from Basic Role-Playing

If you're involved with any RPG long enough, you may notice that players sometimes begin to modify the way they play in accordance with what nets their characters the most in-game rewards. When I was a kid, I distinctly remember occasions when my friends would actively seek out "a few more experience points" by having their characters wander through the wilderness hoping that a random encounter would bring enough XP to achieve the next level. Players of BRP games are, of course, familiar with the phenomenon of "check mongering," in which players seek excuses to make skill checks for their characters, in the hopes of improving them. 

I don't necessarily see anything wrong with this kind of emergent behavior. At base, RPGs are games and it's only natural – rational even – that players will try to find ways to use a game's rules to their advantage. Rather than attempting to find ways to disincentivize this behavior in Secrets of sha-Arthan, my instinct is to find ways to harness it to encourage the kind of adventures and campaigns that I enjoy, hence the shift to the accumulation of secrets rather than XP as the method of advancement.

But what qualifies as a secret? There are two kinds of secrets. The first is mundane, namely, a fact about the setting that the character does not yet know. For example, encountering Unmaker cultists for the first time would certainly qualify as a secret in this first sense. For that matter, encountering almost any "monster" for the first time is also a secret. There are many other secrets in this sense – traveling to a far-off city, locating the entrance to a Vault, becoming aligned with a faction or cult, even coming into possession of a magic item.

However, there's a second type of secret, one that's closer to the usual sense in which the word is used. A secret of this type is something genuinely hidden or unknown, knowledge of which is rare within the setting. It's one thing simply to encounter the aforementioned Unmaker cultists, but it's another thing entirely to understand their origins and the nature of their beliefs. Likewise, many creatures, magic items, and spells tie into obscure aspects of sha-Arthan. These are the "true" secrets of the game.

I opted for this approach to character advancement because I hope it will encourage the kind of gameplay I most enjoy. Both my earlier Dwimmermount OD&D campaign and my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaigns are rooted in the uncovering of secrets of their respective settings. Refereeing House of Worms in particular has taught me that piecing together disparate pieces of knowledge about a setting can be very compelling to players. Indeed, it can become a powerful driver of both player and character engagement. 

As the players could tell you, House of Worms is comparatively light on combat and treasure seeking; its main focus is and always has been on exploration of its setting and wrestling with the secrets thereof. The campaign's recent shift is toward an even greater focus on these matters and there is (as yet) no sign that this has in any way made the campaign less compelling – quite the opposite, in fact. It's my hope that I can "bottle" this approach in Secrets of sha-Arthan by not only being very explicit about its emphasis on exploration of its setting but also by rewarding such exploration in its advancement system. I can't pretend that it will be easy to do this well, but, armed with more than eight years of experience in this arena, I feel I have as good a chance as anyone to succeed.


Thursday, May 25, 2023

Into the Vaults

I've devoted much of May to writing the latest playtest draft of Secrets of sha-Arthan. The project is coming along quite well, though – as usual – still slower than I would like. Nevertheless, serious progress has been made and I expect to start putting the latest version of the game through its paces sometime this summer.

As if to buoy my spirits, I was delighted to receive the illustration above from the ever-impressive Zhu Bajiee, who's already produced so much wonderful artwork for SosA. Depicted are a quintet of Vault explorers preparing to face off against some eldritch threat. They are:
  • Vandar Axtargo (center front), a warrior and veteran of the army of the king of Eshkom, now turned mercenary.
  • Wentak (right), a sorcerer whose origins are mysterious but who turned up in the First City about six months ago and soon attached himself to the Supernal Academy of Alatash.
  • Maltisis (center back), a scion of the Arta Char dynasty that has prospered in recent years due to its alliance with the ruling Chomachto.
  • Sharaya (left), an adept of the Jorazi people of the Ridala district of Inba Iro and another recent arrival to da-Imer.
  • Limber-but-Unbending (center left), a Chenot master of the bow who, like so many of his kind, seeks the blessings of the Makers in the Vaults beneath the First City.
I'm having a lot of fun fleshing out the setting of the game, which takes a lot of its inspiration from Antiquity, particularly the Hellenistic Age, a period of real world history I find quite fascinating and one that tends to get overlooked, sandwiched as it is between Classical Greece and the rise of Rome. I'll have lots more to say about Secrets of sha-Arthan in the coming months, but, for now, I simply wanted to share this great illustration that I hope provides a little insight into the look and feel of its setting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Retrospective: Space: 1889

Seeing Frank Chadwick's letter in issue #75 of White Dwarf reminded me that he was one of GDW's top designers during that storied game company's nearly quarter-century of existence. While he's probably best known for his work on board and miniatures wargames like Command Decision and Europa, he was also responsible for, either solely or in part, many of GDW's roleplaying games, starting with En Garde!

I first encountered Chadwick's name in connection with Traveller and, later, with Twilight: 2000, both of which I played a great deal in my younger days (and nowadays too, as it turns out). In addition, Chadwick designed another of GDW's RPGs, Space: 1889, which first appeared, ironically, in 1988. This is only a year after SF author K.W. Jeter first coined the term "steampunk," though I don't recall its being widely used at the time. Certainly, Space: 1889 never makes use of it, instead referring players to the works of Verne, Wells, and other late 19th century science fiction pioneers as its sources of inspiration.

The premise of the game is that, in 1870, Thomas Edison succeeded – somewhat accidentally – in demonstrating the possibility of navigating the "luminiferous ether" between the planets of our solar system. In doing so, Edison not only opened up new frontiers for exploration (and exploitation), he also made possible contact between human beings and the intelligent inhabitants of Venus, Mars, and even the Moon. By 1889, the Great Powers of Earth were vying with one another for control of these new worlds with a zeal that made the scramble for Africa seem halfhearted by comparison. 

One of the things that makes Space: 1889 so interesting is that its setting isn't merely an alternate history where space travel is possible in the Victorian Age. Rather, it's a full-fledge alternate reality where the 1887 Michaelson-Morley experiment did not suggest, as it actually did, that there was no such thing as ether. Chadwick makes use of earlier, now-rejected scientific theories to construct an alternate model of physics for the game's setting, one conducive to the great tales of scientific romance whose echoes can be heard even today in the pulpier corners of science fiction and fantasy. This approach gives Space: 1889 an oddly "grounded" feel to it, because it's clear that thought went into its idiosyncratic "scientific" principles, which are used to good effect throughout.

Indeed, it's the setting that made Space: 1889 so compelling to me at the time of its release – and it's the setting that continues to fascinate me, even today. Like all good wargamers, Chadwick knows his history and the game does a good job, I think, of presenting the late 19th century, warts and all, as an interesting place for science fiction adventure. The rivalries of the Great Powers, for example, serve as the backdrop to much of what happens in the setting, albeit from a decidedly Anglocentric perspective. For instance, Germany is portrayed in a negative light, as is, to a lesser extent, Belgium. That said, the British Empire is not presented in an unambiguously positive light. Like any honest portrayal, its vices are as significant as its virtues.

Even more interesting than the game's use of real aspects of the 19th century is its use of purely imaginative one, such as the various non-human beings that dwell on other worlds. Mars gets a lot of attention in the game, no doubt due to its importance in early science fiction. As often the case in those tales, the Martians of 1889 are an ancient, dying people, heirs to 35,000 years of civilization, at once contemptuous of Earthmen for their comparative barbarism and envious of their expansionist vigor. During the few short years that GDW published Space: 1889 – 1988 to 1991 – Mars received a fair bit of development through adventures and supplements. One of the best, Canal Priests of Mars was written, amusingly enough, by Marcus L. Rowland, the man responsible for the scathingly negative review of Chadwick's Twilight: 2000 in issue #68 of White Dwarf. Rowland would later go on to produce the Forgotten Futures series that looked at Victorian SF as potential settings for roleplaying.

Unfortunately, the cleverness and promise of Space: 1889's setting was hampered by a less than stellar system that, by turns, is either too simplistic or too complex for its purpose. This was something I recognized immediately upon reading the book; it was confirmed in multiple attempts to play the game with friends who were just as enthusiastic about the setting as I. It's a great shame, because the game's setting is well done and ripe with potential, but the game's mechanics were actively off-putting – so much so that I never succeeded in playing Space: 1889 for very long. I understand that, in the years since, there have been a couple of attempts to revive the setting with new rules, though I know nothing of how successful these attempts proved.

In the end, Space: 1889 is one of those roleplaying games that comes along every so often that grabs my attention because of what I see as its promise, but which I eventually discover is somehow inadequate to it in some way. Calling it a "disappointment" is not completely fair, since I nevertheless find many aspects of it genuinely praiseworthy. At the same time, I can think of no other way to sum up my feelings toward it without damning it with faint praise. A pity!

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #75

Issue #75 of White Dwarf (March 1986) sports a horror – or I should I say Call of Cthulhu? – themed cover by Lee Gibbons, whose work appeared several times in the past few months, most notably issue #72. This issue marks a changing of the guard at the magazine, with Ian Marsh taking over its reins from Ian Livingstone. In his inaugural editorial, Marsh admits to "an element of trepidation" about his new job, especially at a time when WD is "mutating slowly into a different beastie." He elaborates on this, explaining that there is a "shift away from the usual formulaic style" of the magazine, by which I think he means an end to the regular, monthly columns and other features that have defined its content since the beginning. Regardless, the times, they are a'-changin' at the Dwarf.

"Open Box," for example, consists almost entirely of reviews of Games Workshop products, starting with the Supervisors Kit for Golden Heroes (8 out of 10) and Terror of the Lichemaster (9 out of 10) for use with Warhammer. There's also a review of Judgment Day (9 out of 10), an adventure for Judge Dredd – The Role-Playing Game. Rounding out the GW products covered this issue is its edition of the venerable science fiction boardgame Cosmic Encounter (also 9 out of 10 – I'm sensing a theme here). Finally, there's a look at Chaosium's second Call of Cthulhu companion, Fragments of Fear, which earns 7 out of 10. While it's inevitable that a periodical published by a company involved in the industry it's covering will include reviews of products it also publishes – TSR's Dragon certainly did – I nevertheless can't help but feel a line was crossed this issue, given the preponderance of Games Workshop releases reviewed. Perhaps next issue will be better?

I feel like a bad person for only enjoying Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" when he snarks about books about books and authors I, too, dislike. This month he brings the hammer down on the Darkover novel, Hawkmistress:

There will no doubt be hordes more 'Darkover' tales from Marion Zimmer Bradley: publishers love issuing books very similar to previous ones. Hawkmistress ... despite its veneer of science-fantasy, seems hauntngly familiar. Heroine Romilly wears breeches and gets on well with animals, but Daddy wants her to don girlish clothes and marry. One knows instantly that the chap Romilly finds most loathsome is Daddy's intended bridegroom: and so it proves. With hawk and horse our heroine to find her way in the world.
The interesting thing about Langford's critique of the novel is not that he thinks it's bad – he calls its "a readable yarn" – but that it is essentially a romance novel in very thin science fantasy dress, which I think is a fair criticism of her oeuvre (and that of Anne McCaffrey, come to think of it).

"Getting the Fright Right" is this month's installment of Colin Greenland's "2020 Vision" column. It's a collection of reviews of then-current horror movies, broadly defined, ranging from The Return of the Living Dead to Fright Night to Teen Wolf. Greenland's reviews of these films is interesting, because, as the article's title suggests, he takes some time to talk about the proper balance of thematic elements within a horror movie to make it enjoyable for him. I like this approach to reviews, since, even when I disagree with them, I at least understand where the reviewer is coming from and that's quite useful.

"Thrud Gets a Social Conscience" is this issue's installment of "Thrud the Barbarian," humorously addressing the claim that the comic (and, by extension, the entire genre of sword-and-sorcery) is sexist. This leads to an amusing exchange between Thrud and his occasional female guest star, Lymara the She-Wildebeest, about how her attire reinforces negative sexual stereotypes.

There are also new installments of "Gobbledigook" and "The Travelles," but they're not nearly as amusing.

Oliver Dickinson's "RuneQuest Ruminations" is a look at the third edition of RQ (published by Avalon Hill) with a special focus on those parts of its rules that he found vexing or inadequate in some way. A lot of the article is very "inside baseball" to someone like myself whose experience with RuneQuest is limited. What most comes across, though, is how much of a shock and disappointment this edition of the game was to many of its long-time fans, particularly in the way that it downgraded Glorantha to the status of an afterthought. 

"How to Save the Universe" by Peter Tamlyn is a lengthy and thoughtful look at "the delights of superhero gaming." Tamlyn's main point seems to be that there are a lot of different styles of play within superhero RPGs – more than enough to satisfy almost every preference. Consequently, one should not dismiss the entire genre as "kid's stuff." "Gamesmanship" by Martin Hytch is an oddly titled but similarly lengthy and thoughtful look at "injecting a little mystery" back into AD&D adventures. The overall thrust of the article concerns the way experienced players treat so many of the game's challenges in a procedural fashion, quoting rules and statistics rather than entering into the fantasy of it all. It's difficult to summarize Hytch's advice in a short space; suffice it to say that it's mostly quite good and filled with useful examples. I may write a separate post about it, because I think he does an excellent job of addressing the many questions he raises.

"Mass Media" by Andrew Swift looks at the nature of communications technology at various tech levels in Traveller. It's fine for what it does but nothing special. On the other hand, Graeme Davis's "Nightmare in Green" AD&D adventure is phenomenal. Aimed at 4th–6th level characters, it concerns the threat posed a collection of nasty, plant monsters crossbred by a mad druid. I'm a big fan of plant monsters, so this scenario immediately caught my attention, all the more so since some of the monsters are inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. 

That brings us to another highlight of this issue. You may recall that, back in issue #68, reviewer Marcus L. Rowland gave a very negative review to GDW's Twilight: 2000. This led to a flurry of letters in issue #73, both pro and con Rowland's review. With this issue, Frank Chadwick, designer of the game weighs in and he pulls no punches.
"The Heart of the Dark" by Andy Bradbury is "an illuminatingly different" Call of Cthulhu scenario, because it does not directly feature any encounters with the Mythos or its associated entities. Indeed, the adventure includes no game statistics of any kind "since it is doubtful that they will be needed." This is a pure, roleplaying scenario filled with lots of investigation, social interactions, and red herrings. It's intended as a change of pace 

"Local Boy Makes Good" by Chris Felton looks at character background in AD&D, with lots of random tables for determining social class, birth order, father's profession, and so on. I suppose this could be of interest to others, but not to me. Finally, Joe Dever begins a new series on preparing and using oil paints for miniature figures. I know nothing about this topic; despite that, I find it weirdly fascinating, like all of Dever's articles in his monthly "Tabletop Heroes" column.

Issue #75 of White Dwarf continues the recent trend of feeling slightly "off" to my sensibilities. There's still plenty of excellent content, but there's also an increasingly detectable undercurrent of change and not for the better. Perhaps I am simply hypersensitive to this because I know that WD will soon be little more than a house organ for Games Workshop and I am constantly one the lookout for signs – any signs – of this imminent transformation. Regardless, I will keep plowing ahead, though, for how much longer, I don't yet know.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Edge of the World

1979 saw the publication of not one but two different stories of Kardios of Atlantis by Manly Wade Wellman: "The Seeker in the Fortress" and "The Edge of the World." The former appeared in Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt's Heroic Fantasy anthology, while the latter graced the pages of the fourth (and penultimate) entry in Andrew J. Offutt's long-running Swords Against Darkness series. Kardios had appeared in every previous volume of Swords Against Darkness, so it's hardly surprising he'd turn up there again. 

"The Edge of the World" receives its title from the "mighty city of Kolokoto," which lay, seemingly literally, at the edge of "a terrifying nothingness" that marked the world's end. Of course, Wellman elicits the reader's skepticism about this supposed fact early on, as he notes that it was "the sixty or so priests who did most of the thinking for Kolokoto's citizens" who declared this to be so. The subsequent unfolding of the story does little to lessen that skepticism.

Kardios enters the story first by word of mouth, as one of the aforementioned priests, Mahleka, has an audience with Kolokoto's "disdainfully beautiful" queen, Iarie. The queen, who is "as dictatorial as she was lovely," sits upon an ebony throne guarded by two tamed monsters.

One of these, the rather molluscoid Ospariel, was carapaced in a green shell, from which peered brilliant eyes above a stir of tentacles. The other, Grob, might be a great crouching ape, if apes had branched horns and were covered with green scales the size of lily pads.

Iarie has summoned the priest to find out the source of a "disturbance among the people," one that she had heard "shouted over the lower market-reaches." Mahleka explains that "the people [have] gathered to welcome Kardios the wanderer."

Iarie has heard the name of Kardios before, who was reputed to have survived the sinking of Atlantis, "overthrown mighty rulers," "conquered monsters," and "brought to an end the worship of several gods." This interests the queen, who asks that the Atlantean be brought before her, but Mihaka, as "her chief and most knowledgeable advisor," is already one step ahead of his mistress. "I've already ordered that done," he explains.

Though initially viewing him with contempt, Iarie soon becomes intrigued by Kardios, especially after learning that he had entertained the people in the marketplace with a song dedicated to the goddess "Ettaire, the bringer of love." She asks him to sing her the same song, which he does. So impressed is she by his skill that she commands him to take dinner with her that very evening, to which Kardios readily agrees. 

Over dinner, Kardios and Iarie discuss the religion of Kolokoto and its chief god, Litoviay, who is "worshipped by acts of mischief." This piques Kardios' interest, causing him to wonder why the god's priests forbid anyone to travel over the mountain range that separates the city from the edge of the world. "Why not let the people go over the range and fall into space? That would be in character." Iarie shrugs off such questions, since she is much more interested in making the Atlantean wanderer "especially happy." She sends away her servants and takes Kardios, along with a flagon of wine, to her bedchamber so that they may "talk, mostly of the love-goddess Ettaire, and how best to worship her."

The next morning, Kardios is awakened by "two burly men in black chain mail" holding curved swords. Iarie explains to him that they are her "most discreet guardsmen ... Safe with my secrets, for both are mute." She adds, "Kardios, I'm sorry you woke. I had hoped you would die happy." 

"You'd murder me so that I would not tell?" he asked Iarie, and her smile grew the more triumphant.

"How accurately you estimate the situation," she answered him sweetly. "I'm a lonely woman, and from time to time I invite a stranger to divert me overnight. Naturally, I can't let such partners go and gossip about it. What would my people think?"

Kardios manages to knock the two guardsmen unconscious. The queen, undeterred, sets Ospariel and Grob on him, which he also defeats, thanks to his star metal sword. With no more tricks up her sleeve, Iarie resorts to crying rape, which summons more guards to her bedchamber. The Atlantean flees into the depths of the palace to avoid capture, succeeding only because a young weaver-girl named Wanendi gives him a place to hide undetected (once again cribbing a page from Conan – and from himself). 

From Wanendi he learns much about the city, its queen, and its place at the edge of the world.

Kolokoto, said Wanendi, had been built many generations ago for the announced purpose of discouraging travelers from falling off the edge of the world. It was a manufacturing city, with a thriving trade in excellent textiles. Royalty and certain merchants got the profits. Weavers like Wanendi managed to live just short of want. Queen Iarie was the latest tyrant to uphold the law of not crossing Fufuna into nothingness, and the mischief-god Litoviay marshalled a line of stone sentinels to enforce that law.

The girl also provides Kardios with some clothing that will enable him to blend in better with the locals. He repays her for this and her other kind deeds with treasure he acquired in Nyanyanya before setting off with the intention of escaping over the barrier mountain range – a feat no one had ever accomplished before. Of course, that's easier said than done ...

"The Edge of the World" is another enjoyable Kardios yarn, engagingly told. I am constantly impressed by how charmingly Wellman spins these tales, filled as they are with the well-worn tropes and clichés of pulp fantasy. It's evidence, I suppose, that a master is capable of producing something worthwhile even out of the basest materials. Once again, I cannot recommend these stories enough. I was very pleasantly surprised by them and I suspect many of you will be as well.

Friday, May 19, 2023

My Top 10 Favorite D&D Magic Items (Part II)

Part I is here

5. Portable Hole

One of the strengths of Dungeons & Dragons is that its conception of fantasy is quite broad, drawing not merely on the works of pulp fantasy, but also, in the words of Gary Gygax, on "countless hundreds of comic books ... [s]cience fiction, fantasy, and horror movies ... fairy tales ... books of mythology ... bestiaries ... compilations of the myths of various peoples" – and, if the portable hole is any indication, Looney Tunes cartoons as well! This is a terrific example of a magic item that is both genuinely useful and fun and I wish there were more like it in the game.

4. Wand of Wonder

I love a little bit of randomness and unpredictability in my games. The wand of wonder brings them in spades. Every time this magic item is used, percentile dice are rolled to determine which of nearly twenty different effects occur: anything from summoning a rhino (or a mouse) to a stream of 600 butterflies pouring forth to a fireball – and more. This is another fun item, one that I've enjoyed seeing used in play many, many times over the years. 

3. Ioun Stones

This is a double cheat, I suppose, since it's both a collection of related items and not original to Dungeons & Dragons, since ioun stones first appeared in the work of Jack Vance. Of course, these facts are a big part of why I so love ioun stones. Like figurines of wondrous power, the variety of the stones is a point in their favor. The same is true of their Vancian origins, since Vance is one of my favorite Appendix N authors (and Gygax's too). Consequently, I've included numerous ioun stones in my campaigns over the years and imagine I will continue to do so in the future.

2. Bag of Holding

I almost placed this in my number 1 spot, since it's one of those magic items that has appeared in nearly every D&D campaign I've run or played in since 1979. The reason I didn't is that the bag of holding is a thoroughly gamey magic item, one that exists almost entirely to circumvent a very common problem, namely, how to lug around large amounts of gold and other treasure without becoming encumbered. There's nothing wrong with that. D&D is a game, after all, but I generally like my magic items (and monsters and spells ...) to exist largely, if not solely, for setting reasons rather than game reasons. Still, this is a great and iconic magic item and deserves to be on this list.

1. Deck of Many Things

Depending on your point of view, the deck of many things is either the most entertaining magic item in all of D&D or a Killer DM's dream come true. In my opinion, it's both, at least potentially so – and that's why I've given it the top spot on my list. I can think of no other magic item that simultaneously elicits both greed and terror in players. The potential rewards for drawing a "good" card are great, as are the dangers of drawing a "bad" one. The discovery of a deck of many things in a treasure hoard is practically an adventure unto itself, as players tie themselves into knots trying to decide whether or not their characters should risk picking a card (or four). This is everything a good magic item should be – wondrous, dangerous, capricious.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

My Top 10 Favorite D&D Magic Items (Part I)

Since "My Top 10 Favorite D&D Monsters," Parts I and II, were so well received last week, I thought it might be fun to follow them up with a couple of posts in which I talked about my favorite magic items. As with the monsters, I'll try to stick to magic items that are unique to Dungeons & Dragons, though, as you'll see, several of the items in question were inspired by prior works. All of these items come originally from OD&D or AD&D, but then that should hardly be a surprise to anyone reading this. Sadly, almost none of these magic items had an illustration to accompany it in its original appearance, so these posts won't be quite as visually appealing as their predecessors.

10. Sword +5, Holy Avenger

First appearing in Supplement I to OD&D (which, not coincidentally, also introduced the paladin class to the game), the Holy Avenger is, in the hands of its intended user, a very potent weapon, conferring 50% magic resistance in a 5' radius, dispelling magic in a 5' radius, and dealing +10 damage against chaotic evil opponents. My fondness for it is colored, no doubt, by the fact that my first D&D character eventually obtained this mighty weapon, which he used to good effect in his battles against the forces of the Abyss. The Holy Avenger is arguably overpowered even by AD&D standards, but it brings with it a lot of flavor, which is more than can be said of most magical weapons.

9. Elven Cloak and Boots

This is a bit of a cheat, in that it's actually two items, but, because the Holmes edition of D&D listed them together on its miscellaneous magic items table, I tend to think of them as a unit. Conferring near-invisibility and silent movement respectively, the elven cloak and boots were probably inspired, at least in part, by the cloaks Galadriel gave to the Fellowship in the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. Despite this likely origin, I'll always consider them distinctively D&D magic items, because of how commonplace they were as a treasure in low-level adventure modules. They're also pretty darned useful.

8. Sphere of Annihilation

How's that for whiplash? The sphere of annihilation is a favorite of mine for two reasons. The first is that the use – or misuse, depending on your point of view – of this magic item played an important role in a campaign I refereed to great success in the early to mid-1990s. The second is that the sphere, like many of the best magic items, is both powerful and unpredictable. Successfully employing it depends on a magic-user's level and Intelligence score and, even under ideal circumstances, there's still a reasonable chance things will go awry. Plus, opposing magic-users can fight for control of the sphere, which always struck me as pregnant with potential.

7. Gauntlets of Ogre Power

This is another staple of low-level adventure modules and understandably so. Not only are they quite useful to fighters, they have a nicely mythic quality to them, like something Siegfried might have found in Fáfnir's hoard. Gauntlets of ogre power also play an important role in the history of Morgan Just, a character from the earliest days of playing D&D with my friends. 

6. Figurines of Wondrous Power

I suppose this, too, might be considered something of a cheat, because it's actually a category of magic item, coming in seven different forms. In truth, that's precisely why I like them. There's something very fun about the fact that these are magic items that can appear again and again and yet never be precisely the same thing twice. Equally fun is the fact that they're little animal statues that come to life and perform useful tasks for their owner. The figurines remind of something that might appear in a fairy tale and I think that's just great.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

RIP Russ Nicholson

Russ Nicholson, the artist whose illustrations contributed greatly to the overall vibe of the Fiend Folio, has died. News of his death began to circulate earlier today and, while precise details are still sketchy, I am nevertheless greatly saddened. 

Nicholson's art is incomparable. The interplay of darkness and light, combined with a remarkable level of detail, set it apart from the work of anyone else in the field of fantasy and science fiction illustration. I had the good fortune to correspond with Russ on several occasions and he was always generous with his time and talents – a gentleman and a true professional. 

Over the next few days, I suspect we'll see plenty of heartfelt tributes to Nicholson's life and artwork and rightly so. We'll also see posts praising favorite examples from his immense body of work, many of which contributed immeasurably to the distinctive esthetic of "British fantasy" as exemplified by White Dwarf, Fighting Fantasy, and Warhammer, among many others.

I'd have a hard time choosing a single Nicholson illustration as my favorite, because he created so many wonderful works. That said, I have a personal fondness for the illustration below, which I commissioned for my Thousand Suns science fiction RPG years ago. Now that Russ is no longer with us, my attachment to it has only grown. 

Rest in peace, Mr Nicholson!

Retrospective: Death's Ride

Over the years, I've mentioned my affection for the third boxed set released as part of Frank Mentzer's revision of Dungeons & Dragons, the Companion Rules. The reason for my affection is quite simple: the Companion Rules were an attempt to restore D&D's lost endgame in a way that was accessible and fun for a new generation of players. While reasonable minds can differ about how successful Mentzer was – I judge it a partial success – I hope it's not controversial to say that his attempted restoration may have been the last time that any version of Dungeons & Dragons took seriously the idea of player characters establishing and ruling domains (or "baronies," as OD&D calls them). [I seem to have forgoten the existence of the Birthright campaign setting from the '90s. Silly me – JM]

I've long suspected that one of the reasons the original endgame of D&D was abandoned by both the game's publisher and its players is that there were never any good examples of what characters did once they cleared a wilderness hex, built a fortress, and settled down to ruling. The promise of the Companion Rules was that they might go some way toward correcting this oversight and, in my opinion, they did, albeit with some qualifications. Of course, I had hoped, as I expect many other D&D players at the time did, that the Companion-series adventures would go even further, providing multiple, clear illustrations of how to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign centered around high-level, domain-ruling characters. 

Sadly, like the Companion Rules themselves, what TSR offered instead was a very mixed bag that did little to clarify the situation. Indeed, if 1984's Death's Ride is any indication, Companion-level D&D was just like lower-level D&D but with more dangerous monsters, more potent spells, and more valuable treasure. It's a real shame, because there was – and is – a need for guidance on this level of gameplay and the ways in which it differs from lower-level campaigns. That's certainly what I was looking for in the CM-designated modules, which is why I bought so many of them during the period when they were being published.

Written by Garry Spiegle, an author I remember mostly for his work on the second edition of Gamma World, Death's Ride takes place in the distant mountain-based Barony of Twolakes Vale. The barony, it seems, has gone silent recently. This includes the cessation of tax payments to the King of Norwold, which naturally raises his concern. Since the barony is remote, he tasks the player characters (who are assumed to be between levels 15 and 20), to investigate the situation and resolve it, if possible. In return, the characters will receive a large monetary reward and the king's gratitude. 

As you can probably already see, the set-up of the adventure does not assume the characters already have baronies of their own to rule, treating them instead just like rootless adventurers in search of another patron. Actually, that's not entirely true. The introductory "How to Use This Adventure" section briefly alludes to this possibility when it cautions:

Some player characters may want to lead large bodies of troops, retainers, or hirelings in this adventure. Don't let too many characters get caught up in this, as it can bog your game down in a mire of detail. Encourage your players to concentrate on their own characters. 

While I find the advice odd, it's important to remember that the Companion Rules are not aimed solely at domain-ruling characters. They, in fact, introduce quite a number of interesting and unique options for adventurers who reject becoming tied down by the demands of rulership and that's fine. What irks me, now and then, is that modules like Death's Ride offer so little for characters who do decide to take up rulership. I think the adventure might have been more useful on several levels if, instead of detailing a threat to an NPC's barony, it had instead detailed one to a player character's. I realize that would have required more work on Spiegle's part, given the likely variability for which he'd need to account, but it would have expanded the utility of Death's Ride immensely.

The Barony of Twolakes Vale languishes under "the Deathcloud," a roiling, black magical phenomenon that has alighted upon the area because a pair of evildoers have opened a portal to the Sphere of Death – an otherplanar realm that is the source of negative energy and, therefore, undead. The Barony is thus overrun with a veritable army of the undead, not to mention a dragon in league with the two main antagonists. The characters thus have their work cut out for them, with plenty of fighting against enemies both powerful and numerous. The result is a bit of slog in keeping with the mantra of "More! Bigger!" that unfortunately characterized Mentzer's Companion, Master, and (Gygax preserve us) Immortals rules. 

As I said earlier in this post, it's all a great shame, because, in principle, an adventure like this has potential. The premise of an evil cleric and an evil wizard joining forces to open a portal to a nightmarish Other World filled with undead isn't a bad one – all the more so when they do so in the domain of a player character. The challenge of overcoming enemies of this sort while at the same time working to limit the damage they can do to one's own holding is a significant one worthy of a high-level character. I would have loved to read such an adventure. Instead, what we got was a fairly unimaginative slugfest without any personal stakes for the characters beyond the quest for every greater gold and XP. Alas!

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Attention, Traitors!

West End's Paranoia is a roleplaying game of which I have many fond memories. It's also a game I haven't played in, literally, decades and doubt I'll ever play again. Part of that is that I no longer own a copy of the rules, but a bigger part is that I'm not at all sure how well a RPG like this would work in the present day. The real world is already so uncomfortably close to Paranoia's "darkly humorous future" at times that I wonder if it's even possible to satirize it effectively. 

I understand that there's a new edition of the available through Mongoose Publishing, though I've not seen it and so can't speak to how effectively it translates the irreverent and subversive spirit of the original into the very different world of the 21st century. If anyone has any experience with it, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

White Dwarf: Issue #74

Issue #74 of White Dwarf (February 1986) sports a cover by American conic book artist, Frank Brunner, who's probably best known for his work on Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, as well as his covers for Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan and Red Sonja. The issue also marks the point where Ian Livingstone hands over day-to-day editorial duties to Ian Marsh. Livingstone states that he is not "deserting the magazine" and will still "be keeping a benevolent eye on the progress of [his] eight-year-old love-child" in his new capacity as Editor-in-Chief. Despite his reassurances, this nevertheless feels like a turning point in the history of White Dwarf.

Case in point: the issue kicks off with "Superpower" by Bruce Hollands, which is an extensive look at the Games Workshop-published boardgame of the same name. Like the look at Warrior Knights from the previous issue, this article, while informative, nevertheless feels more like an extended advertisement for a GW product than a "real" article. That may be an unfair judgment on my part, but reading it convinced me that the oft-discussed transformation of White Dwarf into a full-on house organ of Games Workshop was not far in the future.

Countering that worry is "Open Box," which only reviewed one GW product this issue, the Call of Cthulhu scenario Night in Norway, which scores 7 out of 10. Also reviewed is Dragon Warriors and two of its supplements (The Way of Wizardry and The Elven Crystals), which collectively earn 9 out of 10. After all these years, I've still never read Dragon Warriors, which people whose opinions I respect tell me is well worth a look. The historical RuneQuest supplement Vikings gets 8 out of 10, while Oriental Adventures for AD&D receives 9 out of 10. The Pendragon Campaign, the predecessor to the well regarded The Boy King, is similarly well regarded, earning 9 out of 10. The column wraps up with a look at two different scenarios for use with FASA's Star Trek, The Outcasts and Termination 1456, both of which are judged perfect (10 out of 10). 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" generally vexes me, but this issue's column at least looks at a few books I know and have read, like Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series. Langford quite correctly recognizes the value of these books and of Vance more generally
The good stuff lies in Tschai's rich scents and colours, and in elaboration of style. No Vance villain would say 'I'll get you for that.' Instead: 'Low-grade assassins will drown you in cattle excrement! Twenty pariahs will drub your corpse! A cur will drag your head along the street by your tongue!'

Langford's byline reappears under "The Power of the Frog," a science fiction short story about a human junior military officer held prisoner by an alien race. Like all of Langford's previous short stories, this one is both brief and amusing. It's clear the man has talent, which is why I sometimes feel bad at the lack of interest his book review column elicits. Truthfully, I wish he had contributed more fiction to White Dwarf

"Terror at Trollmarsh" is an AD&D adventure for 4th–5th-level characters by Peter and Janet Vialls. I really enjoyed this one, which takes the form of a murder mystery with fantasy/horror elements. A monster is stalking the halls of Baron Uther Torgrim, killing his servants, and it's up to the players to figure out just what is really going on. While the overall concept is a standard, even clichéd one, the authors handle it well, giving the referee an interesting, well mapped out environment, an array of compelling NPCs, and a culprit with clear, understandable motives. "Terror at Trollmarsh" is nothing revolutionary, but, like all good scenarios, it gives players lots of "moving parts" with which to interact as they grapple with its central mystery.

"A Company of Wolves" by Peter Blanchard looks at lycanthropy in AD&D from both a game and folkloric perspective. The article doesn't offer much in the way of new rules mechanics, which I appreciate, focusing instead on "social" aspects of this magical curse, which is to say, how it might function in a fantasy setting, including its advantages and drawbacks. "The Hide of the Ancestor" by Chris Watson is a short RuneQuest scenario about the recovery of a relic holy to the twenty-six tribes of the Ithillian-Fane, a race of lion-centaurs. I find it oddly refreshing to read a RQ adventure set in Glorantha whose author feels comfortable enough with the setting to his own creations, like the Ithillian-Fane to it. Too often settings like Glorantha – and Tékumel and Hârn and ... – are treated as inviolable to the point that no one is even willing to play in them, lest they "do it wrong." That's nonsense in my opinion, which is why I delight in scenarios like "The Hide of the Ancestor."

"Gentlemen and Players" by Richard Edwards and Chris Elliott is nice little article about creating British characters for use with Call of Cthulhu. As its title suggests, the article focuses on the creation of "gentlemen" (or aristocratic amateurs) and "players" (professional sportsmen). "Hitting the Right Note" by Ian Berridge presents information on musical instruments, their use, and the how to learn to play them for use with AD&D. Articles like this are godsends to those whose campaigns would benefit from such fine details – and absolutely useless to those whose campaigns wouldn't. 

"Alternative Origins" by Ian Thomson is a collection of random tables for use with Games Workshop's Golden Heroes. The tables are intended to replace those presented in the game for character generation in order to produce more "convincing" heroes whose powers are an incompatible jumble. This makes good sense to me, but then I haven't looked at a copy of Golden Heroes in decades, so it's hard for me to judge how useful this article would be. Elsewhere, Joe Dever offers part three of his look at "Dioramas," accompanied by some lovely – though non-diorama – photographs of painted miniatures.

The issue also includes more "Thrud the Barbarian," a full-page "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers," which continues its Shadows-inspired plotline. I particularly enjoyed the latter, especially this bit:

Of course, I've always been fond of the way that "The Travellers" blends Traveller-specific humor with more general lampoonery of roleplaying games, so I may be biased. In any case, it's nice to see that one of my favorite comics remains as amusing ever, even if White Dwarf as a whole looks to be on the verge of some monumental – and not entirely pleasing – changes.

Friday, May 12, 2023


My House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign reached another milestone yesterday: 300 sessions! The pace of our (theoretically) weekly meetings has admittedly slackened a bit over the past year, owing to a variety of real-world considerations, but the seven players and I continue to enjoy ourselves and our exploration of the world of Tékumel. 

Of course, the campaign has been "off the map" of known Tékumel for a very long time now, with the player characters located on the Achgé Peninsula of the mysterious Southern Continent since mid to late 2016 (about a year into the campaign). During that time, they've been interacting with a couple of non-Tsolyáni cultures that are largely or wholly of my own invention and dealing with problems that are only tangentially related to those of the Five Empires. 

Yesterday, the campaign (unintentionally) reached an important crossroads. For the past several weeks, the characters had been exploring a strange tower located within a béthorm (pocket universe), trying to determine to whom it belonged. As it turned out, the tower was the dwelling place of a sorceress who called herself Tomorónore and claimed to be the wife of an old frenemy of theirs, the wizard Getúkmetèk. Like her husband, she didn't think much of the extraplanar entities that had set themselves up as the gods of Tékumel, feeling that they were deliberately retarding the development of mankind and the other intelligent species of the planet. She was thus a member of the cabal of Undying Wizards known as the Accelerators, who sought to challenge the power of Tékumel's so-called deities.

Unlike her husband, though, Tomorónore prefers subtle action against the gods rather than the more direct methods favored by Getúkmetèk. That's why she offered the characters a deal: abandon their current alliance with her husband's younger self – time travel and parallel Tékumels are involved and it's best not to worry about the details – and she would see to it that they were initiated into the Accelerators and given the knowledge they craved about the True Nature of Things™. 

At the end of yesterday's session, it seemed as if the characters might take her up on her offer. After eight years, I think the players are keen for a change of pace – "epic level play," as one of them described it. Truth be told, I think I am ready for a change, too, which is why I had Tomorónore make the offer in the first place. Change always brings with it a degree of risk; the ever-present fear that, by indulging in change, I may inadvertently destroy what we've built over the course of the years. Having the characters leave behind the mundane aspects of Tékumel for the rarefied heights of interaction with demons and gods and the great mysteries of the setting will be very different from what we've done thus far. 

Wish us luck!

My Top 10 Favorite D&D Monsters (Part II)

Part I is here

5. Shambling Mound

According to Gary Gygax, the shambling mound was inspired by the 1940s comic book monster, the Heap, which seems plausible, given that the Monster Manual states that it "appear[s] as a heap of rotting vegetation." My own fondness for the shambler stems from my love of all manner of swamp monsters, most especially Père Malfait from the Kolchak episode, "The Spanish Moss Murders." There's no denying that there's something positively primal about the idea of a monster rising out of the muck of a dismal marsh to attack unsuspecting travelers through its domain. As a referee, I've made good use of these creeps over the decades.

4. Green Slime

In a sense, I owe my playing of D&D to green slime. As you may recall, my earliest experience of fantasy gaming came through the boardgame Dungeon! One of my favorite aspects of that game were the monster cards that you flipped over whenever your token entered a space on the map. Mixed in with goblins, giant rats, and skeletons were a number of weirder enemies that captivated my youthful self. Chief among these was green slime, which was a truly nasty opponent, being immune to fireballs and requiring double digit rolls to kill for all attacks except lightning bolts. The D&D version of green slime isn't quite as hard to destroy, but it's still plenty dangerous, turning living beings it touches into more green slime – no resurrection possible. Yikes!

3. Beholder

The beholder has to be a strong candidate for the most iconic D&D monster ever. That said, they've rarely appeared in my own games over the years, partly because they possess a wide array of dangerous abilities. Yet, there's no denying beholders are an imaginative and compelling monster – among the best in the game – which is why I've ranked them so highly on this list.

2. Lich

Arguably this monster is a violation of my own rules, since the idea of an undead sorcerer is hardly unique to Dungeons & Dragons. I readily admit my hypocrisy on this point, but I don't care. Moreso than almost any other "standard" D&D monster I can think of, the lich draws deeply from the game's pulp fantasy roots and that's a big part of why I love it. I also have lots of great memories of liches from adventures I ran in years past, like Asberdies from Descent into the Depths of the Earth (and Acererak from Tomb of Horrors – yes, I know he's a demi-lich, but, since we've already established I'm a hypocrite, why not include him too?).

1. Mind Flayer

This was an easy one for me. The Cthulhoid stylings of the mind flayer held instant appeal the first time I gazed upon Dave Sutherland's illustration in the Monster Manual.  The fact that these monsters used psionics was another point in their favor, since I was strangely fascinated with AD&D's convoluted (and largely unworkable) system for handling psychic powers. Like the lich, the mind flayer is highly intelligent, but its intelligence is of an inscrutable, alien sort that gives the monster a little extra oomph, hence its place in the top spot of this list.