Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Nerdish Accent

Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm a stickler for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. This is an obsession of long standing, going all the way back to my childhood. As to its origin, I cannot truly say, except that, growing up, I used to spend a lot of time reading the copy of The Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language that we kept in our living room. That tome, with its gilt title and thumb index, certainly played a role in my fascination with alphabets and writing systems, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if it likewise influenced my enduring love of language. Of course, a much simpler explanation is simply that I read a lot as a young person, like most nerds of my generation (or, come to think of it, the generations before mine). The books I read, especially the fiction, often included unusual, exotic, and highly specific words of the sort that Gary Gygax employed in his own writings. 

While my reading vocabulary was naturally enriched by the grandiloquent authors whom I favored, that didn't always translate directly into speech. It's one thing to know what a word means, but it's another thing entirely to know how it's pronounced. I can distinctly recall my youthful mispronunciation of the word "dilettante," for example, and it was far from the only example of where my literary precociousness had not given me a concomitant verbal acuity. If my own experiences are any guide, this was a fairly common occurrence. The "nerdish accent" is a highly individualized thing, but its one certain characteristic is that it reveals a person whose vocabulary, acquired through wide reading, is quite large but whose ability to pronounce much of that vocabulary is quite limited, owing to his never having heard the words spoken by another human being. 

My friends and I would often argue with one another about the way that some obscure word used in Dungeons & Dragons was pronounced, like dais or grimoire or guisarme (not to mention made-up words of the sort that appeared in the Monster Manual). This would inevitably lead us to a dictionary to determine the truth of the matter, assuming that the word wasn't too obscure to be found there. What's interesting is that, even to this day, I still regularly encounter nerds of my vintage who mispronounce words in this fashion. Though my inner pedant bristles at this, I simultaneously find it a charming reminder of my own younger days, when I, too, did not know the proper way to pronounce many of the words I read. 

The nerdish accent seems less common among those much younger than myself. Instead, what I notice is a rather different phenomenon: the inability to properly spell a word that one has only ever heard spoken by others. On those occasions when I look at forums, for instance, I regularly see the most bizarre misspellings, like "persay" for "per se," which suggests to me that audio and video are now much more important in the transmission of knowledge than they were in my day. A nerd of the past would have been much more likely to mispronounce that Latin phrase (as "per see" perhaps) than to misspell it. Nowadays, it seems like it's the spelling that's the source of error, not the pronunciation.

I suppose this shift – if indeed it is a shift – points to the influence of the Internet. Personal computers barely existed in my own childhood and the Internet wouldn't become widely accessible, let alone a driver of popular culture, for decades after my own fascination with language began. Books were the only means I had to learn about most topics of interest to me. That's less the case now and I suspect any decline in the prevalence of the nerdish accent might reflect the weakening of the primacy of the book, though it's a complex issue and likely has many causes.

Retrospective: Citizens of the Imperium

During the decade between 1977 and 1987, Game Designers' Workshop released thirteen supplements for use with what is now known as "classic" Traveller. As you might expect, these supplements are a mixed bag, ranging from the essential to the merely useful to the forgettable. I own them all, of course, because I've been a huge fan of the game since I first encountered it a little more than forty years ago. Even so, there are only a handful of these supplements I always use when playing and high on that list is Citizens of the Imperium.

First published in 1979, Citizens of the Imperium is 44-page digest-sized book completely devoid of any artwork, either on its cover or in its interiors. That's par for the course for most classic Traveller supplements – and quite a few adventures, too, come to think of it – unless you consider maps, deckplans, or mathematical formulae illustrations. It's frankly impossible to imagine a RPG supplement being released nowadays without even a single illustration, but, at the time, I can't recall anyone commenting on it, let alone being put out by it. Yet more evidence that the past really is a foreign country.

The book consists of two large sections, as well as two smaller ones. The first large section is the most important, introducing as it does twelve new starting careers for player characters, most of which are civilian in nature. This is significant, because the original Traveller rules only provided for three military careers (Army, Navy, Marines) and one paramilitary career (Scouts), with only the Merchants and nebulously-defined-but-probably-criminal "Other" career as non-military alternatives. Citizens of the Imperium widens the field considerably, offering barbarians, belters, bureaucrats, diplomats, doctors, flyers, hunters, nobles, pirates, rogues, sailors, and scientists as possibilities, though some are more clearly attractive than others (I have never, in all my years of playing Traveller, seen anyone roll up a bureaucrat, but I'm nevertheless glad the option exists).

The second large section is more or less an adjunct to the previously published 1001 Characters, in that it presents 40 pre-generated examples of each career type, to be used either as player or non-player characters. Difficult as it is to imagine from the vantage point of a world with ubiquitous personal computers and similar devices, this section would have been a genuine godsend to the harried referee. I know I regularly made use of it in creating NPCs for my campaigns and I suspect I was not alone in doing so. Much more so than Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller regularly included "time saver" material like this in its books, supplements, and adventures, which made sense, since what we now call "sandbox" play with the default campaign playstyle.

The two smaller sections of Citizens of the Imperium are, in different ways, worthy of note. The first provides rules for low-tech missile weapons – bows and crossbows – for use by characters in the game. I suspect the presence of both barbarians ("rugged individuals from primitive planets") and hunters ("individuals who track and hunt animals") suggested their inclusion (though Traveller was already notable among SF RPGs for including a wide range of low-tech melee weapons). The second small section presents eight heroes and villains "drawn from the pages of science-fiction" in Traveller terms. This section is important for anyone interested in assembling an "Appendix T" for the game, which is to say, a list of its literary antecedents. We get the game's interpretation of Harry Harrison's Slippery Jim di Griz, Keith Laumer's Retief, and James White's Senior Physician Conway, alongside Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and several others. It's one of my favorite sections of the book, if only because it's a reminder of what inspired Marc Miller and the crew at GDW when making the game.

My complaints about Citizens of the Imperium are few and curmudgeonly. The introduction of new careers paved the way for the introduction of new skills, a baleful trend inaugurated by Mercenary and continued by many more books, supplements, and adventures. I say "baleful," because one of the glories of classic Traveller in my opinion is its relative simplicity, including a relatively spare skill list. The introduction of more – and more specific – skills undermined that simplicity to the game's detriment. Still, it's easy enough to ignore most of the new skills and focus instead on the careers, most of which increased the range of options available to players without adding any mechanical complexity to the game.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #79

With issue #79 of White Dwarf (July 1986), I reach the penultimate issue I'll cover in this series. Though I'm glad to have done it – and I hope it's been profitable for those of you reading along – I can't deny that my enthusiasm has been waning for some time now. Sadly, this issue did little to make me regret my decision to end the series with #80, though there are a couple of bright spots – like John Blanche's cover illustration ("Amazonia Gothique"), which I like for reasons I can't fully articulate.

This issue marks the first one featuring Paul Cockburn as editor. His inaugural editorial mentions that there will be still more changes in store for the magazine, though these will "come in bit by bit." Cockburn also notes that Citadel Miniatures would, from this point on, include "a small warning, intended to prevent figures being sold to that part of the public who might actually be harmed by lead content." He elaborates that there had recently been a Citadel ad in a magazine "aimed at a very young audience," which necessitated this warning. Maybe I'm just old and contrarian, but I felt a slight pang of sadness upon reading this. By 1986, the Old Days (and Old Ways) were already fading ...

"Open Box" takes a look at two related Palladium products, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness and its post-apocalyptic supplement, After the Bomb. Both products are positively reviewed, but the reviewer, Marcus L. Rowland, expresses a preference for the "present day setting of the original game," which he feels offers "more opportunities for plot development and diversity." Also reviewed is Secret Wars II for Marvel Super Heroes, which is judged "an awful lot better than Secret Wars I." Never having seen the original, it's not clear to me whether this is faint praise or not. Two Chaosium releases, Black Sword (for Stormbringer) and Terror from the Stars (for Call of Cthulhu) get positive reviews, as does West End's Ghostbusters. Acute Paranoia, a supplement for (naturally) Paranoia earns a more middling appraisal, largely due to its "disappointing" mini-scenarios.

"Where and Back Again" by Graham Staplehurst is one of the aforementioned bright spots of this issue. Dedicated to "Starting a Middle-earth Campaign," the article lays out all the decisions a referee looking to run a RPG campaign set in Tolkien's world must make. Staplehurst covers subjects like "style" (i.e. campaign frame), rules, and even source material. He also raises the question of how closely one might wish to hew to Middle-earth as described by the good professor and the consequences for choosing to deviate from that particular vision. It's a solid, thoughtful article on a topic that has long interested – and vexed – me. 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" has only rarely been something I've enjoyed and this issue's installment does little to change my mind. More enjoyable (to me anyway) is his second contribution to the issue, an odd little article entitled "Play It Again, Frodo." Ostensibly, Langford's assignment is to demonstrate "how closely role-playing and literature are entwined" in order to help readers convince their "serious" friends that gaming isn't a silly hobby. He attempts to do this through a series of vignettes based around famous books or movies – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Conan, The Lord of the Rings, etc. – where he postulates that events go other (and humorously) than how they do in the originals. The idea here is that roleplaying allows to do things "your way" rather than being bound by the dictates of an omnipotent author. 

"20-20 Vision" by Alex Stewart reviews science fiction and fantasy movies. The bulk of this issue's column is devoted to the film, Highlander, in which "a medieval Scottish warrior with a French accent" is befriended by "Sean Connery's Glaswegian conquistador." Stewart calls the movie "a stylish, raucous and utterly preposterous D&D scenario transplanted bodily into contemporary New York." That's probably the most succinct (and amusing) way I've heard Highlander described and it does a good job, I think, of capturing the essence of its cheesy glory.

"All in the Mind" by Steven Palmer offers an alternate psionics system for use for AD&D. Palmer's system interests me for its relative simplicity – the article is only four pages long, as well as for its more flavorful elements. For example, there's a discussion of the heritability of psionic powers, as well as the inherent connection between twins. Neither of these elements plays a major role in his system, but the fact that they're mentioned at all is in stark contrast to the dreary, tedious treatment of psionics in the Players Handbook. 

"Ghost Jackal Kill" by Graeme Davis is a Call of Cthulhu scenario that's presented as a prequel to The Statue of the Sorcerer, a Games Workshop CoC adventure. The scenario is set in San Francisco and involves not only the Hounds of Tindalos, one my favorite type of Mythos entities. It also features real-world historical figures, specifically the actress Theda Bara and writer Dashiell Hammett. Normally, I tend to be leery of the inclusion of such people in RPG adventures, but, in this case, I think it works, particularly Hammett, who did actually work as a detective for the Pinkertons and drew on those experiences for his fiction. In any case, it's a good, short scenario and another of the issue's stand-outs in my opinion.

"Think About It" by Phil Masters examines the purpose and use of the Intelligence score (or its equivalent) in roleplaying games. Because it's an overview of a large topic, it's necessarily brief in its examination, but it does a good job, I think, of presenting different options and approaches to handling Intelligence in RPGs. "'Eavy Metal" provides tips on converting miniature figures, along with some nice color photographs. 

"Psi-Judges" by Carl Sargent – a name that would feature prominently on the covers of many RPG products throughout the late '80s and into the 1990s – is an expansion of Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game focused on, of course, psi-judges. Interestingly, it's equal parts a rules expansion and a roleplaying expansion. There's information on how to play a psi-judge in the game, alongside discussions of game balance and other matters. "Gobbledigook" and "Thrud the Barbarian" are still here, but I can't deny that I miss the presence of "The Travellers." The comic's absence really hits home to me just how much White Dwarf has changed from the days when I read (and enjoyed) it regularly.

One more week!

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Retrospective: The Forest Oracle

According to the scheme I laid down long ago in Ages of D&D, the year 1984 is the start of the game's Silver Age. The hallmarks of this age are a concern for "dramatic coherence" and "believable" worlds, as well as an esthetic of "fantastic realism." Despite this, Carl Smith's AD&D module, The Forest Oracle, released during the first year of this new era, possesses none of these hallmarks, being instead, by turns, mundane, nonsensical, and – worst of all – dull. 

On the face of it, this is precisely the kind of module I should like. I'm a professed admirer of low-level adventures, particularly those featuring rural communities beset by the forces of Evil. It's not for nothing, after all, that I judge Gary Gygax's The Village of Hommlet not merely a great module, but my favorite of the game's Golden Age. To my way of thinking, there's something particularly appealing, indeed almost mythical, about the set-up of so many of these low-level adventures that I can't help but look on them beneficently.

The premise of The Forest Oracle is that the Downs, "a hidden vale farmers claimed from the wilderness long ago" lies under a curse that causes fruit to rot, plants to die, and animals to flee. When the characters arrive in the Downs, they meet a kindly old wizard, Delon, who tells them that he believes a "gypsy witch" pronounced the curse after the people here refused to aid her. He then asks the characters to travel into the Greate Olde Woode – no, I am not making this up – to visit the druids who dwell there. Perhaps their powers will be able to lift the curse. (Delon is unable to do this himself, because he is old and feeble.) 

What follows is a series of linear wilderness encounters and fetch quests, as the PCs are shuttled from place to place to the accompaniment of badly written boxed text. I give the module points for even having wilderness encounters, since that's not common in low-level scenarios. I'm also willing to cut it some slack regarding its blandly atrocious naming practices (Greate Olde Woode, the Downs, the Wild River, the New Wilderness Road, Quiet Lake, etc.), because it's explicitly intended to be easy to integrate "into any existing campaign," since it's "an independent adventure, and not part of any series." Presumably, this is meant to make it easy for the Dungeon Master to insert in his own setting, replacing the insipid names with more appropriate (and flavorful) ones. 

Unfortunately, The Forest Oracle is just so straightforward and unimaginative that, even grading on a curve, it's still an almost complete failure. I say "almost," because there are glimmers of clever ideas here and there, like the flesh golem used as a guard by an ogre or the nymph who needs help in freeing her lover from an enchantment, but they're often handled in the most banal (and occasionally nonsensical) ways. It's almost as if the writer went out of his way to choose the least interesting versions of every idea he came up with. A perfect example of this is the hackneyed "gypsy curse" aspect of the adventure. I assumed that the story Delon tells about this is untrue or at least misinformed in some way, since it'd open up other possibilities for the true cause of the blight affecting the Downs. Nope! Madame Riva is responsible for the curse, though she regrets it now and aids the characters in removing it – but only if they do a favor for her first ...

It's all so tiresome. Back and forth, bouncing around from quest giver to quest giver, funneled from one linear locale to another, battling fairly typical low-level enemies – orcs, goblins, giant rats, and so on. Now, to be clear, I don't dislike such enemies; what I object to is their being used in trite, unimaginative ways, which is exactly what we get here. Again and again and again. The cumulative effect is enough to overcome my natural tendency to want to "fix" even a bad adventure module, to find some way to use it as the "raw material" from which to build something more to my taste. 

Compared to many, I'm generally quite forgiving of this sort of thing. I don't enjoy trashing a game or a module. I derive little pleasure in pointing out the missteps of a designer or writer, perhaps because I know only too well how easy it is for something that sounds great in one's mind to go terribly wrong in the process of committing it to paper. I'm not sure that's what happened to The Forest Oracle, but I simply don't care. Looking around online, I discovered that I'm not the only person who feels this way about the module. Indeed, I discovered, much to my surprise, that The Forest Oracle is widely considered among the worst Dungeons & Dragons adventures TSR ever published. I'm not sure I'd go that far Castle Greyhawk is right there, after all – but there can be little argument that it's very, very bad.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #78

I've got to be honest: reading White Dwarf for these posts is not as much fun as it used to be. Partly, I think I'm simply tired of the magazine, which I've been reviewing for almost two years now. At the same time, I'm finding the individual issues are much more miss than hit, in no small part due to the shift in content toward games that don't interest me very much. That's not necessarily a comment on White Dwarf itself. However, the end is nigh for this series. I'll try to tough it out till issue #80, so I can end it on a nice round number. Any more than that is beyond my patience.

Issue #78 (April 1986) features a cover by Chris Achilleos and a new editor, Paul Cockburn. Prior to coming to White Dwarf, Cockburn was an editor and writer at TSR UK's Imagine, which ceased publication in October 1985, with its thirtieth issue. In his editorial, Ian Livingstone, states that "it looks like everything is changing around here except the name" and he's not mistaken. The whole look of WD is different with this issue – the graphic design is more "professional" and there's a lot more color, for instance. Whether that's good or bad is a matter of taste, I suppose. I can only say that, for me, these "improvements" are a vivid signal that the times, they are a-changin' and I hate change.

With this issue, "Open Box" abandons numerical ratings for its reviews, which I applaud. As commenters have repeatedly pointed out to me, those ratings were not made by the reviewers themselves but by someone on the magazine's editorial team, hence their frequent inconsistencies with the actual text of the reviews. The first product examined is Night's Dark Terror, which the reviewer liked as much as I. Cthulhu by Gaslight is also reviewed positively, though somewhat less enthusiastically. The Nobles Book for Pendragon receives an even more muted thumbs up, while Dragons of Glory is recommended only for "the Dragonlance fanatic," which, I think, is quite fair. 

Paul Mason's "Cosmic Encounter" is not, strictly speaking, a review of the classic science fiction boardgame. Instead, it's an overview of the game's rules and play, no doubt with an eye toward enticing readers to purchase Games Workshop's new edition of the game. Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" is, oddly, more readable now than in previous issues. Whether that's due to a better layout or the fact that Langford – in this issue anyway – reviews fewer books, I can't rightly say. It's a pity that, with one exception, none of his reviews stuck with me. The one that did, for Gary Gygax's Artifact of Evil, which Langford criticizes for its "brutalities visited upon the English language" and for being little more than "an AD&D campaign write-up." I wish I could disagree.

"Solar Power" by Gary Holland is an occasionally amusing bit of original fiction about Norbert Parkinson, a man whose maladaptive development leads to a psychosis in which "he lives in a world occupied by elves, goblins, dragons, evil wizards and diverse other fantasy figures ..." It's fun enough for what it is, I suppose. Meanwhile, Graeme Drysdale's "Ashes to Ashes" is supposed to be "a closer look at resurrection in AD&D." In fact, it's a fairly cursory examination of all the magical spells by which a character can be returned to life in AD&D (reincarnation, raise dead, and resurrection) along with some comments and advice about their advantages and drawbacks. Again, fine for what it is, but nothing special.

Peter Tamlyn's "The Pilcomayo Project" is an adventure for Golden Heroes. The scenario is long – 7 pages – and takes place in Bolivia, where a Neo-Nazi supervillain and his robot stormtroopers are attempting to locate the legendary city of El Dorado. It's four-color nonsense, of course, but probably enjoyable in play. I find it notable, though, that, unlike previous superhero scenarios in White Dwarf, this one is not dual statted for Champions, only Games Workshop's own Golden Heroes – a sign of the times, no doubt! 

"The Spunng Ones!" by Marcus Rowland is an adventure for Judge Dredd the Role-Playing Game. This is another long one (8 pages) but it's absurd in a way that only a Judge Dredd story can be. A gang of criminals have given an experimental food additive called "Spunng" to a group of "fatties." Spunng converts their fat deposits into rubbery flesh that is also bullet proof. The fatties the engage in a crime spree the player Judges must stop. As I said, absurd, but that's Judge Dredd for you. "'Eavy Metal" takes a look at Judge Dredd miniatures and includes photos of a Sector 306 diorama built for Games Day '85. As always, it's a pleasure to see the amazing work others put into their miniatures.

This issue includes a full-page "Gobbledigook" comic, along with a re-telling of The Lord of the Rings had "Thrud the Barbarian" been involved. Hint: it doesn't go well for the Dark Lord. Sadly, the issue also marks the end of "The Travellers" comic, which had long been a favorite of mine. If I didn't already have other reasons for wanting to give up on this series, the departure of "The Travellers" might be sufficient.

Two more to go, two more to go. I just need to keep telling myself that ...

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Creating Fonts

How difficult is it to create a font set from a set of characters? I ask because, with the help of Zhu Bajiee, there is now a script for the Onha language of my Secrets of sha-Arthan setting and I'd like to make wide use of it in the production of the game. Having a custom Onha font set would help with this considerably.

However, as is usually the case in these matters, my technical know-how is exceedingly limited. I don't know the first thing about the creation of fonts, which is why I'm prevailing upon my readers to point me in the right direction. 

Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Retrospective: The Throne of Bloodstone

While I unqualifiedly count myself as a fan of the articles Ed Greenwood wrote about his home campaign, the Forgotten Realms, in the pages of Dragon, my feelings about TSR's version of it are decidedly more mixed. For the most part, the original boxed campaign setting developed by Jeff Grubb and published in 1987 is quite good, retaining most of the elements that, I think, made the Realms unique, or at least distinct from previous TSR AD&D settings, like The World of Greyhawk or Krynn. However, a lot of the products later released under the Forgotten Realms banner did not, in my opinion, jibe well with Greenwood's vision for his setting, no doubt because TSR saw the Realms as a "kitchen sink" setting where anything that was possible under the AD&D could be found somewhere. 

This desire to reshape the Forgotten Realms into something more generic (or perhaps utilitarian) was obvious from the very beginning, even in the '87 boxed set. In his introduction from that set, Jeff Grubb points out the various ways Greenwood's Realms were changed to accommodate the ideas of others, such as the fact that "the land that is now Vaasa and Damara was only recently (in game design terms) covered by an unnatural glacier." Vaasa and Damara, you may recall, made their first appearance before the publication of the Forgotten Realms boxed set, in 1985's Bloodstone Pass. That module, written by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson, was itself intended to support the Battle System miniatures rules, as were its two immediate sequels, The Mines of Bloodstone (1986) and The Bloodstone Wars (1987). 

By design, the setting presented in Bloodstone Pass is vanilla fantasy that could easily be dropped into any campaign setting. That's not a criticism and, from a sales point of view, was probably a point in its favor, broadening its pool of potential customers. With the publication of the Forgotten Realms in 1987, though, TSR found a way to cram a lot of stuff into it, in the process diluting its uniqueness. That's why the campaign box set pushes back the Great Glacier and plops Vaasa and Damara into the ice-free real estate so revealed. This change struck me then, as it does now, as utterly unnecessary, since there was nothing about the Bloodstone Lands that felt as if they could be part of the Realms. But commerce pays no heed to esthetics and I doubt anyone at TSR at the time worried about such trivial concerns.

Which brings us to the fourth and final module in the H-series: The Throne of Bloodstone. Written, like all its predecessors, by Niles and Dobson, and published in 1988, module H4 was, then and now, notorious among AD&D fans, for its stated level range – 18–100. You read that correctly; this adventure was explicitly presented as a challenge for 100th-level characters. There are even sample characters of this level provided at the end of the book, in addition to a few pages of advice to the Dungeon Master on running characters of such stratospheric levels of experience.

Why, you might ask, did the module do this? What sort of challenge could possibly justify the need for such potent characters? To start, the characters are tasked with defeating the Witch-King Zhengyi of Vaasa, a 30th-level magic-using lich who, it is revealed, is a devotee of the demon lord Orcus. In the course of this task, the characters discover a gate that leads to the Abyss, the outer planar home not only of the Lord of the Undead but of all the demon lords and princes. Traveling there to do battle with the forces of Chaotic Evil might well be a task worthy of 100th-level characters, but why go there at all, especially if the threat of Zhengyi were already eliminated?

That's where Throne of Bloodstone takes a very odd turn. Not long after discovering the gate, "a short, stocky little man with huge angel's wings wearing white robes" appears. Did I mention he also "calmly puffs on a cigar?" This is St. Sollars, a minor deity introduced all the way back in Bloodstone Pass. He speaks to the characters – in a strange Bugs Bunny-style Brooklyn accent – and explains that "the big boss, ol' Bahamut, don't much like Orcus," whom he calls "the meanest dude this side o' the Pecos." The Platinum Dragon would like the characters to help him deal with Orcus by "corral[ing] that big skull stick o' his," which is to say, he wants them to steal the wand of Orcus. 

The whole thing is beyond bizarre – especially St. Sollars, who feels like he's walked in from a completely different roleplaying game (or maybe Dave Trampier's Wormy). I honestly have no idea how to take all of this. Is it meant tongue in cheek, a kind of verbal winking at the players and the DM, since the very idea of 100th-level adventure is already somewhat absurd? Is this some sort of cryptic allusion that simply escapes me? I just don't know, but then my sense of humor is notoriously lacking. Whatever it means, the task St. Sollars offers the characters sets up the remainder of the module, which is vast in its scope.

The characters pass through the gate and arrive in Pazunia, the first layer of the Abyss. From there, they must make their way – somehow – to the layer ruled by Orcus. Doing so is, naturally, a very dangerous endeavor, since they must pass through many, many other layers to reach their final destination. The result is a kind of tour of the Abyss, with stops at the realms of Demogorgon, Yeenoghu, Lolth, Juiblex, Baphomet, Graz'zt, and so many more. What's interesting is that, while the characters can do battle with many of these fiendish AD&D luminaries, they can also parley with some of them, perhaps even ally with them, since they, too, have bones to pick with Orcus. 

As I said, Throne of Bloodstone is vast in scope. The characters, even 100th-level ones, could spend an immense amount of time traveling, exploring, fighting, and negotiating on the various levels of the Abyss that are lightly detailed in this module. It's practically a campaign in itself – and it all happens before the characters even reach the plane of Orcus. Once there, the challenges are immense, with undead beings everywhere, in addition to the requisite demons and, of course, Orcus himself. It's genuinely awe-inspiring, the kind of thing that many an AD&D no doubt dreamed of one day doing with his high-level character. 

The problems with Throne of Bloodstone are many, starting most obviously with whether it's even possible to run a game at this level. I'm not saying it isn't, only that I do not know and I suspect that neither do Douglas Niles or Michael Dobson – or indeed anyone else. That's one of the other problems: was this ever playtested? Does that even matter? Sometimes, the strength of a module's ideas are what matter and there's certainly a lot of interesting, or at least inspiring, ideas in this one. Of course, most of those ideas are barely detailed. Throne of Bloodstone is more of a sketch of a lengthy, high-level mini-campaign than an adventure module in the traditional sense.

That's why it's well nigh impossible to judge this thing. I have never played it and, for years, I scoffed at it, citing it as an example of just how much AD&D had lost its way by the late '80s. Nowadays, I am not so sure. Throne of Bloodstone is such a strange, wonderful, contradictory mess. Everything about it, from its premise to its contents is, on first blush, quite laughable and yet, having re-read it in preparation for this post, I can't simply dismiss it out of hand. Certainly, it'd require a lot work on the part of the DM to use effectively and, even then, I am not sure it could ever work in practice as well as I imagine it could – but it might be worth a try ... ?

Monday, June 12, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sorcerer's Jewel

Nowadays, Robert Bloch is best known for his authorship of the 1959 novel, Psycho, memorably made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year. However, Bloch had a long and successful career as a writer of pulp stories, starting "The Feast in the Abbey," which appeared in the January 1935 of Weird Tales. Much of his earliest work is strongly influenced by that of H.P. Lovecraft, whom he considered his mentor and friend. Though the two writers never met, they began a correspondence in 1933 that would last until HPL's death in 1937, when Bloch was only 20 years old.

A great deal of Bloch's Lovecraftian stories could, in charity, be called pastiches. Like August Derleth, whom Bloch did meet (largely because they lived only about 100 miles apart), Bloch's juvenile writings include lots of unnecessary allusions and references to Lovecraft's various alien gods and entities. Bloch was particularly fond of Nyarlathotep, writing several stories that feature the Crawling Chaos or his mortal agents. Flawed though they are, many of these stories nevertheless feature intriguing concepts and situations that provide glimpses into the writer Bloch would one day become.

One Bloch's better early stories in my opinion is "The Sorcerer's Jewel," which first appeared in the February 1939 issue of Strange Stories (which also featured another tale by Bloch, "The Curse of the House," in the same issue). To some degree, that's because the story is only tangentially connected to the Cthulhu Mythos and that gives Bloch some space to develop his own ideas more fully. And while those ideas certainly owe a debt to Lovecraft, notably the short story, "From Beyond," Bloch makes them him own.

The story begins memorably.

By rights, I should not be telling this story. David is the one to tell it, but then, David is dead. Or is he?

That's the thought that haunts me, the dreadful possibility that in some way David Niles is still alive-in some unnatural, unimaginable way alive. That is why I shall tell the story; unburden myself of the onerous weight which is slowly crushing my mind.

David Niles, we soon learn, was a photographer, as well as the roommate of the unnamed narrator. We also learn that Niles was

a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his studies of monstrosities and grotesques are widely known. Niles believed that in fantasy, photography most closely approximated true art. The idea of picturing the abstract fascinated him; the thought that a modern camera could photograph dream worlds and blend fancy with reality seemed intriguing.

This devotion on the part of Niles is why he had chosen the narrator as his roommate: he was a student of metaphysics and the occult and could serve as his "technical advisor" as he quested discover "the soul of fantasy" through photography. Initially, Niles attempts to do this through the use of "photographic makeup" on "models whose features lent themselves to the application of gargoylian disguises." Later, he tries his hand at models crafted from clay and placed in elaborate papier-mâché sets. Both approaches disappoint him.

"I've been on the wrong track," he declared. "If I photograph things as they are, that's all I'm going to get. I build a clay set, and by Heaven, when I photograph it, all I can get is a picture of that clay set – a flat, two-dimensional thing at that. I take a portrait of a man in makeup and my result is a photo of a man in makeup. I can't hope to catch something with the camera that isn't there. The answer is – change the camera. Let the instrument do the work."

Niles then opts for another approach: the use of new camera lenses, some of which he ground himself, hoping that he might be able to see something different through their use. With time, his efforts begin to pay off, producing "startling" results.

"Splendid," he gloated. "It all seems to tie in with the accepted scientific theories, too. Know what I mean? The Einsteinian notions of coexistence; the space-time continuum ideas."

"The Fourth Dimension?" I echoed.

"Exactly. New worlds all around us-within us. Worlds we never dream of exist simultaneously with our own; right here in this spot there are other existences. Other furniture, other people, perhaps. And other physical laws. New forms, new color."

"That sounds metaphysical to me, rather than scientific," I observed. "You're speaking of the Astral Plane-the continuous linkage of existence."

Being "a skeptic, a materialist, and, above all, a scientist," Niles is quite dismissive of the narrator's occult notions, calling them "the psychological lies of dementia praecox victims." This raises the narrator's hackles. He launches first into a discussion of "crystal-gazing," the means by which "men have peered into the depths of precious stones, gazed through polished, specially cut and ground glasses, and seen new worlds." He even attempts to back up his claims by reference to the laws of optics, stating that "the phenomenon of sight has very little to do with either actual perception or the true laws of light."

The narrator offers to prove his point to Niles by visiting his friend, Isaac Voorden who has "some Egyptian crystals" once used seers for divination purposes. He proposes to then have Niles gaze into the crystals himself, where he might see things "you and your scientific ideas won't so readily explain." Unexpectedly, Niles agrees to this proposition. 

The next day, the narrator visits his Voorden's antiques shop, where he had also collected "statuettes, talismans, fetishes and other paraphernalia of wizardry." After explaining what he wanted and why, Voorden admit that he had a stone that "should prove eminently suitable."

The Star of Sechmet. Very ancient, but not costly. Stolen from the crown of the Lioness-headed Goddess during a Roman invasion of Egypt. It was carried to Rome and placed in the vestal girdle of the High-Priestess of Diana. The barbarians took it, cut the jewel into a round stone. The black centuries swallowed it.

"But it is known that Axenos the Elder bathed it in the red, yellow and blue flames, and sought to employ it as a Philosopher's Stone. With it he was reputed to have seen beyond the Veil and commanded the Gnomes, the Sylphs, the Salamanders, and the Undines. It formed part of the collection of Gilles De Rais, and he was said to have visioned within its depths the concept of Homonculus. It disappeared again, but a monograph I have mentions it as forming part of the secret collection of the Count St. Germain during his ritual services in Paris. I bought it in Amsterdam from a Russian priest whose eyes had been burned out by little gray brother Rasputin. He claimed to have divinated with it and foretold –"

I broke in again at this point. "You will cut the stone so that it may be used as a photographic lens, then," I repeated. "And when shall I have it?"

The Star of Sechmet is "the Sorcerer's Jewel" of the title and, unsurprisingly, it works every bit as well as the narrator had hoped and indeed more so – as David Niles soon finds out at the cost of his sanity and his life. 

Since I've included a link to the entire text of the story, I won't say any more about its plot. I doubt anyone familiar with this type of horror tale will be surprised by anything that occurs, but I think Bloch presents it in a compelling and enjoyable way. As I have written many times before in this space, originality is often overvalued, especially when compared to execution. I've reached the point in my life where I am rarely impressed by mere novelty and care far more about the skill with which a familiar story or concept is employed. By that criterion, "The Sorcerer's Jewel" is well worth a read. 

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Manual of Fear and Death

The first AD&D book I ever owned was the Monster Manual. I bought it with money my grandmother had given me for Christmas 1979, ordering it through the Sears catalog. Once my copy arrived, sometime in early January 1980, I spent untold hours poring over its contents. Though I, of course, loved all the descriptive material contained in the book's 112 pages, it was the illustrations that truly seized my imagination – so much so that, to this day, it's difficult to conceive of many Dungeons & Dragons monsters in any way other than how Dave Sutherland, Dave Trampier, Tom Wham, and Jean Wells drew them. 

One aspect of the Monster Manual's artwork that grabbed my youthful attention was how often it depicted fear and death. Consider, for example, the piece accompanying the book's title page:

Here, we get three knights in historical armor facing off against a bulette. Beneath the landshark's front right claw, you can see the corpse of a horse (perhaps belonging to one of the two unmounted knights in the foreground). It's a small detail, seemingly unimportant, but it's the first example of a recurring motif in the Monster Manual's illustrations: facing off against monsters is perilous.

Again and again, you see this throughout the book: monsters frightening, harming, or killing those who dare to challenge them – often in unexpected places, like this one.
Those are giant ants and look how they use their large numbers to overwhelm their opponents, as do stirges in another memorable illustration.
Of course, not all low-level monsters rely solely on numbers to get the better of their enemies. Take a look at this pixie.
Being surprised by a lurking monster is another common element of Monster Manual illustrations, like the classic mimic preparing to punch the unfortunate thief attempting to open a "chest."
But there are many others in this style as well.

I could offer many more examples from the book and I'm sure readers will remember some of their own favorites. I adored these kinds of illustrations as a younger person, in large part because they emphasized the danger posed by monsters, even things as seemingly innocuous as giraffes.
Everything in the Monster Manual was a potential threat to life and limb and I can't tell how exciting that was to me as a budding Dungeon Master. While I was never a killer DM, I nevertheless did revel in seeing the looks of horror on players' faces as they realized what their characters were up against. Descending into a dungeon or wandering off into the wilderness is supposed to be frightening to some degree. A big part of the appeal of games like D&D, especially for young people, is being able to face those frights vicariously. That's part of why horror movies continue to be so popular, I imagine, particularly as the real world becomes ever safer and more sanitized. Something in our nature atavistically craves, maybe even needs fear and danger. Monsters in fantasy roleplaying games should give us a chance to experience both. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Retrospective: Cyborg Commando

Catching lightning in a bottle is a wildly improbable thing to do once, so I don't think reflects poorly on a creator not to be able to do it a second time. Consequently, I find it difficult to judge the post-TSR career of Gary Gygax as harshly as some, even though his achievements after his October 1985 departure from the company he founded more than a decade prior could, at best, be described as uneven. Still, there's something genuinely admirable about the naive optimism Gygax must have possessed in thinking that his new business venture, New Infinities Productions, had a snowball's chance of lasting longer than the barely three years it actually did. 

Of course, the company's likelihood of success might have been greater had its inaugural first (and only) original roleplaying game hadn't been Cyborg Commando. Published in 1987, Cyborg Commando is a near-future science fiction RPG written by Gygax, Frank Mentzer, and Kim Mohan. Its premise is that, in the year 2035, Earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings called Xenoborgs. In order to combat them, mankind turns to the nascent technology of cybernetics to create the titular cyborg commandos – human brains placed inside advanced robotic bodies arrayed with the most advanced weaponry available. Players assume the roles of these commandos as they attempt to rid Earth of the Xenoborgs and drive them back into space. (Since the initial boxed set is subtitled "Set 1: The Battle for Earth," I can only assume there were plans to expand the game's scope beyond this planet.)

Cyborg Commando consisted of a 48-page player's book (CCF Manual), a 64-page referee's book (Campaign Book), a 16-page booklet of introductory scenarios, and ten-sided dice in a box. This arrangement closely mimics TSR's own products at the time, but that should come as no surprise since New Infinities seems to have been staffed almost entirely by ex-TSR employees. That said, the game materials are noticeably less attractive and professionally done than those of TSR of the same era, particularly when it comes to the artwork. I wouldn't describe anything as awful, only a bit less "slick," no doubt due to the smaller production budget of the company.

The CCF Manual provides a brief overview of the game's setting and history, as well as the purpose of the Cyborg Commando Force to which all the player characters belong. The bulk of the book is devoted to the game's rules, which are a bit of a mess. The game uses ten-sided dice in a variety of ways: simple (1d10), added (1d10 + 1d10), and multiplied (1d10 × 1d10). The last use is particularly interesting to me, because I would have expected the game to use a straight percentile roll, but, perhaps in an attempt to "innovate," the designers opted to go another route. Helpfully(?), the CCF Manual includes several probability graphs to show the likelihood of results of each type of die roll. Though I am sure some players would find information of this sort useful, the inclusion of these tables is sadly representative of the game as a whole: too much detail about some things and not enough about others.

Character generation and combat both come in "basic" and "advanced" versions, with the latter building on the former. In principle, Cyborg Commando is completely playable using either version of the rules. However, much of the game's text and presentation seems to favor the advanced version, if only because of the additional detail it offers. A good example of this can be seen in the skill lists, where the advanced rules included many, many more skills than the basic version. Of course, the advanced version includes such skills as "general creativity," "domestic arts I," "domestic arts II," "obstetrics & gynecology," and "error avoidance," so I'm not entirely sure much of value would be lost by sticking to the basic versions. I mention all of this not mock Cyborg Commando. Rather, I hope it gives you some sense of the game system's strange obsession with minutiae that I can hardly imagine would ever come up in play at the table.

Of course, this obsession is not limited merely to the rules. The Campaign Book abounds in this level of useless detail as well. For example, nearly half of that volume consists of information on the populations of the countries of the world, along with their latitude and longitude coordinates, major cities, and CCF bases. Yet, for all that, this information consists of little more than tables and maps. It's a lot of heat but not much light for the referee hoping to get a sense of what the Earth of 2035 is actually like for the purposes of running adventures and campaigns in Cyborg Commando. 

The other half of the Campaign Book is more genuinely useful. It details the Xenoborgs, including their biology, society, and culture. In addition, this section delves more deeply into the aliens' polymorphism, revealing that their leaders, the so-called Masters, are a type of Xenoborg not yet seen on Earth. The Masters are directing the invasion of the planet for its resources, hoping to make use of them to further the expansion of its star-spanning empire, which consists of hundreds of worlds across the galaxy. There are also sections about the FTL Q-drive the Xenoborgs use, which, as I noted earlier, seems to suggest that New Infinities hoped that Cyborg Commando would eventually expand beyond Earth.

That was not to be and it's not hard to see why. Cyborg Commando contains a handful of genuinely interesting ideas but the vast majority of it is muddled, half-baked, or silly. Judged even by the standards of 1987, it's not a good game and I suspect that even the folks at New Infinities knew this. The game received a small amount of support in the form of three adventure modules and some novels, but, by 1988, the company seems to have pinned its hopes on doing knock-off D&D support material – the Fantasy Master line – that might garner attention due to the names attached to them (Gygax, Mentzer, etc.). When that didn't happen, the company, along with Cyborg Commando, was largely forgotten. I wish I could say that was a shame.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #77

Issue #77 of White Dwarf (May 1986) features an immediately recognizable cover illustration by Chris Achilleos. The image is probably best-known for its appearance on the September 1981 issue of Heavy Metal, though it has appeared in many other places over the years. I've noted before that, compared to Dragon, WD more regularly used re-purposed artwork for its cover illustrations, though I've never come to a satisfactory conclusion as to why this was the case. My best guess is that it was a matter of simple economics, reprinted art being perhaps cheaper than commissioning original art, but I honestly don' know if that's the case. In any event, this particular cover induces a bit of cognitive dissonance in me, since I so strongly associate it with Heavy Metal, not White Dwarf.

Issue #77 is also the last issue under the editorship of Ian Marsh. Marsh only took over in issue #74, so his departure so soon after his installation comes as a bit of a shock. In his final editorial, Marsh states that "the other staff of the magazine" would also be leaving, though he doesn't specify which ones. He seems to obfuscate on the reasons for all these departures, simultaneously reminding readers that Games Workshop was moving to Nottingham and that he and the others "have decided not to accompany it on this move," while also couching their decision as being for nebulous "reasons of our own." The next issue will have a "fresh team" headed up by Paul Cockburn.

The issue proper begins with the reviews of "Open Box." The first of these is Mayfair's DC Heroes, which receives a quite favorable (8 out of 10) review by Marcus L. Rowland, who continues to be the workhorse of the magazine. The Stormbringer adventure Stealer of Souls likewise scores 8 out of 10, while The Sea Elves, a supplement for the Elfquest RPG gets 7 on the same scale. Another Chaosium product, Alone Against the Dark for Call of Cthulhu earns 9 out of 10, but Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues for Paranoia receives only 7 – another example, I think, of where the numerical scores don't quite align with the text of the review itself. Finally, there are reviews of two supplements for FASA's Doctor Who RPG: The Daleks (7 out of 10) and The Master (6 out of 10). 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" is mostly forgettable to me, as usual, but he does take note of the death of Frank Herbert, opining that Chapter House: Dune, to which he gave a "mildly favorable" review back in issue #65 might be the end of "galactic power-politicking" in the Dune universe. How I wish that had been true! Colin Greenwell's "2020 Vision" reviews a few movies, most notably Young Sherlock Holmes, a forgettable, even laughable, Steven Spielberg movie that nonetheless does feature one of the earliest examples of a computer-generated character in the history of cinema – a dire portent of things to come.

"The Crazy File" by Peter Tamlyn provides a handful of new "crazies" – zealous devotees of social fads – for use with the Judge Dredd – The Role-Playing Game. The article contains no game statistics; it's pure background information intended to give the referee something inspirational for use in his own adventures and campaigns. "Spellbound" by Phil Masters looks at "magic in superhero games." Again, there's nothing mechanical here. Instead, it's an overview of how magic has been used in comics over the years and then offers advice and examples of how to make use of it in one's own original superhero RPG adventures and campaigns. It's well done in my opinion and helped by the fact that it's not geared toward any particular superhero RPG. 

"The Final Frontier" by Alex Stewart does something similar for Star Trek gaming: it's an overview of the unique characteristics of Gene Roddenberry's science fiction setting and how they can best be used to create enjoyable adventures and campaigns. As a fan of Star Trek – or at least I once was – I think the article is pretty well done for what it is, though I do find myself wondering about its intended audience. White Dwarf used to have lots of these introductory articles in its early days. To see them return so late in its run strikes me as odd, though I'm sure there's a logic to it that eludes me. 

Graham Staplehurst's "A Secret Wish" is an adventure that's written for both D&D and Middle-earth Role PlayingThe scenario itself assumes the players take on the role of hobbits and deals with the disappearance and return of Glorfindel. How well it jibes with the actual history of Middle-earth as laid out by Tolkien, I can't rightly say, though, to me, it reads a bit like a work of fan fiction rather than something that could have come from the mind of the Professor himself. "A Cast of Thousands" by Graeme Davis is yet another look at NPCs and how to give them "personality." It's fine, though, as is so often the case with articles like this, I find it difficult to sift through the conventional wisdom repeated for the hundredth time from the genuine insights.

"The Cars That Ate Sanity" by Marcus L. Rowland is a set of car chase rules for use with Call of Cthulhu. Is this something anyone needed? I don't mean to be flippant, but I cannot recall any car chases in Lovecraft's fiction. Maybe my memory is failing me again. Chris Felton's "Gaming for Heroine Addicts" – a clever title – is about how avoid "sexism" in one's games and make them more enjoyable to women. As you might expect, the article is a very mixed bag of topics, not to mention perspectives. I'm not sure the article offers a coherent viewpoint on any of its topics, which range widely and make many assumptions about RPGs, men, women, and everything in between. I've already spent more time thinking about it than it probably deserves.

Joe Dever's "Tabletop Heroes" looks at the best techniques for photographing one's painted miniatures. I found it fascinating and very much appreciated the little diagrams that accompanied the article. They showed the placement of lighting, camera, and background and did a great job of illustrating the principles Dever discusses. "The Travellers," "Gobbledigook," and "Thrud the Barbarian" are all here as usual. "Thrud" pokes fun at superheroes by having the tiny-headed barbarian face off against the All-American Legion of Incredibly Stupid Heroes, such as
After reading Ian Marsh's farewell editorial, I now feel an obligation to read at least a few more issues. I'm genuinely curious now to see how much will change under a "fresh new team" at the helm of White Dwarf. If nothing else, it'll be fascinating purely from a historical perspective. Till then!

Monday, June 5, 2023

Haunting Horrors of the Past Rise Again!

I always enjoy looking at old consumer product catalogs, especially those associated with RPG companies. Here's a good example from Chaosium's Winter 1982 catalog, advertising the original Call of Cthulhu boxed set, along with a "special designer's limited edition" set of 200 copies that, for $5 more than the standard one, is signed by the author and includes Shadows of Yog-Sothoth to boot – not a bad deal! [My aged eyes are mistaken; the price is $35 for the limited edition, which isn't quite as good a deal as I thought – JM]

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shuttered Room

After last week's review of The Fungi from Yuggoth, I found myself thinking about poor old August Derleth and the vitriol he's received over the years from admirers of H.P. Lovecraft. On many levels, I completely understand the venom directed at him. His vision of what he termed "the Cthulhu Mythos" stands in stark contrast to HPL's understanding of his own work. While Lovecraft espoused a cosmicism verging on the nihilistic, Derleth offered instead a more conventional (and pulp fiction-inspired) good versus evil philosophy, one in which brave men of erudition, armed with all manner of occult armament, go toe to toe with the alien forces of the Mythos and win. To purists, this is an unforgivable sin.

I find it difficult to disagree with the purists, simply on the level of basic reading comprehension. Derleth does not seem to have understood Lovecraft or his worldview – or, if he did, he chose to set aside that understanding, substituting in its place something he felt more suited to turning the Mythos into a money-making operation. That Derleth spent decades asserting the sole right of his publishing venture, Arkham House, to control of Lovecraft's copyrights and legacy only adds more fuel to the anti-Derlethian fire that continues to rage to this day.

Yet, for all that, I find it difficult to condemn him for the role he played in warping the popular understanding of H.P. Lovecraft and his works. As I have argued elsewhere, his pulp-inflected version of the Cthulhu Mythos deviates wildly from Lovecraft's original, almost to the point of becoming a parody of it, but, without it, I don't think, for example Call of Cthulhu would have been possible, let alone most other pop culture examples of so-called "cosmic horror." I don't think this can be reasonably disputed, though I am sure there are purists who would be willing to give up Call of Cthulhu or Hellboy or Quake in exchange for a world free from Derleth's abhorrent misinterpretations of Grandpa Theobald's unwavering cosmicism.

I am not one of them, which is why I still retain some fondness for some of Derleth's Mythos fiction, including his many "posthumous collaborations," like "The Shuttered Room," which first appeared in a 1959 anthology of the same name. The story concerns the return of Abner Whateley to his hometown of Dunwich after years away "at the Sorbonne, in Cairo, in London." Abner, we learn, was different from the other Whateleys in that, from early childhood, he wanted to get as far away from the lands of his ancestors as possible. He feared "the wild, lonely country" of his birth and his "grim old Grandfather Whateley in his ancient house attached to the mill along the Miskatonic." Only family business could bring him back.

And nothing was stranger than that Abner Whateley should come back from his cosmopolitan way of life to heed his grandfather's adjurations for property which was scarcely worth the time and trouble it would take to dispose of it. He reflected ruefully that such relatives as still lived in or near Dunwich might well resent his return in their curious inward growing and isolated rustication which had kept of the Whateleys in this immediate region, particularly since the shocking events which had overtaken the country branch of the family on Sentinel Hill.

If this set-up seems all too familiar, it's because it is. Leaving aside Derleth's lifelong obsession with "The Dunwich Horror," the HPL story that provided him with the foundation stones for his interpretation of the Mythos, the set-up of "The Shuttered Room" is one we've some many times before in Lovecraft's stories – and Derleth's imitations of them. From "The Festival" and "The Call of Cthulhu" to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and many others, a recurring plot element of Lovecraft's work is the return of a protagonist to the home of his ancestors or relations that leads to unexpected (and frequently unwelcome) revelations about the world and himself. I can't really fault Derleth for making use of it here, since he was only following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor. Nevertheless, its use does make it clear that "The Shuttered Room" is yet another pastiche rather than something more original.

Abner his inherited his grandfather's old home upon his death. Once he arrives there, he finds an envelope, inside of which is a letter written in "spidery script" that explains why his grandfather, Luther, had insisted he come back to Dunwich after so many years away.


When you read this, I will be some months dead. Perhaps more, unless they find you sooner than I believe they will. I have left you a sum of money – all I have and die possessed of – which is in the bank at Arkham under your name now. I do this not alone because you are my one and only grandson but because among all the Whateleys – we are an accursed clan, my boy – you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science. You will undersrand my meaning.

It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you, solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be. No matter what form it may have, for it seem to you human it will beguile you and endanger your life and God knows how many others. 

Heed me in this.

The letter reminds Abner of how, when he was a boy, his "enigmatic, self-righteous" grandfather had reacted strongly at the mention of his mother's sister.

The old man had looked at him out of eyes that were basilisk and answered, "Boy, we do not speak of Sarah here."

Aunt Sarey had offended the old man in some dreadful way – dreadful, at least, to that firm disciplinarian – for from that time beyond even Abner Whateley's memory, his aunt had only been the name of a woman, who was his mother's older sister, and who was locked in the big room over the mill and kept forever invisible within those walls, behind the shutters nailed to her windows. It had been forbidden both Abner and his mother even to linger before the door of that shuttered room, though on one occasion Abner had crept up to the door and put his ear against it to listen to the snuffling and whimpering sounds that went on inside, as from some large person, and Aunt Sarey, he had decided must be as large as a circus fat lady, for she devoured so much, judging by the great platters of food – chiefly meat, which she must have prepared herself, since so much of it was raw – carried to the room twice daily by old Luther Whateley himself, for there were no servants in that house, and had not been since the time Abner's mother had married, after Aunt Sarey had come back, strange and mazed, from a visit to distant kin in Innsmouth.

 And there it is! One of the reasons I chose to write about "The Shuttered Room" is because it's a great example of one of Derleth's great flaws: his fanboyish desire to find a way to connect the disparate parts of Lovecraft's works into a unified whole. Hence, in this story, he finds a way to link "The Dunwich Horror" to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" – in addition to extensive borrowings, references, and allusions to many, many HPL stories and ideas. "The Shuttered Room" is thus a showcase of Derleth's almost adolescent adoration of Lovecraft.

And yet, for all of that, it's not a terrible story. Indeed, it's cleverer than one might imagine, since the story's revelations about Abner's grandfather, Aunt Sarey, and why the mill section of the house must be destroyed are not quite what you might expect. Indeed, Derleth almost comes close to offering an inversion of and commentary upon "The Dunwich Horror." At the very least, this isn't a simple retelling of his favorite Lovecraft tale, which sets its apart from much of his other contributions to the Mythos.

This isn't to say that "The Shuttered Room" is a great work, but it's nevertheless engaging in a predictable sort of way – the literary equivalent of "comfort food." It's also the kind of story that hits home, I think, just how much Call of Cthulhu and contemporary "Lovecraftian" media owes to Derleth. "The Shuttered Room" is not a story HPL himself could have written, but it could easily be the basis for a CoC scenario, an episode of The X-Files, or a Stuart Gordon movie. Sometimes, that's enough.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Erol Otus Webstore

Several of you have sent me a link to the official Erol Otus webstore, where the celebrated old school RPG illustrator is now selling a small selection of products featuring his artwork, including the T-shirt above. With luck, more products will become available in the future, though a lot depends, I suppose, on what rights Otus might have retained of his TSR era pieces.