Monday, July 31, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Haunter of the Dark

In the last post of this series, I looked at Robert Bloch's "The Shambler from the Stars," both because it's a decent story in its own right and because it was intended by its author as a darkly humorous homage to his friend and mentor, H.P. Lovecraft. HPL was apparently quite taken with the story, so much so, in fact, that he took up the gauntlet thrown by his youthful colleague, producing a sequel of sorts, in which he exacts his literary revenge. Entitled "The Haunter of the Dark," the story would first appear in the December 1936 issue of the Unique Magazine. It would also be his last story to appear in print before his death the following March.

The tale concerns a young writer of weird fiction, Robert Blake, whose name is a none too subtle evocation of Bloch's own. Blake is also intended to be the nameless narrator of "The Shambler from the Stars," a fact Lovecraft makes clear on multiple occasions in his own story. After the unfortunate events of the previous yarn, Blake has returned to Providence, Rhode Island and taken up residence in "the upper floor of a venerable dwelling in a grassy court off College Street." From his window, Blake can see – and becomes fascinated by – "a certain huge, dark church."

It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky. It seemed to rest on especially high ground; for the grimy facade, and the obliquely seen north side with sloping roof and the tops of great pointed windows, rose boldly above the tangle of surrounding ridgepoles and chimney-pots. Peculiarly grim and austere, it appeared to be built of stone, stained and weathered with the smoke and storms of a century and more. 
Blake's fascination is so strong that he spends much of the winter staring at the church, pondering "the far-off, forbidding structure." 

Since the vast windows were never lighted, he knew that it must be vacant. The longer he watched, the more his imagination worked, till at length he began to fancy curious things. He believed that a vague, singular aura of desolation hovered over the place, so that even the pigeons and swallows shunned its smoky eaves. Around other towers and belfries his glass would reveal great flocks of birds, but here they never rested. At least, that is what he thought and set down in his diary. He pointed the place out to several friends, but none of them had even been on Federal Hill or possessed the faintest notion of what the church was or had been.

In late April, Blake finally decides to pay a visit to the church and sneak inside. He finds it to be "in a state of great decrepitude," with "a touch of the dimly sinister" suffusing the place. He also finds "a rotting desk and ceiling-high shelves of mildewed, disintegrating books" whose abhorrent titles he recognizes like the Necronomicon, Liber Ivonis, Cultes des Goules, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and more – hardly the kinds of volumes Blake expects to find in a church!

Even more bizarre were the contents of a room located just below the church's steeple. 

The room, about fifteen feet square, was faintly lighted by four lancet windows, one on each side, which were glazed within their screening of decayed louver-boards. These had been further fitted with tight, opaque screens, but the latter were now largely rotted away. In the centre of the dust-laden floor rose a curiously angled stone pillar some four feet in height and two in average diameter, covered on each side with bizarre, crudely incised, and wholly unrecognisable hieroglyphs. On this pillar rested a metal box of peculiarly asymmetrical form; its hinged lid thrown back, and its interior holding what looked beneath the decade-deep dust to be an egg-shaped or irregularly spherical object some four inches through. 

Inside the metal box was a "four-inch seeming sphere" that

turned out to be a nearly black, red-striated polyhedron with many irregular flat surfaces; either a very remarkable crystal of some sort, or an artificial object of carved and highly polished mineral matter. It did not touch the bottom of the box, but was held suspended by means of a metal band around its centre, with seven queerly designed supports extending horizontally to angles of the box’s inner wall near the top. This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in vague blacknesses told of the presence of consciousness and will.

When, at last, Blake succeeds in looking away from the contents of the box, he notices that nearby there lies a "singular mound of dust" that turns out to be a human skeleton, still wearing the shreds of a man's suit and bearing a reporter's badge for the Providence Telegram newspaper. Also present is "a crumbling leather pocketbook" containing some disjointed handwritten notes. The notes suggest that the Starry Wisdom church was engaged in "devil-worship" involving a "box found in Egyptian ruins." The notes further suggest that the box contained "the Shining Trapezohedron" that "shews them heaven & other worlds" and that, through it, "the Haunter of the Dark tells them secrets." This information is enough for Blake, who, after a phantasmagoric reverie, flees the church.

Naturally, this is only the beginning of Robert Blake's investigations. The remainder of the story depicts the consequences of his having discovered the Shining Trapezohedron. "The Haunter of the Dark," though its plot has implications for the wider world, is a much smaller tale than many of Lovecraft's other efforts. The focus remains largely on Blake and what happens to him because of his unbound curiosity about the Starry Wisdom church. Readers looking for anything larger in scope might be disappointed, but I feel its more limited parameters gives the story an almost intimate feel that is often lacking in HPL's earlier stories. Perhaps that's because Lovecraft wrote it as an homage to a correspondent and friend, elevating it, if only a little, above a mere tale of cosmic horror. In any event, "The Haunter of the Dark" is suspenseful and well worth reading.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Slow and Steady

My House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign began in early March 2015 with six players. Eight years later, there are now seven players, four of whom have been there since the beginning. However, because of EPT's unusual approach to experience points and leveling, the rate at which these characters have advanced has been slow, even though most of them have taken part in more than 300 sessions. Indeed, until our most recent session, there was only a single character who'd reached the lofty heights of 7th level – and he only did so through the use of a magical tome (EPT's equivalent to the manual of puissant skill at arms).

That all changed this week. The characters all received a fairly large sum of experience points, thanks largely to their battles against high hit dice monsters (100 XP per HD according to the rules). This sum pushed two characters across the line into 7th level and brought several others closer to that mark. One of the newly minted 7th-level characters is Grujúng hiZnáyu, played by cartographer extraordinaire, Dyson Logos. Dyson celebrates this milestone briefly on his own blog, which is where the image above originally appeared (that's Grujúng's actual character sheet, in case anyone's interested).

About a year ago, I pondered the question of whether advancement rules are even necessary in RPGs, based on my experience of refereeing House of Worms all these years. I suppose it's inevitable I'd ponder it again after this past week's session. My feeling remains that, while it's not absolutely necessary that characters mechanically advance in a roleplaying game, it is important that they advance in some way. In the House of Worms campaign, for example, the characters have advanced socially over the course of time, gaining new ranks and positions within Tsolyáni society, as well as the prestige and influence that goes with such advances. That higher hit points or more spells were among the benefits they gained didn't matter for the most part. What did matter is that the players could see their successes had positive consequences for their characters, however they were quantified.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

85 Years Ago

On this date in 1938, Ernest Gary Gygax was born. No one reading this blog needs to be told who he was or why he holds such an importance place in the history of our shared hobby. Nevertheless, I thought it appropriate to briefly mark the anniversary of his birth by sharing of a photograph of Gygax that I've always liked. It's a wonderfully whimsical and lighthearted image that gives us a little glimpse of the man who, whatever his other virtues and flaws, truly loved games. In a 2004 interview with GameSpy, Gygax said as much about himself:

"I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else."

And that is how I shall remember him, especially today. Thanks for decades of fun, Mr Gygax. The world – not to mention my own life – is better for your having been in it. 

Splitting the Party

Within a few years of my entrance into the hobby, my friends and I were playing a wide range of different RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons remained our staple, of course, but we also regularly played other games. Playing those other games not only cleansed our palates genre-wise, but also medium-wise. For example, Champions and Marvel Super Heroes, being inspired by the medium of comic books, both included game mechanics intended to emulate the kinds of things you'd see in the sequential storytelling of those four-color magazines. Consequently, when we played those RPGs, we made an effort to do so in a way that mimicked the action we'd see in issues of our favorite DC or Marvel titles. I'm not sure we did this consciously. More likely, it was simply something that seemed right, given how clearly (and explicitly, in the case of Marvel Super Heroes) these games modeled themselves after their source material.

This mindset carried over into other RPGs, too. One that sticks very firmly in my mind – and that's relevant to the larger topic I want to discuss in this post – is Star Trek the Role Playing Game. As I've no doubt said too many times before, Star Trek was my original fandom, the gateway through which I entered more solidly into the wider world of nerdery. When FASA published their RPG adaptation of the TV series in 1982, I snapped it up immediately and ran the game almost non-stop over the course of several years in the mid-80s. Though the rules of the game made some effort to model the conventions of the show – the starship combat system is perhaps the most successful instance of this – they weren't as strongly wedded to emulation of that kind as were the superhero roleplaying games I mentioned above.

Even so, my friends and I, as if by suggestion, tried to replicate the beats of the 1966 Star Trek series as best we could in play. One of the ways I attempted this – I say "I," because I was almost always the referee – could be seen in my handling of landing parties. In our sessions, as in the television program, characters would sometimes split up, with some of them remaining aboard ship, while others transported down to the planet it was orbiting. The two groups would stay in communication with one another, conveying useful information back in forth, but there were often times when they were out of contact for short or extended periods of time. Occasionally, the lack of communication between ship and landing party was a major plot point, with each group of characters having to deal with a problem in isolation, with only part of the overall picture available to them. 

This set-up makes for good drama and I thought it'd make for good roleplaying too, especially since my friends and I were all fairly committed to bringing our sessions in line with the TV show. In those days, we regularly played in the basement of the home of two brothers. In sessions where one group of characters beamed down to a planet and another stayed in orbit, I'd physically separate them, sending one group upstairs to the living room or kitchen, while leaving the other in the basement. I'd shuttle back and forth between each group, handling their current situation in isolation. When they communicated with each other, I'd allow a player from one group to go to the other and they'd exchange information, as if they were using a communicator. This approach, while it slowed down play and involved a lot of running back and forth on my part, was often quite effective. I can still recall several sessions where the ignorance of one group of characters about the activities of the other led to memorable moments of roleplaying (and humor). Nowadays, I could probably handle this much more easily and effectively with technology unavailable to us in the 1980s. 

Ironically, in my House of Worms campaign, the characters recently found themselves in a situation where I could have made use of a technological solution – and I didn't do so. While exploring a mysterious location, the characters came across a large, pillar-like object with multiple open apertures leading inside. After some experimentation to determine that it was probably safe, several of them entered and all found themselves in a different place. As some of them eventually discovered, the pillar was a device of the Ancients called a superposition enclosure and it was being used to hold an Undying Wizard called Getúkmetèk prisoner. Each of the characters who entered found himself in a separate reality in which he experienced a possible past/present/future where he had achieved some goal he greatly desired. Meanwhile, there were several characters outside the superposition enclosure, none of whom had any idea what was going inside it.

Bear in mind that House of Worms has been, since its inception in 2015, an entirely online game. We use Discord for voice chat and the campaign's server could easily accommodate separate voice channels into which I could separate all the characters so that their players would have no idea what was happening elsewhere. I didn't do this, however, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it, I suspect, is that I was simply lazy. Unlike my teenage self, the thought of popping back and forth between voice channels seemed like too much work, even though the end result might have been dramatically effective. Part of it, too, is that I worry about players losing focus while I tended to a player segregated in his own channel. As I have been running it, all the players have the chance to hear what's happening to their comrades, even if their characters do not. That keeps everyone engaged and, more than once, hearing the reactions of the players to things their characters do not know was positively delightful.

Does anyone reading this have any experiences with this sort of thing? Have you ever split up players in this fashion and, if so, how did it turn out? I'm quite curious to know how others have done it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Polyhedron: Issue #2

Issue #2 of the soon-to-be named RPGA Newsletter (Autumn 1981) features a cover illustration by Stephen D. Sullivan, depicting an unfortunate encounter with a bathing nymph. Sullivan tends to be forgotten as a TSR artist, probably because his contemporaries, like Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and Bill Willingham, all loom larger in our collective memories of the late '70s and early 1980s. Consequently, I always enjoy seeing his artwork and being reminded that, yes, TSR did in fact employ other illustrators at that time.

"Dispel Confusion" continues, though this time all the questions pertain to AD&D and are answered by Gary Gygax. Whenever I read columns like this, I'm always struck by just how different my own early experiences of roleplaying games must have been compared to those of others. Undoubtedly my friends and I were doing it wrong, but we rarely focused on the minutiae of rules interpretation and, on those occasions when we did, we never even considered the possibility of asking TSR for an "official" clarification. I've always played RPGs in a rather fast and loose fashion, trusting in common sense and on-the-fly judgment to fill in any gaps. Call me weird.

Speaking of Gygax, the second part of the interview begun in the previous issue appears here. As with the previous installment, this one is quite interesting, particularly for those of us interested in the history of the hobby. For example, Gygax talks a little bit about his work on AD&D module T2, which, of course, he never finished himself, handing it over instead to Frank Mentzer. He also mentions "the plane modules I want to do. I want to do the elemental planes, para-elemental planes, demi-planes and semi-planes, and demi-semi-planes, et cetera ..." Of all the D&D products that never were, my own thoughts drift most often toward Gygax's planar modules and supplements. I would have loved to see what he'd have done with the concept, since, from other statements he made over the years, it's clear he saw the planes as the playground of high-level characters in AD&D and that sounds terrific.

Mike Carr's "Dawn Patrol Preview" focuses on the creation of pilots for use with the upcoming game of World War I aerial combat. It's basically a two-page excerpt from the soon-to-be-published game, hoping to generate interest in it. Much more interesting is "How to Create Monsters for D&D® Basic and Expert Games" by Jean Wells. Wells explains that, because D&D, unlike AD&D, has comparatively few monsters, referees are likely to want to create new ones, but there's a lot to consider when doing so. She then devotes a nearly two-page article discussing various aspects of D&D monster design as she creates a new monster step-by-step. I like articles that balance the theoretical with the practical and this one does that nicely. It's also a reminder that Jean Wells was a much better designer and writer than she's often given credit for.

"Turnbull Talking" is a reprint of a short article by Don Turnbull, head of TSR UK at the time, in which he talks – rambles is perhaps more accurate – about the growth and development of the larger hobby. It's really a space filler rather than a substantial article. On the other hand, "Mutants: A Representative Sample of the Weak Ones" by James M. Ward is quite meaty. Ward presents a variety of new opponents for use with Gamma World. Despite the title, not all of these opponents are mutants, nor are they in any sense "weak." All, however, are imaginative and make me wish that, during his time at TSR, Ward had produced more support material for Gamma World. It is a mystery to me why he did not.

Also included in the issue is a RPGA Gift Catalog, featuring many of the items listed here. To this day, I wish I'd bought the "fighters wheel" gadget. "Notes for the Dungeon Master" includes more tricks and traps for use by the referee in his dungeons, as submitted by Polyhedron readers. It's amazing to me how many of these tricks are intended to foil or frustrate mapping – a reminder, I think, of just how important good cartography was in the early days of D&D. "Top Secret Transmissions" by Allen Hammack talks a bit about the popularity of "commando raid" missions for Top Secret, in part because of how much players enjoy loading their characters up with lots of weaponry. What Hammack says is true in my own experience and may go some way toward explaining why espionage RPGs have never been as popular as the books and movies that inspired them.

This issue's installment of "Rocksnoz" by Tom Wham is not a comic but rather a bit of background about the setting of the comic itself. Wham explains that, "in this very universe, before the last big bang, there was a world very similar to ours." This world, called Nidd, was inhabited by intelligent beings called "huemans." Despite its similarity to Earth, on Nidd "no chemicals combine to make gunpowder, and nuclear weapons are impossible. To make up for this deficiency, the denizens of Nidd have turned to magic." It's an odd little article but a strangely fascinating one, if only to see into the mind of Wham and his conception of fantasy. Finally, there's "The RPGA Scoring System," which lays out recent changes to the way that the RPGA evaluates players and DMs in its tournaments. Since I'm unfamiliar with the original system, I can't say this article held much interest for me, but it's probably of interest to those looking into the history of organized play.

Issue #2 of Polyhedron predates the years when I subscribed to it, so much of what's in it is new to me. What's most notable about it is its roughness. Were it not published by TSR and filled with articles by its staff, it'd be hard to tell it apart from a high-end fanzine of the same era. I think that's what's most appealing about it and why I look forward to exploring it over the coming months.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

REVIEW: Black Sword Hack

During the nearly eight years this blog was inactive, I wasn't paying nearly as much attention to the wider old school roleplaying scene as I previously had been. Consequently, quite a number of releases, trends, and fads within this sphere completely passed me by. One of these was The Black Hack, a streamlined class-and-level RPG by David Black, whose first edition appeared in 2016. For a time, I am given to understand, The Black Hack and its design principles were much favored, leading to a proliferation of "Hacks" – Bluehack (for Holmes D&D), The Rad-Hack (Gamma World, etc.), Cthulhu Hack (Call of Cthulhu), even The Petal Hack (Empire of the Petal Throne), among many, many more.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Gamers are as prone to enthusiasms as the next person and I try not to begrudge anyone else their preferences, even if I don't share them. Still, I can't deny that the intensity of the ardor for The Black Hack put me off looking into it for some time. What can I say: I'm prone to contrariness. When I finally did read The Black Hack for myself, I found it more agreeable than I expected, despite my dislike of certain aspects of its design. That's not knock against it, of course; I generally dislike certain aspects of most games' designs. That's more or less the nature of the beast.

That's why Black Sword Hack took me by surprise. I didn't even know it existed until it showed up in my mailbox one day as a complimentary copy sent to me by its publisher, The Merry Mushmen (best known for Knock!). Written by Alexandre "Kobayashi" Jeanette, Black Sword Hack is, in his words, "a dark fantasy roleplaying game inspired (but not limited to) the works of R.E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane series, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar and Jack Vance's Dying Earth books." Being a fan of all those writers and their pulp fantasies, that description certainly got my attention, as did the eye-catching artwork by Goran Gligović, which can be found throughout the full-color, 112-page, A5-sized, hardcover book.

The core rules of Black Sword Hack are simple. A turn is an abstract measure of time, during which time a player character may act. During a time, a character can typically take two actions, such as movement and combat. All actions are resolved by making an attribute test. The goal of a test is to roll under a character's appropriate attribute score with a d20. A roll of 1 is always a critical success, while a roll of 20 is always a critical failure. I must admit that the lower-is-better d20 roll takes some getting used to, since it runs counter to decades of experience as a player of roleplaying games, but otherwise the rules of Black Sword Hack are straightforward.

The game retains the "Usage die" from The Black Hack, but with a twist. For those unfamiliar with it, the Usage die is a way to keep track of resources that have limited quantities, like rations or arrows. Whenever a resource is used, the die is rolled and, if the result is 1 or 2, the die "degrades" to the next die type (e.g. d8 becomes d6) until d4 is reached and 1 or 2 is rolled, at which point the resource is completely depleted. Black Sword Hack does not employ the Usage die for concrete resources, but only for abstract ones, like influence, debts, etc. Further, there is the Doom die, a type of Usage die that represents "the attention of Law and Chaos" on the characters. It's rolled whenever the character critically fails and under certain other specific conditions. Once the Doom die is depleted, the character makes all his tests and damage rolls with Disadvantage (i.e. rolling two dice and taking the lowest result).

While the D&D pedigree of Black Sword Hack (and The Black Hack on which it is based) is readily apparent (STR, DEX, CON, etc.), the game is class-less, placing greater emphasis on a character's origin (barbarian, civilized, or decadent) and background (berserker, diplomat, assassin, etc.). This provides a looser mechanical framework for characters, in keeping with the wide range of possible dark fantasy settings the referee might create (more on this in a bit). Characters can also acquire "gifts" – powers of Balance, Chaos, or Law – in addition to sorcery, faerie ties, twisted science, and runic weapons. As characters gain experience, they accrue more abilities and hit points, but a high-level Black Sword Hack character is much less robust than a D&D character of similar level. Consequently, combat is much more fraught with danger, which makes sense, given its literary inspirations.

Where Black Sword Hack really shines, though, is its world building tools. Approximately half the book is devoted to the referee – more if you include its sample bestiary. The game assumes the referee will create his own setting, one dominated by the struggle between Law and Chaos, as in Moorcock and Anderson's fantasies. There are tables and examples to aid him in deciding on the nature of the struggle and how it manifests in the setting, along numerous adventure seeds, two adventure, and the sketch of an entire city. There's even a sketch of a setting, complete with a map, to show one way to make use of the world building tools.

A conceit of the referee section is that any setting the referee designs will inevitably include certain stock locales – Forbidden City, Amber Enclave, Merchant League, Northern Raiders, etc. These are not just tropes from dark fantasy fiction but perhaps also eternal archetypes that reappear throughout the multiverse. Creating a setting for Black Sword Hack involves drawing a map and placing all these locales onto it somewhere and then fleshing out the details through play and the judicious use of random tables provided in the book. It's a clever approach and one that genuinely helps guide the referee in a useful way. The same goes, I think, with the bestiary, which includes plenty of archetypal enemies – demons, cannibals, serpent people – to spark the imagination, while still providing the tools needed to create unique and original antagonists.

If Black Sword Hack has a flaw, it's its looseness. Some players and referees may find its relative lack of concern for considering every possibility, whether in the rules or its myriad settings, disappointing. If you prefer something more defined, even concrete, you're better off with other options. Black Sword Hack revels in its light, almost freeform, rules and malleable setting elements and that won't be to everyone's taste. But as someone who's come to realize that my own preferences tend toward simple, flexible rules with lots of room for filling in the details as I go, this is right up my alley. When I get around to running that Stormbringer campaign of my dreams, there's no question in my mind that I'll be using Black Sword Hack. Perhaps others will like it too.

Black Sword Hack is available directly from the Merry Mushmen website in either print or PDF form.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Elemental Honorifics II

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about the honorifics associated with the five primordial elements of the sha-Arthan. In the time since, I've been further developing these aspects of the setting, including their visual representation. Thanks to the talents of Zhu Bajiee, who's already provided me with so much evocative artwork, I now have glyphs for each of the elements, as shown below. 

The glyphs derive from the Exalted Speech of the Makers that is also employed in sorcery and alchemy. Whenever an honorific is used in certain languages (e.g. Onha), the glyph is appended to the start of the word, like so:
From a gameplay perspective, none of this matters in the slightest. It's purely a linguistic/graphical indulgence on my part, but I like it, because it's helped me to nail down the look and feel of sha-Arthan. That's not nothing, especially in a science fantasy setting that strays from the conventions of vanilla fantasy.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Into the Megadungeon

Ben Laurence over at Mazirian's Garden is working on a podcast called Into the Megadungeon that will explore the ins and outs of refereeing a megadungeon-focused fantasy roleplaying game campaign. The first episode will be released on Tuesday, August 8, and will feature yours truly talking about both my Dwimmerount megadungeon of old and the Vaults of da-Imer megadungeon that I'm slowly constructing as part of Dungeon23

Additional episodes will be released on biweekly basis. Ben intends to produce 10 episodes as part of the first season of the podcast, with each episode featuring a different referee who's created and refereed a megadungeon campaign for an extended period of time. I have no idea how long he can keep the podcast going – I doubt Ben does either – but I think it's a worthy topic and I look forward to listening to the episodes as they're released.

Polyhedron: Issue #1

Polyhedron was the newsletter of the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA), TSR's official "club" for players of its various RPG offerings. When the first issue appeared during the summer of 1981, it wasn't called Polyhedron yet but rather the much more banal "RPGA News." A contest to give it a proper name is mentioned, but it will be several more issues before the winner is announced. Darlene provided an original illustration for the cover, one of several provided in issue #1 by her and other early TSR artists, like Greg Bell, Jeff Dee, Dave LaForce, and Erol Otus. 

Polyhedron is notable for, among other things, providing Frank Mentzer with a regular soapbox from which to preach, since he was Polyhedron's inaugural editor. Mentzer was later responsible for the revision of the Dungeons & Dragons line, starting in 1983. That version of the game, consisting of the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals boxed sets, was reputedly the best-selling one of its first quarter-century, and remains much beloved by generations of players. However, it was through his association with the RPGA and Polyhedron that Mentzer first made a name for himself.

The newsletter's first issue opens with a "letters page," an odd choice since, as Mentzer admits, "there were no letters to the editor" yet. Instead, he presents "a few incomplete comments plus one letter from the DRAGON™ files." Most of these "incomplete comments" are mere ephemera, but one of them is longer and worth discussing. Its unnamed author (known only as "DB" from Montgomery, Alabama) offers up a house rule from his home AD&D campaign. Mentzer reply is as follows:
Concern about AD&D rules variants started to become commonplace in official TSR circles around this time, with "international tournament stability" (or similar things) being offered as an explanation of the company's skepticism toward them. This stance would harden as the years wore on, with Gary Gygax taking up the cause through his own soapbox in the pages of Dragon.

"Dispel Confusion" was Polyhedron's version of "Sage Advice," offering official answers to rules queries about TSR's RPGs. Initially, this column differed from "Sage Advice" in that there was no single author. Instead, Polyhedron tapped multiple TSR designers for answers. In this issue, the designers are Lawrence Schick, David Cook, and Harold Johnson, but I suspect future issues will see different ones included in the roster.

The issue devotes four pages to a lengthy and genuinely interesting interview with Gary Gygax. The interview is wide ranging, so it'd be impossible to do it justice with a short summary. Previously, I've covered a couple of portions of it on this blog, so I'd recommend talking a look at those posts for a glimpse into the kinds of things Gygax says. I'll probably return to the interview again in the future to highlight other sections of note. Suffice it to say that, as with all Gygax interviews, it's a mix of truths, half-truths, and dissimulations – absolutely fascinating stuff but it must be approached with some degree of suspicion.

"The Fastest Guns That Never Lived" by Brian Blume, with Allen Hammack, Gary Gygax, and Tim Kask is an article for Boot Hill. Its title riffs off a section in the game's rulebook, "Fastest Guns That Ever Lived Chart," which provides statistics for historical gunfighters from the Old West. By contrast, the article provides stats for fictional characters from Western media, like the Lone Ranger, Bret Maverick, and Ben Cartwright, as well as composite stats for actors who portrayed a number of different characters. It's a fun little article and the kind of thing that aficionados of Westerns can argue about. In case anyone cares, Clint Eastwood's characters have the highest Gun Accuracy rating (+22), closely followed by those of Lee Van Cleef (+21). 

"Notes for the Dungeon Master" is a collection of eleven short descriptions of "really good, relatively unknown trick[s] or trap[s]" for use with Dungeons & Dragons. As with all such articles, how much one enjoys it depends heavily on one's tastes and experience. For me, the descriptions are all fine but not phenomenal. "The Fight in the Skies Game" by Mike Carr is a brief overview of the World War I aerial combat game that would soon be revised as Dawn Patrol. "An Open Letter to Frank Mentzer" by Merle Rasmussen is similar, if much shorter, in that it's mostly a plug for Top Secret and its continuing support by TSR.

"Gen Con® South Report" is, as its title suggests, a report of events at TSR's convention in Jacksonville, Florida earlier in 1981. I sometimes forget that, once upon a time, there are a number of reginal Gen Cons, though none of them survived past the '80s so far as I know. The article focuses primarily on the results of tournaments at the con. However, it does include a photo of the top winner, Matthew Rupp and his fellow gamers, which I found very charming.
The last article is "Gamma World Science Fantasy – A Role Playing Game with a Difference" by James A. [sic] Ward. Like the previous articles on Dawn Patrol and Top Secret, this one is simply a plug for Gamma World and its upcoming support by TSR. It's fine, but then I have an inordinate fondness for Gamma World (and the decades-long, unfulfilled promises of a revision of Metamorphosis Alpha compatible with it). Closing out the issue is a full-page comic by Tom Wham called "Rocksnoz in the Land of Nidd." If you're a fan of Mr Wham's work, you'll likely enjoy this one too. I'd never seen it before, so it was definitely a treat for me.

There you have it: issue #1 of Polyhedron and the start of a new series of retrospectives on a gaming periodical of yore. I suspect this series will not run as long as my previous one on White Dwarf, because I have access to fewer issues and because (due to its not being monthly until very late in its run) there are simply fewer issues to review. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to this one, if only as a dose of nostalgia for my days as a TSR fanboy

Monday, July 17, 2023

REVIEW: The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams

Roleplaying games set in the past of the real world, whether played straight or including an element of the fantastical, have always been hard sells. A big reason for this, I think, is that gamers, even well-read ones with access to the vast store of information that is the Internet, often lack for practical resources to support play in past ages. By "practical resources," I mean the kinds of things that RPGs with wholly imaginary settings include without a second thought, like appropriate equipment lists, details about law and order, information about society and culture – or maps.

Now, maps might seem like a small thing, perhaps even a relatively unimportant one. After all, we all know what a castle or a mansion or a church looks like, right? Even assuming that's true – which experience has taught me it is not – the matter isn't as simple as it might appear, especially when you're dealing with locales within a specific time and place. One might know what a mansion house looks like in, say, England during the 1920s, but what about the 1820s? What about a mansion house in France or Germany or the United States? With enough qualifiers and specificity, the questions become a lot more vexed and the work of the referee much more onerous.

Enter The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams (hereafter simply Works) by Glynn Seal. Written for and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it's a beautifully made – and supremely useful – 126-page hardcover volume consisting of nearly 100 maps of 17th-century buildings and sailing vessels from Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the New World. The book's framing device, as presented in its introduction, is that the maps were all made by the Englishman John Benjamin Williams in 1674. Williams was employed as a cartographer and architect by the Staffortonshire Trading Company, a vocation that took all across the globe, from England to North America to Europe and into the Ottoman Empire and beyond. During his time with the trading company, Williams also acted as a spy for English crown, thereby providing an explanation for some of the more unusual places he visited – and created maps for – during his travels. 

The included maps are quite varied, covering fairly mundane locations (shops, houses, churches), more socially sophisticated ones (mansions, colleges, palaces), highly specialized ones (ships, water mill, lighthouse), and the truly unusual (cockfighting theater, mineshaft, whaling station). Furthermore, a number of singular locations also receive attention, such as Dudley Castle, the Kremlin, the Palais de Tuileries, and the Jamestown settlement of colonial Virginia. As you can see, the locales are remarkably diverse, both in terms of purpose and geography. There's naturally a heavy focus on western Europe, with England and France predominating, but that doesn't in any way detract from the utility of this book to anyone playing or refereeing a game set in the 17th century.

All of the maps include a key and a scale and many of them also include an illustration depicting the building or vessel. These illustrations are as useful as the maps themselves, since they serve as visualization aids – something that's very important in historical RPGs in my experience. After all, it's one thing to know what a generic mansion or church looks like, but what did such things look like in the 1600s? Beyond that, these illustrations include significant additional details, like the materials used in their construction, which adds to the sense of time and place that are vital to the success of historical roleplaying game adventures. 

Of course, this attention to detail should come as no surprise. Glynn Seal, the author and cartographer of Works, has previously produced numerous fantasy RPG products whose maps are similarly detailed and useful. Likewise, Lamentations of the Flame Princess products are always exceptionally well made, with superb paper quality and binding. This one is no exception, featuring as it does thick, parchment like paper that adds to the illusion that this is a book from the 17th century. Merely as an artifact, Works is a joy to hold and peruse. That it's also so useful to players and referees of any RPG set in the 17th century, only increases its value.

The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams is available in both print and PDF formats. If you're interested in seeing what the interior of the book looks like, Glynn Seal has provided lots of photographs and a helpful video here.


Though my series of White Dwarf retrospectives is complete, I continue to examine the advertisements that appeared in the magazines. I do this partly out of pure nostalgia – I enjoy being reminded of important RPG releases from my youth – but I also do it because, as a UK periodical, WD regularly had advertisements I never saw elsewhere. 

A good case in point is one for TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game. The ad consisted of the front page of The Daily Bugle, featuring several headlines and news articles. One of them is entitled "Mayor's Visitors Are Not Cannibals," which I've reproduced below.

What's fascinating about the "story" above is that it contains only a handful of intelligible words, with the rest of its text consisting of "blah," "harrumph," and "rhubarb" written over and over. "Rhubarb," for those who don't know, is the UK equivalent to the American "walla," a word repeated over and over again by extras in order to mimic the murmur of conversation by a crowd. Its appearance here is quite funny to me, since it's being used in written form to fill out the text of an imaginary article in an advertisement rather than as audio filler.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shambler from the Stars

Robert Bloch's youthful friendship with H.P. Lovecraft is an important and well-known part of his biography. It was Lovecraft, after all, who not only encouraged him in his early efforts at writing fiction but who also introduced him to his circle of friends and colleagues, like August Derleth, Clask Ashton Smith, and Donald Wandrei, many of whom would, in turn, play significant roles in his subsequent growth as a writer. Despite this, it was HPL whom Bloch most admired and whom he considered his true mentor, so much so that news of Lovecraft's death in 1937 came as "a shattering blow" that caused him much distress. 

Ironically, less than two years earlier, in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales, Bloch jokingly killed Lovecraft – or rather his fictional avatar – in a short story entitled "The Shambler from the Stars." The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator living in Milwaukee who is attempting to make a living as "a writer of weird fiction." However, we soon learn that the narrator is not a very good writer.

My first attempts soon convinced me how utterly I had failed. Sadly, miserably, I fell short of my aspired goal. My vivid dreams became on paper merely meaningless jumbles of ponderous adjectives, and I found no ordinary words to express the wondrous terror of the unknown. My first manuscripts were miserable and futile documents; the few magazines using such material being unanimous in their rejections.

Bloch is poking fun at himself and his own early efforts to become a writer after the fashion of his idol, H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, what makes this story so charming are its passion and its sincerity. It seems quite clear to me that Bloch is using "The Shambler from the Stars" to tell, in fictional and darkly humorous form, the story of his struggles to become a journeyman writer of the weird.

I wanted to write a real story; not the stereotyped, ephemeral sort of tale I turned out for the magazines, but a real work of art. The creation of such a masterpiece became my ideal. I was not a good writer, but that was not entirely due to my errors in mechanical style. It was, I felt, the fault of my subject matter. Vampires, werewolves, ghouls, logical monsters—these things constituted material of little merit. Commonplace imagery, ordinary adjectival treatment, and a prosaically anthropocentric point of view were the chief detriments to the production of a really good weird tale.

I must have new subject matter, truly unusual plot material. If only I could conceive of something utterly ultra-mundane, something truly macrocosmic, something that was teratologically incredible!

I longed to learn the songs the demons sing as they swoop between the stars, or hear the voices of the olden gods as they whisper their secrets to the echoing void. I yearned to know the terrors of the grave; the kiss of maggots on my tongue, the cold caress of a rotting shroud upon my body. I thirsted for the knowledge that lies in the pits of mummied eyes, and burned for wisdom known only to the worm. Then I could really write, and my hopes be truly realized.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I find the above paragraphs quite moving – and beautiful. They speak eloquently of the insatiable, almost destructive, drive felt by anyone who's ever desired to create something of last value. In the case of the story's narrator, the drive soon proves to be destructive indeed. He seeks out "correspondence with isolated thinkers and dreamers all over the country to aid him in his quest for "something utterly ultra-mundane" to serve as the basis for the "real story" he longed to write.

There was a hermit in the western hills, a savant in the northern wilds, a mystic dreamer in New England. It was from the latter that I learned of the ancient books that hold strange lore. He quoted guardedly from the legendary Necronomicon, and spoke timidly of a certain Book of Eibon that was reputed to surpass it in the utter wildness of its blasphemy. He himself had been a student of these volumes of primal dread, but he did not want me to search too far. He had heard many strange things as a boy in witch-haunted Arkham, where the old shadows still leer and creep, and since then he had wisely shunned the blacker knowledge of the forbidden.

 Again, Bloch draws on his own life, fictionalizing his correspondence with Lovecraft and the role the Old Gent played, metaphorically, in opening his eyes to the "strange lore" and "primal dread" of the universe. The New England dreamer provides the unnamed narrator with "the names of certain persons" he thought helpful to his quest. Unfortunately, none of these contacts, whether "universities, private libraries, reputed seers, and the leaders of carefully hidden and obscurely designated cults" was willing to aid him. Their replies to his queries "definitely unfriendly, almost hostile" and he almost abandons all hope of ever learning anything "truly macrocosmic" on which to draw for his weird fiction.

The narrator does not give up, however. He travels to Chicago and finds "a little old shop on South Dearborn Street," which contains "a great black volume with iron facings." The book bears the title De Vermis Mysteriis – "Mysteries of the Worm" – and was written by a Belgian sorcerer named Ludvig Prinn. Though a truly "phenomenal find," as it is precisely the kind of blasphemous tome his New England correspondent recommended he seek out, the narrator cannot read it, because its contents are entirely in Latin, a language he could not understand. So close and yet so far!

For a moment I despaired, since I was unwilling to approach any local classical or Latin scholar in connection with so hideous and blasphemous a text. Then came an inspiration. Why not take it east and seek the aid of my friend? He was a student of the classics, and would be less likely to be shocked by the horrors of Prinn's baleful revelations. Accordingly I addressed a hasty letter to him, and shortly thereafter received my reply. He would be glad to assist me—I must by all means come at once.

It should come as no surprise to learn that his meeting with his correspondent at his home – in Providence, Rhode Island, no less! – does not go well, particularly for his correspondent, as I mentioned at the start of this post. Nevertheless, Bloch does a creditable job of holding the reader's attention as he describes the inevitable disaster that unfolds when the two men finally meet in person – a meeting that never occurred in the case of Bloch and Lovecraft, I should add, to the former's lifelong regret. 

Much like Derleth's "The Lamp of Alhazred," "The Shambler from the Stars" serves as a tribute to Lovecraft and his role in fostering the career of a younger contemporary. As a result, the grisly demise of his literary stand-in was intended affectionately, which exactly how HPL did take it. In fact, Lovecraft was so taken with Bloch's yarn that he would pen a sequel, "The Haunter of the Dark," that would appear a little over a year later and be the very last original story he'd ever write.

Friday, July 14, 2023

I Hate Shopping

If there's one aspect of roleplaying games that I intensely dislike, it's buying equipment. In general, I find it a dreary waste of time and avoid it whenever possible, both as a player and as a referee. This is especially true in the case of science fiction RPGs, where the range of potential purchases is generally vastly greater than that available in a fantasy game (though there are, of course, exceptions) – as is the pain I suffer when having to endure it. 

I was reminded of my loathing for this aspect of gaming last weekend during the latest session of the otherwise thoroughly enjoyable Traveller campaign in which I am playing. Currently, there's a slight lull in the action, as the characters prepare to leave the planet on which they've been adventuring and head off to another one. Since the planet in question is both highly populated and technologically advanced, thoughts naturally turned toward the acquisition of additional gear. This led to the majority of the evening spent with players' noses in their copies of the Central Supply Catalogue, scouring it for every last bit of equipment that might give their characters an edge in future.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the evening reading a book at my desk, waiting for the pain to end. Occasionally, a fellow player would suggest to me a piece of equipment that he thought my character ought to buy and I'd briefly look up from my book to investigate the matter in my own copy of the CSC before deciding that I lacked sufficient interest in the fine gradations of high-tech weaponry to care. Further, there's the fact that the Mongoose Traveller rules, while more than adequate to the task, have added a little more complexity to equipment statistics than I like. 

For example, a friend suggested that my character, a retired Army officer skilled in the use of heavy weapons, get a plasma gun, which first becomes available at the tech level of the planet on which we currently found ourselves. However, a plasma gun has the "very bulky" trait, which means my character must wear battle dress to use it effectively. Alas, my character lacks training in battle dress. "No problem," says, another friend, "You can add gyroscopic stabilization to the gun to reduce it to merely 'bulky,' which negates the need for battle dress in exchange for a penalty to the attack roll." I counter that penalty would negate my skill levels in heavy weapons." "True," is the reply, "but the increase in damage compared to your current weapon more than makes up for it." And so it goes throughout the night.

I don't wish to appear petulant, though I suppose that's as good a description as any of my emotional state that evening. The simple truth is that I'm rarely interested in the fine print of game statistics and games that include extensive lists of equipment necessarily add to rules complexity in order to differentiate all the new gear they introduce. That's fine for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but I've never really been one of them. It's rare, in my experience, that these subtle distinctions between types of, say, laser rifles or swords make enough difference in play to justify the extra time spent poring over books to find them. 

Perhaps there's something wrong with me, since a large number of gamers, particularly those who play SFRPGs, love their equipment listings – and indeed entire books of new equipment. I wonder if my having been introduced to the hobby through Holmes Basic, where most weapons do 1d6 damage regardless of size or cost, has warped my mind so that I don't see much value in devoting lots of time to equipment acquisition. Am I alone in feeling this way?

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Trivial Pursuits

The other day a friend of mine whom I have not seen in many years paid a visit and, along with two other friends, we had lunch together. One of those other friends brought with him a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons edition of the game Trivial Pursuit. I think I may have been dimly aware of its existence, but I'd certainly never played it before. I seem to recall that, a couple of years ago(?), Hasbro produced a whole slew of oddly D&D-branded editions of classic boardgames, like Clue and Monopoly, so I'm not at all surprised that there'd be a D&D Trivial Pursuit as well – and, unlike the others, it makes some degree of sense, since D&D certainly has a fair share of trivia associated with it.

That said, I was initially reluctant to participate in the game. As long-time readers know, I have a strong aversion to the lifestyle brandification of everything these days, especially hallowed nerd pastimes. On the other hand, it was all in good fun. Curmudgeon I may be, but even I couldn't permit myself to sneer in the corner while everyone else was enjoying themselves. Furthermore, I was pretty sure I could win, since my brain is jampacked with useless information about Dungeons & Dragons. If I couldn't put that information to good use winning a friendly game in a bar on a Tuesday afternoon, what good was it anyway?

I hadn't played Trivial Pursuit in likely decades. I had forgotten just how tedious it is, with its requirement that a piece has to land on one of the special designated spaces before a player can acquire a "wedge" for the category associated with it. This results in nigh endless wandering around the board until you roll the right number. The D&D version mixes this up a little by introducing the use of more dice – d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 – which allows the player to tailor the range of results and thus (theoretically) make it easier to reach one's desired space on the board. Nevertheless, my friends quickly ruled that a player could get a wedge from any space of the appropriate color. Otherwise, we'd probably have been playing for even longer.

The categories of the trivia were, I think, six in number: history, magic and miscellany, monsters, characters, dungeons and adventures, and cosmology. Like all editions of Trivial Pursuit, they ranged from the truly obscure ("What was the name of the needlepoint company TSR acquired in 1982?") to the blindingly obvious ("What spellcasting class can use create food and drink?"). I naturally did well in the history category, which included lots of questions about the early history of the hobby ("What was the name of Brian Blume's brother?" and "What was the name of the King of the Orcs in the Blackmoor campaign?"). The other categories proved hit or miss for me, since they included an inordinate amount of questions pertaining to 5th Edition – not a shock, I guess, but I know next to nothing about it.

In the end, I did in fact win the game, though it was actually close. I had much more fun than I expected I would and would definitely play it again. In the course of play, I discovered that I know a disturbingly large amount about both the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings. Conversely, I don't know nearly as much about the specifics of magic items and magic spells. I also learned that I should have invested more time in my youth reading D&D novels, because many of the questions in the "characters" category seemed to involve characters who appeared in them. 

As I get older and my memory becomes less acute, I am regularly amazed – disappointed? – by how much I can still remember about trivial things like D&D. For example, I am still capable of recognizing an episode of the original Star Trek series after seeing only its first minute or so, but I sometimes struggle to recall why I've entered a room. It's maddening the way memory works and I imagine it will only get more maddening as my senescence creeps ever closer. Fortunately for me, games like the D&D edition of Trivial Pursuit exist, so I can feel, if only for a little while, that I hadn't wasted my youth by learning all this stuff.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Retrospective: Monstrous Compendium

Though it's not an absolute rule, one of the guiding principles behind my selection of a gaming product for discussion in a Retrospective post is that it was originally published during the first decade of the hobby, which is to say, between 1974 and 1984. Obviously, if you scour the more than 300 entries in this series, you'll find plenty of examples of things published outside that time period, particularly when it comes to companies like TSR, GDW, and Chaosium, all of which published games I continue to hold dear. Nevertheless, I still try to stick to that ten-year period, if only to narrow my range of options.

Every now and then, though, events suggest a subject for a post that is very much beyond the scope of this blog. That happened the other day, as I was re-arranging some shelves and set my eyes upon the oversized white binder of the Monstrous Compendium for AD&D Second Edition. Unlike my copies of the 2e Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, which are within easy reach, the Monstrous Compendium binder is placed up high, buried under a number of other books and boxes. I put it up there a few months ago, after briefly looking at its entry on giant centipedes, which was probably the first time I'd done so in years. 

As I pondered this fact, I started to think that I ought to write a post about the MC, even though it appeared in 1989 and was published for an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I usually don't cover (usually). 2e occupies a strange place in the pantheon of D&D editions. A TSR edition bearing the unmistakable DNA of its more celebrated predecessors, it's rarely mentioned in most discussions of "old school D&D." The reasons for that are many and probably worthy of a separate post (or posts). Suffice it to say that I don't presently have any plans to expand Grognardia's ambit to include much 2e content. However, I do reserve the right to talk about it from time to time, as I have already done, when I think the edition touches on a topic worth discussing.

In the case of the Monstrous Compendium, there are at least a couple of topics worthy of examination. The MC was conceived as a successor to not just the original 1977 Monster Manual but to all the monster books previously published, as well as the sections at the back of many adventure modules that detailed new foes. The Big Idea of the Compendium was that it was tedious, not to mention unwieldy, for the referee to be forced to consult multiple books and supplements in the course of a game session. Wouldn't it be better, went the logic of 2e's designers, if the Dungeon Master only needed to look at the handful of pages containing the game statistics of the monsters he needed for the session?

That's why the Monstrous Compendium consisted of a large binder, complete with cardstock dividers festooned with D&D art. Monster descriptions appeared on loose, three-hole punched sheets that could then be added to the binder. The idea was that, before playing, a referee could simply remove those sheets he needed and leave the rest in the binder, thereby lessening the burden of carrying multiple reference works. As expansions of the MC appeared, each with its own set new loose sheets, they could be added to the binder, too, slotted in alphabetically so that the end result was, if you'll pardon the expression, a truly monstrous compendium of all the game's foes.  

It's frankly a great concept and one that sold me on the Monstrous Compendium sight unseen. Unfortunately, the actual design of the loose sheets left much to be desired. First and foremost, very few monsters have descriptions lengthy enough to occupy both the front and back of a single sheet. This means that, for example, "goblin" is on one side of a sheet and "golem, general" – the first part of a three-page spread – is on the other. While there are a few monsters that do have entries that cover both the front and the back of the same sheet, this is uncommon. This arrangement makes it impossible to add new monsters from expansions into the alphabetical order of the initial release, not to mention undermines the notion that the loose sheets give the referee the ability to choose only those monsters he wishes to use.

Being a lover of order, I can't tell you how much this drove me up a wall. As I said, I was completely sold on the idea of the Monstrous Compendium. Truth be told, I still am. However, as released, it simply did not live up to that promise and indeed worked against it. The situation was only made worse with each new expansion, since my binder grew ever more full with more loose sheets, each of which had to go in its own separate section segregated by one of those cardstock dividers. Eventually, I had to buy additional binders, since I believe TSR only ever released one more of them (with Dragonlance monsters). In the end, I had just as many "books" to lug around as before and these were nowhere near as sturdy as the older AD&D volumes.

This brings me to the second topic I briefly wanted to discuss in relation to this product: the ever-greater commodification of D&D (and RPGs more generally). One of the "problems" with roleplaying games, from the point of view of their publishers anyway, is that, once one owns the basic rules material, there's never any need to buy anything more. That's why, since fairly early on in the history of the hobby, publishers have contrived ways to extract more money from players. I suspect that the design of the Monstrous Compendium was at least partially intended as a way to get players to buy more stuff – regular updates and expansions, more binders, etc. 

That intention was hampered by the shortsighted design of the MC itself, resulting in TSR's eventual abandonment of it with the release of a hardcover volume called the Monstrous Manual in 1993, followed by a number of softcover appendices to it in the years that followed. I'm amazed that TSR didn't course correct sooner than this, but the management of AD&D in the '90s was haphazard at the best of times. It's a shame, because, as I noted earlier, I think a more "user friendly" approach to monsters has a certain appeal. Alas, the Monstrous Compendium did not provide that approach, which is why it remains, to this day, one of the most disappointing D&D products I've ever bought.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

White Dwarf: Final Thoughts

Having come to the end of my look back at the first 80 issues of White Dwarf last week, I thought, before launching a new series, I'd offer some final thoughts on the UK's most successful and influential "games monthly."

As I noted in my original retrospective on White Dwarf almost fifteen(!) years ago, I was an irregular reader of the magazine during my youth. I'd pick up an issue here or there, as I could find them and subscribed to it between 1983 and '85, but I was never as devoted to White Dwarf as I was to Dragon during my formative years in the hobby. Consequently, until I'd made the effort to work my way through its first 80 issues for this series, I can't honestly say that I had a truly good sense of White Dwarf' and its place in the history of the hobby. With the benefit of my recent education, I know a little better, though still in a slightly more "academic" way than those of you, both in Britain and elsewhere, who experienced the magazine in its original run. 

I'm left with three insights I'd like to share. The first is a direct result of my having grown up on the other side of the Atlantic, namely, that White Dwarf was a window on another part of the hobby that I otherwise would never have seen. Hard as it is to remember now, given the speed and ease of contemporary telecommunications, the world of the late '70s and early '80s was much more divided and diverse. Certainly, there were global fads and trends, but they took longer to spread and, even when they did, they often manifested in unique ways in each country where they took hold. This is something I genuinely miss about the past, especially when compared to bland corporate slurry that predominates in so many fields today.

White Dwarf revealed to me, growing up in suburban Baltimore, Maryland, what roleplaying was like in Great Britain. I was frequently surprised not merely by the differences in content – the preponderance of RuneQuest articles during the time I was a subscriber, for example – but also by the differences in subject matter and presentation. White Dwarf's artwork was utterly unlike anything I'd seen in Dragon – dark, bizarre, and waggish, by turns gothic and punk. I didn't always like it, but it always held my attention, no doubt because it was genuinely different than the increasingly safe, antiseptic house style of TSR. Likewise, the content of most issues displayed a similar difference from what I was used to – a greater use of history, horror, and, of course, humor. Reading White Dwarf, there was never any question I was reading the product of another culture and that was (and is) quite appealing.

My second insight is that White Dwarf seems to have retained the madcap, chaotic energy of the early hobby longer than did Dragon or indeed most of the hobby on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. To some extent, this slightly scruffy, rough around the edges style became Games Workshop's brand identity, so it's possible that this seeming atavism might simply have been very good marketing. Still, there's no denying that it's intoxicating, even at several decades' remove. One of the things I really enjoyed about reading and re-reading the issues I covered in this series is once again feeling the vigor and enthusiasm of youth. I could sometimes feel the excitement of an article's author, the desire to share this absolutely crazy idea he hit upon one day while playing D&D with his mates one Saturday night. It's amazing stuff and, while this didn't always translate into a good or even usable article, I can't help but appreciate the fervor that engendered it.

Thirdly, and relatedly, I'd say that, when White Dwarf started to decline, its decline seemed far starker than that of Dragon. In part, I think that's because WD stayed closer to the wild, untidy roots of the hobby for longer into its run, making its eventual transition to a slick, safe house organ that much more apparent. Despite this, the magazine continued to offer up excellent articles until the very end of the time that I was reading it. Indeed, I have little doubt that, had I continued to do so, I'd have continued to find good material in its pages, maybe even great material. Yet, I also know that, by the tail end of the 1980s, White Dwarf was no longer the shambolic, quasi-amateur periodical that it had been at the start of the decade and that's a shame. What I most liked about White Dwarf, then and now, was its vitality. After a certain point – precisely when is probably hard to pin down – it was no longer a feral animal but a caged one.

Like Dragon, White Dwarf is one of the places where the hobby as we know was nurtured. It was the crucible of so much that has subsequently come to be known as "British fantasy," as well as the launching pad for the careers of many writers who would later gone to have a profound influence not just on the hobby but on fantasy and science fiction as well. Though it's still running to this day – the same cannot be said of Dragon or indeed any gaming magazine of my youth – it's a hollow imitation of what it was once was, not to mention a reminder of just how good it was in its early days. We shall not see its like again.

Monday, July 10, 2023

"So OSR That It Died and Came Back"

A couple of weeks ago, Chris McDowall, creator of Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, had a livestream in which he talked about "TTRPG Blogging and the OSR." In it, he highlights a number of blogs, both old and new, operating within the broad Old School Renaissance sphere. Among those falling into the former category is Grognardia, about which Chris says many very kind things, for which I am grateful. For those who care, I've embedded the video below, starting shortly before he begins to discuss Grognardia. 

That said, the entire video, lasting about an hour, is worth watching, especially if, like me, you're out of the loop about the current state of the OSR blogosphere. I found this very helpful, since I'm no longer as plugged into the Old School scene as I used to be. Much of that is the result of simply falling out of the habit during this blog's hiatus, but some of it is due to a sense, perhaps false, that blogging is no longer as integral to online discussion of RPGs, OSR or otherwise, as it once was. The very fact that I'm discussing a video demonstrates, I think, that the center of gravity has shifted over the last few years toward that medium, leaving blogs and forums, which were once the crucibles of the OSR, lagging behind.

Unless I'm wrong, of course. As I said, I no longer have my finger on the pulse of anything really, including the OSR or its many descendent esthetic movements. It's very possible – likely even – that I am misinterpreting the present situation. From where I'm sitting, though, it seems as if almost everyone has a Youtube channel or a podcast (even I have a podcast, albeit one with a very narrow focus) and that it's on those platforms where the kinds of in-depth analyses and discussions that used to characterize the blogosphere are taking place. That's why I've often considered doing something more seriously with them myself, but the truth is I am probably too old and resistant to change (not mention largely lacking in the technical skills necessary to do this successfully) to make it work, hence my sticking with this blog rather than "upgrading" as others have done.

What are your thoughts on this? Do blogs still have relevance or have they been superseded by videos and podcasts?

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Thief of Forthe

The death of Robert E. Howard on June 11, 1936 was a huge blow, not simply to his many friends and admirers, but also to the incipient genre of sword-and-sorcery. While it would be an exaggeration to claim that REH is solely responsible for its creation and popularization, there can be little question that his tales of Conan the Cimmerian played an outsize role in popularizing them among the readers of Weird Tales in the 1930s. 

Consequently, as news of Howard's death spread, several authors stepped forward in an attempt to fill the void he left in the Unique Magazine's pages. One of these was Clifford Nankivell Ball, who, by his own admission, had been "a constant reader" of Weird Tales since 1925. A huge fan of Conan's adventures, he mourned the demise of REH in the magazine's letters column, the Eyrie, in early 1937. However, rather than simply mourn, Ball wrote six original short stories of his own, three in the sword-and-sorcery genre, all of which were published in WT between May 1937 and November 1941.

Though Ball's first published story was "Duar the Accursed," far more interesting to me is his second effort, "The Thief of Forthe," which appeared two months later, in July 1937. Apparently, editor Farnsworth Wright must have also thought well of the story, since he gave it the cover illustration for the issue – and by Virgil Finlay no less! The titular thief is Rald, "prince among thieves," who, at the start of the tale, has been summoned into the presence of the magician Karlk.
The magician was of slender frame, of small features, and delicate hands and feet. He had never appeared in any other costume than the one he now wore – a long robe of ebon silk almost touching the ground as he walked, held by a twisted cord at the waist. A black cowl covered his head; the heavy beard and hirsute growth bear the ears left only the flashing malignant eyes and the thin nostrils visible. There were many whispers to the effect that Karlk was not really of the race of men and that if anyone would have the unthinkable courage to uncover this person, he would discover, not a human form, butn some monstrosity impossible for the mind of mankind to imagine.

Rald, meanwhile, wore only a "breech-clout ... and the sandals on his feet," as well as a "slender sword dangling by his side." He is "clean-shaven, his hair bound in the back by a gold chain," with "great scars" across his body to indicate that "he had known the clash of steel in combat." Most importantly, his "well-shaped skull gave proof that brain backed his brawn." This is an important detail, since Rald demonstrates again and again throughout the story that he became "prince among thieves" as much by the use of his wits as by his sword. 

He asks the magician why he has summoned him, to which Karlk replies simply, "I wish you to steal something for me." 

Of course you want me to steal! For what other purpose would you summon Rald? What seek you, wizard, that your magic cannot obtain? Some of [King] Thrall's jewels? – a stone or two from the Inner Temple? No women, mind you! I don't deal in them. What is the bargain and what is my reward?

Rald expanded his chest; he was proud with the pride of an expert in his profession.

Karlk laughed shortly, wickedly. "Jewels? The prizes of the temples? Ha! From the playgrounds for children unlearnt in the mysteries of the skies! I see a great prize, something so earthly my unearthly hands cannot touch it without the aid of your nimble fingers, oh Rald! I seek the kingdom of Forthe!"

Shocked, the notorious thief started upright in the stone chair. Bewilderment strained his countenance; incredulity stamped horror on his features as he sought to comprehend blasphemy.

"Forthe!" he exclaimed. "Forthe! Why – none but the Seven Gods could steal Forthe from King Thrall of the Ebon Dynasty!"

"Except Karlk," amended the magician.

What Ball might lack in polish, he makes up for in enthusiasm – and intriguing ideas. I must confess that, before I began "The Thief of Forthe," I was unsure what to expect. The fact that Ball was a self-professed fanboy of Robert E. Howard who'd never written a word of fiction before 1937 didn't fill me with much hope. Likewise, the start of the tale, with its ponderous descriptions and portentous dialog, led me to expect very little of value. Yet, as I reached the section above, in which Karlk explains to an unbelieving Rald his intentions, I can't deny that my interest was piqued.

"Steal Forthe!" muttered Rald. "Rebellion – treachery – millions to bribe – for what? A powerful kingdom – aye! But who shall rule it, granting you gain it? You with the blood of its peoples on your hands and the terror of yourself in their hearts?"

The magician's voice became a whisper. "King Rald!" he said.

Mine is not the only interest that was piqued. Karlk's bargain is that, in exchange for his assistance in helping Rald steal the kingdom of Forthe from its current ruler, he would be granted a "voice behind the throne," as well as "just a little more freedom for – experiments." Rald is not keen on this bargain, but he "dreamed a dream of empire, as many powerful men had done before" and so agreed to enter palace to steal "the legendary Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty."

The Necklace was composed of a string of fifty diamonds, each one itself worthy of the ransom of a king, and the lot, in their magnificent entirety, of fabulous value. But the chief virtue of the heirloom lay not in its marketable worth, but in the legendary credits supposedly bestowed upon it by the multiple blessings of the Seven Gods when, eons ago, they granted the rights of kingship to the Ancient One who had been the first King of Forthe and the subsequent founder of the dynasty.

 Naturally, Karlk imagines that, once Rald is acclaimed king by virtue of his possession of the Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty, he would have no trouble bending the thief to his will, "pull[ing] strings to make the puppet dance." 

"The Thief of Forthe" is clearly the work of a novice writer, imitating the style and subject matter of a more accomplished author whom he admired. Despite this, the plot is genuinely interesting and the twists and turns it takes unexpected but fairly satisfying. The story, though rough, holds a lot of promise. I can't help but wonder what might have become of Ball had he continued writing after 1941. With more experience, I suspect he might well have honed his craft and come closer to achieving his goal of filling the void left by Robert E. Howard. As it is, he is mostly an intriguing "what if" in the annals of pulp fantasy. A pity!