Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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


  1. It looks like GenCon's international variant survived until 2009, although that's combining a number of "rest-of-the-world" instances from the Australia to the UK, so nit pickers will undoubtedly pick nits. :)

  2. As someone who's played a lot of miniatures games over the decades, I despise seeing anyone insisting house rules are somehow inferior to playing strictly by the letter of the published rules (RAW, in modern parlance) even when the designers admit those rules are flawed. The "tournament player" mindset is one of the most poisonous things in all of gaming, especially when the vast majority of gamers will never play a single tourney event in their lives. I can't begin to guess how many players have left communities or even the hobby as a whole because they had terrible play experiences that could have been fixed with a simple house rule.

    Seeing it in the roleplaying part of the hobby makes me feel ill. It's bad enough that it's ruined Games Workshop, dominated the CCG/CMG community for decades, and (thanks to COVID ending tourneys for over a year) nearly destroyed several companies whose entire business model revolved around "organized play" tourney events - not least of which is Privateer Press, who dug their own graves by catering entirely to tourney play practically from word one.

    Yet to see a single game system that couldn't produce a better play experience with judicious application of house rules, and D&D certainly isn't one of them - not in any of its many forms. Unless you're actually playing in RPG "tournament" events, change the damn rules in whatever way suits your table.

    1. The public attitude Gary and TSR took about rule variations was toxic, on the other hand, I think too many people change rules before they even play the game long enough to understand how the RAW works. But you also said judicious...

      These days I pride myself on running games with as few house rules as possible. The house rules I use in RuneQuest and Cold Iron derive from actual play. My house rules for OD&D were very minimal. My house rules for Classic Traveller were a few clarifications between 1977 and 1981, some extra equipment, and modifications to the Supplement 4 career tables to utilize almost entirely Book 1 skills.

      If a game wouldn't be fun for me without major house rules, then I would look for a different game.

    2. What amused me (and only amused, because these gatekeepers and their attitudes are long gone) is the extension of official D&D strictures to only the published monsters. When every published TSR module contains 2 or more new "curveball" monsters, it is easy to point this out as a particularly outlandish case of "do as I say not as I do."

    3. Dick, what happened to Privateer? I haven't been following them for years.

    4. @thekelvingreen Nothing final, but they lost a huge amount of their player base during the long no-tourney COVID period, and have made some controversial changes in the newest edition of WarmaHordes that further alienated some folks - can't tell you the specific details, I haven't been paying that much attention myself. Even before that they'd been struggling to keep products in stock for about a decade, which has led to a lot of stores dropping them for other lines that actually have product when you order it.

      Most recent news I've heard was them discontinuing a whole bunch of figs while they move to a new, smaller production facility. Those might come back, or they might not, but going a smaller facility when they were already having supply line issues suggests demand is down, not growing the way a healthy game does.

      They might make a triumphant comeback somehow, but I don't like the look of things at the moment, and I don't seem to be alone in that assessment.

  3. Perhaps worth noting that Polyhedron is preserved on the Internet Archive site if anyone wants to peruse it first-hand.


    Early Tom Wham is still adorable, but comparing his groats to (say) the critters in Elefant Hunt from Dragon many years later shows that his art style was still being refined.