Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Immortals Rules

In the early days of the OSR, a common topic of discussion was D&D's endgame. Both OD&D and AD&D assume that player characters, when they have achieved higher level, will settle down to rule baronies and become movers and shakers within the campaign world. There's little disputing this, since even a cursory reading of the rules reveals that this was clearly the intention of the game's creators. Unfortunately, neither game provided much in the way of explicit rules or even guidance on what this intended endgame would look like in practice, which no doubt contributed to its loss

It wasn't until the release of Frank Mentzer's Companion Rules boxed set in 1984 that D&D players were a clearly stated version of D&D's intended endgame, however inadequate one might judge it (I personally liked it, but I recognize that not everyone feels the same). However, for reasons I've never understood, the Dungeons & Dragons game line, starting with the beloved revisions of Moldvay, Cook, and Marsh, was obsessed with the number 36 as the highest possible level attainable by a character. That's why Mentzer followed the Companion Rules with the utterly pointless Master Rules: to fill in the level progression gap between 25 (the top level of Companion) and 36, the inexplicably Highest-We-Mean-It-This-Time level for D&D.

Given the vacuity of the Master Rules, one might be forgiven for thinking Mentzer had finished with his revision, having provided rules coverage all the way up to the lofty heights of Level 36. You'd be mistaken, of course, because Mentzer had one more trick up his sleeve and it was a doozy. 1986 saw the release of the fifth and final boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons, the Immortal Rules. As its title suggests, this set focused on characters who had achieved, in the words of its preface, that "most ambitious of goals – Immortality itself." Now that's an endgame.

I should immediately note that becoming an Immortal is not the same thing as becoming a god – or at least not exactly. The Immortal Rules appeared during the "angry mothers from heck" era of TSR, when the company was doing everything it could to avoid giving offense to Middle America. That meant eliminating or scaling back anything that skirted too close to religion or religious belief. Hence, Immortals, though they "oversee and control all the known multiverse," are explicitly not its creators. More importantly, Immortals do not seek – or receive – the veneration or worship of mortals. Instead, they have their own goals, which largely consist of exploring and understanding the mysteries of the multiverse and its infinite planes beyond the Prime.

The rules governing Immortals are clearly derivative of those in Dungeons & Dragons – there are, for example, still six ability scores, armor class, hit points, etc. – but most of them have been thoroughly re-imagined or re-contextualized – so much so that they're scarcely the same game anymore. Most importantly, a character accumulated experience points are converted into power points on a 10,000 to 1 basis and those power points are used by the player to purchase talents and abilities for his now-Immortal character. As an Immortal learns more about the multiverse, he acquires more power points, just as normal characters acquire XP. These new points can then be used to buy new abilities and to advance within the Immortal hierarchy. 

What Mentzer has done here is effectively turn D&D into a more freeform point-buy system that is wholly unlike the class-based structure of "ordinary" Dungeons & Dragons. I remember, when I first read the rules, shortly after they were published, just how odd it all seemed to me. Now, to be fair, I had absolutely no idea what the Immortals Rules should look like. For that matter, I wasn't even sure that there was much point to rules for player character immortality. All I can say is what I expected and that was something similar to the D&D rules of levels 1–36, though at a greater scale.

That's not say that what Mentzer does in the Immortal Rules isn't interesting, because I think it is. He clearly had a strong idea of what Immortals were within the cosmology he'd created for the game and, knowing that, the kinds of powers and abilities they should possess. Then, as now, the question is one of why? Did anyone really want these rules? Did anyone ever use them in play? I certainly never did. I read them a couple of times and then largely forgot about them – not because they were badly done but because they scratched an itch I'd never had. Re-reading them in preparation for this post, I can't help but think that the Immortals Rules existed only to fulfill some vague sense that D&D had to include rules for immortality eventually. 

I suspect my own interest in the Immortal Rules might have increased considerably had Mentzer done a better job of fleshing out just what Immortals did. He talks a lot about exploration of the multiverse and of learning its secrets, but, aside from a few small details here and there, he doesn't provide any practical examples – in a way, recapitulating the problem of D&D's original endgame. It's a shame, because I think there might have been room for a wild and woolly multiversal game at the pinnacle of D&D's level progression. That's certainly in keeping with some of the stuff with which Gygax had long been toying, so it's not in any way alien to Dungeons & Dragons. 

Mentzer's reach exceeded his grasp with the Immortal Rules, which is no crime – but it is a disappointment.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Polyhedron: Issue #7

Issue # 7 of Polyhedron (August 1982) once again features a cover artist – Scott Roberts – with whom I am unfamiliar. I find this fascinating, as it suggests that the staff of the 'zine wanted to cultivate a unique look for the periodical, one that was distinct from that of Dragon, even though both were published by TSR. True or not, this trend lessened somewhat as Polyhedron's run continued, as we'll see in future posts in this series. 

The issue begins with Frank Mentzer's last(?) "Where I'm Coming From," in which he briefly recounts the founding of the RPGA and the role he and others played in that. Then, he announces that "it's time for me to move on," as he will soon be "very, very busy working with Gary." He explains that he will "essentially ... be #2 right after Gary when it comes to D&D® rules and AD&D™ games, and so forth." This is obviously a reference to his oversight of the revision of Dungeons & Dragons game, as well as his assistance in getting things like The Temple of Elemental Evil completed, both of which earned Mentzer a lasting place in the history of the hobby.

The letters page includes the following:

This letter hits home, because I remember well the first few years after I discovered D&D and other RPGs. They were most definitely obsessions for me – not to the extent that they affected my schoolwork and other responsibilities, but I certainly devoted a lot of time to playing and preparing to play them. 

"Dispel Confusion" contains a number of interesting questions and answers this issue. For example, one reader asks about the level at which a ranger casts druid and magic-user spells in AD&D. The answer is that, at the time a ranger gains access to a new type of spellcasting, he casts those spells as if he were 1st level in the appropriate class. Thus, a ranger gains druid spells at 8th level in his class but casts those spells as if he were a 1st-level druid. The same is true of magic-user spells, which a ranger gains at 9th level. I believe I already knew this, but it was fascinating to be reminded of it. Additionally, there's this question and answer:
I have no strong feelings about this matter one way or the other, but I do think the reasoning here is worthy of note. Also notable is the way that Mentzer, who provided this issue's answers, mentions that he agrees with "Gary" on this point – another example of the Cult of Gygax that was popularized in the pages of TSR periodicals.

"RPGA Interview with Mike Carr" is exactly what you'd expect: an extensive interview with Mike Carr, who was at this point Executive Vice President of TSR's Manufacturing Division. From my perspective, the interview is quite good, focusing a lot on the early days of both the hobby and TSR. It's also very clear, as if there were any doubt, that Dawn Patrol means a lot to Carr, since he mentions it often in his answers. "Spelling Bee" looks at clerical and druid spells, providing some thoughts on their use in play. Of interest is the following note about know alignment: "Often cast at the beginning of an adventure, it's aimed at 1, 2, or 3 creatures, all of whom (except the Lawful Goods) should retaliate by disrupting the casting, leaving the area quickly, or some other equally rude action."

Gary Gygax offers a very short piece entitled "Notes from the DM," in which he holds forth on the matter of AD&D's one-minute combat round and "detailed combat." All of this old hat to those of us who've seen Gygax discuss this in other places. However, the fact that he needs to keep trying to justify it goes a long way, I think, to explain why it would eventually be abandoned in contemporary versions of the game (and, it should be noted, in Dungeons & Dragons, including the edition that Mentzer himself would develop).

"Campaign Clues" by Corey Koebernick, husband of Jean Wells, offers advice to Top Secret referees (or Administrators) on starting espionage campaigns. Meanwhile, Bill Fawcett's "Ranch Encounters" is a collection of random encounters for use with Boot Hill. One of the upsides of Polyhedron's narrow focus on TSR RPGs is that each issue is likely to contain articles devoted to some of these "lesser" games that my friends and I played. That's something that mattered a lot to me at the time, since Dragon tended not to include many articles of this sort, at least not when I was a regular reader (the day of the Ares Section being a significant exception). 

"Notes for the Dungeon Master" takes a look at higher-level characters. At the start of the article, Frank Mentzer, the author, mentions that "looking at the data we've received from hundreds of DMs worldwide, it seems the average advancement of a character is about 2–3 levels per year." That jibes with my own experience of playing AD&D around this time, though I also recall a few outliers who achieved higher levels, mostly due to being played very often (and perhaps a little greater generosity of XP on my part). 

This issue marks the first appearance of the RPGA Gift Catalog about which I've written before. I still get a kick out of looking at it even now, because it's such a wonderful artifact from the days of D&D's faddishness. "Convention Wrapup" briefly reports all the happenings at various conventions across the USA during the previous months. As one would expect, there's much emphasis on RPGA events, including the winners of tournaments, who are listed by name. I always keep an eye out, to see if I recognize any notable individuals among the winners. Finally, there's Roger Raupp's comic, "Nor." Sadly, the comic continues to plod along without any obvious direction and there's still no follow-up to the crashed spacecraft from its very first installment

Oh well, there's always next issue, the very first one I ever owned. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

A Means to Freedom

It should come as a surprise to no one who reads this blog that I have never ridden a motorcycle. I have, on the other hand, known a good number of motorcycle enthusiasts, including my childhood next door neighbor, who had been a member of a motorcycle club during his own youth in the '60s. One of the questions I'd eventually ask all these men – and they were always men; I never met a female biker, unless you count my neighbor's wife, who'd sometimes ride along with him – was why they rode and their answer was usually some variation on "I love the freedom."

As if to confirm my own lack of cool, I can't deny that this answer used to baffle me a little bit. Even in 1970s America, which was vastly less obsessed with safety than today, there was already public concern about the deadliness of motorcycles. Consequently, my youthful self absorbed the notion that motorcycles were coffins on two wheels, a notion reinforced by my neighbor's accident, which left him on crutches for a long time and eventually led to his trading his Triumph bike for a "cage."

"Cage" is a relevant bit of slang to this discussion, because it touches on the sense that an automobile is a prison of sorts, trapping the driver inside, and taking away his freedom. I'm not all that fond of cars – even less so since I was hit by one the day before my fiftieth birthday – so even the thought of speeding down the highway with only my clothes and a helmet to protect me is terrifying. But I suppose one man's terror is another man's freedom, or at least that's the impression I've got from talking to avid motorcyclists over the course of my life.

Shortly before my parents were married, my father was inducted into the US Army and received orders to go to Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, a very short distance from the Mexican border. So, for their honeymoon, he and my mother drove across the country to reach his posting, along the way stopping at a number of fascinating places. This trip, as well as a later one that took my parents to a NATO Joint Forces base in the Netherlands, profoundly affected my father for the rest of his life, largely, I think, because he got to see more of the world than he otherwise would have.

One lasting effect was on my Dad's taste in food. He came to love spicy foods, no doubt due to his proximity to Mexico during the first part of his military tour. He passed that love down to me. Judging by what I see on grocery store shelves and on restaurant menus, the love of spicy food seems increasingly commonplace. Nowadays, you can find spiced-up versions of just about anything, from baked goods to desserts to drinks. I've seen jalapeño and chipotle-spiced chocolate, for example, and these are pretty ordinary compared to some of the other foods out there.

Indeed, there seems to be an arms race when it comes to spiciness, with ever more absurdly hot peppers being cross-bred and used for sauces and flavoring. I'm talking peppers rated a million Scoville units or more – stuff that can literally harm your body in certain cases. As I said, I enjoy spicy foods quite a lot, but I simply don't see the appeal of eating peppers so spicy that I doubt one's taste buds can even register their flavor – but maybe that's not the point. Maybe the point is simply to experience something unique, even extreme by the standards of everyday 21st century life.
In one of his letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard wrote:

“I think the real reason so many youngsters are clamoring for freedom of some vague sort, is because of unrest and dissatisfaction with present conditions; I don't believe this machine age gives full satisfaction in a spiritual way, if the term may be allowed.”

As one might expect from the creator of the legendary wanderer, Conan the Cimmerian, Howard devoted much thought to the question of freedom and its importance to the well-being of the individual in an increasingly, as he called it, "machine age," by which he meant the ever more regulated, narrow, and "safe" world that was already being birthed during his lifetime. That's why he "yearn[ed] for the days of the early frontier, where men were more truly free than at any other time or place in the history of the world." 

Whether one agrees with him or not is immaterial. What's important to remember is that Howard very much believed this and nearly all of his fiction was an attempt to transport readers – and I daresay himself – to times and places that were, in his judgment, freer and, therefore, uplifting to the human spirit. Again, one can quibble as to how well REH achieved this emancipatory goal, but there can be no question in my mind that he saw literature as a possible means of escape from the soul-crushing drudgery of the modern world.

"Who are the people most opposed to escapism? Jailers!" That sentiment, or others similar to it, is often attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien, though other authors (C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, et al.) sometimes take his place. Regardless of its origin, it's an interesting point of view and that, I suspect, with some minor caveats Robert E. Howard would have agreed with, as might bikers and pepper-eaters – and roleplayers.

I sometimes find myself wondering if the growth in the popularity of not just tabletop RPGs, but fantasy more generally, is a symptom of a larger malaise with modernity, specifically its lack of frontiers or places to adventure. When I was a kid in the '70s, it was still possible – just barely – for me to imagine the opening up of our solar system (and beyond) for exploration. Now, though, I think that's probably a pipe dream, something confined to the realm of science fiction rather than reality.

I'm grateful I had those dreams of traveling to the Moon or Mars when I was younger, just as I'm grateful for the escape provided, then and now, by roleplaying games. Perhaps it speaks poorly of me that I consider many of my RPG experiences as among the most fulfilling and indeed liberating ones I've had in my life. They're not the only ones, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that they've been immensely important to me and, I know, to many of my friends as well. 

Friday, August 25, 2023

That New Car Smell

Is there anything more intoxicating than the promise of a new campaign? Whether you're the referee or a player, the vast horizon of possibility that a new campaign lays before you is a feeling like no other in the hobby. I thought about this the other day because a friend was preparing to start up a new campaign and I must admit that, in hearing about it, I was more than a little bit envious.

As you probably know, I'm currently refereeing two different RPG campaigns: the House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, currently starting its ninth year; and the Barrett's Raiders Twilight: 2000 campaign (now in its second year). Both continue to chug along each week and I – and my players, so far as I can tell – continue to enjoy them. Nevertheless, even I am not immune to the scourge of gamer attention deficit disorder, particularly when I hear about others trying something new with their own group of players.

It's a fascinating phenomenon. I used to think – and, to some extent, still do – that gamer ADD is largely a consumerist impulse facilitated by how many RPGs are now competing for your time and attention. In the early days of the hobby, this impulse was probably less powerful, though still far from non-existent. I remember how my friends and I used to bounce from one campaign to the next. Of course, back then, we also had a lot more free time to devote to such things, so it was genuinely practical to have multiple campaigns running in parallel to one another. 

Nowadays, that's nowhere near as practical. I'm fortunate to have a large pool of devoted and enthusiastic players from which to draw, but very few of them could play in multiple campaigns at the same time. Moreover, I'm fairly certain that, were I to pause one of my current campaigns for any length of time to take up a new game for even a little while, it'd likely deplete the momentum of – and perhaps even interest in – the original. Better instead to avert my eyes and not give into temptation.

Yet the temptation remains. 

Map Assistance

As I mentioned recently, I'm trying to put together a map for Secrets of sha-Arthan. I've already got a continental outline for the whole world, but my focus at the moment is on a smaller region intended as a "starting area" for new characters and campaigns. Nevertheless, I have several problems and I'm hoping readers might be able to point me in the right direction for solving it.

Here's a portion of the continental scale map of sha-Arthan:

Because it's continental scale, those hexes are very large in size – about 90 miles across. That size is based on two factors: that sha-Arthan is roughly the same size as Earth and the number of hexes used in the continental map. I could, I suppose, redraw the continental outlines and then layer on a small hex grid in order to make each hex smaller, but that's something I can't easily do, given my lack of technical skills. If someone can suggest a relatively easy way to do this, so easy that even an incompetent like myself could do it, most of my problems go away.

Barring that solution, I was intending to break down each 90-mile hex like so:
Done this way, each of the sub-hexes within the 90-mile hexes would be 18 miles across. These 18-mile hexes would be further subdivided into 3.6-mile hexes. Both 18 and 3.6 miles are odd increments, to be sure, but that's what happens if I stick to 90-mile continental hexes. A possible "solution" is to create in-game units of measurements that correspond to 3.6, 18, and 90 miles. On some level, I like that, because it's potentially immersive, but it's also potentially annoying and easy to forget. 

Another possibility is to use a different set of divisions for each continental hex. The only reason I went with the five hexes within five hexes set-up above is because I was able to find some templates online. I'm not kidding when I say I am utterly incompetent when it comes to these matters, so it may well be that there are simpler configurations that will serve my purpose – that purpose being breaking down continental scale hexes into small, more manageable ones for use in play. 

Any ideas or suggestions you have to share would be appreciated. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Retrospective: Traders and Gunboats

I've mentioned before that Star Trek was my first fandom. If you were a kid with an interest in science fiction in the early 1970s, there simply weren't many other options. Despite this, Star Trek wasn't heavily merchandised at the time, certainly not to the extent that Star Wars would be in a few years. Consequently, fans like myself had to make do with a fairly limited selection of Star Trek products to sate our lust for more information about Gene Roddenberry's vision of the 23rd century. 

A couple of items from that limited selection stand out in my memory, both of them created by the German technical artist Franz Joseph Schnaubelt, known by his nom de plume, Franz Joseph. In 1975, Ballantine Books released Joseph's Starfleet Technical Manual and Star Trek Blueprints. Each included lots of beautifully rendered maps and schematics of Star Trek space vessels and technology (and, fascinatingly, served as the basis for Starfleet Battles, but that's another story). Needless to say, I owned and adore both of them, spending countless hours poring over the secrets they revealed about the layout of the USS Enterprise and other Starfleet ships of the line. These books initiated my lifelong love for deckplans of all sorts, but particularly of science fiction vehicles – a love I'd later transfer into the realm of science fiction roleplaying games.

GDW's Traveller, which I first picked up sometime in 1982, was more than accommodating of my love of starship deckplans. Nearly every adventure released for the game, along with many of its supplements, included one or more deckplans of this sort. There were even separate but related games, Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning, that included deckplans large enough to use with cardboard counters or 15mm miniatures. From the standpoint of someone like myself who loved starship deckplans, Traveller delivered the goods.

Which brings us to the true topic of this post: Supplement 7: Traders and Gunboats. Released in 1980 and written by Traveller's creator, Marc Miller, with assistance from Frank Chadwick, John Harshman, and Loren Wiseman, Traders and Gunboats is a 48-page supplement that provides information on, as its title suggests, merchant starships and patrol craft. The information is not limited solely to game statistics – though there's plenty of such detail – but also includes an equal amount of information on the place of such vessels within GDW's Third Imperium setting. The inclusion of both game mechanical and setting information makes Traders and Gunboats equally useful to players and referees, as well as to those using Traveller's official setting or one of their own creation.

Ultimately, what makes Supplement 7 so appealing to me is its practicality. All of the space vessels described in its pages are small in size. The largest is no more than 1000 displacement tons, but the vast majority are in 100–400 ton range, which makes them perfect for use by – or against – player characters. That's one of the things that's always appealed to me about Traveller: it keeps its focus on the PCs and their adventures. It's true that Traveller can be vast in scope and certainly the official Third Imperium setting encompasses tens of thousands of worlds spread across dozens of sectors of space. Yet, the play of the game remains human-scaled, which is exactly what Traders and Gunboats supports with its information on smaller space vessels.

Of course, as you'd expect, given my preamble, it's the deckplans that still excite me. Here's a sample page featuring a few small (20–50 ton) craft.

Traders and Gunboats includes more than a dozen of these maps, most of which have proven very useful to me over my years of playing Traveller – so useful that I rank it up there with 76 Patrons in terms of how much I've used it at my own table. That's probably the highest praise I can give any RPG product.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Polyhedron: Issue #6

Following in the footsteps of its predecessors, issue #6 of Polyhedron (June 1982) features a striking piece of original art for its cover. This time, it depicts a scene from (presumably) Boot Hill, as imagined by artist David D. Larson, whose name is otherwise unknown to me. Regardless, it's a terrific illustration and yet another reminder of how much unique artwork graced the pages of Polyhedron.

Apropos to my recent post on this topic, the issue opens with a letter from a reader in Georgia, USA: A local religious group is trying to ban DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® from our school and library. Can you help?" The reply – it's unclear whether it's from editor-in-chief Frank Mentzer or editor Mary Kirchoff – is as follows:
Though I can't be certain, I assume the "Duke" mentioned above is Bruce "Duke" Seifried, a friend of Gary Gygax who would join TSR sometime in late '82 or early '83 as the head of its new miniatures division. If so, I'm not certain why concerns about attempts to ban D&D should be directed to his attention, but there is much about the inner workings of TSR that elude me.

Frank Mentzer's "Where I'm Coming From" talks about a couple of related matters, starting with "why the various game manufacturers don't get along." Mentzer states that, since publishers are all competing for business, it only makes sense that they wouldn't always see eye to eye. That's why the RPGA doesn't support non-TSR games: the company isn't interested in directing sales to other companies. It's a very honest answer. Mentzer also mentions that TSR continues to expand its library of games, noting that the company has just acquired SPI, making Dragonquest a TSR game and thus eligible for inclusion in the RPGA. Of course, we all know how that turned out ...

The third and final part of the interview with Gary "Jake" Jaquet appears in this issue. I keep saying I ought to write a series of posts about what he has to say in this interview, but I've been distracted lately by other matters and haven't had the time. That said, there are a couple of tidbits worth mentioning here. First, Jaquet explains that he's kept "DRAGON™ magazine's style more conservative" because he views it in the same way a doctor might view a medical journal: "getting information, facts, people's opinions." It's "not a supermarket magazine that has four inch headlines." Second, he states that he prefers Dungeons & Dragons to its AD&D sibling. Here's why:
I suppose, because Jaquet's perspective is similar to mine, I'm naturally inclined to agree with it. Even if you don't share his point of view, I think it's fascinating to see an employee of TSR speaking so frankly about his own assessment of the company's two biggest games. Jaquet comes across in the interview as a plain speaker who isn't all that interested in spouting a party line on any topic and that's very appealing.

"Notes for the Dungeon Master" is uncredited, though it seems likely to have been written by Frank Mentzer. This issue, the column focuses on the much-vexed question of "realism" in RPGs. After the ritual invocations of "play the game however you like," the unnamed author suggests that a truly realistic game would be unplayable. In his view, internally consistent and fun rules are more important than fully simulating reality. I find this hard to disagree with this, but it's an old fault line within the hobby, one about which nearly everyone has a strong opinion.

"The Weapons of the Ancients" by James M. Ward presents a collection of new technological weapons for use with Gamma World. Reading these, what's most intriguing is to me is that, with a single exception, none of these weapons has ever appeared anywhere else. As I've said many times before, it's deeply frustrating to me how little support TSR gave Gamma World in terms of supplements and adventures. To see Ward coming up with all these new material for Polyhedron, a niche periodical of the RPGA, rather than for more widely circulated venues, breaks my GW-loving heart.

"Spelling Bee" focuses on illusion and phantasm spells. That the unnamed author, probably Frank Mentzer, spends two pages defining terms, proposing principles, and offering examples demonstrates just how difficult the use of such spells have long been in Dungeons & Dragons (and indeed almost any fantasy RPG). That's not a criticism of the article, which does a fair job of trying to make sense of it all. However, it's true that, in all my decades of playing D&D, few things have continued to cause consternation to myself and players more than illusion spells.

"Dispel Confusion" tackles a few more AD&D rules questions, one of which touches on the aforementioned topic of realism: weak spots in a dragon's hide. It's suggested that the game would be slowed "considerably" by the inclusion of hit location rules, hence their lack of inclusion. "An Ace Against the Odds" by Mike Carr is a solitaire scenario for use with Dawn Patrol. The amount of Dawn Patrol content in Polyhedron really surprises me. Though I was a fan of the game in my youth, I never got the impression it was particularly popular. Perhaps I was mistaken in this assessment. "First Tournament Tips" by Errol Farstad takes a look at the ins and outs of starting up a RPGA-sanctioned tournament at your local game convention. Though brief, it's an interesting article, especially if, like me, you've never dreamed of doing anything like this. Finally, there's another installment of Roger Raupp's "Nor" comic – still no more details about the downed starship from the first installment, alas.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

H.P. Lovecraft and the Evolution of Genre

Though I'd read some of his earlier, less overtly cosmic stories beforehand, it was the release of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game in 1981 that ultimately cemented my lifelong affection for H.P. Lovecraft and his works. I doubt this is a unique situation. Indeed, I have long suspected that Call of Cthulhu has probably served as the gateway to Lovecraft for more people since its publication four decades ago than almost anything else. Consequently, on the 133rd anniversary of his birth, I wanted to use Call of Cthulhu as the springboard for some rambling thoughts on the changing meaning of literary genres and the question of the genre in which Lovecraft himself wrote.

If you take a look at the subtitle of the 1981 edition of Call of Cthulhu, you'll see that it reads "Fantasy Role-Playing in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft" – and so it remained for more than a decade, until the advent of the game's 1992 edition, when the subtitle became "Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft." I remember being mildly baffled by this in my youth. I had assumed, based on my initially limited reading of HPL, that Call of Cthulhu would be a horror RPG. In what sense could the game be called fantasy? Bear in mind that, by the time of 1981, the term "fantasy" had already become strongly associated with stories that existed somewhere in that twilight realm located between Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Howard's tales of Conan the Cimmerian. My bafflement stemmed from this fact.

With age, I've come to understand a couple of additional details that shed some light on this matter. First, in some corners of the hobby, particularly the West Coast but also in the UK, the term "fantasy roleplaying game" – or FRP – was a generic term. In this sense, a fantasy roleplaying game was a category of game, much like a boardgame or video game. Second, and probably relatedly, the term "fantasy" itself could still be used generically, applying very broadly to any fictional work that departs from everyday reality, in one way or another. As I already noted, this usage was not familiar to me in 1981, thanks in no small part to the success of marketers and bookstore managers in dividing and segregating the various strands of fantasy into fantasy proper, science fiction, horror, and so on. I suspect that the fine folks at Chaosium, being older fantasy fans, retained that earlier, broader sense of the term when they subtitled Call of Cthulhu.

But what about Lovecraft himself? How did he view the genre(s) in which he worked? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the matter is complicated. Obviously, Lovecraft lived the entirety of his life before there were any widely accepted distinctions between different types of speculative fiction. They were all still deemed varieties of "fantasy" and Lovecraft would occasionally talk about his work or those of others in his circle as "fantasies." He would, in fact, sometimes call himself a fantaïsiste, an archaic English word borrowed from French for both a dreamer and a creator of fantasies (Lord Dunsany being one of his models in this regard). 

At the same time, one of Lovecraft's most celebrated non-fiction writings is his 1927 essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In it, he surveyed the development and characteristics of a genre to which he gives various names – the "weirdly horrible tale," the "weird tale," the "literature of cosmic fear," "fear-literature," the "horror-tale," and more. HPL seemed to use the term "weird tale" most frequently to describe his own works, most of which were published, perhaps not coincidentally, in the pages of a magazine bearing the title Weird Tales. 

Does the weird tale constitute a genre – or perhaps sub-genre – of its own? Does it have unique characteristics distinct from those of other kinds of speculative fiction? These are good questions without clear answers. As is so often the case, whether one recognizes any answer as dispositive depends on how finely one wishes to slice a great mass of literature. Further, the fineness with which one can categorize literature is itself a product of historical context. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that one possesses sufficient numbers of categories to claim magisterially that, for example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a work of science fiction rather than fantasy. At the time the novel was written, such distinctions did not exist or, more importantly, did not matter. Even now, they have no impact whatsoever on one's enjoyment of Verne's tale.

To a great extent, that is also my judgment on the genre of H.P. Lovecraft's works: it doesn't matter. Whether one judges them fantasy, horror, or science fiction by the standards of today makes no difference to my own enjoyment of them. I increasingly feel as if this obsession with categorization, of putting everything into a clearly marked box, is folly – the pastime of pedants and advertising flacks. It's a defect of character to which I am particularly prone, which is why I feel it's important to push back against it. Ultimately, all that should matter is whether one finds a given story worthy – by whatever criteria – and not on the basis the literary genre it supposedly occupies.

All of which is to say: Happy birthday, HPL! Whether you're a writer of fantasy, horror, or science fiction, your works have immeasurably enriched my life and I am glad to have discovered them.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Blame Canada

One of the fundamental characteristics of youth is ignorance. I say that not as a criticism but simply as a statement of fact. Young people, simply virtue of being young, lack knowledge, experience, and the wisdom that (hopefully) comes with them (though, to be fair, older people have only a marginally better track record on the wisdom front). 

This was certainly true of me as a kid. My own attempts at making sense of the world of my childhood were frequently thwarted by a combination of naivety and ignorance, not to mention my sheltered suburban upbringing. Consequently, there were a lot of events going on around me that I didn't understand or didn't understand fully.

A supreme example of this is the moral panic known today as the "Satanic Panic." If you search through the more than 4000 posts on this blog, you'll find very few dedicated to the discussion of this topic, despite the fact that, for many roleplayers of my age or slightly younger, the Satanic Panic occurred smack dab in the middle of their introduction to the hobby. The lack of posts here on the topic is because, while I was certainly aware that some people somewhere believed that Dungeons & Dragons was diabolical, it was not a belief I encountered in my own life – quite the opposite, in fact.

With four decades of hindsight, it all seems very silly, but that's the nature of moral panics, whether they be about rock music, comic books, switchblades, or, as in this case, Dungeons & Dragons. To the extent that I had any thoughts about the Satanic Panic, I assumed that it must originated in the American South among those people, because who else would believe something so patently absurd? As I said, the young are ignorant, their understanding of the world sometimes skewed based on the prejudices of their elders. 

Because the Satanic Panic always seemed so far away from me and my friends, I never really understood its actual origins – that is, until recently. The other day, I was reading something online and came across a startling (to me) fact: the proximate cause of the Panic was a 1980 book, published not in the United States but in Canada. The book, entitled Michelle Remembers, supposedly recounted the therapy of a woman called Michelle Smith under the guidance of psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder in Victoria, British Columbia. During these sessions, Smith "remembered" her abuse as a child at the hands of a Satanic cult that included her own mother among its members.

I say that Smith "remembered," because what Smith claimed to recall were the fruits of recovered-memory therapy, an extremely dubious form of psychotherapy that involves, among other things, hypnosis and the use of barbiturates to "recover" memories of past events supposedly so traumatic that the conscious mind suppresses them. To call recovered-memory therapy a pseudoscience is probably generous, but, at the time the book was published, it was relatively unknown and thus treated seriously by the credulous media outlets that helped spread Smith's absurd accusations.

And spread it they did. Though published in Canada, Michelle Remembers gained a lot of publicity through the popular American periodical People, not to mention that trusted purveyor of truth, the National Enquirer. Smith's story circulated widely and soon inspired others to come forward with their own concocted tales of abuse at the hands of Satanists. As so often happens in circumstances like this, the panic metastasized, its adherents purporting to find evidence of the fingerprints of hidden devil-worshippers on just about anything they didn't like, including Dungeons & Dragons.

I had never heard of Michelle Remembers. By the time I really became aware of the Satanic Panic, the book itself had long since been supplanted by other, even more lurid – but just as fabricated – claims about the demonic infiltration of Middle America. I do remember the 60 Minutes hit piece from 1985, but that had little to do with the book that released this ridiculous thought disease into the English-speaking world (I don't think the Satanic Panic had held much water elsewhere in the world, but I leave it to my readers to correct me). If I thought I'd learn anything useful from it, I might try to find a copy and read it, if only to come to a better understanding of something from my childhood whose origins I never really understood. Sadly, I doubt I'd gain much from the effort.

This is, of course, a joke. Everyone knows I love maple syrup.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Cozy Maps

Here's the thing: I am preparing a regional map for my sha-Arthan setting and I must confess that I am having some difficulty in settling on a scale. I know that fans of OD&D favor the five – or six – mile hex for reasons both historical and rational. My natural inclination, as a traditionalist, is to choose one of those scales for the map, but I worry that scale might be too small for my purposes. 

This is, as I said, a regional map, depicting the territory of the Empire of Inba Iro and its neighbors. This is the area through which I want to introduce the overall setting, where a new campaign of Secrets of sha-Arthan might begin. Even though it's only a portion of a much larger world, I want it to be large enough to sprinkle with lots of adventure locales and scenario seeds. At the same time, I want its size to be both manageable for the referee and comprehensible to the players. In my opinion, too many creators of fantasy worlds think Bigger is Better and draw their maps accordingly. My intention is something that's, if not exactly small, a bit more "human-sized," if that makes sense.

I've always been very fond of this map from Chaosium's RuneQuest, which depicts the lands of Prax:
While the map isn't perfect by any means, it comes very close to balancing manageability and comprehensibility. The area covered by the map is large enough to encompass lots of important landmarks/adventure sites and leave lots of space for the referee to place his own locales. Conversely, the map is also small enough that it isn't filled with lots of blank, empty spaces that take weeks for the characters to traverse. This kind of map feels "cozy," for lack of a better word and it's more or less what I'm aiming for with the first regional map of sha-Arthan, though I'm still wrestling with the specifics.

Do you have a favorite regional, "adventure scale" map for use with RPGs? I'm very curious to know which ones you like, because they might be helpful to me as I wrestle with making my own.

Polyhedron: Issue #5

Issue #5 of Polyhedron (April 1982) features a cover illustration by Bob Walters, an artist who is otherwise unknown to me. It's a very nice piece, depicting what appears to be a trio of Viking-esque warriors facing off against a dragon. Given how good it is, I can't help but wonder why we never saw more artwork from Walters in Polyhedron or elsewhere in the RPG hobby.

The issue marks the appointment of Mary Kirchoff as editor of Polyhedron, while Frank Mentzer assumes the position of editor-in-chief. This suggests to me that both the RPGA and, by extension, Polyhedron were experiencing considerable growth during this time, or at least enough growth to warrant the expansion of its staff. Certainly, the hobby itself was still growing in 1982, thanks in no small part to the success of TSR in attracting younger players. Of course, not everyone was pleased by this growth, as evidence by a letter in this issue bemoaning the "munchkins with delusions of grandeur" who now "make up the overwhelming majority of new recruits to FRPing."

The second part of a three-part interview with Gary "Jake" Jaquet appears in this issue. As with the first part in the previous issue, it's filled with fascinating bits of information about TSR and the hobby at the time. Most interesting to me is Jaquet's defense of the "lukewarm" reviews that the Fiend Folio received in the pages of Dragon. "We call 'em like we see 'em," he explains, adding "It's not the best product it could have been." Jaquet then goes on to suggest that he feels Dragon, as a magazine for the entire hobby – compared to, say, more narrowly conceived periodicals like The Sorcerer's Apprentice – it needs to be fundamentally honest and not "self-serving," hence the critical reviews even of TSR products. He has a lot more to say on this topic and his philosophy of editing Dragon. If I can find the time, I will try to highlight some of his other comments in separate posts, because I think they're worth revisiting.

"Notes from the Dungeon Master" includes more tricks and traps for the DM. Most of those in this issue seem to involve mimics for some reason, but, to be fair, that is the purpose of a monster like that. Philip Meyers offers his impressions of a RPGA tournament in "The Round Table." Never having participated in one of them myself, I find his thoughts intriguing, because it sheds a little light on a part of the hobby that's long been somewhat opaque to me. Meyers offers both praise and criticism and Mentzer, in a separate article ("Counterpoint: As Fast as We Can ...") responds to both. Again, I get the impression from reading articles like these that the RPGA was growing quite quickly at the time, well beyond the capacity of its staff to keep up, hence the criticisms Meyers presents. 

"Dispel Confusion" provides answers to some questions about the AD&D rules. One question revealed something that I apparently never understood. In AD&D, dragon breath damage is equal to the dragon's original hit point total, not his current total. I had always assumed the latter, perhaps influenced by the text in the Moldvay Basic Rules, but this is apparently wrong with regards to AD&D. Who says you can't learn anything new from a 40 year-old magazine? "Bag of Tricks" is an uncredited assortment of ideas for use with D&D and AD&D, like the suggestion that characters should take doors off their hinges to ease their escape later or making use of mules to carry extra treasure – all fairly banal stuff, though I suppose they might not be obvious to everyone.

"Spelling Bee" simply reprints the spells crystalbrittle and energy drain from Against the Giants, while Mike Brunton's "Figure Painting" offers lots of tips on miniatures painting. Sadly, there are still no photos or illustrations to accompany the latter article, which is a pity. For someone like myself, the photos of beautifully painted minis are the main attraction of articles such as this one. "Codebook" presents three encoded messages for readers to decipher, along with advice on how to crack simple codes. I find that fascinating, because I remember well the seeming ubiquity of codes and ciphers in the D&D games of my youth. I can't say I've seen them much in recent years and wonder why that might be.

The issue closes with more news about upcoming conventions, Roger Raupp's "Nor" comic, and some very cursory news on Top Secret, Boot Hill, and Gamma World. Disappointingly, "Nor" moves slowly and the mystery of the spacecraft that crash-landed on the fantasy world of the comic last issue receives little coverage in this one. With luck, that will change in coming issues, because I think it opens up lots of possibilities for fun adventures. Of course, as I noted before, I don't believe "Nor" lasts very long in the pages of Polyhedron, so the whole matter may be rendered moot anyway. Oh well.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Into the Woods

As I mentioned, I was recently traveling about two and a half hours north of my home, in that part of Ontario urbanites call "cottage country" – not quite a truly rural area but close enough for cosseted city-dwellers looking to "rough it" for a little while. Being a cosseted city-dweller myself, that suits me just fine, though, after even a brief time in rustic surroundings of any sort, my thoughts inevitably turn to fantasy

As with mushrooms – which I saw in large quantities during my arcadian sojourn – my imagination strongly associates woodlands of any kind with the fantastic. I suspect this is a side effect of my early reading of fairy tales and other myths and legends, many of which feature enchanted, haunted, or otherwise magical forests. Consequently, I frequently found myself pondering what it must be like for the typical D&D adventuring party as they trudged through the woods, never knowing just what they might find there.
What I found, in addition to the aforementioned mushrooms, was a lot of insect life, especially moths. I was quite surprised by how many moths I saw fluttering beneath the shadowy canopy of the wood where I took a hike one day. I expected to see plenty of spiders, a prospect that filled me with some trepidation, and, while I did see more than a few, they were not nearly as plentiful as I feared. There were also, unfortunately, plenty of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, as my itch-ravaged body can attest.

Another thing that struck me was just how dark the woods could become, even during daylight hours. The trees where I was hiking were quite tall and possessed large, leafy branches that obscured the sun more than I had anticipated. I could still see quite well, of course, but it was still far less bright than I would have expected, given conditions outside the forest. Combined with the silence of the place, save for the sounds of a few birds, the overall effect was genuinely eerie at times.
Wild berries – raspberries and blueberries mostly – abounded and that got me to thinking about foraging and other survival techniques in D&D and other roleplaying games, the sorts of stuff that has long fascinated me. In principle, I like the idea of delving into the nitty gritty of breaking camp, finding food, and dealing with environmental and other similar hazards. In practice, I tend to lose interest quite quickly and hand-wave a lot of these details, however compelling they seem in my head. 

I'm not entirely sure if that's a function of my own temperament or a reflection of the fact that I've never come across rules that simulate what I want without becoming bogged down in minutiae. Mind you, my hike was following an already-beaten trail, with little signposts and landmarks every so often, and I still managed to lose my way, so it seems plausible I'm too much of city boy to ever fully enter into the right frame of mind to understand and appreciate the wild places of the earth – but I very much want to. 

Even after coming home, I still do.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Never Far from the OSR

I was away in northern Ontario last week. While there, I was surprised to discover that the main street of the closest small town included a game store. Though the focus of the place was clearly on board and card games, there was nevertheless a decent selection of other offerings, including roleplaying games. Most of the RPGs were the usual suspects – D&D, Pathfinder, etc. – but also present were multiple copies of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which, along with some Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics material, carried the banner for the OSR. Not bad!

Gamma World vs Traveller

I've been meaning to write a few posts about the more interesting TSR historical tidbits I've gleaned from Polyhedron's interview series. While re-reading the interview of James M. Ward from issue #3, I came across this:

Since this interview came out in late 1981, I assume that Ward's claim about the relative sales figures of the Gamma World and Traveller is based on then-current information. While we don't, so far as I know, have any hard data on TSR's sales of Gamma World, we do know a lot about GDW's sales of Traveller. In 1981, the period about which I assume Ward is talking, GDW sold just shy of 60,000 copies of Traveller for the entire year, or roughly 5000 copies a month. If Ward's assertion above is accurate, Gamma World was doing better than that, though there's no way to know how much better.

Interestingly, Ward later notes, somewhat enviously, that Traveller "has lots of people writing supplements for it," which he implies is the reason for its being more well known. He may be on to something, because, if you look at GDW's sales of its support products for Traveller, they're quite impressive. In 1981 alone, GDW sold 81,159 copies of supplements, like The Spinward Marches and 50,865 copies of adventures, like The Kinunir. Taken together, that's more than twice the number of copies of rulesets sold during the same period (and I'm not including the sales of rules expansion books like Mercenary or double adventures). 

Ward seems to be aware of the fact that the lack of support for Gamma World – something I regularly note when I talk about the game – had an adverse effect on its popularity relative to other science fiction RPGs of the time. He adds that "only Gary Gygax and myself are writing GAMMA WORLD things," which suggests to me that TSR never had any kind of plan for supporting the game beyond whatever Gygax and others might produce on their own. Of course, I'm left wondering what became of these Gamma World supplements or adventures Ward was supposedly working, because, so far as I know, none of them ever came to publication. 

Without verifiable figures, it's impossible to judge the veracity of the claim that Gamma World outsold Traveller on a monthly basis. I certainly think it's plausible, given the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons at the time and the reach of TSR within the hobby. If Ward is indeed correct, then it represents an incredible misstep on the part of TSR that Gamma World was not better supported, because it would have given them another significant source of revenue at the height of the early '80s RPG fad – but then no one has ever claimed that TSR was the most well run of companies at any point in its existence ...

Into the Megadungeon: Mysteries

The first episode of Ben Laurence's new podcast, Into the Megadungeon, was just released and features your truly talking about my own experiences creating and refereeing a megadungeon-centric RPG campaign. Feature episodes will feature others who've done the same and I'm very interested in what they have to say on the matter. 
Notes to the episode can be found here, though they're geared more toward newcomers to the topic than the old hands I expect to be the majority of Grognardia's readers.

Polyhedron: Issue #4

Issue #4 of Polyhedron (March 1982) is the first issue to officially bear that title, though it's nowhere to be seen on its cover, which features original artwork by Larry Elmore. The first use of the new title appears is inside, where it's also given the definite article – The Polyhedron. Frank Mentzer explains that the title was suggested by RPGA member Bill Huber of Petaluma, California, beating out many other suggestions (e.g. Role Players Guide to Adventure, Multiverse, Roles & Rules, etc.), none of which struck me as very good. 

Highlighted on the Letters page is a missive from Gary Gygax, in which he talks about his first meeting with James M. Ward. Mentzer follows this with the following comment: "See, folks, he really reads this stuff!" While I'm sure it was meant innocently enough, the comment strikes me as an example of the Cult of Gygax that TSR promoted sometimes promoted and to which fanboys like myself were often prone. With the benefit of hindsight, it also reminds me uncomfortably of the parasocial relationships with celebrities that contemporary social media tries to foster.

Mentzer's "Where I'm Coming From" is brief and focuses on new and upcoming features in Polyhedron, such as Jon Pickens's column for Basic D&D and Roger Raupp's "Nor" comic strip, both of which premier in this issue. There's a similarly brief piece announcing the winner of Grenadier's 1980–81 "Wizard's Gold" giveaway. The winner was a 14 year-old boy from Florida, which oddly pleased me. I remember the ads for "Wizard's Gold" in the pages of Dragon at the time but I can't say I ever gave much thought to who might have won. More than four decades later, now I do.

"RPGA Interview with 'Jake' Jaquet" is, as its title suggests, an interview – and a lengthy one at that – Gary "Jake" Jaquet, one of the forgotten employees of TSR Hobbies during the late '70s and early '80s. His name is well known to me because of his involvement in the creation of the first edition of Gamma World. He was also an important figure in the early days of Dragon, where he served in a variety of capacities, including Publisher. As with previous interviews in Polyhedron, this one is full of wonderful anecdotes and trivia about TSR and its products. I could – and probably should – devote an entire post to sharing some of these tidbits. For now, though, I'll share one of them, which feels strangely relevant in our present age.

"White Rabbits" is where Frank Mentzer corrects errors and oversights from previous issues. This time, he takes the time to credit people whose names were inadvertently omitted. One of these names is Jeff Dee, whose illustration of the bone (not ice) devil was the subject of some speculation in an earlier post on this blog. Don Turnbull's "Turnbull Talking" serves as a reminiscence of his early experiences with D&D and the expansion of its roster of available character classes. Turnbull notes that some players and referees dislike the addition of new classes to the game, but he does not share this view. 

"Spell Bee" returns, with a look at the AD&D versions of the spells magic missile, fireball, and lightning bolt – complete with diagrams! Believe it or not, this is actually a very interesting and useful article. Though the article isn't credited, internal evidence ("My wizard Felonius") suggests that Frank Mentzer wrote it. He does a good job, in my opinion, of laying out how these three common offensive spells actually work according to the rules of AD&D, something that's often forgotten by many players. Certainly, some might find it a bit tedious in its specificity, but we must remember that Mentzer cut his teeth in the world of official AD&D tournaments, so his knowledge of the game's rules is highly exact. I don't think the article can be criticized for being similarly precise.

"Dispel Confusion" answers some not very interesting AD&D questions, while "Basically Speaking" by Jon Pickens is a disappointingly dull overview of what to do with your shiny new copy of the D&D Basic Set, right down to how to use that crayon that came in the box. "News from HQ" is just a collection of ephemeral notes about then-current concerns of the RPGA. Roger Raupp's "Nor" is a full-page comic whose first installment shows a spaceship crash land on a planet that appears to be a fantasy setting of some sort. This is a common enough trope, but I'm curious to see where Raupp takes it. On the other hand, I started reading Polyhedron with issue #8 and don't recall seeing "Nor." That suggests the comic, like Tom Wham's "Rocksnaz" from issues #1 and #2 won't last long ...

I continue to find Polyhedron interesting reading, though mostly from a historical perspective. More so than, say, Dragon, the RPGA newsletter includes lots of "inside baseball" information about TSR and its employees that I find very compelling. That's probably while I'll make a serious attempt to examine its interview articles much more closely in the coming weeks. There are lots of nuggets to mine in them and I suspect that readers of this blog will find them as fascinating as I do.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Retrospective: Quagmire!

Like The Forest Oracle, Quagmire! is an almost universally disliked module from the early Silver Age of Dungeons & Dragons – and justifiably so in my opinion. By almost any standard I can think of, this is not a good module and I find it difficult to muster anything more than the feeblest defense of it. Nevertheless, for all its manifest flaws, I have a strange fondness for it. Therefore, it is not the intention of this post to change anyone's opinion of Quagmire!, but rather to explain the sources of my weird affection for it.

Originally published in 1984 and written by Merle M. Rasmussen, best known as the designer of Top Secret, Quagmire! is designated module X6, indicating that it was intended to support the D&D Expert Set. This fact undoubtedly explains a small part of my affection for the module, since the Expert Set, too, occupies a special place in my heart. The module's premise is that the player characters, while near a seacoast, find a bottle inside of which is a plea written on a piece of parchment. The plea was written by someone who calls himself Molariah, King of the Swamp and Ruler of the city of Quagmire. The king explains that the city, once a center of trade and commerce, languishes under a triple threat of rising waters, plague, and a blockade by their covetous neighbors. He offers a rich reward to anyone who can aid him and his people within six months of his having written the plea, which is how long he reckons the city can hold out. Unfortunately, the plea is not dated, so there is no way of knowing whether it is already out of date by the time the PCs find it. 

The characters can, of course, check around the local ports for rumors about Quagmire (who names their city such a thing?) and will find some evidence to support what the King of the Swamp wrote. The adventure then assumes they set out westward toward the Serpent Peninsula where the city supposedly lies in order to render what aid they can. Even by the standards of D&D modules from the time period, this is a flimsy basis for an adventure, but I like it all the same. A big part of it is that the module adds to the map of the "Known World" setting introduced in the The Isle of Dread and previously expanded in Master of the Desert Nomads. I'm a sucker for maps of any kind, but especially setting maps. Likewise, as I've noted before, I was intrigued by the "Known World," so its expansion here no doubt elevates it in my estimation.

The bulk of Quagmire! is simply a hexcrawl through "the Wild Lands" of the Serpent Peninsula and the surrounding area. Rasmussen directs the referee to the rules for wilderness travel and exploration in the Expert Set, but also provides more than two dozen unique random encounters to spice up the characters' trek through the region. This is in addition to a similar number of encounters tied to a specific location and six new monsters. I appreciate what Rasmussen is trying to do here, even if his reach somewhat exceeds his grasp. For example, many the unique encounters are rather dull, consisting of herds of mundane animals or even inclement weather. My guess is that they were meant to be evocative of the locale – a hot, humid, swampy peninsula – but the execution regularly falls flat.

The same must be said about the centerpiece of the whole module, the city of Quagmire. That's a shame, because the idea behind the city (and its two sister cities) is delightfully fantastical. Quagmire is housed within a giant spiraled seashell consisting of thirteen levels and nearly 60 keyed locations. However, the location is simply too small for its purpose. Quagmire is supposed to be an important trading port in the region, filled with riches and exotic goods, a place well known across the Known World. Instead, it comes across as a very tiny place that, even before its current travails, could not have housed more than a couple of hundred people at most. Now, it's even more pathetic, with only about 40 survivors left.

Yet, for all of that, there's a peculiar majesty to the place nonetheless – or at least it seemed so to me when I first read the module almost four decades ago. In my mind's eye, Quagmire is a much more impressive and indeed magical place, befitting a giant, inhabited seashell rising up out of the sand. Ultimately, I suspect that's why I retain a fondness for module X6: it inspired me. As written, there's no question that Quagmire! is underwhelming. However, I rarely use modules wholly as written, preferring to use them as starting points for my own imagination – a map here, an encounter there, etc., to which I added my own ideas to those provided by the designer. 

Viewed from that perspective, Quagmire! is far from being in contention for the worst module ever published for Dungeons & Dragons. A better summation, I think, is that it fails to live up to its potential. All of the ingredients for a solid hexcrawl adventure are there, along with a central location that's perfect for pulp fantasy. For whatever reason – a failure to follow through, editorial meddling on the part of TSR – Rasmussen was unable to stick the landing. That leaves me wondering what might have been and whether the cool adventure I've had in my head since 1984 was ever really a possibility.